Index of Alumni Profiles

Browse a comprehensive list of all Harvardwood Alumni Profiles below, and find out who our regular Member Profile writers/interviewers are!

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Exclusive Q&A with Andrew Bujalski AB '98

Andrew Bujalski AB '98's first feature film, Funny Ha Ha, was called one of the most influential films of the '00s by New York Times critic A.O. Scott. He has also written and directed the films Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax, Computer Chess, Results, and Support The Girls which have played festivals worldwide including Sundance and Berlin, as well as the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The Boston Globe describes him as "unerringly polite and somewhat disheveled." He types 89 wpm.

Q: Congratulations on There, There's upcoming release! There, There was shot completely over quarantine, and the actors were never in the same room as one another. How did this affect your process as writer and director?

Well, it's an exceedingly perverse way of working--of course it affected everything. But it also seemed like a unique and special opportunity to make a movie about trust, and about faith. As "bubble" conditions became the norm in moviemaking--and indeed most professional production has always operated on "bubble" principles anyway--I figured we might as well push this thing to the max, lock everything all the way down, and see what connections we could still forge in limbo space. So I wrote with this all in mind. The movie essentially takes place in limbo.

The performers were set up in whatever city they were in, with a micro-crew between 2 and 4 folks, and minimal equipment that fit in one Pelican case, ready to be shipped to the next location. Myself, the d.p., producers, and others were all on Zoom. Despite best efforts we had imperfect monitoring of picture and sound...and all our communication had to be through the one Zoom channel--so if my d.p. was talking to the operator, I had to wait to talk to the actor. All quite cumbersome, but oddly not unpleasant to feel so united in our bafflement. And what immediately became clear to me was that all the insecurities and uncertainties that I was experiencing were entirely familiar. The fact is, even on a more conventional shoot, sitting at a state-of-the-art monitor with great headphones, I'm experiencing the same fear that I'm not processing the information quickly or sagely enough...So actually it was surprisingly normal for me.

Q: A quarantine movie was fairly ambitious. What was the inspiration for There, There, and what were the unforeseen challenges (aside from the obvious)? Do you feel this movie is quite different in any other ways from the films in your repertoire?

Undoubtedly, it was the bizarre situation we all found ourselves in in March 2020 that sent me down this path, but it's an experiment that would have appealed to me at any time, and really could have been done at any point in the last hundred years if anyone had been nutty enough to try it. To me it goes to the heart of the cinematic magic trick. Every edit is a kind of lie-in-service-of-a-truth. So it was exciting to think of pushing that in a way I'd never seen it pushed before.

Formally, visually, structurally, I'm on alien terrain with this project. But from a story perspective, I suppose I'm in my wheelhouse. Everything I've ever done has been about people trying to connect--succeeding, failing, and sometimes not knowing the difference. As always it all comes down to the performances, here from a crazy talented cast including Jason Schwartzman, Lili Taylor, and Harvard's own Jon Natchez ('99)!

Q: Do you feel that what you’ve done with this movie has sort of paved the way for a new type of filmmaking, or do you think we’ll continue to see movies made in this experimental, quarantine style?

Oddly enough I think the actors were all pretty accustomed to the kind of isolated performance they had to do here. Self-taping auditions at home is now the norm for working actors. And many have worked in the green screen world where their scene partners are tennis balls on C-stands. So in some sense we were just making a green screen movie without the green screen. But as for the particulars of our approach...I'd love to see someone else's take on it, of course, but no, I don't expect to set a trend here. Too weird!

Q: You’ve previously been dubbed “the godfather of mumblecore”. How do you feel about this title? What do you think it means? And how do you think mumblecore as its own style or genre has influenced the evolution of the film industry?

It's been fascinating to witness the lifespan of that word--my sound mixer Eric Masunaga said it as a joke to me in 2005, I made the error of repeating it to a journalist, and now it seems to have a reach much farther than any of my actual movies ever had. So I've kind of gleaned a definition for it just from context over time, but it took a while for me to get past the alienation of seeing it applied to my work as if it were an aesthetic style or anything anyone had consciously set out to create. Mostly I think it's just a kind of generational catch-all. Nirvana and Pearl Jam never sounded much alike to me but they were both "grunge" because they steered away from the mainstream pop that preceded them and wore flannel shirts. (I also like flannel shirts.)

Q: You’ve been credited as a writer, director, and editor for most of your projects, as well as appearing as an actor. Do you have a favorite, between the four? Why or why not?

It's all torment. At best, divine torment. At worst, just regular torment. Of course it's most gratifying when I get to see a project through from the first kernel of an idea to the final sound and picture tweaks. At that point I've also collected energy from dozens if not hundreds of brilliant collaborators along the way, and I never tire of enjoying their great work.

Q: Do you feel that your work has thematic elements, or messages, that you’ve consistently tried to either consciously or subconsciously incorporate?

Of course! I've tried running in many different directions but as Buckaroo Banzai said, "No matter where you go, there you are."

Q: Which film have you made that you’re most proud of? And which project taught you the most?

Irrational as it may be, I love them all.

Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?

Oh enormously. I was a VES kid and delightedly drank all the Kool-Aid the program had to offer. The hardest part of filmmaking, so often, is just seeing what's in front of your face (or camera) and knowing how to respond to it, so the strong verité documentary backbone there seemed great preparation for really any kind of filmmaking. VES trained me not to fear reality, which tends to seep into your frame no matter how much you bulwark against it.

Q: What’s one film you think everyone should see in their life?

Another impossible question! If you find one that moves your soul, you've done well.

Q: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

Feeling guilty that I'm not working.

Andrew's film There, There will be released on November 18, 2022.

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October 2022 | Susan Walter AB '91

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

“You have to walk toward the industry that’s opening its arms,” author and creative Susan Walter AB ‘91 says. That’s how she ended up as a bestselling author with a new book just out and two more in the works to come.
Over Her Dead Body is available for purchase as of today (!), and the story about how this book came to life is a bit… surprising. 

Just before the pandemic, Susan wrote a book on spec called Good as Dead. She tells us, “I wrote it because I was frustrated with the movie business after a good solid decade and a half of doing rewrites and selling specs that never got made. I hit a brick wall and just needed a break. So, I wrote this book for me.” Throughout the writing process, she secured a literary agent who shopped the book around until they got an offer. However, the publishing company’s offer was contingent on also getting a second book from Susan. “They said, ‘So, what’s your next book? We need a proposal by tomorrow,’” Susan recalls. “It took me nine months to write the first book, and I had to plot book two in 24 hours.” She had roughly one day to come up with the concept, plot, and characters of what would soon become Over Her Dead Body– easy, right? 

Armed with this challenge, Susan did what anyone would do: take her dog for a walk. “I was walking my dog by this one house that just excited my imagination,” says Susan. “Across from what was rumored to be Gwen Stefani’s house, enshrouded in barbed wire, there’s a ‘Keep Out: No Trespassing’ sign, and I always wondered who lived there. What if my dog wandered down that driveway, and I got to meet the person who lived there?” That initial train of thought was the jumping off point for Susan’s protagonist. “What if that person walking their dog was an actress, and the dog disappears, and she meets the owner of the house who turns out to be a casting director,” Susan explains, “The casting director offers to help her, and then of course dies, because it wouldn’t be a thriller without a dead body. Then what if the actress gets all the money left to her, and then the family descends on her?” This intriguing plot captured the publishing company, and Susan suddenly had a two-book deal. 

As someone who’s worn several different hats in her career, including director, screenwriter, and producer, how did Susan come to wear the author hat? “The kind of stuff I was writing, I don’t know if the [film] market got saturated, but I wasn’t writing what was selling at that moment,” Susan reflects. But she chose to view that not as a closed door, but a sign “that it was time to turn around and see what’s out there.” And she found that novel writing suited her. “It was fun writing a novel because it’s complete,” Susan says. “When you write a script it’s a blueprint for someone else to take it and mangle it. I got to see what I can do, without any other input. If screenwriters want the opportunity to write, to tell their story without anyone mucking it up, they should write novels. You’ll find out quickly if you really know how to write,” Susan laughs.Bros.jpg 

This wasn’t the only difference Susan noticed between screen and page. “The
easiest part [of the publishing industry] is the people,” Susan reflects. “Everybody that I encountered was crazy smart. They read for a living! Every note that I got was good. I never had to question a note under a note, like with screenwriting. At the end of the process, you have in your hands a book that you wrote, and nobody can take that from you.” When asked what the hardest part of writing a novel was, Susan tells us, “The movie business is so hard, there is no hardest part of the book industry. It’s very straightforward. It’s more of a linear process. Once you find a buyer, there are no surprises. When you write a screenplay and find a buyer, there are nothing but surprises.” Clearly, there’s quite a different energy from industry to industry. 

Susan began her career on the directorial track. “Directing is the best job in the world. It’s just really hard to get into the director’s chair. I’d love to do it again, but I want to be productive. There aren't that many movies getting made anymore. Plus movies aren’t story driven, they’re team driven. Nowadays, you need attachments. It’s not enough to have a good story. Even if you’re adapting a book, it needs to be a best-seller, internationally. You have to have a strong fanbase and history, or a star, or a proven showrunner. Books are story driven, and movies are package driven.” Her early directing days started at the DGA Assistant Director’s Program. “I wanted to be a news broadcaster, and I tried that at WBZ-TV, and they gave me a screen test and I was supremely terrible. They asked me to write, but it paid $5 a day. When I was a senior at Harvard, my dad said I couldn't move back home, so I applied for the DGA Assistant Director’s Program, and they train you to run movie sets.” 

Susan emphasizes that she “walked toward the profession that walked toward [her].” And this program was an incredible experience. “I worked on movie sets at a time when I couldn't have sat at a desk all day, for ten years. I was able to travel, and work with different people, and be creative,” Susan recalls. Eventually, the training from that very program led her to create what she says she’s most proud of in her career: writing, directing, and producing All I Wish, a romcom starring Sharon Stone. “I had to be a lot of different things, I had to be a writer, I had to direct the film, I took an acting class, I educated myself in a really rigorous way. It was gratifying because it put all the pieces of my career together - the set, writing and managerial experience, and taught me a new skill with the acting classes, and I also had to raise money for it, so I had to put on a financial hat.” 

When asked what advice she had for young creatives, Susan had these wise words to say: “Make sure your work is creatively fulfilling to you. People will tell you to have a brand and do it for the marketplace, but you make yourself really vulnerable to criticism if you’re only making it for other people. Creating for the joy of creating has to be enough.” Basically, if you’re doing something creative and you love it, “it’s a win-win. If you’re doing it to please somebody and they’re not pleased, then why did you do it?” 

Susan is already in production for her third book, Lie By the Pool, to be released fall of 2023. And she’s working on her proposal for book number four. When asked how she writes with such speed but with such masterful knowledge of a topic, Susan explained her secret weapon: “The Harvard Class of 1991 Facebook page. I scroll through all the members and find an expert in the subject, and everyone’s been really generous with sharing their knowledge. Harvard is an incredible resource.”  

Susan Walter AB '91 is an author and director known for her first novel Good as Dead and her film All I Wish starring Sharon Stone. Her most recent novel, Over Her Dead Body, is available for purchase now.


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong writing fellowship funded by Harvard in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she finished her first full-length play. Laura graduated from Harvard with a concentration in English, where she wrote a magna cum laude thesis about children’s literature. While at Harvard, Laura was the President of On Thin Ice, a member of one of the first female cohorts of performers in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and she acted in many American Repertory Theater and Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions. She is currently a writer for numerous publications, including Buzzfeed.

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Exclusive Q&A with Nikki Erlick AB '16

Nikki Erlick AB '16 is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Measure, which was selected as Jenna Bush Hager and The TODAY Show’s #ReadWithJenna Book Club pick, as well as the Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Translations of The Measure are forthcoming in 14 languages. Her writing has also appeared online with New York Magazine, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, and Vox Media. She graduated Harvard University summa cum laude and was an editor of The Harvard Crimson. She earned her master's degree in Global Thought from Columbia University.


Q: Your debut novel, The Measure, was an instant New York Times Bestseller after its release this past June. Why do you think the themes, characters, and storyline of your book are so resonant with readers? How do you feel your novel connects to society and the world around you?

I started writing this book at least a year before the onset of the pandemic, so it’s been quite powerful to see the way the story has resonated upon publication. Even from the earliest brainstorms in late 2018, I always intended for this novel to explore questions of how we value our own lives, how we value other people’s lives, how we want to spend our time, and what our priorities are in life. But those questions have taken on an even greater sense of relevance and urgency in light of recent global challenges, which has allowed the story to resonate in a much deeper way than I ever anticipated, and I’m incredibly grateful to every reader and bookseller who has recommended this book as a way to potentially reflect upon these difficult years.

Q: The premise for The Measure is fascinating: one day, a box appears on everyone’s doorstep containing the knowledge of the amount of time they have left to live. How did you come up with the idea? How did you know that was the idea you should follow through with when brainstorming?

I’ve always been drawn to big questions: How much control do we have in our lives? How much power do we have over our destiny? I wanted to see if I could tackle these big questions in the form of a story, because I’m someone who turns to stories to help me make sense of the world and navigate its many complexities. As I was wondering how to craft a story about something as complicated as destiny, I remembered the ancient Greek vision of fate. I was fascinated by the figures of the Three Fates, who had this immense power to spin the strings of life on their spindle and measure out the amount of time that each of us would receive. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if? What if we were able to see our strings? How would that impact our world? What would we do with that knowledge?

The decision to have the strings arrive in a box for each person came a little bit later, when I realized that I wanted people to have a choice of whether or not they would look at their string. Even if the characters’ fates are pre-determined in one sense, they still retain a sense of power and agency when it comes to choosing whether or not they wish to know, and then, of course, choosing how to use that knowledge. The box itself was inspired by another famous Greek myth—Pandora’s Box—as the ultimate test of willpower: Can you resist the temptation to look?

I knew this was the idea that I would stick with when I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, and all the potential characters and problems that could arise from this premise.

Q: Did you always know The Measure would be a novel, or did you play with other forms (screenplay, short story, etc.) initially?

My dream had always been to write a novel, and The Measure was actually my first attempt at a full-length manuscript.

Q: Your writing career spans across genres, not limited just to fiction. What type of writing is your favorite to do?

I received a crash-course in journalism as soon as I joined The Harvard Crimson, and I’m so grateful for the training I received in reporting, interviewing, writing, and editing. I’ve loved my assignments as a journalist and travel writer—exploring new corners of the world and meeting so many fascinating people—but writing this novel has been the most challenging and rewarding of all my experiences so far.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of writing a novel? What did you find was the easiest part?

I think the greatest obstacles, as a first-time author, were simply all of the unknowns and the accompanying self-doubt: Was this even a good idea for a story? Would I actually be able to complete a full manuscript? And if I did complete it, would anyone want to publish it? Writing a novel had been my dream for a long time, so there was a lot of fear and uncertainty as to whether this was, in fact, an impossible dream.

I’m not sure that any of it felt easy, but in those magical moments when the writing flowed smoothly, it certainly felt fun. And the whole process—from finishing the first draft to connecting with thousands of readers this past summer—has felt incredibly fulfilling.

Q: Who are your biggest writing influences?

Oh my goodness, there are too many to list! As a young reader, the works of Lois Lowry, Natalie Babbitt, Betty Smith, and Markus Zusak stand out in my memory, awakening my love of reading and showing me the many magical directions that a story can take, as well as the profound emotional impact of fiction. Two of my favorite contemporary authors are Ann Patchett—her style is beautiful, and her wide range of different tales is truly impressive—and Ted Chiang—his imagination is astonishing, and his short stories are deeply thought-provoking. But the greatest influence on my writing will always be my family, for inspiring me, supporting me, and encouraging me to pursue my passion.

Q: How do you feel that your time at Harvard prepared you for your career as a travel writer, a journalist, and now an author?

My time at Harvard gave me the incredible freedom to spend hours and hours immersed in books. I studied Comparative Literature, so I was exposed to a wide variety of literature from around the world, and my main extracurricular was writing for The Crimson. I spent four years constantly thinking about language, storytelling, structure, themes, and ideas. It was an excellent training ground in all forms of writing.

Q: What feedback or review have you received for The Measure that’s been the most exciting to you?

It was quite thrilling to see my novel featured in the New York Times Book Review—and also an incredible honor and excitement to be profiled in the New York Times myself and interviewed live on The TODAY Show—but I think the most meaningful interactions have been the personal exchanges with readers who reached out to me directly just to share how much the story meant to them or how it resonated with an experience in their own lives. It’s been a real privilege to have so many people share their stories with me.

Q: What media are you currently consuming? What are your recommendations for compelling, powerful, or just straight-up delightful books/shows/films/etc.?

I try to read and watch widely across different genres. Some recent books I enjoyed: The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang, The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. Some recent shows I enjoyed: Severance, Call My Agent, For All Mankind, What We Do in the Shadows, Abbott Elementary.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young novelists? Any tips on getting your manuscript seen by a publisher?

I think the most common advice that I was given was to “keep writing,” which of course is excellent advice. But, sometimes, it felt difficult to keep writing when I had no idea if anyone other than my family was ever going to read what I was writing! For me, the best advice was actually to keep reading. Writing can be challenging, and we all suffer from bouts of writer’s block, but reading is a never-ending well of inspiration. And reading a wide variety of stories will provide the best sense of what’s possible on the page and what makes you personally feel excited and inspired.

In terms of getting your manuscript in front of a publisher, my best advice is to find an agent with whom you feel a genuine connection—and can see yourself building a lifelong career alongside. Fortunately, many publishing agents are open to email queries from unpublished writers where you can pitch your novel directly. The hardest part is that you can’t just pitch an idea—you have to finish writing a full-length manuscript before you can start querying agents!

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

I just moved from NYC to Los Angeles earlier this year, so I’ve been using any free time to explore this new city. And I’m always looking for new spots to visit, so if anyone has a favorite place to share, please let me know!


Nikki Erlich's book The Measure was published in May 2022 and can be purchased on Amazon and other places where books are sold.

Photo Credit: Federico Photography


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October 2022 | Nicholas Stoller AB '98

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

A blockbuster romantic comedy that tells the heartwarming and sentimental tale of strangers to friends to lovers… we’ve seen that before. But have you ever seen one featuring a gay couple? The answer is no. That is, until Nicholas Stoller reached out to Billy Eichner with his idea: write the first ever romcom about a same sex couple, and feature an almost entirely LGBTQ+ cast. Groundbreaking and finally, five years after their first conversation about it, a reality.

Bros hit theaters September 30th. But the journey to making this revolutionary film did in fact begin five years ago, when Nicholas realized Billy Eichner was just the man to make it happen. “My career’s been building movies and comedies around talent; I worked with Billy on Neighbors 2 and Friends From College and he was hysterical,” Nicholas says. “He’s a proper movie star.” So, Nicholas reached out to Billy and asked him if he’d be interested in writing and starring in a romcom with another guy. Nicholas identifies as straight, so he knew he wasn’t the best choice to actually write the film. But he was determined to make it happen. “It’s something I have wondered for years, why there hasn’t been a super funny, big studio, R-rated gay romcom,” Nicholas states. “They tend to be tragedies, or they were made a long time ago.” So, Nicholas took it upon himself to fill that glaring hole in the romcom canon.

The reason for this is likely because romcom is Nicholas’s favorite film genre. “I like all movies. I love seeing movies,” Nicholas explains. “I make a specific kind of movie. [Romantic comedy] is the most human of genres, just two people talking for two hours. You’re relying on the acting, and ‘Is this a real situation I believe?’” The believability of a romcom is what makes it relatable to the audience, that along with specificity. “I find with comedy, the more honest you are, the funnier and the more specific you are, the more relatable [it is],” Nicholas notes. He loves what he calls “the magic trick of having people laughing and then slowly crying.” That’s the key to a good romcom - it has to make people cry, Nicholas states. “If not, the movie’s not hitting you in the heart.” Romantic comedies keep a careful and well-calculated balance of escapism and fantasy, but also relatability. Add a happy ending, as long as it’s honest to the rest of the film, and that’s an effective romcom. “Humans like to watch humans do humans,” Nicholas concludes.

According to Collider, Bros manages to both present how queer relationships are wholly different from straight relationships, but also how when it comes to romcoms, love actually is love is love”. In terms of writing this story, Nicholas confirms that it’s much more Billy’s story than his. However, this didn't mean he had to change the way he approaches the filmmaking process. His philosophy with all movies is primarily based on making sure the film and the content it’s depicting are honest representations. The only way to do that is interview people, talk with them about their experiences, and make sure what’s going up on screen is genuine, relatable, and emotional. “It’s about a community and learning about that community,” Nicholas says. “And we’ve tested it on all kinds of audiences, and everyone finds it funny.” Which demonstrates that this approach to making Bros has been both authentic and successful.

Nicholas has had a wide-ranging career, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall to The Muppets to Stork to Bros. Over the years, he’s shifted seamlessly between writer and director, and he feels he’s grown along the way. “I’m more confident visually now,” Nicholas reflects. “I started as a writer and I would think more about dialogue and story, and now I try to think with imagery. Movies are images, first and foremost. If you can watch a movie with the sound off and it makes sense, you’ve succeeded.” When asked whether he preferred writing or directing, Nicholas explains, “I love writing for someone else and giving it to someone else. But directing is the most creatively fulfilling. It’s the entire cinematic creative experience.” Essentially, the stakes are higher with directing: “A director is in charge of everything [from] start to finish, and therefore it’s the most stressful, because if it’s bad, it’s your fault,” Nicholas laughs.

Attending Harvard for undergrad was a huge influence in Nicholas’s creative path. “It was a huge deal. IGP and the Lampoon were huge forces in my creative development and career,” Nicholas confirms. “When I was younger, I started reading Dave Barry, a comedy newspaper writer. I made silly movies with my friends and wrote sketches. Then, I started a satire magazine in high school. When I got to Harvard, the Lampoon taught me a lot about writing and how to write for a style that wasn’t exactly my style. Improv taught me a lot about directing, because as a director, you’re thinking on your feet all the time. Being flexible, pitching jokes all the time. Being able to figure out the joke on the set, trusting your instincts, riffing with the actors. If I hadn’t done improv in college…” He trails off, but the big takeaway is clear: Harvard helped encourage his creative development in a pretty unique and impactful way.

Over the years, Nicholas has of course picked up wisdom along the way. His biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers and directors? “Watch everything. Watch old movies, new movies, watch all the TV stuff. Watch classic stuff, it’s really cool to sit down and watch stuff from the same director. Write, and write, and write. You will write a bunch of bad scripts, but you will learn. None of it is wasted time,” he emphasizes. “My process is I write a fast draft, a ‘vomit draft.’ Outlining the draft, and then re-outlining it. Putting it up on cards. Listening to notes. The final thing I’d do is, whatever genre you’re in, pick the best movie [from that genre], for example, When Harry Met Sally. Watch it with a notebook and write down everything that happens in every scene. When Harry Met Sally is the tightest movie ever made,” Nicholas states.

In conclusion, Nicholas reminds us of one of the most important things about being a comedic director and a creative is listening to the audience's response. “The audience is smart, and they won’t laugh if it’s not relatable. I try hard to listen to everyone and not think I know everything,” Nicholas states. “I’m really proud of Bros. We worked on it for so many years. It should have existed so many years ago.”

Nicholas Stoller AB '98 is a screenwriter, director and producer known for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, Neighbors, and more. His most recent feature film, Bros, opened nationwide in theaters on September 30.


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong writing fellowship funded by Harvard in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she finished her first full-length play. Laura graduated from Harvard with a concentration in English, where she wrote a magna cum laude thesis about children’s literature. While at Harvard, Laura was the President of On Thin Ice, a member of one of the first female cohorts of performers in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and she acted in many American Repertory Theater and Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions. She is currently a writer for numerous publications, including Buzzfeed.

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September 2022 | Andy Borowitz AB '80

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

In 2018, Andy Borowitz swept the nation with his comedy tour called “Make America Not Embarrassing Again,” a 90-minute stand-up show about how we ended up with Donald Trump as President. “Sarah Palin,” says Andy, “was the gateway idiot who led to Trump.” So, in 2021, mid-pandemic isolation, Andy decided to further analyze the historical significance of our ignorant politicians. “I ordered a lot of history books and started steeping myself in the political history of the last 50 years,” Andy recalls. And that’s where the idea for Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber was born. 

It quickly became apparent to Andy that everything began with Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1966 California gubernatorial election. Essentially, Andy explains, “What the ‘60s started teaching political parties was they had to have candidates who were good on TV. Reagan’s campaign managers hired UCLA psychologists to pour facts into him so that it would seem like he knew enough.” It was a slippery slope from there. 

This experiment was such a success that Reagan beat the incumbent Governor Pat Brown by one million votes. We descended from Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Palin to Trump. “In the 1960s it was important for a politician to appear to know things,” Andy argues. “But now it’s the opposite, because we’re scared of knowledge in this country.”

Profiles in Ignorance is “very, very different from anything I’ve ever written before because The Borowitz Report is completely made-up, and Profiles is 100% true, nothing is made up, unfortunately,” Andy states. In writing this book, Andy hopes that “it motivates people to get to work and help elect well-informed candidates.”

Even though it's all true, it's hard not to think of Profiles in Ignorance as the next phase of Andy's career as a political satirist. Andy created The Borowitz Report in 2001, and the satirical news column now has millions of readers around the world. His two most recent books were both best-sellers: The 50 Funniest American Writers and An Unexpected Twist, which Amazon named the Best Kindle Single of 2012.

Profiles in Ignorance is divided into “The Three Stages of Ignorance”: Ridicule, Acceptance, and Celebration.


“When I wrote this, I had a general sense, as a sentient human, that our politicians now were of a very low caliber,” Andy explains. “In the course of my investigation, those three stages emerged. First, the Ridicule stage, when it was still important for politicians to seem knowledgeable.” This was the era of Reagan, but also of Dan Quayle, who, like Reagan, knew very little but lacked Reagan’s ability to hide it. Then came the second stage: Acceptance. “George W. Bush started out like Quayle, knowing virtually nothing about foreign affairs,” Andy states. “But he turned his ignorance into an advantage: He’s just like an average American! Who would you rather have a beer with?” That brings us into the third stage: Celebration. In this era of politics, Andy says, the prevailing view is, “Knowledgeable people are elitist, and they are scheming against you, and they don’t understand you. Consequently, politicians with Ivy League degrees are now pretending to be idiots, saying things they clearly know better than to say because ignorance has become the coin of the realm.” 

What was the biggest challenge for Andy in writing this historical book? “I had to come up with a topic that would hold my interest for a year,” Andy laughs. The Borowitz Report is much more ephemeral. “It’s like writing a haiku, you don’t have to focus on it for very long,” confesses Andy. “Of course, everything we do is ultimately disposable, every book, every play, everything, but this [book] was going to be in my life for a lot longer than a column. There was time to ruminate on it and refine things.” Overall, though, Andy says that “the creative process was tremendously enjoyable. There’s an advantage to breaking the mold of what you do a little bit.” 

Taking a step back to look at the bigger picture, Andy hopes that his platform “can be useful to advance the common good. I never want to take myself seriously -- I’m a jokester, I’m always going to be a clown -- but I can leverage my platform to advance causes I believe in.” This book combines satire with political activism. “That’s the power of comedy,” Andy explains. “You develop an intimate relationship with your audience … and that’s helped me raise money for organizations I’m passionate about like Planned Parenthood and the International Rescue Committee.” Andy’s advice for people looking to be politically active? “Start locally. What are the problems with your community, what are the problems with your town?” 

Over the past few years, the news cycle has gotten more and more outrageous. “Governmental malfeasance is a really good target for satire,” Andy confirms. “As our government was screwing up, that created more things to write about and more worthy targets. For me, writing jokes about the stuff is in and of itself really cathartic.” However, Andy specifies that for him, it’s important to be aware of who he’s targeting with his jokes. “I never make fun of victims. I try to identify who is the villain in the story, and go after them,” he explains. “It’s a way of channeling those negative emotions into something positive and maybe even entertaining.”

After such a long and tremendously successful career, Andy certainly gained wisdom along the way. And he shares his best nugget: “Say yes. Don’t be afraid to say yes to things that are out of your immediate wheelhouse.” Additionally, he states, “One of the most important things anyone can possess is the acknowledgement of what we don’t know. Creatively, that’s important. Really try to embrace your intellectual humility, and that’s how you’re going to learn things. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do and mine their knowledge.” 

Andy’s book Profiles in Ignorance will be released on September 13. He is appearing in conversation with Congressman Adam Schiff in Santa Monica, CA, on Friday, Sept 16. Click here for more information.

Photo by Howard Schatz

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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong writing fellowship funded by Harvard in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she finished her first full-length play. Laura graduated from Harvard with a concentration in English, where she wrote a magna cum laude thesis about children’s literature. While at Harvard, Laura was the President of On Thin Ice, a member of one of the first female cohorts of performers in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and she acted in many American Repertory Theater and Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions. She is currently a writer for numerous publications, including Buzzfeed.

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August 2022 | Amanda Micheli AB '94

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

When the opportunity arose to direct Jennifer Lopez in a documentary about her decades-long career spanning across three fields, Amanda Micheli AB '94 was working as a creative director at Masterclass. Though Amanda has a long history as director and cinematographer of award-winning independent documentaries, she took her position with Masterclass for the increased security she sought after becoming a mother. “Independent film doesn’t support a baby… but documentary was [still] tugging at me,” Amanda recalls. So, directing the JLo documentary Halftime, which recently premiered on Netflix and has since reached an audience of many, many millions, was the perfect chance for Amanda to dive back into her own production. 

When the project kicked off in 2019, it was on a proposed schedule of about six months. Over two years later, Halftime had become an extended COVID project for Amanda and the team. The project morphed from the original pitch of following Jennifer with a camera for a week from the Super Bowl to the Oscars to an exploration of her 50th year and a look back at what shaped her into the artist, performer, and icon she is today.

Upon beginning the project, Amanda found that she bonded with Jennifer in an unexpected way: over being athletic kids. “We bonded over being childhood tomboys and her love for running. That’s when it clicked for me: Jennifer is an artist and a mother, but she’s wired like a jock, and even more so like a fighter. I wanted to find out: what is she fighting against? What fuels her insatiable work ethic? As a female filmmaker navigating motherhood and the second half of my own career, I felt this was an incredible opportunity to explore this iconic and seemingly bullet-proof superstar on a more human level.” Jennifer’s story embodies what Amanda has often explored as a filmmaker: “women bucking the odds in a male-dominated world.” 

Following Just for the Ride, her 1995 Harvard thesis film which explored the world of rodeo cowgirls, she released Double Dare, a documentary about the struggles of two Hollywood stuntwomen “to stay working, stay thin, and stay sane.” Four years later, she earned an Academy Award nomination for La Corona, which follows inmates competing for the crown in the annual beauty pageant of the Bogota Women’s Prison. Her more recent Emmy-nominated documentary, Vegas Baby, follows families vying for free IVF in a social media contest.

Amanda insists that she was not always strategic in career. “I just followed the stories that interested me,” she says, “[and] it’s been a forensic journey to look back and observe that I’m really drawn to stories about outsiders.” She explains that she’s pulled towards “people who love doing something but aren’t remunerated for it; they’re at the bottom of the totem pole.” She’s also driven by exploring the nuance of female identity and self-esteem. “If you’re not rewarded in the culture for what you do, how do you come up with a sense of self?” Amanda inquires. “Even successful women struggle with this. When I met Jennifer Lopez, I was shocked to learn that even she feels like an outsider in Hollywood. That was a big part of what drew me to the project.”  

As a self-proclaimed tomboy, which ultimately led her to a stint on the USA National Women’s Rugby Team, Amanda felt that she didn’t always fit in herself. “I was the photo editor of my high school newspaper. I used the camera to cope and fit in,” Amanda says. “Documentary has afforded me a passport to meet other people from all walks of life.” This type of thinking carries over into Amanda’s work even today. “It’s all about empathy and trying to get a view into a slice of life that you wouldn't normally see, and trying to walk in someone else’s shoes,” Amanda explains. “I’m not an explicitly political filmmaker, but our country has been so divided in these last 5-10 years, more than ever I feel it’s critical to make work that helps create empathy.”

When watching or creating a documentary, Amanda is looking for a compelling narrative, not just for information. “Show me a world, or a story,” she says. Amanda was always drawn towards storytelling, and while non-fiction has been her mainstay, she has begun to develop scripted projects as well. Amanda said while she feels the tools are the same in fiction and non-fiction – character, setting, story – the process can be wildly different. “Writing on a blank page can feel lonely and intimidating,” Amanda describes, “while a documentary puts you out with people, looking for stories in the real world.… The biggest difference is, you can’t tell people what to do in a documentary because they’re not actors,” Amanda laughs. “You have to be really patient or you end up with a forced narrative. It can be challenging to allow events to unfold in such a way that you have cohesive and emotional narrative.” 

The differentiator in documentary post-production, Amanda says, is “you’re scripting and writing in the editing room. And contrary to starting with a blank page, in docs you are always distilling down.” As a result of this, documentary can be a long game. Amanda’s longest project, Double Dare, took almost a decade to release. “It seems like most documentaries take two years no matter what,” Amanda confirms, adding, “The landscape now is really fruitful. When I started, documentary wasn’t cool, and now it’s cool. But it’s still a labor of love.”

When asked what advice she has for young filmmakers, she repeats a pithy quote handed down to her by a legendary stuntman: “They don’t call it show friends, it’s show business.” Making films is no small financial undertaking, and Amanda urges young filmmakers to keep that in mind. But more importantly, she encourages young artists to “Really try to align with your purpose and why you want to do it, because there’s a lot of people making films, and it’s competitive out there,” Amanda says. “It sounds like tough love, but if it doesn't need to be a movie, don’t make it a movie!” She also advises aspiring filmmakers to develop a craft other than directing. “Look where the need is. Sound recordists are always in demand. Make yourself indispensable,” Amanda says. “You learn so much more about the business and the craft by trying out different sides of it.”

When asked what she’s planning to work on next, Amanda smiles and states that her plans are to “continue to challenge myself, and continually question and realign my purpose as a filmmaker, and have a good time doing it.”


The documentary Halftime is now available on Netflix.

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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong writing fellowship funded by Harvard in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she finished her first full-length play. Laura graduated from Harvard with a concentration in English, where she wrote a magna cum laude thesis about children’s literature. While at Harvard, Laura was the President of On Thin Ice, a member of one of the first female cohorts of performers in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and she acted in many American Repertory Theater and Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions. She is currently a writer for numerous publications, including Buzzfeed.

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Exclusive Q&A with Julie Ann Crommett AB '08

Julie Ann Crommett AB '08 has been working in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) space for over thirteen years leading disruptive, systemic change across media and tech. As Founder and CEO of Collective Moxie, Julie Ann works with organizations large and small on revolutionizing their DEI strategies through inclusive storytelling practices, accountability, and internal/external community partnership. Previously, she was Vice President of Multicultural Audience Engagement at The Walt Disney Studios spearheading efforts to diversify talent in front of and behind the camera, connect creative projects more closely to the communities they touch, and build a more inclusive culture within the Studios. Her team contributed to many projects including Encanto, Soul, Coco, Black Panther, Raya and the Last Dragon and West Side Story as well as launching the critically acclaimed Disney Launchpad: Shorts Incubator, an industry-leading program guaranteeing up to six directors from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to produce a short film for Disney+. Before Disney, she was Google’s Entertainment Industry Educator in Chief leading their efforts to shift and diversify on-screen perceptions of computer science through storytelling (a position she created) as well as having led Google’s DEI efforts in Latin America. She started her DEI career at NBCUniversal managing behind-the-camera diversity programs including Writers on the Verge and the Directing Fellowship.

Julie Ann has been recognized by The Hollywood Reporter’s 35 under 35, the IMAGEN Foundation’s Influential Latinos in Entertainment list, and as an ADCOLOR Innovator. She serves on the boards for the The Woodruff Arts Center, Hispanic Federation, NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers), Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, and Women in Animation. Julie Ann also served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Columbia University’s MFA film program and co-created a new course with her producing partner Jinko Gotoh on inclusive storytelling. A proud Puerto Rican and Cuban American, Julie Ann was raised in Atlanta, GA and earned her BA in English at Harvard University.

Q: Clearly, your work has had a huge impact on the industry, with films like Encanto, Soul and Coco bringing audiences incredible diversity in the animation scene. Where do you hope to see these efforts lead us, say, ten years in the future? As DEI blossoms, what do you see as crucial next steps in your work, personally, and in the work of the industry?

I can’t even believe that 13 years have passed since I started on this journey, and I applaud the incremental progress that’s been made. Unfortunately, as we all know, it’s not enough. The next ten years, I hope, bring a plethora of original, new stories from filmmakers and storytellers who haven’t traditionally been centered. That we change the “default” of who is the protagonist of any kind of story (sci-fi, horror, comedy, rom-com, fantasy, drama, etc.) and that stories don’t have to be centered on a dimension of identity or a specific cultural experience but rather all of us just being in our full selves – as full characters – the way we exist in the real world. Elements of our culture, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and/or any other identities we hold shine through as part of the story / the whole. We still need stories centered on specific cultural experiences (like Coco’s Day of the Dead), but those are not the only stories to be told. 

For me personally, I want to keep making and helping to usher, support, and/or find funding for stories like the ones above. I also want to keep working across clients, especially where there’s opportunity to impact at an industry scale vs. one organization. What the industry needs to do is put their money where their mouth is – it’s not enough to develop projects, but it’s necessary to actually greenlight them. Also, I’m all for alternative funding and distribution models. I think the disruption we’re feeling today will only fuel further disruption centered on creator ownership. There is tremendous opportunity in that. 

Q: You were an executive producer on the six short film series Launchpad: Shorts Incubator, which provided six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to share their perspectives and creative visions that will show audiences what it means to be seen. What was your favorite part of the process, and do you potentially see yourself stepping into more executive production roles in the future? 

I love the Launchpad Season 1 filmmakers. It was truly an amazing experience to meet them through the application process, hearing them describe their visions for their projects, and then executing their films in Summer 2020 (yes, in the height of the pandemic). They are ready for anything! My favorite part was seeing them see their work on Disney+, promoted with a beautiful marketing campaign, and celebrating each other. Huge shout to the entire Disney+ production teams who made it happen during the pandemic – Mahin, Alyssa, Jason, Chris, Adam, and the whole team!  

Q: What is your current media obsession? Can you recommend any movies, TV shows, podcasts, or books that have been captivating you? What is a current show that you think has really effectively made strides for diversity and inclusion on screen? 

I just started watching The Bear on FX/Hulu. OMG. I absolutely recommend Only Murders in the Building, The Gordita Chronicles, Nope … so many. Rewatch Clueless if you haven’t recently. One of my favorite shows that really did a phenomenal job tackling lots of topics and intersections regarding DEI was the remake of One Day at a Time (seasons 1-3 on Netflix + season 4 on PopTV). 

Q: If there was one thing you would want everyone to understand about the work you do for diversity, equity and inclusion, what would it be? What are some of the challenges you face in your work, and how do you address them? 

DEI work is all our responsibility. When we work together, I am there to advise and am also learning every day. Also, it’s not a nice-to-have – it’s just how the world is / will be. It’s the only way you can run a business or organization and have it stay relevant in the long run. If you don’t layer it into the fundamental thinking across every aspect of your business, you will be disrupted. You will be irrelevant. That is worse than failing – it means huge swaths of your audience don’t care because you haven’t cared about them. Also, if you aren’t doing this with a global lens, you’re sunk. 

My toughest conversations are with people (typically senior leads – who are empirically White men) who believe they’ve got it all figured out – that they are “woke.” They say they are “progressive,” vote Democratic, and “know this stuff.” The truth is that none of us have this all figured out – that’s the impossible dream. We can’t possibly know everything about everyone and undo 1,000s of years of discriminatory structures overnight. We only have our own lived experiences to start which are riddled with bias. However, what is essential is to keep learning and listening – not assuming. The way I often breakthrough is to challenge them to stop trying to be perfect “progressive” people – there is no such thing – and get them to think about listening and growth. 

Q: How did your time in college (classes, extracurriculars, peers you met) prepare you for the work you do today?

Founding TEATRO! and the lessons learned and conversations I first confronted there were instrumental to my work now. Inspired by Black CAST, when I first pitched Harvard College TEATRO!, Harvard’s first Latino/x/e theatre troupe, I was asked if we could get enough people to audition and if we’d attract a large enough audience. I thought this was ridiculous, and I responded incredulously, “Of course we will!” We sold out by closing night, and our cast/crew was roughly 50% from the Boston community. It proved to me that if you build it, they will come. Also, you can’t account for audiences that you haven’t been accounting for – you have to widen the aperture and meet people where they are. We marketed directly in the Boston community and obviously filled a gap. I’m thrilled the group continues to thrive today. 

Q: In 2021, you founded Collective Moxie, a consulting agency that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion strategy aimed at making lasting, sustainable change within partner organizations. As the founder and CEO, what would you say to young entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business or foundation? How do you think the pandemic affected the founding of Collective Moxie, if at all? 

To young entrepreneurs, I share a piece of advice a mentor, Charles King, shared with me. “Don’t wait too long.” I think that for a lot of folks and for me, especially if you were raised without a lot of financial resources and/or culturally told to pursue “safe careers,” it’s scary to say, “I’m going to start something and jump into the unknown.” It’s okay (and smart) to plan for it while you’re doing another job – just make sure you don’t wait for the perfect moment. It doesn’t exist. Trust your gut and know your value. If you don’t bet on yourself, why would anyone else?

Q: Last year, you co-taught and co-created the first class on Inclusive Storytelling for first year MFA Film students at Columbia University. What was that experience like for you? Could you see yourself entering the academia space again in the future?

Absolutely – loved the experience and learned a lot. My respect for teaching went up 100x, as planning classes takes longer than actually teaching them. I loved working with students and having office hours, particularly diving into their creative hopes and dreams. One of my partner’s and my observations was that everyone was trying to find and hone their voice. It became about “what do you want to say” – “why do you want to tell stories?” At the end of the day, those are the absolute best conversations you can have. 

Also, I was stunned at how much the students wanted to talk about comedy. I love it but truly, a huge portion of our class was wanting to explore it. Yes, please. 

Q: In your 2017 TEDTalk, you discuss the CSI effect, the designated driver campaign, and how storytelling in media can be an incredibly influential tool to revolutionize certain industries or areas (like computer science). What industry, social phenomenon, current topic of discourse, or job market do you think should be the next big target for media companies and storytellers? Is there a comparable target in 2022 similar to computer science in 2017 for these sorts of intentional media campaigns?

Hasn’t changed. We are living in a world being designed by such a small percentage of the population – stick to the CS / STEM train. We need filmmakers / creatives with expansive visions for what we could be 50 years from now – not the doomsday vision we are often feeling today. Science fiction informs the present and future, and it can literally drive innovation. The opportunity remains to inspire folks to envision a future we can build and to continue to change the “bro” culture that pervades much of tech. 

Q: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

Resting my brain and refilling my spirit. Hanging with my partner, family, and friends. Love eating delicious meals, watching movies/TV for fun, reading non-fiction, and working out (I’m back in my routine). Oh, and I am part of a weekly bar trivia team. Yes, I am a trivia nerd… most recently on Jeopardy! – May 19th, 2022 episode (2nd place). 

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July 2022 | Ayanna Lonian AB '99

by Connor Riordan

At one point in her career, Ayanna Lonian AB ’99 was weighing job offers from three major media companies: a job in corporate strategy at The New York Times Company or an executive role at either ESPN or HBO. She decided on the Times Company position because it offered her something the others didn’t – the opportunity for intellectual expansion. “I'd had research data experience and financial transactions seemed like it was something that would be unique,” she said. “I've always thought of my career in that way ‒ what functional skills am I going to add… [that are] going to sort of round me out a little bit?”

It’s an attitude that has defined the course of her impressive career. She currently serves as the Director and Head of Worldwide Major Studio Licensing Strategy at Amazon Prime Video. She’s in charge of managing the teams responsible for evaluating, negotiating, and closing complex, global streaming licensing agreements with third-party major studios and TV networks. She also manages Prime Video Direct, a service that, Lonian explained, “has allowed independent filmmakers to publish content in our catalogs in the way that our company allows independent authors to publish ebooks.” When I asked her about her day-to-day operations, she said to me, with a bit of a smile, “I won't really say house on fire, but… I spent the better part of this morning thinking about content – whether it's coming from Nigeria or South Africa, or parts of Sub-Saharan Africa – how do we optimize that licensing activity? And how do we think about constructing those deals?” Her afternoon was slated for organizational management. “We're going through our own staffing planning process at Amazon… Then tomorrow I'll spend a chunk of the day focused on sub PVD.”

Even before beginning her career in entertainment, Lonian was used to carving her own path. “I ended up deferring my first year of college and spent the year in Ghana,” she said. She taught math and science at a junior secondary school and spent time traveling before taking an international relations course at the University of Ghana. She then enrolled at Harvard, but her life took an unexpected turn her sophomore year when her parents divorced. “That changed their economic circumstances, and I didn’t qualify for student loans at the time,” she said. “I ended up leaving, not exactly sure when I was going to go back.”

During her time away from Harvard, she joined a startup called Africana.com as a channel manager working on product development. The company was sold to Time Warner just before it was acquired by AOL, and Lonian decided to move on from the company. “I got a little bit of money for my stock units and decided to go back and finish my last few years of college.” She changed her major to social anthropology and wrote a thesis focusing on cyber ethnographic research studying online communities of color.

After graduating from Harvard, Lonian aspired to launch her own business. “I actually had a dream of going to New York and working in retail and starting a cosmetics company for men,” she says. Instead, she interviewed to be a retail analyst with Forrester Research and was told she was overqualified for the job. “Then the recruiter called me back the next day,” Lonian exclaimed, “and she said, ‘Look, I know this is going to sound crazy, but the head of our media and entertainment practice really liked you. Will you come back in and interview for a job as an analyst on our media and entertainment team?’”

Lonian initially said no because she didn’t understand how she could be overqualified for the same role with a different focus. Then, her mom weighed in. “She was like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you have a job?’ And I said no. And she said, ‘You need to call those people back and go interview for that job!’” Lonian landed the role and ended up working with several Harvard Business School alumni, which inspired her to pursue a business degree. “Two years into Forrester, I knew I wanted to go to business school,” she said. She completed her MBA at Kellogg, becoming the first in her family to earn the degree.

After graduating from Kellogg, Lonian stayed at The New York Times Company for two years before moving on to work in affiliate sales at ESPN with the content distribution team responsible for distributing both ESPN and the Walt Disney Company’s TV networks, cable companies, and other properties. Sales provided another opportunity for Lonian to expand her skills. She notes that in business school, there were no classes focusing on sales. “Folks look at you as if you're talking about selling used cars, like something's kind of unsanitary about selling,” she said. “But the reality is, all professional services are effectively selling something.” After seven years the job at Prime Video beckoned. It was a difficult decision to switch over. “It was mostly because I wanted international experience, and if I had stayed at Disney, as much as I loved it, I knew I wasn't going to get that,” she explained.

Lonian balances her responsibilities at Amazon by practicing ruthless prioritization, something she suggests all media hopefuls do. “Leaders, we always encourage folks to ruthlessly prioritize your focus, because the one commodity, the biggest, most precious commodity that we have is our bandwidth,” she told me. She also believes that teamwork is paramount. She points out that being a rock star is of limited value when the team is struggling. Strong teams also attract high-quality work. “The reputation of the team is like a rising tide that lifts all boats,” she said.

What other advice does Lonian have for entertainment hopefuls? “I would say, first and foremost, don't give up,” she told me firmly. “It does take a degree of fortitude where if you're interested in the industry, you just have to stick with it and be self-motivated.” On a more concrete level, Lonian recommends scheduling informational interviews to build a professional network. “If you just say, ‘Hey, can I just have 30 minutes or an hour of your time to talk?’ in my experience, most executives will probably say yes.” That opens the door to building relationships. In business school, Lonian tracked all her informational interviews and followed up consistently. “Some of these folks have become friends of mine for life. Treat it like building your network and cultivate it.”

Informational interviews can also provide invaluable intelligence should you want to work for their company. “A person might say, ‘Oh, this is strategy—but hey, this other team over here has a track record of getting people promoted.’ That hiring manager is able to get their people in the room to get you exposure within that company.” This kind of inside information can also help people avoid managers who she says might stunt your growth rather than cultivate it. “Use the information that you're gathering through these informational interviews to become more focused in your efforts.”

Reaching out to people is also something that resonates with Lonian when it comes to licensing strategy, something she revealed when I asked her about her proudest career moment. At the end of 2016, shortly after she was hired by Amazon, she helped the company expand globally across 240 countries in one fell swoop. “It’s wild to me that it’s one o’clock here on the West Coast, but it’s inevitably morning in some part of the world,” she mused. “And there could be a little person, a two-year-old… their orientation for consuming premium content may literally be a mobile phone. And they’re interacting with a service that I helped launch. And that's just wild to me, that somewhere – transcending countries, boundaries, languages… that little person is watching Prime Video, and I helped make that happen.”


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgConnor Riordan '23 is a rising Senior at Harvard studying History and Literature and Film. In addition to being involved in Harvardwood programs like Harvardwood 101 and the Harvardwood Writers Program, Connor has performed in numerous productions on campus and has written, acted in, directed, and produced his own projects. He's grateful to be a part of the Harvardwood community.
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Exclusive Q&A with Marshall Lewy AB ’99

Marshall Lewy AB '99 is the current Chief Content Officer at Wondery, the largest independent podcast publisher and home to Dr. Death, Business Wars, The Shrink Next Door, American History Tellers, Dirty John and many more. Before his time at Wondery, Marshall wrote and directed the feature films Blue State and California Solo and was nominated for an Emmy for producing HBO’s TV series Project Greenlight featuring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.


Q: Your show WeCrashed, similarly to that of Hulu’s The Dropout and Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, focuses on a story of failed tech startup founders. Audiences seem ravenous for more of these true-life miniseries dramas. What do you think it is about these types of narratives that are so gripping to watchers? How much artistic liberty do you feel can be taken when adapting these stories to the screen? 

A: We've told a lot of these sorts of true stories about bad actors in business across our various Wondery podcasts, from many seasons of Business Wars to our investigative miniseries like WeCrashed and The Vaping Fix, which was a series about the rise and fall of JUUL. They always have such fascinating characters, with stories of hubris and usually the perversion of the "American Dream." I think people respond because they tap into some deep vein that we all relate to, and they also are very of-the-moment for some of the challenges we're all going through collectively right now. I think we’re living through a period in time where lots of us are having trouble comprehending the larger realities happening all around us (e.g. pandemic, land war in Europe, domestic political upheaval, etc.), so we looking for an anchor of “truth” even in our fiction. And when it comes time to take these true podcasts and turn them into TV series, we recognize that the TV show is now a fictionalized drama, not an investigative series –  we want to support the vision of the writers, showrunners, actors, and directors who are working to bring the series to life. We share as much of our research and reporting as we can, but we also want them to make it their own, and hit the themes and truths they want to explore. 

Q: Both WeCrashed and Joe vs. Carole are miniseries which originally played out as podcasts. How do you bring a podcast to life onscreen? How do you decide which podcasts could make compelling visual retellings in TV format?

A: We never make a podcast for the sole reason of turning it into a TV series – we are attracted to these stories because they’re fascinating stories and we think podcast listeners will respond. But I think we've found success in bringing them to TV because the narrative, character-driven way we create our podcasts attracts visual storytellers. And in many cases, we’ve had actors want to play certain roles just from listening to our podcast, which was the case with Kate McKinnon signing on to play Carole Baskin (which was six months before the Tiger King documentary ever aired on Netflix!), as well as Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell for our podcast The Shrink Next Door.

Q: You said in an article for The Hollywood Reporter that “listeners are growing more accustomed to podcasts that push the limits of how stories are told” in light of Wondery’s groundbreaking decision to release several podcast series in Dolby Atmos. This makes Wondery the first podcast streaming service in the US to deliver podcasts in the immersive sound format. What do you find unique about the further possibilities of the podcast format?

A: I started as an avid listener of podcasts before I got into making them. I loved the purity of the writing and the production – compared with television and film, there are a lot fewer moving parts, production-wise. I also loved the intimacy and authenticity of them. Even though podcasts have been around in some form for almost twenty years now (and radio long before that), it’s still so early in the evolution of on-demand spoken-word audio and audio storytelling. Spatial audio, smart speakers, interactivity ... there’s still a lot more to explore.

Q: Early on in your career, you accrued credits both as a writer and director, but for years your primary focus has been producing, especially podcasts. What led you to where you are now? What influenced you to pivot into producing, or was that always the goal? 

A: My dream from the time I was a kid was always to be a film director. I went to film school at Columbia after Harvard and got an MFA in Film Directing. When I started film school, there wasn’t Youtube, podcasts, video streaming, etc. So my dream was to make thoughtful films that played in movie theaters on the big screen! But in the years after film school, I kept finding myself attracted to all the other ways that were proliferating around visual storytelling. So about a year after I wrote and directed a film that premiered at Sundance called California Solo, I started working more on the producing side, working with creators across all different types of media: film and TV, but also digital short-form, audio, book publishing, etc. I found it moved so much faster and allowed me to exercise so many different muscles than working on just one or two projects at a time. After that, it would be hard to go back to making just one movie at a time. At Wondery, I directed our first scripted audio drama Blood Ties, which just launched its third season, and that's been a great way to get back to directing scripted content.

Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?

A: Well, I spent many, many nights during college watching old and obscure movies at the Harvard Film Archive and the Brattle Theater, and I took a bunch of film courses. I also created a “sitcom” at HRTV, the Harvard television station that had its headquarters in the basement of Pforzheimer House in the Quad. They had all kinds of video cameras and rudimentary digital editing systems back when you could only hold about 30 minutes of video footage on a single hard drive. We never got any audience because none of the houses at Harvard actually were wired for cable, but it was still a good way to practice making things.

Q: In a 2020 interview, you mentioned that you hadn’t noticed an increase in podcast listeners due to the pandemic at that time. Now, over two years later, do you find that statement remains accurate, or has there been a tangible COVID impact on the podcast industry in the wake of months-long quarantines? How about in terms of the creation, rather than the consumption, of podcasts? 

A: It's hard to delineate what growth over the past few years came from the podcast boom that had already begun pre-pandemic, with what got accelerated by the pandemic. We did see a pretty steep dropoff in podcast listening during the first few months of the pandemic, but listening bounced back quickly as people found new times of day and activities to do while listening to podcasts. For example, maybe they started listening to podcasts while walking the dog instead of driving to work. So the pandemic has been a time of listener growth, and I think of podcast creation, too. One of the best examples of a very successful podcast that was born out of the pandemic is Smartless, which we now distribute and have a major partnership with at Wondery and Amazon Music. We launched a show in March 2020 called Even the Rich which seemed very ill-timed when it first launched and got off to an extremely slow start, but it has since become one of our most successful ongoing shows. 

Q: What do you think is most essential to crafting a successful podcast? 

A: A passionate connection to the subject matter, access to something or someone (or a point of view) that no one else in the world has, and a good microphone.

Q: Do you have a favorite podcast (or podcasts) you’d always recommend? What about TV shows, movies, or other go-to favorite pieces of media?

A: I’ll stick with podcasts only so the answer doesn’t go too long, but you can’t go wrong starting with some of the greatest episodes and stories from This American Life.

Q: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

A: I used to love running and cooking, but now I have 4 kids ages 10 and under, so it’s mostly work and family these days.

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Wondery's extensive catalog of podcasts can be found on their website at wondery.com. The TV show WeCrashed is available to watch on Apple TV+, and Joe vs. Carole is available to watch on Peacock.

 

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