[This story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of The Afterparty season two, “Danner’s Fire.”]
When it comes to the art of film there aren’t many boundaries, styles or genres that director Tamra Davis is waiting to cross. Her five decade-plus career as a director of music videos, television series, documentaries and comedy films (such as Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison, Chris Rock’s CB4 and Dave Chappelle’s Half Baked) boasts a diverse résumé.
But when the opportunity presented itself to be part of the Apple TV’s series The Afterparty for season two, Davis found herself drawn to a type of storytelling new to her: The whodunnit mystery drama. Within the Agatha Christie-style of storytelling, Afterparty creators Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (along with writer Anthony King) charged the directors of each episode to film in a particular style giving homage to various genres of filmmaking in Hollywood. This drew Davis into the Afterparty family even more, and she agreed to direct episode six’s “Danner’s Fire” (which aired Aug. 9 and focused on Tiffany Haddish’s character).
The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Davis during a Zoom interview about the filming of the “Danner’s Fire” episode, which in some ways stands alone from the other “possible murder suspects” episodes of The Afterparty‘s second season. Davis, however, also reveals that she is the director of the series finale. Could this mean THR has the scoop on who killed groom Edgar? Read on, below.
How did you become part of the The Afterparty season two production family?
I was a big fan of The Afterparty, and I got call from my agents who said there were some episodes available. I got to meet with Chris [Miller] and Anthony [King], and I got assigned to do the show. Also, I had worked with Michael Cedar, who is one of the producers. He and I had worked together a bunch in the past, and is always helpful. I worked with him on the show Star that was produced by Lee Daniels. So, it was a really good experience ; he knows how I work, because production is really hard. So it was really fun.
You’re not new to comedy, directing such movies as Billy Madison, Half Baked and CB4. And you did the documentary on your friend, the world renowned New York-based artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
And I’ve done a lot of TV as well, like a lot of episodic television. I don’t only do comedy, I have done some drama. But I do things that are more positive. And usually, comedy is more positive.
Having worked in all those different genres, how do you approach comedy? Is your method to try to elicit the “funny” or do you direct your actors not to think of the comical aspects, but rather to be more dramatic?
Well, the first thing is that you have a neat script. Those guys [Miller and Lord] are known for comedy. I’ve been a huge fan of theirs from their 21 Jump Street days — I think they are geniuses — and I was really excited to work with them, and also with Anthony King who co-wrote my episodes. And I’m sure they put together an incredible writers room on those shows, because they are so well-respected.
So, first you start with the script. And if I’m reading the script at home, and I’m laughing, then you have a good idea that some good comedic stuff is in there. But I wanted this particular episode really badly because I’m a huge Tiffany Haddish fan! I saw her stand up, but I really loved her book [Layla, the Last Black Unicorn]. I thought she was so interesting. I come from Los Angeles; I’ve worked a lot in L.A. and I did a lot of rap videos in Compton; so, I kind of felt like I knew who she was and where she came from. And I wanted to see a version of her that I hadn’t really seen so much of before. I really was excited to work with Tiffany.
I think we need direct comedy. For me, I try to make sure that I feel light and funny, that I’m in a mood to laugh and not feeling all stressed out when I come to set. I come ready to have a good time, ready to laugh. I’ve done all of my prep work and I feel really confident about what my day is ahead. I am coming to the set thrilled to work with some of these amazing comedians. The fact that I got to work with everybody in this new season who were so top-notch and on top of their game and fantastic; a lot of time, you just want to stay out of the way and make sure you provide a playground and a place for them to work and stretch what they are the best at and support them. That is usually what I try to do: Make sure that I made the set really easy so they fell like all they need to do is go on, do their job and make people laugh. I couldn’t believe my luck. And also, that I got to work with John Early! He’s honestly one of my favorite comedians as well. I knew he wasn’t in season two that much, but when I found out that I got to have him in my episode, I was so excited.
Is there room to improvise from the script?
You always shoot what’s on the page, that’s my job as a director. You make sure you got exactly what’s on the page so when in the edit room they know they are safe with that. But once you feel you’ve gotten that — Chris is there almost all the time, and so is Anthony — they will let the director and actors play a little bit and give some options.
Some of my favorite ad libs, “smedium” — oh, my God! When [Tiffany Haddish] comes out with the penis size! And they get all excited and say the “Goldilocks” — that’s all ad libs. I’m sure Tiffany probably uses that in her stand up or it’s some joke she’s been working on. But we were losing it in the background, trying not to ruin the take.
So, let’s get into the episode a little bit more. As each episode represents a style or era of film, which genre is “Danner’s Fire”?
When they gave me my episode, they told me: This is the ‘90s erotic thriller! I was like “Oh, my God. How exciting!” So, I really went deep into that genre of 91/2 Weeks, Basic Instinct, Body Heat and all of those incredible films’ [screenwriter] Joe Eszterhas. I just had a lot of fun with the lighting, design and the style. And working with Tiffany’s character and making her the “Michael Douglas” of the scene and giving her the power was just a really fun genre to play with. It really lent itself to those kind of cop scenes, and the sexy rapport between the two of them [Haddish and Michael Ealy].
And you were directing two completely different episodes in one: “Danner’s Fire,” which had nothing to do with the murder storyline of season two, and current scenes where murder suspect Travis (Paul Walter Hauser) has drunk some poisoned tea from the devil’s trumpet flower believed to have killed Edgar (Zach Woods). In this episode, the survivors must figure out the antidote or Travis will die, too. Are there challenges in filming two separate stories in one?
Yeah, for sure. You have the flashbacks of her telling the scene, and that was specifically that style, and then running concurrently is the live action happening in the scene. It was really fun in the edit room when they would cut back and forth from [Tiffany] telling the scene to Sam [Richardson, who plays Aniq Adjaye in both seasons), and I saw how calmly he works with those quick unexpected reactions. He was making me laugh so hard. And Tiffany telling the story and getting all physical was fantastic.
So, I had those two scenes, but sometimes they would come in and they would be like, “Oh, we need to shoot something from the Wes Anderson thing over here.” And I directed the finale as well. I had to sometimes shoot little pickups on that. It was fun and we all just really worked together and traded off to be available for production, and just be a part of making this whole thing happen.
Do you think there will be an Afterparty season three?
(Laughs.) I have no idea. I wish they would tell me things like that. I know it is doing well and it looks beautiful. It really came together. It’s a great premise. I didn’t really know this genre so well because I haven’t done that many mystery things — I’ve done Dead to Me and shows like that. On this one, it was really fun to research the genre and go into that kind of Agatha Christie locked-room mystery drama. I read a ton of books and it was really fun to dive into that thing where everybody is kind of guilty, everyone has a motive — and trying to find out who as the killer.
So, who killed Edgar?
(Laughs.) I’m not telling you!
Will you give us two the strongest candidates?
I really didn’t know who the killer was. I think it was only revealed to us in the final script for the finale. But I think before that, they throw so many things that it could be almost anybody. I think they do that purposely for the actors. I mean if you knew your future, sometimes the actors might act a little differently. But it was really fun in laying out who is the killer, because you really had to show how they figure it out and reconstruct the series of events for them as they present their case. And it’s not what you expect, which is really awesome.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The Afterparty‘s second season drops new episodes Wednesdays on Apple TV+.