“Everybody loves DeMane,” Ava DuVernay enthuses when asked about director DeMane Davis‘s contributions to her series, Queen Sugar. It’s true – DeMane’s energy is infectious, and her personality instantly warms up the whole room.
Signed to Sweet Rickey, DeMane Davis has been working in advertising for years – not just as a director, but also as a freelance copywriter. DeMane’s experience as a writer and director affords her the rare understanding of both sides of the commercial, television and film production process. She observes and listens. This brings enormous depth to her work whether with real people or actors.
Our free-wheeling conversation with DeMane covers her literary aspirations, creating media with a message, gender roles & temporary tattoos, and the delicacy that is grilled fruit.
Let’s talk about your journey to the director’s chair. Was directing always a goal for you? What were some of your earliest formative experiences with film, TV, or advertising that sparked your interest initially?
Directing wasn’t originally a goal. The goal was to write The Great American Novel. (I still don’t know how that concept became lodged in my cranium other than I read a lot of books, wrote a lot and at this very moment, know exactly where my library card is.) In middle school, an art teacher gave the assignment to “come up with an ad.” I created three. She told me I was really good and said “people in advertising make $40,000 a year.” I decided that, since novelists didn’t make a lot of money, I’d come up with ads during the day and write The Great American Novel at night. I began doing just that. Then I visited my niece and I saw photos of friends on her wall alongside funeral programs. In eighteen months, she had lost four of them due to violence. She was 16 years old. I asked myself what I could do to help. I used to speak to kids about careers in advertising through Boston Partners in Education but I wanted to do something bigger to change the dynamic. In that moment (I remember this vividly) I thought: I’ll make a film. The throughline was a strategy statement (they’re basically the same): If we continue to kill each other there won’t be any Black people left. My Art Director at the time wanted in, so we read Rebel Without A Crew and all of the books Spike Lee had written for his first four films and I started writing the script. The resulting feature, BLACK & WHITE & RED ALL OVER, premiered in Dramatic Competition at Sundance and internationally at Edinburgh. Commercial directing followed. I dove into directing because I had a message I wanted to get across and, at the time, making a film would provide me with the greatest audience. Message films aren’t necessarily popular (read- don’t always make the most money) but, for me, every medium can and should communicate a message beyond being/looking “cool.”
What was your film education experience like? If you were advising an aspiring director today, what would you recommend as effective pathways into the current industry?
I never went to film school. My advice to anyone aspiring would be to begin the process. Start writing your script. If you don’t feel like it’s a script, write it as as short story. If you can’t do that, write it as bullet points, put it on note cards. Get it down! Do not labor over laptop vs. legal pad, pen vs. pencil. Write it. Read other scripts and stories. Watch films, shorts and commercials. Respect the work. Spend money to see that work. You can’t be bummed if people don’t pay/come out to see your film if you don’t pay/go out to see films yourself. Think about what moves you when you watch and why. How you would handle that material? Start filming with your mobile phone until you can borrow a digital camera or find a budding Director of Photography. Read up on cameras, equipment. If people around you begin to question what you’re doing or tell them you can’t do what you’re doing ask them to help or spend less time with them. Make connections with other creative people outside your circle. Use what you have – your life story, your community, creative people you may not know but respect. Include them. Learn something new about story, film, directing, editing, mixing every day. That’s an education.
As a director, you’ve made work within the commercial sphere as well as a narrative feature film (LIFT). Do you vary your approach to these different kinds of projects?
The approach is the same- it’s the same crew and equipment, coverage and set ups. The talent is what varies. I’ve had the privilege of working with both actors and real people. Both amaze me. Actors have elected to give their minds and bodies over to a character, to the material, and I’m honored to get to be a part of that experience. Real people are equally as brave. Perhaps more so because they haven’t been in front of the camera before. My general approach is to give them more time. I like to call them after casting and hang out when we scout. It’s important that- like actors, they know I’m going to respect them. I will protect them and their story. I learned at the Sundance Filmmaker’s Labs that the most important piece of equipment on set is the talent. If that’s not working, nothing will.
You’ve had such a long career in advertising – not just as a director, but also as a freelance copywriter! What has your experience in advertising been? Have you noticed changes in the industry over time? How has moving between these worlds sustained your career in general?
I started as secretary in the media department, worked my way up to copywriter, became a freelancer, then a copywriter full time in NYC, then back to Boston during the day while working on my first film at night. Directing commercials came next and also being a voice over talent. For me, each of these jobs informs the other. Having been a copywriter and knowing how to speak to one makes me a better director, it also makes me better able to give a director input when they’re filming one of my concepts. I’m fortunate in that, if one of these is slow, I can jump to the other job or at least just do my own writing which I always need to/should be doing. (Does writing this count? I know, I know, it doesn’t. I’ll double my writing time tonight.)
Would you say that there are hallmarks that run throughout your body of work as a director? Thematic elements? Signature visual styles?
Other than a message, there isn’t anything I’m acutely aware of… I spend too much time researching or breaking down other director’s work to think about the themes in my own. I do find that I ask “Why?” a lot. I ask it of myself, the material, the crew, the talent. It’s the fastest way to get to the truth. And whether it’s a commercial or episodic, the truth is what I want to film.
Congratulations on your newly expanded role on Queen Sugar – is this your first time producing for TV? How do the dual roles of director and producer affect one another?
Thank you! I’m still pinching myself every day. I’m beyond grateful to Ava for asking me to be a permanent part of the family for Season Three of this incredible series. I’ll have the opportunity to read scripts, watch assembled edits and give input while guiding directors through their process, being responsible for the visual continuity of the show and directing episodes myself. It is all the things I love with this crew and cast I love with the these incredibly important storylines that need to be told right now. I. Am. In. Heaven.
Since Ava DuVernay has made such a well-publicized commitment to inclusion of women directors on the Queen Sugar set (particularly for cultivating a mixture of women with perspectives that differ from one another, from director to director), what has the on-set environment been like for you? How does this commitment affect your day-to-day work?
Ava has created a movement that continues to resonate not only around the industry but, for me, in many aspects of my life. I question everything now. Like, why don’t I have a female doctor? Why can’t my lawyer be a woman? I’m fortunate to be with Sweet Rickey, a female-helmed production company, which means the usual choices won’t be made. It means a dedication to story, but also a focus on voices that don’t always have the opportunity to speak. Here’s a real day to day observation for you- a lot of my friends have children so I have this cache of temporary tattoos to give as gifts. Sometime in the last few years I realized I was only giving the ballerina tattoos to the girls and the firemen tattoos to the boys. Yeah. It starts with each of us. I need to question that. I need to give the insect tattoos to the girls and the butterfly tattoos to the boys- give them the option, the opportunity to decide what they want.
Aside from the Queen Sugar team, are there any women you’ve worked with in the past who have made a particular impact on your work, career trajectory or ways of thinking about film? Any women role models who our readers should be made aware of?
I am a massive fan of everyone in the QS family and would urge anyone who has appreciated the work of a craftsperson on that show to do a deep dive into their other efforts. I’m also particularly proud of those filmmakers and crew members who accomplish their 10-15 hour production day and are also mothers. Writer/Director Hope Dickson Leach is a personal hero of mine. She recently won a BAFTA for her feature, THE LEVELLING and is the co-founder of Raising Films, an organization that works to educate and find solutions for working mothers in the UK Film and TV industry (raisingfilms.com.) And I must shout out Susan X. Jane who teaches race and media literacy and writes about it on her blog smntks.com. She’s the person I seek out when something crazy is happening in the country and I want to be able to discuss it without using expletives!
What does success look like for you? Are there long term goals that you’d like to achieve?
Continuing to direct and meet new creative people and make friends and allies. Long term, in addition to commercial directing, I will create at least two TV series that will be on air (perhaps at the same time, just to see how much sleep I require.) I will also get a publishing deal for my Great American Novel- it’s a series of books actually. I have written one and a half already. (See that note earlier about me needing to write.)
What’s one thing that our audience might be surprised to learn about you?
How about three things that could be considered related? I sing in the shower. I love opera (so I sing opera in the shower) and I laugh loudly. The third may not be so surprising but if you enter a party and hear a loud laugh, follow that cackle to me and introduce yourself if we don’t know each other already. If we do, join in.
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to inclusive, intersectional representation on both sides of the camera lens?
A richer experience for the crew, cast and audience. A portrait more reflective of the world. Creative that will resonate more deeply because of that.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered throughout your career? How have you found ways to overcome them?
The challenge of realizing that something may not be meant to be at the moment. The challenge of learning it doesn’t make sense to dwell on it. Of knowing that releasing those feelings of asking ‘why didn’t this work out’ over and over again makes room for other things- massive things that maybe weren’t possible before because I kept asking a question for which there wasn’t an answer. All I can and should do is prepare myself for when what I want will come. All I can do is get my mind and body ready for the big wave and pull others up onto my surfboard as we ride to the shore and then hop off without missing a step and strut to the Tiki Bar like “Where’s the grilled pineapple?” because grilled fruit is delicious.
OWN (in house)
Brand: American Eagle
Agency: Arnold Advertising
Additional Direction/DP: Nate Laver
Cinematography: Dan Coplan
Cinematography: Matt Mosher