June 2002
Making it Happen : An Interview with DeMane Davis, Co-director of Lift

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Making it Happen : An Interview with DeMane Davis, Co-director of Lift

Being a filmmaker is not an easy occupation. Some go to school for it and others have learned through other avenue. Once you have completed shooting your first film, naturally you want the world to see it, but that’s never an easy process. Even when you go through the proper channels such as a festival screening and good reviews, the doors (theater distributors, studios) don’t open up. Such was the case with “LIFT”, a fascinating film directed by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter. With a strong conviction in their film and relentlessly marketing it, Showtime picked it up to show it a wide audience. In an interview with co-director DeMane Davis speaks to blackfilm.com about the making and marketing of “LIFT”.

WM: How did you two decide that both of you would serve as co-directors?

DD: We co-directed our first feature film BLACK & WHITE & RED ALL OVER together and we come from an advertising background (Khari was an art director, I was a copywriter) so we were used to working together as a team to come up with a concept. I don't recall there ever being a formal discussion about it, we just did it. In the end it works well.

WM: How did the story come about?

DD: Khari said we should do a crime film and, at the time, we had a mutual friend that was working at a store they were stealing from and we began to have a discussion about boosters we knew and our involvement with materialism. I recalled how I used to make collages out of clothing ads from Elle and Vogue. This Black girl I went to school with, the sharpest girl on the bus, the only one I ever saw wear Ferragamo shoes, saw my collage and wanted me to do one for her. I spent the night at her house and that night she gave me the entire dirt on the family: addictions, convictions. In the morning, the boosters came by with two trash bags full of stolen designer clothing and her whole family, little brothers and sisters included, began to pick through clothes. It was so cold in their house; I had slept with my sweatshirt on. They had roaches. We ate tuna fish sandwiches for dinner. But here was the whole family buying hot clothes. This was their priority. It was an image that stuck with me. I didn’t know the girl that well, but a few years later I recognized a little bit of her in myself. I wanted to be a copywriter at an ad agency but couldn't put my book together and ended up being a receptionist at a hair salon. My brother’s wife was a booster and encouraged me to borrow her clothes for work. Every day I would rock her Mondi suits and North Beach Leather dresses. The attention I received was overwhelming. I immediately began to filter all my energy into what I wore until the day my brother's wife couldn't provide me with clothes and I realized what I was wearing cost. LIFT is really about the search for self-love in a community with asset of values that’s completely unaffordable. It was inspired by classics like ORDINARY PEOPLE, EAST OF EDEN and THE LITTLE THIEF. Powerful films where a child spurned by a parent persists in trying to gain their love, and is forced into dark and often extreme circumstances. Initially, we made this to help young Black women gain self-esteem and look within themselves to solve their problems; but we learned it ultimately transcends issues of race and gender. Everyone wants his or her parent’s love.

WM: At the time of filming, Kerry Washington wasn't as well known as she is now. How did you choose her for the lead? Did she have to audition for the role?

DD: Kerry actually came in to read for the part of Camille. At the time, we had just lost an actor we thought was going to be Niecy. Khari and I looked at each other halfway through Kerry's audition and nodded. Then we asked her to read for Niecy. She had already shot SAVE THE LAST DANCE and OUR SONG but neither one of those films were out. Luckily, we had made Jim McKay's (Dir., OUR SONG and GIRL'S TOWN) acquaintance when we were at New Directors with BLACK &WHITE & RED... and he was generous enough to lend us a tape of OUR SONG. When we first popped it in, I remember saying, 'Kerry's not even in here, this is the wrong tape.' That's how different she looked playing a fifteen year old girl. She totally transformed herself. It was absolute luck that SAVE THE LAST DANCE came out just before we LIFT premiered at Sundance (2000) and went on to be one of the biggest money-makers that year ('99.)

WM: As co-directors, does one have more responsibility than the other does? Are the visions for the film the same?

DD: We each have the same responsibility. Basically we go through an intensive pre-production process where we ask each other a ton of questions and make sure we're on the same page. We have all of our arguments away from cast and crew (when the meter isn't ticking) and double-team everything. In the end, Khari usually settles with the DP and I settle with the actors, but we know what we're saying to each person beforehand. It's extremely helpful to have someone by your side experiencing the same thing so when it gets crazy you have someone to commiserate and celebrate with.

WM: The film was critically acclaimed in all the festivals you took it to. Naturally, one would think that theater distribution was the next process. Was that a challenging experience?

DD: Even with solid reviews from people like Elvis Mitchell (NY Times),Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) and Gavin Smith (Editor, Film Comment), and a strong festival following, distribution was not guaranteed and anything but easy. A lot of people labeled LIFT a "black movie" and thought it didn't have enough of what "black films have" in order to make money. Others said a woman in the lead role wasn't going to work at the box office. It was definitely challenging. Certainly I always thought there was an audience for a film, but these days marketing people want cut and dry answers and numbers. LIFT has drama, action and it's also has a few laughs, you'd think that would be a plus but in a marketing person's eyes it just makes it harder to categorize, therefore their job becomes harder and they don't want to deal with it. I'm really excited to be premiering on Showtime this month for the mere fact that the channel has 29.2 million subscribers. That means more people will see LIFT than ever would have in theaters. And, in the end, all I've ever wanted is for people to see in the film.

WM: Although you received some funding from Sundance and other grants, did you still have to go and solicit more funding for the film?

DD: Absolutely. We received a grant from the Maryland Producer's Club, and some money (and sold most of our Asian territories) when the script won the 1998 Sundance/NHK Filmmakers Award; but there was still a long way to go. Ultimately after developing it for a year with Konrad Pictures (Cathy Konrad, Prod., THE SWEETEST THING, GIRL, INTERRUPTED, the SCREAM trilogy and Jim Mangold, Dir., COPLAND, GIRL, INTERRUPTED, KATE & LEOPOLD), Hart Sharp Entertainment showed an interest. They produced BOY'S DON'T CRY and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME and put up the dough. Our final budget was just under 3 million. We were lucky to have them and they were very supportive.

WM: Niecy, the lead character, could have dividing opinions from the audience based on who she is and what she does. What do you want the audience to walk away once they've seen the film?

DD: When an audience roots for Niecy they are, essentially, rooting for a criminal. By the end I want them to understand the support they gave was worth it: Niecy will now make decisions that will lend hope to her life. Ultimately, if viewers allow themselves to think about their relationship with their parents, question the value they put into materialism or just begin to formulate a better opinion about those concepts I'm happy.

WM: How did Showtime get into the mix of showing the film?

DD: The producers were initially approached by Showtime and BET Films after LIFT premiered in Dramatic Competition at Sundance in 2000 but the actual deal took much longer. There were a lot of acquisitions people at our premiere; ultimately the people that felt the strongest about the film hung in there.

WM: What are each of you working on? Do you have day jobs?

DD: Khari is currently shooting poets from a poetry book he designed for an organization called Dreamyard/LA. Our usual day jobs are directing commercials and music videos through a production company in Boston called Picture Park. I am currently writing the next script, which we will co-direct and plan to shoot in Massachusetts. It's about friendship, loyalty and our responsibility to one another as a society.