The powerhouse duo Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey made an appearance at the Producer Guild of America’s Produced By Conference held Saturday afternoon on the 20th Century Fox lot. DuVernay and Winfrey shared the journey behind their legendary collaborations and Queen Sugar’s all-female directorial team.
Winfrey told the crowd at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot that David Oyelowo had insisted that she look at DuVernay’s 2012 drama The Middle of Nowhere, which won the top prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Winfrey then watched a DVD of the indie film and loved what she saw. She called Oyelowo and told him she and DuVernay were going to be friends.
“I don’t have a lot of friends but I’m going to be friends with her,” she remembered telling him. “I ended up having a big Mother’s Day luncheon at my house just so I could invite her.” When DuVernay arrived at the luncheon, she brought in the biggest flower arrangement she could find leading Winfrey to agree to come on board as a producer and cast member on DuVernay’s Selma.
In 2014, Winfrey came aboard as a producer and actor on Selma, which DuVernay was directing.
“I remember it was 100 degrees,” Winfrey recalled about making Selma. “She is masterful in her control of the set and respected. The respect goes both ways so the crew is willing to do whatever they can for her, because she’s willing to do the same.”
Winfrey told the crowd at the Producer Guild of America’s Produced By conference that she was moved by DuVernay’s behavior on the set.
“People treat me pretty well, so what I watch is how they treat other people; the assistant director, the people at the craft service table,” she recalled. “You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”
After Selma, Winfrey and DuVernay have gone on to a series of successful collaborations, including the TV series Queen Sugar, a series about a black family’s sugarcane farm in Louisiana, which launches a second season next week on the OWN with a two-night special on June 20-21.
For Queen Sugar, Winfrey and DuVernay hired an all female directorial team from the independent film community and an inclusive crew that consisted many of whom hadn’t worked in TV before; however, after sharing their talents and expertise on Queen Sugar, many have become highly sought out episodic television directors.
“All of those women directors from Season 1, you can’t book them now,” said Winfrey, who is an executive producer on the show that airs on her network. “It elevated the conversation, so other people started talking about it, so it makes you think a little differently next time you’re going to hire.”
“Ava is the throbbing heartbeat of the network because Queen Sugar represents everything I want to say about what it means to be human, to be connected, to be a family members.
DuVernay, went on to receive an Oscar nomination this year for the documentary 13th, and was then persuaded by Disney to come on board as director of time-travel fantasy A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget of more than $100 million. During the pre-production process, insisted that the crews include a significant percentage of women and minorities.
“If you’re a department head, do not come to me with a list of white men,” DuVernay said. “You have to show me that you’ve looked at other people. Other people are excellent other than the people you know, and you have to show me that you’ve done that before we make any hire.”
DuVernay also persuaded Winfrey to play the Mrs. Which role, which she described as “all-knowing.” Winfrey said the character is a combination of poet Maya Angelou and Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.
Currently, DuVernay is putting the final touches on A Wrinkle in Time, and wrapped up the conversation by stating the importance of inclusivity. “It’s a cultural thing,” DuVernay said. “The culture of OWN and Queen Sugar and Wrinkle is to be inclusive. The culture of so many other things is not to be.”