Ava DuVernay didn't pick up a camera until the age of 32.
It's an extraordinary fact, considering the trajectories of most Hollywood directors. Orson Welles filmed Citizen Kane at 25. Steven Spielberg was 27 when he made Jaws. A 23-year-old John Singleton directed Boyz N the Hood.
It was already doubtful that DuVernay could jump from a career in film marketing and publicity so late and without even a film degree to back her up. That she is also a black woman made it even more unlikely.
But in just 13 years, DuVernay has successfully and improbably risen to the upper echelons of the entertainment industry, as a filmmaker, producer and agent of change, breaking down barriers and smashing ceilings wherever she sets her sights.
Now, at 45, she has an Oscar-nomination (for the documentary The 13th), a historic Golden Globe nomination (for Selma, she was the first black female director to get that recognition) and has also become the first woman of color to get over $100 million to make a live-action movie. That film, A Wrinkle in Time, with its $103 million production budget, opens nationwide Friday.
The Walt Disney Co. acquired the rights to Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal-winning 1962 novel in 2010, and it went through various writers and budget points. The story about an awkward 13-year-old girl, Meg Murry, who travels through time and space, was a notoriously unwieldy one that carried the dreaded "un-filmable" stigma.
"I was shocked that they called me," says DuVernay. "I'd done Selma and The 13th. How did they even think that would work? But they did. And when they said I could make her a girl of color, it just grabbed my whole heart."
DuVernay set off to do the impossible — make a big budget, kids-targeted sci-fi blockbuster with an unknown 13-year-old black actress (Storm Reid, now 14) as the lead.
"I think it's incredible that Disney made the decision to hire Ava on this and gave her the creative control to cast whoever she wanted," says Reese Witherspoon, who co-stars in the film as one of the mystical "Mrs." alongside Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling.
'Film is forever'
Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling, all hardworking multi-hyphenates themselves, marveled at DuVernay's tireless work ethic and attention to detail. Once she even sent costume designer Paco Delgado back to hand paint hundreds of eyes on one of Winfrey's costumes because that's what she had seen in the concept drawing.
"I was like, 'I think it's fine without the eyes? I think it's OK!' Winfrey recalled.
DuVernay laughed that Winfrey recounted that moment.
"She came out and everyone applauded for the dress and it was extraordinary," DuVernay explains. "But I looked and I said, 'Well on the sketch there were little eyes. Where are those?' And he was like, 'Well this looks good too.' And I'm like, 'Well let's go take a look at that anyway."
Asking for what she needs, and wants, is something DuVernay has learned as she's gotten older.
"Film is forever," she says. "It's cemented. You've got to do it right now and it's got to be the best it can be. So, let's go back and put the eyes on the dress."
Witherspoon says she has never met a director who spends so much time talking about others: Acknowledging everyone's contributions in a cast and crew of hundreds, and then spending weekends talking about other people's work too, from Patty Jenkins to Ryan Coogler.
DuVernay always has something in the works. She's afraid if she slows down, it might all go away.
"I just feel like I have a short window in this industry. There is no precedent for a black woman making films consistently. There are beautiful black women directors but there are seven-year, six-year gaps between them," she says. "Even though people tell me it's OK, I think it's all going to stop tomorrow. I want to do as much as I can do when I can. It's not unreasonable, you know? Tomorrow they can say, 'No we don't want you to make movies anymore."'
And, indeed, there is still that idea that female filmmakers are not given second chances, even when they succeed. It's something DuVernay thinks about often.
"I look at Guy Ritchie. That guy is bulletproof," she says. "He can make something that doesn't work. The next week he's the director of another thing. I look at him and I'm like, 'Wow, that's fantastic.' But that wouldn't have been Patty Jenkins and it won't be me."
Planting a seed
Initial tracking suggests that A Wrinkle in Time may open in the mid-$30 million range, which might not even be enough to unseat Disney's "Black Panther" (which DuVernay passed on directing) from the No. 1 spot.
Wrinkle, however, is film that is first and foremost for children ages 8 to 12, DuVernay says. Before a screening she asked the audience to try to watch it through the eyes of a child — an unusual request for something from an already very kid-friendly studio like Disney which makes films for the younger set that nonetheless appeal to a wide swath of ages.
Critics reviews are under embargo until Wednesday, and social media reactions so far have been unusually sparse for a film this big. DuVernay says of the critics that, "Some of them will see what we tried to do. Some of them, it's not [going to be] for them. It is what it is."
And it's the film she wanted to make, for the 12-year-old her, and for someone like Kaling, who says that she always loved sci-fi but that it never loved her back.
"I'll always direct things but who knows if that price point ever comes again. I'm OK with that. This is a big swing," DuVernay says. "But the chance to put a black girl in flight? I will risk it. I risk it for those images. It may not hit now, but somewhere a Mindy Kaling, a chubby girl with glasses and brown skin will see it and it will mean something. Or, a Caucasian boy will see how a black girl says, 'Do you trust me' and the Caucasian boy says, 'I trust you,' and he follows her. Just to plant that seed and say that's OK, you can follow a girl? Those images? I'll risk it. I'll risk it for that."