On the set of Outlander
After majoring in theatre at Scripps College, Maril Davis ’94 briefly attended acting school before deciding to pursue her love of television by working behind the scenes. Now, she’s an executive producer of Starz’s award-winning historical drama Outlander, a series she pushed to create. I recently sat down with Davis to talk about her career, her Scripps experience, and her take on the current flood of news about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
Anyi Wong-Lifton: How did you become interested in—and get your start in—producing television shows?
Maril Davis ’94: I’m old enough that I didn’t have the internet in high school, so I didn’t know what career opportunities were in television or film. Growing up, I loved TV, and I knew I wanted to work in the industry. When I went to Scripps, [there wasn’t] a TV or film major, so I [chose] theatre.
I got my start as a production assistant on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on the Paramount Studios lot. A friend of mine who had gone to Claremont McKenna College knew an assistant director for the show, and the director was looking for production assistants. I interviewed, but got a call the next day that they were giving the job to someone else. Then they called back 30 minutes later and said the person they had offered the job to turned it down, so would I like to take it? I said, absolutely! It was a difficult job—I had to come in at 6:30am and stay until 10:30pm, but it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve had, and it was such a family atmosphere. I was thrown into the deep end, and I was very lucky to have had that opportunity.
AWL: What are the day-to-day responsibilities of an executive producer?
I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades, and that’s what I love about producing. I’ve partnered with a writer/showrunner named Ronald D. Moore, and I’m what they call a “non-writing executive producer.” I work more on the creative side, overseeing the writers’ office, giving notes on scripts, and watching dailies. I also have a hand in casting and booking directors and liaising between the writers’ office and the studio and network in terms of notes and general production stuff. For Outlander, we shoot in Scotland, but our writers’ office and editorial suites are in Los Angeles. I’m going to Scotland soon, and I’ll spend three weeks there going to set in the morning and connecting back to the office remotely.
AWL: You’ve been involved with several cult television shows, including Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and now Outlander. What’s it like to work on shows that have such devoted fans?
MD: Even to this day, with Battlestar, people still come up to me to say, “I love that show—it was so amazing.” I’m very proud of that and what we’ve done. Ron and I both want to do quality programs, and I feel very lucky to work on projects that I’m both very proud of and that I really enjoyed working on. All jobs are difficult in their own ways, but being in entertainment involves long hours and a lot of work on the weekends. If you’re going to do it, it helps if you’re really enjoying what you’re reading and watching.
AWL: Recently there has been a deluge of stories about sexual harassment in the workplace, many of them about entertainment industry executives. What are your thoughts about the conversation that’s been happening around women in entertainment?
MD: Certainly, in the entertainment industry, it is magnified. We were talking about this the other day, in the writers’ room, which is a very gloves-off environment in terms of what gets discussed. It’s also kind of a safe space, in terms of people being able to share personal stories about their lives; being a writer is very much about being vulnerable enough to talk honestly about your experiences. But sometimes it’s hard to know what the appropriate line is when you’re in an industry where there are no rules. I think a lot of people have taken advantage of that, so I’m thrilled to see that people are feeling free to speak up against abuse.
Growing up in this industry, there were so many times that comments were made that I just ignored because I didn’t feel like I could speak up. It will be interesting to see what happens to our industry moving forward, because so many people are now feeling the courage to do that. I think it’s important, too, for people to witness this moment, even if they themselves haven’t been harassed, because it might give them the courage to stick up for someone else. While it’s been a very painful experience for many, I really hope change is happening—not only in our industry, but across all industries.
AWL: Do you have advice for Scripps students interested in careers producing film or television?
MD: Read as much as you can, and try to read about a variety of subjects. I wish I had taken advantage of internships when I was a student, but I don’t think we were as aware of the opportunities and the importance of networking. I think a liberal arts education is very helpful because I work with a lot of writers, and in general they are some of the smartest people I know—they are well read and very knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects. For whatever you want to do in this industry, it’s important to read and absorb as much as you can and be well rounded; the more subjects you know and can talk about will really give you a leg up.
I think the interesting thing is that there are so many different ways to get into the entertainment industry. I don’t think there’s really one specific, perfect avenue a person has to take. I love the fact that I started out on the production side and got a better understanding of how the nuts and bolts of producing works, especially since I’m now on the creative producing side. But if I were to do it all over again, I think I’d also try to spend some time at one of the talent agencies because, in terms of networking and knowing a lot of people, it’s a good way to do it.
AWL: What are some of the skills or experiences you gained at Scripps that have stuck with you?
MD: I am a really big fan of the liberal arts education. I do think sometimes when you go to college you’re so focused on one major that you lose sight of the other things or you aren’t exposed to them. But a place like Scripps really forces you to experience a lot of different things before you decide what you want to do. I think it gives you a better perspective of the world; in my job, when you’re reading scripts, it helps to know a little about a lot of different things. Being a theater major, I was exposed to a lot of great literature and performances. I think I became more attuned to Shakespeare and Molière. Studying all these classics, you get a feel for the dialogue and pacing, [areas] that you need to be aware of while reading scripts.