Interview w/ Bridgett M. Davis and "Naked Acts"
by Maya Churi
Discussing the self-distribution release of her feature film, “Naked Acts,”
Bridgett M. Davis told indieWIRE, “There are other viable ways to get your
film before an audience than the standard of trying to get into Sundance
and get a great offer.” Reflecting on the decision to do it herself, she
continued, “I want people to know that this isn’t only a last resort — it’s a
indieWIRE recently spoke with Bridgett M. Davis about her feature debut
“Naked Acts” which opened at the Thalia in Manhattan this weekend. What if
Pam Grier had a daughter? That is the question “Naked Acts” asks as it
follows a 27 year old aspiring actress. Cicely comes back to her
hometown, after a four year absence, to be in a film and finds herself
on a journey towards accepting her newly svelte body that she once
despised and the mother everyone else adored. Set within a low-budget
film shoot this story explores a black woman’s feelings about her own
sexuality, her relationship with her mother and her own artistic
indieWIRE: After completing the film how did you come to the decision to
Bridgett M. Davis: It was not easy and initially I was determined not to
self-distribute it. But then I finished the film in the Spring of 96 and I
for well over a year to get it distributed and I did everything, the
distributor screenings on both coasts, all the festivals I could get
into. The general feeling was that they didn’t know who the market was
for this film. Or it was too unpolished for some distributor, or a
little too raw and so that confirmed it for me.
We got an offer from a distributor last summer — Phaedra Cinema —
and it was so small. So I said, you know what he’s offering I could do.
The only thing he has that I don’t have is access to a theatre and so that
became our focus. We immediately began trying all the Manhattan theatres
that were still independent and that eventually resulted in the Thalia
iW: What are your plans for other cities?
Davis: If New York works well then we will go to other cities. In a
beautiful ideal world it would be ten…At the very least I would do three.
I would do New York, I would do Chicago, which is extremely supportive
of “Naked Acts,” and I would do my hometown — Detroit.
iW: What are you doing in NY to market the film?
Davis: We’ll see if it works. The initial buzz is great. We did five or six
key things. First I did this major e-mail blitz that took the place of
the old fashioned street marketing. Plus the website etc. All those
internet connections we really tried to push. The second thing we did
was invested in 20,000 color post-cards that we have distributed
throughout the city. We hired someone to go to events and pass these
cards out, very specific events. We had wild posting in two key
neighborhoods that have gone up over the weekend and then I took a key
community where I feel my target audience is: Fort Green, Brooklyn. We
blitzed the neighborhood. I shot my film largely in the neighborhood so
they’ve been great about posters in windows, post-cards in shops and I
think that’s going to really benefit us. And I’ve carved out a little
money for key ads — Village Voice, Amsterdam News, again taking about
really trying to zero in on the key audience and needless to say you
want as much free publicity as you can get.
iW: How does the issue’s of body image in African American Women in your
film affect your marketing strategy?
Davis: Probably the best marketing decision we made when we started to shoot.
We hired a graphic artist from day one which I don’t think a lot of
people do. He helped us come up with a logo and a visual image and
that’s the image you see on our posters and post-cards. We have a black
and white version (and) a color version — I felt that totally captured the
essence of what the story is trying to tell. I think those kind of
promotion decisions made early have really benefited us, because they’ve
also been consistent. People can equate that image with our film for
over four years now?
iW: Tell me a little about shooting on a low budget and a tight schedule?
Davis: It was both extraordinary and excruciating. I would never ever give up
that experience but I would never do it again. I think what it came
down to is that I also produced it, so the creative aspects of the film
suffered because I had worry about whether the caterer was there with
the coffee. The money issue is a drag. What money gives you is time —
time to work with actors, time to give your DP to set up. Time with
locations you need. Everything was on the fly and intense. I’m not a
big fan of no-budget filmmaking — it’s expensive anyway. We’re talking
no money, and it took nearly $90,000 to get my film in the can so that’s
real money, although in film terms it seems like nothing.
iW: Where did you get the idea to make this film?
Davis: I started writing the screenplay out of frustration over a novel I was
writing, I thought I’d try a new art form, a new genre to free me, and
I fell into this real love affair with the form. I think looking back
it was because I was a trade journalist and I had these creative writing
aspirations, screen writing became the perfect marriage between the
two. So that was really what the genesis was. I thought, o.k. this is
a project I’m going to focus on. I’m going to really try and examine
this whole issue of how women come into a sense of themselves in terms
of their body image. I know I had struggled with it, I don’t really
know a woman who doesn’t hate a part of her body and I kept thinking
what does that mean for us as women, how we see ourselves? And it
started with another question, I want to really zero in on how black
women specifically grapple with this issue and I had this hypothetical
question: What if Pam Grier had a daughter who was now an adult and
wanted to be an actress? What kind of actress would she be? What kind
of person would she be? That led me down this whole path that wind up
becoming “Naked Acts.”
iW: How did your background in journalism affect the physical making of the
film and how you approached the story?
Davis: I really had no fear of re-writes — as a new screenwriter I wasn’t
daunted by that reality, I understood that was how to make stories
work. And then I wasn’t afraid to do the research and to
interview various people where it was necessary and would add to
the script. Those were the two key ways the journalism background
helped. I also tend to be a fast writer — I know that came out of years
of being a newspaper reporter.
iW: What kind of interviews did you do as research for the script?
Davis: A lot of it was inadvertent, I teach journalism and I teach English
courses and I often ask my students to keep journals and the classic
assignment I give them is to describe their first memory — a
significant number of women in every class write about sexual abuse.
For the longest time, long before I thought of film, I used to think this
is sort of devastating and I didn’t know what to do with it. Then when
the film project came along it all sort of came to me at once — this is a
way to grapple with that and perhaps there’s a way to turn some of those
stories into fiction and it wasn’t literal. I didn’t have any women in
my class who wrote about being on the set of their mom’s films or
anything but it was just the feelings that they expressed and the fear
of telling anyone, particularly their mothers. It really helped me come
up with that part of the story. I talked to actresses. So many black
actresses struggle, not only with the issue of trying to find work but
“If I take my clothes off in a film I’m doomed.” There’s a total sense
of a double standard which is why you have Angela Basset refusing ever
to disrobe and yet if it’s Sharon Stone or Annette Bening or someone it
can catapult their career.
iW: From the point of finishing the script, how long was it before you
Davis: I continued to write drafts through pre-production and so I count that
whole period — I remember very specifically that it was two years into
the effort when I finally said o.k. I think your in the position now to
try to get this thing made, and through that whole script writing
process I was frantically studying film. It was a blitz of
self-education. I wasn’t’ able to give up teaching so I knew I had to do
this part-time or in the evenings and weekends.
iW: What were your fundraising efforts like?
Davis: I just went out to my hometown. I had my sister come on board as
associate producer and she went to friends and family and also to a lot
of businesses in Detroit that our family had patronized over the years
and asked for really small investment amounts. Through that we raised
the initial $30,000 — the seed money that enabled us to start shooting,
and that was great because once the ball is rolling it’s easier to get
people to come on board. I got to New York with a little footage and
could then attract some more small investors and then once the film was
basically shot I met an investor who became executive producer and she
provided finishing funds.
iW: Did you always know that you would have to go out and find the money
yourself or did you try to pitch it to some of the independent studios?
Davis: I often think back in critical oversight on my part. In 1994, in the
Spring before I started shooting I went to Cannes just to see the whole
experience. Believe it or not at that point Ted Hope was really
accessible and he was there and I was volunteering at the market. I was
chatting with him at a screening of one of his films, and he was casually
saying that he was looking for a project by an African American director,
(he said) ‘You should send it me’ and I said ‘Oh yeah I will,’ and
I never did — I often wonder, because he did go on to subsequently work
with Cheryl Dunye — I just wonder what the reaction would of been. But I
was so certain that no one would want to produce this film because of the
subject matter. I just assumed I would have to do it myself.