You get to know most Salt Lake Community College instructors on the day you walk into their class. They call roll, promising to learn—or apologizing for perhaps never learning—everyone’s names. Then there are instructors like Mark Davis, whose legend preceded him.
A small man with an enormous presence and a booming voice, Mark seemed to be everywhere, ambling, stalking or flat-out running through the halls of the Center for Arts & Media. I think he barged into at least four of my classes before I took one of his. Each time, he’d have some zippy exchange with the instructor—usually his good friend and fellow film instructor, Channing Lowe, who was as quick with a wry comeback—or other students. If Mark didn’t invade, he’d poke his head through the doorway. Even when he was in a hurry, he’d at least pop off an expertly targeted drive-by wisecrack. He often left laughter in his wake.
Fellow students in the film department spoke of him with enthusiasm, reverence and, sometimes, bitterness. They spoke of his knowledge and experience, how he worked with Sam Raimi on Spider-man or Tom Cruise on Minority Report. Mark, so full of knowledge and experience, had a way of making you want to jump on your chair and shout, “Oh Captain, my captain!” He also had a knack for making you extremely angry, or even scared. Stories of Mark’s jokes were as common as tales of his incredible bad moods. “Mark yells at everyone,” a friend of mine told me the semester before I had my first class with him. I decided to see if I could go an entire semester without feeling his wrath.
I lasted maybe two weeks.
On the morning of the directing class’s first open casting call, Mark had given me a very simple job: obtaining and placing signs directing actors to the common area and sound stage. Well, the signs weren’t where they were supposed to be. Not wanting to let Mark down, I called him. It seemed unlikely that anyone could convey emotion through such a nothing gesture as sending someone to voicemail, but it felt as though Mark kicked me there with extreme prejudice. I decided I was paranoid and went for coffee.
Upon my return, a fellow student warned me, “Heads up—Mark’s looking for you.” The subtext was, “It’s been nice knowin’ you, dude.” Rather than cower, I decided to face the music, figuring Mark would respect that.
“I’m sor—” Mark cut me off. He pointed at me, starting with icepick pupils, and bellowed, “Never call me again!” My pulse whooshed in my ears, drowning out the rest of his rant. Sympathizers filled me in later. Sometime after midnight, Mark received a call from a female student who’d run out of gas near the baseball stadium. Remembering Mark lived nearby, she’d called him for help. In spite of her inappropriate call, Mark got out of bed and helped her out—but not without giving her an earful. My call was the cherry on top.
To Mark’s credit, he apologized soon afterward. It wasn’t the last time he’d yell at me, or any other student. In the ensuing months, “Mark yells at everyone” became the film department’s healing mantra.
Mark explained in class a few weeks later that he’s preparing us for life on real film sets, where the pressure is high, money is always hanging over your head, you can be fired for the tiniest thing and, most presciently, that accidents happen. He taught us to stay on our toes, because everything from our jobs to our lives were at stake. And if that meant he had to yell to make his point, or make an example of you, or call you out on your bullshit, he was happy to do it.
We came to understand that Mark yelled because he cared. He wanted us to leave SLCC competent, and prepared to lead exciting careers in the film industry. He wanted to draw out the best in us. He didn’t want us to get hurt. But he still wanted us to have fun.
I say Mark could inspire, or terrify you. He could also make you feel incredibly good, like you had the potential to be great. His performance-related compliments didn’t come easy, though—you had to earn them. When they came, they were a shock that left you electrified for days.
A compliment Mark dished out more often was the one that let you know he liked you for being you. Sometimes he’d just shout your name from down the hall. That was good, but even better were the times that, even when Mark was rushing off to his next class or meeting, clutching his trademark coffee mug, he’d reach back and extend a fist. His eyes, twinkling behind his glasses, locked onto yours and, as fists bumped, he’d say, “I dig you, man.”
Mark, we dig you. And we miss you.