Back to IndieWire

Meet Daniel Willis – Climbing His Way To Success In Hollywood, One Step Up The Ladder At A Time

Meet Daniel Willis – Climbing His Way To Success In Hollywood, One Step Up The Ladder At A Time

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.

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
, 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.

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.

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?

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.

Well do you think it’s necessary to go to film school?

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.

 So you come to L.A. working at Will
Smith’s production company, Overbrook, first, and then move to Disney…

I was an intern at Overbrook first, and then I was what they call a development
associate at Walt Disney Motion Pictures.

 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.

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.

 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.

: Do you find some people who are not willing to go through that process?

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.

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.

O.K. let’s go again, what were your duties when you were at Disney?

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

Like I said everything is a process. But why Shonda  Rhimes, compared to other TV producers out
there? You particularly like her shows?

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.

 And your goal is to write for the show?

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.

But really your ultimate goal is to create, write and direct you own projects,

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.

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…

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

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged