FOCUS ON: Tamra Davis, Director of Basquiat

By Melody Morgan
Posted on May 14, 2011

FOCUS ON is a regular interview series profiling independent filmmakers and their projects. Up this week is Tamra Davis, whose documentary Basquiat, aired this season on Independent Lens.

What was your favorite movie when you were a child? I used to watch a lot of old movies when I was a kid. The Wizard of Oz was one of my favorite movies. I liked the contrast between this magical, beautiful fantasy and the dark side of the story. 

What is the most interesting part-time/non-film related job you've ever had 
When I went to film school, I worked for a guy doing property management. I ran his company and he owned all these buildings in Hollywood. What was interesting is that this allowed me to walk into these strangers' homes and I saw who they were and what their lives were like. I always remember that, because now I create people's homes and different realities when I direct. I did that for a few years. 

How did you meet this guy? I was remaking Sunset Boulevard on Super 8mm for film school, and he lived down the street from me in this big mansion. I wanted to use his house for Norma Desmond's house, so I knocked on his door. He had agoraphobia and never left the house, so I started working for him.  I also ran his house, which was a crazy experience. His house was near the Playboy Mansion and I'd arrive for work and sometimes he'd have porn shoots in his living room.  One day he suggested I film what was going on, like a documentary. I interviewed all these porn stars, but I never did anything with the footage. Then Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly used it for research for Boogie Nights

What was the transition like for you when you finished college and got out into the "real world"?  It was bizarre. When I left film school (Los Angeles City College Cinema) I was 23 and convinced there were no limits.  I was ready to be a director. But when I went to give a pitch to a film company, they looked at me like "Who is this young girl?" I was a joke. But I brought a video to that meeting: a music video I made for a song that I wanted to be on the soundtrack to the film I pitched. Later I got a call from the President of Capitol Records. I thought I was in trouble because I made that video, but he said, "We’ve never seen anything like this. We’ll give you $50,000 to shoot a music video if you can make it look exactly like this." No one in the '80s had seen this kind of grainy-shaky music video before, they were used to Billy Joel and "Uptown Girl." 

What was the hardest part about starting your filmmaking career? Proving that I was serious and I wanted to be a filmmaker. I think in Hollywood there's a stereotype of what a filmmaker looks like. When I started, there weren't many female directors. That was the hardest part: breaking through the stereotype of what a filmmaker looks like. I just had to keep pushing myself and I never gave up. I saved my money from the music videos and made short films to show my narrative skills. The first script I went out of film school with, Gun Crazy, became my first film. It was written by a family friend who helped me when I had the property management job. 

You've had a pretty diverse directing career — from music videos to studio pictures to indie films. How do you choose the projects you direct?  I always try to make something that I love. You have to be excited about it. I like to work with people I know. But as a director you have maybe four or five things cooking on the stove because you don’t really know what project is going to go through and get funding. So it's random in that sense. I've always just been grateful to work. It's such a miracle that any film ever gets made. 

For the soundtrack of Basquait you used almost every genre of music that exists. What was your process like for selecting the music? In a way, it was inspired by Jean-Michel. I know how much music meant to him; he listened to so many different kinds of music, and he'll reference classical or jazz in his work. It came from knowing what he listened to and looking at his work to see what he was referencing. His paintings kind of have so many things mixed together, so I wanted the soundtrack to reflect that multimedia feel. With the score, I worked with Mike and Adam [Mike Diamond - her husband - and Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys]. Those guys were kind of on hold with their record, so they were excited to make music and not sit around. 

The rhythm of the editing, along with the music, was seamless. How do you work with your editors?  I'm used to sitting in a room with an editor the whole time, but with Basquiat, my editor, Alexis Spraic, wanted me to give her time to put stuff together and then we would work together. Alexis wasn’t intimidated by me, and she really pushed me. She constantly asked me, "What are you trying to say? Why did you make this movie?" She was trying to push me to make sure what I was making came from my heart. For six months of editing I had to make myself emotional and raw. I had to live in a world of mourning for my friend because I had to make sure the film affected me at a very deep level. It was hard because I had to keep watching it over and over. It was like watching a Lars Von Trier movie — you knew it wasn't going to end good. 

You've directed many music videos, you're married to a musician; music seems to play a significant role in your professional and personal life.  Are you a musician? What is your favorite karaoke song? I’m the worst musician. I’m such a big fan of music, but I can’t sing and I can’t play instruments. Music is so important to me because it moves me so much, it has such a huge impact in our lives, it helps us deal with our emotions.  I come from such a place of respect for musicians, and that helps when I make music videos. I don’t have a favorite karaoke song. I grew up in Hollywood and wanted to be an actress — I thought that’s what girls did in movies. I went to Rome to be an actress and went into a room with Nastassja Kinski. We were supposed to act like "I want every man," but all I could do was walk in and look at her. When I came back from Rome I realized I’m not that person up in front, I like to watch that person and admire that person. That's when I decided not to be an actor or performer. 

And that includes karaoke? Yes, I’d much rather watch you make a fool of yourself or entertain me. And my husband and friends — they love entertaining, and I like to be the one who watches.

 But now you're in front of the camera with your super popular online cooking show Yeah that's true. It may come across how uncomfortable I am in front of the camera.


So how did the show come about? I had a baby and then I suddenly had another baby. When you have two kids it's like: you are a mom. That is your job. So I was wrestling with my identity. I'm a mom, but I used to be a filmmaker, so how do I deal with it? I was watching a lot of TV and cooking shows and I realized, I'm not going to feed my family this stuff. I cook all the time, so I thought, I'm a filmmaker, maybe I can make a show of what it's like to be a mom and cook, and maybe other moms might be inspired. I'm in it in an observational way. It gave me something to do as a filmmaker with my family. I could edit, make a film, post it online, and get back to filmmaking. In a way it inspired me to make Basquiat. When I started to think about making Basquiat, I had the confidence of a filmmaker that all I needed was my camera. 

What's next for you? I've been working on this television show in Atlanta called Single Ladies. This is something very different — I directed the pilot and then they ordered 10 episodes and now I'm an executive producer. It's kind of a Sex And The City, a female Entourage; you cant imagine what these girls go through and its all in Atlanta. Working on this show has been an incredible adventure. It premieres Memorial Day, and then every week on VH-1 this summer. 

Finally, many times did you have to listen to the song "MMMBop" before you directed that Hanson video? I listen to a song a hundred times while I'm trying to think up visuals. 

This BTB interview was conducted and condensed by Melody Morgan.


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