How Ava DuVernay Made ‘Origin’ an Adaptation of the Best Seller ‘Caste’

“I’ve never even seen that beach!” said Ava DuVernay as she took in the view on Monday at a hotel restaurant on the Lido, the island where the Venice Film Festival is held. Staring out onto the sands, DuVernay smiled. “I’ve been to Venice a couple of times, but I never went to the beach,” she said. “I was more into the canals, but this is fantastic.”

The trailblazing director has come to the festival to premiere her new film, “Origin,” adapted from “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Though it was a major best seller, Wilkerson’s tome doesn’t naturally lend itself to a straightforward narrative film: The book is a sprawling, nonfiction exploration of the ways that caste systems have shaped different societies all over the world, and encompasses Germany’s persecution of Jews in the lead-up to World War II, India’s treatment of its Dalit people, and racism against African Americans in the United States.

To crack the movie adaptation, DuVernay cast the Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (“King Richard”) as the author herself, anchoring the story in the period that Wilkerson spent researching and writing “Caste,” even as she dealt with a series of personal tragedies that included the death of her husband (played by Jon Bernthal). “I’d heard about her losses and that really struck me — to be creating this massive work on top of it,” DuVernay said.

Though “Origin” was originally set up at Netflix, the streamer where DuVernay made the Oscar-nominated documentary “13TH” and the Emmy-winning limited series “When They See Us,” she opted to direct it independently to preserve her vision for the film, which included on-location shoots in Germany and India and an opening scene that follows Trayvon Martin on the night he was shot and killed. In advance of the Venice premiere of “Origin” on Wednesday, DuVernay’s company Array announced that the red-hot distributor Neon had picked up the film and is planning a year-end release.

DuVernay is the first African American woman to have a film in competition at Venice, and during our interview this week, she kept spotting and waving to colleagues who had helped realize her vision, including a fellow producer, Paul Garnes, and the cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd. “The whole team came!” she told me, beaming by the beach. “Because we’re indie, we used our miles.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

“Caste” came out in August 2020. What was going on in your life at that time?

It was the summer of George Floyd’s murder, and I was interrogating that in ways that were deeply personal. I had also just lost a loved one to Covid in the early, very scary time of Covid, which I think so many people have just forgotten about. But when you think of the spring and summer of 2020, it was shocking, it was frightening; people were dying alone in hospitals, which was the situation for my loved one. So when I read this book, I found it to have organizing principles to help me have something to anchor and hold onto as I thought about this crazy world we’re in.

Did the idea of an adaptation immediately present itself when you read it?

I have this really bad thing that I do with almost everything I read where I think, “Could this be a movie?” But on this one, I just thought, Well, this is not possible. It was so dense and full-bodied with ideas and there was no linear narrative. It was really the second time I read it that I started to see Isabel in the book. There are some stories she tells that she’s actually in, where I started to think, “Oh, wow, she’s the recurring character in it,” and that was the little seed of the idea.

Did Isabel take some convincing?

When I got on the phone with her and told her I wanted to do something, I remember her saying, “Would this be like ‘13TH,’ or a doc series?” She was just trying to figure it out. I said, “It’s a narrative film with actors, and the main character is someone who appears all throughout the book.” She said, “Oh, there’s not really anyone who’s all throughout the book,” and I said, “It’s you.” She got it, because she’s a storyteller. All of these stories and ideas and pieces need to be unified through a character that we root for, someone that we’re emotionally connected to.

“Origin” is the story about how Isabel put together “Caste,” but what is the story of how you put together “Origin”? What obstacles did you face?

The obstacles were money. It was originally with a streamer, and I realized that in order to make the film I wanted to make, I would have to make it on my own.

Netflix is a streamer that isn’t normally afraid to spend money.

It just was different visions. They were good enough to let it go and let me try to figure it out on my own, which we did in short order.

How different was their vision for this?

It would have been more of a group thing, and I was interested in a singular voice. But I just want to make sure that it doesn’t come across like I’m bashing them, because I’m not. They didn’t have to let it go, and some things don’t match up. I had a really nice run with them.

While making this film about caste systems, is it true you even sought to dismantle castes in the crew, like the conventional naming of first and second units or A and B cameras?

I challenged different department heads to look at the hierarchies within our set and really think about what we’re making: What are we saying about the order of people and who’s more valuable? That was really embraced by Matthew Lloyd, our cinematographer, who said, “I’ve noticed on sets that the B camera is where the women or people of color are. Let’s change that, let’s not have a B camera.”

So we just didn’t call it B camera, it was just East or West camera. That’s the idea. Can we get on an equitable playing field? It won’t happen in our lifetimes, but it’s never going to even start if you don’t talk about it and name it.

How did you make the decision to open the movie with Trayvon Martin?

That story was so formative for me because Trayvon’s like our Emmett Till. That’s when I felt like it all started, this idea of a movement for Black lives many years before it was called that. I wanted to really crystallize what had been happening to us through the story of this boy, and I don’t want people to forget him because he was the first of this modern era of high-profile cases.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that he was just talking to a friend on the phone — one of his girls, it wasn’t even a girlfriend — and how that could be so wildly misinterpreted and criminalized by this schmuck of a guy who was empowered to take his life. It angers me still, so I wanted to pay tribute to him. His mother visited Array, and I showed her those sections because I wanted to get her blessing. A strong lady. The two family members she came with were in tears and she didn’t cry. She just looked at me and she said, “That’s right,” and gave her blessing for it.

In “Caste,” Wilkerson wrote, “It does us no good to pretend that certain ailments have not beset us.” But this is a moment in time when state legislatures around the country are pulling books that examine slavery and racism.

I think that’s why you have to do this kind of work. They may not read the book, they may not watch CNN, they may not go to the panel, but they might see one movie. This stuff is going down and we’re just acting as if it doesn’t really matter, but this is the exact same thing that happened in 1930 to ’33 in Germany. So much is happening so quickly that you’re overwhelmed by it.

I mean, taking books off shelves, saying that slavery was good for both sides, basically? These are absurd things that are now being codified in law. The people who know that it’s absurd are not doing enough, so it’s really important for this film to be out at this time when people are making decisions about the leadership of this country. When you look at what happened, it might echo and remind you this is happening now.

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