BEVERLY HILLS — Last week saw the world premiere of Ava DuVernay's "Selma" at AFI Fest after it had been advertised as a 30-minute footage presentation. But there was a lot more to the story behind the scenes. The plan had long been for Paramount to drop the full film as a surprise to the crowd that turned out for the presentation, assuming DuVernay could get the edit where she wanted it to be in the days leading up. Then, the festival dropped a shocker on both festival attendees and those involved with the "Selma" event: Clint Eastwood would take advantage of the Veteran's Day holiday to premiere his "American Sniper" as a secret screening right after Team "Selma" cleared the Egyptian Theatre. The pressure was on.

In the end, though, it all worked out. "Selma" played like gangbusters with a deafening standing ovation and a lively post-screening Q&A moderated by actress Alfre Woodard, and "American Sniper" played as a sobering companion, with neither film really cannibalizing the other. In truth, there was even more drama to the festival politicking, but let's not let it over-shadow the accomplishment: DuVernay has delivered a beautiful love letter not just to a leader, but to a mid-Alabama community her family has called home for 20 years. And she's done it her way.

Last week I sat down with the director to recount the mad scramble to the AFI finish (Oprah's role in all of that is pretty great), as well as her vision for a story about the life of, in so many words, one of the great men to have lived…and died. Check out the back and forth below, but please note: We dig into a number of the film's specifics in the second half of the interview. I wouldn't necessarily consider these items "spoilers" as this is history, but we'll understand if you want to gloss over some of those particulars. It just reminds that "Selma" also serves as a wonderful educational tool, and I have no doubt DuVernay's film will be informing young audiences about this key time in civil rights history for years to come.

"Selma" opens in limited release Christmas Day.


HitFix: Congratulations on all of this. I really liked the movie.

Ava DuVernay: I'm glad. I'm relieved. I loved your Tweets!

Were you nervous at the beginning of the screening?

Oh, what, are you kidding me, dude? I was sleep-deprived. I was literally crying out of just — not even crying sad, just, you know when you're just tired?


It was just like "I can't do another day." I was just so drained. And we ran that DCP into AFI at the last friggin' minute.

It was ready to go, I thought.

Oh, no, man.

Whatever you see, any incomplete effects, I don't see.

All I see is bad. Like the pockets. Like I'm wincing with my editor and I'm like, "Please don't look too close."

I'm sure you'll polish it up but it was good to go and obviously had an impact. I understand it was always in the cards, though, to show the full film rather than a footage presentation.

No, Paramount marketing wanted it to always be in the cards.


And I told them I cannot commit to showing the whole thing. You have to say the 30 [minutes]. I said we will strive to get it done because we're supposed to be done next week anyway. But I said, you know, I will try my best. You want to do AFI because it's the last place where you can showcase it in a festival environment. I love fests. But you can't put me in a corner where I feel like, you know, I have no other recourse than to show the full thing if I'm not ready. And so yeah, it was like that Friday when I picture-locked and then I was talking to Oprah and we started having a conversation and she was like, "Let's take this conversation and Tweet it. Let's finish it!" I was like, "Wait, wait, wait. But what do we…" She's like, "No, I'll see you on Twitter." That was it. I was like, "What are we saying? What are we doing? Are we going to get in trouble with Paramount?" I mean, really. But they always had hoped that it would be done. They had given me some extra money to try to get done earlier. But it was ultimately my decision as to whether or not I thought it was going to be ready.

Well I've been honest with them about it and I'll be honest with you. I don't know that they really knew what they had on their hands. But at the same time you were still working on it so I guess it could have been shifting a lot in those final weeks.

I was. I was. But they've been — I don't know what they've been like in comparison to anything else because I've never worked with a studio. I know what my fears were about working with a studio as an independent filmmaker. "Someone's going to try to come in and tell me how to make my story" and such and such, and it's been nothing like that. So that's been lovely. I just felt support. It's felt like they were taking the whole thing very seriously the whole time to me.

Not that they weren't taking it seriously. Just maybe some uncertainty about what it would be. And also they had their hands full with the Nolan movie.

Oh they had like 9,000 movies. They've got a lot going on. But yeah, I think, you know, "Interstellar" was a big, big focus and that coming out dovetailed with us being very close to done and so I think, yeah, the attention now is perfect.

Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.