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Twenty years ago, “Crossroads” hit theaters. The first feature film to star Britney Spears, the teenage road trip movie was panned by critics, but loved by audiences. Exceeding box office expectations, making more than $61 million on a $12 million budget, “Crossroads” went on to become somewhat of a cult favorite, particularly among Spears’ worldwide fans.

“Crossroads,” which also starred Zoe Saldana, Taryn Manning, Dan Akroyd, Beverly Johnson and Kim Cattrall, was written by Shonda Rhimes, who would go on to create “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” becoming one of the most powerful creators in television history. Rare for its time, the low-budget film was also directed by a woman, Tamra Davis, resulting in a mostly-female production that supported its young, central superstar.

At the time Spears filmed “Crossroads” — which came out on Feb. 15, 2002 — she was in the midst of recording her third album and had become the best-selling teenage artist of all time, let alone one of the biggest stars on the planet, fresh off of “Oops…I Did It Again” and “Baby One More Time.”

“Crossroads” was a starring vehicle for Spears, who played the character Lucy, and featured her song, “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” The movie, which centered around female friendship and explored topics such as teen pregnancy, rape and childhood abandonment, coincided with a time when the pop star would enter a more mature phase of her music career. Within a year of the film’s release, the pop star became a constant paparazzi magnet who was targeted by a misogynistic media machine amid her breakup with Justin Timberlake. In the years that followed, Spears would be placed under a court-ordered conservatorship, which was recently terminated after over 13 years.

Davis tells Variety that she has not been in contact with Spears. But when she tried to get in touch with her over the years, she faced pushback from the singer’s team, which the director believes was an effort to silence the star during her conservatorship.

“It just breaks my heart because when I think back to the messages that I was getting back, they never let me get to her,” Davis tells Variety. “Now, I just realized, oh my god, this was her people just trying to keep everybody away. I feel there were voices that could have helped her.”

“Crossroads” was produced by Ann Carli, one of the film’s creative forces who previously worked for Jive Records, which was Spears’ label. Carli came across a then-relatively unknown Rhimes, and then approached Davis with whom she had worked on music videos over the years. Davis originally turned down the offer to direct the film, but when she met Spears, she decided to sign onto the project.

Here, “Crossroads” director Tamra Davis talks to Variety about working with a young Spears, why she hopes to find a streaming venue for the film and any chances for a future sequel.

You initially turned down the offer to direct “Crossroads.” What changed your mind?

Ann Carli called and said, “Would you be interested in directing a movie starring Britney Spears?” At first, I said no. I think it’s always a challenge to do a movie that’s starring somebody who is not considered an actress, and she was known mostly at that time being a performer, so I had no idea if she knew how to act. Ann said, “Well, at least go out and meet her. She’s doing a MTV thing in Las Vegas. Will you go meet her?”

And so, I went out to Las Vegas and I got there in the morning at like 10 a.m. at some big fancy suite, and Brit opened the door and she was like wearing a little T-shirt and underwear and she was like, “Last night, I was hammered!” I was like, “Who’s this girl?!” [Laughing] She was hilarious and I just thought she was amazing.

We spent the whole day together and she proved to me that she really wanted to do this and put in the work and wanted it and was very serious about it.

How did Britney Spears and Shonda Rhimes initially get together?

Britney had wanted to change her image. I think that she wanted to take control. Especially at this time, there was a lot of talk about her being a virgin and all that kind of stuff, so she wanted to change this perception of herself. She hired Shonda to write the script and she worked really closely with Shonda. It was incredibly exciting. Shonda was just this incredibly intelligent force to be reckoned with.

I assume you’re not surprised at all by the success that Shonda has gone on to have?

She had that confidence. She was so talented and she had a voice. I suppose what was the surprising thing is how much the world is changed that the opportunity presented itself. When you look back at the time we sat on the set at “Crossroads,” it was a female director, a female writer, a female producer all sitting behind the camera. That was really rare. Nobody was doing that. Wow, we were so ahead of our time with an African-American screenwriter; me as a young, female director; and all these women telling a story about women.

Given that “Crossroads” was a vehicle for Britney, who was the biggest young female star in the world, was it a deliberate decision to surround her by women, so that she could feel comfortable on set?

Hiring Shonda was the first part of telling this story by a woman. And I felt like when Ann [Carli] brought me on to work with Brit, she knew that if you hired a male to take care of and direct Brit, at that time, Brit was very vulnerable. Having a male in a power position like that, they wanted to make sure to not have that situation happen, which is very common in movies and TV.

It’s crazy to think how young Britney was at that time because she truly was the biggest star in the world. On set, did it feel like she was a huge superstar or was she just a normal girl?

She really was at the height of her career, and she also was with Justin [Timberlake] at that time, and so, she was living this very fantastical life, but it was a lot of pressure and it was very big. I think what happened to her while we were shooting was very magical because when you’re working on a movie, you develop a small community and she had this incredible camaraderie with Zoe [Saldana] and Taryn [Manning] and Anson [Mount]. It wasn’t like she was the lead or he or anybody was the lead. It was an ensemble piece and they got to support each other as equals, and I don’t think she’d ever had that situation before because she was always the lead person, so I felt like this dynamic was the first time she was part of something and she was an equal member. To see the relationship and the friendship that was formed with all these girls was just beautiful and amazing. We kind of kept the outside world out, but it was really hard, especially because anytime anybody found out we were shooting, it was just a nightmare.

I’m sure. How did you avoid having paparazzi and fans show up? Did you have to use fake names for the production and for Britney anytime she checked in anywhere?

We had to hide a lot. People would drive by and honk, or a thousand people would just show up to see Britney. Driving around in a convertible with her might as well have been in a parade. She had fake names as well. We were moving around pretty quickly, so I don’t think anybody could find us for very long. We just had to keep moving fast and try to ask the fans to please not yell while we were trying to shoot. But you know, of course, her fans are mean the world to her we always wanted to make sure to show them love.

It was a low budget film, which is interesting given that Britney was such a huge star.

I think she loved it. I think there was probably more money in the music than there was in the film. But I also think it took some of the pressure off. We wanted to make this cool, indie, road trip chick flick and not try to be all polished and puffy.

The cast is really impressive. “Crossroads” was at the beginning of the careers for Zoe Saldana and Taryn Manning, but you also had legends like Dan Akroyd and Beverly Johnson and Kim Cattrall playing the girls’ parents. 

Dan Akroyd was just so funny, and he really helped Britney. That was the thing — we wanted to surround Brit with really talented actors on her first film and that’s what we did. And she stepped up, playing opposite each of those people. It was really wonderful.

Was Britney involved in casting?

She was always involved. I don’t think anything happened on the film without making sure Brit was happy with it.

Was Britney excited that Kim Cattrall would be playing her mother? “Sex and the City” was the biggest show, at that time.

Of course! That was her favorite show. That’s why we went with her. Kim is who we wanted and we’re so excited that she would do this. She was a Britney fan, so we had a fantastic time. That was a dream scenario.

I read that Robert DeNiro is actually the one who persuaded Anson Mount to do “Crossroads” because they were co-starring on “City by the Sea” at the time, so DeNiro ran lines with him on that set. Is that true?

I do remember something about that from Anson. Yeah, I think he said something about that. What an amazing thing.

You mentioned Justin Timberlake. Would he visit Britney on set?

Oh yeah. He was around. I’d have to go knock on their door to bring her to set, and at the time, there was so much said about their relationship and her sexuality and virginity, so I’d be picking her up in the morning and I’d be like, “I’m not gonna say anything. Don’t worry! Those are personal questions!” But they were the most adorable. He was so supportive of her, and he just thought that this movie was the best thing in the world for her. They were an amazing couple, and I thought they would be together forever.

Are you surprised that Britney didn’t act much more after this?

When we would have screenings for the film with girls, she would see what an impact she had and how this movie really affected people. But I think there was a lot of pressure. Very soon after the film came out, her life kind of came crashing. She and Justin broke up, and then her mom and dad broke up. Things just started to fall apart around her.

Have you kept in touch with her throughout the years?

No. I wish. I know how much “Crossroads” meant to her — she’s told me and she’s told Ann Carli that that it was one of the most incredible experiences and very impactful months in her life.

During the last few years, I’ve really tried to get in contact with her because with all this stuff coming out about #FreeBritney, I would sometimes get media requests to talk about her, and I always wanted to make sure she would be okay with me talking. So, I would reach out to see if it’s okay for me to talk to the press. It just breaks my heart because when I think back to the messages that I was getting back, they never let me get to her — I would get messages back from her people saying, “Britney would rather you not speak to press” and “Britney would like it if you didn’t say anything about her. She’s nervous that everybody’s talking about her. Please don’t talk, please. She hopes this all goes away.” Now, I just realized, oh my god, this was her people just trying to keep everybody away. I feel there were voices that could have helped her.

When you were getting media requests during the #FreeBritney movement, what did you want to tell the press?

I would just want to tell the press that whoever this Britney is, that’s not that Brit that I knew. The Brit that I knew was not controlled at all. She was in control. She was a badass business woman. She controlled the whole thing, and she didn’t do anything that she didn’t want to do. I was inspired by her. I feel like the person that she became over these years, that’s not the girl that I knew, and it just broke my heart to see her reduced down to what happened to her.

So, yeah, when I tried to call, they would say, “Please, don’t talk to the press. Please. Britney doesn’t want anybody to talk about her. She wants everybody to leave her alone. She’s fine.” And it just breaks my heart. Because I feel like that was definitely the dad talking, and by her people saying, “Don’t say anything,” it kept her in this loop.

Now that her conservatorship has been terminated, Britney has been speaking her mind. Does it make you proud to see her expressing herself so freely?

It makes me so happy that she has her freedom, but I’m so sad that she had to go through that. It just breaks my heart up. She going through to get it. What an human abuse we did to a person and especially a woman — it’s like a nightmare and a horror movie. I wish we could have been there to help her more to get her out of it quicker. And I hope this never happens to anybody else.

Aside from the conservatorship, there has been a heightened conversation about the sexism and misogyny that surrounded Britney in the media. Do you think that the negative reviews for “Crossroads” were sexist because it was a Britney Spears film?

I feel like she was unfairly criticized because we tested the movie like crazy and the audience, especially girls, loved that movie. It was made for girls. It did what it was supposed to do to its audience. Girls were really moved by what the story was and the story that Shonda wrote. I just feel like it’s such an easy thing to take a cheap shot at somebody like that. Britney was an easy target for people.

So when the film over-performed at the box office, based on your screenings and testing, were you not surprised that the fans liked it more than critics?

Yeah, no. And what I’m trying to do now is get it out again — I’ve gone to film festivals with the film where it’s done specials, and it still plays so well. I think people would love to see the movie again.

Why isn’t it streaming anywhere right now?

I can’t believe it. Really, I think it should be. I’m trying to figure out who has the rights because we want to make it happen.

It was distributed by Paramount, so perhaps Paramount Plus could be a good venue?

Yes, Paramount and MTV Films. So, we’re trying to find out.

It seems like there’s a lot of love among the “Crossroads” team, and there have been some rumors about a potential sequel throughout the years. Britney even tweeted at Zoe about a sequel, back in 2014. Could that ever happen?

I have no idea, but it would be fun and I would love it. But it would have to be everybody original — Shonda and me and Britney and you would have to get everybody back together.

So you wouldn’t want to see a “Crossroads” reboot with a new cast?

Anything is possible, I suppose. Who knows? But also, it’s funny when you think now that Jamie Lynn plays Britney in the flashback as a little girl — so, you’d just have to be careful with who you cast and who is coming up next. I don’t know. It could be a sequel. Or, if we just all got back together to hang out one night, it would be the best.

But right now, the focus is to find a streaming home, so audiences can watch the original “Crossroads.”

Yes. I have a DVD copy of it, but other than that, it’s not available!

Well, maybe this interview will convince someone to swoop in on the rights. There is so much love out there for Britney, and I think people would love to watch the film again.

Yes, I hope so! And hopefully, Britney will read this too, and she’ll see how much we love her and how happy we are that she’s back.

With that said, since you haven’t been in touch with her, what is the one message you want to say to Britney?

Welcome back. I hope she enjoys her life. I feel so bad that she had to endure that, but I’m so happy that she is back and I can’t wait to hear from her and see her again.