Ava DuVernay faced a daunting task in bringing “Selma” to the big screen. The drama, about the 1965 Civil Rights marches in Alabama to demand voting rights for blacks, had already been through several directors by the time she came on board.
Adding to the challenges, Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate would not grant the team behind the film permission to use his iconic speeches. Still, DuVernay managed to put together a critically acclaimed drama which debuted strongly at the box office this weekend after Paramount Pictures rolled it out in limited release. And thanks to “Selma,” DuVernay recently made history as the first African-American woman nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the motion picture directing category.
In a wide-ranging interview with TheWrap, the former Hollywood publicist spoke openly about the challenges of making the film, how King’s family reacted to seeing it, and about Oprah Winfrey turning her down several times before finally joining the film’s cast.
TheWrap: How did you come to be involved in this project?
Ava DuVernay: It was through David Oyelowo. We had worked together on “Middle of Nowhere,” which was my previous film. He had been cast previously by Lee Daniels in “Selma.” When Lee Daniels went off to make “The Butler,” David just really and truly kept the film alive … Spike Lee had already come and gone from the project, from what I’m told. So they had told David they were just going to wait for another filmmaker to emerge, that they felt strongly it should be a black filmmaker… He requested they take a look at me, and that’s how he basically kept the film going when it was director-less.
Were you involved in the casting?
I’m the director! David was the only inherited cast member… Everyone else, we started from scratch. Lee Daniels had cast it up, a really interesting cast of characters. Hugh Jackman was involved at one point, Cedric the Entertainer was involved at one point… When I started, it was a different story, different script and a different idea on how to approach it… I just started calling people that I love. Love me some Giovanni Ribisi. Love me some Tim Roth. Don’t know them from Adam and they don’t know me, but sent them the script and asked and they responded to the material and we were off and running. Had an amazing time with them. Lorraine Toussaint was someone I worked with on “The Middle of Nowhere” who, literally, I would put in a production of a paper bag blowing in the wind because she is so fantastic.
Anybody that you had to fight for?
Oprah. She didn’t want to do it. She did not want to do it. I asked her several times… She was the only one I had to really pitch.
This is very different compared to your previous micro-budgeted films. How was your approach different?
What people don’t realize is that we made this film in only thirty-two days, which is only thirteen days more than I had on “Middle of Nowhere.” Thirty-two days to make a historical drama, a period piece with large set pieces, action pieces, violence, animals, firearms, huge sermons and speeches and marches in thirty-two days. The Bloody Sunday sequence on the bridge was shot in a day and a half. So, with that kind of run-and-gun, that very accelerated time frame kind of atmosphere, it felt very much like indie filmmaking. It was indie filmmaking. It’s hard to articulate what $20 million wasn’t. It was not lobster rolls in craft services… We put everything on screen; no one got rich.
We’ve heard you wrote the speeches in the film. Can you expand on that?
There’s not been a major motion picture made with King at the center in fifty years… A big part of the reason why was because of the intellectual property and because, for better or for worse, the estate — and that’s not necessarily family, that’s the intellectual property agency or whatever that manages the rights — has control over how they’re used… I just untethered myself from those words and anchored myself in the intention of those words and rewrote the speeches as closely to his cadence and his intention as I could.
Why do you not have a writing credit in the film?
Because Paul Webb, the original writer, had a contract. So, the credit is completely contractual. It’s up to him whether or not he wanted to share credit and he chose not to.
Is there going to be a credit battle?
Neither one of us are WGA. He’s not guild, I’m not guild, so there’s no guild to get involved. It’s a purely personal choice and he made his, so we move forward.
Do you know if anyone from the King family has seen the film?
I was just with Bernice King and Martin Luther King III… They both saw the film and we were at Ms. Winfrey’s home where they saw the film side-by-side with [Civil Rights activists] John Lewis and Andrew Young, with C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash and Joseph Lowery and Dick Gregory and Sidney Poitier… They expressed satisfaction at the way that it was done… It meant so much, not just for the King children to say, but also the people who stood next to King during these times…. and so for them to say, “Yes, this is right” or “Yes, this is well done.” That’s what brought tears to my eyes, when all of them were together. It’s been an amazing experience.
“Selma” is currently playing in limited release, and expands nationwide on Jan. 9, 2015.