AV Rockwell interview on ‘A Thousand and One’.

The newly recognized filmmaker shares his long journey to this point and where he is going next.

When director AV Rockwell attended Sundance in 2018, his short film “Feathers” was acquired by Searchlight and later qualified for the Oscars. Even with this high bar, his experience at the 2023 festival exceeded expectations, as his debut feature play, “A Thousand” was able to return home with the grand prize of the jury of the American drama competition.

A strong dose of sink realism in the pantheon of gritty New York stories, the film stars Teyana Taylor as a struggling Harlem woman who kidnaps a child from foster parents and raises her over two decades.

An intimate period piece that begins in 1994 and ends in 2005, “One Thousand and One” demonstrates the filmmaker’s remarkable ability to juggle the massive themes of class and race alongside gentrification while maintaining a powerful emotional core that is a is built around a poignant mother and son. dynamic. “One Thousand and One,” produced by Focus Features, which releases the film in April, establishes Rockwell as a filmmaker on the rise. Before this year’s festival, he discussed his journey leading up to this point.

IndieWire: What brought you to this story?

AV Rockwell: The way that gentrification was reshaping New York, and I particularly noticed that it wasn’t very natural. Not that every part of the city has changed. He felt that certain neighborhoods were targeted. I loved the city so deeply that it felt like a part of who I was, and I felt like, okay, well, New York can’t love me the same way. I think the awareness of unrequited love and the feeling of erasure was a huge motivator for me. Also, I felt that the social experiences of black women were being ignored – not just within society, but even within our own communities and families. I felt I had to talk about this.

How did the current conditions affect the process? Despite being a period piece, there is a timeliness to its themes.

It was interesting because I started making progress on this shortly after Breonna Taylor’s name became really popular in the media. Before that, I think it fell on deaf ears. This spoke to a larger theme I was trying to get at: we are fighting for everyone here, but who is fighting for us? Who sees us completely? We are heroes, but not superheroes. We still need the support of everyone else we try to provide a great support system for. These two big ideas between the city and the experiences of black women in the inner city really moved me forward.

What films inspired you when considering the specific location of the story?

Teyana Taylor embraces Aaron Kingsley Adetola in a still "One thousand and one"

“Thousand and one”

courtesy of Focus Features

Rather, I was trying to fill a gap. There was no other film before this. I thought a lot about the people I grew up with and mourned our home – I felt left out. I wanted to talk about this experience and talk about New York’s relationship not only to the community I represent, but also to itself. I feel privileged as a New Yorker to make a film about the city the way other filmmakers I admire like Spike Lee, Scorsese, Woody Allen. They’re only really known as New Yorkers making New York movies, but I wrote a heartbreak letter rather than a love letter. I didn’t really feel like I had a lot of examples of this in my own way to criticize. New York broke my heart.

Do you think it can be redeemed?

I never lose hope in New York. I will always be a New Yorker. But because of that, I have the right to have a slightly complicated relationship with him.

What was the turning point that started you on the path to making the film?

All my producers – Hillman Grad, Sight Unseen and Makeready – were involved in the development. That was really cool because I think when making a short film like “Feathers” I was looking for a more traditional route to get into festivals and see what could come of it. But I actually met this team before the film went to festivals. They are the ones who have decided to come together and help me make my film, whatever it is. I only had one seed from an idea that we developed together, which was not what I expected, but it was really amazing for me. I felt like I didn’t have that many ideas yet. It took us four years from concept to Sundance. They just shrugged and believed me. Together we nurtured and believed in my vision as it crystallized.

How did you work from there?

I would talk to the feature film lab at Sundance. I did the writer’s lab and the director’s lab. This program helped me not only with the advice I received from Michelle Satter and everyone else, but also with the counselors who were incredibly supportive throughout these experiences. A good number of the filmmakers who went through the program remained in contact. My friend Aristotelész Torres’ film just got into SXSW. Kobi Libii, who produced “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” also for Focus. I’m excited for it. A lot of us have made our films in the past year.

What movies and filmmakers influenced you when you decided you wanted to do this?

People like Spike or Scorsese, I really remember them. As a filmmaker, I’m constantly acquiring new favorite films, but I think these were the filmmakers that had a big impact on me. What’s great about them, if I can look at their admirable careers, is that not only have they made all types of films, and I respect them for that, but they’re artists who have always had a strong voice. You always felt them in their movies. I felt it was important to be free and stay true to myself in my films – but also to have fun and experiment. Not only as a filmmaker of color, but also as a woman, I didn’t have many examples of this.

How much do you feel this has changed?

At the time I was in film school and I was making short films, I was like, “Wow, this female filmmaker I admire, or that woman, there’s a consistent pattern of not making it past two or three films at most.” Then Ava came along and I thought the way she had success in film and television was really beautiful. A year like the one that’s just passed — with Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood — there are so many new examples of people being able to go on and make great movies at the highest level, and not just underdogs.

PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 22: (L-R) Teyana Taylor, director AV Rockwell, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, William Catlett and Josiah Cross attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival "One thousand and one" Premiering at The Ray Theater on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Focus Features)

Teyana Taylor, director AV Rockwell, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, William Catlett and Josiah Cross attend the Sundance Premiere of One Thousand and One at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Getty Images for focus features

I think about black female filmmakers, and there’s still not a lot of people doing it at the highest level, but I think if they make a theatrical film or two, if they’re lucky, now they can keep making films into their seventies and eighties. this is what success will really look like to me. If I decide to make a film until I can’t wake up anymore, I have that ability because that’s how the industry creates a space for our voice.

Where are you going from here?

I want to enjoy the moment to celebrate the release of the film. At the end of the day, I did it for the audience, regardless of what they take away from it. I make films to reach people in a way that makes life easier, even if it’s just two hours. I think things are still open for me. They approached me about adapting a book, and it’s already exciting to be able to write in a different way again. But there are also original concepts that I develop for an original film and for TV. I will always want to make movies, but it would be foolish not to hold on to the benefits of expanding things into TV series. I’m excited to see where these things go.

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