Two by Two with Megan Goldstein, AB '05, and Robert Kraft, AB '76
Harvardwood is pleased to launch Two by Two, an occasional Q&A from two alumni who interview each other. Our participants are longtime Harvardwood volunteer Megan Goldstein (Vice President, Film & Television Music at BMG) and Harvardwood Advisory Board member Robert Kraft (musician, producer and former President of Fox Music) who discuss music, creativity, and the gift of no and the curse of yes.
These are highlights from that interview.
Megan Goldstein: The first thing I want to bring up is that I remember you speaking in one of my classes at Harvard. The class was Broadway-focused on writing and creative and the music industry through Broadway. I don't know if this is ringing any bells for you.
Robert Kraft: Totally ringing bells! I also remember telling the story at the beginning of class, which is kind of appropriate for us to kick off this conversation. It was ironic for me to be the guest speaker at a class at the Harvard music department. As a Harvard freshman, I had wanted to be a music major because I was a musician, full stop. I had thought about going to different schools but got into Harvard. My brothers said, “If you get into Harvard, you go,” but it didn't change what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in music and in the music department. And to get into the music department, you had to audition for Elliot Forbes, who was the chairman at the time, may he rest in peace.
I went to my audition, and though I had written songs and been in a band since I was in fifth grade, I was asked to read a Bach Prelude. I was a terrible sight reader. I started to read and fumble through, and Mr. Forbes said, “You know, let's just stop.” I told him that I was there to focus on my interests, which are Black American artists. I loved Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Muddy Waters, and I loved the Rolling Stones who played Willie Dixon songs. When I started to tell him how much I wanted to study that, he said, “You're in the wrong place. The music department's not for you.”
Thankfully, I was taking a freshman seminar in visual and environmental studies, and I was really happy to be admitted to that department. Fortunately, things have changed. White Eurocentric teaching is dead and buried, and now there's a Quincy Jones Chair of African-American Music at Harvard.
MG: That’s a pretty upsetting story. I do think it has changed, or at least started to change. That said I also found it was a bit of a struggle to find the right place to study what I was hoping to study. I was a double concentrator, anthropology and music, not because I had any interest in anthro, but because I was very interested in film. I went to film school afterwards for grad school at USC, but at Harvard, all the film-related classes were in anthropology. So I ended up in this concentration, which I had no interest in, because all the classes that I wanted to take were housed there. But to speak to diversity of perspectives in the music department, I definitely think I had a better experience than you did. One of my favorite classes in the music department was on Middle Eastern instruments like the actual technical writing and playing of these instruments. It was one of the best classes I took while I was there. We had to learn to play them a little bit. It was awesome. Looking back, I feel there was a lot of interesting classes that were pretty great.
RK: That’s really the exact opposite of my experience. In this way, you were exposed to non-European music. There's a recent academic debate – of which I couldn't possibly quote all the pros and cons – that music theory is racist. It's kind of been flaming online for a couple years that there's a professor who is very much in favor of the idea that if you're going to be in a music department, you need to understand Eurocentric music. Then there's this kind of counterpoint to that, which is exactly what you did, which includes micro tones and Middle Eastern music and whole other traditions.
I really loved my time at Harvard. I played exactly the music I wanted to play. And hearing what you did, you solved the problem. In my junior year in visual and environmental studies, I wrote a paper on Leonard Bernstein’s score for On the Waterfront – that's about as close as I came to film music – and how it was kind of the antecedent to West Side Story, which Bernstein wrote it in 1956. But I didn't have any clue that film music is where I'd end up. I thought it was just a cool thing to write about. I then went on to start a band in New York and just do what I wanted to do, which was trying to be Led Zeppelin. Which didn't work out.
MG: Well, in your defense. it worked out okay!
RK: You went from music and anthropology; you could have ended up following in the steps of Margaret Mead.
MG: I didn't want to at all. In fact, I remember as I went through the anthropology department really hating anthropology! Like you and I think so many people, when I got into Harvard, I didn't expect it to happen. I, too, was going to go to NYU, to New York, and do music and film. That's where I wanted to be. And then this thing happened to me. So I thought, I’m going to go there, because I guess that's what you do when this happens to you. When I got there, I thought I needed to be a history major and “get serious.” Everybody does that when they arrive, they forget about what they want to do and who they are because they're in this place that's scary and serious and smart or something. I had always been a musician. I always played in bands. I also studied classically, but jazz was what I really liked in high school.
After I arrived at Harvard, I thought, “My extra credits will be music and theater and dance and film. but I will study straight.” I was unhappy, and I hated it. I also came from a high school where I had to take some remedial classes, like writing, because I didn't come to Harvard ready the way I should have, and I was miserable. I thought, “What am I doing?” And I just switched to music. And I just loved old film, the history of film. It was just my whole thing. And Harvard had nothing. Now they have a film major ...
RK: Sort of, I think it’s part of the visual environmental studies.
MG: Yes, but I think they have something more focused that they didn't have when I was there, more film centered, because they didn't have anything at all, really. Once I decided what I was going to do, it was like no one could stop me. I just found the classes and made the major be what it was going to be. I took the classes that I loved in anthropology, the film classes, I took this Brazilian documentary film related to literature class, just incredible classes that were really small. They were the best part of my whole academic experience.
I appreciated the music theory classes and all the piano, too, because I had always been a musician. But my theory background was somewhat limited. The piano was really good for me. I came out being able to conduct, write and arrange music in a much more sophisticated way. It allowed me to have church gigs, write music and be a band member in a more supportive and integral way than I had been going in. So it all kind of worked out. But it was a long process of figuring out that you just kind of have to do what you want to do. Which is, for some reason, really hard. Sometimes.Read more
Exclusive Q&A With Winnie M Li AB’00 (Writer, novelist, activist)
Winnie M Li AB’00 is an author and activist based in London. Last year, her second novel, Complicit, sold in a hotly-contested five-way auction to Simon & Schuster in a major two-book deal — and it will be out on August 19, following its UK publication in June. Inspired partly by the #MeToo movement and partly by her time working in the film industry, Complicit follows on from the success of Winnie’s award-winning debut novel Dark Chapter (which was a fictional re-telling of her own real-life stranger rape). In this interview, Winnie discusses her two novels, her activism, and her career as a creative. (You can pre-order Complicit here.
Q. A lot has happened since your first novel, Dark Chapter, was released. Can you share a little bit about the impact the book has made?
A. It's funny, because I often don't have that moment where I sit back and look at everything, because you’re always just trying to move on to the next project or keep working until you get the next book written. For me personally, I've wanted to be a writer my entire life from the age of six. So being able to finally get that first novel out there, and have it reach that many people was amazing. It takes a lot of work to write a novel - not just the process of writing it but also querying and trying to acquire an agent and a publisher. And maybe, for me, it took something which was that personal, that deeply rooted in my own experience, which also tied to my own activism and my own beliefs, to fire me up and get me through that whole process.
I wrote Dark Chapter, unwittingly, as a suspense novel. I suppose I used suspense and crime fiction as a template to capture that experience moving back and forth between the victim and the perpetrator’s perspective. It was published as crime fiction and nominated for the Edgar Award. Eventually, it was translated into ten languages and right now I’m adapting it into a screenplay.
The whole project was even more emotionally loaded for me because my own personal experience was at stake, on top of the usual anxiety any writer has about getting a publishing deal. I obviously wrote the book to address the issue of sexual violence, which I feel like has often been misunderstood, or misrepresented. What probably means the most to me is I've had other survivors share with me they felt I was capturing elements of their own experience, too. Hopefully, somebody who hasn’t been through that experience can kind of vicariously understand the impact that trauma has on the victim’s life, through reading the book.
Q. Has your reaction to survivor stories changed as you get further away from the incident?
A. Certainly, and a lot of it's about the professionalization of working around this issue. In the beginning I was quite open with my friends about what happened. But the first time I spoke with journalists about my experience, I was incredibly nervous. Now I’m quite used to speaking to the media and I give public talks. So that kind of emotional power and anxiety and trauma about sharing your issue publicly is no longer there for me. Every time I hear another woman or man share their story, it’s incredibly powerful. I recognize that it took something for that person to share it. Every once in a while, I will hear a story that just knocks me sideways. It can get quite heavy and at the end of the day, I'm not actually a trained counselor. I think many other survivors who are activists also find they get a whole lot of disclosures and stories coming to them, and it can get emotionally exhausting. And yet at the same time, that is why we're telling our stories to begin with: to have that kind of open dialogue.
Q. Your new book, Complicit, touches on the #MeToo movement’s impact on the entertainment industry. What made you want to explore that for your second novel?
A. Initially I was reluctant. Dark Chapter came out in 2017 and then the Weinstein allegations happened that October. My hardcover had just come out in the U.S. and I was in the thick of promoting it, when all this stuff about Weinstein started happening. Every time there was a new allegation in the Hollywood Reporter, I would be clicking on the headline. There was a buzz in the air, it sounds horrible, but there was so much stuff happening, and so many headlines coming one after another.
Around that time, I met up with my then literary agents, who told me a lot of editors were asking about my next book. I had an idea for a historical novel I wanted to work on. They said ‘well you know, historical is good, but at this point you're quite well known for writing about contemporary feminist issues, would you be interested in writing about what’s happening in the moment, since you're quite well placed as a survivor and also as somebody who's worked in film?‘ And my reaction at first was “Oh, man, I don't know.” But finally, I said yes, but I can only do this if I can think of a way to structure the book that is interesting for me, where it's not just about sexual violence, but also about the broader film industry and the broader power structures that govern our workplaces.
There’s #MeToo in the story, but it’s mainly about a young woman who wants to make it in the film industry. She doesn't want to appear on screen, she wants to work behind the scenes. I felt you don't often see that in fictional narratives about the business. It starts with her being contacted by the New York Times to ask her some questions about her former boss, a famous male producer who she worked for 10 years earlier. This causes her to reflect on what happened 10 years ago, and how she got started in film. I wanted to explore that a bit, but also write it by creating suspense in terms of a larger news story that is also breaking in the present day.
I wasn't really intending to write a crime novel again, only to use suspense to draw the story out, but now I find that the book is being marketed as crime fiction. I never actually saw myself as writing in that genre. But now both of my books have been published like that. It’s fine, it's a huge genre. It's a lucrative one. But it also was something I never really expected.
Q. Since the beginning of the movement, so many high-profile individuals throughout the entertainment and media industries have been affected by these stories, in many cases losing their jobs. What will it take to finally eliminate these types of power dynamics from the workplace?
A. In the ideal world, equal distribution of wealth across gender. As an artist I don't want to say it comes down to money. But if you look at the film industry, it's about money! Complicit explores that. I remember what it was like to be a producer thinking ‘Oh, I just need to find another half a million to make this film happen’ and where is that money coming from? Men are traditionally the ones who make the decisions - the ultimate casting decisions, who decides to greenlight projects, and they are the ones who have the money to begin with to be able to finance projects. That creates a whole power structure in terms of what projects are allowed to happen and who could be leading those projects. As you go further and further up the corporate ladder, you still get more men in power positions. I wanted to explore different hidden ways in which opportunities are given to men that aren't given to women.
50 Years After the Kerner Commission: Can Entertainment Inspire a New Will?
Over 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission was created by President Lyndon Johnson following protests in more than 150 American cities against racism and inequality. The panel members concluded that it's "time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens," yet the policy work remains unfinished because we have not fully achieved what the commission called "new will" from the public.
On February 23rd, Harvardwood joined The Norman Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Trustees of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, and the Writers Guild of America for an online discussion on these challenges. The lively conversation featured distinguished panelists Kenya Barris, Tara Duncan, Franklin Leonard (AB '00) and Elle Johnson (AB '86), and was moderated by Jelani Cobb. The event also featured welcome remarks from Marty Kaplan (AB '71), Director of The Normal Lear Center, special remarks from Alan Curtis (AB '65) of the Eisenhower Foundation, and producer Norman Lear.
Harvardwood extends our deepest appreciation to the panel and to our partners in the presentation of heartfelt discussion of how the humanities and the arts can better amplify, visualize and reinforce the policy priorities of the 1968 Kerner Commission.
You can view the recording of the event HERE.
Exclusive Q&A With Gregg Hurwitz AB '95
Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times, #1 internationally bestselling author of 23 thrillers, including the Orphan X series, and two award-winning thriller novels for teens. His novels have won numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been published in 33 languages. Gregg currently serves as the Co-President of International Thriller Writers (ITW).
Gregg has written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios (including Sweet Girl and The Book of Henry), and written, developed, and produced television for various networks. He is also a New York Times bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for AWA (Knighted), Marvel (Wolverine, Punisher) and DC (Batman, Penguin). He has published poetry, numerous academic articles on Shakespeare, taught fiction writing in the USC English Department, and guest lectured for UCLA, and for Harvard in the United States and internationally. In the course of researching his thrillers, he has sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs, swum with sharks in the Galápagos, and gone undercover into mind-control cults.
Additionally, Gregg is actively working against polarization in politics and culture. To that end, he's produced several hundred commercials which got over a hundred million views on digital and TV platforms, and won multiple American Advertising Awards (Addys) for creative digital political commercials. His editorial pieces have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Bulwark, and others.
Q. When we profiled you in 2016, you had just released your first novel in the Orphan X series. Your 7th, Dark Horse, is being released in a couple of weeks. How has your protagonist Evan Smoak changed over time, and how have you?
A. Evan develops in tandem with me. Whatever I’m contending with in my personal life or in the socio-political landscape (in my pro bono political work) he seems to find his way into, albeit in more violent fashion. The further I get in my career, the more my writing and my own life become aligned, where I’m dealing with reflections of the same issues and trying to answer the same unanswerable questions in fiction and in reality.
Q. Is the series still in development?
A. No. I’m pulling Orphan X back for now and waiting for a piece of talent I admire to come with a creative approach that makes sense. I’ve decided I don’t want to actively try to sell it – I want to find a connection with someone who already knows the series and has a notion of how to bring it to life.
Q. You have written compellingly about how thrillers can serve up a positive archetype of masculinity that is based on the hero myth, something that is hardwired into our culture. Why are these stories important?
A. In many regards, crime fiction has replaced the social novel. Thriller and mystery writers can reach an incredibly broad audience to challenge notions of power and identity, place and character, social inequality and injustice. And our protagonists exist to shape chaos into order, no matter how painful that process may be.
Q. Toxic masculinity has been more conspicuous than ever, from the Navy SEALs to the White House. Yet popular action heroes are more vulnerable and open these days, even James Bond. You set out to make Evan Smoak vulnerable emotionally from the beginning of the series. Have you ever gotten pushback for that approach?
A. No. I’ve only received positive input about that. I think it’s because Evan still exhibits appropriate mercilessness when he must. He’s not afraid to use brutality and force. But only when necessary. And he was raised to be a blue-collar gentleman.
Exclusive Q&A With Abigail Hing Wen AB '99
Where are They Now?
We caught up with Abigail Hing Wen (AB ’99) to see what she has been up to since releasing the New York Times best-selling novel, Loveboat, Taipei. The sequel, Loveboat Reunion, will be released by HarperCollins on January 25th. Ms. Hing Wen is executive producing the book-to-film adaptation of the first novel with ACE Entertainment, creators of the Netflix franchise, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She and her work have been profiled in Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, NBCNews, Bloomberg, Google Talk and the World Journal, among others.
Q. So much has happened since we profiled you in January 2020. You’re now a New York Times bestselling author. How does that feel?
A. Oh, boy. It's unbelievable. I wrote in obscurity for 10 years before Loveboat, Taipei was sold to an editor.
When I came out here to Taipei for the shoot and was introduced to the production team in their office, there were about 30 of them sitting around a big conference room table. Someone said, ‘this is Abigail, the author’, and I said, ‘I'm so grateful for all of you’. And then they applauded. That's when I realized how much this movie meant to them. Not only as a cool job, but they were working on a movie about themselves.
That was a huge moment for me because representation has been such an important part of the work that I've done in all my professions. I went to law school because I cared about social justice. I've tried to pursue it in my various avenues; I did work in economic development, microfinance, and venture capital thinking about implicit bias and the under representation of women and minorities, and now I'm addressing it through my stories. To also see the behind-the-scenes jobs that are being created by my book was an incredible moment.
Q. Have alumni of the Loveboat program reached out to you to share their own stories?
A. I actually did this little mini tour before my book came out where I had various Loveboat reunions around the country. I got to meet all kinds of Loveboat alumni. The earliest back I met was someone who'd gone in the 80s – the program has been around since the 1960s. The most recent was someone from 2013. It was fascinating to meet them. First, it's a very selective program, and the alum are incredible. Second, Loveboat was an opportunity to heal in terms of our understanding of ourselves as people between cultures. A lot of us had grown up without many Asian Americans and being made fun of or seeing our parents discriminated against. There was a lot of pain that came with that. By going on a program like Loveboat, you got a chance to meet other Asian Americans.
And for me, you know, this is something I wrote about in the book — that opportunity to just have that cultural experience was incredible. I think that healed us and made us stronger people, and able to bring our full selves to the table. The third aspect was this rebellion piece of Loveboat – it’s known for all these kids seeking out clubbing and really letting loose for the summer. But I think those are important skills to have in corporate America, because it taught us to buck that system a little bit more in a way that was healthy for us to grow as leaders.
Q. How did the project come together?
A. The scouts found my book pretty quickly after my book deal. I had had a number of agents and publishing houses bidding for the book. So it went to auction, it sold for what's called a major deal and there was a lot of buzz around the book. My film manager also shared the book. We talked to a lot of producers, and they presented different visions of it. I ended up choosing Ace Entertainment, the To All the Boys team, because I loved what they’d done with Jenny Han's work. The cinematography was gorgeous and I loved that they kept the Korean American girl character, in a time when main characters like her were still being changed to white because people believed mainstream audiences wouldn’t otherwise connect with them. But Jenny Han stuck to her guns and it proved it right. So that was important to me, to have a team that was willing to do that.
Q. How did it feel adapting your own work for the screen? Did you see it as an opportunity to tell the story slightly differently?
A. I love how every medium is different. One of the criticisms of the book was that it didn't have enough of Taipei. I think that's legitimate. I had to cut out some descriptions because the book is already too long. With the film you can fully show the city itself. I’m also excited to bring out the dance elements of the novel. Ever Wong loves to dance, as I do, and there’s a lot of dancing in the book. I actually danced a lot when I was writing, because it helped me to understand my character, and that is an element that we can also showcase.
Exclusive Q&A With Sean Presant AB '93
Sean Presant AB '93 is an award-winning writer, producer, and director whose work spans film and TV, comedy and drama. A firm believer that stories can change the world, Sean also co-founded Writers Action, a messaging organization that teaches effective storytelling and connects Oscar and Emmy winning writers with political candidates and non-profit humanitarian groups.
Q. What did you study at Harvard, and how did that inform your career?
A. I started Harvard thinking I wanted to be a journalist. I wrote for The Crimson and Harvard Magazine and I interned at The LA Times. That was going to be my path. I wanted to take film classes, though, and, at the time, that meant you had to be a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator. So I concentrated in History and Literature and Visual and Environmental Studies. My diploma has a ridiculous number of 'and's on it. The big discovery for me, though, was that as much as I loved the written word, I loved the combination of the written word and visual imagery more. If I went into journalism, I had to choose between the two. Film let me do everything I loved. There was something else about Harvard, though, that was more crucial. Harvard, in any concentration, really pushes its students to look for the bigger picture. This is crucial in film in TV. I can’t tell you how many times on every project we’re asking, “What is this project really about?" It's a question of thematics, and it's often the most difficult thing to pin down. Harvard was excellent training for that, even if it does occasionally make decisions about which sandwich to order into an existential questioning of our place in the universe.
Q. You won the Harvardwood Writers Competition for your scripts Mental Case and A Situation (Comedy). Can you speak about what happened with those projects next?
A. Mental Case went into development with a production company at Warner Brothers, and both of those scripts helped me get other writing work. A Situation is a script I still love. It’s floating around out there looking for a producer who wants to do a political parable that’s also an accidental musical.
Q. What projects are you working on now? What are you most excited about?
A. I have a movie coming out hopefully next year that I did with one of my Harvard classmates, Sumalee Montano, called The Deal. I'm excited for people to see that. It was a special film, both in subject matter and because It was a collaboration with a close friend I’ve known since sophomore year. We shot it in Serbia and there were a lot of times on set when I would look over and remember us all hanging out in the Winthrop House dining hall and think, “would any of us have imagined back then that someday we’d be making a movie together halfway around the world?” She’s fantastic in the film, by the way. Her performance is heartbreaking. Besides that, there’s a big disaster film and a couple new series in the works. Stay tuned.
Q. How was your experience writing for ‘Instant Mom’ and ‘Happily Divorced’ which addressed modern family dynamics within the traditional sitcom structure?
A. Amazing. I love doing multi-cam sitcoms. That's the kind with a live audience. It's like putting a play up once a week, and, for a writer, especially in comedy, it's gratifying to see people react to your words in real time. I’ve had a strange career in that I’ve now been in every genre, and if anyone asks what the most fun format is to produce, I’ll say, without question, it’s multi-cam sitcom. It’s also a great format for addressing modern family dynamics because it looks so familiar. The shows feel comfortable and traditional, so you're able to speak about things that are not comfortable or traditional and your audience will go along for the ride--provided you're being funny. If the jokes don't land the audience will want to do you physical harm. You also have to be emotionally truthful. Audiences can sniff out dishonesty. In both shows we were talking about less traditional family structures, but showing that, at the end of the day, family is family and love is love. Instant Mom is one of those little gems of a show. We did 65 episodes and now, whenever I see people I worked with there, it’s genuinely like seeing family.
Exclusive Q&A With Anne Sawyier AB '12
Anne Sawyier is a coordinator on the TV Team at Verve Talent & Literary Agency. Born in Chicago, she earned her AB in art history and Arabic at Harvard, an MSt from Oxford in art history, and an MFA in film producing from the American Film Institute. She focuses on literary and international talent. To learn more about Anne’s role at Verve, you can watch our recording of the Q&A session we held with her and partner Amy Retzinger HERE.
Q. How was your undergraduate experience at Harvard?
A. I loved it! I came in thinking I wanted to be a doctor on the Model UN team, and ended up a theatre kid with a degree in art history and Arabic so…filled with self-discovery.
Q. How did you feel Harvard prepared you for graduate school?
A. Academically, great; for dealing with boots-on-the-ground producing elements of an AFI degree, less so, but I also wasn’t expecting that from Harvard.
Q. How did you decide to pursue a career in entertainment?
A. Realizing that people worked on the TV shows and movies I watched all the time, then doing Harvardwood and learning the different ways I could fit into the business.
Q. What led you to Verve?
A. I studied art history at Oxford after Harvard, then moved out here to go to AFI. I realized I wanted a more office job than on-set job, and worked at Anonymous Content, Skydance, and Annapurna. I then realized that I wanted to move on from producing and that my favorite part of the process was matchmaking between a creator and piece of IP, and I was fortunate enough to have mentors that recommended I look into becoming an agent. I had worked with Verve at previous jobs and knew a few of the agents here and always liked their way of business, so I was excited when there was an opportunity not just to learn about representation, but to train to be an agent here.
Exclusive Q&A With Kalos Chu '23
Kalos Chu '23 is a junior at Harvard College studying English with a secondary in Art, Film, and Visual Studies. He’s a journalist and screenwriter interested in pursuing a career in feature animation. This past year, he interned at Nickelodeon Animation Studios and DreamWorks Feature Animation. Most recently, he helped found the On Campus chapter of Harvardwood.
Q. What inspired you to start Harvardwood on Campus?
A. This past year, I took a gap year and did a lot of work in the entertainment industry. I had to cold email many people and seek out tons of resources on what it takes to break in, and I realized that there weren’t necessarily that many Harvard resources where I could do that. There was OCS, and several upperclassmen that I knew of, but there wasn’t really a central place where people could get together and talk about these things with their peers.
And shortly after I started to break in, I did virtual Harvardwood 101, and I thought: "Wow! This is exactly what I was looking for! It’s everyone on campus who is somewhat interested in entertainment! Why doesn’t this group exist during the rest of the year?"
Shortly after that, someone from Stanford Students in Entertainment reached out to me and asked me to speak on a panel, and afterward I spent time speaking with their president and learned more about their on-campus group — which gave me the information and context for how to start a group like that at Harvard!
And even beyond all of the educational/logistical benefits, I think there’s value in having a place for peers to connect — to celebrate successes, to complain about failures, and to just have friends who are going through the same thing.
Q. How did you get interested in entertainment?
A. I came to Harvard wanting to study English, and sort of settled on one of two career paths - journalism or education. I had never considered entertainment seriously even though I really enjoyed movies, for the many reasons people don’t consider it: ‘it doesn’t make money’, ‘nobody can make it’, etc.
When the pandemic hit, it threw all my plans out the window. We were sent home, and it felt like the whole world was on pause. Also during this time, my father passed away from a five-year battle with cancer. There was a lot of turbulence, and it really made me reflect on what I valued and what I wanted out of life. And right at that time, I watched the Disney+ series Into the Unknown which is about the making of Frozen II — and I had this epiphany: “Oh my God, this is what I want to do with my life: I want to make animated films.” What struck me was how much everyone cared about what they did and the time and effort they put into the work and how much they enjoyed it. That was so infectious, and it made me realize that’s what I want to do.
Q. What did you do then?
A. I thought, "Okay, where the heck do I start?" I literally went through the credits of Frozen II, looked up everyone on LinkedIn, and cold emailed about 100 people! Something to the effect of “Hey, you don’t know me, but I would love to talk about your job for about 30 minutes on Zoom if you have time”. Of course, 90% of them ghosted me, but about 10% of them got back to me, and I got tons of helpful advice. I also talked to as many Harvard alumni in the industry as I could find, and listened to whatever podcasts/read as many books as I could. I just tried to learn as much as possible. Then, during my gap year, I interned at a few live action production companies in the fall, interned for Nickelodeon’s Creative Development department in the spring, and DreamWorks’ Feature Development department in the summer.
Q. What was your biggest takeaway from your DreamWorks internship?
A. Of course, I learned tons about the animation pipeline, about how the development process works, and what makes for good storytelling. But beyond all that, I also got to really understand a company’s culture. We were online the whole time, and it’s probably much harder to understand a culture virtually, but I think I was able to talk to a lot of people, not only in my department but from all corners of the company. From writers to recruitment to technical people, it gave me a sense of what kind of company DreamWorks is and how it’s different from other animation studios: How much people care about the community, why people come back and stay there for their entire career, and what they value.Read more
Exclusive Q&A With Uzo Ngwu AB '23
Uzo Ngwu is a rising junior at Harvard College, dual-enrolled at Berklee College of Music studying Art, Film and Visual Studies and Vocal Performance. She’s a multidisciplinary artist with focuses in illustration, film/animation and music, but also has interests in writing, acting and directing. Alongside her academic obligations, Uzo works as a freelance illustrator and some of her clients include Hulu, Freeform and MTV.
Q. What sparked your passion for animation, visual art and graphic design? Do you define yourself or identify more as one than the others?
A. My passion for visual art is one I’ve had since I was a child. In elementary school we made compliment booklets at the end of the school year, and I vividly remember one of the recurring compliments in my book being “I like your drawings.” All throughout middle and high school I was known as the artsy kid, probably because I always decorated my textbook covers and went above and beyond on creative projects. Despite my obvious love of visual art, it wasn’t until freshman year of college that I really started to develop my skills as a visual artist. I purchased my first iPad and used it as my primary tool for visual art. Drawing so frequently made me realize how much I love the craft, and it reignited my love for digital art and illustration.
Similar to my passion for visual art, my passion for animation started young. As a child, I loved watching animated films and TV shows and for a while I refused to watch media with “real people.” I’ve always loved watching animated media, but my passion for creating animated media didn’t come until much later. This passion was sparked when I had to create a short animation as a final project for the class Fundamentals of Animation. There was something so satisfying about bringing my ideas to life and telling a story through animation.
I strongly identify with all the art forms I engage with. I like to refer to myself as a multidisciplinary artist or a multi-hyphenate creative because I can’t be defined by just one medium.
Q. What do you study at Harvard, and how does that relate to your interests and aspirations?
A. At Harvard I study Art, Film and Visual Studies, which is perfect because it directly relates to my interests and aspirations. There are 3 tracks you can pursue within that concentration, and I’m pursuing both the Studio Art and Film/Video track. That means I get to take classes on subjects ranging from drawing to animation to narrative filmmaking. I also love how much freedom I have to explore my own specific interests within this department. Last semester I took a class called Directed Research, which was an independent study style class. I crafted my own syllabus and used class funding to purchase a 2D animation package.
Q. What are you most proud of that you’ve made thus far?
A. My sophomore fall I took the course Fundamentals of Animation and as part of my final project I made a short animation that was about 1 minute in length. I’m proud of this project because it’s the first narrative animated short that I’ve ever created, and the process of creating it made me fall deeply in love with the medium of animation. Not only does it hold significance as being my first short, but it’s also meaningful to me because I created a world where Black women can exist peacefully. Representation in animation is something I care deeply about, and I want to continue to create animated media that centers the experiences of Black women and girls. Additionally, my animation was received well by people on social media. On Twitter alone, the video has amassed over 900,000 views and got the attention of a director I greatly admire, Matthew Cherry.
Q. What are some challenges that you’ve encountered, perhaps with balancing time while still being enrolled at the college? Or have you taken (or at least thought about) time off?
A. Balancing school and my personal hobbies is a skill I’m still working on, but thankfully my major is centered around art so even when I’m not pursuing my own personal projects I’m still satisfying my creative desires through assignments and class projects. This question also just reminded me that freshman year I scheduled a recurring event on my Google Calendar that was labeled “DRAW.” I don’t think I ever really followed it, but I always did my best to make sure I was incorporating making art into my weekly schedule.
I have never taken time off, but it is something I’ve been thinking more about recently. Though the summer is a great time to pursue personal projects, I can only imagine how much more I could get done with a whole year dedicated to said projects.
Exclusive Q&A With Eric J. Cheng AB '20
Eric J. Cheng AB’ 20 is a Chinese American actor, writer, and producer based in LA. He recently was a part of the 24 Hour Plays: Nationals and acted in AFI thesis Cure. At Harvard, was a cast member of The Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
Q. When did you know you were a storyteller? What experiences in Michigan made you know you wanted to act?
A. I remember growing up and performing with kids in the family friend group—five girls who all danced and sang. I vividly recall performing in front of all the Chinese families every New Years and having the time of my life. It wasn’t until I approached high school though that I got to really act. When I was in eighth grade, I saw a production of The Drowsy Chaperone at my local high school, and I immediately fell in love. I promised myself that I would try to be a part of the troupe, so when I started freshman year, I took a leap of faith and auditioned. If I remember correctly, I got cast in a tiny role in the play Harvey but later got promoted to a slightly bigger role when the boy originally cast dropped out (or got kicked out— I can’t remember). After that, I kept at it, and with every production I fell in love even more.
Q. What has it been like transitioning from Harvard to LA, even part-time, as a recent grad? Can you talk about the journey to LA and what you've seen thus far in our increasingly remote (and changing) industry?
A. It’s been a crazy ride with ups and downs; I’m very thankful for it. My move to LA feels like it’s been a long time coming. I came to LA for the first time during the summer of 2019 to pursue an internship at MTV. I aimed to know once and for all if I really wanted to pursue this path after graduating. The summer served its function; I had gotten a taste of LA and the industry, and I left the city with the awareness that that I wanted to be a creative as an actor and writer.
Outside of coming to LA for few weeks or months at a time before going back home as the pandemic worsened, I’ve attempted pursuing an acting and writing career remotely— writing at home, taking Zoom classes, doing virtual performances— for the past year. Now that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic (fingers crossed) , I feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment being here. I’m finally able to shoot the project I’m working on and collaborate with other creatives.
I have a lot of hope for the industry with regards to representation. This past year has demonstrated that we need stories that reflect the state of our world. As someone who creates projects from the Asian and LGBTQ+ perspective, I feel a sense of excitement. Though I still get discouraged at times, I think that the change that we are seeing will only continue. In a way, I think that the shift towards more virtual processes has actually been conducive to this. There are new ways to tell stories and get one’s voice out that didn’t previously exist, and the need for content to be high-budget has dissipated. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of this (and one singular piece of advice that I’ve universally received), it’s that creating one’s own work and opportunity leads to positive outcomes. And in a time when people are looking for authentic, diverse, and new stories, I like to think that holds true now more than ever.
Q. For a young actor/writer/producer, how do you balance your days? What do they look like?
A. Often I still don’t know! I think I am still and will continue to be striking a balance; I feel like my day-to-day always changes. Usually though, my day starts after I knock out some tasks for my part time jobs. I try to prioritize writing at least four times a week, though in reality my inability to counteract distraction sometimes makes this an unmet goal. Other than that, I spend my days taking acting and improv classes at The Groundlings (which I’ve loved), filming tapes/doing auditions, trying to meet new people and collaborators, and producing the project that I’m currently working on.