Q&A: Director Tamra Davis Talks Basquiat and Her New Documentary

Photographer Lee Jaffe
July 27, 2010

Tamra Davis was working in a Los Angeles gallery in 1986 when she filmed an interview with her friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, by then the glimmering star of the art world. When he died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, she hid away the tapes in a drawer, devastated and unwilling to profit from his memory.

Twenty years later, after building a career directing brilliant cult comedies (including CB4, Half Baked and Crossroads), along with countless music videos, Davis was compelled to return to her past. Prompted by some inquisitive gallerists at MoCA in 2008, she began sifting through her old Basquiat footage, set about interviewing luminaries from the years he ruled downtown, and pieced together a beautiful documentary that comes off like a sweet paean to her friend. She named it The Radiant Child, after a career-defining piece in ArtForum that accurately named the luminous nature of his spirit. One of only a handful of on-camera interviews with Basquiat, Davis' is the most intimate—and not just because it's a close-up conversation between friends. In The Radiant Child, it's all about the eyes: maybe because of Davis' emotional proximity to her subject, she reveals the vulnerability of a legend through his delicate, sweet, sad and beautiful gaze.

We spoke with Davis about her times with Basquiat in the 1980s, and what it was like to create a love song to a friend 20 years on.

How long did it take you to compile your footage?
I got Basquiat's father's OK two years ago. So that's around when I first started shooting the additional interviews, and I finished it probably in January. The father owns the rights to Basquiat's estate, so basically if I wanted to put a painting in the film, I'd have to have the approval of the estate. I'm the only person he's ever given that permission to. That was huge.

Did you know Basquiat's father from before?
No. In fact, that was part of the reason he gave me permission. When I went there and said, "Hi, I have this footage that I've had in my drawer for twenty-something years," he looked at me and said, "I've never heard of you." And I was like, "I know, I'm sorry, I was a friend of your son's." And he was just like, "Most people that had this kind of thing on my son would have made a career out of it, and because you haven't done that, somehow I trust you." And I spoke with him many times just so that he could tell what my intent was and what kind of a film I wanted to make.

What first prompted you to unearth the tapes?
I showed them to the people at MoCA when they were doing that retrospective that went from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and I was just kind of casual like, Oh, I have this footage. I should show it to you guys. They just kind of looked at me like, "This is incredibly rare. This does not belong in your drawer. You should really do something with it."

There were emotional reasons for why I didn't do anything with it after he died. It's still so sad. One of the last times I saw Jean-Michel, he was really upset that all his friends had sold the gifts that he had given them. And even dead, I just didn't want him to think that that was part of my motivation—to somehow turn our relationship into profit.

Was it strange watching the tapes? When had you last looked at them?
I hadn't watched them in a really long time, but I remembered them so clearly. At one point I had made this 20-minute film—that's what I had shown to MoCA—and I had also shown it at Sundance and I was kind of familiar with it. I had so much, and when I went back over it, what struck me the most was just how gorgeous he was. Just remembering this relationship that I had with him that was filled with flirting and teasing and playing and just being such young people in such a young part of our lives. In that sense, it's become so deep to me that when I see all the looks that he's giving me, whether it's when he's painting and he's looking over his shoulder to make sure I'm paying attention to him, or giving me sweet smiles, or even in the interview, getting mad at me for a second for calling him out for hooking up with girls to find a place to live. He gives me this look like, "Did you just say that to me? I'm going to kill you right now." I see all those kinds of things, you know, the memories and the friends. Believe me, it was emotional for sure, but he was one of the most beautiful men, so to just be able to sit in the edit room, not only to look at the paintings, which are just fantastic, but also that I could just look at those eyes and those lips and skin, and just be like, Oh my god he was so beautiful.

Photo: Lee Jaffe.

He's so present in the film. He sort of emanates.
Yes, he really comes alive in it.

One of the things that was so striking to me was that he was also so vulnerable. Were you aware of that at the time?
Yeah, I knew as a friend how complicated he was. There were times when you just needed to be quiet to be around him and then there were times when it was all-out fun. It was just so striking for other people to see that side of him—that incredible, charming, joie de vivre kind of guy. Because obviously, if you go to any of his shows or you see his paintings, you see another side of him that makes you think, "Oh my god, this is a really angry guy." Some of them are just so loud and so forceful, and it's nice to see that he also had this other incredible side to him.

Seeing him in that light, it really made it feel like his paintings were an extension of him. For instance, you found footage of him being interviewed on some cable access show, and the host is saying all this idiotic, racially ignorant stuff, and Basquiat just snaps back at him so quick and so smart—just like how he dealt with race in his paintings.
Yeah. You see his defensiveness. That was Art News. That show had created so much controversy, especially with the guy that did the interview, Marc Miller. It was supposedly the only known interview he ever did, except for a little tiny piece that he did for the BBC that I used towards the end—that one where he's really out of it and bad. So from the time that he did that Art News interview in 1980, he didn't talk to anybody until he did my thing in '86. He opened up my interview like, this is going to be terrible, and he's so nervous. I believe he was so affected by that previous interview—obviously he didn't do anything in between.

Basquiat seems to be associated with rap a lot, and you've made a lot of rap videos and a film about rap, but you didn't use a lot of it in the soundtrack.
I mean, the problem with rap is that it's so vocal, so it's kind of a hard thing to have on while you're showing images because it really stands out. So, there are definitely two to three tracks of early hip-hop, but not so much. Jean Michel listened to hip-hop but in actuality what I wanted to show was that that wasn't all he listened to. In fact, he listened to bebop and jazz and new wave and if I really had had the opportunity and the money I probably would have put in, like, pop music. He was really into Boston and The Pretenders and like, the most random weird music that you would never imagine him being interested in. I think the last time I saw him, we were driving around and he played "More Than A Feeling" like 800 times. I was like, "You're kidding me, you're driving me crazy with this." And he's like, "This is the best song ever." He had that flare, like, when he got into something, he was just so passionate about it. That was something I always loved about him.

As a subject, given your experience directing music videos, did he have a rock star air about him?
Oh, completely. Honestly, people would just look at him when he walked into a room, and there are just so few people in our culture that have that. Sometimes it's not like "Oh, they're the most beautiful person," or whatever, but they just have this thing that makes you watch them, and he had it for sure.

Were you aware of it then?
Oh, yeah. I mean, you're aware of it the same way you are when you like, meet Britney Spears and you're like, okay, she's not the most beautiful girl you've ever seen, but my god, you just look at her the moment she walks into a room. She just has that about her. Kurt Cobain had that. You know, there are people who have this ability... I don't know. It's some weird energy thing.

Your films have mostly been comedies. Was the switch to documentary a big change for you?
Yeah, I mean, I'm so glad to be a female working in Hollywood. A movie is a totally different thing. You walk onto a set and there's like 75 people standing there waiting for you to tell them what they're doing today. Whereas, when you're doing a documentary, it's you saying, okay, I need a shot of a Dean and Deluca bag inside my refrigerator and then you empty out your refrigerator and you shoot the shot and you upload it into your computer and send it to the editing people. So, like every single thing in that movie, like, oh I need a shot of Jean Michel or I need an exterior or I need a painting of this, all that stuff was so fantastic, but you're the only person doing it. I had some help from an editor, and at some point I had an archivist that helped me find some of the old BBC footage, but you're responsible for all of it. There's a freedom in in because you're just like okay, the movie is the way it is because you put it there but there's also like... it's just one person doing it.

What was your general emotion while you were making the film?
When I first shot the footage, it was just a friend making a film about another friend, not really knowing that it was going to have any kind of a cultural, historical impact. But I worked with this amazing young girl, Alexis Manya Spraic, who was my editor. She was just 25 years old, had no idea who I was and I don't think she cared or whatever, so I couldn't boss her around, which was really fantastic because I needed somebody that really pushed me. She was just like, "Tamra, you're not going deep enough, you gotta go deeper. I don't know what this movie's about. what are you trying to say?" After awhile, I was like, "Alexis, maybe I'm superficial, I don't know. I can't go any deeper." But we did. I wanted to bring out people's feelings while watching the movie and not just make something that was like a historical biopic. I wanted to move you, as if you were watching cinema. In order to do that, I needed to stay fairly open emotionally so that was kind of fun, but also kind of like writing a sad song for a year and a half, or writing a love song for a year and a half. You're just in that weird kind of reality, being dramatic.

The Radiant Child screens in New York at Film Forum through August 3, and opens in cities across America through October.

Tamra Davis. Photo: Michael Diamond.

Q&A: Director Tamra Davis Talks Basquiat and Her New Documentary