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Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay Pay Tribute to Each Other at Produced By Conference

Variety logo Variety 6/11/2017 Dave McNary
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Two of Hollywood’s leading cultural icons — Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay — offered an upbeat glimpse Saturday at the origins of what’s to become an extensive collaboration.

Winfrey told a capacity crowd at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot that David Oyelowo had insisted that she look at DuVernay’s 2012 drama “The Middle of Nowhere,” which won the top prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. This then led to a Mother’s Day lunch at Winfrey’s home, where DuVernay brought in the biggest flower arrangement she could find leading Winfrey to agree to come on board as a producer and cast member on DuVernay’s “Selma.”

Winfrey told the crowd at the Producer Guild of America’s Produced By conference that she was moved by DuVernay’s behavior on the set, where it was often over 100 degrees.

“People treat me pretty well, so what I watch is how they treat other people — the assistant director, the people at the craft service table,” she recalled. “You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”

Winfrey’s next step was to invite DuVernay after the shoot to her Maui ranch, ostensibly to relax but actually to pitch her to come on board to write the script for a “Queen Sugar” series. Her technique was to leave copies of Natalie Bazile’s novel all over the house.

DuVernay agreed and made three runs at the script for the pilot, which premiered on OWN in September. The series about a black family’s sugarcane farm in Louisiana is starting a second season with a two-night special on June 20-21. “You never have to give me another present — ever!” a jubilant Winfrey declared Saturday.

DuVernay, who went on to receive an Oscar nomination this year for the documentary “13th,” recapped how she was incredulous that Disney had pursued her to come on board as director of time-travel fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” — making her the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget of more than $100 million. She insisted that the crews include a significant percentage of women and minorities.

“If you’re a department head, do not come to me with a list of white men,” DuVernay said. “You have to show me that you’ve looked at other people. Other people are excellent other than the people you know, and you have to show me that you’ve done that before we make any hire.”

She also persuaded Winfrey to play the Mrs. Which role, which she described as “all-knowing.” Winfrey said the character is a combination of poet Maya Angelou and Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz.”

DuVernay said she’s showing Disney executives her first cut of “A Wrinkle in Time” on Sunday. The movie opens on March 9.

Bruce Cohen, whose credits include “American Beauty,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “Pushing Daisies,” moderated the event.

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