Photo by Nobuhiro Hosoki
Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman creator to get Sundance Film Festival directing award in 2012 for her feature, Middle of Nowhere. Her feature Selma made history in being the first film directed by a black woman director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Picture.
Then, in 2017, her documentary 13 was again nominated for an Oscar for best Doc Feature. And she accomplished another first being being the frist black woman to direct A Wrinkle In Time, a $100 miilion plus feature.
Now, she created her new online community for below-the-line crew members, which provides film and television hiring managers access to crew members with diverse backgrounds.
This conversation was recently held on the heels of the the site’s full launch.
Q: When was the first time that you worked on a film set?
AD: Oh goodness, my first work on a film set was as a publicist, and the first film — gee, thats a tough one. I don’t know what the first film was. I know some of the early films were — you remember these films that Sony, Screen Gems would do, like The Brothers, and Two Can Play that Game — these were for a label of Sony that would make smaller-budget films aimed at the black community.
Q: They were all very successful.
AD: Very successful. And they were studio films, and so I was supposed to squirrel out of those, but yeah, I did a lot of early work.
Q: What was the experience like looking around in those early moments on a production?
AD: Seemed normal. Because that’s what’s been normalized. I didn’t walk on thinking I’m the only one. You’re aware that you are the only one, but we work in Hollywood and that’s the way it is. It wasn’t until I started building my own crews and making my own films that I thought, “Oh, wait, there’s a choice here. It doesn’t actually have to be that way” because you could actually choose all kinds of people. People are just choosing not to do that. I had to really understand, well why are people choosing not to do it?
For a long time, it was me thinking, “Well this is blatant, active racism.” It took me awhile in our industry, and really talking to a lot of people, and in having my own experiences, to come to the understanding that it’s maybe more ignorance, and lack of understanding how to do it, more, “I don’t really have time to do this extra thing”.
There are a lot of reasons that aren’t “I don’t like black/brown people and women.” There are a hundred other reasons.
Once I got past that, I started saying, “Oh, well, then there are solutions for that. I don’t really know the solutions to changing from being a raging racist but I do know that we can come up with solutions to give tools for systems that are imbalanced, and that’s what Array Crew is.
Q: Before Array Crew existed, how did you do it differently in your early films? How you were doing it as an individual before you built the system to address it?
AD: I was doing it because I didn’t want to be the only one, I didn’t want to be the only woman on my crews, and I didn’t want to be one of two or three black people on my crews. I wanted black people, brown people, Asian people, older people, younger people, just a real world people, people with disabilities — all kinds of people. Can we not have that? Why? Why can we not?
There’s no reason why, except it’s harder to do because you can’t find them, you’ve got to go through steps, you don’t really know if they can do it because no one else has hired them. It’s like, “How do we just cut through all that?”
And we just did it. Paul Garnes and I have been making work together since Middle of Nowhere, just to make sure that we were hiring women, black folk, brown folk, all kinds of people. Older — older crew members is something that we really looked at. It’s like why do you just time out because you’re 60? You can still hammer the thing, you can still move the dolly. You can still do those things if you want to.
Q: They probably know a little more about doing it than the other folks, too, because they have experience.
AD: Exactly. So that’s something that we’ve just been doing. “I needed this”, “I needed that.” Writers, directors, gaffers, scenic painters, crafties, script supervisors. are incoming calls to Array because people knew that we crewed up this way. where volume is so many people all the time. We need to get a list together.
There was going to be a fantastic list of all our people — maybe with a leather binder. And maybe we’ll etch in “Array” on it, very fancy. How I ended up having a cheap technology officer and 20 people working on it around the clock, I’m not sure. But this is where we are.
Q: So what is Array Crew?
AD: It’s basically IMDB meets LinkedIn. It is a way to connect people who are hiring in our industry — department heads, line producers, hiring managers — people who are actually responsible for the crews on sets to make shows and films, connecting them with all kinds of crew members from underrepresented places: women, black folk, brown folk, Asian folk, older folks. In order to be in crew, as a crew member you need to: have one credit at minimum, be 18 years of age, and be eligible to work in the United States.
In our database now, we have over 3,000 crew members. We just launched. By the time this is going to be shown — we are taping this the day before we launch.
Q: How many people have you got already?
AD: There’s 3000 crew members who already fit all those categories. Over 70 productions — we haven’t even launched, 70 productions are already hiring from it. And every major studio and streamer in town — this is the big news — committed to using it. Now this commitment is not a spiritual commitment. It’s not, “You know what? We think this is a good deal.” It’s not the IG, put-your-thing-on-it commitment. This is an invested financial commitment to build this thing — because we’re non-profit — so that it’s always free to crew members and so that all the productions, whether Netflix or Warner Brothers or Disney, are making their TV or film there, you can use crew and have access.
This was the idea. I cannot believe we’re here two years, a woman-led tech platform by people who don’t know tech.
Q: You’ve done a lot: you’re a film distributor, you’re a filmmaker, you have an empire on the east side of Los Angeles and it’s growing. What’s the process of building a tech platform like; it’s a very different thing from everything else you’ve done.
AD: It’s a lot of mistakes, a lot of growing pains, and a lot of not knowing what to do. And a lot of being able to say “We don’t know this. We need to find people who know it.” And a lot of thinking, “I don’t want a bunch of consultants.” We have to invest in bringing these people inside. They are Array — full-time team members who are part of our ecosystem who do tech. Which is odd for us, because you know, when you are on the Array campus, you have an editor walking by, a screenwriter — everyone’s art scene. Then we’ve got these tech people: Hi. You’re scaring me.
Q: These aren’t tech people in the conventional, Silicon Valley sense of tech people, right? Like your CTO was not…
AD: Well, our CTO is a badass sister we stole from Microsoft –a queer black woman who writes and gets down in Atlanta, and her whole crew is badass. So yes, the whole things completely different from most tech company teams. But really knowing what we didn’t know, bringing in the people who knew it. Early on, I said I didn’t want to use a database that was kind of pre-done and I wanted to create our own proprietary tech with this. We’ve done that, we listened to the studios and what they need, we listened to crew members and what they want to say, and we created just a very simple — you’ve seen it — very simple.
Q: The User Interface is extraordinary. This is very easy to use on both sides. If you need to find an animal wrangler for a project, it can be done very quickly on Array Crew, and that’s extraordinary.
AD: I was talking to a producer the other day– an older white man, sweet — and he said, “Listen kid, I’m all for the inclusion and the diversity. It’s important.” I went, “Okay, the inclusion and the diversity” — and he’s like, “But you know what? This thing’s just good for hiring ’cause I’ve got to crew up these positions, I don’t care who they are. I need somebody to wrangle this animal, tomorrow.”
So at the end of the day, it’s about jobs, it’s about filling these jobs, But we know the underlying piece of it is the DNA that it is everyone wins there.
Q: This is a nonprofit. It’s free for every crew member who wants to use it who has one credit, is 18 years of age and can legally work in the United States. It’s available to them at no cost.
AD: No cost, and there’ll never be a cost. And it’s not like you do a free profile and then six months later you get the thing where you…
Q: You get the premium model…
AD: Yeah. Or if you want them to see your email, you pay this. It’s always free for crew. No one’s making money on this. the money from the studios and from our donors and the foundations and all that goes directly into the tech, the maintenance, the upkeep, and the further execution of our ideas about crew.
Q: In terms of the future of the platform, there’s an app on the horizon?
AD: The app is coming. Our educational component kicks in: and teaching people how to use it.
Q: Then’s there’s the educational component.
AD: Our dream is that we eventually are able to educate people about all the kinds of positions that are available on these sets. A set is like a small town. It has a mechanic, it has a hairdresser, it has a gardener, a construction team, hardware store, a parking lot, a little hospital.
It has all the things that are — whatever you do in the real world. If you have an interest in film and TV, we haven’t said enough to all kinds of people “There’s a place for you if you are interested in our industry, and there are things that you can do.”
One of the things I am so excited about when I was early on in my career is, I met a Latina scenic painter. She told me, “I used to tag, I used to do graffiti. And then my uncle told me, “You can paint on sets” and I was like, “Paint how?” She makes white walls look old, look like they’re crumbling. She makes things exists that weren’t there before because she’s an artist, with a scenic painting union job, and she makes great money.
So we just want people to know about these possibilities. Part of our next step is educating people to the possibilities.
But actually — the further dream is to help people, train people, in those jobs. That’s several years away.
Q: About the platform, You’re adding your name to the crew database, age, gender, race, disability, language and all those things. But hiring members can’t search by those kind of words. You don’t have to put in any of that information if you choose not to, but you can if you desire. Can you comment a little bit about the decision to do that?
AD: One of the challenges is that it’s the law, right? It’s a legal issue. It was something that I’m not happy with. I would rather everyone be known as, and be able to identify, but there are legal pieces there that make it difficult. So instead of dealing with those tricky things, we said let’s just wipe that out. We will know, and folks will know, that the majority of people in this database identify as these underrepresented categories. So then when you’re searching and they come up, the majority of the people that you’re going to get are that.
But legally, going in saying “I’m looking for a black grip” gets into issues. We have our eyes on the prize. And although I hope that one day someone really gets into the legal matters of why this is crazy, at this point, eyes on the prize. Let’s get this done and use the tools that we have to do it.
Q: Right now this is a U.S. reality but, an international version is coming soon?
AD: Coming very soon. We have a couple of big questions that people always ask. The biggest one that we’re getting from hiring managers, from UPMs, line producers, studios, is: What about the UK and what about Canada? So we’re working to bring those online by the end of this year, top of next year. Getting closer, maybe sooner than that. You know how we like to overachieve at Array.
Q: How do you think about success? Do you have a mental map or image of what you think about a year or five years from now what success looks like for this platform?
AD: The ultimate sign of success would be that in ten years it’s not needed. It just doesn’t need to exist. Someone says you have to have a website to have women on the set — it’s so insane that it even needs to exist. I only wanted to normalize it. True success would mean that it’s obsolete and in order to get there, we’ve got to use it.
Q: There’s one story, Sierra’s story — could you just tell us about where she started?
AD: How it started was I was at a speaking engagement at a small college in Alabama. There was a young woman who had great questions, and afterward came up to me and said “Ma’am, if there’s ever anything that I can do — be a PA, take out the trash, get your coffee, please call on me. I want to do it, I want to learn.” She was in film school.
In Alabama, there’s not a lot of productions coming through there. Shortly after, we were coming through with some, so I remembered and asked that she be brought onto it. She was a PA — there are different levels of PA [production assistant]. They are the people doing the work that no one else wants to do. But she was the PA that went way out, walking down a driveway a mile away, making sure a car wouldn’t pull out into the shot. Nowhere close to the set, the actors, or anything.
Over the years, after Selma, she did A Wrinkle in Time, she did a couple pilots for me, she did Queen Sugar, she moved up and up and up and up and up. She was the key PA, which means she’s standing right there next to the AD, right there next to the director. She’s watching the blocking rehearsal, she’s managing the whole cast, she’s The One. She’s the top PA.
Most key PAs go on to be AD, assistant director, which is the position that runs the set. But she doesn’t want to be an assistant director. She wants to be a director. So I said to her, “You’ve gotta stop. We always hire you because you’re great at your job. You’ve put in the hours and you’ve done the grunt work and you’ve done it. You’ve got to stop and make your own thing if you want to be a director.”
She did. She made a couple of great shorts, she did some other projects, she was constantly shooting. Her name on Twitter is “shooter”, right? So she’s constantly shooting and she was ready. So we offered her a couple of episodes of Queen Sugar, she did three beautiful episodes of Sugar. And the people she was getting coffee for five years [before], she was now directing. The whole cast and crew rose up to support her.
She is an example of “let people in the door”. What would have been her fate if she had not gotten on these productions through the inclusive hiring agenda that I have? She would be out in Atlanta trying to get on a crew and hoping that ADs would remember this young black girl from Alabama. So she is the success story — she’s the Array Crew success story before there was an Array Crew.