Awards Daily TV talks to director Ava DuVernay about bringing her vision to the small screen in OWN’s Queen Sugar, which returns for Season 2 on June 21.
Ava DuVernay is in the post-production stage of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. Visual effects and editing are on the agenda today. If you’re on Instagram, DuVernay shares the journey of the film through posts and Instagram stories. “I always like to bring people into the process and to document moments,” she explains.
It’s inspiring to speak to Ava DuVernay and see her smash through barriers with her work. OWN’s Queen Sugar, her first foray into television, returns for its second season on June 21. Partnering with Oprah Winfrey who serves as an executive producer, DuVernay created, directed, and exec-produced the visually exquisite show. Queen Sugar follows the lives of the Bordelon siblings who deal with a family tragedy, their sugarcane farm, and their own problems.
I feel empowered and independent in whatever I’m doing and that makes for beautiful collaborations and associations with people, and I just enjoy my days.
The characters and actors give some of the best performances on TV right now. Each character is extraordinary and vividly rendered. Complexities are revealed with each episode, and we want to go on this journey with them. Each episode is directed by a female, and Ava DuVernay, herself, directed the first two episodes. The show’s first season finale pulled in over 2 million viewers and is one of the most talked about cable shows on Wednesday nights.
I caught up with Ava DuVernay before the second season returns to talk about the divine Queen Sugar and what motivates her as a creative force.
What I love about you is the motivation and drive we see come from you and the ability to say no when you’re out there breaking these barriers. Where does that come from?
I get to do it because I can. Because I started making a way for myself to do it when no one would let me in and creating a space where I could enjoy myself during my day and make things that I wanted to make without. I just started doing that without asking someone if I could. Even though the projects matured from my own small projects to projects I was working on with collaborators and studios, I never got in the posture of asking anyone if I could at any point.
I took the indie mindset straight into the studio system because I felt empowered that I could always walk away. It’s not that I don’t collaborate. I’m not going to be in a situation that’s not fulfilling to me where I’m not making things that don’t represent the way that I feel or the way that I think people should be seen. Well, you guys keep that. I’m going to make something over here because I know I can make something with two dollars and a paperclip. I’m not desperate for the money because I’ve made things with no money. Anything that anyone can give me, I gave it to myself first.
This is what you hear in relationships all the time, this is what they say to the ladies, “Love yourself before you can love anyone else.” This is in every teen book, every women’s magazine and article for the last fifty years, and it’s true. You have to be solid in yourself before you can do more. In the film world, I just did that. I was able to do for myself so that I didn’t feel at the mercy of anyone, and that’s how I get up every day. I feel empowered and independent in whatever I’m doing and that makes for beautiful collaborations and associations with people, and I just enjoy my days.
On the subject of being a queen, the finale of Queen Sugar shows Charley’s writing. What a moment. What is next for Charley in Season 2?
I’m really excited about it because it’s my first time being able to tell the elongated story, the story that goes beyond the two-hour movie. To be able to dig into these stories for years at a time is a thrill and an honor. I’m really happy with the way I’ve built the characters at the top with so many layers and so many places to go. Charley, now, having been the wunderkind, the maestro behind any music that David’s ever had or put into the world, she was the person pulling the strings. She’s in a place where she’s going to be able to do this for herself, but she’s under duress because of her brother and what Ralph Angel has with the mills.
If you watch the story, there’s this big divide in the family and two giants rise up. It’s Charley who’s skilled and brilliant and has created one empire already and is trying to do that with the mill, and it’s the least likely the person that you never thought would be in this position, the brother who opens Episode 1 and is robbing the liquor store, Ralph Angel. If you watch it, you know his heart and you know who he is inside. He’s the titan who owns this land solely. Now, these two who are really loud personalities within the family start to be at war with one another. It’s about how everyone else is collateral damage and how they’re just trying to hang on. That’s kind of the thrust of Season 2, so it’s cool and exciting. Within that, you have all these regular people who don’t run record companies which I love. They live in a small farming town, and it’s like how do you apply these wonderful tropes that Shonda and Lee get to use in the bigger world right?
They set them up in these big worlds. So I said, “How can we use those and put them in a smaller world where they still feel big?” That’s a lot of what we play with.
That’s what I loved about these characters. They’re regular folks. In Episode 2, you take us on this journey with the siblings, the bickering, the fighting. Underneath, it all is love.
I come from a family of five, I can tell you all about that.
I was like, “Where is all that writing coming from?”
Oh yes. I’m the oldest of five, three boys and two girls. I know more about all that. At the end of the day, you’re all brothers and sisters, and you all have to sit down at the same table and look at your mom and you have to put that aside. The bottom line is, we can do these things to each other, but no one can do it to us. I can be as upset as I want to be with my brother. If someone else is upset with him, then no, I will not have it. Do not talk to my brother that way.
With this, you’re wearing so many hats including writer, director, and producer. Where do you start with it?
It was intense last season because I didn’t really know how to do it. I was making Queen Sugar like I was making a film. With a film, you’re running fast the whole time. You’re out of the starting gate, and you are in a race to the end. With TV, it’s more of a marathon, but I ran it like a race. You can’t. You have to slow down. It’s a different pace of making it. I made it full out, and my hands were in everything. I focused on every pillow and every scarf, on every line, on every camera angle, and every crew member in a really intense way in the way I do films.
This season, I was able to pull back a little bit. I can have different people do this and that and I can go slower. So this season is different. Where the first season was my hand on every story and every character, every edit, every piece of music I chose, this season is different. I was able to say, “OK, I set the template for that. This is what it should look and feel like, and now let’s have some really great people take it and continue.”
I’m taking the marathon approach. It’s ridiculous and crazy. That’s what I did. I can look at that and say that I was able to do thirteen hours of story that way that I wanted. It was beautiful and it was the way I wanted it to be.
The other day, you tweeted about your Golden Rule. Talk about applying that when filming Queen Sugar.
I was talking to Guillermo Del Toro and others. The question was, “What do you have in mind when you make something?” I’ve said it all along and sometimes it feels like a selfish answer, but it’s the only way that I know: I make the story for myself.
I can only satisfy me. I have to make sure that I love every frame, every line, every glance, every cut, every piece of music. I have to love it so much that, if it goes out into the world and fails, I can say, “I love it.” You have to trust yourself as an artist and story maker to say, “If I love it, somebody else has got to love it too.” They might not love it as much as I do. there may not be enough people to make it number one at the box office, but I shared what I wanted to share and somebody out there is going to connect with it because I put everything into it. It’s just that trust of knowing your voice, if it’s pure enough and what you really want to get across, someone will hear and someone will listen and someone will respond. That’s how I’ve had to make it.
With the early independent films, I had no assurance of an audience. I made the film for $10,000. I was really making them for myself. I never thought anyone would really see them. You had to be able to satisfy yourself and be happy with your own response to the film, and that’s how I’ve continued to do it. Even with A Wrinkle in Time as we get nearer to the date, people are asking me if I feel pressure. Not yet, but I will. I’m just trying to be in love with it. I’m trying to get it to a place where I love it. From there, when I’m finished and I get nervous, hopefully, they love it too. Right now, I’m just in the stage of falling in love with it. It’s a great place to be.
It was so sweet when Disney tweeted it.
I know. It’s a small little film for them, they have Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar. This is a quirky book. It’s another thing for them, so it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds.
One of my favorite scenes was the funeral scene. The way it was lit. The characters were in white, which I found interesting because on TV they’re all in black. Deconstruct that with the challenges and how you shot it.
I knew I wanted to put white, and I had it in the script. There are some people in the African-American community that wear white to home goings. I’ve been to a few where they’ve had that embraced, and I think it’s beautiful. It’s embracing the light that comes with death as opposed to the darkness. It’s thinking of the person that’s gone as opposed to the people that remain. I thought that was beautiful, and I hadn’t seen that really done on television. Aesthetically with the white and the brown skin, I thought it could be beautiful, and I wanted it to be outside, so I didn’t put it at a church. I put it at the graveside.
We had planned it to be later in the day because I wanted to catch the sun in the west, but when you do that, and I do that all the time, you think maybe that will happen or this will happen. Yet, you have to play it loose because when you get out there it can be overcast, and you get nothing. It can be too sunny, and you get nothing. Everything is blown out. Whenever you’re doing something outside, it’s a risk. I don’t hold on to it too tightly because Mother Nature is Mother Nature, and she is in charge.
On this particular day, we were outside and the conditions were perfect, but we were behind schedule. I could see we were losing the light. The light was perfect. We were looking at an extraordinary sky, and the crew is racing trying to get the cameras up there. We were trying to put the cameras on people and running to the chairs. I haven’t listened to it, but if you listen to it, my editors say the raw footage of that scene has me yelling through the whole thing. Not yelling at people but trying to be heard.
We had six minutes before the sun went down, so I couldn’t play the whole scene from start to finish because the scene had the man doing the eulogy, and it was going to take twelve minutes to shoot the scene but I had six minutes to get the light. I had three cameras and was saying, “We’re on you. You’re hearing the eulogy. You’re hearing it, think of your father. They’re all listening to my voice through all of that.” Then I’m saying, “Go to Nova. Nova turn your head. Look at Kevin. He’s behind you.” I’m just directing them to the actual actions to keep the sky in the back.
Horrible. But they were so in it that they could be in character with my voice. They dropped right in it, but when it’s cut together, you never know the difference.
You couldn’t even tell. That’s why it’s always fun to know those stories. Do you have any favorite on-set stories or would that be it?
I think that would be the one because there was a ferry passing in the back. If you look at the scene. It was perfect. Its production value was gorgeous. It honked its horn and the smoke came out, and it was in the distance in the sunset. It was an accident, and the whole crew gasped. We had cameramen running to get it. It was mayhem, but when edited, it looks like the most elegant, emotional and beautiful scene. In those kinds of situations, it’s trusting and knowing. It’s the actors trusting you, the crew trusting you. I promise this is going to be beautiful. I could see it in my head. I just need the pieces. Help me get the pieces. We got the pieces, and it’s a very emotional scene. That was definitely one.
When Charley walks out on the basketball court in Episode 1. That was a challenge. It was in this moment of privacy in this public place. It’s not letting the tone of that get too hysterical or too soap opera and just trying to keep it rooted even though it’s something that’s completely impractical that it would ever happen. Over the course of our show, we’re trying to say, “What if it did happen? How do we make it feel real?” Just trying to give Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Timon Durrett this moment of privacy in a public forum where they really had to get down to the granular scene of betrayal of this deep-rooted, lifelong betrayal that happened to her, but you have a thousand people screaming.
Those were fun scenes, and just putting together the crew and the cast in the early episodes, I’m so proud to be in the second season. I had never made a series, so I did not know how to make a thirteen-hour film. That’s what we tried to do. We treated it like a film. I did it the best I could, and I’m happy with the way it came out. The fact that we’re embarking on Season 2 is a real blessing.
Visually, it’s beautiful. There are countless images that stay with you. Blue’s looking directly into the camera. That was striking and powerful. Why did you go for that shot for that moment?
It was the one shot where we broke the wall and they both look straight down the barrel. This relationship, if I think of any relationship from all the seasons, that will be the relationship between Ralph Angel and Blue. It’s one that meant so much to me because it is one that we don’t often see. It’s one that’s a pervasive and kind of challenging community, and one that’s completely misunderstood outside of the black community. That idea of black fatherhood. So, really being able to look down the barrel of the camera and communicate the deep love between the characters, but also to look the audience in the eye and say, “Do you see this? Bear witness to this.” This is more real and more regular than people seem to know. There was a lot going on in it, but it’s a powerful moment that I’m often stopped and people talk about that moment. I can unpack all the reasons why it made you feel something. That means it was an honest moment, and it was successful.
Queen Sugar returns to OWN on June 21 and 22 for a 2-night season premiere