Directors Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler Want to Transform Worlds

While they work on two of the biggest films of next year, directors Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler are closer than ever, and we mean that quite literally. As DuVernay edits her fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time on the Disney lot in Burbank, her door faces the suite manned by Coogler, who is finishing the Marvel superhero movie Black Panther. When we recently pulled the two of them out of their postproduction process to take the stage at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles, DuVernay couldn’t help but take the opportunity to pay tribute to her colleague, who, like her, is the rare director of color to helm a nine-figure blockbuster for a major studio. “To see you every day,” DuVernay told Coogler, “and to be able to look in your eyes and know that we’re doing the same thing in the same space, is what’s so nourishing to me.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that DuVernay and Coogler ended up across the hall from one another, given the parallel way they have each managed an award-winning Sundance breakthrough (DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere and Coogler’s Fruitvale Station), graduated to a mid-budget studio film (the Martin Luther King drama Selma for her, and the rousing Rocky continuation Creed for him), and now work to complete massive studio tentpoles. The 45-year-old DuVernay has updated Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 book A Wrinkle in Time for our era, casting the biracial actress Storm Reid as young heroine Meg Murry, who hops planets with the help of Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). Meanwhile, 31-year-old Coogler has taken the comic-book character of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), introduced onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, and fashioned a stand-alone film that finds him fighting Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) for the Afrofuturist kingdom of Wakanda.

What has making these films meant to DuVernay and Coogler? In this candid, often emotional conversation, they opened up about their lives, their careers, and the inclusive future both directors hope for.

Do you call each other into your editing suites all the time to look at a scene or a piece of marketing?
Ava DuVernay: We see each other about four or five times a week, and now and then we’ll pop up in each other’s rooms. Usually I’m scavenging, because they have really good snacks over at Black Panther. I’ll go over for a certain cookie. Yesterday, you were in our suite looking for fruit wraps—
RC: Fruit snacks.
AD: So it’s really about food.

How far back do the two of you go? 
RC: We met January of 2013, and obviously I’d seen Ava’s work and knew who she was. It was a ticketing lobby at Sundance, and I was there with my first feature film Fruitvale. Ava was there in the lobby, and we kind of recognized each other from photos. She came up, we gave each other a big hug, and started talking. And it’s been like that ever since.

Ava, what was your first impression of Ryan?
AD: I just remember seeing him and knowing of his work, and I remember in that moment, it was a really long hug. It was as if we had known each other. I think there’s something about so few people like us doing what we do that when you do find another person that’s in the same space — a person of color telling a certain kind of story — it’s like kindred spirits. We met in that moment, but I never would have thought we would be editing these kinds of movies on the Disney lot two steps away from each other. It wasn’t even anything I wanted at the time, and I can’t say it’s even anything I wanted when I said yes to A Wrinkle in Time.

Then let’s talk about what got you to yes.
AD: It’s just the story. It’s not the size of the story for me … that’s why, when I say I never would have imagined telling a story of this size, with Wrinkle in Time, I’m interested in the story of this girl. She happens to fly on creatures, but even if she wasn’t flying on creatures, I would follow her to wherever she was. I’m just interested in the character of Meg and what she represented and what she goes through. All the bells and whistles around it were nothing that I ever imagined for myself.

Not enough people know her name, but I always thought I was going to be the black Lynn Shelton. Do you know Lynn Shelton? She makes these beautiful independent films of a certain size and a certain feeling, and she makes one every year. She churns them out. I was like, “If I can just do that…”

So what did you have to do mentally to get yourself in the headspace of “This is not a Lynn Shelton movie, this is a massive blockbuster”?
AD: Well, I’m trying to make a Lynn Shelton movie, just on a larger budget. Lynn Shelton movies have a lot of heart and really explore the interiority of their characters — most often, women characters. I can’t say that what I’m doing within Wrinkle is much different than what I did with Middle of Nowhere, [directorial debut] I Will Follow, or what Lynn Shelton and a lot of other beautiful women directors do. That’s why I always kind of take a little issue with “First black woman director to make a film of a certain size.” That’s really a construct that’s outside of what it means to tell the story. That’s an industry construct that doesn’t represent any kind of achievement for me. It’s just about being able to make another movie — that’s the achievement.

Ryan, let’s talk about your path to Black Panther. Now, industry scuttlebutt would have it that when Marvel first went to you for this project, initially you were wary or turned it down. What got you to the point where you wanted to commit to it?
RC: There wasn’t ever a time when I turned anything down. It actually worked out in a way that I couldn’t have imagined: I was into comic books my whole life, but once I got into filmmaking, I realized I liked to select projects that had questions I was dealing with personally. One of those things I found myself coming back to was, “What is colonization? What does it mean to be African?” Right around that time, Marvel reached out about the project and we engaged, and I shared that with them. They were really open to exploring those things in this massive superhero film, and it ended up working out between us and I was really excited to do it.

What’s the biggest connection the two of you have to your lead characters?
AD: With Meg, the opportunity to explore some real black girl magic onscreen … I’m not mad at that, you know? Something I think both of our films do is challenge the idea of who gets to be the hero. In Wrinkle in Time, literally this girl of color saves the universe — not just the world, multiple planets and galaxies. I mean, that’s such a radical idea as a woman of color, as anyone who’s outside the industry contract of who’s usually put forth as the hero in cinema. To deconstruct that, to unpack that, is really what attracted me to it.

RC: T’Challa is a very interesting character, and on the surface, I think he’s kind of difficult to write. He’s great in so many different ways: He’s extremely wealthy, extremely smart, culturally knowledgeable. He’s a king who’s got this power. Especially in comic books, I was always drawn to characters where you got into the stories through their flaws, like Batman, who’s reliving this terrible moment that’s happened to him. With T’Challa, he’s got everything going for him, and in a way when I first thought about it, I was like, “Man, this is gonna be tough, because I’m not sure I would like this dude!” But through the process of making the film and working with Chad and trying to explore these things and find ownership in it, I’m incredibly attached to this character now. In our film, you find him at a time when he’s just lost the most important person in his life, his father, and he’s inheriting all this responsibility at a time when Wakanda is struggling over what their identity is going to be, so he’s incredibly conflicted and aware of this responsibility. It’s not much unlike what me and Ava are going through with these films: You find people trusting you with this massive thing that has a lot of importance, but they’re watching, hoping that you don’t mess it up. And you’ve got smart people all around you putting their opinions in, but at the same time, you’ve got to remember, “Oh, yeah, I’m smart, too.”

Photo: JUCO for Vulture

To judge from the cosplay and the online reaction to Black Panther, one of the things people are most excited about are these amazing costumes you and Ruth Carter have put together. 
RC: It’s funny, Ava was mad at me for using Ruth. She was like, “Yo, you got Ruth?”
AD: Ruth worked with me on Selma, and I just assumed she was gonna be there for Wrinkle. She was like, “Um, no.” [Laughs.]
RC: Ruth’s incredible, obviously. She’s designed the costumes for movies like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Selma … The big question for everybody — for myself, for Marvel, for Ruth — was, “What does it mean to be African?” We looked to the continent for clothes and colors and patterns. It was a collaboration between all of us to tell the story through what these characters put on, and when they change their costumes, what is that saying about their journey in the film? But yeah, we looked to the continent for what the Dora Milaje would wear, we looked at Afrofuturist works, and we found that in African culture, clothing has multiple functions. A shirt is not just a shirt: It tells a story, it’s got a design that speaks to what your rank is in your tribe and what your family has done, and it also might serve as a form of protection from weather or battle.

One of my favorite outfits from the trailer was one of the most dressed-down looks: It’s Michael B. Jordan with those glasses and the shearling jacket. I assume he’s kind of incognito in that scene?
AD: Incognegro.
RC: [Laughs.]

Does he look, maybe, like Ryan Coogler looked in college?
RC: Nah, I couldn’t have afforded that coat in college, man! In college, I just wore a sweatshirt that my football coach gave me or something. But it’s great, because we really wanted to explore what it means to be African from everywhere. Mike’s character, Erik Killmonger, is from the States, so you get a little bit of the diaspora of our culture here as African Americans. Everything that he would wear, we talked about heavily, and we tried to pull from cool fashion. Mike was really interested in that scene to kind of look at some of the stuff that street fashion is bringing to it — you’ve got Jerry Lorenzo, Fear of God, Virgil Abloh. We looked at a lot of that stuff.

How do you find the happy medium where this movie can be Marvel but it can also be Ryan Coogler?
RC: I think that’s what the studio was interested in when we sat down. They’re in a place where they’ve made a lot of these films, and they’re really interested in ways to make them different. You see what they did with Taika [Waititi] and Ragnarok, what they’ve done with [Guardians of the Galaxy director] James Gunn. They want the filmmakers to bring themselves to the table.

To make an analogy, fashion right now is about collaborations: Like, Nike will go to a designer and say, “Make your version of an Air Force,” and people will go crazy for it because it feels familiar, but at the same time, it’s bringing something different to it. That’s a way that these films can be effective, and Marvel was extremely open to that.

And I’m sure that you can pull inspiration from other Marvel movies. Both of you have worked with Tessa Thompson, so when you see her as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, what is that like for you?
AD: I’m just a babbling idiot. I was pretty much talking to her on text like, “OMG, did you see when you did this?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I did it.” Or I’m like, “And then you wore this!” and she’s like, “Yeah, I remember!” To see a friend so bold and ballsy and a character and representation that I’ve not really seen a black woman inhabit before in that space, where it’s kind of psychedelic fantasy, and she just owned it? It was very moving. But she’s kind of like that in real life.

Ava, tell me about conceiving the look of all these different planets in A Wrinkle in Time.
AD: That was one of the things that Disney really drew me in with, when they called me and asked to talk about the project. It was really [executive] Tendo Nagenda, and I think it’s really important to name names of the people who’ve been supportive of you, because it’s not a normal thing to have studio executives foregrounding the work and vision of women of color in this space. So Tendo Nagenda, he’s the executive VP of production, and in the meeting he was telling me about the story and I hadn’t read A Wrinkle in Time as a child, and then he says, “And imagine the worlds you can build, Ava.” I remember him saying that. He was like, “She hops planets … planets no one has ever seen or heard of.” That really is what got me, the idea of being able to create space and places that were unmapped. I just attacked it planet by planet, and I’m excited to share a sci-fi vision through the lens of a black woman, because so often when we’re watching sci-fi films, it’s through one specific lens: A white male lens, predominantly, for decades and decades and decades. It’s not that mine will be radically different, but there might be a softness to it or an edge to it or a color change to it that we’ve not seen. The bottom line is that we don’t know until we see it, so why not see it?

Photo: JUCO for Vulture

Pick one of those planets for me and tell me how your vision for it evolved.
AD: There’s a planet called Camazotz that is supposed to be controlled by an evil mind, and the planet shifts. It’s a planet of many faces, so that was cool, to figure out all the different environments and how the world switches before the characters’ eyes. But one of the things we dealt with was that in the final showdown scene, Meg confronts the monster, the IT. It’s widely known that in the book, she walks into a room and there’s just a brain hanging in the corner … and I was just like, “That’s nasty.” [Laughs.] “How am I gonna shoot that, a brain hanging in the corner? Maybe I’ll make it really big and super drippy.” And I was like, “Ew, no, that’s nasty!” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the beauty of what that would be. So I won’t say what we did, but we did something completely different, taking the idea of a brain and remixing it and stretching it and creating something that’s different from the book but still is the book. You want fans of the book to feel like you caught the spirit of it, but I didn’t feel tethered and shackled by having to make things exactly like it was in the book. There’s no black or Southeast Asian Mrs. in the book, right? In the book, the girl is not biracial, and the boy is not a Filipino American little brother. We took liberties to be true to the spirit, but we freed ourselves and our imaginations to bring these fairy tales and these fantasies into the current time, which is one that should be much more inclusive.

RC: Ava talked about naming names, and I gotta talk about Nate Moore, who’s a black man and works at Marvel as a producer — he worked on [the Captain America movies] Winter Soldier and Civil War. When I first met him, I didn’t know there were any black executives at Marvel, you see what I’m saying? He actually called me on the phone, and I was talking him on the phone, like, “I think this dude’s black!” [Laughs.] Y’all know how it is on the phone. And I go into the restaurant for the meeting and I’m like, “Oh, he is! That’s what’s up.” Nate was very supportive and obviously very conscious of what it would mean if Wakanda existed — not just what it would mean for the world, but what it would mean for us.

I’m curious for both of you: What was the thing you were presented with on your own production — whether it was a costume, a piece of concept art, or a performance — that produced your biggest geek-out moment?
AD: I mean, when Oprah Winfrey walks out in a platinum-blonde wig and you’d had it sketched, but you weren’t sure a) would she put it on, and b) would it look good, and also all of her clothes are constructed like different kinds of armor and she come out and looks incredible … all the key grips and the gaffers, all my guys and girls, just broke out in applause. It’s one thing to put those things on paper and another thing to work with actresses and convince them to look that way. These women were all incredibly game, and that just inspired all of us. When you put this living art on people, these clothes and this hair, and it becomes a part of them and these characters come alive … there’s nothing better than that for me.

Ryan, what was that big moment for you?
RC: Man, it’s tough. It happened every day, and it still happens, in post. I would have to actively play mind tricks on myself, that I didn’t see what I was looking at, so that I wouldn’t emotionally break down and lose time. I would say the first time I felt that — and it’s a trip, because these are two actors that I inherited — was [a scene with] Chadwick and an actor named John Kani, who’s a massive talent and kind of like a titan of acting in South Africa. He plays T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father in the film, and he was cast by the Russo brothers for Civil War. I’m giving a little bit of a spoiler, but they have a scene together in our film, and he showed up to rehearse the day before they were supposed to shoot, this African man in his 70s. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a backwards cap, he’s dressed like us, and Chad shows up and they start rehearsing. Both of them being the incredible actors that they are, they just snap into it, and it’s just me and them and my cell phone. And they start speaking in Xhosa, which is a dialect in South Africa that Chad learned and John speaks naturally, and something about realizing that we have this film where a father and son talk to each other in this native African language in a superhero movie … it kind of hit me pretty hard for a second. It was emotionally moving. And whenever that happens, you have to remind yourself, “I can’t fall to pieces right here. There’s so much work left to be done.” So you give yourself a couple seconds and you get right back to it.

Tell me about your evolution as visual artists, whether it was before you started making movies or during them. How did you assert your ability to tell stories visually?
RC: Growing up, I was an athlete — I went to school and played sports — and I didn’t think of myself as an artist. But I would draw stuff, looking back on it. I was always trying to make some money, so I would get a fabric pen and draw on my homies’ jeans. I couldn’t even draw that good, but I convinced them I could and charged them $15 here, $20 there. I’d draw on a canvas hat when we was rocking those, tennis shoes when we were watching Power Rangers … and then when I discovered filmmaking, it was like something got reawakened in me. I realized that I do have an affinity for how things line up, for how they look. At the same time, you find yourself hooking up with great visual artists like [cinematographer] Rachel Morrison, and I know Ava works with Bradford Young on a lot of her films. They appreciate it like you, but they see it in a different way. That’s the beauty of filmmaking because if I was still drawing on clothes, I’d be trash, man.

And Ava, for you?
AD: You know, I didn’t go to film school, and I didn’t pick up a camera till I was 32. That’s intimidating, when you’re in a Sundance environment with a lot of really talented people who did have the benefit of that kind of formal training. I had to really be able to trust my own eye and to be able to see value in the way that I would see frames and move the camera, while not in those early years having a full grasp of the vocabulary and all the tools available to me. I just knew how I wanted it to look and feel, so it was really important to surround myself with people who wouldn’t judge me for not being able to tell you exactly what lens I wanted, but would really understand the mood and vibe of what I wanted and embrace that. Now, of course, I’m caught up. I felt around the time of Selma and Queen Sugar and some other things I’m working on that I’m really able to be clear about my style and the way that I want frames. Then this Disney movie comes along, and my responsibility is to put myself in it, but I’m making a Disney movie. It’s Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, right? So it’s not going to be the same frames that I would make with Bradford when we’re on a free and independent set when no one’s going to be looking at the frames. This Disney film belongs in a Disney cinematic canon that is bright and full of light, so right around the time I was getting a good grasp on how I want things to be, I purposefully went in the other direction, to lean into speaking a visual language that people expect when they go to see a Disney movie. Now, I’m trying to make it a little doper and edgier, but I’m not going to go full Ava-Bradford whatever. I wanted to really honor what this is supposed to be, and that was a first for me, because I’ve never made a film where I felt a responsibility for the look that’s outside my preference. It was a lovely experiment.

And while you were doing that, Bradford was off shooting Star Wars.
AD: Right, but on Star Wars, somehow, he negotiated to still do whatever he wanted. I’m excited to see it.

What would it have been like for you to see these movies at age 10?
AD: Transformative, which is what my hope is for these. I have a niece who’s 13 who I call the real Meg. I put the topknot on Meg and the glasses, and the way that she dresses is exactly like my niece Molly. Like, there’s a picture of Molly and I gave it to the costume designer and said, “This is what she would wear.” I want her to see all that’s possible and not have to wait until she’s 32 years old to figure it out. She should be able to know that you can walk through any door and even if the door is not there, if you start walking toward it, it will appear for you. So that’s my goal, and not just for black girls but for all kinds of girls, and not just for girls but for boys, too. To be able to see the possibilities and understand that a hero doesn’t have to be defined so normally.

Ryan, what if you were 10, super into comics, and saw this big-budget Black Panther movie?
RC: To be honest, I couldn’t imagine it. Man, when I was 10, I remember being fired up that they were making a Ninja Turtles movie! When I was 10 years old, I wouldn’t have thought there would be a black president, you know what I’m saying? I’m making this film for my 10-year-old self every day, and simultaneously for my 31-year-old self … kids today, their world is different from our world. These kids are living in a world where there’s Ava, who picked up a camera at 32 and made masterpieces and is going to have a long career ahead of her and makes TV on the side. I don’t know how she does it. But these kids, man, I think they’re gonna save all of us, to be honest with you. We’ve got to do our part to keep pushing things forward, and to see a movie about someone who looks like me, who’s a king and knows his ancestry to the beginning and has an army of incredible folks around him who believe in him? I don’t know what that would have done for me when I was 10 years old.

Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler Want to Transform Worlds