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Teen Wolf producer Jeff Davis talks with Werewolf News, adjusts my expectations to “awesome”

A. Quinton — May. 25th 2011

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It’s worryingly easy for me to forget that this site is on the Internet, and that anyone can read my posts and respond. That includes random Googlers, werewolf fans like you, and most recently Jeff Davis, writer and executive producer of MTV’s Teen Wolf. I know I said in my last post that I was just going to sit quietly until the show came out, but now I can’t. After exchanging a few lengthy emails with Jeff over last weekend I’ve learned a lot about the show that’s not immediately evident in the slick trailers. I want to share some of that info with you so that like me, you might find something that gets you genuinely excited about the show.

A thousand words of casual one-to-one correspondence paints a much clearer picture than a handful of quotes in an interview, and I came away from these emails no longer worried that the show might be helmed by the same kind of ham-fisted chart-watchers that turned 2010’s “The Wolfman” into a tone-deaf creature effects spectacle. When Jeff’s first email arrived on Friday afternoon I was expecting a shot in the arm in the form of cut-n-paste PR copy. What I got was a friendly, earnest offer – “Would love to talk about the show,” he wrote, “and give you some more info if you’d like. Maybe put some of your fears to rest!”

Wait, what? Isn’t this the guy who got a six-page article about his show in the New York Times? Let me check the header graphic… yep, still says “Werewolf News”. Still just a WordPress blog. Why in the world would the guy who created Criminal Minds care what I think? Nevertheless, I wrote back, explaining that I wanted to like the show, but “when I read the PR, or try to suss out the story from the trailers, everything I see says ‘this is not meant for you, 30-year-old guy who likes monsters… This is for teenagers who are too cool to like Twilight but who still want to see hunky werewolves with their shirts off.'”

Jeff’s response was surprisingly unguarded.

I have to admit the Teen Wolf previews so far are shrewdly targeted toward the Twilight crowd. Before writing the pilot script I actually read the first two books in that series. I wanted to see what the appeal was. But the movies… I couldn’t finish the first one.

Okay, fair enough. I couldn’t even get 50 pages into the first book. But does this marketing effort mean that the show is really going to be Twilight with no vampires? Apparently not! Writes Jeff:

One of the things I’ve told the network over and over is ‘I’m not doing Gossip Girl with werewolves.’ I’ve said it many time but The Lost Boys has really been our paradigm. That twist in the end when the kids realize that Max is actually the head vampire and has been after their mom all along was just goddamn perfect. That’s the kind of storytelling we’re going for.

He also commented on that whole “using ‘Teen Wolf’ as a recognizable brand” thing I took a dig at him for in that earlier post.

What the New York Times article didn’t put in was that I also said “corporate branding aside, when I sit down to work with the writers on the episodes we don’t think to ourselves ‘how can we pad Viacom’s bottom line’ but how can we tell a great story?”

With so much concern for authentic storytelling, then, why is the show being marketed like this? He didn’t come out and say so, but in talking with him I got a sense that the creators of new TV shows don’t have much control over how networks market them. What Jeff sees as The Lost Boys with werewolves probably looks more to MTV like an investment to be marketed to a profitable demographic as broadly and enticingly as possible. So let’s leave the marketing to the marketers. What about the show itself?

One of the most reassuring things Jeff shared with me was his opinion of The Wolfman. That’s the one that jaded me, I told him, and I imagine a lot of other werewolf fans feel the same. I was so excited about that film, even after Mark Romanek left as director, and the final product was such a compromised piecemeal let-down (other than Rick Baker’s work) that my defensive reaction was to feel like a chump for having been so excited in the first place, for ever having trusted Hollywood to “get it right”. Turns out, the guys in charge of Teen Wolf felt the same way about it, and aren’t about to make the same mistakes.

Russell Mulcahy (my director and co-executive producer who you probably know is a genre nut) and I went to The Wolfman as soon as it came out. What a shocking disappointment. Somewhere along the development process you knew they were trying to go for what Coppola did with Dracula. But there was just no style. No story. And the end was two hairy guys wrestling in a living room. But knowing studio politics and development hell I feel for the guys behind the camera. I’m sure they had the best of intentions and were probably just as disappointed as the audience.

Speaking of hairy guys, I was particularly interested to hear more about the werewolf special effects. It’s clear from the trailers that they’re not doing the lazy “fade to a real wolf” thing, but the practical effects we’ve seen so far look pretty tame. This is a real make-or-break issue for me – even if I don’t particularly like the story, a good werewolf suit / makeup will go far. Yes, I’m superficial. Luckily, it sounds like they take the appearances of their werewolves seriously:

When we started, Russell and I knew we wanted to do makeup effects. Using real wolves just seems like a cop out. But makeup effects… after dealing with it for two years, it’s tough, believe me. We were reshooting Tyler’s makeup shots from the pilot all the way at the end of our six month shoot because we had finally gotten it to a point where we liked it. I actually will pick up scissors in the makeup trailer and clip Tyler’s sideburns myself. I’m sure I drive the makeup artists crazy.

We wanted our werewolves to have a kind of progression. Tyler Posey’s werewolf look was meant to be something a little more Pan’s Labyrinth, a teen wolf and not yet a real werewolf. Tyler Hoechlin who plays Derek Hale will look a bit more monstrous. We gave him far more pronounced cheeks, a stronger brow, sharper looking teeth. And then there’s the other one… the one you only get a glimpse of in that extended trailer. That’s a combination of creature FX done by KNB (Greg Nicotero) and CGI done by EdenFX. Russell and I spent a lot of time on the design for that werewolf. And it’s damn expensive to get it right. We want it to be scary as hell.

Jeff was generous enough to share a picture of this “other” werewolf with me – the creature attached to this hand. The details remain top-secret so I won’t share the picture or give away any specifics, but trust me when I say it’s fucking awesome. You know me, I’m a werewolf snob, and this thing warrants a pipe, smoking jacket and snifter of brandy. Jeff could have saved himself a whole lot of typing if he’d just sent me that image on Friday along the words “This is coming. Shut up and wait.”

That’s just what I’m going to keep on doing anyway, in fact: shut up and wait. For all of this encouraging information, I still haven’t actually seen the show… but I do feel way better about it. Jeff’s earnest, affable emails did put many of my fears to rest, and in a way that made me feel like he genuinely cares about this stuff on many of the same levels I do. Maybe these details will do the same for you.

I asked him if I could quote our correspondence for this post, and his response was immediate: “Yes feel free to post stuff from our conversation.  If it earns us more viewers and fans I’ll do anything. Shooting the first season of the show was the best professional experience I’ve ever had and I’d kill to do it again for a second season.”

I bet you’ll get that chance, Jeff.