Director Tamra Davis is hardly an “outsider artist.” She is a well-known Hollywood director of music videos (with Sonic Youth, Hanson, Depeche Mode, Cher, and many more), feature films (including Billy Madison, Half Baked, and Crossroads with Britney Spears), and television series (My Name is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, and Ugly Betty, among others). She is married to Mike D of the Beastie Boys and has two young boys, as well as her own online show called The Tamra Davis Cooking Show (she also wrote a cookbook called Make Me Something Good to Eat). Incredibly, she took some time out to talk to us about her labor-of-love film about her friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which premieres on Independent Lens on April 12, 2011 at 10 PM (check your local listings).
You had footage of Jean-Michel for years. Why did you wait until now to make this film?
Honestly I think it had to do with a few factors. I had been working in television and I really wanted to get back into feature film directing and this was a project I could do without having to wait for a studio or for a huge amount of money. I also was feeling confident enough in my skills as a filmmaker that I could make this film pretty much by myself. Those are the technical reasons. On a personal level, having that footage and feeling it still lingering I really felt that it was time for Jean-Michel to have his voice heard. I was getting tired of all the misconceptions about who Jean-Michel was.
How did you come to make Jean-Michel’s acquaintance?
I lived in Los Angeles and I was going to film school and working in an art gallery. My best friend Matt worked at Larry Gagosian’s gallery and Jean came to L.A. for his first show. Matt and Jean-Michel came into the gallery I worked at and we just immediately bonded over our love of film and music.
When was the last time you saw or spoke to him?
I spoke to him about a month before he died. Maybe even a few weeks? I had just stayed in his loft on Great Jones Street in Manhattan and told him that he had to fix the air conditioning. It was like sleeping in an oven.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making your film?
Many of the people I spoke with were hard to track down and get an actual date to film them. So it took a lot of effort setting up all the interviews. I also made the film mostly by myself, so that took a tremendous amount of self-motivation. I was happy to have David Koh as my producer, because he would call me every day and ask me if I did this and that. Getting all the archival footage together was a challenge and i am so grateful to all the photographers and filmmakers whose images help fill out the world my film takes place in. The other thing that was challenging was the edit. I wanted to make an emotional film, so to do that I had to keep myself emotionally raw. I think I cried everyday while in the edit room.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I really feel I made the exact film I set out to make. I wanted it to have edge, so I think my lack of funds helped with that.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I really liked all the stuff about fame and its effect on a young artist. I also really loved the section on racism. I think the thing that most moves me is the look in his eyes. Especially when I see him looking at me.
What has the audience response been so far?
I’m grateful to say it has been overwhelmingly positive. It meant so much to me to show the film to people and even though it was such a personal film about someone the audience does not know personally, the film still had a deep impact.
Basquiat was a street artist, then an “outsider” artist, and then very much embraced by the art establishment. Do you think his success with mainstream collectors and celebrities actually doomed him and his art?
I wanted to show that it is hard for an artist to become famous so quickly. It’s hard to have people talking about you and trashing you in the media and saying they think your career is over … and you are only 25.
You make big-budget Hollywood pictures, television series, and music videos. What brought you back into the world of the independent film?
I am so inspired by new media. I really wanted to make a film myself. I have a great little camera and I had a theory that if the story is interesting, it doesn’t matter what medium you shoot it on. You just have to make a good film. It was inspiring to me as a filmmaker to have that freedom.
Why did you choose to present this film on public television?
There is a moment I had in speaking with Jean-Michel on tape where he specifically says that this documentary is for PBS. He really wanted me to make a film that would be educational and have a large audience of everyday people. I was so excited that Independent Lens invited my film to be on PBS. It would have made him so happy.
You have a cooking show? How did that come to be?
I had just had my second child in a very short time period and was at home trying to come to grips with my new role: Mom. I had not stopped making films and videos in 20 years, so it was hard for me not to identify myself as a filmmaker. I was also obsessed with food and reality TV (like any other mom). I thought I had an amazing opportunity. I was a mom that was cooking healthy food for her new family and I was a filmmaker. I put the two together and created a show. It gave me something to do and was good for my family. It also gave me the confidence as a filmmaker that all I needed was a camera and a computer and I could make, edit, and distribute something I had made.
What didn’t you get done when you were making The Radiant Child?
I don’t know what this means … I’m the queen of multitasking, as I sit even now in a director chair on the set of a TV series I am the director and exec for, texting with my husband about feeding dinner to my kids, and answering these questions. I will always get it done.
What are your three favorite films?
Unfair question because there are way too many. I can tell you what I’ve been watching this week…
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
If you think you are a filmmaker … make a film, and then show it. You need to be able to finish what you started so it is presentable. When you screen it and see if your film has an effect on an audience, you will understand what it means to be a filmmaker.