‘Wrinkle in Time’ director Ava DuVernay earns her place among LMU’s Hollywood Masters
By Christina Campodonico
The mood is electric in the line snaking outside the theater, where dozens of star-struck teens and twentysomethings chat, play cards and text as they wait for their chance to share the room with the newest member of Hollywood A-list royalty.
“I’ve only ditched class once before, but today I actually ditched two classes just so I could come to see Ava DuVernay,” says Loyola Marymount University freshman Mekayla Ciccie, a double major in modern languages and film production.
But this isn’t a film premiere at the Pantages; it’s Loyola Marymount University’s Mayer Theatre, and the occasion is primarily academic.
Director of the critically acclaimed Civil Rights period film “Selma” and the first black woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, DuVernay is here to participate in “The Hollywood Masters,” an interview series filmed and co-produced by students and recent alumni of LMU’s School of Film and Television that’s now being streamed on Netflix.
Jordan Peele taped a session in January about his soon to be Oscar-winning film “Get Out.” Gary Oldman, this year’s Best Actor winner, dropped by on Valentine’s Day. DuVernay arrived about two weeks before this Friday’s nationwide opening of her new young adult sci-fi adventure “A Wrinkle in Time” — already a milestone in that it makes DuVernay the first black woman to direct a $100-million studio blockbuster.
Like many of her classmates, Ciccie hopes to gain some knowledge that can’t be so easily derived from a textbook or a classroom — a real-world perspective on how to thrive in the entertainment industry from someone who’s not only excelled in that field, but actually broken glass ceilings.
With ‘Wrinkle’ about to hit theaters, DuVernay is among what she calls a “small sorority” of black female filmmakers in Hollywood and has emerged as one of 2018’s most vocal advocates for inclusion (she hates the word “diversity”) in the entertainment industry.
Even though the 45-year-old Compton native didn’t pick up a camera until age 32, DuVernay is as well-known as the A-listers who star in her films — among them Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, who play a power-trio of mystical beings in “A Wrinkle in Time.”
And not only has she collected more than 1.8 million followers on Twitter, an emoji of her likeness even appears on Twitter when you hashtag her name.
But it isn’t just star power or hashtag-worthiness that makes DuVernay an attractive personality among Hollywood’s next generation. It’s something more.
“Where did you get the confidence to be where you are?” asks junior animation major Brittanie Lewis, musing on what she might ask DuVernay should the chance arise. “Because being a woman in the film industry is difficult but she managed to do it and continue pushing through and creating these amazing things. … How did she stamp down any doubt that was probably hurtled towards her during her journey?”
Sophomore James Groose is similarly seeking “a little bit of inspiration” from DuVernay.
“I really want to know how different filmmakers’ brains work,” he says.
That’s one of the goals behind “The Hollywood Masters,” says The Hollywood Reporter executive features editor Stephen Galloway, who hosts and produces the series.
“These are celebrities. These are stars. But they’re also considerable artists. And it’s very important for young people and for anybody who’s interested in film to understand the art form as deeply as possible,” Galloway says. “I want our viewers and readers to enter that process, understand the problems, learn if necessary how to do it themselves and really walk through the arc of somebody’s life.
“There’s always a very surprising moment,” he adds. “I remember having Jane Fonda here and almost at the beginning of the interview she started crying, talking about her father, Henry Fonda. I wasn’t quite expecting it to happen then. Then you get people to tell you funny stories. Guillermo del Toro was here recently. I asked him if he’s ever seen a ghost, and suddenly he tells me he has and then he told me about seeing an actual UFO! [Laughs] What!?”
The seed for “The Hollywood Masters” was planted five years ago, when School of Film and Television Dean Stephen Ujlaki approached Galloway about collaborating with the school.
“Stephen was very interested in doing something in academia. We were trying to figure out what that might be, and we both realized that it shouldn’t be a traditional course. But was there something else that could be journalistic and current, potentially leverage all the contacts he had? And that’s when we came up with the idea of ‘Hollywood Masters,’” Ujlaki says.
At first only accessible to LMU students, then available in recaps, clips or transcripts on The Hollywood Reporter’s website, “The Hollywood Masters” launched in 2014 and started streaming on Netflix last August. The second season drops March 15 and features interviews with Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Hillary Swank and Jerry Bruckheimer.
When DuVernay sat down for her “Hollywood Masters” interview on Feb. 21, her hair done up in braids and sporting a red carpet-red dress, she discussed how race shaped her perspective on film.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of white people. … Till I was 13, the white people I knew were only some nuns … and cops. So I really didn’t have a relationship with white folks personally, except for the relationship I had as a viewer to everything I consumed on television and in film, which was overwhelmingly white,” she said.
Yet working with Disney on the film adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel and casting the story’s heroine as black and biracial was an empowering way for DuVernay to put her own stamp on the world of blockbusters, usually helmed and carried by white men.
“Just the idea that boys will see an image of a boy on screen asking a girl — a black girl — what to do … It may seem slight to people in the audience who experience that all the time, but … I cannot tell you one film where a black girl has been a leader of white men and boys,” said DuVernay. “Just the power of that image is so massive to me. … It’s a big deal.”
Not only was Disney supportive of this vision, noted DuVernay, but one executive in particular — Tendo Nagenda — actively encouraged her to imagine what “the worlds” of the beloved children’s book might look like in her hands.
“I went home with that line in my head. I get emotional thinking about it, because that’s exactly what he said to me: ‘Imagine what you could do with the worlds,’” said DuVernay. “And there was so much in it. … There’s something I wanted to say to this next generation of people about what I believe in, about the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. … I just fell into the idea of making this film that expresses those things that are important to me.”
The beauty of multicultural casting and power of female-driven films are among the torches DuVernay hopes the film will carry. Nevertheless, she cautioned against celebrating “Wrinkle” and her direction of it — or the recent box office success of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” — as game-changers for Hollywood’s inclusion problems.
“I am not change. Ryan is not change. ‘Black Panther’ is not change. And ‘Wrinkle’ is not change. It’s change when there are 10 walking in the door behind us, when there are more down the pipeline,” she said, speaking of the need to recruit more filmmakers of color into the entertainment industry. “I think it’s a pedestrian way of thinking if we are assigning success to these couple of films.”
Even so, DuVernay finished her talk by reminding the audience that it is because of such deficits in the entertainment industry that young filmmakers should do everything in their power to create.
“The answer is make everything all the time — keep shooting, stay shooting!” she said.
It’s these raw and candid first-person takes on Hollywood that LMU students crave, savor and, yes, even skip class for.
“I feel like you retain a lot more when you actually see them in person,” says freshman Kelly Levine, an aspiring screenwriter. “You’ll remember it a lot better, versus like a video on YouTube. The opportunity to get this from the actual source … it gives me so much more knowledge than reading ‘How to Write a Screenplay’ online.”
“The interview alone blew my hair back,” says sophomore screenwriting major Joey Britton after DuVernay’s talk. “Her words of wisdom in regard to how the industry is changing and how to be the change in that industry were really powerful.”
“It’s so good to have been in that room,” adds Mekleit Dix, a double major in English and biology. “I can’t believe I listened to her speak and had all of that wealth of knowledge.”
In the end, Galloway hopes that “Hollywood Masters’” collaboration among The Hollywood Reporter, Loyola Marymount and Netflix not only helps current students chart their careers through the worlds of film and television, but also offers in-depth and accessible entertainment coverage to people across the globe.
“You can hardly find anything now that has depth. What we’re trying to do is fill that gap. … The goal is really to understand art at a deeper level. And because art is inseparable from life it’s also about understanding biography on a deeper level,” says Galloway. “This creates the bridge to Hollywood.”
“A Wrinkle in Time” opens Friday, March 9, in theaters nationwide. Season 1 of “Hollywood Masters” is currently streaming on Netflix; Season 2 drops March 15. Visit THR.com for recaps, interview transcripts and video clips.