Welcome to Influencers!
We have Jeff on the podcast today. For those of you who were paying attention last week, there were a few critical hints. He grew up in a little town in Connecticut called Milford, he recently hit 100 episodes with his TV show and he works out six days a week. And as a hint, think of an ‘80s movie starring a young actor who became famous on a TV show and they rebooted that movie and are now finishing up their sixth season which will air this summer.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Advice To Writers, Always be Writing with Jeff Davis
Listeners, I am so excited to have Jeff with us today. For those of you who figured out who he is, I’m going to let Jeff now give us all of his data to see if you got it right. Jeff, who are you?
Hi, this is Jeff Davis. I created a little TV show called Criminal Minds and I am currently the show runner and executive producer of Teen Wolf on MTV.
Which just had its 100th episode, so congratulations.
We just finished shooting our 100th episode, which will air I believe in September, sometime this summer.
When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what’s the most common question they have?
Actually, being a writer in Hollywood, one of the most common questions is, “How do I get to where you are?” I usually tell them, “Don’t worry about agents. Don’t worry about Hollywood schmoozing, just worry about telling a good story. If you want to be a writer in Hollywood, sit down and tell your story; the story that excites you, the story that you want to see on the screen.”
For people who really want to succeed as writers in your industry, besides sitting down and writing, what other advice to writers would you give them?
My advice to writers is, there are two things that I think are very important. One is to live a full life; to get out there and live and experience things. When you sit down and write any story, you’re going to be writing from your perspective. You’re going to be thinking about the experiences you’ve had and you’re going to try to tell some truth with those. I think the other really most important thing is to read, read constantly, read nonfiction books, read articles. You never know where ideas are going to come from. You never know what person’s true story is going to inspire you. You never know where some new bit of information is going to land.
When I was coming up with Criminal Minds, I really just wanted to do the TV version of Silence of the Lambs. I wanted to do a thriller. But in doing the research, it was reading all about behavioral profilers in the FBI that actually made me realized there’s real science and unbelievable amount of thought being put into this. The idea that these guys went into prisons and interviewed serial killers to come up with a questionnaire, to come up with a way to hunt these guys from their perspective, a way to get into their minds.” That’s what I think made the pilot script something that CBS wanted to buy and make. It became a show that’s now going into thirteen seasons.
Thirteen seasons means it’s like Law & Order level, right? That’s forever.
It’s crazy. I give credit to all the great people running the show and keeping it going for that many episodes. It will very likely hit 300 episodes. It’s incredible.
Correct me if I’m wrong, that means that your team of profilers on the show has caught more serial killers than exist.
That’s debatable actually. They never know how many serial killers are in existence at one point. It’s funny because many FBI profilers would say they don’t really catch serial killers, they just aid in the investigations. It’s rather incredible.
Without getting political about this, I recently remember John Oliver talking about the number of lawsuits against the current president. He said, “If you take every episode of every Law & Order show, in fact every law show that’s ever existed across the United States and United Kingdom, it would not encompass the total number of lawsuits currently in existence. It would still leave five unaccounted for.” It’s absolutely ridiculous.
What are some of the pitfalls in your industry, things that people wouldn’t even realize to look for?
There are a lot of pitfalls. I think Hollywood is a treacherous terrain to navigate. You really have to be tough. You have to rely on your agents, your managers and your lawyers to really look out for you. I think the biggest pitfall for a writer actually is not writing. They get into this rut where they feel as though the job should come to them. You have to always, always be generating material. You have to always be remaking yourself, especially as you get older in the business. It’s a challenging business. I have numerous friends who have had lean years where they haven’t written anything and they haven’t gotten any jobs. They go from having a lot of money to wondering if they’re going to be able to pay their rent. This is a business that gives and takes as much as it gives, probably more than it gives. Always be writing. Always be on the new project. There’s a great title of a book, You’re Only As Good As Your Next One by Mike Medavoy.
Are there any secrets that nobody talks about in the industry? Like things that people avoid the conversation or you have to be in the industry for a while to even be aware of.
It’s funny that you think you’re a writer and that your material will speak for itself. Most people have no idea how much a writer has to be his or her own salesman. When you get to Hollywood, suddenly you have to learn how to pitch. You have to learn how to be good in the room. You have to learn how to tell a story to a room full of executives, sometimes six or seven people sitting there listening to you. It’s hard, it’s really hard. You get nervous, you start to sweat, you start to stumble. Pitching was a very difficult lesson for me. I had to learn how to get good at it. I remember one of my first pitches. I was stumbling and doing so badly, the producer reached over, tapped me on the leg and said, “You’re doing fine.” If anyone in a meeting says you’re doing fine, you’re not doing fine. You’re terrible. I had a friend who told me a story about how he stumbled so badly and got so nervous, he literally had to leave the room and say, “I can’t do this,” and left the pitch before it was done.
I guess it’s like if your friend says, “No, that pimple doesn’t look bad at all.” It means you’re in trouble and you shouldn’t leave your house.
Writers have to learn how to become their own salesman. It’s tough. At USC now, in their screenwriting school, they now have classes dedicated to teaching their students how to pitch and how to be good in the room.
Is there something that helped you in the process? A book you read or a technique?
My first few pitches were so bad I got angry and I said, “I’m not good at this. I’m terrible at this. Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to go in and tell my story as if I were on a stage and a performer? I’m not an actor. I’m not a public speaker.” I thought to myself, “If I’m going to be in this business, I have to get good at this.” I started writing my pitches like a monologue and I started recording myself on QuickTime doing videos. I’d play it back, listen to myself, figure out where I got boring, figure out where I could speed things up, figure out where things to be cut. I perfected it that way. Now I’m actually known as really good in a room and a really good pitcher.
I’m really impressed because that’s one of those things that people always give as advice, but nobody actually does. The number of people who really put in the effort into their craft at that level is minimal. Now, I’m very much not surprised that if those are the kinds of habits that you put in place, that you’ve had this level of success.
It’s an incredible experience to walk into a room and have them buy it in the room and leave knowing you just made a lot of money, that much on the line. When I sold Criminal Minds, CBS, the executive at that time, Laverne McKinnon, she bought it in the room and I left. I was almost floating out the office thinking to myself, “They just bought it. I’m writing a script. I’m going to be paid a lot of money to write this script. There’s a lot riding on that meeting. You better do good.”
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success?
You always want more, that you never quite feel like a success. I have to remind myself, “You’ve gotten to where you wanted to be. Enjoy it. Enjoy the present moment. Stop yearning for something bigger and better.”
I was at the offices of the one of the biggest magazines in the world yesterday. The editor-in-chief and I were trying to figure out some logistics on a project. She goes, “Jon, tomorrow evening, there’s this gala I need to go to. Will you come as my plus one? I need a friend.” I go, “I’d love to. I’m hosting my own event tomorrow, but why don’t you invite…” and I’d listed off four or five people. She goes, “Wait, why would they want to go?” Then she laughs for a second, she goes, “Oh yeah, I am the editor-in-chief of this and this magazine. I guess that’s really interesting.” There’s this universality that most people at a very high level, unless they’re incredibly egotistical are fundamentally forgetting that they’re not the twelve-year-old version of themselves.
It’s quite true. There’s something that was said for, “There’s always human desire at play.” We always want more.
Let’s talk a little bit about the things that have influenced you. Besides a Michael J. Fox movie from the 1980s, were there any books that influenced you the most? Any specific lessons you learned that you really value?
Absolutely. I was a big reader in high school. I always said that if I had a social life in high school, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I would spend all my time with my head in the book. I used to read horror novels. I just snap one up after another. The Shining by Stephen King absolutely terrified me and made me think you can really grab people. There was a book I read in summer camp. I remember sitting there while alone in the corner because I couldn’t put it down, it was called Phantoms by Dean Koontz. Then there was a time when I was working in a video store and I could get any video I wanted, I can bring home five or six on the weekend. I tore through every single Hitchcock movie I could find. A movie like Rear Window just absolutely captured my imagination, that tension and suspense. Those were all major influences on me. Anything from great Pulp Fiction, horror stories to classic movies, it was an escape. There’s a way to leave the loneliness of my teenage years and find a different more interesting world. All of that made me a writer.
Would you consider those people your heroes or is there somebody else that you really look up to the most?
I don’t know. In terms of heroes, I think of people like my parents because they’re the ones who have always seemed most heroic to me. My mom raising three teenage boys, making $16,000 a year, that’s true heroism. We never realized it. She worked two jobs to support us and we would be home and wondering why the hell dinner wasn’t on the table. Now, I look back at it and I’m amazed that she had the energy to work two jobs and still put three annoying children dinner every night.
Here’s a bit of unique question. Imagine you get a random invitation from somebody, voicemail, it could be a letter, an email and they want to meet you. What would they have to say for you to actually accept that invitation?
They would have to show me that they knew something. If it was to meet me and talk about writing, they’d have to first show that they’d done their research. We’re always suckers for flattery, but then they’d also have to show me that they have a real interest and passion for becoming a writer. I’ll meet with a lot of people. I’ve always given people chances. One of my rules in Hollywood was that I’d read everyone’s screenplay. When I came here, no one wanted to read my script. I said, “If I meet someone and they say, “Please read my script,” I say, “Send it to me. I’ll read it.”” I always give them the warning. If I don’t like it in the first ten pages, I’m putting it down. You can tell if it’s going to be any good within ten pages. I’m pretty open to meeting people.
I had another rule. When I got my TV show Teen Wolf, I made a rule that I’d audition whatever actor I met. Somebody handed me a resume and said, “Please, I really want to come in for an audition.” I told my casting director, “You’re going to see a lot of people, some of them are going to be really bad, but I believe in giving people chances.” I brought in a lot of friends to audition. I was known among my friends as one of the few people who would actually hire their friends and give them chances.
I can imagine that countless human beings would kill for the opportunity.
Sometimes they surprise you. Sometimes a friend of yours comes in, you say, “Wow, you did the work. You were really good. I’m putting you on the show.” That gives me a lot of pride.
Let’s switch gears a little. Especially with the incredible context that Teen Wolf is built around, we mentioned this during the anonymous interview that you wanted to create a world that had no concept of homophobia. Are there any nonprofits or social issues that you’re really active about that you’d like to highlight?
That’s something that I’ve been trying to get into more. I’ve always said that if I don’t have the time, I’ll give the money. Being a show runner of a TV show is uncompromising. So much time is spent writing and managing that I haven’t actually been involved as much as I’d like. Whenever anybody asks me, “Could you contribute to this or that?” my answer is always yes. One of the things that came to my mind lately is the Conversion Therapy. I know one or two people involved in that right now. It’s unbelievable how states allow Conversion Therapy for gay kids. They send them away to these camps and they literally try to rewire their brains. It’s horrifying and it should be outlawed in every state, which a lot of people are working on. That’s one thing I would get involved if I had more time. Now that show is ending, I may find myself doing more of my share.
One of the questions I ask all the guest are, what’s a very human secret that you’d feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? Often people, few individuals who reach this level of success is really having all their shit together. It’s often surprising. We’ve had people shared that they have intense anxiety or their first kiss was in college, that kind of stuff. Is there something you feel comfortable sharing?
Absolutely. As a writer I can admit, which probably every writer in this town will admit, is that we just want to be loved. There is a funny saying about everyone who comes to Hollywood is just looking for their parents to love them. I made a joke a long time ago in The Writers’ Room that, what’s funny about when we hand in a script, we know there are going to be notes. What every writer is doing when they hand in a script to an executive or to a friend to read it, they’re handing him the first draft and saying, “I hope you really like this script, but I really, really hope you like me, just like me.” We’re all like that. We’re desperate for approval and I am just as desperate for anyone else. That person on Twitter who says, “Jeff Davis sucks,” you really hurt me.
Those bastards, be nice to my friend. First of all, thank you for sharing that. I think that that’s something I can definitely associate with. If you could be any comic book hero, who would it be?
I’d be Spider-Man. I know a lot of people say, “If you’re going to be a comic book hero, be Batman.” You can’t beat Spider-Man. Spider-Man was one of my favorite heroes growing up.
You managed to pick the geekiest one with his head on the books.
I know, maybe because I feel a bit like Peter Parker and wish I had superpowers.
I think a lot of us are like that.
Who would you be, Jon?
I grew up loving Batman. The issue is that at heart I know I’m a Peter Parker. I’m multi-ethnic and didn’t really grow up in any one culture so I never quite fit in. I remember hearing a story that when Spider-Man was being created, they intentionally gave him every problem a child could have. He had acne, his parents were gone, he was being beaten up by the school bully, he was scrawny and small. Every disadvantage you could give this kid is what made you love him.
And he was broke.
Yeah. No matter what he did, there was never the right answer. If he went and saved somebody’s life, he was always disappointing somebody.
That’s great. What a great character.
It makes you love him and want to fight for him and root for him while still admiring him because he makes the tough choices. He’s self-sacrificing constantly. Imagine you’ve got invited to a dinner and there were three people who are alive that you haven’t met before and you got to eat dinner with them, who would they be?
Three people who are alive right now that I could have dinner with: Stephen King, James Cameron and, I feel like I should pick a non-entertainment industry person. I’ll go political, Obama.
Obama is a pretty common one. I think you’re the first Stephen King. Jeff, this has been an absolute treat getting to host you. If people want to find you online, where can they find you? What’s your website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook?
If they want to send messages, the best way to do it is @MTVTeenWolf on Twitter.
You better be nice or you’re going to make him cry and then I have to get involved. Be nice. Jeff, this is an absolute treat. Thank you so much. Listeners, stay tuned, we have an anonymous interview that follows.
About Jeff Davis
Jeff Davis is a TV Executive Producer and Writer, the Showrunner for Teen Wolf on MTV and creator of Criminal Minds on CBS.
Executive Producer/First Cause Inc.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Today, I’m insanely excited to be hosting Jason on the show. Jason actually, through a random series of events, is connected to what caused a lot of my success in life. Let’s just actually dive in. Jason thanks for coming on to the show.
Thanks a lot.
Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in Coral Springs, Florida. I was actually born in New York but my parents moved us down there when I was just an infant. I grew up in the sun and sweat, and never loved it and always felt like I needed to leave and go somewhere that felt more culturally populated. Florida is just people on the beach and buying expensive things. That just wasn’t my thing.
Was there a certain incident or a teacher experience that inspired you to go down the current that you went?
There were. I stumbled into the stuff that I loved originally probably through blogging. Back before the word blog existed, I had a members.aol.com account, if that means anything to anybody. That gives my age away I suppose. I was just writing and I was finding that I had a voice and that I loved having that voice. Then I started writing for a music magazine in Florida and Georgia. That got me into SCA shows for free. I was, “This is the best. You can write things and people would just let you in and they’ll let you talk to the people that you admire.” I interviewed the drummer from Green Day, which was a life changing moment for me. It was really that kind of experimenting and doing on my own and seeing how I felt and how people reacted to it that really shaped the direction that I wanted to go in.
Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re really most proud of? I know you’ve written for a lot of outlets and have been in charge of a lot of publications but was there a quintessential moment?
This is probably true for a lot of people where the major successes don’t feel major. The places that I always dreamt of writing about, once I did it, it didn’t feel like I won the lottery because you do all that work to get up to it. The moments that felt like the greatest triumphs were the ones where they were early and you just didn’t know how things were going to work out. I look back on that now and you could’ve just gone in so many directions. The very first one of those, I would say, is my first job out of college was at a tiny community newspaper. It was 6,000 circulations and I was attending every Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. If you’ve ever attended a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, you know that one is enough. But I was doing it every week for a year. I hated it and I quit after a year and change.
I was living in a tiny apartment with three friends next to a graveyard in the Central Massachusetts. I just tried to freelance. I just tried to write for the places that I wanted to be in. I wanted to prove to the editors of those places that I belonged. I had basically no reason to believe that this would work out outside of my own belief in myself. It’s not like I had the experience to write for the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or the New York Times. After nine months of sitting there and looking out on this graveyard that we were next to, like the graveyard of my career, I started landing some of those gigs. Though they didn’t immediately translate, it’s not like somebody threw me a welcoming party to come work for gigantic publications, I started slowly proving myself to those people and I started proving to myself that I could really do it. I attribute everything to making that first leap.
One of the things I love about you besides your incredible karaoke skills. I have to say when we did that karaoke party, you were the life of the party. If memory serves, didn’t you tear your ACL once?
Yes, I did. I tore my ACL in possibly the most ridiculous way. It was jumping off of a stage at a work retreat doing karaoke to Green Day. I landed and I just felt my knee just go. I didn’t know what happened but I knew that I was in serious pain. I collapsed on the floor. But I had an audience, the show must go on. I kept singing from the floor, nobody had any idea something had gone wrong. They just thought I was rocking it down on the floor. I pulled myself up onto a table and then I hopped back on stage and I finished the damn song. Then I hobbled to a chair and I just sat there in a panic thinking, “What did I just do to myself?” The answer is, I tore my ACL. That was surgery and recovery and it was not fun or easy. Your karaoke party was the first time that I retook the stage and I did Build Me Up Buttercup, which is my actual first go-to. Green Day’s a good second or third. The thing about Build Me Up Buttercup, every good karaoke song should have a call and response with the audience and that thing you can just work with the audience. That was my song. You set the stage for my comeback.
The other thing is that you have super cool hair, which leads me to my next question which is, who would play you in a movie?
I appreciate the compliment. I hated my hair growing up. It’s curly and frizzy and I’ve gone through a lot of different phases with it where I would keep it really short because I was ashamed of it when I was young. I started dating girls and they were, “I love your curly hair,” then I would create this gigantic mop out of it. Now that I have a professional job, I need to present myself professionally. I actually now do keep it short. I put in a little leave-on conditioner which makes me look not like a schmuck who just rolled out of bed. But who would play me in a movie, it would have to be someone with curly hair. Unfortunately, when I was young, people kept saying that I looked like Screech, but Dustin Diamond will not be playing me in the movie. He’s played himself in some unfortunate movies. Who do you think would play me in a movie?
I have no idea. How about this, let’s shift gears a little. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a dare, bet, or stunt that caused your success?
I don’t know that this was necessarily a dare in the kind of people are sitting around, drinking and somebody dares somebody. But early on in my career, once I got into those community newspapers, when you’re sitting in an office with a bunch of journalists kicking ideas around, people will come up with stunt journalism. I discovered that I had a bit of a superpower that you have as well, which is I don’t get embarrassed easily. I can go out and I can do things that other people wouldn’t do. Because of that, I’d get the story and the stories are really fun. I remember doing things. We had a column at a magazine that I worked at, where we would test out high end fashion concepts on the street. I walked around for a couple of days in a ninja outfit everywhere. I went to a bookstore reading in a ninja outfit. I got falafel wearing ninja. I was on the subway. It really freaked people out because, “What the hell is this guy doing? Something’s not normal here.” I also went and walked around really tough neighbourhoods wearing men’s leggings. It was really funny and the stories were great that came out of them.
Who was that for?
That was all for Boston Magazine. Once you get in the habit of that, you can become that person for other places. New York Magazine sent me out to party in Russian nightclubs. It’s really great to be able to put yourself in really strange situations that as long as you’re comfortable enough going in there knowing, for me, the trick was just knowing that this isn’t for nothing. Ultimately, everything that I’m experiencing, all the discomfort, is productive in some way, all goes into the story. Almost the weirder the things that happen, the better. That’s what made me not feel embarrassed or nervous. You’re just going out and having an experience so that other people can live through it.
The greatest parallel might be how actors that are very introverted can become extroverted and wild and open when they’re putting on a character.
The character thing is so important. I do that still today in different circumstances. The major one now is that when I go on TV or I host my podcast or I’m on another podcast or I speak live on a stage, I put on this character of myself and it’s just a louder, outwardly confident person. Whereas in person, I’m pretty relaxed and chill but I want to project that confidence because people respond to you better when you talk that way. When you don’t talk that way in public, you look unconfident and shady. I always put on this voice that I’m doing right now where I’m really emphatic and I feel very confident in everything I deliver. I tell you, that makes you think faster and it makes you say things that are smarter because you’re slipping into a character and you get to sidestep all the normal garbage that goes through your head.
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are? They have a few hints along the way. They know your first name and a few places that you’ve worked. Let’s give them something that they can work with. If they can figure this out, then they know who you are.
The very first thing I thought of would be so damn inside-ry that I don’t know that you would know this. This is going to be useless information I guess to anybody. If you are a close watcher of the magazine rack, you would’ve noticed a major visual change on the cover of a particular magazine in the last couple of months. I’ve heard, I’ve gotten emails about this, and people in media have mentioned it to me. I’m very gratified that it jumps out. If you have watched that, if you have noticed that, first of all, thanks for being so eagle-eyed. Second, you might have a sense of where I work.
Chances are, first of all, everybody has heard of this publication and probably can’t spell the title correctly.
That’s a good hint. In fact, I, when I started working here, misspelled the name of the title myself in my email signature. It stayed that way for months. There’s just no spellcheck on the email signature thing. That was embarrassing but it is fixed now.
Jason, thank you so much. Listeners, if you can figure out who Jason is between now and the next episode, you could win a coveted spot at The Salon. Please make sure to submit your guesses online.