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Ayanna Floyd Davis on the Craft of Screenwriting

November 29, 2019
4 min read time

Dozens of eager and aspiring writers listened as Ayanna Floyd Davis, showrunner for The Chi’s second season, spoke about her career and offered advice at the 2019 Austin Film Festival. Floyd Davis is a busy woman, and she was even busier during that week in late October, as she met the demands of AFF and the festival attendees who sought information from the seasoned screenwriter.

When we met on day two of the festival, Floyd Davis was hustling from a “Diversity and Inclusion” panel, ready to tackle multiple back-to-back interviews, including ours. She was sought out by AFF, as her inspiring career has taken Floyd Davis into writers’ rooms for shows like Empire and Hannibal. Her journey began in 1998, when she moved to Los Angeles after graduate school. Floyd Davis received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago.

“My undergrad degree was in journalism, but after a few internships, I realized I hated it,” Floyd Davis chuckles. “I wanted to do more creative writing, so grad school provided the framework for me moving into the arts and television.”

For two years, Floyd Davis hustled in Hollywood, and by 2000, she was staffed on a network show. She feels fortunate that it didn’t take long for her to break in, but once she was in, as an African American woman, she realized she was entering unique and unfamiliar territory. 

“Once I got there, it was about navigating being the only woman in the room, or being one of only two women in the room,” Floyd Davis says. Although times were sometimes tough, she stayed true to herself by working on projects that she says, ‘spoke to her.’

“I try not to work on shows that I don’t care about or where I don’t care about the characters,” Floyd Davis explains.

That’s why it was strange when Bryan Fuller—who developed the series Hannibal, a psychological horror-thriller based on Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name about a cannibalistic serial killer—called her agents asking to meet.

“I showed up at this coffee shop in Los Feliz and I said to Bryan, ‘I don’t know anything about sci-fi and I’m not a Trekkie,” Floyd Davis recalls. “’I don’t care about any of that stuff, so if you’re looking for that, I can’t give you that.’”

“Bryan said, ‘That’s not what I’m looking for. I have that, I know that, that’s my wheelhouse. What I want you to bring to the table is character. I like the way you think about character.’”

Fuller had apparently read a half-hour spec that Floyd Davis wrote about a white Pentecostal minister. After that first meeting, she was hired onto the show.

“I always give Bryan credit for thinking outside the box and reading me and realizing, ‘Oh, this girl knows how to think about character and I need that on this show about a cannibal,’” Floyd Davis laughs. “It was incredible working on Hannibal. Bryan Fuller is an amazing creative brain and that show was completely unexpected.”

One of the ideas Floyd Davis pitched during her initial meeting with Fuller eventually made it into the show: she suggested that Jack Crawford’s (Laurence Fishburne) wife Bella (Gina Torres), be diagnosed with cancer, and for Bella to approach Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) about helping her commit suicide.

“What I told him was that I thought it was interesting to explore this idea of Hannibal not killing for thrill, but killing for mercy,” Floyd Davis says.

Floyd Davis contributed to Hannibal’s second season before working on TNT’s Falling Skies, Fox’s Empire, and most recently, Showtime’s The Chi, where she worked as a showrunner on season two. It was her first time stepping into a leadership role, but Floyd Davis says she was prepared.

“It was time for me to step into this type of role,” Floyd Davis says. “I think I was ready because of my experience. I had been groomed to be able to handle that job, and I think I did a great job on a very difficult show.”

Although she’s been involved in well-renowned shows, Floyd Davis never feels like ‘she’s made it’ as a writer. She says it’s healthy to maintain a little sense of insecurity in this industry that’s ever evolving. But Floyd Davis isn’t insecure when it comes to using her platform to promote the voices of minorities and women—the underrepresented in Hollywood—and giving advice to the young people who are following in her footsteps.

“I think my biggest piece of advice is to keep writing,” Floyd Davis says. “I think it’s a process, and when you keep writing, and you’re always developing new material and ideas, you’re actually teaching yourself how to write.”

In fact, Floyd Davis compares writing to any other profession; she says you would never let just anybody operate on you, surgeons need credentials—just like surgeons, writers need credentials and practice, too.

“Watch a lot of television and really take the craft seriously,” Floyd Davis says. “It’s a craft; a muscle you have to exercise and nurture like you would any other thing.”

So, what’s next for this Hollywood storyteller? She’s in negotiation for several projects that haven’t been announced just yet. Stay tuned for more stories from Ayanna Floyd Davis.

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