From touring with pop icon Prince to setting up shop in the capital, this talent coach believes the UAE is ready to tackle negative images in the region and prove itself in the film industry
Miranda Davidson recalls the first time she set foot in the UAE.
“I flew here on vacation in 2002. I was supposed to be here for a week but I liked it so much so I stayed three weeks,” she recalls.
“It was such a quiet beach town and this was only months after 9/11 and the Middle East was getting a bad reputation, which was weird because my best friend was Lebanese, I have friends from Saudi and I lived in LA where there are many Arabs.”
The country made such an impression that Miranda found herself returning over the next few years every time she would need a breather from her fast paced lifestyle.
“That curiosity in the culture and people really brought me back here,” she beams.
As a veteran of the entertainment scene, Miranda fully understands the importance of image – good and bad – in instilling a lasting impression.
It’s what led her to set up Miranda Davidson Studios (MDS), which works hard to boost the UAE’s position as an attractive destination for international film and TV productions.
Through its casting services, the company had provided extras for blockbuster movies like Fast & Furious 7 and Star Trek Beyond, among others.
In hindsight, Miranda had always been drawn to the bright lights of show business.
Born in the Twin City metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota to a theatre actress mum and computer scientist dad, Miranda’s first exposure to performing was through figure skating.
“I could barely walk when I started. My first competition was when I was four and I won,” Miranda recalls with a smile.
After 16 years of competitions and intense training, Miranda moved on from her dream of becoming an Olympian to work in the glitzy but cutthroat industry of entertainment.
At 19, Miranda returned to Minneapolis and wound up meeting a hometown musician, who happened to be world famous.
That musician was Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as Prince, whose 1984 album Purple Rain catapulted him to international acclaim.
Before she knew it, Miranda was moving from one city to another as an official member of Prince’s inner circle while simultaneously managing the dancers at a Miami nightclub owned by the singer-songwriter.
“He was really good in keeping this holistic, real family feel within his team. To this day I remain friends with his keyboardist, Morris Hayes, and his first wife, Mayte Garcia, is my best friend. It was a really loving environment,” she says about her time with the late pop star.
Her next stop was working for actress and comedienne Kirstie Alley and Warner Bros before landing key roles for giant talent companies such as Vision Management NYC and Karin’s Paris, where she oversaw the establishment of the French company’s US franchises.
But while living a jet-setting lifestyle and constantly rubbing elbows with celebrities may sound glamorous, the extreme demands of the job can be stressful, Miranda admits, and after becoming ill, she realised she needed to slow down and re-evaluate her life.
Looking for a change of scenery, Miranda eventually set up roots in Abu Dhabi, and in 2009 established her talent and training company, looking to help develop the local arts and entertainment scene.
A far cry from the vibrant, glitzy and competitive industry that she was accustomed to, the absence of a domestic entertainment scene here was obvious from the get go.
After getting over the shock and frustration, Miranda realised how this huge void could be turned into an advantage, and her broad experience could come in handy for training young talents.
“It wasn’t just about me anymore. I came to that point of my career where I wanted to make a difference and I can certainly do that by sharing my knowledge to uplift the talent standards here.”
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect either, as the new millennium saw the UAE becoming a significant player in the region thanks to a booming economy, progressive outlook and ambitious tourism goals.
International film producers soon took notice and began scouting the country as a potential shooting location.
The buzz gave Miranda an opportunity to branch out from talent coaching to actually supplying talents for visiting international film productions.
It made perfect sense given the local scene’s lack of sophisticated casting system to cater to the needs of directors and producers.
“Usually the two first things that a production company looks for are locations and casts,” Miranda explains.
“So during a meeting, I will show a visual presentation highlighting what they’re looking for. There’s also a financial presentation for costing purposes. So it goes from there.”
To date, MDS has provided casting support for productions such as the Chinese action film Switch, the horror flick Deliver Us From Evil, the beloved sci-fi movie Star Trek Beyond, the high octane Fast & Furious 7, and the Netflix satirical film War Machine, starring Brad Pitt.
“That was a proud moment for us casting-wise,” says Miranda, referring to Pitt’s 2017 comedic drama, “because everything in that movie that looks like Afghanistan was here and was our people. We had a cast of 2,300 people.”
As for Fast & Furious 7, Miranda comments: “When you talk about that franchise, you’re dealing with the best – they have a massive budget and you’re working with Universal Studios. All the stars were so nice; Michelle Rodriguez talked to every single extra and Vin Diesel took a bunch of them for dinner.”
The company’s imprint can also be seen in locally produced films including Happy Birthday Younis and Sea Shadow, where Miranda also served as the acting coach.
Aside from casting services, MDS continues to conduct acting and communication training
for personal and professional development.
“There’s a bigger purpose in what we do. It’s not just about making films but it’s about telling stories and giving people a voice, and that’s what we’re really doing. We want to empower people to achieve their purpose,” Miranda remarks.
While it may seem that the industry has come a long way in the past decade, Miranda points out vital factors – such as strict (and vague) laws in freelancing – that hinder the local film industry from achieving its full potential despite the growing number of talents.
“When you think of countries like Paris, London or the States, people can actually make a living out of it. Here, the budget is so low and there’s no consistent work that it’s hard to motivate someone who really wants to pursue it or get better in the industry because there’s no foreseeable future,” she laments.
“You can’t have talented people and just let them go. You can’t replace experience, it needs to be cultivated so there has to be continuity with talents or expats teaching and sharing their knowledge.
“You’re talking about a craft and an industry with a hundred years of history; you can’t emulate that in just a few years.”
But laws and regulations aside, Miranda believes that the country as it is, with its unique combination of old and new, will continue to generate interest from the outside.
“With all the negative impression on the Arab world, it hits a deeper chord. By showing the talent here and what the country can offer, we hope to bring a positive light and change the narrative.”
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez