How They Got Here
7 Thoughts from Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay
November 14, 2017 | by Creative Armenia
This fall, Creative Armenia visited The New Yorker Festival to cover appearances from two of the top female filmmakers at work today. Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) come from vastly different backgrounds. DuVernay did not pick up a camera until she was 32. She worked as an entertainment publicist for years – promoting big box-office hits like Dreamgirls and The Help – before breaking through with The Middle of Nowhere, for which she won the Best Director prize at Sundance in 2012. Coppola, of course, had a famous Oscar-winning father, but dabbled in fashion and photography, even founding her own T-shirt business, before these skills merged into her debut film The Virgin Suicides. Fashion remains a signature of her films, where costumes have their own dialogue. In The Beguiled, Coppola’s longtime costume designer Stacey Battat chose to drop the use of hoop skirts in order to reflect the women characters’ need to suddenly do much of the housework on their own after many of the men in their family did not return from war.
Here are 7 takeaways from their talks at the festival.
On entering a white industry:
AD: This is an industry made by white men making stuff for white men.” DuVernay continues, “I wasn’t looking to get into this industry [...] I was just making something myself, [and] I knew how to connect with people… I didn’t go in with a sense of desperation.
On finding filmmaking:
SC: He [Francis Ford Coppola] was always talking about writing, and I felt like I was learning about writing my whole life. I think somehow I was absorbing it.
About 15 or 16, my dad wanted to teach me about screenwriting. He asked me to write a script with him, but he’s kind of a bossy collaborator.
I made a short film with a friend, and that’s when I realized directing was something I could do and I was surprised by that…In my twenties, I went to art school, I wanted to be a visual artist…and then I got into photography. I was frustrated I didn’t know what I wanted to do because I liked so many different things.
AD: My intention wasn’t to get into the industry. I wasn’t thinking about the industry. I was thinking about my work. I did it for the love of the movies.
On the importance of wardrobe:
SC: Style and clothing is something I always think about… What the character is wearing is who they are. [The Virgin Suicides] had a lot of references. There’s a photographer, Bill Owens, he has a series on suburbia. I had first seen his photos in a photo fair [...] For Christmas, my mother would get me a photograph… and I’ve always been interested in photography. So that kind of helped me build a look, and I made a reference book for the art department, and cinematographer. It was kind of a starting point.
Sofia Coppola at The New Yorker Festival talks
On the unimportance of expertise:
SC: When I made a short film, it was finally a culmination. I got to do photography, music, and design… And I didn’t have the patience to be an expert in each field but as a director you get to work with experts in each field…. That gave me a little more confidence.
On an unrecognized artistic influence:
AD: I got into film because I had an artist in my family, who no one recognized as an artist, no one encouraged to be an artist...But my Aunt Denise has an artist's heart. The family didn't encourage her to do her art….Every week after school, when there were cheap matinees, we would go and see movies. It was a constant diet of films. It was a magical time because I fell in love with images, but now that I think about it deeply, it was because I got to spend time with her.
Ava DuVernay at the New Yorker Festival talks
On Lost in Translation:
SC: I spent a lot of time in my early twenties in Japan. I loved Tokyo and I kept wanting to make a film about what it was is like to be there, at that time of my life, that awkward thing of being in your early twenties when you’re supposed to start your adult life and try to kind of figure things out. That movie [Lost in Translation] is the most personal; it was my first original screenplay. I remember sitting at my dining room table with yellow pads, and thinking it was the most indulgent thing ever. I was really surprised people connected with it as they did, because it was the very little personal moments I experienced… and my fantasy of hanging with Bill Murray.
AD: Everything in that film [Selma] I gave my heart to. I had to let somebody else’s name be on it. When you betray yourself it never works. Because somebody always gets hurt, and it’s always you.
Diana Shi is a writer and editor living in New York.