In Reel Time with Tyler Davidson

Northeast Ohio is the opposite of Hollywood, but producer Tyler Davidson hasn’t let that stop him from producing acclaimed movies from the Buckeye state. A native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Davidson, who was named one of Variety’s “10 Producers to Watch” last year, is an anomaly in the film industry in more than one way: his home base doesn’t have a California zip code and he completely bypassed film school and started his career as a producer at age 22. Now 37, he has produced several films including last year’s Take Shelter, the celebrated Sony Pictures Classics release that won the Critics’ Week Grand Prix at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and most recently Compliance, the controversial Sundance hit released by Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures in August.

Davidson’s path to the producer’s chair was fast-tracked when his uncle, Scott Lax, received an opportunity to have his first book he wrote adapted for film. Lax and Davidson—who had just finished an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Virginia and was about to head off to Florida State University’s film school—hatched the idea that the two of them might produce the movie themselves. And so Davidson never made it to film school, but what he missed out on in the classroom, he learned firsthand while producing his first film, the Vietnam era, coming-of-age drama The Year that Trembled, released in 2002.

Following that foray into the industry, Davidson made the logical move to Los Angeles, where he headed a startup film and television production company formed by two actor friends. A couple of TV show sales and several years later, the newly-married Davidson and his wife Lyon traded the west coast for the Midwest and moved back to Ohio to start a family. Thanks to the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit, Davidson has found producing movies here to be rewarding, and he films his movies in Ohio whenever possible. C Magazine sat down with Davidson to find out what it’s like to be a film producer in the Midwest—read our exclusive Q&A to find out what we discovered.  

What do you hold dear to your heart? 
My wife, Lyon, and my two boys, Patrick and Wyatt. 

Describe your journey into the limelight? 
Am I in the limelight? I think that’s what pushes me each day—I never feel like I’m there yet. For me, it’s all about moving forward. I feel like I’ve put in the time, educated myself and done a lot of years of hard work in this business and it’s exciting to start seeing some great results. 

What’s your strongest virtue? 
I think my strongest virtue is also, to some degree, a fault, which is I say what I mean. I say what I feel. I hope people always know where I stand and sometimes that ruffles feathers. 

Coolest guy in Hollywood is …? 
Right now I gotta say I love what Paul Thomas Anderson is doing right now with The Master. I haven’t seen the film yet, but just this guy delivers every time, and I love the way he positions these films—they’re sort of shrouded in some degree of mystery. He really knows how to get people fired up in anticipation. We’re seeing the results on his new one, it’s breaking screen averages across the country right now, The Master. That’s the kind of film I hope to produce someday. 

Who is your favorite director of all time and why? 
For me, I go back to the director that first inspired me to think about movies, which was Hitchcock. The guy was the first of his time to show that there was something going on behind what you’re seeing on the screen and that really specific choices were being made by someone who was essentially manipulating us every step of the way. And when I realized that there was that voice, that person, behind the film, it just changed everything for me. 

Would you say that the director is akin to the wizard in The Wizard of Oz? 
I think so. I think it’s funny because any kid or person that wants to get into this business thinks in terms of writing and directing, maybe acting, first. No one really knows what the hell a producer does. So for me, it was kind of just something I fell into. 

Got a favorite movie? 
Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I love the mix of the average American family against this crazy sci-fi background. That kind of hybrid— you don’t see that done well often. 

What is one childhood tradition that you plan on carrying on with your kids? 
I’m super hardcore about Christmas. We do the same routine in my family that I did every year of my life growing up with pretty much zero deviation. I think after 37 years, I’ve cracked that one—I think I’ve got it down. 

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done? 
I feel like, honestly, that all the risks that I take are professional. I really don’t do crazy stuff in my personal life. I feel like the nature of my job, every day I’m putting myself out there in ways where I could easily fail. 

Who is your hero? 
Certainly my wife is my inspiration. To me, my hero, not to sound trite, but it is a composite. To me, a hero, it’s about certain qualities and not one person on a whole. My hero is a composite of all the things I admire most about my mom and others; it’s character attributes that no one has a monopoly on, but that I draw on from everyone close to me. 

What is your guilty pleasure? 
Ice cream. We hit the ice cream parlor easily four to five times a week. But I can’t have it at home. There’s something about going there and having it scooped out of the case. Mitchell’s and Jeni’s are my favorites. Jeni’s just opened in my town in Chagrin Falls, and I’m there every day. 

What is your favorite sport to watch on TV?  In person? 
The NFL on TV—growing up a Browns fan, it just doesn’t get any better. Floor seats at an NBA game are pretty bad-ass in person. 

What was your first job? 
My first job I helped out at some tennis courts at a local country club just doing random shit. My first job in the industry was full producer. A lot of people work their way up in this business—I dove right in. My uncle and I made a pitch together to produce a movie based on a book he wrote called The Year that Trembled and instead of going to film school, I was on my way there right out of undergrad, and I had an opportunity to work my way into a producing position and just went for it. 

Do you have any hobbies? 
I don’t know about hobbies, but I’m a bit of a political junkie. I watch all the news shows. Put it his way, every four years, I’m out going door-to-door. 

Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy? 
Eddie Murphy hasn’t made very good decisions as of late, but in his prime, he was the man. I’d say Eddie Murphy doing Richard Pryor. 

Vince Vaughn or Will Ferrell? 
I gotta go with Will Ferrell on that one. 

What is your most notable characteristic? 
I think everyone is always amazed at how even keeled and laid back I am, and I think that comes from being in this business. I don’t get too high about the highs and I don’t get too low about the lows.

What makes you angry?
People not doing what they say they’re going to do, period. Wow, that sets me on fire, man.

What 3 words would you use to describe yourself?
Thoughtful, shrewd and very competitive. 

Oatmeal and a banana or steak and eggs?
Steak and eggs.

It’s raining and you have a day off . What are you going to do with your day?
Probably play Wii with my five year-old.

What is the best city to premier a movie?
New York City.

If you were President, what law would you change?
It just seems a little ridiculous to not allow marriage for gay couples.

How do you want to be remembered? 
As a guy who put his family first.

What fires you up? Pisses you off ? Makes you cry?
Fires me up: coming across that script that I can’t not make into a film. Pisses me off : people that don’t do what they say they’re going to do. Makes me cry: cheesy drama on airplanes—for some reason, when I’m on an airplane, I cry at every movie I watch. It’s something about being 30,000 feet, it’s so bizarre. 

Reflect on your fondest memory growing up? 
I loved going out to my grandparents’ house on Sunday evenings in the summer with the whole family when my grandpa would grill out steaks, and we would just all eat out on the patio. Summer Sunday evenings. That was the best. 

What talent would you most like to have? 
I wish that I was more impressive in the karaoke room. You’re swept up by an F4 tornado and dropped in a little village with munchkins and a yellow brick road. 

What do you ask the wizard for? 
People say that money can’t buy happiness, but I think I’ve got pretty much everything else covered right now, so, you know… 

You’re walking down death row… What was your last meal? 
A platter of Alaskan king crab legs and a big terrine of melted butter and a couple of tall draft beers. 

You can have a drink with any figure in history. With whom are you drinking, and what’s your poison? 
I think it would be pretty cool to smoke a joint with Jerry Garcia. 

What was the most important resolution you ever made? 
To not give up on this crazy career and to just hang in there and believe that at some point things would start to break. 

The U.S. needs _______ more than it will admit. 

If the best offense is a good defense, what is the best defense? 
This is crazy, but really the best defense is to good offense. 

The measure of a man is his ability to …? 
To persevere. 

Godzilla: Is there another more iconic monster? 
Frankenstein is up there, but Godzilla works. 

Would you like to do television work? 
Yeah, the quality of TV right now is better than what we’re getting in movies. Some of our best film writers and directors have made the transition. At the end of the day, if you can get a great TV show going year after year, it’s a pretty nice life. 

What was your major in college? 
I was an English major. I took all the film classes they offered at University of Virginia, but they didn’t have a formal film department. 

Where do you see the Midwest film market in the next five years? 
I hope that the film industry is going to become more and more regionalized and less decentralized. I think it can be a real economic driver for other parts of the country. What the Ohio Motion Picture tax credit is doing is big for the state, but people need to realize that it takes a few years to build a new industry, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I want to shoot every movie in Ohio, and that’s the first thing I think of when I read a script is, “Can it go here?” There’s no reason not to. I have a new film that has a little bit of desert work, so we’re going to shoot a few days in New Mexico, but otherwise it’s all here. We’re scouting Northeast Ohio. 

Explain the name of your company? 
Low Spark Films references a song I love, “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic. 

Your movie Take Shelter received positive reviews. Explain the impetus of that movie and what it will always mean to you. 
That movie came to me from a friend of mine who was a talent agent who represented the writer-director, and the first time I read the script, it just resonated with me in such a big way. In a lot of ways, it sort of reminded me of my favorite film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the way this guy had this seemingly great family life and was respected in the community and was on this solitary, nightmarish journey that he couldn’t share with anyone. There was something about this that just struck me. Take Shelter was a real breakthrough film in my career. I’ll always have a really special feeling about that film. 

Do you feel like you get opportunities because you don’t stop working for them? 
I feel like I earned that opportunity to produce that film. I don’t think it was dumb luck that I produced that. 

Has your current movie Compliance outdone your expectations, or has it become the very thing you knew and hoped it would? 
I have to say, in all modesty, that Compliance is playing out how I expected it would. I knew it was a powerful, provocative story that would be a conversation starter wherever it played, and that’s proving to be the case. Starting from our Sundance premier with a firestorm of controversy to every city that it’s rolled out in, it gets people talking, and I’m thrilled with that result. 

At what point will you qualify Compliance as a success? 
Compliance was a success the moment I saw the first rough cut. When I saw Craig Zobel, the writer-director, his execution of the script and working with the great cast that we had, I knew it was a successful film. And so the fact that other people then came on board to that same opinion, that’s tremendously validating, but regardless of what other people think, I think it’s a great film. 

You grew up in Chagrin Falls. Doesn’t it remind you of a Norman Rockwell painting? 
What I love about Chagrin Falls, at least when we were growing up, it’s charming but complicated, which is what I loved about it. It’s a town that had real dimension to it and character, and you could find any adventure you wanted even though on the surface it was so idyllic, and I hope it preserves that identity as my kids grow up there. 

Best dinner scene: Scarface, Godfather or other? 
I can give that to Godfather. 

What’s the next thing on the burner for you? 
I’ve got a teen comedy called Toy’s House that we’re in postproduction right now. It will be coming out next year. And I’m in pre-production with a new sci-fi thriller that we’re scouting for right now. 

Red Dawn or Rambo? 
Red Dawn really spoke to our generation. 

Who are your literary influences? 
I love Hemingway—I love the directness of his prose. I feel like that’s something that I try to achieve, not even in creative writing, but in business writing. I try to be extremely direct and look to an economy of words to convey what I want. 

Action vs. Dialogue—what is more potent when done very well? 
It’s the fundamental rule of writing and of filmmaking—you’ve got to show and not tell. I always feel like when I see something in a movie or in a script, that whatever we’re conveying needs to be earned in the action, you can’t just tell an audience what they’re supposed to think. 

How awkward were you in your Take Shelter dinner scene cameo, and how did that come about? 
I’d say I was a 10 out of 10 in the awkward scale. And that went way back to the writer-director Jeff Nichols asking if I would be in that scene from the very start of pre-production, and I completely blew it off as a joke until the day of the shoot when I realized we hadn’t cast anyone else. So I’m very uncomfortable in front of the camera and Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain had a very good time ripping on me throughout that scene. 

What is the best lesson your dad ever taught you? 
My dad is a super non-judgmental person, and I hope that I have drawn a lot from that. I really try to, no matter where someone is coming from, I try to give that person the fairest shake that I can in my mind. 

Where do you rank the value of suspended disbelief in our digital age? 
No matter how technology changes, that is always going to be the core of entertaining people— the ability to suspend their disbelief. That’s something that will always transcend technology.