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.
By Woojin Lim AB '22
Renee Zhan AB '16 is a director and animator who uses dark, visceral images to explore the ugliness of beautiful things. She has participated and won awards at numerous film festivals, including the Jury Award for Best Animated Short at Sundance Film Festival. A native of Houston, Texas, Zhan received her Master of Arts at the National Film and Television School in London.
Q. Let’s talk about your background. How did you start out in animation and what made you stay?
A. Growing up, I started out by doing paintings and drawings, and watching a lot of movies. I felt that animation was the perfect marriage. In college, I took a freshman seminar on animation run by Ruth Lingford. It was so different from what I expected it to be. In our first class, I was expecting to watch Finding Nemo, but we watched these crazy old Russian shorts, such as Hedgehog in the Fog. I was so confused, but I loved it. It just felt like magic to me—drawing a bunch of things in a row and suddenly they’re moving.
I also liked how much time animation took. When I started, I liked things that I can just draw while watching TV for hours and not think, doing a repetitive process. I no longer enjoy that because it takes so long. I’m considering my next move into live-action. I did a stop-motion film at the end of NFTS, and I was just in a dark room by myself for 7 months. So I definitely have a love-hate relationship with animation.
Join us in congratulating Luke Gardiner, currently a junior at The Hotchkiss School! The aim of the Harvardwood Prize is to recognize and celebrate the artistic accomplishments and potential of high school students who exemplify our mission. Given Harvard University's robust arts communities and arts education opportunities, the Prize is meant to encourage high school students to apply to Harvard College and is awarded annually to a high school junior (rising senior) who will apply for admission to Harvard in the upcoming fall and who has demonstrated excellence in their dedication to the arts, media, and entertainment and its power to enact positive social change.
By Joel Kwartler AB '18
Sean O’Keefe AB ‘95 is a writer and producer who most recently wrote Netflix’s Spenser Confidential, an action-thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg. It premiered on Netflix March 6th and was the #1 most-watched US Netflix film the week after its release.
Q. You worked as a producer before becoming a feature writer. How did you make that transition?
A. It was just a delayed awareness, unfortunately, because I wish I'd gotten an earlier start writing and had been able to bear-hug it sooner. When I moved to L.A. after college, I wrote two terrible scripts, but then I was on the producing executive track for an extended period of time. Eventually, I started my own production company.
At that time I started writing again, really out of tortuous necessity. There was this one project in particular that I knew only one writer could sell as a pitch, and we wouldn’t get him for a thousand years. So I started writing again, because as a producer, I needed a script to produce. I kept writing for features after that, and I finally acknowledged that I was a writer.