Making ‘Half Baked,’ the First Film Starring Dave Chappelle
Director Tamra Davis on taking a stand-up star to the big screen
Photo courtesy of Tamra Davis
Welcome to Mass Chappelle. It’s a celebration (bitches) of the two new Dave Chappelle standup comedy specials now available on Netlix. This week we’ll be giving you interviews about, insights on and examinations of one the funniest people living today.
Tamra Davis directed Half Baked, the first and only film where Dave Chappelle had the lead role. The 1998 film was written by Chappelle and Neal Brennan, who would become the other main creative force on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show. Davis had previously directed Chris Rock in CB4 and Adam Sandler in Billy Madison, as well as music videos for artists including Tone-Loc, Sonic Youth, the D.O.C. and Hanson.
How did you get the job directing Half Baked?
CB4 and Billy Madison were at Universal, and Billy Madison was produced by Bob Simonds. Bob Simonds is also the producer on Half Baked. He sent me the script.
Did you know Dave’s work at all before you saw the script?
I had heard of him. I saw very, very, very little and those guys were already in pre-production. They were like six to eight weeks away from starting production. I don’t know what they were thinking. They needed a director. Bob sent me the script. I read the first scene with the kids and he called me back, like, “What do you think? Are you down?”
I was like, “Well, that’s the funniest scene I’ve ever read.” I loved that first scene, I had a meeting that afternoon with Dave and Neal. I went into Bob’s office and met them and just fell in love with them. I thought they were hilarious. We immediately had great chemistry. I was like, “These guys are awesome. They’re the real thing.” They were, like, 23 years old.
What was the dynamic between the two of them?
Dave was just the most charming, unbelievable person. Dave at like 23, 24, the amount of confidence he had and his swagger and his humor… Neal was also so bright. It reminded me very much of Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy—there’s a very strong comedic person and then a very strong writer as a great team.
Were you into stand up at all?
I was, because I became very close with Chris Rock and his stand up was so amazing. Then with my background, my grandfather was a really big comedy writer so I grew up around old comedy. My grandfather was in partnership with Slappy White and Redd Foxx. I go way back in that, and Dave is legendary. Dave has that style.
It’s interesting you did those three films: Chris Rock in CB4, Adam Sandler in Billy Madison and Dave Chappelle in Half Baked. Those were all guys who were coming from stand up and these were their first lead roles. How is it trying to get stand ups to transition to film?
I’m really good working with first time people and trying to get an authentic performance out of them. I love it, but I really have to believe in that person and then make them feel comfortable and get that performance on film.
How do you get them comfortable?
I think the thing is that I am truly your biggest fan. I’m always looking out for you. It’s trust. You have to be able to trust that person.
What was the shooting experience like on Half Baked?
What happens is when you’re on location, it’s not just the movie that you’re making, it’s also you’re in this surreal world where everybody’s there for 12 or 14 hours. You’re just in this little bubble of this alternative reality. It’s very bizarre and everybody gets very close. You’re spending the weekends together, you’re spending whatever other waking hours kind of together because nobody knows anybody in the area when you’re on location. Part of it is just going out at night and laughing. I remember laughing so hard on like a street corner with Dave.
Were you surprised that he didn’t star in any movies after Half Baked?
I think that [Half Baked] was so specifically their thing, and then after they did that they just started to do the TV show, which was basically the same thing. What was so great about the show is they got to do all these different characters.
What happened when you turned this movie in? Did the studio take more of an interest in it once they actually had a movie on their hands?
I do remember they had a problem with the ending. At the end of the movie he decides to give up weed and go with the girl. I just remember sitting in a room with like all the studio executives and Dave had to give his pitch for why he felt the end of the movie needed to be this new ending, and he gives his memorable last line in the movie, about loving pussy more than weed, to this whole room of executives.
I was just dying. That to me was like the funniest thing ever. I just couldn’t believe that he did that. It totally went over.
The other thing that I remember, was when I was editing the movie, somehow the studio took a look at my film before it was done, and they’re not supposed to do that. They saw it and it became a really big political thing at the company because the opening of the movie is these kids smoking pot and they freaked out. They were like, “You have to cut the beginning of the movie.” I was like, “What? You haven’t even screened the movie! I haven’t even trimmed the cut! You guys snuck a view of it!”
The reason why I wanted to do this movie was because the opening scene is so funny. And they were like, “No, it sends a bad message, kids smoking pot.” I was like, “Can I screen the movie? Nobody’s ever seen this movie, can we look at it first and see how the movie plays before you guys start giving me cuts?”
My whole thing is those movies aren’t made for those executives, they’re made for audiences, let’s hear what the audience thinks. We were in a movie theater in Pasadena with like 400 teenagers. All of the studio executives are standing in the back, and I’m standing back there. It’s really hard to be a director at that moment. You’re freaking out. The lights go down and that opening scene played and the theater went crazy for that opening scene. The whole theater just like exploded and the executives looked at me and they said, “Okay, you can keep your opening.” You’re fighting for things and thank God they still listened to their audience.