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Ava DuVernay on Directing Queen Sugar, Properly Lighting Actors of Color, and Why She Used to Be More Brave

Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images

Ava DuVernay has been making films for the past eight years, and OWN’s Queen Sugar is her first foray into television. Why TV, and why now? “Because it’s the golden era of television,” the Academy Award–nominated director of Selma told Vulture, “and I want in.” In a conversation for the Vulture TV Podcast, Matt Zoller Seitz and DuVernay go deep on what makes the filmmaker’s directing style so distinctive, properly lighting actors of color, and why she feels she’s not as brave as she used to be. Listen to the conversation, and read an edited transcript below:

It’s not as if you’re lacking for feature-film work these days, and TV is a longer commitment, it’s like adopting a kid almost. Why television?
I really can directly trace it to Cary Fukunaga and True Detective: First of all, you directed every episode; secondly, it’s badass. I saw that, and then Soderbergh and The Knick. I just loved that first season so much, and that’s when I became very aware — you know, Fincher had already done House of Cards, but I think it was like the pilot—

He did the pilot and then he set the style.
He set the style, and that’s something that we’d seen for a while. But it seemed like maybe four years ago or so it turned into auteurs really coming in and putting their whole stamp on a series beyond the pilot, beyond setting the stage, and I just thought that was fascinating, to tell the 13-hour story, the 8-hour story, you know? I wanted to try it.

You directed the first two episodes of the show, but you also co-wrote it. Can you run through all your roles?
I show-ran, so it was picking every director, all the casting decisions throughout all the episodes, costumes, prepping that stuff because when you go in so fast the episodic directors aren’t able to final cut on every single thing that we did. You know, it’s fast — it’s much different than filmmaking. This pace is nuts if you’re approaching it as a director. I talked to Shonda Rhimes about it and said, “How do you do this — producer-ily and writing wise? Churning this thing out?” Ten years she’s been doing it. Multiple series. I mean, of course she’s superwoman, but because I was trying to do it with the director’s eye and all of the details, it was nuts.

Speaking of the director’s eye, here’s a question that I get from readers a lot and feel like I know in general what to tell them, but since I have you here maybe you can get a little more specific. How does a show maintain a consistent style over a period of time when there are so many directors?
This was my big concern with the first season, and I think that’s why I probably held it even more tightly then I needed because I was afraid of going off the rails a little bit and not being consistently what I set when I started out. And when I look at all of the episodes, it’s changed, but not in a bad way. Like making a sculpture, you’re making a piece and it’s just your hands. What it would be like if there were 30 hands on it? How do you keep the same form if everyone is putting their hands on it? It may not be exactly the same thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. That was something that I had to learn in having other directors kind of come in.

On Miami Vice there’s a legendary anecdote about how Michael Mann issued this edict, “no earth tones,” for the first few seasons, and I know that other shows have particular rules. Do you have anything?
Yeah, yeah, I hate inserts. I hate them.

Inserts meaning tight close-ups—

Of objects and things?
Yeah. Like, someone goes to pick up the phone, and I don’t need another shot of the hand picking up the phone. Like, I’m good. I saw it in the wide. Yeah, it’s a phone. iPhone? Blue case? I got you. I just don’t like it. But the main thing in terms of look that keeps the steady hand is the cinematographer. The DP knows what the look is like, knows what the framing is. The editors all know what the editorial rhythm is, and so with a director and actor doing maybe something outside of it, it’s all good because they’ll bring their sensibility to a piece that already has an established aesthetic.

The show is filmed on location in Louisiana, right?

How does that affect the look of the show when you’re actually shooting in the place where something is set as opposed to faking it somewhere else?
I was really aware of not wanting to do New Orleans, like, the word that comes to mind is porn. The city has been photographed so much, you think of New Orleans and you think of the same tropes, Bourbon Street, French Quarter, now Katrina. And it’s more than that. I did not treat the city as a character. That’s the thing that filmmakers say: The city was a character. No, the city was not a character. Our characters lived there. New Orleans is a fabric that just exists. The city is so distinct that you don’t have to overcorrect and show it off because it just is in the pores. Like, you know when you drink too much … I don’t drink, but people who drink too much and they come home at night and you’re like, “You’ve been drinking,” and they’re like, “No, I haven’t!” And you’re like, “Yes!” You’re sweating whatever you drink, you know? It’s like smoke, it sticks to it. That’s New Orleans.

My brother went to college at Tulane, and when I went to visit him there I felt like I was swimming through tomato soup. That’s how humid it was, it was unreal. The show does have that quality to it. There’s also something about the light on this show. One thing I’ve noticed on a lot of shows that are directed or produced by white filmmakers is a lot of times the actors of color are not properly lit. What do you do to make sure that doesn’t happen?
This is a historical thing. Usually, you have two people in a scene, and in the history of cinema the hero is most likely going to be the white guy. And the other guy is his friend who is carrying the bag or whatever, and you’re not going to light for that guy. Historically, you’ve had really muddy, unforgiving, unintentional images of black people. So I learned a lot from Bradford Young and Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed and the great black cinematographers about how to actually light our skin in a way that’s intentional — anyone can do it if you are favoring the darker skin tone. But that doesn’t happen. Only because of the context by which most of these scenes in films have happened for so long. The black character, the character of color, is usually the lesser of the two characters in terms of prominence.

What sort of things as a filmmaker can you do with production design and costumes that will make actors of color pop more?
Gosh, there are lots of tricks. The main thing with lighting characters of color is there’s just such a variance of tints in skin tone. There are characters we shot in Queen Sugar where their skin looks like yours, and then you see Rutina Wesley or Kofi Siriboe — Nigerian! You know? It’s like, whoa, these are two characters I need to favor both, how do I light for both? And you do exactly that, you light each one as if they’re the hero of the story, and it takes a little bit longer and everyone doesn’t know how to do it — it’s not just putting light on — but it’s not impossible for people to learn. Our Latino cinematographer Antonio Calvache was really extraordinary — he shot Todd Field’s films Little Children and In the Bedroom. I wanted to have a cinematographer who’d never shot television, who had more a cinematic eye. He agreed, and he was very intentional with the brown skin tones.

How much leeway do the actors have to move about in the frame when they’re acting in a scene? Do you block them out like, You go here, and You say this, or You go there and say that, or do they have the freedom to move in some unexpected way?
Wow. This is really great — this is a directing conversation!

I told you!
How cool. Being a black woman director I very rarely, I can count on one hand and it wouldn’t be a full hand the conversations that I’ve had about craft. Because it’s always about diversity, about the first this, the first that. No one is asking me about blocking scenes. Or rehearsal. So I really appreciate that.

Hey, it’s my pleasure. But this is one of my pet hobby horses, I’m kind of on a critical jihad against shows that cut all the time.
Well, we sure don’t!

No, you don’t! And that was another thing I wanted to ask you about. You were talking about the camera distance, the role camera distance plays, and you’ve actually got a scene when the grandfather goes to pick up Blue from school and you let most of that play out in wide shot. And then you’ve got the scene with Ralph Angel and his estranged wife, when he gets out of the pickup truck to confront her, that’s also in a wide shot. Most shows, most movies wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t stay that far back from people in a moment of extreme emotion. They would go right into their face. Why don’t you go right into their face?
Because the story is so emotional, I really have to calibrate the time, the close-ups. So there are some scenes — like the one where the grandfather, the son, and Ralph Angel and his son, Blue, are all in the hospital room — that’s all mediums and extreme close-up. ECU, macro, tight — you can’t even see a chin and forehead. You’re eyebrow to bottom lip on some of that stuff. I know that’s coming, so it’s just a calibration of it. But also, that scene that you talked about in the parking lot is about distance, you know what I mean?

Emotional distance.
Emotional distance. And, actually, he’s moving away, he’s trying to get away from her — she’s chasing him across the parking lot.

Right, he walks out of the building, and she follows him all the way out to his truck.
Yeah, and so literally it’s a bit of a chase scene. We have to really find the moments where he would turn back. Why do you turn around here? You can’t just do it unmotivated. You would keep walking to the truck. So I had to figure out the pieces — why he would turn? We found a really nice thing — Kofi Siriboe, such a great young actor — where he turned just to hear her out just so he could say a mean thing to her. He turns and says, “Yeah, tell me,” and she says, “I got the job,” and he’s like, “I don’t care what you do.” Bam.

There’s a saying that I like to quote that a great show or a great movie teaches you how to watch it. The way you get used to the language in a book. And it’s interesting when you feel like you’ve gotten used to the language of a show and then it does something like, Oh, that was out of character! One example of that is Ralph Angel with Blue at Blue’s birthday party — there’s a shot where he looks right into the camera and then the boy looks right into the camera. That hadn’t happened yet, and I don’t think you did it after that.
And it doesn’t happen again in the whole series.

Why did you do that?
Because it was there, and you have to be brave enough to say, “I’m going to shoot it.” I said, “I’m going to shoot it and I don’t even know if I’m going to use it,” but I saw it lined up and I said, “Gosh, this does something to me emotionally.” Even though it’s not our visual language, it’s very moving to me when I cut it. It says so much about what this boy means to him and what the father means to the boy, and I feel like it really does something to the scene, which I really think is a big jewel of this episode, one that’s close to my heart. It’s this binding together of father and son, and that happens in a really unexpected way by changing those frames.

I’m working on A Wrinkle in Time right now, and every scene has six people in it. I’m like, What? Sometimes my mind just goes to there’s six people in this. The camera movement and where the blocking is is going to be a real fantastic challenge. Because I’ve done the dinner-table scenes, I’ve done crowd scenes, I’ve done marches, I’ve done some scenes with a lot of people in it, but six people — I mean 90 percent of the movie there are six people standing around.

Is it true, as directors say, that the hardest thing to shoot is a dinner-table scene? With a lot of people around the table?
I find it easy. Just because they’re all on a certain axis and you can get it done. I do it in pieces. People who are trying to do too much: Get out of that scene. Because it can bury you. It can take all day to get a dinner scene done. It is hard if you make it hard, but I enjoy them.

How many of your decisions visually are driven by what the actors are doing?
Quite a bit. Like the scene you’re talking about, with the center frame shot, I just saw it — it was happening in the moment. But to answer that along with your other question is, how much are the actors allowed to move in the frame? I have an idea about what will work, and then I’ll usually do a blocking rehearsal where I’ll hear what they say. And sometimes with actors I found early on in my work, don’t just let them in the room and say, “Hey, what do you think?” Ooh, no. Don’t do it. Because what they think is going to be, “I think I turn to the camera here and then the camera follows me here and then— ” You know what I mean? So I usually start it with, “I’m thinking it starts in this area and it ends here. Do we want to talk about how it will be a piece?” And then as they start moving around the room, it’s like, “Oh no, this is a better idea,” or, “Oh no, go back.” But I always go into a blocking rehearsal with an anchor, with a blocking plan. And sometimes they’ll step into the room and they’ll be in costume and you’re like, “That sucks, that’s not going to work. Let’s think of something new.”

It seems to me — and if I’m wrong, I’m sure you’ll tell me — that this show has a lot in common with your first two features. The feel of it — not just thematically, like some of the issues that come up like the loss of the matriarch or the patriarch, or a guy adjusting to life after doing time. But also the sparseness of it. The intimacy of it. This is not a big show. This is a small show. You’ve got like a dozen characters, you don’t got 80.
That’s right, and I loved it. I love going back to that kind of storytelling. Because doing A Wrinkle in Time or Selma or a couple of the other big pilots, I found myself longing for the indie spirit of getting a few actors on a set that’s just a house. They say indie films are just people talking in rooms. Um, I love people talking in rooms. I wanted to have people talking about really great stuff in rooms, and yeah, it is really a filmmaking that’s similar to what I did before. I was interrogating for myself how much that filmmaking style has changed now that I’ve done other things. I feel like I was little braver earlier.

In what way?
Because I didn’t know what I was doing. And so it’s like, “Let’s try it.” And I’d get in the editing room and find really interesting things. Now I know how to manage my time, I know how to get more material, which allows me to go into the editing room and put something together, but I don’t if the material has, for me, as much of the edge as I feel like I had early on.

So, a couple of really quick, really geeky questions.
Speed round! I’ll answer faster.

You’ve got a lot of close-ups in the show where a character’s head is on the extreme left or on the extreme right-hand side of the frame. Sometimes they’re looking off-screen and there’s like two-thirds of negative space. There’s a lot of that kind of thing.
Yeah, I love it. When you short side them it makes this person now feel enclosed and imprisoned, right? I usually use that when there’s something I want them to feel trapped [in] or I want them to feel less free in whatever they’re talking about.

You also do a lot of things where you’ve got close-ups of people where there’s nothing in the frame except their face — it’s almost like they’re a painting. Why do you do that?
Because the terrain of the face is the most dynamic thing you can point the camera at, to me. I love production design and bells and whistles and all of that. I love a technograin as much as the next gal, but a great actor’s face? What else should we be looking at?

That’s a perfectly great place to end. 

Ava DuVernay Breaks Down Her Directing Style