At the Santa Clarita, California, filming location of A Wrinkle In Time last February, there was an unmistakable electric aura in the air, as though the entire set had been touched by Disney magic. The weather was crisp and sunny, and as I walked into the production office, I could almost swear tiny animated birds were singing to me from the trees.
It turned out that chirping was actually just a handful of other journalists also eagerly awaiting our day of observing filming for one of Disney's most buzzed-about movies of all time. That anticipatory energy only increased when a group of smiling publicists confirmed that later, we'd get the chance to interview Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which, better known as Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey. The pair are two of the three witches in this story — the third, Mrs. Who, played by Mindy Kaling — that guide the main character, Meg Murry (Storm Reid), her brother, Charles (Deric McCabe), and their friends on a sci-fi, fantasy-filled adventure through time.
Our official welcome comes from producer Catherine Hand, the magicmaker who has worked for five decades to make A Wrinkle In Time a reality. When the passing of Walt Disney in 1966 crushed a then-teenaged Hand's dreams of ever seeing her favourite book, A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, turned into a Disney movie, she decided she would one day make it happen herself. Eventually, while working as a creative executive in television, she reached out to Disney about obtaining the rights to L'Engle's book. She later befriended L'Engle, and the duo became close friends over 20 years before L'Engle died in 2007.
Still, it took several starts and stops — including a made-for-TV version in 2003 that was less-than-stellar thanks to budget constraints — before Hand's big-budget dream was able to come to life. Now, A Wrinkle In Time has a script written by Frozen's Jennifer Lee, is being helmed by Ava DuVernay — one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors — and includes an Oprah-level star-studded cast led by newcomer Storm Reid as a bi-racial, curly haired Meg Murry.
"People always ask why I held onto this idea so long — and I'm sure Disney is tired of me by now," Hand says. "But Walt Disney himself has a quote that I've always held onto: 'Get a good idea and stay with it. Do it and work at it until it's done right.' So this idea is the one thing that kept me inspired over the years. And A Wrinkle In Time means different things to different people at different times in their life, and there are so many threads. To be able to take those threads and create an adventure that will go down in history...that makes it all worth it."
By the time we’re able to get a close-up look at some filming, the sun has already begun to set in Southern California, casting a cool lavender glow over the lot. But in the Murrys' backyard, it’s still a bright morning. DuVernay stands over Reid and 9-year-old Deric McCabe, who plays Meg’s precocious little brother Charles, softly but firmly explaining the emotions she wants to see on their faces to believe they’re getting ready to travel through time. Chris Pine, who plays Meg's kooky scientist father who's lost in space, is suddenly on hand to tell us that DuVernay is “the best kind of director. She’s a wonderful balance between a good general, good alpha, and a good creative left brain.”
One look at her in her element, and that assessment very clearly rings true. If the set of A Wrinkle In Time has been sprinkled with some sparkling, otherworldly magic, then Ava DuVernay is the magician. But her greatest trick of all is not just being the first Black woman to direct a $100-million movie, though that is a history-making feat in itself. It’s the way she has effortlessly shown the world what true colourblind casting can — and should — look like.
Between takes, DuVernay takes a few minutes to answer some of our questions. But she has the kind of distracted demeanour us writers know well, the attention span of someone who’s been in the creative zone all day and isn’t able to easily snap out of it — especially to answer questions she very frankly says she shouldn’t be asked.
“We're not doing anything that shouldn't have already been done when it comes to diversity,” she says. “The question is: why hasn't this been done before? There's nothing outstanding and outlandish about this cast. It's outstanding and outlandish that there's been casts without reflecting the true inclusiveness of our daily life. I get the diversity question a lot, and my question back is: We should've been asking that question for the last 75 years of cinema.”
Once that conversation is out of the way, however, DuVernay warms up. She’s not sentimental about taking on this project, but instead, very matter of fact about why it was simply too great of an opportunity to pass up.
“For me, this book was science, spirituality, social commentary. There's so many layers and so many different parts of the story that I just want to offer to people so they take from it what’s important,” she says. “Some people might watch this and see sci-fi. Some might see romance. Some see a story about math nerds. Some see a family story, and some see girl power. I watch it and see this cool, quirky, dark, odd grand adventure of a girl searching the universe, but in the end, finding herself. I don't know how I got here, but I'm glad I'm here. I hope they're gonna call me back!”
Later, we watch from a production tent screen as DuVernay gently coaches Reid to prepare her for her first onscreen kiss with her character's love interest, Calvin, played by Levi Miller. The moment feels private, and we can’t hear much, but it’s clear from the then-13-year-old’s awkward, shy body language that despite headlining a future blockbuster, she’s still just a kid.
When we met Reid, though, she's back to business, poised and thoughtful with a vocabulary more well-versed than many full-grown adults I’ve met. I immediately ask her about what it was like to envision this main character, whose race is never discussed in the book, with her own brown skin and curly hair. I add how important the casting was for me, a Wrinkle In Time fan with brown skin and curly hair myself who's used to seeing my favourite book characters portrayed by white actresses.
“When I first got the role, I was getting tweets and messages that said 'Yay, Storm! There's a character in a movie that finally looks like me!” says Reid, who for the record, had coincidentally just read the novel in sixth grade before auditioning for the movie. “Then, when Ava told me that I was the first little African-American girl to lead a sci-fi movie, it was absolutely inspirational and incredible. People are calling me the lead, so it’s a lot of pressure. But I hope that more African-American girls get more opportunities like this because of it.”
"It's about finding your flow in life, the current that you're supposed to follow that is like no one else's. And that is a story for all times."
Just when I think it doesn't get better than that, we're reminded that there are plenty more creatives bringing A Wrinkle In Time to life. Celebrity stylist Kim Kimble, who’s worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Kim Kardashian and Shakira, was tasked with putting together what she estimates were about 20-25 wigs for the cast and their stunt doubles. While the natural curls of her main character were easy enough, the most challenging was executing the whimsical looks of the three witches, whose wigs required intricate braiding, styling, and testing in advance — then hours of careful application and additional styling at the beginning of filming each day, plus upkeep and storage at the end.
“I worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, so I’m used to really pushing the envelope — but this was really challenging,” Kimble admits. "You've never seen Oprah Winfrey or Reese Witherspoon like this before. That was something that Ava really wanted to make sure of, that they all got into their characters. So all of the women are excited when they come into hair and makeup, because they transform into someone else.”
Kimble describes Witherspoon’s look as a “spiritual flower child.” Oprah’s Mrs. Which, meanwhile, is “the bold, metallic, diva of the galactic,” while Kaling was more culturally inspired, “like a quilt: A little bit of Africa, a little bit of Asian, a little bit of Colombia.” Her colleague Paco Delgado, the movie’s costume designer, agrees. A veteran of period dramas like Les Misérables and The Danish Girl, Delgado was excited at the prospect of working on something a bit more fantastical, charged with dressing the Mrs. in addition to the movie’s villain, Red (Michael Peña) and its comic relief, the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis).
Delgado walks me through the costume trailer, and his Canary Islands, Spain, accent becomes increasingly passionate as he runs silver-ringed fingers over layers of shimmering tribal-printed fabrics and asymmetric, blooming confections that barely fit onto garment racks.
“I start by asking the main questions: Who are they? Where are they coming from, and what sort of world do they represent?” Delgado explains. “Mrs. Who [Kaling] is always speaking in sentences from worldly books, so she looks almost like a librarian with layers covered in calligraphy, like the pages of a book. When we first meet Mrs. Whatsit [Witherspoon], she’s stealing bedsheets from people, so her look incorporated a lot of white and billowing movement. And then Mrs. Which [Winfrey] is energy and light. I thought of her as a supernova, so she was all metallics and silver and light. All of these women are from out of this world, so we needed to create something out of this world. I hope we succeeded.”
Soon we’re whisked away to a nearby tent, where we all make nervous small talk while we wait to meet two of the witches themselves. To pass the time, we chow down on slices from the New York-style pizza food truck that’s parked outside, a filming mainstay brought to the set to feed the cast and crew courtesy of Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling.
And then in walks Oprah Winfrey as no one has ever seen her before: Her hair stark white, eyebrows bejewelled, lips, nails and a geometric suit all shimmering silver. She slowly slides her body sideways into a chair, partially because her layered costume is so bulky she can’t sit up straight, and partly because…
“My vajayjay is chapped!” she announces. “I was hanging from a wire literally with the strap in my genitalia. They cut me down!”
Of course, Winfrey’s explanation of why she chose to sign on to A Wrinkle In Time — considering the book “never made it to her neighbourhood" — is the kind of thing you want to immediately write down and perhaps share on an inspirational Pinterest quote board.
“Mrs. Which is a supernova angel woman wisdom teacher who has come to help Meg and her brother find their father, but it’s really about helping them find their own sense of belief, confidence, and empowerment,” she says, adding that her personal interpretation of Mrs. Which is somewhere between Glenda the Good Witch and her dear friend Maya Angelou. “In the lines we did today, Mrs. Which says to Meg ‘you just have to know the right frequency,’ meaning get on the right vibration — you just have to know the right frequency and have faith in who you are. That's really what the film is about. It's about lining up with what is your true frequency. It's about finding your flow in life, the current that you're supposed to follow that is like no one else's. And that is a story for all times.”
And then Reese Witherspoon floats in to join the conversation like a Grecian mermaid in a white toga, fiery orange hair braided to the side, blue eyes popping out from dark lashes. Witherspoon and Winfrey are an unlikely pair, but it’s immediately clear that the two have forged a bond on set (one the rest of the would see nearly a year later when a gushing Witherspoon presented Winfrey with the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes). They have the habits of two people who have spend many idle hours together; Winfrey likes to mimic Witherspoon’s sweet Southern “y’all,” and Witherspoon nods along encouragingly to every word that Winfrey says.
Witherspoon describes her Mrs. Whatsit as young and playful, a curious cross between a "merman and a Cheshire cat." A fan of the book from childhood, she says she jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this moment.
“Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, we didn't have the internet, I didn't know what was out there beyond where I was from,” she says. “So I was a big reader. This book was really important for me because it taught me that anything is possible if you focus on the good in life — and that women can be heroes!”
But it was also because of the opportunity to work with this cast. “You know, Mindy’s been writing a book in her trailer, Oprah is a correspondent for 60 Minutes, Ava is doing the awards circuit for her documentary 13th...we’re all so insanely busy, and I think it’s really wonderful we knew the importance of this message and what Ava wanted to accomplish and put our busy stuff aside to make this possible. I think that’s because it flows so nicely into all of our intentions as creators, and as women…”
“As warriors of light!” Winfrey finishes for her.
The duo is soon whisked back to the set, and just like that, our little bubble on the set of A Wrinkle In Time quickly bursts as we all head back to our cars and say goodbye. Driving back from the mountains toward Los Angeles’s sleek skyline that night, I feel as if I myself have tessered back and forth through time, just like young Meg. After all, just a few hours ago, I was eating pizza provided by three dazzling wise witches and talking to a hero who looks just like me. But then I realise that that’s the true magic of this new adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time: It’s a reminder to all of us that no matter who you are, you can be the hero. And in today's real world dark times, we could all use some warriors of light.