“Selma” isn’t just a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s one of the most successful and widely resonant films of the year.
And much of the film—including two of the most prominent scenes—was filmed on location right here in Alabama, both in Selma and Montgomery.
Having worked with the Alabama Department of Commerce for a few years now, we’re quite proud that this film was (partially) Made In Alabama. But we wanted to know more about how that all came to pass.
Atlanta-based Executive Producer Paul Garnes, who has worked with director Ava DuVernay for many years now, was kind enough to field a few questions from us on the importance of the film, the process of producing an Oscar nominee, and the necessity of filming its most resounding scenes right here where they took place half a century ago.
Here’s Part One of our interview with Paul Garnes.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Paul.
So, “Selma” is the second feature you’ve worked on with director Ava DuVernay. How did you two come to work together?
It’s the second feature with us working as a producer-director combo, but I’ve worked with her over the years many times as a publicist. And that’s actually where I met her. We were doing an HBO movie years ago called “Dancing In September”, and I was introduced to her as a publicist at that point. Over the years, we worked together on and off on different productions. 13 or so years ago, we were doing a movie called “Biker Boyz”. She was a unit publicist, and she was basically telling us that she’d written a script, and she wanted to direct. And that was kind of the launch of the journey. That script turned out to be “Middle of Nowhere”, which was the first movie that we worked on together. It was her second narrative film—she’d done a couple of docs—and “Selma” is now her third.
What inspired DuVernay (and writer Paul Webb) to tell the story of the Selma marches?
Well, the project started years ago when Paul Webb was the only writer on it. It was more of a British production—the lead producer at the time was a guy named Christian Colson who’s still on the project. Over the years, it kind of matured, and Ava became part of it about two years ago. They had already focused in on a period of time that they wanted to look at, which was the events that surrounded the signing of the Voter Rights Act of 1965. Ava kind of added her specific expertise, which was really getting into these characters and understanding what they went through, and the nuts and bolts of the personalities and the relationships they had and how they interacted. Which added a dimension to that story.
We had conversations about what things we could pull off, and what things would be a challenge to pull off. Then she told me what things were mandatory to make the story work.
As an Executive Producer, how involved were you in the pre-production stages of “Selma”, particularly logistics and location scouting?
I was very involved with that process. We had a script, which Ava had to go in and modify for multiple reasons—partially creative, but partially we were trying to make it fit within a certain budget parameter. So we had those conversations even as she prepared to do her rewrite about what things we could pull off, what things would be a challenge to pull off. And then she can tell me what things are mandatory to make the story work. Then it’s a bit of a process of her trying to build a narrative around what’s available to us. We did some pre-scouting pretty early in the process, during the writing process—probably eight months before shooting—where she went down to Selma and walked across the [Edmund Pettus] Bridge, got a feel for the space and what it was like and what’s there now. Over those eight months, as we got closer, we started doing more frequent trips to different areas to figure out where and how and what we were going to shoot.