Ava DuVernay and Michael Mann go way back. In 2003, DuVernay was a publicist on the set of Mann’s “Collateral.” Watching the auteur shoot in her old stomping grounds of East Los Angeles gave her the idea to pick up the camera. “That made me think, ‘Wow, this is possible,’” recalls DuVernay, sitting opposite the Oscar-nominated Mann to discuss where their careers have taken them in the 20 years since.
Now, DuVernay, an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker, tackles her most complex story yet with “Origin,” a sprawling yet intimate adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” The biographical drama follows Wilkerson (portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she writes her book at the same time that she grapples with her grief over a series of deaths. Meanwhile, after three decades, Mann accomplished his dream of bringing race car magnate Enzo Ferrari’s story to the big screen. Adam Driver stars in this thrill ride about the Ferrari founder’s struggles with his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), after the death of their son — made more complicated by his second family — and the flailing car company that hangs in the balance.
AVA DUVERNAY: I’m so thrilled to be here with you. You know how I feel about you?
MICHAEL MANN: Yes, Ava, mutual.
DUVERNAY: When I see you, I just want to hug you, and I want to talk to you so much and ask you 10,000 questions and laugh with you. And most people think that you’re very serious. But I say, “Michael Mann? He’s my guy.” Why do I know one Michael and everybody else knows another Michael?
MANN: Well, usually, from working professionally, everyone is pretty much focused on what we’re doing. So the objective is that you’re trying to make something happen; that’s where all your intention is. You’re not relaxed and concentrating on …
DUVERNAY: … that fun stuff.
DUVERNAY: But is it fun.
MANN: Well, my kids also think I’m very fun.
DUVERNAY: I think you’re hilarious.
MANN: You shot “Origin” in 38 days. What was your process?
DUVERNAY: My biggest action sequence was the book-burning. We were in the actual location in Berlin — somehow they let a Black woman from Compton take over the real square. I said, “I’d like to have people dressed up as Nazis, to fly the flag and build a fire in the middle. Will you allow me to do that?” And they said yes. We only had one very cold night and five hours to get it done, with a couple thousand extras, six cameras and eight different setups. This is the same way that I did the bridge scene in “Selma.” They said, “We could close this bridge for four hours and you have to get it all” — horses, guns, marchers, troopers.
In trying to find the story of Ferrari, how did you hone in? Because one of the things that the films have in common is they deal the ways in which personal histories impact the culture at large.
MANN: What was so unique was all the tempestuous internal dynamics and emotional dynamics between Enzo and the unique life he was living with his wife Laura, and his second family [with Linda Lardi] and his kid. He had lost his son Dino a year earlier. All these forces came into a dynamic collision in three months of 1957. Those three months became a fractal of the way life really is, meaning that we have conflicts within ourselves that only resolve in motion pictures. They don’t resolve in real life — we take our contradictions to the grave. Directors take a section of life and the circumstances that they’re really living in and make them so intensely tangible that they impact the audience.
DUVERNAY: “Ferrari” — teach me the tricks.
MANN: I look at it from inside the character — what’s actually driving the emotional work has to be built from the inside out. The film is very much, here’s these two people in a silo because of the grief of the loss of their son, Dino, after years of illness. People talk about these cloying terms like “healing.” You don’t heal after the loss of a child.
DUVERNAY: Interesting. As you were talking, it made me realize how much both of our films deal with grief. Grief is the beating heart of everything that’s happening, propelling both our lead characters forward.
MANN: When I saw your film, there was one moment that was just so stunning: when Aunjanue is building within herself the courage to walk forward into a social situation. Because you know intuitively there’s that impulse to withdraw. Withdraw into sadness, into widowhood, but she’s driven by a very healthy intellectual ego, that she’s got to go forward with life. That is all encapsulated by one brilliant moment.
DUVERNAY: Thank you, sir. I’m glad you saw that.
MANN: She is absolutely fabulous — what was different directing her than other actors?
DUVERNAY: She’s different than anyone I’ve ever directed. She is very internal in her process and doesn’t like to talk a lot. But when she wants to talk, it’s so specific that I better be ready. Her questions are so precise, and our conversations were really about how she was connecting what Isabel was experiencing in the film to her own experience with grief. Isabel’s grief was our anchor. That’s what we’d always go back to. The best thing I did was step back and give her the room.
MANN: Did you borrow the biography, build the biography?
DUVERNAY: The script stayed very closely to the real Isabel Wilkerson’s life and story. But Anjanue put herself into these spaces in ways that were so tender and vulnerable, and I put myself in it. When Isabel Wilkerson was telling me the stories about the loss of her family, I could only equate it to my own loss. When I lost the people who were close to me, I was in a black hole. I felt that I wanted to be buried with them. That’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking — you’re telling this person’s story, but you’re able to leave our fingerprints on it.
I look up to you so much because you’ve always got a project going, and you are part of a class of filmmakers who continue to make films. There’s no retirement happening.
MANN: That’s right.
DUVERNAY: The car chase scenes that you’re staging now just keep escalating, growing and blossoming into something new. You’re not repeating yourself. You are continuing to reach and push. You’re just going to keep blowing our minds. Is that the plan?
MANN: First of all, I love making films. And second, it’s ambition. I’d like to think I’m a little tiny bit smarter than I was. There are certain skill sets that accrue from experience. My close friend is an architect; he’s 89 and building 13 buildings right now. So if you have the fire, you just keep going. You’ve talked about this too.
DUVERNAY: I have.
MANN: Yes, you have.
DUVERNAY: Yes. It’s a huge goal. It’s an inspiration. It’s something to look towards.
MANN: Where do you want to be next?
DUVERNAY: You know what? This is the first time I’ve ever finished a film and don’t have another one waiting. And I love it.
DUVERNAY: I always was afraid that the window or the door would close for me…
DUVERNAY: … so I always kept them stacked up. And this is the first time that I’ve said, “It’s OK not to have the next thing waiting.” So I like it. I’m going to see how it feels.
Variety Directors on Directors presented by “CreedD III”