Interview: Jeff Davis

Half his mind is criminal, half is wolf – at least when it comes to writing. This week, TSL talks to TV writer Jeff Davis (Criminal Minds, Teen Wolf). When asked if aspiring (paid) writers should have a back-up plan, Davis says, “There is no motivation like starvation. I believe that this is an all-or-nothing business.” And Davis should know. Though the way he sold Criminal Minds seems like an overnight success, Davis paid his dues first – including having worked as a script reader, editorial assistant, writer for computer software manuals and Mac support specialist.

TSL:  Your success story with creating and selling Criminal Minds gives the rest of us writers hope, that it is possible to sell pitches, get our material produced. Can you give us the rundown of your journey from growing up in Connecticut to selling the show?

JD:  I started writing short stories in high school by mimicking my favorite authors. While beginning to wonder if I wanted to be a novelist or maybe a comic book writer, I picked up the classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. I stopped writing short stories and started writing screenplays. In fact, I read every single book on screenwriting I could find. When I went to college, I took as many film courses and writing classes as I could fill in my schedule.

Then came the move out to L.A. While getting an MFA in Screenwriting from USC, I had a terrible job doing coverage on screenplays and then a pay-the-bills job as an editorial assistant at a publishing company. Right after graduating USC, I got my first manager off a screenwriting contest and managed to option a script to a producer for a paltry sum of money.

TSL:  Nice. At least it was something…

JD:  Then, while working as a computer specialist, I managed to sell a pitch to Paramount with a name director attached and big-time producers developing the project.

TSL:  Very nice–

JD:  But I still didn't have enough money to quit my day job. It was the impatience of not getting a movie made that led me to television. And that led me to Criminal Minds. Which, thankfully, led to the moment that any screenwriter looks forward to: quitting your day job.

TSL:  What was the inspiration for the show? Before it, did you always write in that genre?

JD:  The inspiration for Criminal Minds came out of reading about real-life cases and from my own interest in the subject of psychology. I knew they had tried to do FBI profiler shows before mine, but none of them seemed to have quite captured all of the fascinating psychological tools and tricks that people like Robert Ressler and John Douglas spoke of in their superb books on the subject of their careers and the establishing of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. But more than that, it was the chance to do a procedural for television that was more of a thriller. When I pitched it to CBS, I said that all of the other crime shows out there are doing Agatha Christie. Let's do Hitchcock.

TSL:  Great pitch. We immediately get it. How did your pre-TV jobs help prepare you for your career writing about criminal minds and teenage werewolves today?

JD:  They gave me the money and time to survive, so that I could come home and write at night.

TSL:  What about your upbringing? How did it influence your writing?

JD:  High school was a miserable, lonely experience that sent me searching for some kind of an escape. I found it in books. I was a huge horror and thriller fan, reading everything from Thomas Harris to Stephen King to Dean Koontz. I read classics by Dickens and the like. And I also devoured comic books, especially graphic novels. I would have to say the real inspiration for my writing comes from reading.

TSL:  It seems like misery is mandatory to become a writer. When you came to L.A., what did your parents think about your career choice? Were they supportive? (I know many parents outside of L.A. have trouble grasping that their son/daughter wants to go to Hollywood to become a big-time writer.)

JD:  They were incredibly supportive. All they ever wanted was for me to do something that made me happy.

TSL:  Your parents should talk to some parents I know. But that’s another interview… On a different note, I once read that you did not have a back-up plan if writing didn’t work out. However, if Hollywood bought everyone’s pitches and spec pilots, even with the thousands of television stations out there now, there still wouldn’t be enough to air them all. What kind of back-up plans should people have?

JD:  What I usually say to would-be writers is that if you want a career in Hollywood, don't have a back-up plan… Persistence is actually just as important as talent and if you want to succeed in this business, you have to give yourself over to it completely. The back-up plan to selling a pilot is seeing that pilot get made into a TV series.

TSL:  So, when should one give up (so to speak)? Or should they never give up?

JD:  Never. Not if you truly want a career in this business. The only time I would ever give up is if everyone around you told you bluntly and repeatedly that you are the worst writer to have ever walked the face of the Earth. And even then I wouldn't give up. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.

TSL:  Very well said. Readers, remember that. (I know I will.) And what are your favorite things about working on Criminal Minds and Teen Wolf?

JD:  With Criminal Minds, the chance to see something I had written filmed and performed on screen. With Teen Wolf, the chance to work in a genre that I adored and to work with great people, many of whom were pretty new to the business.

TSL:  What are the most challenging aspects of each show?

JD:  Bureaucracy and politics. A TV show is a multi-million dollar enterprise with the potential to yield hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. That creates a lot of fear and panic. Navigating these kinds of politics is often a job unto itself.

TSL:  I know you have done some directing, too. What do you like better – that or writing?

JD:  I've actually only done a tiny bit of directing. My first love is writing. I enjoy directing because of the pace and the need to be creative is exhilarating. I'm not sure if I can actually say I like writing. Oftentimes, writing is an agonizing experience. Staring at the screen trying to come up with a better line, a better turn of phrase. I would have to say I love telling stories. The actual writing is torture.

TSL:  How does it feel to be on USC’s website as a successful alum?

JD:  I wasn't aware that I was on the site. But I did recently do a talk at USC. It feels great to be considered successful and to be able to impart some knowledge or experience to people just beginning their careers.

TSL:  If you were not writing and directing right now – say you had not become successful and decided to pursue another career – what would you be doing and where?

JD:  I have a feeling I would have gravitated toward writing novels. Probably somewhere on the East Coast.

TSL:  And what final advice you would give an aspiring (paid) writer?

JD:  Concentrate on writing a great script. Don't worry about agents, managers, studio executives, the million-dollar sale. If you write a great script that people can't put down, that has them turning the pages faster and faster because they can't wait to see what happens next, you'll find an agent, you'll make that sale and you'll be able to tell other stories. If you can write a script that a reader can't put down, people will be throwing money at you.