Creativity 50 2015

Creativity 50 2015: Ava DuVernay

Director, Writer, Producer

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Ava Duvernay
Ava Duvernay Credit: Amanda Marsalis for Ad Age

In 2015, Ava DuVernay earned abundant plaudits for her film "Selma," appeared in the 2016 Pirelli Calendar, "became" a Barbie doll that sold out within minutes (if not seconds) and also directed an Apple spot starring Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson and Mary J. Blige. You might say that she has arrived.

But judging from what she's immersed in at the moment -- prepping her first television series, "Queen Sugar," for OWN and in postproduction on a Netflix documentary series about the criminal justice system -- and the fact that J.J. Abrams recently said he'd like to see her direct a future "Star Wars" installment, she's still very much a (thrilling) work in progress.

Nevertheless, 2015 marked a turning point for Ms. DuVernay. According to a talk she gave during SXSW in March, even after seeing success with her previous films "I Will Follow" and "Middle of Nowhere," it wasn't until she chronicled Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 historic civil rights march in "Selma" that she finally found herself fully at peace in her role. It was then she realized her goal as a director was to "serve the story." Meanwhile, she's also become an outspoken role model for girls, women and minorities in film.

And this isn't even her first career. Prior to directing, Ms. DuVernay, who's repped out of RSA Films for commercials, ran her own successful film marketing and publicity agency, the DuVernay Agency, where she promoted clients ranging from DreamWorks to Target. But she has found her place in the director's chair. "I want to be an old lady, with my cane," she said, "shouting 'Action!' and 'Cut!'"

Ms. Duvernay spoke with Ad Age about the challenges of the past year, what's next and about her thoughts on creativity and being in the director's chair.

Advertising Age: You've been busy in 2015. What was your biggest creative challenge of the year?

Ava Duvernay: I'd have to say it was about how do you preserve your creative energy when there's a lot swirling around you, how to be true to my creative intentions when there are a lot of different projects and things floating around.

AA: What's been your guiding light through all that?

AD: I think the guiding thing is to be aware of it--so often we get into situations when we get into a project [there's a lot of] attention, pressure or expectations --we dive straight into it without really taking a breath and being aware of the fact that you're in a chaotic environment, and committing to preserving your voice and your creative intention within that. For me, that's been the guiding thing -- being aware that this is something I've always wanted to do and bringing myself back to "What am I doing this for? What do I want it to say? What do I want it to mean?" and always going back to that even when there's this pressure to look in other directions.

AA: What's the most important skill to have as a director, for you?

AD: I talk about serving the story. The story is what we are there to preserve, protect, defend, present. We're in service to the story; the story's not in service to us. Actors aren't in service to me. Crew is not service to me. We're all in service to the story. And if you go into storytelling and creativity and the work we all do with a spirit of service--[that] we're doing this for a reason--we're telling these stories, creating these ads, we're doing all of this to move people, move minds, expand imaginations, you become humbled in the work. As I'm in post on one thing and prep on another, I feel really fortunate that I can be the one to tell these stories, in the way that I want to tell them in the platform that I can -- I let that drive me. I always try to come back to the fact that this is about being in service to the story.

Ava Duvernay's Barbie Doll
Ava Duvernay's Barbie Doll Credit: Mattel

AA: You've had some pretty cool pop culture appearances recently with the Pirelli calendar and having your own Barbie, which sold out. What do you think of those? Are they a good thing for moving the conversation of diversity forward, or are they nominal, gratuitous?

AD: No, I don't feel that, but I also don't feel that they're earth-shattering. I feel like to move the conversation forward, to change the way we see each other, to restitch the fabric of this country in all the things we're doing, we need to look at every thread. This is one of the threads. The way that we see each other -- who's making the image, who's in charge of making the image, whose image do we see? If I can be in a place where my image is encouraging people to see different people behind the camera, and my image and the images I make can help open up a certain world view, I think that's all a part of a larger spirit of change and progress and I'm happy to be part of it.

AA: You've been outspoken figure on the lack of female representation in Hollywood and directing. It's a complicated issue, but what are your thoughts on what needs to be done? Is there a starting point?

AD: Not really. When I get asked that question it's like someone asking me, "How do you put an end to racism?" These are deeply rooted systemic problems. They are the ills of our society that I don't propose to even know what the starting point is. That kind of prescriptive talk gets pedestrian after a while. What we all need to do is to do our part. There are some people whose part is policy, there are some people whose part is the art, there are some people who make changes within their own family, there are people who make changes in their own selves. It's a centuries-old challenge, whether we're looking at discrepancies and imbalance regarding people of color, women, sexuality, gender conformity.

We're at a time right now where we're talking about all of this. To do so is important and I'm happy to be alive and making work and being a creative person at this time when it feels like everything's coming into the open and people are really discovering things about each other and themselves. But to know where to start is not for me to say. I know where I will start. I start through my work, through my creative energy and through my storytelling. Hopefully, everyone's activated to do their part, that's where real change comes, I think.

AA: Outside of directing film and television, you also directed a campaign for Apple Music, the first spot of which was arguably the most talked about thing at the Emmys. What was your experience on that like? What are your thoughts about directing advertising?

AD: Apple was so fun. I'm selective; I've done it before. I did a campaign for Miu Miu and Prada a couple years ago called "The Door." It was a short film format. I really like it. I think some of the best creativity happens within limits. I consider that to be true of advertising; it's certainly true in film. It's true of this kind of visual medium. In film, television, commercial work, we are restricted by what we can do, so to be able to push the boundaries of your creativity within a spot is fun and challenging, especially when you have a certain specs the client wants. I don't do commercials for a living, so if I'm doing it, then [the client] must want my voice so I'm trying to insert my voice into their message. Apple, I was really happy about that. I was able to get across what I wanted to, communicate some images that I thought were important and vital to see within the message of the product. It was a lot of fun and I got to work with some good ladies.

AA: What was "you" about that project?

AD: It was a celebration of womanhood, specifically, black womanhood. The parallels are pretty obvious. We don't see as much as we would like, [images of] women being friends and free and unaffected by what men are doing, free of any kind of male influence. They're just having a good time with each other. And for those to be black women, those images are not something that I ordinarily see. We're seeing it a little more here and there, but when it happens, it reverberates. I was happy to be involved in that one.

AA: In your previous life you worked in publicity and marketing. Do you think your experience in that field has had an impact on your work today?

AD: I'm not sure. I owned my own agency for twelve years. I ran a business to be in service of my client, but I really embraced the idea that if you're coming to me, you want my opinion and my perspective about how to do this. I represented everyone from Dreamworks to Target. I always embraced the idea of inserting my point of view in how to help a client tell their story.

Now I tell my own stories and I think that practice at that time as a publicist, a marketer and an agency owner was really an exercise for me in working out my creative muscles. So when it was time for me to do it on my own, I had a really clear idea of what my voice was and the way to go about things.

I don't think about marketing when I'm writing, because I feel confident that I know how to sell anything. Because I know that essentially to sell something is for it to have an authentic voice, and I know anything I'm doing is authentic in my voice, so I never have a fear of anything I'm doing won't sell. It may not sell big, it may not be a blockbuster, but I know that what I like, at least a handful of people out there are going to like. I feel really comfortable in a lot of those things as an artist. I think a lot of artists have a fear around "will this connect with people." I think [from] being a marketer and a publicist, if you're coming from an authentic place, [you know] this will connect.

AA: So many people, advertisers, talk about authenticity now. In marketing it seems everyone's striving to be authentic.

AD: It can't be contrived. So even the conversation about authenticity, in an of itself, is disingenuous. People are trying to manufacture authenticity, and it comes from a very specific place. With that said, I feel comfortable because of my marketing background, I know if it's authentic, it will sell, it will connect and as along as I'm being authentic in my voice I'm gonna be okay.

AA: How would you define creativity?

AD: Creativity is an energy. It's a precious energy and it's something to be protected. A lot of people take for granted that they're a creative person, but I know from experience, feeling it in myself, it is a magic, it is an energy. And it can't be taken for granted. It needs to be nurtured and developed and exercised and celebrated. It's like your significant other; you can't neglect it -- because it will go away. Many of us know people in which it has waned or in which it has strengthened and become more powerful over the years. I see it really as something that I try in myself to preserve and make sure to hold on to.

AA: Who, or what are you most inspired by these days?

AD: I'm a big people watcher and a people talker. The beautiful thing about being an artist and a creative person is that you can get an idea from anywhere, and I'm always on the hunt for them. Even when I go to get gas, or I'm just driving in my car, or in an elevator, my biggest inspiration comes from observing because you walk out the door and there's a billion stories. It's perfect. The world will give you exactly what you need.

AA: If you could give one piece of advice looking to girls or women looking to succeed in entertainment -- or any career for that matter -- what would that be?

AD: It would be to not ask for permission. Many of us, people of color, women, people who are outside the mainstream adopted culture, are trained and socialized to be permission based. Especially as a filmmaker -- someone needs to authenticate your script, you need to be represented by an agency, a studio needs to want to make it, someone needs to want to finance it before you can let your voice be seen and heard. Those are all permissions, so [we need to] in wherever place we are, strip away our need for the permission. Sometimes it's hard to figure it out -- for me it was being an independent filmmaker, taking away the studio layer, the rep layer, all the things I didn't have that I felt were holding me back because I didn't have those permissions. [Once I did that] I was able to make things and move and that's how things started to progress for me. So don't wait for permission. There's no one to ask and you have to do the thing you want to do.

AA: What are you looking forward to most for next year?

AD: More stories to tell and hopefully that I get the chance to tell them. Making my first foray into television, a new film. Just more stories. I want to be an old lady with my cane shouting "Action!" and "Cut!"

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