Tuesday, June 7, 2011

'On Writing' with Jeff Davis...

Jeff Davis, the mastermind behind Criminal Minds and now MTV's redo of Teen Wolf, is a very thoughtful and intelligent writer. He knows his greatest strengths, but perhaps more importantly, he also knows the strengths of the shows in his genre. He does not pretend they don't exist but instead he eagerly dives into them, probably calling it "research," but truthfully loving every minute. Davis is certainly a TV head, a kid who grew up immersed in Saturday morning cartoons and kung fu movies, and his enthusiasm for the medium translates perfectly into his excitement and knowledge about the job.

"I take that incredibly seriously. I watch every single episode of every single show I can get my hands on!" Davis told Made Possible by Pop Culture. "I see it as part of my job, actually, and as a fan of those shows, I make it a point to steer clear of them."

Davis is a fan of shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood-- two programs that his new one will undoubtedly draw comparisons to, so it is important to him that he pays respect to them by not copying some of their imagery or overall themes. For Davis, the first stop for that is to have his hero as just that-- not a brooding or too dark anti-hero. For his Teen Wolf, it is about wish fulfillment; a teenage boy's life gets slightly better because of this bite and this new power. For Davis himself, working in television and especially showrunning his own program is certainly wish fulfillment, too.

I remember my high school years, personally, and they were not great years," Davis shared. "I have plenty to draw on from as a writer-- plenty of pain and horror and angst, pure of supernatural stories-- so I think there’s so many great stories that match up with the stories of becoming a werewolf. For me, it’s kind of like becoming a Peter Parker story. I’ve talked about that a lot in interviews. He’s that outside, looking to get in, but he also has a big secret that he has to keep. I’d like for the audience to be able to watch the show and see a teenage story happening within the werewolf stories as well and for it to have a real balance."

Obviously this show is unlike some of the others Davis has worked on simply because it does deal with deep supernatural issues and images, but Davis is smart enough to know that there has to be a balance not only to avoid alienating one kind of audience but also to be taken seriously as a drama and be on par with some of the others, like True Blood, that he admitted "does it quite well."

"For me it’s an A and a B story, specifically in the first six episodes. In the beginning, it was always what’s the A story—what’s the teens tory; what’s the wolf story; and how do they intersect, almost in a mathematical way? They have to intersect, and one solves the other," Davis gave us an idea of how he breaks down his stories for script formatting.

"It’s difficult as a writer to do that in every episode, but it’s so fun when it works out well. We would always try to match it like that. I think shows like Breaking Bad are incredibly good at doing [that]. Their B stories always seem to match up mathematically perfectly with the A story, so one of the things I made it a point to do before sitting down to work on this show was to watch Breaking Bad, Dexter, any show on cable that did it really well within like twelve, thirteen episodes."

Clearly Davis has a vast wheelhouse of inspiration from which to draw, but he is also a very emotionally and socially conscious writer. Yes, his show is on cable, and yes it will air at ten p.m., but he knows the audience he will attract by having a(n often shirtless) cute boy in the lead role. And though the subject matter (and the network!) may push for an edginess, Davis is careful to dial back at times, to not go for shock but rather suspense. For one thing, shock is always the "easier" route, but for another, he feels a great sense of responsibility with the story he is trying to tell.

"As a uncle to a six year-old niece who will probably watch this show, I don’t want to go too far because I’m aware that young girls will watch this show, and I feel responsibility as an adult," Davis said simply.

As a writer, Davis is also very adamant about research on the subject, noting that he read dozens of books on the subject of werewolves and will be drawing from many mythologies and then twisting them a bit to cause even more conflict in his own little world. He also works with a clear cut plan, admitting that "before writing the last episode, I knew what the last frame of the last episode would be." This allowed him to create two big bullet-points in the beginning and the end and then flesh out everything that came in between with a clear vision in mind.

But what is perhaps the most unique about Davis is that he doesn't seem to feel any competitive edge, and he is remarkably able to turn off the worry part of his brain about things he can't control. As a showrunner, you may think he controls everything, but really the network comes into play a lot more than many people realize, and of course, the audience end up holding a lot of cards in their hands, too. Whether or not they understand, let alone like, the story you are trying to tell or the characters you have created to tell it is one thing, but whether they tune in at all is a whole other!

Davis admitted that he isn't someone who really rallies against watching shows through new mediums (i.e. online, on demand, on a DVR), and in this way he is not stressing out over ratings at all. He himself is a consumer of downloadable formatted television and therefore completely sees the appeal to a younger generation. He just wants people to watch, however they may choose to do so, and he'll let the network deal with scheduling and ratings. He is a creative type, and like any true creative, he is eager for collaboration and eager to expand his ideas and shape new talents, too.

"I love input from the cast…Dylan O’Brien is such a smart kid, and I will literally IM him or on Facebook at two in the morning and say ‘Hey, I have to come up with a better line.’ He’s hilarious, and I bought him three screenwriting books because I want him to co-write an episode next season!"

Already thinking positively about a second season? Davis also has the gift of optimism. I bet a lot of writers (myself included) would kill for that!

1 comment:

rodd said...

Jeff Davis is my favorite writer. I like Criminal Minds TV Show. Its plot is so interesting and well written show. Thanks for blogging.