Producing a silver-screen career

Dan Davies makes a name in independent films, Nollywood industry

Posted on Feb 1, 2017 :: The Business of Life
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When a pre-teen Dan Davies finished watching “Star Wars” at the Rosa Theater in Waupaca in 1977, he stood up, pointed at the screen and said someday he’d be up on it.

A few decades later, his dream came to life with a film he wrote and starred in: “Ed Gein: The Musical.”

Davies might be best known for that popular — and somewhat notorious — 2010 cult film. But the Fox Cities resident has built a varied career as an actor, writer and producer, now appearing in the No. 1 film in Nollywood, the second-largest film industry in the world, based in Lagos, Nigeria.

“I never really was attracted to LA, even though I go out to California quite often,” Davies says. “I really wanted to create my own product. I love the creative control and that you can create something from the ground up. It’s your idea, it’s your story, it’s your screenplay.”

Davies, who grew up in Omro and Waupaca, was a kid who loved telling stories to his large family. Eventually, he ended up at Waupaca High School, appearing in plays and musicals under the direction of the late Jerry Knoepfel.

“He was really instrumental in getting me involved in acting,” Davies says. “He pulled me aside my senior year and said, ‘Dan, you could do this for a living.

Davies took the advice to heart and went on to various projects, including co-hosting a cooking show with Sara White, the wife of the late football legend Reggie White, that was broadcast widely in the Midwest.

“Reggie came along and brought all of his superstar friends, and we had these big behemoths in the kitchen cooking their favorite meals,” Davies says. “That was fun, and it was a good learning experience.”

Davies then worked on various film projects, including “Ed Gein: The Musical,” which he developed with his then-business partner Steve Russell.

“My grandfather’s best friend was the arresting sheriff,” Davies says. “It was shocking, beyond belief what (Gein) was doing, and in such a small community. It fascinated me why someone could be so bereft of morals — what was his background?”

Davies’ research led to his writing and starring in the darkly comedic musical about the Plainfield serial killer, which garnered some backlash. In a 2011 appearance on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Director’s Cut,” Davies says he and Russell received death threats, though the quirky film has also attracted a cult following and is scheduled for re-release in 2017.

“For me, that (“Ed Gein: The Musical”) was like the jumping off point,” Davies says. “I realized I could put to use the skill sets that I learned from my parents, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles who are creative people.”

The film led to other projects, including the short film “Mitakuye Oyasin (We Are All Related)” on the importance of the horse culture to the Lakota tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D., which he made with Hortonville filmmaker Jody Marriott Bar-Lev.

“Through that, we actually met and became good friends with Michael Blake, who wrote ‘Dances With Wolves,’” Marriott Bar-Lev says. “Through our discussions with him, it ended up that Dan and I wrote the script for ‘West of Thunder.’”

“West of Thunder,” which Davies stars in, is a full-length feature Western that won the Political Film Society’s Best Film in the Peace and Human Rights categories, as well as the Best Western at the Almeria Western Film Festival in Spain, according to IMDb.com. It also was chosen as a Top-10 All-Time film at the 40th Annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

“It really hit notes with a lot of people,” Marriott Bar-Lev says. “Somebody described it as ‘a thinking man’s Western.’ It’s definitely more of a philosophical movie, and it hit home with a specific audience. We were really happy.”

As it often happens, one project leads to the next and the next.

A Nollywood producer who saw Davies in “West of Thunder” got in touch. “Nollywood” is the nickname for the Nigerian film industry, like India’s No. 1-film-producing Bollywood, which churns out more than three times the number of films as Hollywood. Nollywood comes in a close second, knocking out about 50 films per week and generating about $600 million annually for the Nigerian economy, according to CNN.com.

“It’s the second-largest film market in the world, but it’s also the fastest-growing film market in the world,” Davies says. “It’s burgeoning.”

The Nollywood producer wanted Davies to play a Russian gangster in the 2014 film “Temping Fate.” Davies was thrilled, but told the producer he couldn’t really do a Russian accent because he ends up sounding like the comedian Yakov Smirnoff (he demonstrates, and it’s true). So Davies researched neighboring countries and offered to play a Kazakh instead.

“So I did the Kazakh accent, and he went, ‘That’s great, man, that’s killer!’” Davies says.

At the premiere of “Tempting Fate” in Lagos, Ayo Makun, a well-known Nigerian comedian and producer who goes by the nickname A.Y., approached Davies, which led to his appearance in “A Trip to Jamaica” — now the No. 1 grossing Nollywood film of all time.

In the film, Davies stars with actor Eric Roberts and a cast of African Academy Award-winning actors. Davies attended the premiere in Lagos in September, seeing his face on billboards and the sides of buses. “I have a big head to begin with, but when you’re walking by a poster and your head’s about 8 feet tall, it’s really kind of strange,” he says. “What’s really disconcerting is to see yourself on a 55-by-90-foot screen. I kept thinking, ‘Man, I should’ve done more situps.’”

Among Davies’ other upcoming projects:

• “Wronged,” an independent revenge thriller filmed in Detroit.

• “Mr. Thursday,” a psychological thriller film Davies wrote, intending to star in it, but actor D.B. Sweeney wanted Davies’ part. “I’m like, ‘You’ve done about a half a billion dollars worth of worldwide box office, I guess you can.’” Davies instead took a smaller role in which he plays an older character.

Davies enjoys collaborating with other artists. “(Wisconsin has) got a large base of very talented people,” he says, and hopes to create opportunities to collaborate with filmmakers in Nigeria and elsewhere.