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.
This month, we are catching up with Harvardwood Writers Program alum Michael Robin AB '08, who was selected to participate in the 2019-2020 WB Writers' Workshop! The Workshop is extremely selective, accepting only up to eight participants out of thousands of submissions yearly. Michael is repped by Zadoc Angell AB '03 of Echo Lake Entertainment.
Q. Did your Harvard experience play a role in your decision to become a writer?
A. When I was sixteen years old, I saw Charlie Kaufman’s Adaption and it blew my damn mind. I knew then that I wanted to become a screenwriter. But for years, this was a secret dream—I was scared that I wasn’t good enough to make it as a writer. During my junior year at Harvard, I finally enrolled in a playwriting class with Sam Marks. Sam’s encouragement, and the following year, the encouragement of my creative thesis adviser, Christine Evans, gave me enough confidence to believe that maybe I didn’t suck, and that maybe this writing thing could actually go somewhere.
By Hyejee Bae AB '20
Ben Zauzmer AB '15 is a Baseball Operations Analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers and also the author of Oscarmetrics: The Math Behind the Biggest Night in Hollywood. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Zauzmer studied Applied Math at Harvard with a focus in government, where he nurtured his trifecta passion for math, movies, and sports. During his freshman year at Harvard, he devised a statistical model that could calculate the chances a nominated movie would win the Academy Awards. When he’s not on the road with the Dodgers, he is busy utilizing his mathematical approach to forecast Oscar winners and sharing his statistical predictions on Twitter. In 2018, Zauzmer correctly predicted 20 out of 21 of the Oscar nomination winners.
Q. Let’s begin with a brief introduction. Starting from where you are from, to where you are now, could you give a short history of your life?
A. I’m from the Philadelphia area and I graduated high school in 2011. From there I went to study Applied Math at Harvard with a focus in government. My Oscars work got started my freshman year during the 2012 Oscars, and I graduated in 2015. Shortly thereafter I moved out to LA to work for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Q. What does your work at the LA Dodgers entail?
A. I work in Analytics. I was in the research and development department my first four seasons from 2015 to 2018. This means I did statistical modeling, trying to predict which players will be good, and then communicating this information to the general manager and other decision makers. This past season in 2019, I transitioned into the Baseball Operations department, which is the liaison role between the research and development folks and the players and coaches. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve always been a huge baseball fan and obviously, I’m a math fan as well. So, I’m very lucky that I was able to find a job that combines them.
Jack Riccobono AB '03 (The Seventh Fire, Killer) is a documentary filmmaker who produced upcoming feature Afterward, to be released January 10, 2020. Seen as a victim in Germany and a perpetrator in Palestine, Jerusalem-born trauma expert Ofra Bloch takes viewers on a deeply personal journey in order to make sense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See #Afterward in select theaters. afterwardthefilm.com/screenings. Be sure to catch a screening of Afterward in New York City or Los Angeles this month! (Photo by Helena Kubicka de Bragança)
Q. How did you become involved with Ofra Bloch's documentary, Afterward?
A. Ofra is a psychoanalyst whose work focuses on the transference of trauma between generations. She made several short films about survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, including one about her husband, the artist David Bloch, who is a child survivor. In 2012, Ofra realized she was passing down her fear and hatred of Germans to her own grown sons and felt compelled to confront that reality. She decided to make a feature documentary about 2nd and 3rd generation Germans — the descendants of perpetrators — and engage with how they learned to deal with the legacy of WWII. She was looking for a filmmaker who could help her realize the project and got referred to me through two different sources. So we met for a coffee and Ofra struck me as someone whose background, life story and professional experience put her in a unique position to explore this terrain on personal terms. At first, Ofra did not imagine herself and her own story being included in the film. But over time, and with encouragement from me and our editor Michael Palmer, Ofra embraced a hybrid personal documentary form, which ultimately led us to expand the scope of the film to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trace her personal history back to her childhood in Jerusalem.
That's a wrap on 2019, and it has been a joy to connect with Harvardwood members from over the years and spotlight 20 Alumni for Harvardwood's 20 Years. In case you missed the first three newsletters featuring Harvard alumni in the arts, media, and entertainment, you can revisit them here: 1 | 2 | 3
In this final installment, we're thrilled to feature several past Harvardwood Heroes—Athena Bowe AB '15, Shaun Chaudhuri AB '15, Megan McDonnell AB '14, and Rodney Sanders EDM '13—as well as our personal Harvardwood hero, Advisory Board member Jeff Melvoin AB '75 (Executive Producer, Killing Eve, Designated Survivor, Army Wives, Alias).
Happy New Year!
Perfecting Gifts is a 501(c)3 performing arts organization that gives talented youth a safe space for creativity. In June 2019, we held our annual Summer Camp, where we faced a host of challenges and successes.
Memphis is a music city. It’s the home of the Blues. The city was made famous by such musical luminaries as Elvis and Issac Hayes. So, the talent within the city is abundant. However, Memphis is also the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation. Therefore, many talented students who desire to participate do not have the financial means to pay for camp. Moreover, for some poor families, transportation is an issue. This year, we had two sisters who rode the bus two hours each way so that they could participate in camp that started at 9am each day. There’s always a balance between trying to serve as many students as possible, while having the funds to pay staff members, facility rentals, etc.
We are so grateful for the Harvardwood grant this year. We were able to accept approximately 35 students into Summer Camp, up from 30 students the previous year. Moreover, we were able to pay for costumes, lighting, and choreography. We were also able to have on-site musicians play while the students performed. For the remainder of the grant, we look to re-engage the same musicians but to perform for the students affiliated with social service organizations.
Our positive reputation and brand are growing. The true testament to our success is our student testimonies.
- Rodney Sanders (2019 Heroes grant recipient)
For the past four years we've had the pleasure of leading the Harvardwood Writers Program - TV Modules. During that time, we've had approximately 150 budding Harvard alum writers participate in weekly peer-review workshops (aka "modules"), various writer/exec/showrunner panels, mock pitching opportunities, and post-panel drinking hangs at our favorite watering holes, Stout and Trejo's Tacos. We always like to say HWP-TV provides two things: deadlines and community. The latter is what has meant the most to us—we've truly made lasting friendships and know that others have too. We can't stress enough how much we love our community and hope that it continues to expand and bring folks together.
By Stephanie Ferrarie AB '18
Reginald Hudlin AB '83 is in production with upcoming Disney+ feature, Safety, a drama based on the life of football player Ray McFirathbey. A writer, producer, and director, Hudlin has been nominated for an Academy Award and was the President of BET. Hudlin is also a Harvardwood Advisory Board member.
Q. What was your family life like growing up?
A. I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. There’s St. Louis, Missouri, then the Mississippi River, then it’s East St. Louis, Illinois which is a small town where I grew up. My dad was an insurance agent. My mother was an educator. I had two older brothers. You know, it was a small town, virtually all black, economically very depressed, culturally very rich. I had a wonderful childhood.
Q. How did you become interested in film?
A. We come from a family of story-tellers. All my uncles—I had five uncles on my dad’s side-- they all had different careers: some were military, some were businessmen, some were academics. We would get together at family gatherings and they’d tell stories and argue about politics.
Me and my friends, in addition to playing baseball and football, we would play “laugh in,” basically you would stand there and try to make the other people laugh, and you couldn’t sit down until you made the other people laugh and they would have to take your place. It’s a brutal comedy training process, because they’re trying hard not to laugh so you've got to overcome their willpower.
And what we found out after I was an adult, after I had entered the movie business, I actually had an ancestor, Richard Hudlin, who was a filmmaker at the beginning of the 20th century who made movies on the same mission as me and my brother would a century later. We just wanted to show a nuanced and realistic portrayal of black life.
To get you in the mood to celebrate Harvard's community in the arts, media, and entertainment, read these personal stories from five Harvardwood members—Kevin Boyle JD '00, Madeleine Dorroh AB '19, Eric I. Lu AB '09, MD '14, Kelley Nicole Purcell AB '02, and Julie Wong MPP '97. We're lucky to have them—and YOU—as part of the Harvardwood community.
It only makes sense when I look back on it. While growing up in Taiwan and then Texas, I discovered my love for storytelling through drawing comics. Things took a turn in college at Harvard when I majored in social anthropology and wrote ethnographies about drug addicts after living with them. My interest in addiction led me to matriculate at Harvard Medical School. At the same time, I started a Youtube channel with a mission to make videos for a good cause. To my surprise these videos went viral, amassing over 300 million views and giving me conviction that films and stories have potential for social impact. So upon graduating HMS, I decided to move to Los Angeles and pursue filmmaking full-time. That's when I discovered Harvardwood and joined their TV writing program, where I met some incredible people, wrote a pilot, and was named onto Harvardwood's Most Staffable TV Writers List. One month later, I was staffed as a writer on a Fox medical drama, THE RESIDENT, and signed with a manager and agent. I am grateful for Harvardwood and proud to be a part of this amazing community.
- Eric I. Lu (TV Writer, The Resident)