“Come on, Ava,” I say, “you were a publicist for 14 years, you know how this works – we’re here to talk about you, not me.” It’s my friend’s first day off since September, and I believe her when she says she’s thrilled to be hanging out in a Los Angeles dive café with me. “I see you whisking in and out of parties,” she says, “and finally we get to sit down and talk.” I warn her that even if I have to arm-wrestle her over our vegetarian sausages, I will squeeze out of her how she’s pulled off the perfect meteoric career trajectory.
Ava seems to be the exception to the rule in an industry famous for stalling even the greatest women’s careers. In just six years, she’s gone from making her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, for which she won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, and which only cost $50,000, to being Oscar-nominated for her 2016 racial justice documentary, 13th, and now becoming the first black person in Hollywood history to direct a $100 million movie – Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. While she might not have been Oscar-nominated for a Best Director award in 2015 for her highly praised Martin Luther King civil-rights march film, Selma (controversially, neither was lead black actor David Oyelowo), the ensuing outcry helped kick off the powerful #OscarsSoWhite campaign. She has a knack for finding herself at the center of the most exciting cultural and societal movements – she recently directed Jay-Z’s afropunk futuristic Family Feud video with an all-star cast that includes his wife Beyoncé and daughter Blue Ivy, and was one of the high-profile instigators of Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign. And in an industry famous for its narcissistic tendencies, she is generous about everyone and everything, including her how-to secrets. What she tells me over the course of our two hours together has me buzzing long after we stop talking. So much so that, from now on, whenever I’m puzzled about something, I feel I should just ask myself, “What would Ava do?”
Ava and I first met, and bonded, at a Los Angeles Film Festival retreat for indie film directors. But things have changed, and now Ava has some new friends who aren’t so indie. There’s Oprah – who she’s going to meet up with as soon as we’re done – and yes, she admits giddily, “it is as fun as you’d think, having Oprah for your buddy!” Then there’s Jay Z and Beyoncé. And Ava, just like her new friends, has become one of the one-name-only people in Hollywood, a person whose last name is no longer necessary. Nowadays in Los Angeles or New York, you’ll get a whoop and a round of applause just for saying the name “Ava” out loud.
I’ve not chased any kind of spotlight. I just chase the privilege to be present, a privilege that is underestimated. Our white male counterparts are inherently present in everything”
What’s so impressive about her is that she seems to have figured it all out for herself, without any obvious role models. “There isn’t a black woman I can speak to and say, ‘Hey, how does this work?’” she says. Indeed, only two solo female directors before her have directed a movie with a budget of over $100 million: Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker). The first explanation for her success is an obvious one: she works hard. I ask her if she’s looking forward to going out on the road to promote her movie. She always looks like she’s having fun on the red carpet. Often I’ll hear a whoop and she’ll appear out of nowhere, laughing and chatting and snapping pictures for her social-media feeds (1.6 million on Twitter, and 835,000 on Instagram). She always looks more radiantly fabulous than many of the movie stars around her and she’s always at the center of the energy vortices swirling around the most powerful forces in the room.
But she says that’s not the most fun part for her because she’d rather be busy making something, instead of being out in a different dress every night. “I’ve not chased any kind of spotlight,” she says. “I just chase the privilege to be present, a privilege that is underestimated. Our white male counterparts are inherently present in everything – in every conversation, in all the rule-making – but it’s a privilege, so I’m going to be there, whether it’s applauded and receives accolades or not.”
When I see Ava out at awards events, it’s usually her third ‘job’ that day. She’s always working on multiple projects – shooting A Wrinkle in Time (starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine), whilst simultaneously shooting the third season of Queen Sugar (the US drama based on the 2014 novel by Natalie Baszile). Or she’s rewriting scripts, while overseeing production, budgets and all the details she needs to sign off on.
In her previous career as a publicist, Ava had what she describes as a life with balance. “But I had no fire for what I was doing,” she says. “The colors were duller. Now I’m living in technicolor.” In 2010, she launched AFFRM (African-American Film Releasing Movement) to give a voice to independent films by people of color and women filmmakers, as well as more recently, The Call-In, an interview podcast for filmmakers.
But if she’s overloaded, it doesn’t seem to bother her. “It’s a great problem to have,” she says. “I want to change the conversation about women and work. It’s so often muddied by the idea that being focused on your work means losing focus of yourself or your family. But if you find joy in your job, I don’t think there’s reason to apologize for leaning into it a bit more. I’ve made a choice for work to represent something very central in my life. It nourishes me.”
Her Twitter profile proclaims “Mother of 9”, and then lists the nine films and shows she’s made. “Yeah,” she grins, “some people think that’s real. They’re like, ‘Damn!’ But they’re not biological ones. I don’t have kids, by choice. My films are my children. Some people work and they go home to their kids, but work is my kids. I’ve given myself permission not to think of it as something that’s taking me away from real life, because it is my real life.” When I ask about a significant other, she smiles: “I look forward to meeting him.”
Ava has learned to be extremely picky about who she collaborates with, staying loyal to many of the same crew she’s been working with since the no-budget days. A big part of why she signed on to A Wrinkle in Time was her liking for the studio bosses, and it’s paid off: she’s feeling “spoiled” by the studio. She wanted her main character to be black, and they agreed; for her to attend high school in South LA, not New England, and they agreed to that too. And when she was blown away by a young Korean actor to play the brother, they still didn’t disagree, they just asked her how she’d pull it off. “Maybe everybody is nice and I’m just a crazy person who thought everybody was crazy. But I’ve heard stories.” She recalls with tears in her eyes the first time she saw the iconic Disney castle logo at the beginning of her movie with her name on it. “The cultural phenomenon of it. It’s frigging Disney!”
Some people work and they go home to their kids, but work is my kids. I’ve given myself permission not to think of it as something that’s taking me away from real life, because it is my real life”
A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 science-fiction novel by American writer Madeleine L’Engle, sees a young girl and her brother travel through space to find their lost scientist father. “I wanted to make the story about possibility, about being the hero of your own life,” she says. “I have always had the sense that I could shape what happened to me. I want the film to help folks – regardless of their place in society – to see their own potential. Because that’s what this character is, she’s the least likely hero.” Again, she has tears in her eyes as she talks about people close to her who have difficulty seeing their own possibilities. “So this film is, ‘Why don’t you just look. Just look again. Just consider that you can.’ I want people to see that the least likely part in you – the vulnerability, the fear – can actually be the part that powers you through. That’s my highest goal.”
Her words strike a chord because they resonate deeply for many. When I ask her if she sees any difference in the industry since Selma and the viral #OscarsSoWhite campaign, she answers with more questions. “Two years later, what has really changed? How many more films are there featuring Asian actors? How many representations are there of Muslim families? Where are native storytellers getting a platform?”
She’s right. Unless we really open up the hood and try to fix things – whether it’s the culture of sexual abuse or the lack of opportunities and awards for people of color – then the conversation stays an outcry and not a real opportunity for change.
Ava grew up the eldest of three kids to a single mother for the first eight years of her childhood. “I was a bit of a ‘latchkey kid’, which sounds like a negative connotation, like your mom doesn’t care about you,” she says, of her upbringing. “It certainly wasn’t your coddled, ‘I’ll pick you up from school, here’s your dinner’ kind of childhood.” It taught her to fend for herself, to be a natural leader, always using her voice to take care of herself and the people around her. She shares a story about her mother, who she calls “a beautiful, beautiful lady who sounds like a little girl on the phone.” When the bill collectors would call, her mother would answer the phone, but they’d still ask if they could speak to ‘her mother’. “My voice has always been husky and deep,” says Ava, “so Mom would pass the phone to me, a six-year-old, and I’d say, ‘I will pay you on Wednesday,’ and hang up. And my mother would say, ‘Very good, Ava.’”
Young Ava loved playing with her Barbies and she loved her school work, going on to study English and African-American Studies at UCLA. Film school wasn’t feasible financially so she decided to use her work as a publicist on film sets to, as she says, “curate a film school experience for myself, by watching and listening and learning.” She turned her version of ‘work experience’ into an advantage, by picking up everything she could on other directors’ sets before jumping in to run her own.
Ava chose to reframe her situation and look at what she could do, instead of what she couldn’t. “I never went into it thinking that all these people know how to make a $100 million movie and I don’t. Because I’ve made a movie on nothing. Have they ever made a feature film for $50,000? Have they been in the trenches? Have they loaded up the truck? Do they know how to do every job? I do.”
I want people to see that the least likely part in you – the vulnerability, the fear – can actually be the part that powers you through. That’s my highest goal”
How did she find directing a $100 million film? “Well,” she says, “it’s like somebody suddenly hands you all the secret tools.” She tells me it reminds her of an old Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live skit. “It’s the 1980s, he’s sitting on a bus, and he’s the only black person on board. He gets the feeling that every time he gets off, magical things happen. So the next day he paints his face white and puts on a wig. As he sits down, he notices a black man close by. When the man gets off he thinks to himself, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen now?’ As the doors close, a female passenger takes off her coat to reveal an evening dress. She pulls cocktails out from under her, a disco ball drops, music starts. And he’s sitting there with his white face and they’re handing him cigars, and he’s like, ‘So this is what happens when we’re not around.’ I feel like I’m the one on the bus after the indie filmmakers have got off, because suddenly I’m being told, ‘You can have pre-visualization! You can have nine concept artists drawing up a random idea! You can have this! You can have that!’ And then you ask someone, ‘So what does that person do?’ and they reply, ‘Oh, they just move this from here to here.’”
Her next project is a five-part series for Netflix about The Central Park Five, the gang of black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of the rape and attack of a white jogger in 1989. It’s a case close to her heart. She sees each new project feed into the next; a process she believes helps her become a better director. “It’s all storytelling,” she says. She’s also learnt to have many stories on the go. After pulling off the feat of making Selma, her phone didn’t ring with any job offers. “I assumed I didn’t know how this town worked. But I’ve realized the phone doesn’t ring – you have to ring your own bell.” Likewise, she’s worked out how she needs to overcome her maternal instinct for “nurturing things one by one” and develop six projects at once. “It was Steven Spielberg who told me to get over that. He said, ‘You just have to keep developing.’”
Inevitably, Ava needs to run. She’s heading to Santa Barbara, where she and her friend Oprah are excited to be watching a screening of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – with truffle popcorn. As she leaves, I think to myself how her smile and words could light up a dark night. “Yes, it’s a real happy time,” she says, laughing.
A Wrinkle in Time is out March 9
See the full story in PORTER’s Spring 2018 issue, on sale now
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