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Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child director Tamra Davis has a reputation for cultivating great performances from her high-profile actors, most of whom she got to work with before they got famous: She directed Adam Sandler in Billy Madison, Chris Rock in CB4, and Dave Chappelle in Half Baked. (She also directed Britney Spears in Crossroads, back when Spears’ rep was still more positive than not.) Davis cut her teeth making music videos for N.W.A., Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, and the Beastie Boys; she’s married to Beastie Mike D. While still in film school in California, Davis struck up a friendship with provocative painter and art-world superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat. She filmed a series of intimate interviews with him, but shelved them when he died. A few years ago, she unearthed them again at the insistence of friends, and started working on the newly released Radiant Child. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Davis to talk about the film, her relationship with Basquiat, Adam Sandler’s love of hurting children, and the difficulties of hiring Crips for music videos.
The A.V. Club: How did you approach turning your 20-minute interview with Basquiat into a feature-length documentary?
Tamra Davis: David Koh saw the short at Sundance, and he’s like, “Could you make this into a feature?” I was kind of like, “You know, I really like the purity of just Jean-Michel talking and painting.” It was hard for me to grasp the idea that I would start to introduce all those voices again that I felt [Basquiat] was commenting about. The more I thought about it, though, I realized that there were so many people that weren’t around in the ’80s that didn’t really know what I was battling against personally—all those opinions—and it would actually be very helpful for me to show people where he came from, and set up New York at that time. The more people I talked to—I kind of made this list of people I felt Jean-Michel would have wanted me to speak with. So I was very specific about “these are the people I think he would really want me to talk to.” Each of those people were so enlightening to me. Every time I walked out of an interview, I would just be like, “This person just said the most amazing things.” There was a real passion for me talking to each of those people that I hope translated in the film.
AVC: Were those people you knew from that time?
TD: Some of them, which I was grateful for, because that gave me access to them, or they had heard of me. A lot of times, they were people I’d only heard of, like Nick Taylor. I’d only seen his name on his photographs, so to go to his East Village apartment where he still lives after all these years and sit at a table and talk to him—it was like talking to an old friend. There’s an intimacy that comes from those moments that I feel is just so cool. The same thing happened with [Basquiat’s longtime girlfriend] Suzanne [Mallouk]. I felt like we were talking about an old friend at tea instead of just doing an interview.
AVC: How did reliving these memories of your friendship affect you emotionally?
TD: It was interesting, because it took about a year to edit the piece. I think what was hard about it was that I really wanted to make a film that moved you narratively. I wanted to make a film that wasn’t just a biography. When you watched it, you actually felt that you watched a movie, that you had an emotional reaction. In order to do that, I felt that I had to really keep myself emotionally raw while working on the film. I had to feel myself crying, so the audience could be moved, too. I think that part was quite hard, because I lived in this weird world for almost a year, trying to keep myself open to emotion for him. It was interesting, but also hard to go to the editing room and cry every day. Even trying to watch the film now from beginning to end without crying is so hard, but I think that emotion comes through in the film, which is the most important part.
AVC: You lived in Los Angeles back then, but did you ever experience what was going on in the scene in New York?
TD: My connection with Basquiat was really in Los Angeles, which really was a whole different world to what he was experiencing in New York. There were times that I did come back here and would hang out with him in New York and go to some of those clubs. By that time, it was already ’85 or ’86, so the scene was already kind of really picking up. When Glenn O’Brien started to describe New York in the early ’80s, I was like “Oh my God, what an amazing scene.” Thurston Moore had put on a no-wave photography show, and Jean-Michel was there. He was right in that scene. It was really important for me to talk to Thurston—who was also around the music scene at that time—to bring those aspects into the film. In order to understand Jean-Michel, you have to understand where he came from, and other artists he was around.
AVC: How did you go about choosing the music for the film?
TD: Usually on the films I’ve made, you have so many people that that’s someone’s job. For this, I had to do everything myself. Thankfully, I live with Mike D, so I’d be like, “Mike, tell me some bands.” So I give him credit as music supervisor, but he would just say, “Oh, you’ve got to listen to this and this.” I would also go to the library and look up Details magazine, I think, that had DJ lists back in the day. Adam Horovitz gave me these great mix-tapes from the ’80s, and that was really helpful. I had an old mix-tape from Jean-Michel of the music he listened to, so it was like this crazy combination of trying to do that, but also knowing that Jean-Michel listened to classical music and bebop—I was really lucky that Concord Music worked with me, and they let me get a lot of their music into the movie. There’s also a lot of score that sounds like ’80s music that Adam Horovitz and Mike did.
AVC: There’s a real vibrant energy in the film and the way it’s edited. Did you try to pace the film at his mind’s speed?
TD: Yes. I think one of the things I was trying to show is that explosion of ideas and thoughts—that the film could go from classical to no wave to jazz because that’s what he would listen to. He would be reading a book, watching TV, and listening. It was this kaleidoscope of things constantly hitting him, and things definitely happened at a fast pace for him. I definitely wanted that feeling in the film. If you look at his paintings, you feel that energy. I really would just stare at the pieces and try to feel that pace coming from them. [Fab 5] Freddy told me that he told Jean-Michel, “If you put one of your paintings up on the street in the East Village [at the time] it would just blend seamlessly into the background. You couldn’t pick it apart from what you’re looking at.” He thought Jean-Michel would get mad at him for saying that, but Jean-Michel was just like, “That’s awesome.” He totally loved the idea. He wouldn’t say “awesome”—that’s my California. He would say something different. That’s how his paintings were. They were just a reflection of the street at the time.
AVC: Your work has covered so many genres. Are there any similarities to working on this Basquiat doc and, say, Billy Madison?
TD: It was funny. During the MoMA screening, the Q&A was crazy. If I had to write a script for it, nobody would have believed me. At one point, Chris Rock stands up and says, “How would you compare this film and working with Basquiat to working with Dave Chappelle in Half Baked?” I said, “I know that’s a funny question, but it’s actually a really important one, because it’s true, you could really make important comparisons between those two people, because Dave cracked when people started to hold him up as a representative for black people.” It was very difficult for him to take that incredible appreciation of his work mixed with the criticism he was getting, and how people were holding him responsible in some way for how we perceive black people at this time.
I saw a lot of comparisons between the two. I’ve been lucky enough to work in pop culture, especially with people right before they popped. In Billy Madison, I worked with Adam before anyone really knew he was Adam Sandler. We created Billy Madison, which he now keeps making over and over, thankfully. [Laughs.] But to be able to nurture and work with an artist when they’re first starting to be creative and have fun with it—I think my relationship with Sandler was similar to my relationship with Basquiat. It’s being with somebody that loves you, and thinks what you’re doing is the funniest thing ever. That allowed Adam to be the funniest he’s ever been, I believe, in any of his movies, because I just sat there and laughed at him. The same thing with Basquiat. Just to have a friend next to you that thinks you’re the best artist in the world, and films you and hangs out with you and is your best friend and is always there for you… It didn’t matter if you were famous or not. They were just always there for you.
There were similarities in that sense, but working-wise, it was totally different. This film, it was like, if I needed a shot of Crosby Street, I would have to get my cameras together, grab my backpack, and get on my scooter to go grab the shot. It was a mental challenge, because as a filmmaker, there’s a freedom—anybody can make a movie as long as you have a camera, but you also have to go out and make it.
AVC: Do you prefer one way or the other to work?
TD: No, I’m just so grateful to work. I love making films, and as long as I love the subject, I just have a crazy amount of passion and energy for the project. The project that influenced me the most is this cooking show I do online. I film it all myself, and I think making so many of those gave me the confidence that all I need is a camera, and I could go and do an interview. The freedom to be a filmmaker—you just need a camera.
AVC: Do you have a memorable Adam Sandler story?
TD: I don’t know. I just saw Adam recently. When we did Billy Madison, we were in Canada and staying in the same hotel. We had to bond immediately to make that film. We would spend hours talking on the phone about what we were going to do the next day. The day we were going to do the dodgeball scene, I had it all worked out with stunts and balls and kids, etcetera. The night before, Adam calls me on the phone and says, “Tamra, you know, tomorrow we’re going to do this dodgeball scene. I really want to hit these kids.” I’m like, “Adam, you can’t just hit these kids. They’re children.” He said, “No, no, no. Line them up, and ask who would be okay getting hit. Make sure you get the parents to say yes, and I’m really going to hit them hard.” I was like, “You’re crazy.” And he’s like, “No, hurting kids is funny. It’s going to be really funny.” I was like, “Adam!” And that’s what he did—he really hit those kids as hard as he could. And I cut right before you see the kids just fully start crying.
AVC: Not as funny?
TD: Not as funny, but the actual throw and the hit, that’s funny. Them crying? Not so funny. We just had the freedom to do all these fun things. We all stayed in the same hotel. It was me and Farley and David Spade. They were making Tommy Boy at the same time, and we just had the best time in the world doing crazy things.
AVC: You’ve also directed single episodes of a number of TV shows, including My Name Is Earl, Ugly Betty, Everybody Hates Chris, and Grey’s Anatomy. What’s it like to jump into such a specific world for a short period of time?
TD: Pretty much all the shows I’ve done, I’ve done their first few episodes. On My Name Is Earl, I did their fifth episode, which became the third one. On Ugly Betty, I did an early episode. A lot of times, the networks would have me come in to make sure that stylistically, they pulled out whatever they could. I rarely go over schedule, so they want to make sure somebody brings it in on time.
AVC: You started out making music videos. What was that experience like?
TD: When I got out of film school, I thought I was going to direct my first feature, but it took me six years to convince someone to give me money to make Guncrazy. In doing so, I made all these music videos, and I really figured out how to communicate with a crew, and what I could do in a day. I learned a lot. My relationship with the talent is really something I treasure. When I worked with Adam, I was catching him if he ate two hamburgers. I was like, “No, Adam. I don’t want you to be fat.” I would shoot him from certain angles because I actually thought he was kind of attractive. In Billy Madison, he’s actually kind of a cutie. I was directing it with a girl’s eye of “He looks kind of cute.” So when I saw him last week, he was like, “Tamra, what’s my good side?” I look at things like that, and I think he respected not only that I thought he was funny, but that I wanted him to look good.
AVC: What’s next for you?
TD: I just finished shooting a show in Atlanta called Single Ladies. It was like a TV movie, but it’s supposed to be a series on VH-1/MTV. That was amazing and really fun. It’s like a black Sex And The City, in a way. It’s with Stacey Dash, LisaRaye McCoy, and Lauren London. It was awesome hanging out with all these black girls. It was the coolest, and bizarre, because I’m so not black. In the early days, I worked with N.W.A. I remember when I worked with Eazy-E. I was trying to do a shot where I was shooting everyone’s feet as they were walking, but there was one guy who wasn’t wearing the right shoes. They were all like Crips, and I had to go up to this guy and be like, “Wait, do you mind changing your shoes? These are the wrong shoes.” And he looked at me like he was ready to kill me. Like, “Who is this little blonde girl telling me I don’t have the right shoes on?” Eazy-E came up behind him and said, “Whatever she says, you do. This girl knows.”