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Collecting Movies with Dava Whisenant

by Sabrina Hornung | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | March 1st, 2021

By Greg Carlson

19 February 2021

Photo courtesy Mari Mur.

Dava Whisenant received the Best New Documentary Director Award at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival for her feature debut “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” which opened the 2019 Fargo Film Festival. Whisenant continues to collaborate with Steve Young, and their short comedy “Photo Op” is part of the 2021 Fargo Film Festival, which is being held as a virtual event from March 18 to 28.

Greg Carlson: How did you get interested in movies?

Dava Whisenant: I remember going to the video store in Harrison, Arkansas, where I lived until I was twelve. My father worked for the National Park Service, so we moved around a lot. We got to Miami around 1986. I would say I grew up on John Hughes. His movies were my favorites.

GC: What did you like about John Hughes?

DW: They spoke to the outsider. “Pretty in Pink” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” I think my favorite movie of all time is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” So, there was something about comedy with heart. 

GC: I just watched “She’s Having a Baby” last week. I love “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

DW: Hughes wrote so many movies. And I think “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” holds up. I watch it every Thanksgiving with my family. And I still cry every time. 

GC: When you went to the video store, were you supervised? Were you allowed to rent whatever you wanted to see?

DW: I had a pretty conservative upbringing. My parents were pretty strict. My mom would not let me see “Jaws,” for example. But interestingly, she was into international films. She is hard of hearing and I think she really appreciated the subtitles, though she never said that. She took me to see “Babette’s Feast.” That experience set off some realizations — there’s a whole world out there!

GC: A mom who takes you to see “Babette’s Feast” is a great mom.

DW: I appreciate that she showed me things like that. In addition to movies, she started taking me to the opera when I was in junior high. But I was definitely supervised at the video store.

GC: Was there a movie you had to own?

DW: I was looking through what has stayed around. “Saturday Night Fever.” And “The Player” really resonated. I do have “Citizen Kane.” “The Killing,” which does not get talked about enough. That movie is pretty intense.

GC: I am happy that you have a great Stanley Kubrick movie in your collection. What did you see that made you think, “I want to do this”?

DW: Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” That was a powerful, moving story about a woman’s experience, directed by a woman. A formative viewing experience.

GC: Did you tell your folks that you wanted to go to film school?

DW: I took a television production class in high school. It was in that class I discovered a fondness for editing. It was the first time I made an edit, on this old, clunky tape-to-tape system. But I thought, “Wow, this is it! This is everything! The editing is where it happens.” But I started college as a theatre major before changing to film production.

GC: Was your family supportive?

DW: Yes. But they were nervous. Cautious, you know? Even the school was cautious. I went to the University of Miami and they made us double-major. Almost as if they were saying, “You might not make it in this field, so you better have something else.” But my second major was French!

GC: What got screened in film class?

DW: “Stranger Than Paradise” had a real effect on me. I loved the way it was shot, and it showed me you don’t need a massive budget. Growing up, I had only seen the big studio movies.

GC: It is brilliant that your professor chooses a movie by someone who famously dropped out of film school.

DW: Yes. It was also the dawning of my awareness of independent film. I love anything even slightly surrealist. “Twin Peaks” came out when I was in high school and turned me into a huge David Lynch fan. “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart” and “Mulholland Dr.” — oh, just dark and sexy, but also with humor. I loved that stuff. Soderbergh was also a huge influence, especially “Schizopolis” and “Out of Sight” — I also dig “Full Frontal” — I appreciate Soderbergh’s curiosity to try new things.

GC: You worked on a couple Soderbergh projects. How did that come to be?

DW: They were doing additional photography on “Solaris” and needed an editorial PA. A friend who knew I was a Soderbergh fan told me about the gig. I was editing on a TV show at the time and I quit my job so I could be a PA!

GC: Well, you recognized an opportunity.

DW: It was very cool being on his editorial team … he edited “Solaris” himself. I learned a lot just by observing the way he handled issues that would come up, and it was fun being able to teach him a couple of Avid tricks at one point. Later, when I made “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” he met with us after the Tribeca premiere and brainstormed about ways to get the movie seen. That was really meaningful.

Sometime after working for Soderbergh on “Solaris” and his “Equilibrium” segment in the anthology project “Eros,” I got a call to edit a feature for Joe Camp, the creator of “Benji.”

GC: I nearly wore out the original “Benji” soundtrack LP when I was a kid.

DW: Yeah, that’s a good one for the collection. Returning to collecting, did you have any of the DVDs in the Directors Label series from the early 2000s? Like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry?

GC: All of them.

DW: Such inspiring stuff for people who like to create. Those anthologies were another thing I saw that made me feel like, “You can do this.” From commercials to short films to music videos, they were trying so many different things.

GC: It is hard to pick a favorite from that series. Maybe Gondry.

DW: Yes, the idea that you can just experiment. I also remember loving “Amarillo by Morning” by Spike Jonze.

GC: Did you ever get in trouble for watching a movie?

DW: If I did, I blocked it out. I was not allowed to see “Animal House” or “Caddyshack.” Somehow I saw “Airplane” though. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

GC: Were you deliberately seeking an opportunity to work in comedy when you went to Letterman?

DW: No. I didn’t think I would want to work on a television show because I was trying to get work on feature films. I had moved to New York when my then-fiance worked for Avid. “The Late Show with David Letterman” was transitioning to HD, so they needed people who knew Avid really well and could help facilitate the change. So I got hired because of my Avid skills.

But then it turned into something. It was so much fun to be behind the scenes there. They would let me go off and do an indie film and then come back to the show. For me, that place was like a family. The most supportive team. So many of them had been there for years. But I think they liked me because I was not worn down by it all and was having fun. I could not believe that I got to be there, working with those writers every day.

GC: How long did it take to hatch the idea that “Bathtubs Over Broadway” would make a great feature?

DW: Steve Young never told me about his record collection while I was working at Letterman. I had moved to Los Angeles and then the New York Times did a story about his book. People started coming out of the woodwork to ask him if he wanted to make a film about it, but I thought nobody gets this guy’s sense of humor better than I do. If anyone was going to direct it, it should be me!

Steve said he did not think I would be interested. I said I wanted to do it and immediately booked a flight to New York to do the first shoot we could use to pitch people. That’s the biggest problem with the subject matter — people didn’t understand what those musicals were, so it was difficult to get funding. That took about two years.

GC: I am so glad you are still collaborating with Steve. Did you make the most recent shorts during the pandemic?

DW: Yes. We were feeling cooped up and needed to do something creative. With the world at a standstill, what can we do that could take place outside and be funny? Steve just wrote those scripts so fast, and I said, “Wow, these are really good. Fly out here. Get a COVID test. Let’s just make these.”

One thing about Steve: all those years working on Letterman, he is so quick. We’ve written three television pilots recently. He’s written a screenplay. One thing about the pandemic — if you manage your time effectively, you can get a lot done.

GC: How do you approach directing Steve?

DW: So much of what he does in “Photo Op” is improv. I told him to just go for it, and Erin Eagleton, who plays opposite Steve, did a great job reacting to what Steve was giving him. It was so hard not to laugh. Because of the pandemic, I ended up shooting these things myself with my iPhone. No budget and limited time. Limitations can be excellent for creativity.

GC: I love how “Photo Op” turned out. And I am so glad it will be in the Fargo Film Festival.

DW: All three minutes and fifteen seconds of it! 

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