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Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood bonded over calling out toxic men on set

DuVernay says Prince-Bythewood gave her advice on how to deal with bad behavior on set early in her career.

Imagine having the nerve to disrespect Ava DuVernay in general, let alone on a working movie set. The Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker says a few “knuckleheads” have done just that throughout her movie career, but advice from fellow director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard) quickly taught her how to confront the issue head-on.

“[She] told me early on to not let bad behavior slide, especially how it related to male crew members and their interactions with [me] as a woman director. Your instinct might be to let that go, but she talked about it,” DuVernay said during a virtual Q&A at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. She says Prince-Bythewood stressed the importance of calling out such behavior “in the open” to set the tone for decorum during production.

“Basically, let it be known, and the poor soul is gonna be the one who’s the example,” she continued. “It didn’t have to be sassy or anything dramatic, but to let it be known that certain things wouldn’t be tolerated. I remember her telling me that…. I thought I’d never have that problem [but] it used to come up a lot for me. [It was] only on the last couple of films that I started to realize, ‘Oh, this doesn’t come up for me much anymore!'”

DuVernay observed that “when you’re first starting out, you have less domain over the choice of who’s around you,” which can result in “some knuckleheads who need a word or two.”

Throughout the conversation, DuVernay also recalled working with John Lewis on her Martin Luther King, Jr.-focused historical drama Selma, in which actor Stephan James co-starred as the late congressman who played a vital role in the 1965 voting rights marches in the film’s titular Alabama town.

“He was so generous with his time, so breezy and funny. He was just very much, ‘Girl come over here and let me tell you this story!'” DuVernay fondly remembered. “He’d allow me to call him and ask questions. My questions were sometimes personal questions, intimate questions, things I couldn’t read in books [like] the texture of how people really were with each other, and he gave it all to me freely and with such kindness and warmth. He was very emotional through the process…. at the premiere he cried, that past was very present for him all the way to the end, so it was an honor to get to know him.”

Follow EW for the latest news, reviews, and more from the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

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