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VIFF 2015 Interview: MAVIS! director Jessica Edwards

MAVIS - At VIFF 2015
by Jason Whyte

(Editorial note: The following interview was performed at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival and is a republishing of our original article on, with some minor updates for VIFF.)

"MAVIS! is the first feature documentary on legendary singer Mavis Staples and her family group the Staple Singers. They were gospel music pioneers, at the forefront of the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and booty shaking hit-makers with soul music hits like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself." And at 75 years old, Mavis is still out there touring and performing and making the most vital music of her career. And Bob Dylan wanted to marry her!" Director Jessica Edwards on MAVIS! which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker.

While I did attend film school for my undergraduate degree, I came into the film industry as a publicist. In 2010, I started making films. My first short documentary SELTZER WORKS was about the last seltzer bottler in Brooklyn. It screened at lots of film festivals and then aired on the PBS documentary series, POV. I felt so lucky that lots of people got to see it. I made another short a year later about tugboats in New York Harbor, called Tugs. I started thinking about doing a feature documentary, but didn't feel inspired to spend years of my life and all my savings until I saw Mavis perform.

How did MAVIS come together for you?

When I saw Mavis perform in Brooklyn two years ago, I was blown away. She was so inspirational and moved me so much that I had to go home and learn everything about her. But when I looked around for the documentary on her and her family life, there was nothing to be found. So I set out to make it myself. It's always good to make a film that you want to watch.

There must have been a significant research process with documenting Mavis. What was your process in getting the film together?

My key collaborator in this process has been my partner, Gary Hustwit. He has an enormous amount of experience and passion for filmmaking. He has produced numerous music documentaries including the Wilco film I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART, MOOG and many others. He has also directed many films including the design documentary HELVETICA. When we first started this process it was him, me and a camera. He really helped me launch the film and I couldn't have done it without him.

The team on this film has been an incredibly small, passionate, dedicated group of people. Rachel Mills, my producer, has been with me since almost the beginning and has been an amazing cheerleader when we weren't sure if we were ever going to get the film made. It is a cliche to say that a documentary film is born in the edit room, but this film certainly was. Amy Foote, was an incredible force in helping us tell Mavis' story. She was the midwife of the project! And given that we did our edit in 6 months and were still shooting up until the week we locked picture, we could never have finished if it wasn't for our Associate Editor, Maya Tippett. They say filmmaking is a collaborate art form. Without these incredible people this film would be nothing. It takes a village!

What was your biggest challenge with bringing Mavis Staples to the screen?

Our biggest challenge in making the film was how much of Mavis' story we could include in the film. She has been touring and performing for over 60 years. There is a lifetime of stories there, and we couldn't include everything in an 82-minute film. So inevitably some of her story was left for others to discover on their own. We tried to stay focused on who she is now and tell her story in within a contemporary framework.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Good collaborators, strong coffee and great music.

Be sure to follow MAVIS online at or on Twitter at @filmfirstco!

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 09/28/15 18:28:21
last updated: 11/30/15 11:17:48
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