Ria Tobaccowala AB '10 is an Indian-American writer-director based in New York City. Her short film, Shadows, was selected for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.
Q. What parts of your upbringing in Chicago led you to becoming a filmmaker? Can you speak about any thread between childhood and now?
A. My love for storytelling and filmmaking started in my early years. Instinctually, I would gravitate towards my father’s camcorders. In our home movies, I’d be jumping in front of the lens, begging him to let me use it. I remember my childhood home being full of cameras, books, and music. My parents love the arts and gave me access to different art forms throughout my childhood. They are the single most influential force in my journey as a filmmaker.
At my high school in Chicago, I had a wonderful photography teacher who inspired me. I spent the majority of my time in the school’s dark room. I also shot my first short film with a Super 8 camera. By then, I was hooked on the power of images to tell a story. In many ways, as a teenager and now as an adult, I’ve simply been nurturing the young girl within me who was born keen to film stories about life.
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story?
A. At Harvard, I varied my creative interests. I was a photographer for the Harvard Crimson as well as produced and danced in cultural shows, such as Ghungroo. My blockmates would lovingly laugh whenever I edited promo videos for campus events in a baseball cap. They called it my director’s hat. Little did we all know, a decade later I’d be keeping up the tradition of wearing baseball caps while editing my films. Harvard was the beginning of an important detour from pursuing filmmaking as a career. I spent college filling my mind with new subjects and filling my heart with amazing life experiences and friendships.
Q. Can you speak about your time at Google, staying creative in a corporate setting, and maintaining your goals?
A. Google surprisingly brought me back to the world of storytelling. Google is an intrinsically creative place where storytelling is required when imagining future technologies. I joined their rotational marketing program after graduation. One product I worked on was Google+. Our team’s mandate was to encourage content development on the platform with some of the most influential thought leaders and creators, as well as elevate underrepresented voices to the mainstream through social and video platforms.
I developed content partnerships with the New York Times, ESPN, NBC as well as produced interviews with President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, the Dalai Lama, and many others around major cultural, social, and public events. For example, I produced State of the Union interviews with President Obama, inviting Americans to be the first to converse with the President before the media. To use technology, such as social and video platforms, to democratize storytelling was a central mission for me at Google. I’ve carried with me, as a filmmaker, the same mission to elevate unrepresented voices in my work.
Daniel Rogers AB '12 is an award-winning writer, producer and actor. He's currently a TV staff writer, is developing his own series, and won the 2019 Harvardwood Writers Competition.
Q. When did you know you wanted to get into writing? Can you explain the journey from the first light bulbs, to any light practice, to now?
A. I think I first knew I liked writing in elementary school. I always had a knack for telling stories, and actually won some writing competitions at my school and in some regional events. I dabbled here and there throughout middle school and high school, but fell off during college (though I did take a creative writing class about poetry!). But the real lightbulb moment came when I was in grad school and took my first screenwriting course with Ken Lazebnik in USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. Up until that point, I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, and was still figuring out exactly what my niche would be. That class helped me rekindle my love for writing, and now almost five years later, I guess it’s working out!
Q. How did your time at Harvard (Acting, Glee Club, etc.) play into that story?
A. I studied English at Harvard, which obviously involved a lot of reading novelists and playwrights in the Western canon. Spending so much time with Byron and Shakespeare and George Eliot, plus the poetry writing course, definitely lends my writing a classical (dare I say musical?) bent. My time in the Glee Club inflamed my passion for music, and these days I think every other project I take on is about musicians, whether rockstars, choral singers, conductors, or whatever. In addition, being Manager of the Glee Club gave me a firm foundation in running an arts organization with a large budget and dueling creative and administrative goals. As an aspiring showrunner, that background is crucial. I know how to be creative, and I also know how to keep the trains running. You’d be surprised how rare that combination is!
Q. Can you speak about Writing vs. Producing and your MFA journey? How did you pursue both career-wise, to the point where you now produce content while operating in a writer's room?
A. People say “Film is a director’s medium, while television is a writer’s medium,” and it really is true. While at USC, I learned that most (or at least, a large chunk) of the producers on TV shows are writers. These folks have significant creative control over the direction of a series, in a way that most film screenwriters simply don’t. When I realized this, the choice between film and TV was easy. These days, as a member of a writers’ room, writing an outline or script or breaking story is basically second nature, though of course I’m always improving. But producing is its own beast. I was lucky enough to be a producing writer on set for an episode of “In the Dark” in 2019, and the hours we kept and the decisions I had to make were overwhelming. I had a say in everything from costumes to props to actor’s notes to set design to lighting to… well, the list goes on and on. That’s the kind of work I got into this business to do. Someday I’ll be able to separate the two, so I can produce the writing of younger writers I believe in. But for the moment, my focus is on producing for TV shows that I write for.
Harrison Greenbaum AB '08 is a comedian and writer in NYC. He was the co-founder of the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society, and can be seen on America's Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, Conan, Comedy Central, ABC, and much more.
Q. You’re a popular stand-up comic, so I imagine before the pandemic, you were touring a lot. So let me get right to it: how did you adjust after the pandemic shut everything down?
A. Before the pandemic, I was averaging about 600 shows a year, touring all over the world, so as soon as the lockdown started back in March, I immediately pivoted everything to virtual and livestreaming so I could keep performing. By the 2nd or 3rd week in March, I was hosting three different shows, five days a week: National Lampoon Live! with Harrison Greenbaum (raising money for the COVID Foundation), Who Books That? (an interview series presented by the International Brotherhood of Magicians), and SCAM Online (the first weekly magic livestream show from NYC). I learned A LOT very quickly and – between these three shows and all the private events I’ve been doing – I’ve been able to perform for more than a million people in the last 10 months. It’s been insane. At this point, my living room is a TV studio capable of a TV-broadcast quality, three-camera shoot, so I’m just grateful I can still connect with a wide audience. I’m having a blast doing virtual shows, especially since it combines the benefits of being on TV (being able to reach a large, global audience directly in their homes) with the benefits of performing live (being able to directly interact with the audience and to have their reactions immediately impact the show) – all of that, and I don’t have to be more than 20 steps from my couch.
[Editor’s note: for more info on Harrison’s virtual shows and/or for booking information, visit harrisongreenbaum.com/virtual.]
Q. Alright, take me back to the beginning: how did you know you wanted to get into comedy? Can you explain the journey from the first light bulbs, to light pursuit, to now?
A. I started out doing magic when I was about five years old. It just stuck. I loved every aspect of it and, as I got older, I realized I especially liked the parts of the tricks that made people laugh. I went to Magic Camp when I was 14 years old, because obviously I was very dedicated to not ever getting laid. In all seriousness though, Tannen’s Magic Camp changed my life and exposed me to so many different kinds of performers, including the funny ones, who became my heroes. When I got to Harvard, I was invited to do a stand-up show and, even though I’d never done stand-up before, I figured, “Why not?” As soon as I did that first show, I was immediately hooked. Harvard was such an important part of me becoming a comedian. (Don’t tell my parents.)
Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story? Can you give any (hilarious) anecdotes about your time there on your journey?
A. I’m so glad you qualified “anecdote” with “hilarious” – as a professional comedian, so many of my stories are real tear-jerkers… The summer of my freshman year at Harvard, I interned for MAD Magazine and started doing stand-up around the city (mostly getting on stage by “barking,” which means I stood on the corner, handing out flyers to try to get people to buy tickets to the show in exchange for stage time); when I got back, I realized that the only way to really get up on stage as much as possible while on campus was to start a club, so by my junior year, I was handing in the paperwork to make the Harvard Stand-Up Comic Society an official student organization. I made sure to write out the full name every time on all the forms with the hope that the administration wouldn’t figure out that the name of the club was actually “Harvard SUCS.” A few days later, I got an e-mail from the Dean’s Office about the application, asking me to come to the office, so I was worried we’d been caught; at the meeting, the dean started off by telling me that the name wasn’t acceptable, so I was sure we’d been caught. But then he explained that, since the group was undergraduate-focused, I’d have to change the name to the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society… and I realized they hadn’t worked out what we’d done at all! I don’t think I ever turned around paperwork faster in my life. In fact, the university didn’t realize they had approved a student group called “Harvard College SUCS” until we wanted to get sweatshirts and applied to the Trademark Office, which was when I finally received another e-mail from the Dean’s Office chiding us (but letting us keep the name). Years later, at my 5 Year Reunion, the dean who called me in pulled me to the side and told me that – while officially they had to be upset with us – internally they had actually thought it was one of the funniest stunts that had ever been successfully pulled on them. I’m proud of that, and also really, really proud of the fact that HCSUCS is still going strong and still ruining the lives of students who decide to throw away all the advantages of a Harvard degree and become comedians.
Oh, and Harvardwood. I did the Harvardwood winter break trip. I should probably mention that, huh?
Q. Now that you’ve brought it up… tell me how Harvardwood influenced your career.
A. I had such a blast going to Los Angeles with Harvardwood my senior year. Legitimately life-changing. I remember Dan O’Keefe met me for coffee and still – to this day – I can’t believe how insane that a writer like that (he’s the guy behind the Festivus episode of Seinfeld, for God’s sake!) to listen to a college senior blab on and on about his dreams at a Coffee Bean. (Of course it was a Coffee Bean.)
Halle Phillips AB '11, a Creative Executive in TV Development at Kilter Films, is a producer on HBO's Westworld.
Q. Can you talk about your activities, involvements, and interests at Harvard, and how those play into your life as a producer / exec today? Or how they led you here?
A. I didn’t know that I wanted to work in entertainment while I was at Harvard—the only thing I knew about the Lampoon is that they had a nice building and a habit of stealing sh*t from The Crimson. But looking back, most of my activities were centered around media and management—I was the production manager for Eleganza 2009, probably the closest thing I’d done to film production in its scale, complexity and creative collaboration; Lead Manager for Lamont Cafe which portended a love of working with people, working late nights, and crafty; and the Photography Chair of the 137 Guard of The Harvard Crimson, a commitment that required managing and working with many different departments to get something engaging out the door, maintaining an integrity of craft all while under daily deadline (the signs were all there!)
Q. When did your interest in producing come? Can you tell us about it?
A. After a stint in TMT investment banking, I knew that I didn’t want to venture too far down a path in finance knowing that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I needed to—the hours were insane and only got marginally better as you rose in the ranks. I always liked math, science, and tech, but I was equally if not moreso interested in the arts, and was craving a creative outlet. So when my quarter life crisis came early, I resisted the urge to go to grad school and instead talked to friends who worked in the industry. I was a huge TV person, and grew up watching HBO and FX series earlier than I should have (Oz!!). I never considered working in Hollywood because I never saw myself as a writer or director, but it turned out that making TV is much more than that.
Q. Tell us about Kilter and how you arrived there.
A. After quitting finance and doing some informational sit-downs, I had a friend send my resume in to CAA, following the advice given to me by countless others on “how to get started”. After 3 months as a floating assistant and spending extended time in TV Lit, I heard about a job at Bad Robot, and made the move into development. CAA was a great crash course in the lay of the land, and I made a lot of great friends, but Bad Robot is where I started to learn how the TV sausage actually gets made, if CAA is where it gets packaged.
Westworld was a property that Bad Robot had in development, and once we brought Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy on board, it was off to the races. We shot the pilot and I decided that I wanted to get further in the weeds and closer to the creative process—I wanted to work the farm before it became sausage (is this metaphor still working?) and decided this was the show to do it on. Luckily my boss at Bad Robot felt similarly and we both left to join Kilter Films as Jonah and Lisa looked to expand their development slate.
Julio Vincent Gambuto AB '00 is a writer and director, based in New York City. Team Marco, Julio’s debut feature film, is now available nationwide in the US and Canada, from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Check it out. Julio also wrote that viral essay about the pandemic that 20 million people read around the world. Now, he’s a weekly contributor to Medium.
Q. What about your upbringing in Staten Island first inspired you to write, direct, produce, etc. and get involved with the film industry?
A. Being an artist in an Italian-American family can be tough. We’re the children of immigrants, so when you get the chance to go to Harvard, the last thing your parents really want to hear is that you want to be an artist. My family has always been remarkably supportive, though. They trusted me from the beginning, and it’s really only because of their love and support that I was able to stay the course. Specifically, I think Italian-Americans are natural storytellers. We are a very dramatic culture — at least in my family — so stories are how we communicate. I actually discovered that for myself at Harvard. I realized freshman year that a lot of people around me communicated only through intellectual sparring — not all, but many — and that was a different form of communication than I had been used to from a working-class family. I just wanted to tell stories. It’s how I connect to people.
Q. What motivated you to continue studies at USC in Directing?
A. To be honest, I was just very frustrated that my acting career wasn’t going anywhere. I had a movie deal with an independent film company to make a film based on my one-man show (Julie from Staten Island), but it fell through during the recession in 2008, so I put myself back in school.
Q. In what ways did you get involved in film while at Harvard?
A. I was very involved in theater with the HRDC. I loved it. I came to film much later in my life. I was an actor right out of school. I did a lot of downtown theater in New York, working with an LGBTQ+ theater company. I did some improv and then went into standup comedy to prepare for my one-man show. The show was really a turning point for me. I ran it in New York monthly for two years, then in LA. We had an independent movie deal, but it fell through in the ’08 recession, so I put myself back in school and went to film school at 32.
Zoë Morrison AB '11 recently became Head of Production at Delirio Films, where she's been the lead on a slew of amazing projects, such as Mike Wallace Is Here and Ask Dr. Ruth, which both premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival before their theatrical releases, and Hulu’s hit original documentary Too Funny To Fail: The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show (2017).
Q. When did your interest in producing come to you in life? Can you tell us about it?
A. Honestly I can tell you the exact moment. It was at a really great Office of Career Services seminar given by Harvardwood's Mia Riverton Alpert halfway through my sophomore year that broke down the different types of professions in Hollywood. She went through agents, managers, studio/network execs, and when she got to creative producers something clicked. I thought, that's a combination of my skills & interests that I can visualize myself doing well and enjoying—combining organization with creativity, helping artists hone their ideas and bring them to life, with a low risk for boredom thanks to the nature of the work being project-based with a constant stream of new collaborators. Plus, the fruit of my labors would be something tangible that would (hopefully) make an impact on people, giving them food for thought or at the very least bringing them joy, which is so valuable in itself. I had previously thought I'd go into the fine arts in some sort of administrative role, but had grown disenchanted with how that world felt inaccessible to many people. I had only ever considered film as a consumer, so the seminar really opened my eyes to it as a whole industry that was possible for me to enter, and I realized it could be the perfect sweet spot marrying the arts with a whole lot more action, commerce, and wider audience reach.
Q. In what ways did you get involved in film while at school?
A. Right after that seminar, I switched my secondary field from History of Art & Architecture to VES Film Studies and looked for ways to get involved with film via extracurriculars. I was already planning to study abroad my junior fall though, and because of the extracurricular structure and comping schedule at Harvard I was a bit late on that front. So I focused on maximizing my study abroad time with film classes at Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle, and when I returned to campus I landed at HUTV, where I spent the next year and a half planning events for guest speakers and helping to grow the relatively new organization. And I continued activities I had previously been involved with that weren't explicitly film related, but still relevant like producing the dance section of Arts First weekend and working as a tutor at the Writing Center. I also joined Harvardwood, which led to a fantastic summer internship at FilmNation in NYC. There I learned a lot more detail about different models of film production... and also learned that I hated living in New York! It was LA or bust after that.
Justin Walker White AB '10 is Harvardwood's new Director of Programs and Business Development! Justin started his career in management consulting, before pursuing his passion of acting more seriously and receiving his MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating, Justin maintained his consulting career while acting in television and theater, and works on a myriad of projects today.
Q. What childhood experiences—whether you recognized it at the time or not—influenced your passion for acting?
A. I certainly didn’t recognize it. I had a few opportunities to act as a young kid and rejected them. Later, a friend at Harvard even asked me to audition for a show, and I shunned that too. I recall saying to them, “why would I memorize lines for no class credit?!?” Funny that I’ve easily spent hundreds of nights up late memorizing lines since 2014. Life's crazy.
My experiential connection was certainly through watching stand-up comedy. I vividly remember wanting to be a stand-up as a kid — never an actor. I made a (false, some would say) distinction in my head. I also remember being entirely too scared to try it. I finally tried in 2013, just as the acting bug caught me. I started with a stand-up class on Groupon, which should tell you all you need to know about how that went down.
My deep connection to—and passion for—acting, both dramatic and comedic, became apparent to me as a grown man, swimming around in corporate America.
Q. Why did you choose Harvard? Did you do any acting on campus?
A. I chose Harvard for the challenge. I knew the environment would impact me greatly. I visited on my own, and was ready to be done with what I felt at the time was a rough process.
I did no acting at school whatsoever. If you would’ve told me before my senior year that I’d be an actor 10 years later, I’d have laughed it off. It just wasn’t on my radar. Strangely, though, I wanted to be a sportscaster at the time, even interning at the NBA in Live Production. I didn't pursue it seriously enough, feeling I "had to" go into business. Part of the reason I’m so involved with Harvardwood is because I want to enable young grads and their networks to enter the entertainment industry and truly be set up for success. Or, at least, meaningful exposure, or even informed failure. I’ve experienced all three.
Poet Eleanor Boudreau AB '07 is a Kingsbury Graduate Fellow at Florida State University, where she is currently completing her Ph.D. Her first book, Earnest, Earnest?, will be published on September 8th; the book has also won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Boudreau's work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House, Barrow Street, and other journals. Follow Boudreau on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!
Q. When did you first start writing and then decide to pursue writing as a career? Did your experience as an undergrad at Harvard factor into that decision?
A. I took my first poetry writing workshops at Harvard. I had wanted to take classes like that in high school, but they hadn’t been offered. The only problem was, at Harvard, you had to apply to get into the creative writing classes—you had to submit a number of pages of poetry—and I didn’t have any poetry to apply with. What I did have was a notebook where I’d written down images. It was mostly filled with things I’d seen while driving. I would drive with the notebook open on the passenger seat, then when I saw something I wanted to record, I would describe it in words in the notebook without ever taking my eyes off the road. I’m righthanded. Had I been lefthanded, this likely would not have been possible. Even so, my handwriting was atrocious. But I could read it. I typed up a few pages from my notebook and inserted line breaks, and it was good enough to get me into the beginner poetry workshop with D. A. Powell my first semester at Harvard (fall of 2003). I learned a great deal in that class and I wrote a few things that could more properly be called poems. I used those poems to apply and get into more poetry workshops.
By Woojin Lim AB '22
Joey Siara EdM '14 is a screenwriter who has worked on series for ABC, CNN, and Discovery. His short fiction, “The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” was recently featured on Slate Magazine. Before receiving his Master's in Education from Harvard University and MFA from UCLA, he played in indie rock band, The Henry Clay People, performing at Lollapalooza and Coachella. He is a writing instructor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television at UCLA.
Q. Your latest short story on Slate “The Last of the Goggled Barskys” tells of a Black Mirror-esque dystopian science fiction about smart goggles that project user tasks for optimal satisfaction. When and why did you decide to tell this story?
A. I had never written short fiction prose before but got the opportunity to pitch a few stories to Slate, and they were all supposed to revolve around how we will navigate potential future technologies. I remember doing a a call with their editors, and I think there were even a couple legit scientist-types in the meeting, and then I started pitching a story about smart goggles leading to this embarrassing moment where one of the characters publicly poops their pants. I immediately felt the shame of pitching what amounted to an extended poop joke to a bunch of credible literary folks, but was relieved to hear some laughs on the other side of the line. Pairing a social critique about how we navigate technology with the lowbrow of bodily function humor hopefully made an interesting read.
While writing the story, I was nervous about my abilities in prose fiction since I had only ever written scripts and a few nonfiction pieces. Part of this insecurity came from being a fan of writers like Ted Chiang or Jennifer Egan or Tom Perrotta—it’s hard to feel competent writing anything when you’re a superfan of other writers who operate at such a high level. I had to cut myself some slack and eventually made peace with writing something that was just entertaining to me. Though I struggled to get moving, I ended up having a ton of fun writing it— once I was able to get out of my own way.
By Lucy Golub AB '20
Carly Hillman AB '15 is a segment producer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Originally from Pennsylvania, her interest in news led her to an internship with The Colbert Report. Since graduating from Harvard, she has worked on The Late Show.
Q. Let’s start with an introduction. Could you tell me about your background, where you’re from, and what you’re doing?
A. My name is Carly, and I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I went to Harvard obviously, which is why I’m doing this interview! I now work at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as a segment producer for the guest interviews.
Q. Could you tell me more about your current role as a segment producer for The Late Show—what does that entail?
A. I work as a segment producer specifically on the guest interviews. Once a guest is booked on the show, I’ll get assigned probably a few weeks out. And there’s basically two parts of producing a guest interview. The first part is the actual substance of the interview, so we’ll do a pre-interview with the guest on the phone where we talk about the interview with Stephen, what’s going to happen. Then we have a meeting with Stephen to talk about it with him.