Sunday, June 24, 2018
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Director DeMane Davis Diversifies Into TV With "Queen Sugar"
Director DeMane Davis
Filmmaker, who’s on spot roster of Sweet Rickey, reflects on the opportunity afforded her by Ava DuVernay
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Director DeMane Davis has established herself in short and long-form fare. On the former score, she is on the commercialmaking/branded content roster of production house Sweet Rickey. She has directed campaigns for such clients as Bank of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Tidy Cats and Cigna. 

On the feature front, Davis and Khari Streeter directed Kerry Washington in LIFT, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Davis has also owned two small ad agencies and worked at stalwart shops such as Hill Holliday, Arnold Worldwide and what is now KBS. She’s freelanced as a writer on Nike, McDonald’s, Citibank, Marshall’s, CVS and American Eagle.

As a director, Davis has most recently extended her reach to TV series, helming two episodes of Queen Sugar, the critically acclaimed show on OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network. (Winfrey is an executive producer of the primetime series.) 

Adapted for TV from the novel of the same title by Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar follows the lives of a black family, centering on three siblings: two sisters, Nova Bordelon (played by Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist from New Orleans, and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a woman who, with her teenage son Micah, leaves her upscale home in Los Angeles and moves to the heart of Louisiana to claim an inheritance--an 800-acre sugarcane farm--from her recently departed father; and their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a single father struggling with unemployment and an absentee, former drug addict mother of his child.

Series creator Ava DuVernay reached out to Davis to bring her into the Queen Sugar fold for season two. DuVernay has committed to female filmmakers for the entire run of the show. Most of these helmers had little or no prior TV experience, having come largely from the indie film world. At the recent Producers Guild of America (PGA) Produced By Conference in Los Angeles, DuVernay noted that all the season one directors on Queen Sugar have gone on to be heavily booked in TV. In fact, said DuVernay, none of the season one directors were available for season two due to commitments on a wide range of projects, including Victoria Mahoney who was helming a pilot for ABC, and Tanya Hamilton who was directing an episode of Greenleaf. DuVernay noted that Mahoney is booked on TV projects until Feb. 2018.

SHOOT connected with Davis to get her reflections on Queen Sugar, as well as commercialmaking at Sweet Rickey.

SHOOT: Provide some backstory on how you initially connected with Ava DuVernay and got the opportunity to make your television directing debut on Queen Sugar?

Davis: Two years ago, Ava DuVernay reached out to me via Twitter (yes, I kept a screen grab of that). She appreciated my work on LIFT, and asked me to be a part of “Array Day” the Twitter take-over by her releasing company, Array, where people get to ask filmmakers questions about the process. Following the second Array Day, I was welcomed as part of the directing talent for season two of Queen Sugar.

I met Ava in person when she came to set during my episode. Her chair arrived before she did. I was watching a take and plotting the next camera move and BOOM, a chair with her name on it is placed next to me. When we met, she remarked about the number of pencils I had stuck in my hair and pens clipped to my shirt (my standard set wear) and said “’re ready!” When we hugged I think I said thank you about eight times. I’m honored she selected me. 

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Queen Sugar posed to you as a director?

Davis: In the beginning, discovering how quickly TV moves, I’d think about the most expedient way to get it done--a carryover from me being in indie film and commercial directing mode, which is often about getting projects done to their utmost efficiently (while still making them look great). For instance, if not using a crane would ultimately allow me more time with my actors, more takes, or an additional set-up, I could do without it. Each time I mentioned something like that to my DP Kira Kelly, and AD George Bott, they would counter with, “But what do you want?” There were no naysayers.  And though it was my first time on a TV set, it never felt like it. (By the way, I used a crane for that shot. I mean, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to use a crane?) 

SHOOT: It’s said that one discipline and/or experience informs another. How did your commercial making inform your approach to and experience on Queen Sugar?

Davis: I think all life experience is cumulative; everything relates and informs. The collaborative skills I use in advertising I applied on the Queen Sugar set every day. Recognizing that great ideas come from everywhere, being respectful of individual experiences and encouraging the crew and cast to express themselves. I use all of these practices to inform any project I’m engaged in. The advertising world thrives on hyper-engagement. Intensive collaboration that often occurs quickly and involves many personalities and people who may have slightly different visions or goals for the short-form piece. Operating in that environment serves me well during long-form projects. When I direct commercial campaigns, I want to understand the nature of the brand and find the smartest way to support, add to, and film the story while listening to and incorporating the vision of the client and agency. I approached Queen Sugar the same way. 

SHOOT: Conversely, now that you have your first episodic TV directing experience under your belt, what does that now enable you to bring back to your work in commercials and branded content?

Davis: First, I’m going to relish every moment I get on a commercial set because TV moves so much faster! But, with both, what you’re trying to do is move your audience. And your audience, especially today, is smart and savvy. I think we have a responsibility to transport, inform, and, of course, make them feel. You’re asking for people’s time, you earn that time with the power of your ideas--how you shoot, how you bond and move with your crew, how you get an actor or a real person the point where they can’t be ignored. I think I can probably do that even quicker now, though, as I mentioned, I’m going to enjoy it more on set when I shoot my next commercial campaign and the pace is slightly slower.

SHOOT: Also, what did you learn from your first episode of Queen Sugar that you are now applying to your 2nd episode of the series?

Davis: Being aware of the pace helps. Knowing the names of over a hundred people in advance helps. I think what I’m applying most is the ability to be flexible. To know what I can and cannot control even more than I did before. What I learned that I’m applying is sometimes it doesn’t matter what you researched, or storyboarded, or thought you were going to get. An actor moves and walks and breathes a certain way in that moment and in order to capture it, you sometimes have to forget what you ORIGINALLY wanted. Sometimes, when you do that, you realize that what they give YOU is better than what you desired in the first place.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest takeaway(s) or lessons learned from Queen Sugar?

Davis: It wasn’t until I learned that Ava had hired all female directors for the first season of Queen Sugar that I asked myself why I hadn’t worked with a female DP.  What Ava did, in her commitment to advancing roles for women on set, made me stop and question my own process. Her commitment changed everything for me. This is what makes me most excited about working at Sweet Rickey. Being at a female-helmed production company means we’re going to make different choices. Ava has this concept of inclusive crew and Sweet Rickey EP Vanessa Lonborg is similarly intent on creating an environment that celebrates all genders and races. She is committed. A director friend, Kris Merc, recently asked: “Who gets the clout? Who is being groomed, awarded or encouraged? Who gets a camera when they are a kid? Who gets told that they are great?” Great questions that, if we reflect and act on can change the course of someone’s career, not to mention the outcome of each creative endeavor.