Ava DuVernay On Directing “Scandal” And The Universality of Black Film

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Ava DuVernay dreams big and in color.  After years of creating campaigns for big budget studio films, the former publicist took her life savings and in 2011, bankrolled her first feature film, “I Will Follow.”  DuVernay’s career as a filmmaker has skyrocketed, making history as the first African-American woman to win the coveted Best Director Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature “Middle of Nowhere.”

Her penchant for telling complex female narratives has made her one of Hollywood’s most sought out talents, landing her gigs with the fashion house Miu Miu for the visually stunning film short “The Door” starring Gabrielle Union and the ESPN documentary “Venus vs.” highlighting Venus Williams’ fight for equal prize money. So it was only natural that DuVernay would partner up with Hollywood’s most powerful female showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive producer of primetime’s smash hit, “Scandal.”

RELATED: “Scandal” Star Tony Goldwyn On Season 3, Shonda Rhimes And TV Diversity [EXCLUSIVE]

We caught up with DuVernay to chat about her experience directing tonight’s episode of “Scandal” entitled “Vermont Is For Lovers Too,” working with Kerry Washington, her upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. movie and why Black film is marginalized by the mainstream media.

TUD: How did this opportunity to direct “Scandal” come about?

Ava DuVernay: I got a call from the co-executive producer, Tom Verica, asking me if I was familiar with the show and I told him I was a proud Gladiator.  It was a lovely invitation.

What were some of the differences or challenges in directing episodic television as opposed to doing a feature film?

“Scandal”  is Shonda’s world, so the difference for me was working within someone else’s world.  I’m usually creating my own worlds – writing the story, hiring the crew, designing the look, casting based on my preferences and needs, selecting everything from wardrobe to production design to music.  So my goal was the serve Shonda’s vision. That was my singular focus. To make her happy. It was fascinating being in another creative space from the mind of another Black woman and working within that.  It was a very lovely lesson for me in having the shoe on the other foot and understanding how my crew and collaborators relate to me, because this time I was in their place. I’m usually the Shonda on my set! (laughs) So this was using a totally different muscle and it was a good experience for me to have.

RELATED: I See Black People! 2013 Fall TV Preview 

What was the working experience like with Shonda and Kerry Washington?

They’re both very lovely people – Kerry is everything you’d hope she would be and more. Truly a class act and immensely present and focused. There are lots of moving parts and people who make the show happen beyond Kerry and Shonda, and they are just as lovely. My point producer, Tom Verica, directed the second season finale and he’s just an incredible director. Everyone was lovely. The department heads, the cast. I’m such a fan of the show that at times it was a little surreal. Imagine standing on the set directing your favorite show? At one point, I was standing on the Oval Office set directing Tony Goldwyn and I turned to him and said “I love this show. Do you know that?” Just a total nerd moment. And he said “Yeah, I think so.” (laughs)  There were moments throughout where I pinched myself.

You’re known for being a champion for female narratives in your work (“I Will Follow,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “The Door”) – can we expect to see any Ava-esque touches in this episode? 

No, because this isn’t an Ava project.  It’s Shonda’s so it needs to be Shonda-esque not Ava-esque. For me honestly, the success will be if you watch it and it looks like “Scandal” and not like my stuff!  That was my job. To make an episode of “Scandal,” not to insert my own way too much. Within that context, the majority of my intense creative work on this project was with the actors. I really enjoyed finding the rhythms of a scene with them. Pushing and pulling. And the stuff with Rowan and Maya – Papa and Mama Pope – was great because it had never been touched by anyone else. It was fresh. They’d never had scenes together. So I was really able to help mold what that dynamic would be going forward in their first scenes together. How they move. How they look at each other, etc. And there is another key situation in this episode that you’ll see that’s new. The untouched terrain was fun stuff because it was all open and great to shape.

READ: Khandi Alexander To Play Olivia Pope’s Mom On “Scandal”

Last week’s episode garnered some controversy regarding the Mellie rape storyline with some fans feeling it was used as a ploy to make her more sympathetic.  As a filmmaker, how do you find the balance between responsible storyline and artistic freedom?

I respect Shonda as an artist and I feel that she’s been a responsible storyteller in the past and will continue to be.  So as a fan, I look forward to that storyline paying off in a way that makes it worth it.  As a woman, I hope that anyone that felt uncomfortable or traumatized or triggered in any way is reaching out for help and support. That’s most important over anything else.

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What can you tell us about the MLK Jr. project you’ll be directing?

It’s called “Selma” and it’s set in the world of the campaign for voting rights in 1965.  It’s about how Dr. King and his comrades strategized and executed a campaign that changed American history and all the personal ups and downs that went with it for all involved. People died in the streets over this. A truly fascinating time. David Oyelowo will play Dr. King and I’m so excited to work with him again. He’s a great friend of mine and we’re looking forward to making something special.

READ:  Black Movies 2013- Fall And Winter Preview [VIDEO]

This past weekend certain mainstream media outlets referred to “The Best Man Holiday” as “overperforming” because they weren’t expecting it to do as well in the box office.  What’s your take on this situation?

The institutions and corporations aren’t convinced Black films can perform well.  There’s a certain shock and awe in those circles when a film directed by a Black person with a cast of Black people does well at the box office.  It’s nothing new.  It’s not a surprise that these missteps continue to happen.  But, when we focus so much on the missteps of certain press and pundits this past weekend, it takes away from the accomplishments of Malcolm Lee and “Best Man Holiday.”  The accomplishment is that people who were interested in this project actually went to see it in large, beautiful numbers and that is a huge fantastic story.

WATCH: “Best Man Holiday” Director Says Prince Was Considered For New Edition Scene [VIDEO]

There’s a train of thought that when we use the term “Black film” we are boxing ourselves within a certain category. What are your thoughts?

Well I’m a Black woman filmmaker so people are free to label themselves however they want, but that’s how I identify and proudly. Black film to me is a film focused on Black people, in their characterizations, that is told from a Black director’s point of view. Basically for me, Black protagonist and black storyteller equals black film in my book. With that definition,“Django Unchained” is not a Black film to me.  That’s me. Everyone has their own opinions and definitions and it’s all fine. This year, we have a lot of Black films out and about. And that is excellent and exciting. Black film is beautiful – and it is for everyone.

“Scandal” airs tonight on ABC 10PM EST

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