After directing “Origin” — the feature adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” — Academy Award-nominee Ava DuVernay is feeling incredibly content.
In fact, when she appears over Zoom from her office at the ARRAY creative campus in L.A. in late August, just a couple days ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, there’s a glow about her. And it doesn’t seem to be coming from a ring light.
More from Variety
Asked what she’ll take from the process of making “Origin” into her next project, DuVernay replies: “How did this change me? So much so that if I never made another film, the experience of making this one would be enough.”
The filmmaker turned 51 on August 24, the same day I previewed the film with a small group of critics and journalists. She spent the better part of her 50th year working on “Origin” — shooting the globe-trotting production in 37 days and then grinding away in post-production in time to hit the fall festival circuit. So, it seems almost fated that DuVernay deliver the project, which she describes as a labor of love, over to the press on her birthday.
“It was the first screening for anyone outside of our team and our trusted friends who gave us notes,” DuVernay chirps excitedly as her image pops onto the screen. “Thank you so much for coming.”
When we talk, she’s still putting the final touches on the film, starring Academy Award-nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, and she expects to arrive on the Lido for its Sept. 6 premiere with a “dripping wet” final cut. The ink was also still drying on the film’s major sale to Neon, which acquired the rights in a competitive situation and dated “Origin” for theatrical release this fall.
At the festival, DuVernay experienced a wave of rave reviews from critics, including Variety’s Peter Debruge, who calls the film a “monumental” adaptation as it “frames America’s most difficult conversation” about racial inequity. The Venice crowd also congratulated a beaming DuVernay on the achievement with a lengthy standing ovation as the credits rolled. “Origin” next heads to the Toronto International Film Festival for a late-announced gala presentation on Sept. 11.
DuVernay is particularly effusive about the project, using words like “transformational” and “revolutionary” to describe the experience of getting back to her roots and independently producing the film with longtime producing partner, ARRAY Filmworks president Paul Garnes. (Garnes was among the filmmakers and below-the-line crew to walk the Venice carpet with DuVernay, as the cast did not attend the premiere amid the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.)
Adapting “Caste” was a massive undertaking. Wilkerson’s acclaimed book examines the unrecognized hierarchy at the heart of American culture and explains why “racism” is an oversimplification, tracing its origins and ties to other examples of social stratification, like the one imposed by Nazi Germany to execute the Holocaust and India’s enduring caste system. As such, the film depicts the harrowing truths of the way that caste systems are upheld, from slavery to lynching to genocide.
But beyond the sheer density of the material, every moment of production carried deep personal meaning. While she plugged away on the passion project, her grandmother Jeanne Francis died after a long illness. DuVernay dedicated the film to her. “I think she’d be happy. I hope she’d be pleased,” she says.
The emotional heft of the endeavor crept in briefly while filming. “I’ve shot and photographed a lot of pretty intense, historical moments in my career. I’m able to do those [scenes] pretty technically,” she says, noting that it’s pretty rare for her to cry on set, but it happens. “Sometimes it’s the small moments that get us.”
She’s reminded of the first time she cried on set, while directing a scene for the pilot for her OWN series “Queen Sugar” featuring a father and son in a hospital room. “Origin” has a similar familial setup, a quiet scene between the character of Isabel Wilkerson (Ellis-Taylor) and her mother.
“Her mother’s [living] space was fashioned after my grandmother’s, so there was something about watching the love that was between them and what they were conjuring, the warmth and grace in the room that got me,” DuVernay recalls. “I remember shedding a tear when I watched it and feeling so fortunate that I experienced that love in my real life. That was a gift of a day, and a gift of a scene. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film.”
As we spoke, DuVernay explained how she adapted “Caste” and why she doesn’t believe “Origin” could’ve been made within the traditional studio system.
First of all, congratulations. As you prepared for the rollout of “Origin,” what put Venice on your list?
Venice has always been a goal. And it was a goal that had no precedent. No feeling like, “Oh, I can ask her how it went.” Because as an African American filmmaker, who is a woman, there was no one to ask. But it was a long-term goal that I had to play there. I’d had the opportunity to go to Venice a couple times. I presented a short film out of competition; I went with a brand; I received an award from Diane von Furstenberg, so I had the opportunity to see how beautiful the festival is, and I wanted to be a part of it.
You are the first African American woman to have a film premiere in competition at Venice. What does it mean to you?
It’s bittersweet whenever these firsts happen, because you understand that you’re not the first African American woman deserving a spot in competition. You’re certainly not the first African American woman capable of having the slot. So, when these things come around, it’s important to understand why history unfolds the way it does. With that said, I’m gonna go and try to represent for myself, for the cast and the crew, and the real people that this film is about.
Let’s talk about the real people that this film is about: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor is playing Isabel Wilkerson…
We kept that a secret for a while!
When you decided to adapt “Caste,” how did you develop the framework for this film? How do you describe it: is it a docu-drama? Because it’s not a biopic?
It has biographical elements, so in some ways, it’s a biopic. In some ways, it’s docu-drama. In some ways, it’s just a straight up adaptation of these really beautiful and tragic moments in history. The goal was to try to stitch together a tapestry, to create a quilt — that’s how I think of it — and allow myself to color outside the lines of what I’ve been told. Just to throw all that out and tell the story from my gut. And it came from reading this book.
The book is one that took me three times reading it to really understand it and figure out a way to share the ideas. And the only way that I came up with was to not depend on one particular way. Really leaning into the opportunities and adventure of trying to create something that might not be linear, and that might not be inside the lines, was the joy of it. It was a transformational experience for me.
What was the first square on that quilt?
I really love the book. I’m a student of history; I love history. But I do understand as a filmmaker and a storyteller that you need someone to follow. So, as I looked at the book, the question was, there’s these little amazing stories, but who was the one person our heart was with and who we followed. It was only because I started to hear about Isabel Wilkerson’s personal triumphs and tragedies during the time of writing the book, and start to feel very connected to her, very sympathetic to her, very interested in and concerned for her as another artist going through this that I started to think, “Wow, wouldn’t it be incredible if we followed her journey writing the book?” That was the first layer. Once I had that idea, the rest of it came into place in a beautiful way.
How did you land on “Origin” for the title?
The film is not the book “Caste”; it’s inspired by it. Fifty percent of the film springboards from the book and 50% is about the woman who wrote the book, so I didn’t want to take that name for a project that is really about something else. “Origin” is in the sub header of her title — “The Origins of Our Discontents” — so that was a nice bridge.
Was there anything you needed to take creative license with or did all of Isabel’s personal journey transpire the way it plays out on screen?
It did. The core pieces of the puzzle are true; the losses that she experiences in the film were real losses that Isabel Wilkerson herself endured. The very short amount of time — less than two years — in which these losses happened is true. The fact that she worked and wrote this book in the amount of time in which her grief was at full throttle, when she was going through this deep loss, is fact. And the fact that she came out with something so transformative and triumphant in the book “Caste” was to me a story in and of itself, separate and apart from what she shares and teaches in the book. The film tries to align both stories — personal trauma and our cultural trauma — and understand that the only way to solve or heal any of it is to walk through it. And the film tries to walk people through both.
What conversations did you have with Aunjanue and Isabel about this opportunity to link them together through this film?
Isabel gave us a real gift in that she said, “I’m a storyteller, I understand how this goes: I’m going to tell you the story and you translate it into a movie. Go do it.” And she just stepped back. She took herself out of a role of arbiter of taste and approving [casting]. I don’t even know if I could do it, to say, “This thing means so much to me. I trust you to go and interpret it in the way that you feel will get the story out.” So, it was very much a lovely process.
Aunjanue was someone I worked with on “When They See Us.” I don’t even have the words to explain what it’s like to watch her work. The full immersion, the complete 360-degree commitment, the rigor, the discipline is just unparalleled in anything I’ve experienced with an actor in a lead role, short of David Oyelowo on “Selma.” You’re playing a real person, but you’re also telling the story writ large about the culture. In that way, both of those roles were similar, and they required actors with great muscularity to get in there and put it on their shoulders and carry it across the finish line. And she did that, so it was a quite the experience to behold.
Is there a moment with Aunjanue that stands out?
Just the great respect that she commands daily. She would come onto the set, and the minute she’d walk on, it would just go quiet. It wasn’t because she was demanding it. It wasn’t because I was saying “Everyone be quiet.” The crew began to have a great respect for how deep this woman was going, and they gave her that gift unasked. She would step on set and it would just quiet, which if you’ve been on a film set, you know that doesn’t happen. Usually you only get quiet between “Action” and “Cut.” That’s when the actors do their thing, and then right after “Cut,” everyone goes crazy. It was a real reverence for the rigor of her work. And that’s something I’ll always remember because I’d never experienced that before. They gave it to her freely and it was quite beautiful.
This was a massive production, shooting on location in Georgia, Alabama, India and Germany. This movie was initially set up at Netflix, and then you ended up making it independently. What did it take to produce a film that is this cinematic?
We recognized pretty early on that we needed to make this film our way, and that, with no bad blood, the best way for us to do it was on our own. What that meant was me and my producing partner, Paul Garnes — two Black independent producers — literally traveling the world making this film. Everything was done in 37 days, on a budget that … it doesn’t look like what it was made for, and we take great pride in that.
It was an experience that was so revolutionary for me to take back the process of the final decisions. Because, usually, the final decisions lie with people who aren’t me. They’re producers. They’re studios. They’re financiers. Yes, I have a lot of creative and artistic power in this situation, but ultimately, final decisions could always be made above my head. And in this situation, that wasn’t the case. It was fully independent; we’re fully autonomous and fully free in our vision of the story. It’s addictive. It’s going to be tough to go back. I don’t know how soon I will.
We just enjoyed this process. If we wanted to shoot a little bit longer in the streets of Delhi or if we wanted to show something in a film that a studio would object to or say, “Mmm, is that really going to work?” We did it. We greenlit ourselves, and I think the evidence is in the film. Because that film could never and would never be made inside the studio system. Even if we got the permission and the money to make it, it wouldn’t have been the same outcome, because you’re trying to please other voices. And with this process, we stayed true to ourselves and we pleased ourselves.
Myles Frost plays Trayvon Martin and it is heartbreaking and harrowing to watch his murder. But the way the arc eventually ends is also a very tender tribute. How did you decide what to portray or what not to portray in that scene, as well as the Middle Passage and so many other really tough moments to watch?
Over the last decade or so of making films, I have a lot of experience — whether it’s “Selma” or “13th” or “When They See Us” or “Queen Sugar” — in understanding how to tell the stories. Where it tips into something other than what can be helpful and healing, and where it doesn’t go far enough. One of the things that I am proud of myself for honing, and continuing to study and try to improve on, is how to tell the stories in ways that are visceral, that treat violence as emotional as opposed to spectacle, that lift the veil on why these things are happening so that you have a connection to the things that you’re seeing. That it’s a heart connection, and not just for entertainment.
The question was could the work that I’ve done and those muscles be applied to other cultures and other areas where there are historic challenges that should be shared? Applying some of that to the Holocaust and the Nazi regime or to the contemporary experiences of the Dalit people in India, all that experience starts to come together in a way where I felt like, “Oh, I think I can do this.”
As you add “Origin” to your toolbox, what did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker that you’re going to take into the next project?
I truly want to be making films in my 80s, like Mr. [Martin] Scorsese and Mr. [Ridley] Scott, all those guys, and Agnès Varda. I want to be doing it with my cane. The goal is to be making work until I can’t anymore, so I hope that’s a very long time.
To answer the question: how did this change me? So much so that if I never made another film, the experience of making this one would be enough. It was that full for me. It was that everything … I get emotional — everything I always wanted to do and try. The freedom that I’ve longed for. The trust from my producing partner, Paul. A crew that went above and beyond. Everyone says that about their crew, [but] this one really was globe-trotting for 37 days to tell a story about caste, so you had to be committed. And the moments that I shared with these fellow artists, with Aunjanue and that whole cast [the film also stars Jon Bernthal, Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Finn Wittrock, Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Connie Nielsen]; people who just flew in to do one scene, and then knocked it out of the park. The commitment on everyone’s part created an experience that is unlike anything I’ve had. And I’m not sure I’ll have it again.
You can feel the emotion of making it as you watch it, but what stuck with me was this idea that Isabel faced her own trauma while excavating the world’s trauma, and in doing so, the audience does as well. What is your takeaway or call to action with this film?
I always resist doing a call to action, because everyone comes into a film from a different place. What my call to action and your call to action is going to be is much different. One of the things with these pictures — whether it’s “13th” or “When They See Us” or any of them — is understanding that it has to have layers, because different people are coming in in different places of their understanding, their cultural maturity, their exposure to images. I had somebody see it the other day and [they asked], “What’s the Middle Passage?” [I thought,] “Okay, let me step back and talk to you about what that is,” because they had never heard the words before.
What I want people to do is be activated and to think. I hope that we’re making a film that sticks to your ribs and keeps you full. That you’re thinking about it the next day. That a month from now something happens, and you’ll be like, “Is that caste?” and start to metabolize it, start to understand it and how it works in our everyday. That’s really the goal.
And I also always say – did [Christopher] Nolan have a call to action? Did Scorsese have a call to action? Like, do I always gotta have a call to action? What if there is no call to action?
There is. But it’s for people to find for themselves.
What does it take to get the audience to watch a movie like “Origin”? Because mid-way through I realized, “This is a process film.” A movie about someone making something. I just had a conversation about “She Said,” which I loved, and I was frustrated because it feels when there’s process films about women and people of color, people are not as intrigued. I don’t know that this is a fair question to ask you, but I am curious what you make of the way to get the audience in the door. Because it is complicated when asking people to watch material that is challenging.
You’re right. It’s challenging to watch a process film about a man making a bomb. [Referencing Nolan’s latest film “Oppenheimer”] He’s a man who was trying to do something and couldn’t quite describe it to anybody else, but he knew it. Isabel is a woman who knows something and can’t quite describe it, but she knows it, and she’s gonna find it. You’ll sit through three hours of his process. Will you sit through two hours of her process?
I think that is the only proposition. It’s not talking about the merit of the films. It’s talking about the very idea of following a woman through an intellectual process, an intellectual exercise. Then you make that a Black person. Then you make that a Black woman. Is it valid enough for you to go on that journey with her?
If you’re looking at films like “She Said” or “Women Talking,” there is a real question as to what it takes to center that voice and that narrative. We’ve been trained that that center is not usually the center. That [voice] usually is off-center or the minor character or not usually in this movie. I’m excited to be making work at a time where you have “Nomadland,” and you have “She Said,” and you have “Women Talking,” and these women are being centered in these ways. It’s about an intellectual as well as emotional pursuit, and that they are the center of the story. I hope that “Origin” joins that canon of films.
Has Isabel seen the finished cut yet?
She has seen it and given her blessing.
What was showing her the film like?
It’s always a delicate process, whether it was the King estate with “Selma” or the Exonerated Five with “When They See Us,” to try to interpret someone’s life. So, the grace with which Isabel allowed that and welcomed the dozens and dozens of hours of interview that she gave and the latitude to tell the story, in service of the story of “Caste,” was a blessing and a gift. I hope that she feels properly saluted and honored because that was my goal. I think she’s a remarkable woman. She’s done, in what we chronicle, two things that I don’t know if I could have done: survived the losses that she survived, and told a story that’s long been untold and ignored, and told it in a way that makes people understand what they’re seeing right in front of them, but have been blind to.
“Origin” debuts just after your birthday. As you celebrate another year, much of which has been dedicated to this film, what’s been that big lesson that you’ve learned?
As I contemplate from 50 to 51, it was all about this movie and all about my grandmother. And both their journeys ended this summer. This film hopefully will continue to reverberate, as her life continues to reverberate. It’s just really understanding that everything matters; everything that we’re doing and saying and seeing and experiencing is intertwined. That was so evident to me this year in really beautiful ways. The real bottom line is, there’s no appropriate reaction to life beyond gratitude. Whether you’ve lost someone or you’re going through a hard time, there’s always something to be grateful for.
That has been my anchor through this year, through challenging times making this film independently, through challenging times watching my grandmother pass, and the long journey that that was after a very long illness. Both of those experiences brought gratitude to the forefront. In so many ways, I was experiencing the parallel of Isabel’s character: she was experiencing loss, and she was working on this material. I was working on this material, and I was experiencing loss. I feel very tied to the film and the character in that way, and I’m just excited to share it.
Best of Variety