Sat, March 02, 2024

Ava DuVernay, Origin, and the power of collaboration

Full Disclosure: I will be removing my critic’s hat in this piece and will instead write about a particular 2-day experience of working on the set of the new film Origin.

Movies are still magic tricks: no matter how much the standards of visual effects, storytelling, or range of talent may expand. Likewise, the eyes of the audience are still drawn, our bodies moved to theaters even as viewing abilities try to grow more immediate and convenient. It is a deep fascination and one that is a pillar of our inherent desire to hear and be heard.

Participation in what may be the ultimate art form is a sacred practice; one that many, including yours truly, spend oodles of money to go to school and learn about. One that makes a child believe that they, too, can find the lost ark. It is a ritual that I first experienced on the set of the new film Origin in December of 2022, just over a year ahead of its wide release last week.

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I was a background actor in the movie for the first two days of filming on location in Savannah (no, I’m not visible). I was still in college earning a degree in writing and acting at the time, so this was my first foray into a professional set.

Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Courtesy NEON

Half of the shots in Savannah make up the Berlin scenes, vignettes of Nazi-era Germany illustrated through the imagination of the film’s protagonist, writer, Isabel Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she studies harrowing events of bigotry throughout modern history to tie power struggles back to the Indian “caste” system, all the while reeling from the loss of her mother and husband some months apart.

The day I arrived on set, at 5:00 am on the site of a factory made believe to look like a German boiler manufacturer, marked the first day of shooting. Us actors, stood in the cold as dawn broke. Then, there was our director, Ava DuVernay.

DuVernay balanced the excitement of a child on a playground, the intellect of a longtime professor, and the empathy of a dedicated mother; directing with a clear sense of historical reference and sociological weight, while never refusing a chance to thank us for bringing the events to life. Our first scene ended with the Sieg Heil salute, a dangerous physicality that chilled our ensemble. With every take, the climax was neither trivialized, normalized, nor sensationalized.

The vibe that DuVernay and the crew cultivated for us was one that elevated the work from a physical challenge to an obligation of moral breadth and search: we, as fillers in the scene, were subscribed, instantly, to the vision of the task. Other background actors sincerely asked over lunch, “Are you going to do the concentration camp scene?” Or would boast, as one older couple did, “We’ve decided that we’re going to do the concentration camp scene.”

Ridiculous conversations to conceive of, but ones that echo a spiritual conviction. On this set, I never met one single player that said something like, “Hey, I’m just here to get paid.”

The second day saw a long shoot inside a makeshift German nightclub, which was really a bar on Savannah’s River Street. Jumping jacks, personal conversations, and laughs before and after takes kept endorphins moving in the smoky room, segueing beautifully into a choreographed dance scene captured in the film. Such a night would not see the electricity brought out in the film without that kind of consideration, perhaps otherwise, capturing long faces and buckets of sweat. Instead, it was a fitness club, and she was our trainer.

While wrapping up, DuVernay bid us goodnight, individually. Still a starstruck student, I seized the opportunity to thank her both for the initiation into movie magic and for providing a job that paid for my mother and sister’s Christmas presents. She took both of my hands and affirmed me, “It is felt.”

The feeling was mutual.

Origin is not about the Holocaust, nor slavery, nor Jim Crow, nor even the Caste system. It is about one woman’s isolated suffering igniting a deep need to contextualize human suffering.   Yes, the film is good. From the lens of a participant, it wasn’t just good because I was there, it was good because everyone else was. I encourage everyone to see the film, for all of us. For every above and below-the-line person that made time to be a part of this. A film about humanity must draw the best from humanity, and with a cast that includes Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Finn Wittrock, and Niecy Nash, a subject like Isabel Wilkerson, and a captain like Ms. DuVernay, the vessel was in good hands from the moment it launched.

I was disappointed for all involved parties that Origin did not make it onto the Academy Awards nominations list last week, but was heartened by reading the list of honors the film has received. Particularly, one outlet, the Virginia Film Festival, held in Charlottesville, which gave the film Best Picture prize.

Considering the substance of Origin, remembering the events of Charlottesville in 2017, also discussed in the film, and that Richmond, Virginia was once the capital city of the Confederacy, and ruminating on Mark Twain’s sentiment about history’s tendency to “rhyme,” I wonder: “Who needs this movie more? Oscar or Virginia? My gut tells me, Virginia.”

Origin is playing in select theatres across the country. Bring tissues.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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