It’s embarrassment of riches time here at TVWriter™ as more and more TV writers are being discovered, and more importantly, interviewed by various formerly oblivious media. Today’s case in point is the creator not only of one of the darkest shows on TV but also of one of television’s most eccentric ones. Put ’em together, please, for – Jeff Davis!
by Johnathan Cardillo
“You know, the last time I checked that sign on the hill still reads ‘HOLLYWOOD’… I don’t know where else I would be!” – Jeff Davis
Give us the skinny on your background!
I started writing screenplays while I was in high school; feature film scripts. By the time I got to LA I had written about 20 scripts. I went to college at Vassar in NY and got a BA in Film Production, then I went to USC for Screenwriting. I started at USC in the directing program, but eventually switched over to screenwriting, because I didn’t really have as much time to write screenplays as I wanted to and I was spending way too much time making very crappy short films that I knew wouldn’t get me anywhere. Then after USC I got my first manager from Outfest, a screenwriting contest. After that I had scripts optioned.
What happened next?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I was about 25 when I worked as an IT administrator for Innovative Artists, making no more than $32K a year; a barely livable salary in LA. I was the guy you called when your Mac wouldn’t work. I basically walked behind the computer and pulled the plug. HAHA! That’s how you fixed Macs back then. I remember the day I was on the cover of VARIETY, having sold a project to Paramount Pictures. I went to the studio store at Fox and bought 3 copies of VARIETY. There I was on the cover, but I spent the rest of my afternoon in a basement office at the Fox studios putting barcode stickers on the sides of computers and scanning them in. That’s how I paid the bills. I was fortunate enough to work for a company that allowed me to go on meetings whenever I wanted, so long as I got my work done. Eventually, I was able to quit after I had gotten paid for screenwriting.
Do you feel that living in LA is necessary for a writer?
Yes! It’s a long process to actually ‘make it’ in this town. I mean, I don’t know many overnight successes. I don’t know how anyone could ever think that they could become a successful screenwriter or writer in this business without actually living in LA. If you want to become an actor, writer or director… Just becoming a writer is a full-time job in and of itself. Just getting to the point where you actually get paid is a full-time job.
So, would you discourage actors from trying to be writers at the same time?
Not necessarily. But it is good to focus on becoming the best you can at one thing. If your passion is screenwriting then I would suggest focusing on writing. What I like to say is “If Plan A is to be a writer, don’t have a Plan B.” Most of the aspiring writers I know or have met have always gotten lost in the security of their day job. They start making money, they get a family, etc. In my opinion there is no better motivation than starvation. The best job obviously for an actor is a job in the service industry, like bartending or waiting tables, because it allows you to go on auditions. The thing those waiters or bartenders should always be doing though, is going on auditions as much as they can, acting in short films for free, and acting in theater. I know far too many actors out there who all they’re ever really doing is getting new headshots.
Yes! I worked for an acting studio for a few years and I’ve witnessed that first-hand. These actors would get comfortable in their waiter or bartender jobs, because the cash was so good, and they would stop auditioning. Many of them thought that all they had to do is get those new headshots and that was going to be the ‘thing’ that got them noticed.
As a producer, I get handed headshots all the time. Honestly… I don’t care about a headshot or a resume. When Dylan O’Brien came in to audition for us his resume was two YouTube links, and that was it! He got the part because he was really good in his audition. But as far as getting in and making it as a writer, it’s a 10-12 year process. I feel like I did it pretty quickly, but I’ve been studying screenwriting since I was 16. I’ve read every book out there on screenwriting and still read books on screenwriting. My motto is, “Always be learning.” Hopefully we’re all aspiring to be better writers. One of the things my writing team and I do is sit down and ask each other if anyone has seen any good TV lately. We chat about what worked and what didn’t, it’s like constantly being in class.
So, for you, what was the big break? The project that got you in the door and laid the foundation for this amazing career you’ve had?
I would say it’s when I entered a script into a contest. It’s funny because I wrote that script for Outfest, a sort of coming out, gay, love story, but my thriller, Retribution is what actually got optioned and then sold to Dimension Films. My manager said, “Hey, I love this, but I don’t think I can sell it. Do you have anything else?” That’s when I gave her the Retribution script. From that point it was still a very lengthy, difficult process. Once you get in the door you kind of have to fight to stay in the room.