So you’re an eager energetic young person ready to make your mark in the crazy world they call Hollywood. Well before you get your one way ticket to L.A., keep in mind that you’re not the only one with those dreams, and, let’s be honest, unless you’re someone like JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon who were born into the business (not to mention Willow and Jaden Smith), you have to start from the bottom, and work your way up - the hard way. No short cuts here.
Which is why, if you have plans to move to L.A., to make it in the entertainment business, heed the words and advice of Daniel Willis, a DePaul University Film School graduate, who has been very carefully and methodically making his way up the ladder - first with an internship at Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment production company, and then with another one at Walt Disney Pictures. And now he’s working at Shonda Rhimes’ company with the eventual goal of becoming one her writers.
No doubt Daniel will achieve his ambitions; but how is he doing it? What are his eventual goals, and how does he plan to make them realities?
He was kind enough to tell me in an interview I did with him earlier this week.
SERGIO: So you’re a graduate of DePaul University’s Film School, but what made you decide to move out to L.A., instead of staying in Chicago and pursue a career as an independent filmmaker?
DANIEL: Well DePaul has a program where students can come to Los Angeles to intern, and I thought that was a good way to feel things out in L.A., and it was a good transition for me to do that. So I took that opportunity as a step to move here.
SERGIO: Well do you think it’s necessary to go to film school?
DANIEL: No. I feel that with film schools people should go as long as they feel that the school is serving them. If you’re one of those people who knows exactly what they want right out of high school, then I think you should come out here and try to be a production assistant. But if that’s not the case, educate yourself as long as it serves you.
SERGIO: So you come to L.A. working at Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook, first, and then move to Disney…
DANIEL: Right! I was an intern at Overbrook first, and then I was what they call a development associate at Walt Disney Motion Pictures.
SERGIO: O.K. so first, what were your duties as an intern at Overbook? Because a lot of people don’t know what that really means or what it entails - especially at a production company owned by an A list movie star.
DANIEL: Well kind it ranges from basic office duties, for example, restocking the refrigerator to keeping things tidy, to administrative tasks like doing script coverage for the company. As script submissions came in, it was our responsibility, as assigned by the executive, to read them to provide coverage and discuss them at our weekly meetings.
SERGIO: Which is why I think it’s so important about what you said. Too many have the wrong idea that they can just go out there and make it big, when the fact of the matter is that, unless you’re born into the business, for most, you have to start at the bottom, like restocking the fridge. That’s part of the process.
DANIEL: Yeah, the great thing about the entertainment business is that it’s an apprenticeship business. It’s designed for people to start at the very bottom and to work their way up, and that’s kind of understood by the people who are involved. And the great thing about it is that anybody can do it. You just have to be willing to do it.
SERGIO : Do you find some people who are not willing to go through that process?
DANIEL: No just the opposite! I think a lot of people who come out here for internships kind of understand it. I don’t meet a whole bunch of people who come out here and want to move up outside of that system. But I think you learn it very quickly if you don’t know the process already.
SERGIO: So then you move from Overbrook to Disney...
DANIEL: Right. I was a development associate at Disney and then I was hired out of that program to become an executive assistant.
SERGIO: O.K. let’s go again, what were your duties when you were at Disney?
DANIEL: Well the development associate is basically like an internship really. It’s a 6-month program where you work for an executive or a department doing basically the same kind of duties. So after six months, you’ve gotten your exposure to the company and you take off and do other things. So that’s what I did. I did the 6-month program, and then another executive hired me. I had good working relationships there, so I was hired as a full-time assistant.
SERGIO: So what do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about studio executives, and that whole aspect of the industry?
DANIEL: My experience is that execs have been very very supportive of me, and interested in my professional growth. Once I realized that I wanted to be a writer, my bosses were very supportive of that and helped me to find opportunities to do that. While I was at the studio they were totally into me learning that side of the business, so I had an opportunity to learn how studios work, how that particular studio worked, and what that part of the business was like.
SERGIO: So now you’re moving onto a writing career. Why did you decide to make that move? Was there some sort of creative impulse you felt that wasn’t being fulfilled? You are a filmmaker so perhaps you wanted to get into a more creative environment?
DANIEL: Yes, I‘ve always wanted to write and direct. When I came out to L.A., I had to work. I was not in a position where I did not have to work, but I wanted to take jobs that mattered in the business and I wanted to be in places where I could learn and meet people. So once I decided that I really wanted to concentrate on my creative goals, I knew I needed to move to a place where that was part of my job every day.
SERGIO: So technically right now, though you are not officially writing for Shonda Rhimes, you have currently a position with her company that will eventually lead to that. Explain that.
DANIEL: I’m a writers’ P.A. on the show Grey’s Anatomy; so that job is basically to work for all the writers on the show. We do everything from making runs, to getting coffee and things like that. The great thing about any writers’ P.A. job is that it’s like the entry point into television. That’s how you get into that world. So, yes again, it’s like starting at the bottom like before, and now I’m doing it again in television.
SERGIO: Like I said everything is a process. But why Shonda Rhimes, compared to other TV producers out there? You particularly like her shows?
DANIEL: Well Grey’s Anatomy is a show that I’ve respected for such a long time. It’s a show that’s been able to flourish for over 10 years. It has a very strong base of fans and they are really passionate about it and I was attracted to that. So when the opportunity came to work on that show I jumped at it.
SERGIO: And your goal is to write for the show?
DANIEL: Yes. My goal is to follow this road that I’m on, and to continue with my own writing with the ultimate goal of becoming a TV writer.
SERGIO: But really your ultimate goal is to create, write and direct you own projects, right?
DANIEL: Exactly! I just want to create great material. So if that’s in the TV space, I would love to write and direct for television. But I also love to direct documentaries, and over the last 5 or 6 years I’ve written and directed 10 or 12 narrative short films. But right now my focus and energy is centered on television writing, but I definitely have goals that go outside of that.
SERGIO: Which brings up a really important point in that if anyone wants to become a filmmaker you have to know everything - not only the creative, but also the development, executive and marketing side of it as well. You’re getting a real education into the business, unlike too many would-be filmmakers who go into blindly. They think they can just grab a camera and shoot anything and… Voilà! They’re a filmmaker. Not so fast...
DANIEL: Yeah I agree. I really had the benefit of coming out here and working and interning at great places, so the breadth and depth of my education has been very great. It has served me very well.
If anyone is interested in reaching out to Daniel you can contact with his through his Twitter handle @DanLWillis