In the opening moments of Ava Marie DuVernay's short film The Door, actress Gabrielle Union stands perfectly still, alone on a terrace near a pool, wearing a long, red, flowing robe. The grayish blue skies match the walls of her cold mansion that sits atop the Hollywood Hills. The mood is low, but the red gown with plunging V-neckline gives a glimmer of hope, as was its intention: the dress was custom-made by Miu Miu at DuVernay's request for the film.
The Door, a silent film with a neo-soul soundtrack, is the fifth in Miu Miu's "Women's Tales" series of short films by international female directors. It will debut on February 11th on Miu Miu's site. The series' previous films includes The Powder Room by Zoe Cassavetes, Muta by Lucrecia Martel, The Woman Dress by Giada Colagrande and It's Getting Late by Massy Tadjedin.
Miu Miu approached DuVernay shortly after her Best Director win for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The Compton native is the first African-American woman to win the acclaimed award. For this project, Miu Miu gave her only a few guidelines: the cast must be all women, and they must all wear Miu Miu. The rest was up to her. Aside from Union, DuVernay enlisted singer-songwriter Goapele and actresses Alfre Woodard, Emayatzy Corinealdi and Adepero Oduye.
Rolling Stone sat down with DuVernay at the Mandarin Oriental in New York, amid the chaos of a brutally cold Fashion Week, to discuss her transition from crafting a low-budget indie film to having Miu Miu's runway collection at her disposal.
What were your initial thoughts when Miu Miu reached out to you about this film series?
I have never done anything with fashion, but they were looking for filmmakers who had a specific point of view. And I must say, I'm a little spoiled. The first thing after Sundance was an amazing brand coming to me telling me, "Do what you want," literally. It was my story, my idea, my choice of designs. They made designs for me. I used pieces from a specific collection. They told me if I need extra pieces that they would make them for me.
How did you go about casting Union and Goapele?
The previous films [in the series] featured mostly models or tilted towards models, except It's Getting Late by Massy Tadjedin, and I wanted to push that further and have more of a narrative around it, more story. So, yeah, I wanted to pile in as many actresses as I could, and I wanted to do five. I remember Miu Miu telling me, "Are you sure you can fit five and tell this whole story in less than 10 minutes?" And we were able to do it. Gabrielle has this face, like. . . you feel smart when you look at her. She has a strength and intelligence about her beauty. It's really captivating to me.
I have used Goapele's music in my previous films, and she expressed to me that she was interested in acting. So I thought this was a nice way to move her into that.
While watching the film, it was interesting to see how the different changes of clothing guided Union's character towards not wanting to leave the house to slowly getting her out of her depression. How did you decide which pieces would express that narrative?
That was the fun part. Looking at the clothes and that's really where I started. So it was the colors, it was the structure, the fabric. Like in the scene where [Union's] friend comes in, she's wearing denim, and with each friend that comes in, these women are dressing her. So they are using clothes to evoke emotion. They are trying to choose things that are more lively and bring her out of it. So I looked at the fashion shows and I said to [Miu Miu], "Can I have this, this and this?"
There were a couple of pieces that I had made, which was exciting for me. I'm just a filmmaker from Compton and here I am getting sketches from Miu Miu and I'm like, "These are from Milan!" So they made the dress that Goapele's wearing at the club, the veil and the [red] robe.
Can you discuss the transition that you went through coming off an indie movie to this big-budget project?
It was mostly different because I was doing something for hire. All the films I do, I write the scripts, I direct. So I have never done a project for a client that has a structure. Which is why I say that I am spoiled, because as my first job like this to work with people who are so open to this and do whatever I wanted. They never said no once. I was really happy because there are not too many women of color in this space so I thought it was really great for Miu Miu to extend this project to me.
Because it's a silent film and features all music, is directing music videos something you'd want to venture into?
I'll never say never. It's not something that I'm super interested in, but I was more into doing a silent film with a soundtrack.
What films are you working on next?
Right now I'm in the middle of post-production for a documentary on Venus Williams for ESPN. It's a big piece on her and her feminism. A lot of people don't know what a feminist she is, like the work she's done for the U.N. and fighting for women's rights in sports. It debuts on ESPN in July. And in April, I start shooting my next film.