Dime Davis already made Emmy history with her nomination in the variety series directing category for the freshman season finale of HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which she also co-executive produces. (She is the first Black woman to break onto this ballot.) If she picks up the statue in September, she will break another major barrier: being the first Black woman to win a directing Emmy overall.
How much do you think about things like the amount of Black people nominated before you in a category? Do you feel an added pressure or responsibility in choosing work or in the way that you work because of the strides the results can make?
We weren’t thinking at all about awards when we were shooting, but I knew I was the first woman to be in this position shooting this show — but also I knew it was the first time Black women had been really featured in this major way and really acknowledged in the sketch comedy space. I knew Robin [Thede, creator] was doing something really special, so I felt an enormous amount of pressure because of that. But, if I’m being really honest with you, I always feel a lot of pressure — just because I really want to do well. I love this art. And I wanted to also make sure that we’re not putting so much weight on the fact that I’m the first that we also ignore all of the work that went into the execution. I’m so honored that I’m the first, but if we make it all about that, I think that sets up the next woman to have not the best opportunity — I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the woman that will be the second. She’ll be incredibly talented, and I don’t want to take away from that. But damn, it’s been forever, so it’s bittersweet.
What do you think needs to be done to continue the conversation so it doesn’t take decades more to see another Black woman nominated in this category?
We have to continue to give people the opportunity to tell these types of stories. And when I say give the opportunity, I think people earn those; I don’t want to take the idea of earning them off the table. This is historic and it’s incredible and I’m so honored to have been in this position, and I think while we look at that and honor it, we also have to look at everything around it, which is the craft that’s put into it, the work that’s put into it, how is this piece different from the others in the category? Really honoring the minutiae that is done sets a good stage for the women to come. And that’s more Black women, but it’s more women of color and more women in general because this particular category has very much been a male dominated space. And while it’s great that I’m the first Black woman, what we’re really doing is opening up space for all.
How did you approach making each standalone sketch fit together for the overarching tone of the episode?
Typically with sketch what we think about is, you turn the cameras on and you let the performers do their thing. And that has worked for so long, so brilliantly, but what we wanted to do with this was really treat it like a narrative piece. Each sketch is kind of like a short film, and the way I chose to approach that is I’m a filmmaker first, so how do I tell the story but also support the funny? One of my favorite sketches is “Killing It” and I went with a [David] Fincher feel and tone there because that felt like it would support was the story was but also fully support the funny because you would expect that tone to go with it. And really that was the approach for everything, and I feel like when you really focus on what the story is, everything is going to feel different but that’s the point of it. The overall cohesiveness really came from those interstitials: We let each sketch be its own thing and get wild as it needed to get.
Speaking of the interstitials, what did you feel like you had to do to raise the tension and set it up to continue in a second season when directing the final one?
We really played with performances there; we really let the actors dip into the emotions they were feeling and it wasn’t about the funny anymore. Suddenly the tone shifted and it felt like, “Wait, what’s going on?” I stepped out of the way and allowed them to really have those feelings. And there are some tools I chose to use to support that shift, like hand-held.
Did you feel limited at all by the fact that these characters had been previously established, so certain notes you may have wanted to give might have seemed out of character?
I didn’t feel limited in that way because we had been working together on that. But when I say I stepped out of the way, I wasn’t pushing the camera at them; I was letting them come to me. Where I do feel there was a little limitation, at least initially, was that I was going to be in this one location the whole time. I felt limited to start, but once we got in it I realized the importance of that — the importance of having us go back to the place and the characters we’re familiar with. We go so crazy everywhere else. My initial instinct was to go crazy with it [too], but it really worked out that we chose for the interstitials to be centered and comedic and grounded.
Other than “Killin’ It,” what were some of your favorite sketches to direct?
I really, really love “Get The Belt” and I think because initially that was present day and then we decided that making it more of a period piece would give it some texture and really be cool. And it was personal for me: I remember those times, feeling the pressure as a child of like, “OK I need to get this right.” Also, working with Marsai Martin was so dope. She’s so young, but there’s so much fire in her. And I also liked that there were these two really distinct tones that we meshed together: You have this live “American Gladiator” audience feel and then it feels very grounded. It’s a little hyper-reality; it felt very “Crooklyn” to me. And then I really loved [“Rome and Julissa,” our take on] “Romeo and Juliet” because I’m obsessed with the film.
The 1996 one?
Yeah. I loved the film, and I love love stories. And to me, that was the sketch that was the love story, and I got to make it heightened. I got to make it a cross between “Romeo and Juliet” and “House Party,” which, I guess I’m in love with the ’90s.
How did you balance time in prepping individual sketches? Did you block shoot?
We did. Most of the sketches took place in one location and we shot the entire show on location. Of course it was not easy, but we did work hard to shoot them all and then form what each episode would be in post. There wasn’t much room to breathe. I always take prep seriously, but on this one, every scene was crucial. So I had to know what I wanted to get out of it very early on. I wanted to be super clear for everybody and make sure we were on the same page. I went through and shot-listed everything, and in between shooting, I had time to go back and reference and be fresh for what I was shooting next week.
The two sketches you called your favorites you referred to as heightened; is that the tone you want to carry through future projects?
If I’m honest, I never thought that I would do sketch comedy. I talked to Robin and she laid out some things that I found irresistible — and those things were that it was going to be grounded, it was going to be cinematic, it was going to be magical, and it was going to be hilarious. And those were things I didn’t necessarily know could stick together. I didn’t necessarily know what a narrative sketch show [looked like]. But I was so intrigued. So I pitched on it and booked it. And it was such a great exercise, so while my next thing may not be a sketch comedy show, I feel like I was really able to show my chops as a filmmaker.