Take It All:
An Interview with Ava DuVernay
By Robert Daniels

Ava DuVernay is not one to turn down a challenge. Her film Origin derives from Pulitzer Prize–winner Isabel Wilkerson’s seemingly unadaptable 2020 nonfiction work Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which is premised on Wilkerson’s belief that the hereditary delineation of caste, not race, is what defines social inequality. The book uses this premise to launch an inquiry into how caste informs American and global reality, intertwining the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death with personal grief felt by the author, paralleled in a number of historical case studies. DuVernay’s picture, which depicts the author’s pursuit of the truths that led to the writing of the book, is less a thesis than a story about the rich inner life of a Black woman intellectual.

Approaching her characters through their intellectual pursuits isn’t uncommon for DuVernay. In Selma, for instance, she found equal interest in the pedagogy of non-violent protests and Martin Luther King Jr’s domestic world. A Wrinkle in Time also demanded DuVernay balance the theology of the film’s source material with its coming-of-age conceit.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor plays Wilkerson as a woman commanded by a wellspring of boundless empathy and a ceaseless academic drive, capable of seeing the invisible themes binding seemingly discrete events. Following Martin’s death, her editor Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood) approaches her to explain the roots of the tragedy. She initially turns him down. It’s not until disaster strikes her husband (Jon Bernthal), her mother (Emily Yancy), and other people close to her that she dares to approach the tricky subject of caste. Origin becomes a globetrotting political and personal investigation, taking Wilkerson from America to Germany to India for DuVernay’s most sprawling work yet.

I spoke with DuVernay over Zoom to discuss shooting on film, how she approaches capturing trauma, and returning to independent filmmaking.

Reverse Shot: Considering the large canvas you’ve constructed with this film; I assume you probably need to work out the visual language early on during your writing process. What was your approach with Origin?

Ava DuVernay: This was a really different process because my cinematographer was on so early. Matt Lloyd has become a dear friend and someone who I talked about wanting to dive into the book. So, during the research phase, he and I were in touch. He had been shooting some of my TV shows and so we had been just in conversation about my desire to work with him on the film. Very rare for a DP to be reading pages as the writing is happening. But he became someone that I would bounce ideas off of in the writing process. It was such a finely tuned, beautiful, rare experience for me. I'd never done that.

RS: Did having him on early alter how you’d typically visually and narratively approach a film?

AD: It didn't change the visualization of what's possible. It informed it, in a way. It basically reinforced the idea that I was going to do it because I would give him a page and he was like, “Yep, okay, got it. We’re going to do this.” Instructions were given far in advance because he would read the pages and it allowed us to be very prepared. I mean, the only way we could’ve shot that film in 37 days on three continents was the deep preparation that was coming from him with every page, taking it as instruction as to what we were going to do as opposed to me saying, can I do it or what's possible?

RS: You shot Origin on film, and you’ve previously talked about how freeing the experience was. But I’m interested in whether it constricted you at all. This is, of course, an independent production. Film is expensive. In what ways did it allow you to work more efficiently?

AD: You know, film is expensive. But digital workflow internationally is also expensive. And so, when we ran the numbers truly—with the experience of Matt and that camera team, it was a team that was very fluent in shooting on film—we were able to get it done within the same line item of the budget as we would’ve if it had been digital. While that sounds weird, digital requires a lot of additional machines and processing, and personnel. On this, it was very cut-and-dried. I had no monitors to look through. I didn't need it or a traditional Digital Imaging Technician there tracking all of that technology.

RS: In what ways did having less time to shoot impact your process of blocking a scene and working with the actors?

AD: I look at any film done before the advent of digital cinema, looking at Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane, it's all done on film. I didn't have an 11-minute take on anything. But the blocking was pretty standard. It's just my style. Shooting on digital was a lot looser and this required a certain discipline in terms of time and really watching the clock. If I was lucky, I'd get two runs in and I’d have to cut as I make my adjustments. But you know, it wasn't rocket science and I figured it out [laughs]. And it felt good to follow in the tradition of so many filmmakers who shot that way before. It really is striking how far we are from that. The digital tools allow you so much latitude; it requires a different kind of discipline.

RS: Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor aren’t two actors I’d immediately think of as a couple, particularly looking at their respective filmography, though they both are in King Richard. What made you think they’d work well together?

AD: It was really trying to find someone who could match Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor’s energy. First of all, she is so strong as an actor that the list gets smaller because you need to find someone who could literally stand with her in a scene and not wither and fall off the vine right when she’s looking at you. That’s a real thing. She has such intensity, such focus, such a presence in the frame. Who can hold [up to] that? Second, I wanted to make sure that she was comfortable, and it was someone she felt she could connect with and wouldn't have to labor to feel like there was a connection. They had worked together before and had a bit of shorthand. But the real thing is his incredible talent and his capacity to empathize and get inside of this role.

He flew himself on his own dime out to Savannah, Georgia, as I was prepping, to sit with me, talk to me, letting me meet him and get to know him. We took a long walk one night around Savannah and just got to know each other as people and talked about our relationship to Caste, along with some of our ideas, and independent filmmaking. I just vibed with him. I was watching a TikTok review that someone made of Origin a couple of hours ago. The reviewer was like, “Dude, the Punisher is in this movie.” [laughs] I never think of Jon that way because I didn’t watch that until I was thinking of casting him. I just think of him as such an open-hearted actor, and as you were saying, on paper, you would think, how could these two match? But after you see it, you feel like you want to see a whole drama series about them. [laughs]

RS: I find it interesting that you're not necessarily interested in proving whether Isabel's theory of caste is correct or incorrect. You're more interested in the personal. I'm wondering what drew you to the personal as opposed to say, trying to adapt the theory?

AD: You can adapt the theory, but we as moviegoers want to follow a character. We want to build a connection to someone. The theory is this big anthropological thesis; it's pretty unruly. But that doesn't move my heart. It doesn’t make me feel connected to what's being said in a way that I'm going to remember it, I'm going to ingest it, I'm going to think about it in relation to my own life. That's what these things need to do. That's what When They See Us needed to do. That's what Selma needed to do. You could talk about it historically, but you've got to get to the personal in order for it to matter and not just be a historical drama. I have to figure out a way in personally or else I'm making a film that’s preaching and not doing the job of what I set out to do in pictures, which is to evoke empathy and connection. It was important to figure out how to find a character to take us through this. By searching for that, I was really pleased to come across a story of perseverance within the brilliance of Isabel Wilkerson. I thought, “She’s a real superhero. I could follow her. If only she’ll let me.” When she agreed to it, it was a beautiful day.

RS: I’m wondering if we could shift to the Trayvon Martin scenes in the film. The camera isn’t shy about showing what happened that night. The way you shot it reminded me of the Jimmie Lee Jackson scene in Selma. What’s the importance of confronting that kind of a trauma, especially with such an intimate visual language?

AD: You know, I feel traumatized after I watch John Wick. It’s too much. I felt traumatized after watching a film this season on the awards circuit that had a lot of murder, and it just felt like, wow, I'm just watching a lot of blood. I don’t understand why it’s rendered in this way. When I’m, I won't say dealing with trauma, but dealing with violence, the way in which I prefer to approach it isn’t from a place of humanizing the injury or humanizing what is happening. There is something that goes beyond repair that is being done to a human being who’s just like me and what does that feel like? That’s the first question I ask myself. Whether it’s James Reeb or Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma, whether it’s the violence that we saw in the stories of the Exonerated Five in When They See Us, whether it’s the specificity of Trayvon Martin or whether it’s the kind of conceptual idea of what the middle passage looks like inside of the ships—I’m always trying to understand the individual, the hands, the face, the person I’m following and how they felt about what was happening to them. I think that takes it out of a place of violence for violence’s sake. It takes it out of a place of spectacle, and it brings it into the intimacy of a human interaction, violence being one of them.

RS: For much of your career, you've moved between being independent and working with a studio. Did having a mostly independent background make it easier to just walk away and do this on your own?

AD: Because I’d done it before, I didn’t fear it. I didn’t think it was impossible. And we were fortunate. If I had gone out into the philanthropic space or into the private equity space and couldn’t find partners to do what I wanted to do, then I would’ve been back going through a standard studio process. But we were fortunate in finding those partners and were able to proceed. I was shooting this time last year, and now I’m talking to you about a film in its second week of release. That only came because I’m not still pitching [laughs]. We’ve all heard the stories of “it took me seven years to get this film done,” and I just didn’t want this to be that. I felt like there was an urgency to what the film was saying, and how it speaks to the times that we find ourselves in, and that it was best for it to be out sooner than later.

RS: And now that this film has left the festival space and is being seen by general audiences, what do you hope they take from it?

AD: I just want them to take. I don’t want to dictate what that is. I just want them to take something. And what we’re hearing is pretty extraordinary, especially when people take things that I don’t even know are there. People are focusing on the way it speaks to their grief and the loss of people that they love. People are focusing on parts of history that they didn’t know. People are focusing on love stories. People are learning about things that are happening right now with manual scavenging [the practice of cleaning excrement from public toilets] in India that they didn’t know. People are seeing all kinds of connections and having all kinds of emotional responses to the film. I just want you to take.