Teen Wolf Executive Producer Jeff Davis says he wasn’t expecting much when he first met with MTV executives back in 2008. “I call them water bottle meetings because you always leave with a bottle of water and very little else. The promise of ‘doing something together’ but with typically no real commitment and or actual intention to do so.”
Davis was already well versed in this type of “general meeting.” He’d spent the previous five years developing, launching and producing Criminal Minds on CBS.
This meeting was different though. Davis was fresh off the first show he’d created becoming a major hit. MTV was moving into scripted programming and had just hired Justin Levy, one of the minds behind NBC’s Friday Night Lights series. At the same time MGM was sifting through their vault trying to re-energize some of their old intellectual property. This confluence of events led to Davis, Levy and MTV’s President Tony Disanto sipping bottled water and talking about Teen Wolf, a 1985 movie about a teenage werewolf that plays basketball really well.
“While I remember the movie pretty fondly,” Davis tells Fandom, “I also remember it didn’t quite hold up that well (remember the Wolf Dance?) and would need a lot of reinvention.”
MTV already had producers Marty Adelstein and Michael Thorn attached to the project and Davis was already working with them on another pilot for the SyFy channel. When the trio turned their attention to Teen Wolf, they drew on another 80s movie for inspiration. “Thorn and I talked about doing Teen Wolf in the vein of The Lost Boys,” Davis explains. “What attracted me most to the project was being able to approach the show with a sense of humor. I had loved that about The Lost Boys. That it was funny, scary, romantic and that it had a great mystery underneath with a pretty brilliant third act reveal. I thought that could easily be the paradigm for the show.”
Adelstein and Thorn teamed Davis with writer René Echevarria (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The 4400) to further the project. “They set up a meeting for us to get together and René and I totally hit it off. We essentially developed the pilot story together. While I did the outlining René was there as a producer, mentor, and great sounding board. I would pitch him ideas and he would give me his thoughts. Then we’d wrestle over problems and notes from the network.”
Davis says it was Echevarria that came up with some of the most memorable beats in that first Teen Wolf script. “One of my favorite moments he came up with was Scott handing Allison the pen in the classroom when they first see each other. He was truly a great partner in the process.”
MTV bought the script and ordered what they call a “presentation pilot” which is a shortened version of the pilot episode. It’s cheaper to produce and can give the network suits some idea if their big idea will actually work on screen. Davis and Echevarria went to work again, “We did our best to condense it down to a manageable script leaving out most of the fifth and sixth acts.”
The producers then started looking for directors. “Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) was one of our first meetings,” Davis recalls. “He came in with fantastic storyboards and great visuals to complement the script. He had storyboarded the whole shower sequence where Scott first transforms. It was his style and approach that would really make the show special and something that looked as good as what the broadcast networks were producing.”
Even after all the pieces were in place, after putting together an excellent cast of familiar faces and undiscovered talent, Davis says they worried that their translation of Teen Wolf would be met with derision. “There was definitely a worry about the brand and the title. We were all well aware that we were essentially making the Twilight version of Teen Wolf. There was no way to get around that comparison. We were also aware that as brilliant as Battlestar Galactica was it never quite got the viewership it deserved because of its title.”
While their Teen Wolf was now a totally different animal, they still paid homage to the original. “I gave plenty of nods to the original movie throughout the pilot and first season thinking those might be clever winks to the older audience. But I was certainly ready for the ‘you’re ruining my childhood’ critiques. Still, I just wanted to write something entertaining that would scare people and make them laugh. That’s what I stuck to.”
Why Teen Wolf Works:
Although it borrows its title from the Rod Daniel 1985 film, Davis’ supernatural series is a new and unusual beast.
While you’ll find all the familiar tropes of the modern teenage drama, Teen Wolf also trades heavily on myth and allegory, energizing its episodes with inventive narrative structure, engrossing characters and a hint of social commentary. Above all though, Davis says his team always strives to entertain. “I believe that goal, of being entertaining first, is probably what led to its success.”
But Davis wasn’t the only one who tried this recipe. Another teen supernatural drama started in the same month in 2011 with many of the same elements. It was on a bigger network, with an established reputation for scripted programming, and debuted to critical acclaim but The Nine Lives of Chloe King didn’t find its audience and only lasted one season.
Why did things go so very differently for Teen Wolf?
Perhaps the real secret to Teen Wolf’s success is the fact that it gets fans talking. Each season, tens of thousands of fans flock to Teen Wolf forums and social media to talk about the show and its stars. Dozens of fan conventions take place each year. There’s at least one on almost every continent now.
The show’s episodes over five seasons manage to consistently engage and enrage Teen Wolf fans. The transformation of good guy Stiles into a murderous Japanese vengeance spirit and the subsequent death of the heroic Allison Argent in Season 3 did both.
The current Season 5 storyline is also divisive to viewers. On the one hand it places Banshee Lydia Martin in constant danger but, on the other, allows her to kick ass with a new set of powers and martial arts skills.
Type “Stiles Stilinski” into any search engine and you’ll be inundated with fan generated images and information (some of it very NSFW). At first Stiles appeared to be the “goofy best friend” on the show but quickly grew into the role of detective and unexpected hero. He is far and away the most popular character on Teen Wolf and half of one of the most popular “ships” in popular fiction today.
Paired with either brooding werewolf Derek Hale, high school crush Lydia Martin or current ex-girlfriend Malia Tate, the Stilinski character has spawned fandoms all his own. Sterek, Stydia and Stalia dominate much of the online conversation (and arguments) about Teen Wolf and eclipse other character relationships.
Right from the start a group of dedicated (some might say obsessed) fans began to grow and this fan support is the single most important element of the show’s continued success.
Starting with the very first episode people lovingly embraced the characters Davis sketched out back in 2009. Artists and authors have generated literally thousands of pieces dedicated to Teen Wolf.
There’s enough Teen Wolf fanfiction now to fill more than 100 seasons of television and some of those stories have proven more popular than the show that inspired them.
“I’m stunned by the pieces of art and fiction that have been created,” Davis says. “I honestly had no idea that would happen. For a writer to create characters that inspire people to go off and create their own stories and spend hours upon hours creating pieces of extraordinary art is pretty amazing. It makes me feel like the show won’t be forgotten as a guilty pleasure but will be remembered fondly and appreciated for a long time.”