A.V. Rockwell Talks Making ‘A Thousand and One’ and the Misconceptions of First-Time Feature Directors

A.V. Rockwell never saw herself as a writer until her hit feature debut “A Thousand and One.”

The film, which counts Lena Waithe as a producer, centers on Inez and Terry, a Black mother and son who are growing together as they navigate gentrification, police brutality and financial distress in a changing New York City (all the while, Inez is hiding a big secret).

Almost a year after its Sundance debut, the Gotham Award-nominated film that Rockwell wrote and directed continues to receive acclaim for its riveting story and raw characters.

Why did you choose this story for your feature directorial debut?
I wanted to tell a story that spoke to my upbringing in New York City. Around the time I started writing the movie, gentrification was a big thing that was happening. I think the movie explores the fact that [Black people] were under attack the entire time, feeling targeted in the way that our community was by gentrification. I really wanted to tell a story that not only spoke to the relationship between Black people and the city, but a story that also spoke to people that come from a single-mama home.

As a New Yorker yourself, tell me about the significance of having the film take place in the place you call home.

The story is about New York and its people. How a city and a neighborhood makes the people. It’s really an exploration in the way that the city has kind of lost its identity. Identity in a way and how that impacts its inhabitants. But, I think, bigger than that, for me, the story is so much about [the Black] community, and how challenging it is to break generational cycles. I think that, at the beginning of the story, you meet two characters that have already been impacted by an obstacle and a series of events that have affected our community. You see them come together and rebuild life and how optimistically they are able to build a future together. Things are still thrown at them in a way that they always are. I feel like every new generation has a new set of obstacles to overcome within our community.  I think, in a way that you see Inez is fighting for Terry, and fighting for the life that they’ve built, you see how much of a triumph it is just to get over to that finish line, and the way that she fights to do so for him. I think that just by following their journey, it kind of gives a realistic depiction of how surely difficult it is to overcome generational cycles. And to celebrate the mothers, like I know, who do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves, despite being tremendously overlooked in that regard.

Briefly describe finding your Inez, Terry and Lucky. What did each actor need to bring to their respective character?

I think with Inez, I certainly needed to find somebody that was going to be able to understand and interpret all of them as Inez’s colors and all the layers to her. I think I’ve definitely found that in Teyana [Taylor], and I’m so happy for the ways she ‘s been recognized. With Lucky (William Catlett), it was going to be somebody, a masculine man that wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability. And for each of the Terrys (Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross), it was really about just shaping the identity of the young boy who knows so little of himself. Discovering it little by little. Also somebody who has come out of the foster care system, just how fragile he is. As the film progresses, he comes into himself. With each of them you feel [Terry’s] maturity, and you feel him getting more of a sense of who he is, or who he wants to be. And the way that each of them are able to give themselves to the character over the course of his journey.

Teyana Taylor was better known as a singer when you cast her as the lead in this film. What made you think she would be the right choice?

Everybody read for the role. Teyana [Taylor] was among those tapes and I could see what stood out about her in a special way, and that she did have the depth and talent pedigree to take on this role. She gave me all of the truth of what I was looking for in this human being, expecially this inner city Black woman. Inez is a very challenging character. I really pushed [Teyana] during the most challenging moments to pull from herself and from all of her life experiences. Lena [Waithe] was great in making sure that I kept that in mind as well, making sure I created the best space for collaboration (between) me and Teyana.

For you, what were the biggest challenges in making the film?

Making an indie is always challenging, and then going through it during a pandemic only added to it. The weather was really awful that whole summer. The big table scene at the end of the movie with Terry and Inez, we did that in the middle of a thunderstorm. I felt like, how are we going to do this with such limited time? We were dodging the thunder, lightning, rain and all of that. What were your biggest lessons or takeaways after finishing the film? Making a feature for the first time, it’s such a demanding job that I want to be more balanced and be able to take care of the work but also take care of myself physically, mentally. That’s advice I’d give other filmmakers as well. The better you feel, the better you’re doing, the better you can show up for the work ahead of you.

Do you think there are misconceptions about first-time feature directors?

I think a lot of people are just questioning, “Do you know what you’re doing?” It might be the first time we’ve directed something that’s feature length, but it’s not, in most cases, the first time that person has ever directed. That can be a thing where people don’t fully know if they can trust your direction, because they’re like, “Oh, you’ve never done it at this level.” But if everything someone’s done so far has made them a capable director, you have to trust that’s what got them there to even be in conversation with you.

This is a film you wrote and directed. How does that impact the creative and production process, and does it make it easier or harder?

They are definitely different journeys. I think I’m open to directing other people’s material. I don’t know if that’s like a plan for me, in terms of my career trajectory, but I always keep the door open to it. I’m constantly reading other stuff. People have approached me with things and you

I think it is harder to write and direct, just because it takes more time. When you’re writing something, you’re really building it from the ground up. It takes a little bit more time to gestate and become what it wants to be. Then you go through the whole directing experience with it. So When you’re self-generating, it tends to take a bit more time to move from project to project. I definitely prefer it. I just feel like that’s like [writing and directing my projects is] my natural inclination. But again, I do feel open always to if there is another story that’s out there already, that could just be a right fit for me.

I assumed that I would be directing other people’s materials, because I didn’t fully embrace myself as a writer. As I’ve grown, and gotten to know myself more as a filmmaker, I went on to direct pretty much everything I’ve directed. All of my shorts, that was all stuff that was self-generated. I just really realized that a lot of the things that I looked for in other people’s material, I probably wouldn’t have found. It just needs to come from me. I think organically, as I discovered more of who I am, it just revealed itself that writing and directing is more of what my inclination is. But again, if an opportunity feels right, and it comes along for me to direct somebody else’s material, I’m open to it now, I’m always gonna have a certain level of openness to it. In addition to also just adapting stuff. Whether that’s like a book or just some other source material.

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