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March 2009
THIS IS THE LIFE | An Interview with Director Ava DuVernay


An Interview with Director Ava DuVernay

by Wilson Morales
March 9, 2009

While New York has the Apollo Theater "where stars are born and legends are made," over in LA, there was The Good Life Cafe, a health food store in South Central where a group of young artists assembled weekly to develop a forceful, progressive artist community during the early ‘90s.

More than 50 individuals came out to express themselves in a way that was different from the surging hip hop movement. Before well-known artists such as Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A, and Macy Gray became household names, there were others who had formed a new wave of poetry/ rap where profanity was banned. At the Apollo, there was Sandman to brush one off the stage when booed, but at the Good Life, the audience would call out - "Please pass the mic!" Jurassic 5 was one of the successful groups to emerge from the Good Life, but many will always remember what Freestyle Fellowship, Pigeon John, Abstract Rude, Chillin Villain Empire, Rifleman Ellay Khule, Volume 10, and Medusa brought to the game.

Another member of this band of artists was Ava DuVernay; who was known at that time as emcee Eve from the group Figures of Speech. As time went by, DuVernay went on to college and has worked in the world of film as a marketer and publicist for more than 14 years, forming The DuVernay Agency in 1999. Her award-winning firm has provided strategy and execution for more than 80 film and television campaigns by acclaimed directors such as Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Robert Rodriguez, Bill Condon, Raoul Peck, Gurinder Chadha and Reggie & Gina Bythewood.

As a tribute to The Good Life and the men and women who participated, Ms. Duvernay has put together a documentary illustrating its history and what it meant to her and others who attended the known establishment.

As the DVD comes out on March 10 after winning numerous festival awards, Ms. DuVernay spoke with blackfilm.com about her journey of putting this film together and balancing it with her publicity work.

What led you to make a film on this subject?

Ava DuVernay: I frequented The Good Life as a student at UCLA, and never again found a place with such creative comradarie. I felt the story had to be told, both for the amazing artists whose legacy should be recognized and for hip hop fans in general.

Who shot the footage at that time and how were you able to get most of it for your film?

Ava DuVernay: We obtained footage from the strangest places. It was in garages, under people's beds, in state, out of state. But most of the important stuff had been archived by an avid group of collectors who had kept the material safe and sound for the last decade or so.

How did you go from being a member of Figures of Speech to what you do now?

Ava DuVernay: Figures of Speech was a wonderful experience. Being in that group allowed me be an artist for the first time, and all that goes with that - risk, dedication, stretching those muscles. Then, I graduated from UCLA and began to pursue a career in publicity. My agency grew fast and I love what I do. Theatrical PR allowed me to have close proximity to filmmakers and storytellers in a way I would have never had otherwise. That closeness to film as a marketer sparked my interest in filmmaking itself.

Documentaries take longer to film than features. What challenges did you face in putting this together?

Ava DuVernay: I financed the film myself so I'd say the biggest considerations were money. Talk about a showstring. But the subjects of the documentary were so eager and forthcoming, that the interviews and footage acquisition process was quite smooth. Plus, I was blessed enough to work with a jaw-droppingly talented crew who jumped into the project wholeheartedly. So ultimately, I don't see the challenges as much as the good stuff.

What was left out in the cutting room?

Ava DuVernay: Lots of great footage and several pivotal artists weren't included in the film simply because of time. But we worked hard to include that material in the bonus footage of the DVD, which drops March 10. We have more than 70 minutes of special features, deleted scenes, two new shorts. Lost of goodies for fans of this music.

How long did it take to have it done?

Ava DuVernay: I decided to make the film in May 2007. We shot quickly and frugally from July - September 2007. Then debuted at the Pan-African International Film Festival in LA in January 2008. So from start to the festival cut, was 6 months. The accelerated pace had to do with budget and trying to be ready for the 2008 festival season.

What has changed over the years with the Good Life cafe?

Ava DuVernay: The Good Life is closed now. It shuttered in 1995, but the legacy lives on in the work ethic and family bonds and heightened creativity of every one who called it home. And now, it lives on in our film too.

How did you balance this and your day job?

Ava DuVernay: It was only possible because of the people around me. I had a kick-ass crew on the film, and I have the best team in PR at my agency. Both sides were held together by the woman I regard as "the glue," Ellene Miles. She's the Director of Publicity and Production at my company, DVA. And she also served as co-producer on this film. She's no joke. Quite amazing.

What's next for you on the directing level?

Ava DuVernay: The next film is a narrative feature called THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, which I wrote and will direct. Gina Prince-Bythewood, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan are producers. We're aiming to shoot that later this year.

Why should anyone pick up 'This is the Life' on DVD?

Ava DuVernay: If you say you love hip hop, then take the time to know its true history. Los Angeles is much more than Dre and Cube and Snoop. It's home to a vibrant underground scene that's spawned truly original artists from Jurassic 5 to Freestyle Fellowship to Pharcyde to will.i.am. If you say you love hip hop, you need to see this story. Come by www.goodlifelove.com and check out some clips. I hope folks like it.



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