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 Emily Halpern AB '02 and Sarah Haskins AB '01

Emily Halpern AB '02 and Sarah Haskins AB '01 wrote the BAFTA and WGA-award nominated 2019 feature Booksmart. They received an Emmy nomination for their work on Black-ish and have written for numerous shows including Good Girls and The Real O'Neals. They also created Carol's Second Act for CBS and Trophy Wife for ABC. Halpern and Haskins are currently under a development deal at CBS Studios. The latest movie they wrote, 80 for Brady, will be released through Paramount Pictures this February starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno and Sally Field.

Q: What is the story behind the inception of 80 For Brady? And what was it like getting such a star-studded cast to work on your film?

We were approached in winter 2020 by Donna Gigliotti, a producer on the film. By that point, the concept had found footing with producers; an agent at WME’s grandmother was member of a group of octogenarian women in Boston who called themselves ‘Over 80 for Brady’ and got together to root for the Patriots (and Tom) every weekend as a celebration of friendship and football. This agent thought their story could make a great basis for a film and brought it to Tom Brady. Thankfully, he agreed and came on board. At some point these various entities partnered with Fifth Season (then Endeavor Content.)

The concept immediately resonated with both of us. Emily is from Boston. Sarah loves sports. And we both loved the idea of writing another story of female friendship.

Getting the star-studded cast was, thankfully, not our job. From the project’s inception, though, producers thought this film could have great roles for iconic actors. We agreed.

Q: Director Kyle Martin said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the four iconic female leads are all “character-forward,” with “jokes in the back seat,” and further noted: “That is how we wrote and angled the characters and how they performed it.” Do you agree with this evaluation? Was that similar to your approach for writing Booksmart?

We always try to lead with story and characters in our writing, and let the jokes follow organically. Emphasis on ‘try’ - it’s not easy to do, but it’s something we strive for. Because we find again and again that the strongest jokes are jokes germane to both story and character. Otherwise they often just feel random and don’t land.

Q: Coming off such a success as Booksmart, did that affect your writing process or mentality when starting this project at all? Was there anything you wanted to do differently with this film?

We were so lucky with Booksmart. It took ten years to get made and it’s a miracle that all the hands it passed through were additive and that everyone involved understood the essence of Molly and Amy. So if Booksmart affected our attitude toward this project it probably gave us hope that scripts can, one day, actually become movies. 

This project was different from Booksmart from the beginning – we were pitching on an existing idea, with cast and producers attached. But we loved the idea of telling another story about women and female friendships; we also liked the idea of telling that story for an older demographic. And the premise was so fun, we knew we’d enjoy writing it.

Q: It was a pretty long journey to get Booksmart made - 10 years, to be exact. How was that different from the process to get 80 for Brady made? How challenging is it to get a screenplay in front of someone, when it feels like Hollywood is shifting to be more risk-averse and streaming has hugely impacted big theater releases?

Booksmart was our own original idea and the first screenplay we wrote together, so we had a bigger hill to climb just getting people to read it. It’s also tough to sell a movie with teen girls as the leads, so we faced a number of hurdles from the outset. 80 For Brady was already set up; we came in and pitched our take and got the job. So that was one big difference. We’ve also found that it’s easier to get a movie made if Tom Brady is your producer and four iconic women are the stars.

Q: Sarah, you’ve talked a lot about how feminism has been important to you throughout your life - was writing a football movie (which is a generally male-coded topic) about four older women an act of feminism/pushing boundaries for you?

In this particular case it just felt real: I grew up in a family full of women who liked sports. My Mom and her female friends loved watching the Cubs. My gramma rooted for Notre Dame football. I still play on a basketball team with my sister. Emily and I are always conscious of writing our female characters as three-dimensional people, which, in some cases, is an inherently feminist/boundary pushing act. In 80 for Brady our goal was to depict these woman as great friends and passionate sports fans who also happen to be eighty years old. Their age is a significant part of their story and contributes to some of their challenges in getting to the Super Bowl, but it’s not the only important thing about who they are.

Q: How did you two become writing partners? What’s the secret to a good co-worker writing dynamic?

We’d been friendly in college, but didn’t know each other very well. When Sarah moved out to LA, we got dinner one night and started talking about how we both wanted to write a teen movie with overachieving girls at the center of the story. We loved the teen movie genre, but had only seen those movies with teen boys as the stars, and their goal was always to get laid. We wanted to write a teen comedy with young, smart women as the leads, and tell a story about their high school experience. We decided to try and write it together, mostly because we figured we’d be more likely to get it done that way. That eventually became Booksmart.

Q: Which experiences do you think prepared you both most for what you do now?

We are in our early forties biologically, but in our souls we are eighty. After college we took different paths before we ended up writing together. Emily moved out to LA, worked as an assistant for a while, and eventually got her first writing job on a military drama created by Shawn Ryan and David Mamet called The Unit. Sarah moved to Chicago and spent several years doing improv at Second City and other theaters there. It’s probably the amalgamation of our work and life experiences, and our respect for each other’s experiences, that enables us to stare at each other for hours a day on Zoom talking about imaginary people and what is happening to them.

Q: What do you see as the difference between writing for TV and writing for film?

In TV, the writer/creator tends to have the most creative authority over what eventually winds up on screen. Film is still a director’s medium; at the end of the day, the director has more say over the final product.

Also in TV, you’re turning out scripts one after the next. This can be a good thing, and it’s certainly nice for the job security. But it does mean you’re with the same project for a long period of time, especially in success. In film, once the movie is shot, the writer’s job is pretty much done. This can be both terrifying and liberating.

Q: How has the industry (both TV and film) changed post-pandemic? Do you think it’s more
challenging for writers to get their work seen or get into writers rooms? Or do you think
the pandemic opened up more opportunities with more things being remote?

This is a tough question and we’d hate to generalize –our friends and acquaintances have had a variety of experiences. It certainly has changed and it’s hard to pin down how and whether it was just the pandemic that did the changing or the other seismic changes sweeping through the business: streaming wars, the end of packaging, the way rooms are staffed, etc.

We’ve heard anecdotes from people who’ve found great jobs they never could have done without the Zoom/internet angle and we have friends who are frustrated.

This has always been a tough industry to break into and it will be a minute before it’s totally clear what the new barriers and avenues to access are – and to what extent these are more fair or unfair than what’s come before them.

Q: And finally, what’s the key to making something funny?

We’re not sure – please tell us if you find out.

See Sarah and Emily's latest film, 80 for Brady, out in theaters starting February 3, 2023!

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February 2023 | Gaude Paez AB ‘96

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

Gaude Lydia Paez AB '96 serves as Senior Vice President & Head of Global Corporate Affairs at Riot Games, the game developer and publisher behind blockbuster PC games including League of Legends and Valorant, and operator of the League of Legends World Championship, the most popular esports tournament in the world. In this role, she leads Riot’s global Communications, Corporate Social Responsibility and Government Affairs practices and serves as a member of the company’s executive management team.

Paez is an accomplished leader with experience in the global media and entertainment, technology, and advertising industries.  Previously, she served as Senior Vice President & Head of Corporate Communications at streaming service Hulu, where she led the communications organization during a period of growth that saw the company more than triple its base of paid subscribers and integrate into The Walt Disney Company’s global streaming portfolio. Among their many successes, Paez and team architected the company’s multi-year communications strategy supporting Hulu’s entrance into the live TV streaming market and its rise to become the largest digital MVPD service in the U.S. 

Prior to Hulu, Paez held leadership roles at Fox Broadcasting Company and Yahoo! Inc., and began her career in New York at global agency BSMG Worldwide (now Weber Shandwick). She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Harvard University, recently completed her Masters in Business Administration at Oxford’s Said Business School and sits on the Board of Women in Film Los Angeles.

Gaude Paez AB ‘96 has had a long and incredible career as an executive and Senior Vice President at companies like Hulu, Fox, and currently, Riot Games. We sat down with Gaude to talk about all things exec: her career journey from start to finish, along with some of her best pieces of advice for those interested in the biz.

The most pressing question, of course, was what exactly brought her to where she is today? “I’d love to say that I had some grand plan when I graduated from Harvard and that I’ve strategically engineered my career into what it is today, but that would be a huge lie!” Gaude laughs. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after college – I just knew that I enjoyed writing – so I moved to New York and took the first assistant job I could land that might allow me to make a living using my writing skills. That job happened to be at a communications/PR agency… and I’ve been in that field ever since.  So I feel very fortunate to have found a line of work that I was passionate about early on in my life.” You don’t hear that too often! 

From there, Gaude worked her way up with one very keen ideology: put yourself out there. “The most important moments throughout my career journey so far have been the ones in which I just put myself out there, even if I wasn’t sure I would succeed,” she explains. “For example, as an assistant, there was one afternoon when I’d overheard one of our account managers talking about how he had way too much work to do for one of his new clients. I decided to just take a stab at a few of the things he might need… I figured, “What do I have to lose?”  And it paid off – he liked my work and immediately made me a member of his core account team. That was my ‘graduation’ from administrative work.” Not many people would have been gutsy enough to do something like that– I hope readers are taking notes!

Now, a few years later, she’s pivoted over to the gaming industry, something she had little knowledge of before joining Riot Games. Gaude says, “Not only was the Corporate Affairs scope of the role broader than the oversight I’d had in the past, but it was at a video game company – an industry I didn’t know well at all… I worried, could I make an impact at a company even if I’m not a hard-core gamer? Two years in, I’m loving it and am really energized about the potential in this space. But if you’d asked me 20 years ago, I never would have predicted this is where I would be.”
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Gaude joined Riot Games in the midst of the pandemic, and now, a little over two years later, there has definitely been a shift in industry trends and ideas. One thing Gaude hopes will continue on moving forward in the media space is the uptick in “really cool explorations with virtual entertainment and sporting events... Whether it’s concerts in Fortnite or a global premiere like the one we did for Arcane, there could emerge some pretty interesting ways of engaging fans really deeply on a global level that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic."

Snooping around Gaude’s LinkedIn profile, you’ll see that she astutely describes herself as a “strategic storyteller” -- I asked her what, exactly, that meant to her. “It’s the job of any communications pro to help tell a great story, whether that’s about a person, a company, a production, an industry, etc” she explains. “And if you work for a global company like I do, there are probably hundreds of really cool little stories you can tell about it… But for a story to have real impact and value to the company and brand, it must connect back to its core strategy. What is it trying to achieve? Who does it want to be to its customers? What, if anything, does it want to stand for? Those are the types of considerations I try to zone in on when crafting a narrative – so that each of the beats builds toward something much larger.”

The two mantras she brings with her to work every day that feed her success? Stay calm and be decisive. “As a communications practitioner, I am often dealing with PR crises or highly intense internal employee situations, and the best thing you can do to lead an executive team or a company through those instances is provide that sense of calm and steadiness amidst the chaos and have conviction in your recommended strategy.”

With such a history of great accomplishment, did Gaude feel like there’s ever been a time she made a mistake that taught her something valuable? “I don’t think there’s any one mistake I’d highlight, but in general, I think the times in my career when I’ve made the wrong call have been times when I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture… I’ve learned in those cases that it’s important to always take a few minutes to step back and try to objectively evaluate whether you’re actually addressing the goal.” On the flip side, something Gaude is proud of that she’s accomplished: “The moments in which I’ve been able to provide guidance or mentorship to younger professionals,” she reflects. “I was fortunate to have great mentors as I was coming up in my career, and I feel a sense of responsibility to pay that forward. Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a leader have been times when I’ve had the opportunity to counsel or coach team members or mentor folks outside of my team. I love meeting with younger colleagues and often learn a lot from those conversations myself.” Read on for more of Gaude’s advice below!

Jumping back to the very beginning of Gaude’s career, we asked how her time at Harvard may have had an impact. She had this to say in response: “Harvard was the place where I learned to think critically and understand through our coursework that there isn’t always a “correct” or “incorrect” answer to every problem. I also think that going through an experience like Harvard helped me dig deeper into figuring out who I am and what I’m good at. When you’re around so many brilliant people, you can no longer hang onto your old high school identity as ‘the smart one.’ You have to really get to know more about what you bring to the table and what your superpower is. And understanding that has really helped me make decisions about my career over the course of the past 20 years.”

Gaude had some excellent advice for young, aspiring executives: “Work hard. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I really do believe that working really hard to hone your craft is what can differentiate good from great. Bring a point of view. If you have been given a seat at the table, you’re there because someone believes you have a unique point of view. Don’t be afraid to share it! Ask questions: No matter how far along in your career you are, there are always going to be times when you feel lost or don’t understand something. Ask away! No one expects you to know everything just because you’re an exec. If you are excited about a job opportunity, just go for it: A lot of folks (especially us ladies) look at opportunities and focus on the experience and skills we DON’T have. If you believe you could be great at a role, throw your hat in the ring – even if you don’t check off every box in the job description. The worst thing that can happen is you won’t be chosen, and that’s okay.” 

In her free time, Gaude enjoys hiking with her husband and two German shepherds (named Sammy and Luna), spending time with family, reading, and doing yoga. She also tells us she’s just finished the latest season of Fauda. “So, if anyone wants to share thoughts on the season finale, hit me up!” Gaude concludes.


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.

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Exclusive Q&A with Gerry Bryant AB '76

Gerry Bryant AB '76 wears many hats. Described by many as a renaissance man, multi-talented Gerry graduated cum laude from both Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard, and received his J.D. and M.B.A., simultaneously, from UCLA. His clients -- corporations, musicians, writers, and artists of all kinds -- know him to be a well-respected legal advisor with more than two decades of experience as an attorney in the arts and entertainment industries and as a writer of a syndicated weekly newspaper column on business and legal issues in entertainment and the arts. His musician colleagues and music fans know him to be an accomplished, classically trained professional pianist and composer for more than three decades, one who performs and records regularly, both solo (classical music and uniquely arranged popular music) and with his jazz group, PocketWatch®, in clubs and studios. At a young age very early in his career, Gerry was tutored by and performed with some jazz legends, and later on he did gigs accompanying Broadway musical stars. Many others know Gerry for his volunteer work with artists of all disciplines as a board member of several nonprofit arts and entertainment organizations, including California Lawyers for the Arts and Chalk Repertory Theatre, and as a regular volunteer piano player and entertainer for patients at UCLA Medical Center. Some people even remember him for the acting he briefly did on a television show and in commercials early on in his adult life. Whatever hat Gerry wears, he proudly wears it being of service to others.

Q: You have a new album, The Composers, coming out this month that features Black classical composers who have been overlooked throughout history. What was the research and selection process like for finding and choosing who would be included on the album?

I found it ironic that not only have many if not most people I’ve spoken to been unaware of the existence of immensely talented Black classical music composers in our nation’s history -- which not very favorably speaks to our country’s educational system in general and in particular to our society’s lack of recognition of the contributions of groups other than white males, i.e., minorities, women, and other groups – but neither had I, and I have been an aspiring concert pianist and composer since I was ten! And I’m Black as well! Go figure…

Q: The album features the works of Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a slave who was perhaps the first Black American classical music composer, and Florence Price, whom you’ve listed as one of your favorite composers. Are there any other composers on this album you’d like to highlight or talk about?

This album is intended to be the first volume of a series featuring Black classical composers. Indeed, I’m working on the second volume as we speak, but who knows when that will ever be
completed! My original intent was to have one or two compositions by up to a dozen amazing
composers on each album, but once I found out about “Blind Tom”, whose story is fascinating, I
knew I wanted to include more than just two of his compositions. Even more tellingly, once I
learned more about Florence Price and heard her music, I immediately fell in love with her work
and knew that there were many more works of hers than just one or two I wanted to record. So,
this first volume of The Composers consists of four selections by “Blind Tom” and eleven
selections by Florence Price. In fact, whilst the second volume of The Composers will most
likely include compositions by six or more other composers, I will also include an amazing string
arrangement by my violinist extraordinaire friend Mark Cargill of a major violin and piano
composition by Ms. Price that I was unable to include on this first album.


Q: You’ve recorded and independently distributed a dozen albums, each containing classical music, some of your original music, some jazz, and some reimagined pop cover tunes. What led to the release of this album on the Parma Recording’s Navona label?

I had participated in an online seminar on the long overdue but welcome efforts being made by
classical music radio stations to increase the diversity of their playlists by including composers
and performers, past and present, who are Black, Hispanic, women, etc., who have been sorely
underrepresented in such playlists. One of the online seminar participants, who is also part of
those efforts, was Bob Lord, CEO of Parma. I later contacted him directly, applauded him and
the others he has been partnering with for their efforts, and mentioned my The Composers
project. He expressed interest in my album, and one thing led to another, so they will be
releasing the album on their label this month.

Q: Your career has been extremely multi-faceted; not only are you a classically trained
pianist and composer, but you also have your J.D. and an M.B.A, and you’ve done lots
of arts advocacy and volunteer work. If you could go back, is there anything you would
change or do differently in your career path?

Well, I never intended to do -- or even thought about doing – any of the things you’ve mentioned
other than to simply play the piano and compose! I did decide to become a lawyer in the
entertainment business – my own lawyer, mind you, not a lawyer for anyone else! – so that I
would learn and know the business of music well and not get ripped off, as many musicians and
artists do when they blindly enter into contracts without knowing better or consulting a trusted,
knowledgeable and experienced attorney. I’ve since learned that what I accomplished – getting
a J.D. and an M.B.A. simultaneously, working for a noted entertainment law firm, participating in
seminars and workshops on the industry, etc., was total overkill. I didn’t need to do all of that. I
really only needed to acquire a basic knowledge of how things work in the arts and
entertainment industry and then surround myself with a team of individuals – lawyers, agents,
managers, publicists -- who were deeply knowledgeable and believed in me and my music and
whom I trusted. The time I spent pursuing all of the industry-specific business education I
acquired, especially in the arduous J.D./M.B.A. program I went through, could have been more
productively spent specifically on my music, practicing, composing, gigging, etc. But as I look
back, and to answer your question whether there is anything I would change if I had to do it over
again, not really. All of my experiences contributed to what made me the person I am today and
to the music that I create.

Q: Classical music sometimes gets a reputation for being… well, archaic. How do you think we can generate excitement about classical works, particularly for younger audiences, when it comes to music education?

Appreciating and enjoying “serious” music like classical music and jazz first involves being
exposed to it. Ideally, that would come at an early age through our educational system, but arts
and music education programs and funding have decreased dramatically since I was a child.
The way to expose our youth to such artistic pursuits nowadays is to reach them where they
spend most of their time, which is on social media. Indeed, according to recent studies, young
people engage with orchestral and classical music more on social media than in the classroom,
especially on TikTok, which is helping to discover the next general of young classical talent and
is filled with classical music stars. TikTok creators have taken the medium and invented their
own ways of enjoying music, including classical music. So up next for me is to establish a
presence on TikTok!

Q: Who are your top five favorite composers to listen to and/or play?

That’s an easy question. I am a true romantic at heart -- musically and socially speaking -- and
my favorite composers are those of the Romantic Era, i.e., Chopin (who tops the list), Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and now, though she wasn’t of that particular era,
Florence Price.

Q: Your last album, Besotted, contains a classical x swing jazz x gospel reimagining of
Katy Perry's “California Girls”. What do you think is the value or importance of
reimagining and infusing different musical styles together?

That’s a good question. For me, my music is a reflection of my overall life experiences and my
arts and musical educational upbringing, all of which are varied, eclectic, and broad ranging.
With my love for all genres of music, it is only natural that my music, whether my original
compositions or my recordings cover songs that end up being reimagined versions of the
versions by the original artists, speaks to me and is an honest reflection of how I envision the
piece. I couldn’t mimic or recreate any cover song if I tried, and not that I’d ever want to. I think
in general that is what all artists do. Artists take something that inspires them to create their art,
be it a landscape, a person, an event, a photo, an idea, whatever, and what they create reflects
all of the elements of their life experiences and training I just mentioned.  

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young musicians and artists?

Two things. First, always keep working at your art, continue to learn from the art and approach
of other artists who came before you, and don’t get discouraged. Second, make it a point to
become educated about the legal and business aspects of your art. Most artists have little or no
knowledge or understanding of what is involved in having their art distributed, promoted,
exhibited, or “exploited” as lawyers say, leaving them vulnerable to being taken advantage of or
to entering into unfavorable business relationships. Knowledge is the key to everything and to
ensuring an artist’s ultimate success with their art. Joining and taking advantage of the legal,
educational and dispute resolution services of an organization such as California Lawyers for
the Arts, whose mission is to educate and empower artists of all disciplines, is a good way to
start. And of course, Harvardwood is also a valuable organization for assisting artists in
navigating the business components of their creative careers.

Q: What is your favorite piece on your new album?

I have two by Ms. Price: the second movement of her “Sonata in E Minor”, and “Andante Con Espressione”, a lovely violin and piano piece with violinist Mark Cargill. If our readers are so inclined and I can put in a plug for it, I encourage them to view the YouTube video of us performing the piece (here).

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

“Free time”?? LOL. What is that?

Jerry's album The Composers was released on June 1, 2022 and is available to stream now.

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January 2023 | Sumalee Montano AB '93

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by Laura Frustaci

Sumalee Montano (AB '93)’s recently released film The Deal is available to stream on The Roku Channel. She sat down with us to give us the scoop on creating the film, wearing multiple hats, and her transition from investment banker to successful actor/producer. 

Sumalee tells us The Deal is exciting for her because, “We made a sci-fi adventure film that takes you on a fun emotional ride. And it’s my love song to my mother,” she continues, “At its heart, our film is about love and sacrifice, which are universal themes. We meet a single mother and her teenage daughter who live in a post-pandemic world that’s short on resources and devoid of compassion. They find themselves in a desperate situation, and we experience what they go through trying to escape from a cruel, callous system and protect each other.” That definitely sounds like a captivating emotional journey– and pretty topical considering our current societal circumstances. 

At the center of this filmic journey, of course, is Sumalee – she had originally planned on just producing the project, but when Electric Entertainment (the film’s production company) team members Dean Devlin and Lisa Brenner came to Sumalee to pitch her the leading role, how could she say no? “I was more excited than anything else. For veteran producers like Dean and Lisa to entrust a lead role to me is a dream come true!” Sumalee says. “Prior to them coming on board, I had spent a couple years in script development, working closely with our writer Sean Presant, also a Harvard grad,” she explains further. “I discovered early on that in order to give good notes on the script, I really had to divorce myself from thinking I might ever play the role of Tala, the mother in our story. So when I pitched the film to Lisa and Dean at Electric Entertainment, I was so used to only being a producer and not thinking of myself as an actor that I didn’t pitch myself for the role.”

Which leads us to the next question: how did she manage to wear both hats during the same film? “We filmed The Deal in 2019, before the pandemic hit,” Sumalee reflects. “Since then I’ve executive produced a few films that I don’t act in. The Deal is special because I got to do both... For the six weeks we spent filming though, I was able to take off my producer hat and just focus on acting, because we had such a wonderful director, Orsi Nagypal, and an awesome producing team. It would have been too hard for me to try to do both, especially on the first film I produced. But before filming started and again after we wrapped, I wore both hats.” Overall, Sumalee appreciates the unique challenge that being a multifaceted creative presents. “There are times when I feel like ditching my producer hat and disappearing into my actor hat and vice versa,” she tells us. “At best, getting to wear both hats feels like a lovely dance between different perspectives that I hold. But sometimes it can feel like a conflicting interplay in my mind that I have to consciously resolve. I’m always learning, evolving. And that’s what I love about my work.”

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Another potential challenge for this project is that the character Sumalee played, Tala Bayani, is based on her mother. While some actors may find it daunting to hold such a personal connection to the role they’re portraying, Sumalee found it refreshing: “As an actor that’s what I love doing most. My mom would’ve gotten such a kick out of knowing that Tala is her. Although she would argue that she’s the funny one in our relationship and I’m the serious one.

But in the film, we gave the humor to Analyn, the daughter character.” More on the mother-daughter dynamic of the film in the next paragraph! Sumalee explains further, “In terms of how the mother character came to be, I had the basic storyline of The Deal in my mind a couple years before we started developing the script. I just hadn’t decided what the relationship between our two main characters would be. Do they know each other or are they strangers? After my mom died, a friend suggested that I tell a mother-daughter story because I was thinking so much about her. And that was a watershed moment. Everything fell into place after that!”

Says Sumalee about the mother-daughter relationship between herself and her mother, and then her character and her on-screen daughter, “I love how our relationship ended up on screen, everything from how we used to argue when I was a teenager to entire conversations we had later in life, like her instructing me on how to survive when she died. There’s a scene near the top of the film that was completely borne out of those conversations. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a teenager. And at the time, I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with that. When it came time for my mom to go to the hospital for surgery, I refused to go. I disappeared to go hang out with my friends, which is exactly what we see Analyn do near the beginning of the film, when faced with her mother’s impending death.”

Sumalee concludes, “I easily saw how my relationship with my mom, especially what we went through during the last year of her life, fit perfectly within the sci-fi adventure story I wanted to tell. And what a great way to also disrupt a genre that historically hasn’t centered people of color, women of color, specifically. I was so excited!”

It may surprise readers to learn that Sumalee began her professional career as an investment banker. This foundation, however, did set her down a path towards her current success: “I think if I hadn’t been an investment banker, I wouldn’t be a producer today. Getting my foundation in business is where a lot of my producing instincts come from… The business instincts you also need in Hollywood, for me, come from working at a global financial services company, serving multiple client teams, on deals worth tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.” Sumalee laughs, “It’s funny how a job I quit so many years ago still has relevance to my work now.”

As a successful working actor and producer, Sumalee certainly has wisdom to share with aspiring creatives: “Remember that the journey is the destination. Find a great acting school or coach you vibe with. Hone your craft by studying and taking classes. Try to stay in class until you’re getting paid to act so frequently that being in class doesn’t make sense anymore.” And, another piece of advice, “Those friends you make in class will be your support system to help you weather the inevitable highs and lows of Hollywood. And as a former teacher once told me about your acting muscles: ‘If you’re not using it, you’re losing it.’ That’s why I believe in finding ways to keep building your muscles, like class.”

Sumalee’s time at Harvard had a big impact on how she ended up where she is today, especially with regard to The Deal. “Because of friendships from Harvard, I met Grace Lay, who also produced The Deal with me. Since then, Grace and I have executive produced multiple films together, including Nanny, the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner (Amazon/Blumhouse), and Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures), which premiered at Sundance and is now up for Best Documentary at the Indie Spirit Awards.”

Sumalee explains that her creative relationship with Grace is harmonious because they strive to tell similar stories: “Grace and I focus on telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural people in front of and behind the camera,” Sumalee says. What are they planning to do next? “LinLay Productions has several other films on its slate. I’m also working on developing my own ideas now for animation and live-action.” And we’re looking forward to seeing all of them!

Sumalee holds a breadth of perspectives in the industry, originating her career as an investment banker and now as an actress-producer. On-screen, Sumalee is a series regular in the action series Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (Peacock). She has recurred and guest starred on dozens of television shows, including VEEP, This Is Us, and S.W.A.T. She has also acted in nearly 200 animated roles to date, across film, television and triple-A video games, including Sony's Ghost of Tsushima.Off-screen, Sumalee is an advocate for telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural talent in front of and behind the camera. A founding partner of LinLay Productions, Sumalee produced the sci-fi dystopian drama, The Deal (Roku) and executive produced multiple films that have premiered at Sundance Film Festival, including Nanny, which won the 2022 U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Amazon/BlumHouse), and the documentary Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures).


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.

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December 2022 | Desta Tedros Reff HLS '13

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by Laura Frustaci

“Entertainment is the most effective form of advocacy,” says Desta Tedros Reff, HLS ‘13. Most recently, she’s been executive producing the Amazon TV series A League of Their Own. The show has seen really positive reviews, especially with regard to its LGBTQ+-centered content. “We’re infusing both queerness and Blackness into this classic American film,” says Desta. “I was a lover of the film. As a queer Black woman, I’m very excited about putting myself into a narrative I always had to imagine myself in.” That’s part of what makes the show so resonant with audiences right now. Desta explains, “This was the first show I’ve ever been on where the room was so diverse in so many ways - queer writers, writers of color, trans writers, and non-binary writers. More than just the writers’ room, across the spectrum of the show, it was a supportive and safe space that translated to the screen.”

This is too infrequently the case in Hollywood spaces. “When I’m trying to translate my experiences, there's usually a communication barrier being surrounded by the straight white male as I try to explain myself to them,” Desta says. But, on A League of Their Own, Desta and the rest of the team have discovered, “We’re all speaking the same language, so we can have more nuanced and specific portrayals that people don’t usually see.” 

Desta didn’t always intend to go into TV writing. She attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 2013, then pursued social justice work, most notably in a small town in Mississippi (where she earned a Community Public Health Award, one of her proudest accomplishments). “They don’t give [the award] to outsiders very often, but I worked hard to be accepted into their community,” she smiles. And Desta continues this legacy in her work in the entertainment industry, citing a self-imposed “advocacy mandate” in everything she creates. 

Desta has certainly found television, film, and media to be extraordinarily effective advocacy resources. “I’ve done advocacy on multiple levels, and the hardest part is getting people to show up and listen,” Desta explains. “There’s much less convincing in entertainment. People come to you and they want to see what you have to say.” So, it’s been a rewarding career shift for her to be able to continue focusing her talents on helping people, but using television to appeal to a much broader and more willing audience. “We’re shaping culture and the way people see the world, so it’s the highest opportunity for advocacy. There’s opportunities in everything we create, and for me I’m always looking for that.” She parallels law and entertainment: “[TV] is not that different from what I do in the legal spaces. I’m working with smart, interesting people with diverse backgrounds trying to build something, whether that’s an argument or a story. It’s the same skills: I have to convince you, either to be on my side or to emotionally invest in the story I’m telling.”

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Desta also points out that, “Advocacy exists on different shows on different levels. When I was a staff writer for Shooter, I wrote this scene in the show, and the leads drive by a confederate flag, the white lead and Black co-lead, and they have a semi-critical conversation about the confederate flag, and on that type of show with that type of audience, that can lead to tremendous change.” 

What does she like best about TV? Well, “What’s nice about television is that it’s really collaborative, which is what I enjoyed about law school. You are all the time creating with really cool people with really unique points of view and they bring pieces to a project that make it better and make you better…The strength of your collaborators elevates your skill.” How is this different from film?I like the idea of film,” says Desta, “Most people who are writers start writing features, but it’s different in film because there’s so much time. [TV] is more think-on-your-feet in a way that I find really engaging.” 

When asked what advice she had for aspiring writers and creatives, Desta replies, “Don’t lose your point of view because that’s what makes you special. Your POV can be a lot of things, for example, mine is a deep empathic storytelling - I always have to figure out what motivates people and the way people work, and I can’t help but empathize with them.” She continues, “What is your unique lens? Finding ways to show that is what will set you apart. A lot of scripts don’t jump off the page; there are good bits and pieces, but it still doesn’t jump off the page. What jumps off the page is pieces of you, as many pieces of you that you can put on the page, it makes a difference.” She also says to never stop creating. “The more you do things and put out into the world, it will help you be seen and it will help you get better.”

Desta also emphasizes the importance of living life in order to feed creativity. “You need to write and have interesting experiences. I’ve lived a full life, and it helps me balance the stakes of the career which can feel completely all-consuming. It’s so high stakes and so low stakes at the same time, so having a life helps you be a better creator and helps you weather the storm better. And it was the same thing when I went to law school.” Finally, she recalls, “Another writer gave me this advice once: 'Listen to your life, and it will actually guide you.' It’s not a race. If you put enough effort into something you will be successful you just can’t control when.”

Her success in the entertainment industry has come at the perfect time for her. Looking ahead, Desta is excited to be co-writing a pilot for HBO and hoping for a second season of A League of Their Own. In this industry, Desta says, “You’re always doing 50 things and nothing simultaneously.” In the time between that, Desta enjoys finding low-stakes, tangible creative projects with a beginning, middle, and end (like building her kids a playhouse) and then playing with her kids (in said playhouse).  

Desta Tedros Reff is a writer and director that has written for a variety of different shows, from character dramas (Sorry for Your Loss, The Last Tycoon) to action (Shooter) and then some (The Purge, Grand Hotel). Currently, she serves as an Executive Producer on Amazon's television reboot of A League of Their Own. Before transitioning to entertainment, Desta had a former career as a lawyer and spent several years in the Mississippi Delta working as a social justice advocate. Desta loves to tell stories from a place of empathy and is driven to bring marginalized perspectives into the mainstream, specifically through authentic portrayals of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters and stories.


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Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.

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Exclusive Q&A with Loni Steele Sosthand AB ’88

Loni Steele Sosthand AB '88 is currently a Co-Producer going into her third season on THE SIMPSONS. Prior to that, she was partnered with Jim Hope as Consulting Producers on Nickelodeon's COUSINS FOR LIFE. Loni has written for various multi-cam family comedies including LAB RATS, DOG WITH A BLOG and BEST FRIENDS WHENEVER. Loni also co-created, co-wrote, and co-produced KATRINA, a half-hour dramedy pilot for The-N (Teen Nick), executive produced by Warrington Hudlin.  Loni is a graduate of Harvard University where she wrote a novel for her honors thesis.  In addition to her writing life, Loni lives in Santa Clarita with her husband, a Stunt Coordinator/Stuntman, her ten-year-old triplets, two dogs, and one very abused minivan. 

Q: Congratulations on your recent trailblazing episode of The Simpsons, the first-ever episode featuring the use of ASL and the show’s first-ever deaf voice actors. How did you end up as a writer and executive story editor on the show?

Well… it was the summer of 2020, and our family, like most, was in the thick of pandemic related stress. My husband is a Stunt Coordinator and performer so his work is dependent on productions happening, and they were barely coming back.   The few that were would require him leaving us for months of quarantine apart.  Our triplets were going into the third grade and we were scrambling to figure out how to best assist their “at-home” schooling. Though I’d written on several multi-cam comedies over the years and built up my writer’s room experiences, I wasn’t staffed at the time.  With three kids, a mortgage, grocery bills and so much uncertainty, I began doing some on-line writing tutoring and started a graduate program in Psychology, finally initiating the Plan B career.  I hadn’t given up on my dreams, but I couldn’t just sit around and count on some out of the blue miracle like Al Jean and Matt Selman, the showrunners of The Simpsons reading my material (submitted by my agent), offering me a meeting and hiring me.  Then, in a merciful twist of fate, that is what happened.  

Q: What inspired the storyline of your episode “The Sound of Bleeding Gums”?  

When I became a The Simpsons' writer, I really wanted to tell a Bleeding Gums Murphy story because I loved that character so much from when I was a kid.  I’ve long been a jazz fan, and those early episodes with Bleeding Gums had such a delightfully bluesy sense of humor.  Of course, in pitching any idea for the thirty third season of The Simpsons there is a great challenge to do something new, while still honoring the legacy of the show.  So, in brainstorming ways to explore Bleeding Gums’ character with a fresh take, we talked about how Lisa might have missed out on some aspects of his life and not known her hero as well as she thought. That’s where the idea of her meeting his son, Monk Murphy, who happens to be deaf, came into play.  My brother Eli was born profoundly deaf, and so it excited me to get the opportunity to pay witness to some aspects of the deaf experience in the Simpsons world, something that hadn’t been done before.  My brother got a cochlear implant in his twenties and I was with him when he heard sound for the first time.  There were many moments surrounding that miraculous change in his life that were full of bluesy humor that fit into the tone of those early Bleeding Gums episodes. 

Because of my brother I was sensitive to how we represented this deaf character and knew we’d need a deaf voice actor for the role.  When we were still in the outlining phase of the episode, I told Al Jean about John Autry II who I had in mind to play the role of Monk Murphy.  I’d work[ed] with John over a decade earlier on a pilot I did for Nickelodeon when John was still a teenager.   John uses total communication, meaning he both signs and uses oral speech to communicate and he also got a cochlear implant in his twenties.  There is a moment in the episode when Monk gets his cochlear activated and hears the sound of his father’s music for the first time, and I think that John’s performance which draws on his personal experience, combined with the beautiful animation really makes it very poignant. 


Q: What was it like to work with your brother, Eli, who voiced one of the characters on this project? 

My brother and I have collaborated before on different projects and it’s an easy fit because we know each other so well.  I showed him early drafts of the script, mostly to get his approval for elements of the story that borrowed from his life.  There is a segment of the episode that shows how Bleeding Gums discovered that his son was born deaf that is directly drawn from how my parents discovered that Eli was born deaf.   As a baby he was napping when my father dropped pots and pans near his crib and when he didn’t wake up from the clatter they knew he couldn’t hear.  We animated [this] in the scene where Bleeding Gums comes home late at night with a bandmate who drops his cymbals in a loud clatter that doesn’t wake the baby.  After the show aired my brother expressed how moved he was by seeing that moment represented on The Simpsons. So, when it turned out we needed one more deaf voice in the episode it made sense to cast him.  He has, of course, bugged me ever since about when his character will return and perhaps carry an episode [arc]. 

Q: You talked a bit about the challenge of animating ASL for characters who only had four fingers– were there any other unexpected challenges or surprises that cropped up while you were creating this episode? 

Well, the challenges of drawing the ASL were mostly taken on by our wonderful animators. I do believe one of the animators had some knowledge of ASL, but we also sent clips of their animatics to several ASL experts.  I turned to two family friends: Michelle McAuliffe, a childhood friend who is a professor at Gallaudet, and Cindy Herbst, who is a professor of ASL and an interpreter at Cal State Northridge.   Both these women were generous with their time and happy to help as we sent drafts of the animation to them and made slight adjustments.  After the show aired I visited one of Michelle’s classes at Gallaudet (via Zoom) and it was a real honor to get to meet with her students and get their feedback.  I was deeply touched by what it meant to them to see ASL on The Simpsons, and I was also happy to hear their pitches for how to do it even better and more often. 

Q: How is writing for animation different from writing for human actors, if at all? Do you like one more than the other? Do you find writing for animation to be easier because cartoon characters have more flexibility in terms of what they can be made to do?

I just love how patient the process is in animation. It takes about a year from the original pitch to the airing of an episode, so there are a lot of opportunities to make improvements.  I love the collaborative discussions with the animators that come after the table read.  For example, for this episode I was able to send them many images for how to draw Monk’s hearing aids and later his cochlear implant.  And the moment when Monk gets his implant turned on for the first time is illustrated to show the musical notes coming off of his father’s album, entering the cochlear implant, and then lighting up Monk’s brain with memories and images of his father.  This is a beautiful moment conveyed through animation, that could only be drawn.

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

I went to Harvard knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea I’d write for television.  At the time my ambition was to be a novelist. I took as many creative writing classes as I could and got to study with Jamaica Kincaid and Jill McCorkle.   I was able to do a novel as my creative writing thesis and I went on to graduate school in the MFA program at UC Irvine.  As I struggled to finish the novel, I began writing scripts on the side just for fun.  Eventually the form of writing that I had the most fun doing took over the form I was most stressed about.    I participated in writing workshops at Harvardwood that really helped me get my early spec scripts in shape.  Those workshops were great opportunities to collaborate with other writers, many of whom have since gone on to have successful writing careers. 

Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring comedy writers? 

Get into or start a supportive writing group and use it to keep creating and revising your specs to get them in better and better shape. Rewriting is the main part of the job and collaborating is the other.  So, getting to workshop your work in a group setting is really good preparation for the writer’s room.    

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

When I’m not working it’s all about family time.  Our triplets are now ten years old and we are just trying to savor this particularly fun time in childhood.   

Loni's Simpson's episode of The Simpsons, "The Sound of Bleeding Gums", was released on April 10, 2022 and is available to stream now.

 

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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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November 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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