WorkLife with Adam Grant
Ava DuVernay is Triumphant
May 31, 2022
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey WorkLifers it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to Taken for Granted, my podcast with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist. My job is to think again about how we work, lead, and live. Thanks to Deloitte for sponsoring this episode. My guest today is Ava DuVernay. She's the trailblazing filmmaker behind Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, and When They See Us. She's been the first black female director to win Sundance and be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. She's been named one of TIME's Most Influential People and her arts and social impact collective, ARRAY, has won a Peabody award. Ava is the executive producer and host of the new HBO Max docuseries, One Perfect Shot, where she joins other great directors to deconstruct their most iconic images. I'm a huge Ava fan. I use her work to teach leadership and creativity, and as you're about to see, she's a force as a leader and a creator.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:05] Adam Grant:
I am so overjoyed to have you here. I've been a fan of your work for a long time. This is a lot of pressure for me because you're a director. Like, shouldn't you be guiding me on how to do this?
I'm prepared to do it if necessary.
Okay, good. So what notes do you have so far?
You're doing great so far.
[00:01:21] Adam Grant:
All right. I'll check in part way through. So I want to start with your childhood. I remember growing up, I hated more than anything else being asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
[00:01:25] Ava DuVernay:
I had no problems with that question because I knew the answer. I wanted to be a lawyer.
[00:01:30] Adam Grant:
The answer. There was only one.
[00:01:31] Ava DuVernay:
That was it. Just a lawyer.
[00:01:40] Ava DuVernay:
I have no idea. I think, like, because they carried briefcases and I thought that they looked official. I don't know where that reference came from, but I think it's interesting because it's someone who, I don't know, fights for other people. And then later I wanted to, uh, move into journalism. So in my high school years, I would say journalist and, you know, became neither of those things, but are still deeply interested in what they are about.
[00:02:04] Adam Grant:
And fighting for other people on a much bigger stage.
In different ways.
Yeah. I love that. I know though you've said that you're not a fan of asking kids that question.
[00:02:09] Ava DuVernay:
I don't think we should ask kids that question.
Me either. Why not?
I just have an issue with, you know, forcing decision-making, you know, even as an adult, forcing people to make decisions that they're not ready to make. And so, you know, I think people ask the question because it's the thought of igniting their imaginations, but you know, it's such a limited scope of what one can imagine--that imagination has limits. So I think also when you name things, power comes to them. So you start to put in your head, "I will be this" and you go down paths without exploring everything.
[00:02:42] Adam Grant:
That worries me so much, the idea that we're going to pre-commit to a career path before I've explored more than four or five different possibilities that I might know of. The other thing that really bothers me about the what do you want to be when you grow up question is the idea that we're going to define ourselves in terms of work. That there's, there's a thing I'm going to be, and that's my job. I can't say "I aspire to be a caring parents or a good person." Right. What am I going to be? It's an occupation.
[00:03:06] Ava DuVernay:
Right, right. That's interesting. Well, I probably struggle with that a little bit because--I hear what you're saying and you're right. And that is a good way to think about it. That thought never comes into my head because who I am is so closely tied to what I do in my own mind, which is something that I want to start to expand for myself. But I've always embraced it as a positive because I feel wholly occupied by what I do in a way that has elevated my life beyond my wildest dreams. And yet I know there are healthier ways to think about it.
[00:03:42] Adam Grant:
Well, it's funny. I feel the same way actually about work. And the reason that I feel like I have to call this out is I study work for a living. I constantly get this pushback of like, do you really think a job should define everyone? Like, no, I want to have the choice to define myself in terms of the values that I bring to my work, but I don't want people to be forced to do that.
[00:04:01] Ava DuVernay:
Okay. Okay. Gotcha.
Can you live with that?
I understand that. I'm with you on that. Yes.
[00:04:04] Adam Grant:
I've heard so many people say, whatever you discover you want to do as an entrepreneur or a creator, once you figure that out, you have to go all in. And you rejected that idea.
You were working full-time as a publicist and you said like, nah, I'm going to make a film on the side. What was behind that?
[00:04:21] Ava DuVernay:
You do hear people say, "Quit your job and follow your dream." Okay. Some people have done that, but for most of us, that's not practical from a, just a life organization, point of view and economics and family, but also, I think, internally, it puts so much pressure on the dream and it doesn't allow the first seed of the thing you're interested in to blossom into something else. And so for me, I couldn't just quit my job wholesale. So I made things and explore things and studied in my spare time. Like I think the name of spare time sounds not important enough for what it really is, but that time that you're not working or committed to family that extra time is fertile ground if you develop it to be so. As I cultivated the spare time, I was able to move that into my study time, my exploration time, my make things on the side time. I had made films before I quit the main job and made the spare time, the main job. And there was a lot of years in between there, you know, and a lot of time for me to refine the dream and to say, okay, now I know what it is. Now I know how to do it. Now I feel comfortable enough that I could sustain my life in doing it economically and all those other ways. So it's just steps. What's wrong with steps?
[00:05:41] Adam Grant:
This kind of doing the side hustle before you went all in on film it reminds me of a study of entrepreneurs that was done. Thousands of entrepreneurs in the US tracking when they had their full-time job. Did they quit and commit or did they do it on the side? And it turned out that the people who started a company as a side hustle were 33% less likely to fail than the ones who just quit. And so it seems like they're actually a lot of people who have followed the same arc as you.
[00:06:07] Ava DuVernay:
Right, it allows you to cultivate best practices. I mean, how the heck do you do it? What works and what doesn't? Are you going to do that in the primetime? Or are you gonna do it in the spare time? I'd rather do it in the spare time.
[00:06:18] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I love that. So I want to talk a little bit about, actually a lot a bit about Selma.
A lot of it. [Laughs]
[00:06:37] Adam Grant:
Is that a thing? Is that a coin? A phrase?
It is now. I think it's a good one.
I'm going to try not to do that again. So I don't know if you know this, but you are responsible for a huge part of our leadership education at Wharton. Because when our MBA students come to campus, the first class they take is on leadership. And the first video we show is a scene from Selma.
Really? Which one?
Yeah, it's the, it's the scene with a young John Lewis where Dr. King comes in sort of quietly initially.
[00:06:51] Ava DuVernay:
Oh yeah when he's in the back of the room and--
Wow is that true? And what are they, what are you trying to show with that?
[00:06:58] Adam Grant:
Well, a lot of things. So part of what we do is we say, look, we want to teach that leadership is a skillset, right? You see so many leaders at the peak of their game and you think they're naturals. They have born charisma. What we want to do is we want to get students in the habits of analyzing the learned behaviors and saying, I may have a different starting baseline than the guy who was winning public speaking competitions at age 15, but there was still a, you know, a big Delta from where he started to where he got. And if you focus on the behavior, there's a lot you can learn. And so we start this whole discussion of what are the leadership lessons from watching what MLK was doing behind the scenes, because you've all seen the dream speech. Right. But like, let's, let's look at how he actually led.
[00:07:34] Ava DuVernay:
Wait, what a great, that's a great scene for what you're trying to share there.
[00:07:37] Adam Grant:
Well I mean, you, you did it so beautifully and it, it covers--we could teach our whole class based on just the shots in that scene alone. So I have a lot of questions.
[00:07:44] Ava DuVernay:
Oh, that's cool. How do I not know this? How am I not knowing this? This is fantastic.
[00:07:48] Adam Grant:
So a bunch of things that, that come up for me when I watch the scene, one is there's such an interesting balance of preparation and improvisation. And I wonder from the time you spent studying Dr. King's life from the process of re-imagining a bunch of those scenes, what did you learn about your own creative process from that?
[00:08:08] Ava DuVernay:
I think the biggest thing that I learned by studying his life and career was the team concept and the way that he managed teams. When I think of Dr. King, I was never taught anything about him being anything other than a singular hero and you know, all of the team building management, cultivation, mistakes, all of the ego management, all of the hierarchy of responsibility that he was managing, involved in, sometimes rejecting, sometimes embracing, like all the intricacies of that, that are so there and such vibrant stories, uh, that support his leadership. Not even support like catalyzed it, like he--all that you see him, what he became was not on the backs of, but like being lifted up by a team who some supported it, challenged it, threatened it, constantly refining it. Right. That's what a team is. It's this invisible group that supported a leader. And I think that what's interesting now is, you know, the team model has been somewhat, I don't know, inverted, but we're, it's visible and we're talking about it and it's important to interrogate.
[00:09:18] Adam Grant:
Yeah. And I mean, you, you did that so powerfully in this particular scene, right. Where it's, it's completely unexpected to see this towering figure, walk into the room and basically stay quiet. Right. For the first part. And then I remember that pivotal moment when he says --"Enough." Whoa. Okay. So something is about to happen here. But even then there's so much, it's, it's so much more inquiry than advocacy. Um, and you know, very different from what I would have expected in terms of drawing out the group, getting them to generate their own idea about like, do we want to be bull Connor? No, no, we don't. And instead of shoving that answer down their throats, right. Kind of gently guiding them to that answer and letting them generate it themselves. How did you land at that as, as how he led?
[00:10:04] Ava DuVernay:
Um, really the scene was to denote the debate that was happening within the multiple organizations that were converging on Selma in that moment. You know, a lot of us think King's group went in and kind of dominated, that there were already multiple groups on the ground, namely, SNCC that was not even led by John Lewis, who's a, one of the kids who was, who was one of the leaders of it. There were different points of view within each organization as to how to move forward. It wasn't like SNCC thought one thing and these people thought another thing. Within the organizations you had, these new ideas were being forged. There was a lot of, you know, I won't even say may the best idea when it was made the best presentation of an idea win. You know sometimes the best idea is not well presented. Right. And that's one thing that I've had to really learn as a leader on the set of my companies, you know, the best idea could be inside the head of the person who's not the best speaker. I also know that I'm very persuasive. I know that about myself as a, as a bad thing sometimes because I know when I can push an idea through, because I, I just know how to say it. I know how to tell it in a story form, or I know how to look you in the eye. And everyone doesn't know how to do that.
Right. So it's really about listening about, through, about trying to give people the space and the time to do that. I think that's a lot of what's happening in that scene with King it's, you know, giving folks a chance to everyone communicate. And then when it gets devolved into kind of like a bickering, then he comes in and that's also something that I've had to learn is not to always speak first, especially hard for me when I'm walking in a room and people expect me to speak first or wanting to get the answer, not figure out the answer for themselves. And so those are all challenging things to navigate. I know that King through his whole life was trying to figure it out.
[00:11:57] Adam Grant:
I sometimes think this is a false dichotomy when you know, when leaders discover, wow, my, my greatest strength is also a potential weakness if I overuse it or misuse it. So I may be too persuasive because in your case, you're such a great storyteller and publicist. And then the overcorrection is well, now I have to stand back and be quiet. I've often wondered if the middle ground is to say, look, I want to frame the decision as a leader. I want to talk about what our goals are. And then I want to go around the room and find out what everybody's ideas are before I've let my own be known. Cause as soon as I put mine on the table, uh, I may persuade and also people are going to want to conform because I'm the most powerful person in the room.
[00:12:35] Ava DuVernay:
I need to listen to your podcast more. I really do. I need to become an avid listener. But you know, sometimes when I'm directing, and on set there are such split second decisions that need to be made. It is somewhat like that. It's like, okay, what's the option here, here, here. And you hear them all. And then I decide, you know, because it has to go quickly. And so I think it's interesting to take that idea and try to kind of collapse it into a time sensitive or pressure filled environment. Yeah.
[00:13:01] Adam Grant:
That's I think that's often the hardest part and frankly, we don't always have the data we want to speak to that. But I always think about there's this one of the early great organizational psychologists is this guy named Victor Vroom, uh, whose license plate says vroom, which is a very important detail. [Laughter] But one of the things he's famous for is this model of, of leadership and participation in decision-making where you draw a spectrum of you could be totally autocratic and directive. Or you could be completely inclusive to the point that you're essentially delegating the decision to everyone else. And he would assess your style and say, look, they're, you know, they're whole bunch of different places you could land around that spectrum and where you want to be shouldn't be a style of yours. It should be a question of what does the situation demand. So regardless of how I lead the question is what's going to be effective for this problem or this project. And I think what I took away from that model is you want to be directive to the extent that people are already bought into your vision and you already have the best ideas on the table, but if those two things are not true, if you need people's commitment and you also need to get their perspectives, then you have to back up a little bit. How often do you feel like you can come in and just have people execute on the plan that you've built and how often are you actually sort of building the bridge as you walk down it.
[00:14:17] Ava DuVernay:
Well, I always feel like I can come in and say the thing and it, whatever I'm going to say, is going to happen. That's part of my job and part of what's expected and you know, most directors have that wherewithal and that space. So imagine you have a job where anything you say goes really, right? I mean, within a certain budget. My favorite parts of directing are when there's a problem and everyone gets in a room and tries to figure it out or fix it. It's not like three people have a fully formed idea. We're all coming to the table. Everyone knows what the challenges are and you get together to figure it out. Those are, those are my--it's not a brainstorm, it's different than a brainstorm, which is like theoretical. Like we will do this in the future. It's like, this is happening now. It's tomorrow. We have a thousand extras. It was not supposed to be raining. Now it is. This is our only day to get the shot in this location. We have no way to cover them. There's a stunt that cannot be done in the rain. Like all the problems you lay them out. And you're like, uh, okay, let's pick it apart piece by piece. And it's tomorrow.
[00:15:19] Adam Grant:
Are you saying you enjoy that?
That's sounds like the most stressful part of that job.
[00:15:22] Ava DuVernay:
[Laughter] That's great. The only thing I know is a lot of times you'll hear a great idea from someone who's not speaking or who's not speaking well. Right. That's like my new thing these days is "everyone can't say the great thing that's in their head."
[00:15:36] Adam Grant:
I think you're talking about people who have trouble articulating their ideas, right?
[00:15:41] Ava DuVernay:
Convincingly. They may say something there. They're not too shy to say it, but it's just not well said. So the idea is dismissed. When there was a good idea in there.
[00:15:50] Adam Grant:
One of the things we often find is that people, people have struggled to communicate their ideas well, because they're explaining them too abstractly and they need to get more concrete. How often do you ask people to, to just like, tell me the story of "if this idea works, what now"?
[00:16:04] Ava DuVernay:
I don't ever say that. I don't. So that's an interesting way to say it. "Hey, I don't know. Tell, tell it to me like I'm 12, like just tell it to me like I'm a kid. Like, I really don't know what you're talking about. Can you just bring it down and just tell me, like, don't use big words. Just tell me--" before they even start. I'll say to everybody. Okay. You know, I don't really know a lot about VFX, although I do, usually I'm in a room with a lot of men, "Guys. I don't really even know about this. So just tell it to me really plain." Right. And then you'll get a lot of them talking to you like you're four years old, which I like to take because it allows the people who are intimidated to also speak that way. It's a lot of strategy in almost every conversation. And within that, I've struggled to remain authentic to myself while also understanding, okay, there's a certain way I'm going to have to operate in this space to extract what I need or to lead in the way that I want. And it's a mental exercise every single time.
[00:17:01] Adam Grant:
One of the fundamental challenges of leadership, I would say, you saying, like, "I don't know this" that's something that a lot of leaders are uncomfortable with because they think it's going to make them look and competent. I mean, I'm sure you've encountered lots of white men in Hollywood who never say "I don't know" and are convinced they have all the answers.How did you get comfortable just putting that out there?
[00:17:21] Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, that's, that's a really great question. I don't know the trajectory of it. I know that early on, I didn't make studio films. I made independent films, so I was able to curate the people around me. Now, the first curation came from who will work for no money. This is how we started it, right? Who will work for no money. If we will, if you will work for no money, we're all on the same page. We don't have money and we need something to do. Then you move from there and you start to move into spaces where people have a lot of experience, a lot of choices as to where they can be. And it becomes hard for some people to say they don't know. For me, I found strategically it helps. Because, and again, I think it's just the body and the space that I occupy for me to say, not disingenuously, "I don't know this" right. And always to make sure that I'm letting people know I'm not giving this decision over to you, but walk me through what I should know about it from your point of view. I'd say that to a lot of young directors, especially women, there's something about being a woman in these spaces where we feel like we have to put on all this armor and we have to operate like men do. Right. But our superpower's that we're not them. And we can operate in a different way.
I know a director friend who is this great director, famous. He shows no emotion and he's a really sweet guy, but on his sets, he's like a robot. And so I saw that way of being early on, on his sets as I was becoming a director and you're trying to think about how is it going to be. I like to give a hug. I'd like to put my arm around you as I tell you the note and so I started to see, oh, I'm directing like my mother, right, directs. And the thing about my mother is she's the sweetest, most nurturing, loving woman, but when she's mad, you will run for cover. Like I would rather disappear from the earth than have her look at me and be mad. She doesn't raise a hand. She doesn't raise her voice. It's just the disappointment in her eyes. You're like, oh, I can evaporate right now. I would rather just not be here. Right. And these are strictly maternal instincts that have nothing to do with the way that a man might do it. And that's okay. Right. And so it's okay to bring who you are to your leadership style. I say to my actors, especially if it's a non-black actor, have you ever been directed by a black woman? "No." It's like baby you're in for a treat. Right. Just it's going to be different. Right. And, and I'm bringing myself to this. And so I don't know when it happened, but early on I accepted that the, "I don't know," and the, my personality inserted into the process was a part of my thing to be embraced. And I'm glad I figured it out early, probably because I started working older. I was already older and had businesses by the time I started directing. So I'd already kind of gone through it.
[00:20:14] Adam Grant:
It also it's striking to me that you, you do it in a way that actually signals a lot of confidence that you're, you're not saying like, "Hey, like I don't know what I'm doing. I don't belong here. Can you like, can you explain this to me?" You're like, "oh, I don't know that." Like, "Tell me." Which you have to be pretty secure in what you do know in order to put that on the table.
[00:20:33] Ava DuVernay:
Right. Didn't think about that. It's the tone of the unknowing, I guess. Yeah, you're right.
[00:20:39] Adam Grant:
It shows I can hear it. And then the disappointment thing is so interesting to me.
[00:20:44] Ava DuVernay:
Can that be used in the business world or is that just my mom?
[00:20:47] Adam Grant:
Oh no, I mean, well actually a lot of, a lot of the work I've read on disappointment is on parenting. Not surprisingly, but parenting and leadership as you know, are very similar skills in a lot of ways. And one of the great things about disappointment is it communicates extremely high expectations of the person. But also makes it clear that the behavior fell short of those expectations. And it seems to work in kids and adults because it makes them feel guilty. I think guilt gets a bad rap. It actually does a lot of good things.
[00:21:14] Ava DuVernay:
[Laughter] I was raised Catholic. So I'm really into what you're saying.
[00:21:16] Adam Grant:
I mean, between Catholicism and Judaism, guilt is the most powerful motivator! But when someone is disappointed in you, you feel guilty and you're like, I don't ever want to let that person down again. So I needed to write whatever wrong I just committed. And then I also need to learn from that so that I prevent it in the future. And so I guess I I've come to think that disappointment is a really powerful teacher.
[00:21:37] Ava DuVernay:
Oh, that's interesting. Yeah. Okay. I never thought about that, but in order to really. It's about--you have to set the expectation, specifically set that expectation, and an expectation of trust and an expectation of this is who I think you are. This is what I think you can do at the top of it, right?
[00:21:55] Adam Grant:
Yes. And otherwise it's just, you get blindsided by why, why is this person attacking me as opposed to, oh yeah, this was the standard. I know I fell short of it and I need to be ready to take responsibility for that.
[00:22:07] Ava DuVernay:
Right. Got it. Okay.
[00:22:10] Adam Grant:
This is, this is so fun to think through. [Laughter] How do we apply what we know about the science of leadership to your job as a director?
Yeah, I'll take all the sips.
Are you up into a quick lightning round? I always think it's fun to get some rapid fire thoughts.
What story you would love to tell one day?
[00:22:29] Ava DuVernay:
There's a woman named Assata Shakur who has a fascinating life story. I've tried to talk about doing it before. There's so many obstacles to making it. I probably won't be the person to make it, but I hope that I can support the person who does.
[00:22:47] Adam Grant:
A director you admire?
[00:22:47] Ava DuVernay:
Oh gosh. So many. Haile Gerima comes to mind first. Ethiopian filmmaker, a professor at Howard University for many years, who has the Sankofa bookstore and cafe in DC. Makes the most gorgeous films. His landmark film, Sankofa, recently restored by ARRAY and The Academy. Um, and now playing on Netflix.
That was not a sales tool. I get no money from it. I'm just saying he's a beautiful filmmaker that not enough people know his name.
[00:23:18] Adam Grant:
If I want to get better at storytelling, is there something I should watch? Something I should read, something I should do?
[00:23:24] Ava DuVernay:
Wow. That's a good one. You should be looking at story construction. Look at the stories that you love and try to figure out what their commonalities are. There's a book that is people really dismiss. Some people say it's reductive and it's blah, some people love it, but it's called Save the Cat. And if you want to learn about storytelling, screenwriting, it basically takes great films and it breaks them down of what they all have in common, so that you know, a little bit about story structure. So I would recommend that.
[00:23:56] Adam Grant:
If you had a Tesseract, where would you go?
[00:23:58] Ava DuVernay:
Ah, Tesseract! Oh my goodness. Wow. I'd probably go to pre-colonial, some beautiful pre-colonial African nation and just check out and see what it was like before folks started messing with it.
[00:24:12] Adam Grant:
Yeah. And then to wrap up, you live in a world where you have an unlimited number of exciting opportunities and you don't have time for them all. How do you decide what to say yes to?
[00:24:23] Ava DuVernay:
Oh, whatever I feel most emotional about. So yeah. You know, it's, it's letting it be an intimate process because who has time to spend doing something that you don't want to do?
[00:24:38] Adam Grant:
Another thing that I wanted to get your reaction to maybe start coming back to Selma a little bit is I think we have this image of leaders as having these bold convictions, knowing that this is the thing that I want to do, and all these people are going to follow me. And yet I was stunned to learn that that Dr. King was very much a reluctant leader of this civil rights movement that he had to be voted in to running it. And it makes me curious about how many people never get coaxed or cajoled or drawn into those roles that they might be reluctant to do. Do you see that in your world?
[00:25:15] Ava DuVernay:
Mhmm. My sister works for a great leader. His name is Brian Stevenson.
I love Brian Stevenson.
[00:25:18] Ava DuVernay:
And he has an equal justice initiative. So Tara DuVernay is the Director of the Museum and the Memorial Operations. So when you go to Montgomery, Alabama, and you go to this, if you have not been, this landmark extraordinary physical monument to justice and injustice, that has been put together by my sister, Tara. And just last week, she was invited to a very prestigious university to speak and she called me. And she said, I think they meant to ask Brian. And I said, well, the letter says Tara DuVernay. So I'm pretty sure it's to you. Cause they're saying, Tara, please come Tara, come talk about this. These are the things you've done. And she said, yeah, I'm not going to do it. I said why? And she said, because I like to be in the background. And so me, the alpha, I'm saying, no, this is your time. You did these things. You can do it. This is how you talk about this is how you do it. I'm telling her all these things. And at the end of it, she said, but I don't want to. I said why? And she said, because I don't, I don't need to talk about it. I can just do it. I said yes, but you will inspire people. And this is why. And she's like, well, they will be inspired when they come and see what I did. And as I hung up the phone, I started thinking that is leadership. Right. And it's not like she's not amplifying what she's doing. She feels that the amplification is through the experience of what she's created. It was very telling. It was a small conversation that she probably never thought about later, but it really got me thinking, wow, she's a powerful leader. I think, you know, yes, people being pulled in is one thing. And once you're pulled in, people rise to the occasion. But I think there are also some people who do their best work. Leading. They're just not on the stage. They're off stage.
[00:27:06] Adam Grant:
So true. And yet they're creating something that a lot of people are going to be influenced by and follow.
[00:27:13] Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, absolutely. We just don't know their names. Everyone's not King. Some people are John Lewis, right? Who for years, no one knew his name in that way. Right. Until it was time. And there are a lot of other people who were part of the movement. Amelia Boynton, people never knew her name, but the only reason why he was there in Selma was because of her. She led him there. Right. And so, yeah, just being able to accept that there are different levels of it, different styles, different ways, and that they're all okay.
[00:27:41] Adam Grant:
When you were making Selma, you had to do something that must've been extraordinarily daunting, which was to rewrite MLK's words. Right? Tell me about how you went about that.
[00:27:51] Ava DuVernay:
Right? Um, well, naively, I was told after I'd taken on the project, that we were not getting the speeches because the speeches were held by someone else, someone else had the right to make a movie of the speeches, someone else very powerful that, that you do not cross. And so I was like, well, what are we going to do? He's got to make speeches. It's called Selma. He's got to make the big speeches. And so there was a real question as to how we would do it. At one point there was talk about, oh, we will cut to documentary footage and we can license that footage, or we'll just skip the speeches. He'll walk up on the stage, open his mouth, but cut before words come out and now he's walking off the stage. Please, let's not do that. So the idea came, you know, I said, well, let me just try to take a stab at it. It was my first film for any kind of money. And the whole undertaking was naive.
I was the seventh filmmaker on. All the other filmmakers said, "this is not enough money. You cannot tell the story of Dr. King, the first film that has King as a protagonist with this amount of money. It can't be done. Or I won't do it. You're shortchanging this." But me straight out of Sundance, like, "Hey, I can do 20 million. $20 million?! People are saying they can't make this film for $20 million? I can make it for them. We can make it for 20 million." So Paul Gardens and I, my independent film producer and partner, and I, we got into it and we made an independent film about King that looked the way it looked for that amount of money. Very tight. Um, but it was the naïveté of not knowing what we really should have had. And I applied the same thing--not really knowing that why couldn't they get those speeches? Oh, cause there was no money to get the speeches. You could have paid, you could have figured it out. And so instead I said, well, I'll just roll up my sleeves and do it a different way. And it's really informed so much about the way that we work because you know, when my company ARRAY started, it was just me and two other women. We had no money, Tilane Jones, and Mercedes Cooper, no money. And everything that we did-- like there's nothing that we think we can't do.
[00:30:02] Adam Grant:
As I was thinking about you rewriting the speeches. What I realized in, in reflecting on your experience is I don't think you really learn leadership just from studying somebody else. I think when you really learn it is when you have to ask yourself what would that leader say, right. And have I internalized their way of thinking their principles, their decision processes, that I could anticipate some of what they would put out into the world.
[00:30:26] Ava DuVernay:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, yes, I had studied him and I tried to get into his head and really understand his process. And so much of those speeches, you know, I, I tried to just say so close to what he was saying. He was such a great orator and writer and there was such a precision to the idea that he was trying to get across that I learned his thinking by staying close to his words, I was able to learn the big idea from the small word selection. And it gave me just a deeper understanding, a very personal, emotional, intimate understanding of him, um, that I think helped me make the picture.
[00:31:05] Adam Grant:
I have this image of you now sitting with a thesaurus saying red hills...maroon mountains?
[00:31:10] Ava DuVernay:
[Laughter] Yes. A little bit. Yes, somewhat, but without the thesaurus. Yeah. Something like that.
[00:31:17] Adam Grant:
Some work on the dream speech that Nancy Duarte did, she analyzed the structure and arc of the speech and said, you know, among other things, the speech is, what 16 some minutes, depending on exactly when you say it's over and the first 11 minutes don't even mention the dream--that there's this toggling back and forth between what is and what could be. And it was such a frankly a painful, right, description of the problem that is before getting to the dream of what could be. And this is a theme I see run through many of your films. Do you choose stories that unfold that way? Is that part of your writing process? Am I imposing a lens that doesn't exist in your head?
[00:31:56] Ava DuVernay:
No, that's a good question. But also I just have to say, we know why that speech took the turn that it did. Because he was specifically told to take the turn.
Is that the Mahalia Jackson?
"Tell them about the dream." Because he was struggling--and he was not struggling, but it was a little dry and she came in and then bam, he takes off and he does it. There's a big conversation now, especially in kind of black creative circles, not even creative circles, the black community, about trauma. About stories that are trauma-based and folks feeling like they're sick of stories about trauma. I feel like I tell stories of triumph. And triumph is most deeply felt when you've overcome something to get that. That's what, that's the definition of triumph. It's not called winning. It's not called I did good. Like triumph is conflict overcome. You have triumphed over something. It is a climb, right? So you got to show what what's being overcome. You got to show the climb.
[00:32:58] Adam Grant
I feel it. I can feel like the way you describe it right now. Like I'm sitting in a movie theater, like, yes! I'm hearing the Oscar music right now. You might've just answered my next question, which is, is this what your, your "one perfect shot" looks like.
[00:33:11] Ava DuVernay:
Ha, one perfect shot. Um, I can't tell you the euphoria I felt inside when you told me that there are people every so often getting together and sitting down and talking about a scene that I've made, or wrote in the context of something that I never thought about. Right. And so for me, a one perfect shot is whenever I hear someone talking about something I made in a way that I never intended. That's extraordinary to me, that blows my mind.
[00:33:38] Adam Grant:
Well Ava, I cannot thank you enough. This has been--I've learned so much.
[00:33:43] Ava DuVernay:
No you didn't, but I did!
No, I'm soaking up all of your curiosity.
You know everything already! This was fantastic. I wish that I could ask you questions. Can we do another one, one day where I just sit and ask you questions?
[00:33:51] Adam Grant:
I am available whenever you want to do that. And you're also welcome to teach our class anytime.
[00:33:56] Ava DuVernay:
[Laughter] I look forward to it, thank you.
[00:34:03] Adam Grant:
Taken for Granted is hosted by me, Adam Grant and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng and Anna Phelan. Our fact checker is Meerabelle Jesuthasan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Layton Brown.
[00:34:32] Ava DuVernay:
I read something on social media today. It said "Be the lion, slay the dragons of life." I was like, really? Can we do that? Do I have to be the lion? I mean, yes, we're the lion, but can I also just, you know, be curious and peek around the corner and what--do we also have to slay it? I mean, I think ultimately you want to get to that point, but there's, there are steps.
[00:34:52] Adam Grant:
We might need to rethink who you follow on social media.
[00:34:57] Ava DuVernay:
I do. I need to change my algorithm. [Laughter]