This Young MC Is a Movie Mixmaster : Film: Tamra Davis combines her experience making cutting-edge videos with Hollywood’s past to get the gritty ‘Guncrazy.’
Over the past seven years Tamra Davis has made a name for herself directing cutting-edge videos for some of the thorniest acts in popular music. As director of choice for alternative performers such as N.W.A, Sonic Youth and Black Flag, Davis surprised people familiar with her work when she dipped into Hollywood’s past and chose the venerated film noir tradition for her debut film.
However, as can be seen in Davis’ “Guncrazy,” at the Nuart Theatre as the first in a series exploring violent women in film, this gritty little movie has a lot in common with the renegade faction of the music community she’s associated with.
A remake of the 1949 B-movie directed by Joseph H. Lewis, “Guncrazy” is the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers who get backed into a corner by society and shoot their way out. It’s inarguably a standard outlaw story, but Davis’ film, which stars Drew Barrymore and James Legros, is nonetheless doing well.
“Obviously this story isn’t new,” Legros says, “but Tamra put a modern spin on the noir recipe. Old noir doesn’t have the sense of urgency you feel in this film, and the pacing is much more contemporary.” The critics apparently agree with Legros: The film has drawn consistently good reviews, and after airing on Showtime last October, garnered a Golden Globe best actress nomination for Drew Barrymore.
“I was shocked when I was nominated,” says Barrymore, who was 16 when the film was shot in November, 1991. “It’s a real honor and much of the credit goes to Tamra because she’s easily the best director I’ve ever worked with. Anyone who gets to work with her is lucky because the scope of her talent is huge and her vision is really pure.”
The 30-year-old director is an unusually focused and accomplished woman who’s covered a lot of ground in a short time, but you’d never guess that by her appearance--she looks as though she’d be more at home on a skateboard than at a Hollywood power lunch.
Meeting with her in the tastefully cluttered Silver Lake home she shares with her companion of four years, musician Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, she’s dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt as she putters around the kitchen making coffee. An open woman with a good sense of humor, Davis has a finely honed set of street smarts yet she’s not the least bit tough--at least not on the surface. “I’m extremely determined and ambitious,” she points out, and the momentum she’s generated around her career indicates that’s true.
Davis’ second feature, “CB4,” will be released in March by Universal Pictures/Imagine, which expects it to be popular with the young black audience. Made for $6.5 million and starring Chris Rock, the film parodies the rap world--”it’s sort of like ‘Spinal Tap’ meets ‘I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,’ ” says Davis. “Obviously I’m not black and I’d never done comedy either, and the only reason I can figure Universal offered me the film was because I’d worked with N.W.A a lot.”
Davis enjoyed directing a comedy, but was basically a hired gun on “CB4.” On the other hand, “Guncrazy,” made for $800,000 and shot in 23 days on location in Los Angeles, had been percolating in her head for eight years.
“I read the script for ‘Guncrazy’ in 1985 and loved it because it was one of the few scripts I’d come across that revolved around a strong female character,” she says. “I then spent years trying to set the picture up and hearing people say, ‘Why do you want to make a film about two awful kids who go around killing people?’ But that wasn’t the picture I saw.”
What interested Davis about “Guncrazy” was the complex psychology of the female lead character, the lower-middle-class milieu where the tale unfolds, and how the story romanticizes the gun. Though Davis has been taken to task for the seemingly sympathetic manner in which guns are presented in her film, she insists that was not her intention.
“I’d never held a gun before making this movie, I don’t own one now and the last thing I want to do is romanticize guns,” she says. “I wanted to show that America is obsessed with guns, and that if you have them around, bad things can happen because it only takes a second to pull the trigger.”
The white trash world of “Guncrazy” is a far cry from Davis’ upbringing, which was an exotic variation on the standard Southern California childhood. Born in Studio City, the second in a family of four children, Davis was exposed to show business at an early age by her grandfather, a comedy writer, and her grandmother, who was an actress at Fox.
Her family watched movies compulsively, and as Davis recalls: “I wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but a strange series of events changed that. I was a young blond girl, which makes it easy to get swept up in the scenes in L.A., and when I was growing up I always hung out with people a lot older than me. When I was in the 11th grade I dropped out of school and met this Egyptian film producer named Ibrahim Moussa who took me to Italy to work for six months. (Several years later Moussa married, then divorced, actress Nastassja Kinski).
“In Italy I ended up hanging around Fellini and watching him work--he was directing ‘City of Women’ at the time and I was fascinated by the whole process. When I got back from Italy I still planned on being an actress so I started going on auditions, but the roles all seemed so stupid--so I gave up that dream and got a job at an art gallery.”
While working at the Ulrike Cantor Gallery, Davis met artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who became a close friend and is the subject of a film Davis presently has in the works, “Portrait of an Artist.” “I have more than an hour and a half of him on film talking and painting, which is rare, because there’s not much of him on film,” she says. “It seems like I’ve spent years trying to find the time to edit the footage and I’m hoping I’ll get to it after my honeymoon.” (Davis, who was previously married to artist Roger Herman for eight years, plans to marry Mike D. Feb. 20).
She quit her gallery job when she was accepted in an apprenticeship program at Zoetrope Studios, which was then struggling to complete Francis Coppola’s Waterloo, “One From the Heart.” “I got to hang out and watch Coppola direct,” Davis recalls. “That was a crazy time for him and I learned a lot about the business being around him then.”
At Coppola’s suggestion, Davis enrolled in film school and upon graduating from L.A. City College three years later, she immediately started working. “I sent a package of videos I’d done to the record companies and was hired to do a video for Husker Du and after that the jobs kept coming. Music video played a huge role in developing my sensibility as a director. There’s much less sexism in the video world and they’re open to women. But more important, with video you’re always being pushed to experiment and come up with something new.”
Asked if she finds anything feminine about her directing style, she says: “I was mostly influenced by male directors and can’t think of any women filmmakers who’ve inspired me. I didn’t grow up saying, ‘I wanna be just like Penny Marshall,’ and though I liked Penelope Spheeris’ documentaries, I wasn’t that into her features. I am a big fan of Maya Deren’s films, but she’s part of the art world rather than the film community.
“I’m getting offered a lot of movies right now, but because of ‘CB4,’ most of them are comedies and the last thing I want to do is another comedy,” she says. “I’m determined to make another movie about a strong female character.”
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