“That is the part where you look up and you say, ‘How could people have allowed their neighbors to be taken and put in the camps?’” Origin director Ava DuVernay syas of the deep roots of discrimination and the cruel consequences of subjugation.
“Now, in a similar way, you allow it to come across your feed? You repost it and keep going?” the Oscar-nominated filmmaker adds. “The goal of Origin, of this work, is to say stop a second, realize what is going on, how close we are to this and to start to challenge our vocabulary.”
Based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestseller Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, Origin punctiliously tracks the Pulitzer Prize winner’s creative and personal journey over several continents through grief, revelation and the evils of historical stratification. From antiquity to India’s Dalit caste, once called Untouchables, to slavery in America and the segregation and violence of Jim Crow laws, and to the Nazis’ systematic persecution of Jews and the horrors of the Holocaust, Origin contains strong and scary connections to today’s political realities, domestic and international.
Neon acquired worldwide rights for the film earlier today, one day before Origin’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Not unknown to bust a barrier or two, DuVernay is the first African American woman to be in the Competition lineup in Venice. Following the film’s debut this week and before a theatrical release this year by Neon, Origin is set for a gala screening at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11. DuVernay, who both helmed and wrote Origin, will be in attendance for the Roy Thomson Hall event next week.
Produced by DuVernay and longtime professional partner Paul Garnes via her Array Filmworks, the film reunites the director with Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, Blair Underwood and Nick Offerman, along with fellow cast Jon Bernthal, Audra McDonald, Finn Wittrock, Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Connie Nielsen. Once based at Netflix, Origin was bought back by DuVernay, who raised independent financing to make her first feature in more than five years her way.
Set to take the stage in Venice without her cast due to the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, DuVernay spoke recently bout making Origin, the Neon deal, making more history and returning to her indie roots to embrace the unexpected.
DEADLINE: There’s a line in the film that both packs a tremendous emotional punch and, to me, captures the essence of Origin at the same time. It’s when Aunjanue’s Isabel is speaking from overseas to her cousin Marion, played by Niecy Nash-Betts, and says: “There’s more to life than you can see. And you’re going to experience it all.” So, as the writer and director of Origin, what does that line mean to you?
AVA DUVERNAY: It has great meaning for me. Actually, I was inspired to write those words from an actual conversation that I had with Isabel.
She was kind enough and gracious enough to bring me into her personal space and share with me things that happened and things that were said. I melded those with my own experiences with loss, and I think that’s why her story is so important to me. It’s because she’s endured something that — I mean, to lose so many people in such a short amount of time. We’ve all gone through it to some extent, and there was something about those words that she shared them with me when we were talking that just hit me hit me, at my core.
DUVERNAY: It is really what life is about when you start to get older and you understand that all of this that we see and all this that we’re trafficking in is really the least of it. So I feel at that moment, the character understands that, and I’m starting to begin to understand it.
DEADLINE: To shift gears, you have closed a sale for worldwide rights with Neon after a number of bids were on the table. What made them the best partner for Origin?
DUVERNAY: I’ve long admired what [Neon co-founder and CEO] Tom Quinn has done and the way he’s done it. I met him years ago when my film Middle of Nowhere debuted at Sundance. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch and cheered each other on. With Origin, everything just clicked. Right time, right film. I’m very much looking forward to working with him and the stellar team at Neon. The passion they have for films is palpable in every conversation with them and every move they make.
DEADLINE: Before that you made some history with this film, now as the first Black American woman to be in selection at Venice …
DEADLINE: Even with the strikes, this is one of the biggest stages for any filmmaker. What is that like for you at this stage of your career?
DUVERNAY: It’s something that I wanted, if I’m honest.
Let me be clear, I wanted to show work there; that’s what is important to me. Being able to interpret the world through our lens as Black Americans — Black women, I mean — it’s really, really rare. When we were filming Origin in India. I felt it every day that I was in a different place. I really felt like, “Wow, I’ve never seen India through a Black American woman’s eyes” – and I want more of that. So for Venice, for me, I’ve been intentional about wanting to show work on the world stage. I wanted to do something that was a global story.
DEADLINE: Has this been a recent goal?
DUVERNAY: If by recent you mean 2015, yes, because it was since I was on the Mumbai Festival jury back then. When I was in India, I was captivated by seeing an international community of filmmakers come together. Then I was on the Cate Blanchett-led jury at Cannes in 2018, and I thought, “I want to my films to play like this.” Everyone around the world, especially as a Black American filmmaker, we’re told, “Oh, your films will not travel overseas.” So I think my challenge was my films should be able to go anywhere, just like I see films all over the world. So Venice was a big goal. It feels like a real full-circle moment.
DEADLINE: Due to the ongoing strikes, with SAG-AFTRA being on the picket lines as well as the WGA, you will be premiering the film without star Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as well as other cast like Niecy Nash-Betts and Jon Bernthal joining you. Why didn’t you seek an interim agreement like others to have the cast with you, to help promote the film?
DUVERNAY: I wish they were going to be there, I truly do.
The way these agreements are structured make it such that we would have a hard time negotiating rights. I think that’s a part of this whole puzzle that that folks aren’t thinking about — we were there in that space. So I’m going to be up there by myself.
DEADLINE: A lot of people are going to be in that position as the strikes seem to have no end in sight and we’re moving into Oscar season.
DUVERNAY: We’ve got people on strike. You got folks that are unhappy, people that are hurting. I look forward to the day that this resolves in a way that satisfactory to the artists. This is an important time.
DEADLINE: To that, there was a lot in Caste, the book, and there is truly a lot in this film …
DUVERNAY: Thank you.
DEADLINE: … You move through time to some of the truly worst times in human history. You move through Isabel’s personal and existential space, shatter some conventional wisdom, connect some insidious dots, so to speak, along the way and take a big scope with filming in America, Germany and India. Neon has promised a theatrical release before the end of the year, but what do you think the reaction will be to Origin? Because there is a lot there.
DUVERNAY: I’m not putting this out there seeking agreement. I’m seeking engagement.
DEADLINE: What does that look like out of Origin?
DUVERNAY: We have to talk about “how do we not see what’s going on?” You know, they’re literally taking books off shelves in our country, they’re literally denying history, we can’t just say it’s “they” — we are allowing it. It is happening here and now. So, looking back over history, we need to remember where this stuff leads. Understand that we’re in the midst of it. We can argue about it, we can debate it, but we need to be thinking about it and talking about it and actively engaging. And so that is my hope — I hope people come out of Origin talking.
DEADLINE: Origin plays on a global stage, on many levels, locations and otherwise. As a filmmaker, you have initiated debate domestically, with the likes of Selma, 13th and When They See Us, but what are the risks and rewards of getting people talking globally?
DUVERNAY: You know, part of the hope with this, we talk so much about IP and what appeals globally. This is something that I saw and we experienced with When They See Us on Netflix around the world: Justice, and what’s right or wrong, is a global idea. It’s not only capes, right?
That’s why, you know, when we look at all those categories of love and romance and adventure, when we when we look at all of those categories of what appeals to everyone, don’t forget a sense of justice.
DEADLINE: How does that translate in your estimation?
DUVERNAY: There are stories that are profound and that are deeply felt and emotional in every country in this world that deal with justice. Let me tell you, that’s why when I would see some of the numbers that I got shared with me from When They See Us from all these countries and territories — it’s astounding that story of these boys, which you would think wouldn’t travel, how it traveled everywhere.
Because it was about “Oh, that’s wrong,” it’s about “what’s happening to these young men is not right.” Fundamentally, it was about mothers and their babies, key things, you know what I mean? So with this one, I’m trying to blur those lines to where it’s contemporary and its historical.
You got Black folks, you got Brown folks, you got white folks, you got all kinds of folks — it’s a hopefully a global conversation in a different way.
DEADLINE: How so?
DUVERNAY: I think when you put images to this kind of history, it ignites, and the question is, does it illuminate, or does it become combustible in way that is negative? My hope was it’s the former. I believe that when people are talking and thinking and engaging with one another that that only leads to a forward movement. This stagnant thing that we’re in is the dangerous part. This belief that women don’t have the right to do this, we’re taking books off the shelf here and teaching history that says slavery was good. That just comes across our feeds and we keep going, that is the dangerous part.
That is the part where you look up and you say, “How could people have allowed their neighbors to be taken and put in the camps?” Now, in a similar way, you allow it to come across your feed? You repost it and keep going? The goal of Origin, of this work, is to say stop a second, realize what is going on, how close we are to this and to start to challenge our vocabulary. To challenge, what we think we know, challenge what our forms and symbols are and what they mean. To challenge this mindless behavior that we’re in. This state where we accept everything, where we accept that all this is racism and this is just the way it is. No, really start to interrogate. So, to go back to what we were talking about earlier, the reaction I’m expecting is challenges, and I’m hoping for some understanding in there too.
DEADLINE: This film has taken an unconventional path from being a Netflix project, you taking it back, making it yourself with no studio, and now selling it at Venice. I have to say, all that aside for a sec, when I hear you today, you sound in 2023 very much like the indie filmmaker that showed up at Sundance in 2012 and floored everyone with your second feature Middle of Nowhere….
DUVERNAY: That is how I feel. Thank you for recognizing that.
DEADLINE: One could say, you’ve been in the corporate studio world and decided it was better to be underground punk rock again…
DUVERNAY: (laughs) True. I did it. I experienced it. I experienced success within the studios. I experienced this challenge within it. I learned a lot and ultimately the thing that felt best is to be able to self-determine my filmmaking — to tell my story my way.
DEADLINE: Big swing…
DEVERNAY: Yes, luckily I had the skill set I needed. I knew how to get out there, find that money, raise that money, create a consensus around what would be happening with the money — and in this instance, it was my version and vision for the story.
DEADLINE: Lessons learned?
DUVERNAY: You know, all the time in television really is such it’s a network studio process. It is very organized in that way. And you know, it’s something like Queen Sugar — I enjoyed a lot of freedom, but it is a studio cut, network producers cut, one producer’s cut, two. I mean, it’s very organized. Here, I just wanted to shoot and cut and show people what I was doing. To your point, I just wanted to make movies the way I used to make them. In order to do that, I really had to step outside of any kind of corporatization of the work and just be free.
DEADLINE: How was that?
DUVERNAY: (laughs) I mean, literally, I cannot tell you how beautiful it was to just be up there with just me and [producer] Paul [Garnes], no safety net. I can’t call business affairs — it doesn’t exist. I can’t call PR, I can’t call production, and they’re not calling me. It was us out there for 37 days having a ball and telling the story that we wanted to tell. Now, I’m addicted. That’s how I want to work. Truly, this is where I’m at right now, and this is where I want to be.
DEADLINE: During the past couple months your Warner Bros deal ended, which had seen a lot of TV from you and Array. Now with Origin you have your first feature since 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Was that strategic?
DUVERNAY: Yeah, that was purposeful. This is my liberated territory, and I need to act like it. So it all aligned in the way that I wanted because I have this space for a reason. I need to use it.
DEADLINE: But coming out of five years of television — from limited series, unscripted, docuseries, wrapping up Queen Sugar — how did that alter your skill set, as you said before, and your mindset?
DUVERNAY: Where to start? All the time that I spent in TV over the last five years, creating those shows and working on those shows, was just an incredible time for experimenting and directing.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, experimenting. Usually, as film directors, we’re not directing at a pace that TV directors do. So you’re not playing with the toys, not playing with the technology, not talking with actors as often, figuring out the production issues, so I felt like my mind and skill set just got sharper in that time. Then I was able to apply all that to making this film in 37 days in three countries that was talking about that. You couldn’t have done it unless you had been practicing for six years, and so I feel like all of that was in service of this
DEADLINE: What was it like on Day 1, and now?
DUVERNAY: I felt like it was very in pocket. I felt like there was nothing that I was afraid of doing. Things that I was excited about doing, maybe I was a little anxious too, but nothing that was afraid of doing — even things that I didn’t know how to do, I knew I could figure it out. I won’t say all of the challenges were easily met, but they were confidently met because of the time that I had stepped away from film and just focused on that TV grind which gave me different muscles. Truthfully, I could tell that I was different.
DEADLINE: Back to the future, to your filmmaking roots, but still a big process change, if nothing else.
DUVERNAY: It was all planned, but it is a process change. It’s whole personality change. You know, I’ve been planning since I got my first job at 16 years old. So now, wow, I’m going see what comes and be open to it.
DEADLINE: How’s that going?
DUVERNAY: (laughs) A little freaked out about what’s going to happen next. At the same time, I love being in this position because I do not think of it as me asking for anything. I think of it as offering something. It feels like it’s a place of opportunity. I want something unexpected next.