On Saturday morning, Selma director Ava DuVernay gave a SXSW Film keynote address, and her upwardly mobile tale of moving from a movie industry publicist to directing a $20 million Best Picture-nominated Oprah-funded historically-significant 1960s Civil Rights drama went over big with the aspirant indie movie industry crowd. (One of the queries in the question and answer period was: 'Will you take a selfie with me?' She graciously obliged.)
DuVernay gave an emotional speech, revealing she was the seventh choice to direct the then-stalled Selma project (It was like, 'Hey lady, will you direct this movie?') and at one point stopping to exclaim, "I've had the f----- most awesome year! I can't even describe it."
The key to her success she said, was that she learned the lesson of "the intention of your attention." On her first feature length movie, the 2011 documentary, I Will Follow, she focused on specific box office goals. With 2012's Middle of Nowhere, which won a best director's prize at Sundance, she was intent on gaining approval film festivals. But with Selma, she said, her only intention was "to serve the story."
Focusing on the art, rather than how it would be received, she said, is what produced the drama that led to such fringe benefits as an invitation to screen the movie at the White House a century after Birth Of A Nation became the first movie that screened there, plus an Oscar nomination for the movie, though none for her as best director. On that subject, she said he Oscars ceremony "was a room in L.A. .... It was very cool. But my work's worth is not about what happens, in around or for that room."
More rewarding, she said, was spending Christmas day driving around to five different theaters in Los Angeles with Selma star David Oyelowo "watching people watch the movie. Like serving them dinner, and then watching them eat."
Speaking in the heart of LBJ country, she dismissed those that complained about Selma misrepresenting the relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. as "grouchy" but also cited as one of the low points of her year the day she woke to two articles in the New York Times "calling me a hate monderer and a distorter of history." In order to find something to be grateful for that day, her just- spell-the-name-right publicist's instincts took over, and she said to herself 'Well, I'm in the New York Times."
Asked why if took Hollywood 50 years to tell King's story in a feature film, DuVernay said: "I think the studios aren't lining up to make films about black protagonists. ... Writers had a hard time approaching such an epic life. But to think it came about in a moment when so many things are going on in the world for it to speak to, I think it just wanted to be out now."
DuVernay's next two project are for TV, she said. "I'm engrossed with that's happening on television. You can tell an elongated story, in 12 or 13 parts." She's adapting Natalie Baszile's novel Queen Sugar for "a friend of mine who owns a network" and is doing For Justice, a series about an FBI unit that investigates Civil Rights violations. "My intention is to create something that puts out a different view of America that what you usually see on the front pages," she said.
SXSW Film's other keynotes are coming from actor-director Mark Duplass, Wu Tang producer and director RZA and movie producer Christine Vachone.