Interview: DeMane Davis On Directing The Girls On The Bus

DeMane Davis Photo. Image Credit to Michael Rowe.
DeMane Davis Photo. Image Credit to Michael Rowe. /

DeMane Davis broke out into television directing with Queen Sugar in the show's second season. Following her success on Queen Sugar, DeMane Davis has continued on a steady path of directing television shows. DeMane Davis directed two episodes of Octavia Spencer's limited series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J. Walker and worked on Shondaland shows For The People, How To Get Away With Murder, and Station 19. But, DeMane Davis also knows the value of being able to introduce audiences to characters and storylines, having directed the pilot episode of NBC's Found. So, how did DeMane Davis utilize her experience and talent to direct the seventh episode of MAX's political journalist series, The Girls on the Bus?

Culturess: What made you interested in directing?

DeMane Davis: Well, the first time I directed it was an independent feature film, and I really wanted to get a message out. My niece had lost four close friends because of violence. She was about seventeen at the time, and in a year and a half, she lost like four friends, and we were close, but she, for some reason, did not tell me about that, and I remember when I saw the funeral programs on her wall, I was leaving her a note in her bedroom and she wasn't there and I was overwhelmed and I was like, 'What else can I do?' so I thought 'Oh, I'll make a movie.' And that movie was called Black and White and Red All Over, and it premiered in competition in Sundance, and it went on to Adam Burrow, and then my second feature, well, it was the same. I had a message I wanted to get across. Well, the message for Black and White and Red All Over was we can't continue this cycle of violence, and then with Lift, which is my second feature, that starred Kerry Washington in her first feature role, that was about materialism and self-love, and sort of this idea of like you could buy something to put on you but if you don't love yourself then it doesn't matter how many things that you buy. And then I got the call to direct an episode of Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay's groundbreaking television series that was on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and that was about a family who inherits their father's sugar cane farm based on the book by Natalie Baszile, and that had so many incredible messages in it that we needed to see. It remains, it's now over, which is sad. It went seven seasons, and it was the longest-running show about a black family drama that was on TV, and what Ava did was really give me an opportunity because she only hired female directors who had never directed for television before. So she specifically said, "I'm gonna give these women a shot." So here are women who have directed short films and films, but they haven't been able to direct for television. So she gave forty-one directors a shot, and those directors are all still working today, so there's a message in that too. So, for me, the reason behind it is the message, the material, what you can do and show, both in the actual project and by being a part of it.

Culturess: You've directed for a variety of shows including Found, You, Station 19, and The Girls on the Bus. What makes each experience unique?

DeMane Davis: Well, really, it's about the narrative, the genre, the actors. All those make it unique. But, in the end, it's what makes it similar that I love, which is a crew and a cast come together and work as a team to create something on the spot on that day. You could plan for a bunch of stuff but you don't have any control over the weather, you don't have any control over if someone gets sick. You don't have any control if, this has never happened, I don't wanna jinx myself, but, if there's a dog in the scene, if the dog bites somebody. You don't have control of that. So, on the day you're coming together and everyone's talent diverges on that day and you have an hour, or two hours, or three hours depending on the scene and the material to film that scene. So that energy, for me, is intoxicating. I love that, 'We're gonna make this thing! Alright, let's do it!" You're making something together and you do it again and again, so I'm really addicted to that. With The Girls on the Bus, the narrative is about these four female reporters who have different backgrounds and opinions on politics and life and they eventually come together. They're initially suspicious of one another, and they're kept apart by society. They're in an arena which wants them to stay apart, keep them polarizing so it can sell papers, but then they bond. Not just because they have to but because they should, and I think it's rare to have a show with those stakes that are that high and four female leads that have distinct personalities and perspectives and situations where they're literally in competition with one another. So The Girls on the Bus is literally a great ride.

Culturess: How did you get involved with The Girls on the Bus?

DeMane Davis: So Berlanti, Greg Berlanti, the direction company, we call him Berlanti, he produced Found, which was the pilot that I directed that was created by Nkechi Okoro Carroll and I had met a few of the people before I met Sarah Schechter, who had been at the company a long time ago, and she had always remembered me, which was very kind. I had met some of the executives when I was on Naomi, I worked on that show, which was on The CW. So when I heard about The Girls on the Bus and then I got the pilot, the script, because I didn't direct that pilot but I got the script from my agent, I just fell in love with the idea of the show. It reminded me of movies from the seventies that I had kind of grown up with network and these big set pieces where all these people are involved, and they're working toward this common goal while there's this stew of a national event that's happening. I interviewed for the job with the showrunner, Rina Mimoun, and the executive producer, Dannah Shinder, and then the producing director, Marcos Siega, and that was in August. The Girls on the Bus is based on a book called "Chasing Hilary," by Amy Chozick, and that book is about the female press core that followed Hilary Clinton when she ran for President. So, I was actually initially into the show after I heard about it and read the pilot because I wanted to be a journalist when I was in school. That was really big for me, and I used to write news stories, and I had a tape recorder, and I would co-anchor shows. There were no iPhones back then; otherwise, there would be some film of it, which would probably be embarrassing. But I used to make my cousin and my friends be co-anchors and we would do the weather. But, I do still have cassettes of it. So I was really attracted to the idea of writing the news and presenting the news, and then eventually I thought this was gonna get too depressing. I'm an empath, I was like, 'This is gonna get too depressing to do the news everyday.' And so, I kinda let that go. But this is a really timely series. We have an election in eight months. So many newspapers and magazines have folded, which I'm sure that you know. It's a huge crisis. We need journalism. We need those publications. We need objective observers. Especially, we need local periodicals, and we need that so we get to know each other. That really attracted me to it. Shoutout to the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and the Boston Banner. Those are two of my favorite publications.

Culturess: How does being an executive producer on the projects you direct help influence your vision for the piece?

DeMane Davis: Well, I feel like being an executive producer is sort of like being boots on the ground in the beginning. So you're really cognizant of, and this kinda ties into a question you'll ask later, I can speak a little bit more pointedly to. You're really cognizant of you're setting the tone. So you wanna think about, for me as a producer, I wanna think about, how do I introduce these characters? How do I get across this message? How do I help convey the words of the writer? The spirit of what the writer wants? The intent of what the writer wants? But, also, how do I do it respectfully in a way where I know that this is the first of one and it has to be repeated in series every episode? So, for me, that's just being a producer and being cognizant of where we're shooting, how we're shooting, the equipment that we're using, so that it can be repeated in series.

Culturess: How much time do you get with each script before you start filming?

DeMane Davis: That sort of depends. If the scripts are written before you get them well in advance, sometimes the scripts are late, and either way you get the same number of prep days as shooting days. So a show that takes eight days to shoot, you get eight days to prep. That's business days, weekdays. And then when the script comes in, I think naturally, first read for me, I'm already getting ideas of, things hit you, of like, it should be this, it should be that. It's interesting because I think it probably goes back to me being in my niece's bedroom and seeing those funeral programs on the wall. She had photos of her friends and then the funeral programs, and I can recall that so clearly, like the color of the bedspread, the photos of her friends, and names of her friends, and almost if I were filming it, I would pan over and suddenly, you have these funeral programs and in my head, my heart sunk. So, if I was filming that, what else would I do to make that hit someone, and then, how might I repeat that in series sort of as a motif so that other directors coming could see, 'Oh okay, this looks like something you wanna repeat visually a little bit' to make it all hang together cohesively.

Culturess: Does your directing style change based on the project?

DeMane Davis: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, filming a show like Naomi, which was on The CW and about a black female teenage superhero, is gonna be different from Clarice, which was a television sequel to Silence of the Lambs that I worked on, which was obviously a really dark show or Found, which has deeper, darker themes but also there are heroes and you have these wonderful, uplifting moments. The style's gonna depend on the characters, their arc, what drives them. It's gonna depend on where the series is gonna air. If it's gonna air on streaming or if it's gonna be on network. It's gonna depend on where the characters live, the scope of the show visually, and then the intent, which is the most important, so, then every script, every scene, every beat, there's gonna be an intent that can be dialed up or down depending on how it's filmed.

Culturess: You directed the pilot episode of Found. What does it mean to set the tone of introducing the characters and story to the audience for the first time?

DeMane Davis: For me, that's a huge honor to get to create a pilot. I got to work alongside the great Nkechi Okoro Carroll, which was a pinnacle for me. We had the kind of relationship on Found where we just repeated each other's sentences in Zooms and on-set when it came to characters and their motivation and how it might be envisioned. That's a dream scenario for me. We're on the same wavelength. For Found, one of the things that, when I read the script, a memory that was unlocked was, for me, when I read it was, that I've spoken about before is that, when I was young, there was a clown that was going around and kidnapping kids, and I saw the clown one day. I was little. I was like seven or eight, and I was by myself, and I could see the van. It was across the street. It was like a chocolate color, a milk chocolate colored van with rusted wheel wells, and I could see the clown. There was a man in the back of the van, the doors were open, and he had jeans on and he had a clown costume that was tied in the back. I could see the white T-shirt was dirty and his jeans were kinda dirty. I just froze, and I was across the street, and there was more distance, so I felt like I was at a safe distance, but I remember that day. I remember the color of the sky. I remember what that day smelled like. And then he got in the van and drove away. And so, for me, I thought if I can remember that, even though I wasn't taken, what are these characters on Found, what are they living through, because they all have their own experience with abduction. So that was something that I relayed to Nkechi, and I talked about Found, I wanted it to be dark. I wanted these characters to constantly have this fear inside them, and they have to keep moving because if they sit, they'll think about what happened to them, just like anyone who has trauma. If you sit and you think about it long enough, it can overtake you, and I would recommend that you sit and think about it with your therapist, with your psychiatrist, with a friend, because I think therapy is great. I think everyone needs an objective person to help them sort through their stuff, trauma especially. But, with these characters, they're trying to find missing people, so they naturally have to be on the move because they wanna find a person. But also, they don't wanna sit down because then they think about their own trauma. So the way that translates visually is handheld camera. We keep moving and keep moving, and when we do settle, we really go into what this person is experiencing. So those are the kinds of visual concepts that I get the honor to introduce when doing a pilot and tie it to the characters and the story. Tie it to a beautiful script that Nkechi wrote and then bring it to life. So that kinda means everything because I like being boots on the ground and helping and seeing a series through, but to be there and really help to create it, it's an honor.

Culturess: When you directed Episode 7 of The Girls on the Bus, how much information were you given about the events of previous episodes?

DeMane Davis: Every time you direct an episode in series as a guest director, you're given all of the scripts, including your script. So, with this show, if episodes had been shot, and were put together and edited, and I got approval, I would get to see those actual episodes. In this situation, when I came on, the pilot was done. It's a little different now than when I first saw it, but I got to see the pilot episode, so I got to see some of the things that I'm talking about, like, what Jesse Peretz, the pilot director, what he was doing and how things were framed, how the camera moved. Were characters in shadow or in light? Or how did they come together? How did they come apart? So I got to watch that, which was great, and then I got to read all the other scripts so then you can kinda get caught up, which is really important to know where your characters are in series during your episode, knowing what came before it and, of course, getting from the writer intent of what's gonna come afterwards, which is like that's kinda fun too because sometimes the writer will say, 'Well, this is gonna happen to this character,' and I'll always say, 'Does the actor know?' and they'll be like, 'No.' and I go, 'Can I tell them?' Sometimes they'll say yeah, or sometimes they'll say no, and I go, 'Okay.' I'm a very good secret keeper. So I got to read all of the scripts up until my episode and watch the pilot so that I would be informed.

Culturess: How involved do you get with the writers of the episode when you direct?

DeMane Davis: Yeah, the writers are everything. I mean, they've created a blueprint. They're the keepers of the story. They know more than I do about what came before and what's coming after. Sometimes they know what's coming in the next season. So, I love to confer with them early and often and constantly to find out the intent of every scene and every character and how that might latter up into their overall arc in that episode and in the series. It's really a partnership and I love it when they're on set because I can just turn to them. Sometimes the actors will have questions. They'll be there to answer, which is great. But, it's like a team to make sure that, for me it's like, here's your baby. You created this. You're giving me your baby and I'm helping to bring the baby to life. The baby's going to pre-school now. Can the baby have mango? Okay, baby likes mango. So, it's just getting all that information and working as a partner.

Culturess: What types of projects would you like to work on in the future?

DeMane Davis: Well, right now I'm proud to say that I'm an executive producer on Dr. Wolf, which is a brand new series that is from Berlanti and Warner Brothers and will be on NBC in September. It's about Dr. Oliver Sacks, who was a neuroscientist. He wrote the book, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat," and famously, he was portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie, Awakenings with Robert DeNiro, which is a great movie, it'll make you burst into tears. I think, especially now coming out of a pandemic, well still kind of in a pandemic, let's be honest, coming to grips with all of the things that have happened in the last several years, I think mental health is incredibly important. I feel like, in a way, we're all a bit depressed. I'm not accusing anyone of being depressed. But, I'm saying what has happened has kinda brought the energy down. Expectations changed, goals changed because of it, and I think we have to sorta reconcile with that, and again, this is gonna be a commercial for therapy, and what Dr. Wolf did in his career was really astounding. He wrote so many books, and he cared so much about his patients. He wasn't a typical doctor. He made house calls. He would go to the patient's home and look at what's happening in their environment to try to help solve the mystery of their brain, which is something that no one has truly mapped out yet, totally, not that he has, but he had such a great understanding of it. So, I'm excited to be on this show because it's a show that I think will do some good. A show that will have people be like, 'Oh, I wish my doctor would ask me those questions. I wish my doctor would take some time and be patient with me.' So that I'm filming now. Doctor Wolf is played by Zachary Quinto, who played famously Spock in the Star Trek films, and I hope to keep getting the opportunity to work on shows like this that I think can bring stories to light that we need to hear and will help people. I mean, The Girls on the Bus, you have this black conservative reporter, you have a veteran reporter with something to prove, you have a reporter of Persian descent who lived through a crisis and is vowing to change and help, and then you have the lead, Sadie, a woman who cares deeply, some might say too deeply, to be a reporter, and that's just a really good meal right there. So, I hope to keep being a part of making a really good meal for people to watch.

You can check out DeMane Davis' episode of The Girls on the Bus hitting MAX on April 18th, 2024, and Doctor Wolf when it premieres on NBC.

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