Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.
Tamra Davis has experienced plenty of extreme highs and extreme lows over the course of her 3-decade-plus career as a film, television and music video director. Sometimes both within a matter of just weeks.
After the successes of her feature film debut Guncrazy (1992) and sophomore effort CB4 (1993), Davis was hired to direct Bad Girls, an all-female Western starring Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Madeleine Stowe. The foursome, all major names at the time, would play Old West prostitutes who go on the run after one of them murders an abusive patron.
But only nine days into filming, in late July 1993, Davis was abruptly fired from Bad Girls. She sought to bring a feminist vision to the story, which made perfect sense: It was after all a female vengeance and empowerment tale. But the film’s studio, 20th Century Fox, reportedly wanted a sexier take. (Though according to a report by Entertainment Weekly at the time, there were other issues with the production, none seemingly the fault of Davis.) She was replaced by Jonathan Kaplan, who had directed Stowe in 1992’s Unlawful Entry.
“Nobody ever sat me down and said, ‘This is why you’re taken off this movie,'” Davis, who admits it was especially painful to be replaced by a man, told Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of Game Changers. “It literally was like, ‘We’re crushing you.’ It was so hard…Honestly, a normal girl would be crushed by that and you’d never work again. And that’s what Hollywood can do to you. It can totally spit you off and reject you.”
At the time, Davis was one of only a handful a women directing studio films at the time, alongside the likes of Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and Amy Heckerling. And she was not about to be crushed.
“Nobody can tell me I’m not a filmmaker,” she said to herself.
So Davis grabbed her camera and shot the shoesstring-budgeted black-and-white “riot girl” doc short No Alternative Girls, which focused on gender politics in rock and featured Hole singer Courtney Love. The idea was “F Hollywood. No one’s gonna say, ‘You’re a director, you’re not a director,’ and take a film away from me. I’m a director the moment I have a camera in my hand, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”
The short gave Davis a shot of confidence. And a week later she got a call with an offer to director the Adam Sander comedy Billy Madison (1995), which, coincidentally, would find her replacing a man. Universal fired the untested Stephen Kessler, who was having trouble getting good comedic material out of Sandler and running behind schedule, after only three days on set. Davis, who had impressed them with her work her directing Chris Rock in the rap parody CB4was their answer.
While Bad Girls ultimately fizzled – with Barrymore even calling it the one of film of hers she’s just not into – the proudly juvenile Billy Madison helped launched the lucrative film career of Sandler and reached cult classic status over the years.
To this day, Davis, now 58, says she still finds people surprised to learn that some of her most popular films, the dude-centric CB4, Billy Madisonthe 1998 stoner favorite Half Baked, were directed by a woman. She also helmed the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle crossroadsand has since worked almost exclusively in television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re the Worst, High School Musical: The Musical).
“As a director you have to have that kind of confidence, where you walk in and you say, ‘Okay, this is my vision,'” says Davis, who’s also directed videos for Cher, the Beastie Boys, Depeche Mode and Lou Reed (lest we not forget Hanson’s inescapable 1997 mega-hit “MMMBop”). “And you need 200 people to follow you with it.”
And the pioneering Davis, who first inspired the Twitter movement #FemaleFilmmakerFriday when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna saw a photo of her on set, is confident about the representation of women behind the camera moving forward.
“I’ve never seen more women directors [than now], I’ve never seen more diverse directors, it’s amazing what’s happening right now with television and film. And I really feel like you see that in the greater scope of things, for sure… We just gotta keep going in that direction.”
— Video produced by Gisselle Bances
Watch Tamra Davis share some fun facts about making Billy Madison:
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