Selma Director Didn't Always Want to Go Into Film—Now She's Behind the Biggest Movie This Season

The force behind the new civil-rights drama Selma is also the first African-American woman to have won best director at the Sundance Film Festival. Ava DuVernay took some time to speak with us about creativity, changing careers, and maintaining grace under pressure.

Photo by Wesley Hitt

Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
No, I had no idea. I wasn't like Steven Spielberg, knowing as a kid I wanted to make films. I didn't become a filmmaker until my mid-30s. [She is now 42.]

Tell us about that.
I transitioned from a career that was going quite well. For 12 years, I'd been publicizing other people's films through my own marketing company.

How did you make the leap?
Secretly. I started writing a script at night and on weekends, and eventually I shot my own short on a Christmas vacation. It was imperfect and crazy and nerve-racking and not good, but I did it and then just kept going.

What came next?
From there, I shot a documentary in my spare time while representing clients. Then I took 15 days off right before one of my big campaigns to shoot my first narrative feature, a film called I Will Follow.

Do you wish you had come to this second career sooner?
At one point, I did think all those years in PR were a waste, because I got started very late. But I came to see my time as a publicist as formative. I took every single thing I learned from that—not as far as the publicity tactics, but as far as running your life—and brought it to the set with me. Running a film is like running a business. It's like a small company: You have a hundred or so employees. There's a task at hand, and there's a budget to meet. There's a goal, and it has to get done.

How has your childhood influenced your films?
I grew up in a matriarchal environment, raised by a lot of women. My mother, grandmother, and aunts are huge figures in my life; most of my work so far has been focused on black women. My family emphasized following your heart. When I started making films, they really cheered me on. That's helped me move forward.

What's your leadership style like?
Having been part of the crew in the past, as a publicist, I've seen the tendency to diminish crew by not calling them by name or not taking a few extra minutes to compliment work. I try to inspire people to want to come to work every morning. To do that, it's pretty easy: You just treat people like they want to be treated.

Selma is your first major motion picture. Has it been really different from your indie projects?
I thought naively that all my problems would be solved when I had millions of dollars to make a film, but no. Every filmmaker has a day when you're running out of time and you've got to get the scene and you can't. No amount of money fixes that.

So what do you do?
It's about embracing the same ideals and instincts you embrace as an independent artist with no money: "We are going to get this done by hook or by crook."

You're still very involved with independent film.
I distribute the work of black independent artists through a collective called AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

With all you have going on, how do you balance work and personal time?
From the outside, it may seem as if I'm always working. But that's not how I look at my life. There's no "I'm here at work" and then "I'm off work." It's more like "This is what I do, and I love it all." This is my life, whether I'm with friends and family or I'm on set or it's date night or I'm editing. I know a woman who left the entertainment industry to open a bakery. She's now in a commercial kitchen baking all day, and it doesn't feel like work to her, because she loves it. That's how it is for me.

You directed and cowrote Selma. What's the hardest part for you?
The writing. I will help you clean out your trunk or do whatever you want instead of writing. I really respect people who can write anywhere, but I've got to light a candle and have the right slippers on.

How do you push through the challenge?
In writing Selma, I had to go away. I had just directed an episode of Scandal, and my head was filled with murders and trench coats and the president and sexy stuff. Immediately after I wrapped that, I went to a friend's place in another state and wrote.

What helps you stay in the zone?
I would love to give you a beautiful answer. It's a deadline, usually.

What's your advice for someone wanting to work in a creative field?
To not wait for permission. The key is: What do you want? If you want to be famous and have a big car and a fancy house, that's a different thing. You have to ask permission for that. But if you want to make a film, say, and your reasons are truly for the experience of doing it and for the storytelling and the art of it, you don't have to ask anyone.