The last film Ava DuVernay directed cost $200,000, while her new movie Selma was 100 times that.
It was a big step up for the former Hollywood publicist, one that has reaped recognition even before the awards season takes off at the Golden Globes on Sunday.
Regardless of whether she and the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic collect honours, DuVernay made history as the first African-American woman to be nominated for best director in the 72 years of the Globes. If she wins, she would be the first black man or woman to win a best movie director Golden Globe.
"I don't believe I am the first one who has made something worthy," DuVernay said. "That is where the bittersweet moment comes in. It is sweet for me in this moment and my mother is very happy, but certainly I know I stand on the shoulders of a lot of amazing women."
Selma, which focuses on the civil rights leader's role in the seminal 1965 marches in Alabama for black voters' rights, was percolating for years and several directors had come and gone.
DuVernay, 42, got the call from the actor signed to play King, David Oyelowo, who was in her previous movie. It seemed like destiny. No other filmmaker she knew had a father from the county where Selma is located, nor a mother who crossed the landmark bridge featured in the marches on her way to work.
"That was the entry point that allowed me to go from a $200,000 film to a $20 million film without a lot of jitters because... I know that place, I know how to recreate the lives of black folk on film," DuVernay said.
She also knew she had "a damn good King" in Oyelowo, nominated for best actor in a drama at the Golden Globes.
"He's a Brit, he is very posh, but he is one of the most exquisite souls and hard-working actors I have ever met," she said.
DuVernay has also been praised for deftly handling a large supporting cast that includes veterans like Oprah Winfrey, a producer of the film, and newcomers like Canadian Stephan James.
"If there is anything I bring from my publicity background it is working with a lot of people at one time," she said.
The film, which goes into wide release Friday, has resonated in the current debate about racial justice in America following killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. It is nominated for the most coveted Golden Globe award, best drama, and could earn a best picture Oscar nod.
One thing not going DuVernay's way is criticism that President Lyndon Johnson is misrepresented in the film as lukewarm to African-Americans' fight for voting rights.
"It's not a documentary. I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller," DuVernay said of the controversy last weekend. "And we take it from there. We don't let this stuff get us down, we just go onward."