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.


-----

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.

Share

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

-----

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.

Share

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.

-----

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.

Share

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). 

Share

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.”


-----

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.
Share

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.

-----

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.

 

Share

June 2022 | Jeff Sagansky AB '74, MBA '76

by Dayna Wilkinson

Jeff Sagansky was destined for Hollywood. “I was already reading Variety when I was in high school. By the time I got to Harvard, I knew I wanted to make TV shows and movies.

“There wasn’t much I could do as an undergraduate to get involved in the business. If Harvardwood had existed then, I definitely would have joined the campus chapter.” After graduating and trying without success to get a job in Hollywood, “I went to Harvard Business School hoping to make myself a more attractive hire.”

“I wanted to work at CBS because at the time it was the foremost network,” Jeff recalls. “But I couldn’t get a job in programming, so I joined CBS in New York as a financial analyst.

“Each morning I waited outside Alan Wagner’s office at CBS, hoping to meet him. Alan Wagner was the New York-based CBS programming executive who had overseen shows like All in the Family and Kojak. Finally, Alan agreed to give me scripts to read outside of work hours. I’d give him my synopses and comments, and he helped me understand the dynamics of why some scripts worked and others didn’t. That was my introduction to programming.”

After applying to NBC’s West Coast associates program, Jeff got his first programming job in Burbank. “I was a liaison between NBC programming and specific shows in production. I had to make sure each episode was delivered on schedule, that the right promotional material was available and most importantly that the show was produced creatively in the way NBC had ordered it. One of my shows was The Rockford Files, which was in its fourth year and was an established hit.

“I remember going in to see Meta Rosenberg for the first time to give her my voluminous notes. She was Jim Garner’s agent and The Rockford Files executive producer. The next week I came back and again, I had voluminous notes. She listened politely then took me aside and asked ‘How do you like your job?’ I said ‘I love it, it’s sort of a dream for me.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘if you want to keep it, you should do a lot more listening and a lot less talking. You don’t have to fix this show. Why don’t you just watch how it’s done and learn what makes a show successful?’ That was fantastic advice for the twenty-five-year-old me.”

Alan Wagner and Meta Rosenberg were but two of the people who imparted valuable advice to Jeff during his Hollywood career.

“I’ve had three great mentors, the producers David Gerber, Ray Stark and Grant Tinker. Not only did they teach me about the business, they taught me about being an effective executive and about life in general. I consider mentoring the next generation of executives to be one of the most important things that I do now.”

Jeff left NBC in 1979 to work at David Gerber’s production company, then went back to NBC three years later as senior vice president in charge of series programming. “We created Must See TV with shows like Cheers, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, The A Team, St. Elsewhere and Remington Steele, shows that people still watch in digital form. Two years after I returned, NBC became the number one network for the first time in a decade.

“I made it known I wanted to spread my wings a bit and in 1985 was offered the job of starting a new studio, Tri-Star Pictures. We made movies like Peggy Sue Got Married, Steel Magnolias and Glory.

Glory was about Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Robert Gould Shaw was a young officer who had studied at Harvard; the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the first African-American regiment in the Civil War. I’d been fascinated by their story since I was sixteen or seventeen after seeing a Saint-Gaudens monument in Boston depicting their valor. It was kismet that I was in a position to greenlight Glory some twenty years later, and that it was directed by my college classmate Ed Zwick.”

“Working in the industry has been even better than I thought it would be back in my Harvard days. You’re helping very creative writers, producers and directors make great TV shows and movies by bringing whatever gifts you have. I don’t think there’s a more exciting thing to do in life.”

Hired as the president of CBS Entertainment in 1989, Jeff took the third-place network to first-place with such series as The Nanny, Chicago Hope, Picket Fences and Northern Exposure.

In a shift from his CBS programming role, Jeff then spent four years as co-president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, responsible for worldwide television operations and launching new television channels in Asia, Latin America and Central Europe. His final corporate role was at Paxson Communications where he launched the family-oriented PAX TV.

“In 2002 I decided to go out on my own. I partnered with Harry Sloan, the former Chair & CEO of MGM and Europe’s SBS Broadcasting. We both had been CEOs of public companies and knew the capital markets well, so we started creating special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. A SPAC is an alternative way to take a private company public. At first we thought we’d concentrate on media, but to date we’ve launched nine public companies ranging from media to industrials to biotech.

“Though I have less time to do it now, I’m still working with talented writers and creators. A lot of today’s great shows aren’t made in the U.S. or in English -- shows like Netflix’s Narcos, Fauda and a show I produced in India, Delhi Crime.

“Currently I’m developing shows in Hindi and Hebrew. For me, the business is as exciting now as when I first started.”


On June 2, NATPE will honor Jeff Sagansky with a Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award for his “extraordinary passion, leadership, independence and vision in content programming.”


-----

Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgDayna Wilkinson is a proud New Yorker currently living, working and writing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
Share

Exclusive Q&A with Julie Pottinger AB ’92 (aka Julia Quinn, Author)


Exclusive Q&A with Julie Pottinger AB ’92 (aka Julia Quinn, Author)

Julie Pottinger AB ’92 (pen name Julia Quinn) is a Seattle-based romance author of over three dozen books. She has written numerous bestsellers including the hit Bridgerton series that was adapted for television by Shondaland and has become a global phenomenon on Netflix. She has been inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Her latest book, the graphic novel Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, was released on May 10 and is a collaboration with her late sister, artist and illustrator Violet Charles (aka Ariana Cotler). More information can be found on her website: https://juliaquinn.com

Q: This spring saw the season 2 launch of Bridgerton, the hit Netflix show based on your wildly popular book series. What degree of involvement have you had with the Netflix series, what have been some high points and challenges, and is there anything you wish you had known prior to embarking on this journey?

A: I am only minimally involved in the production. One of the first questions to come up in any negotiation involving the option of a novelist's work is, "Are you willing to give up creative control?" My answer was an enthusiastic, "YES!" This was in large part because Hollywood has not traditionally looked to romance novels for source material, and I was very aware that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I did not want to do anything to jeopardize the deal.

But it's also very easy to come to this decision when you have such unwavering trust in the people you're working with. I'm not going to tell Shonda Rhimes how to make television.

Q: You write primarily Regency-era fiction — what drew you to focus on this specific genre vs. modern romance or other historical periods?

A: Regency England has always been a very popular setting in the historical romance genre. It's far enough in the past that it's imbued with a fairytale-like quality in ways that something set in the 20th or 21st centuries can't be. But it's modern enough that I can make my characters think and act in ways that resonate with contemporary readers.

Q: Much has been made of the nontraditional, multiracial casting choices for the show, and you have spoken enthusiastically about this element of the adaptation — how much do you think this contributed to the success of the show in finding a wider audience?

A: I think it played a huge role. Bridgerton was revolutionary in the way it allowed so many people to see themselves in this type of story. I've heard from so many people who have said it was transformative, seeing "someone like them" in the fancy gown. Romance novels are all about happy endings, and I am so incredibly proud to be a part of a project that states quite clearly: "We all deserve happy endings."

Q: In the several decades since you began your career, have you seen a trend toward more inclusivity in the romance genre — both in terms of the authors (and editors/publishers) themselves and the kinds of characters and stories being elevated?

A: Yes. But while we are moving in the right direction, we still have a long way to go. I myself am guilty of not checking my own privilege for many years. It's really easy to be unaware of the struggles of others, especially if you yourself are working hard.

I get asked a lot if I plan to write novels with main characters from traditionally marginalized groups, and I'm just not sure. The most important thing to me is that if I do write about a culture very different from my own that I do it well, and in a way that is not inadvertently harmful. There is a big danger of perpetuating a stereotype I don't even know exists.

In the meantime, I've been trying to use my platform to shine a light on diverse authors. There are so many great romances being written by authors of color, or queer authors, or neurodiverse authors, or any of a host of groups who have not traditionally been given a seat at the publishing table. I feel honored to be able to introduce readers to any talented author.

Q: Your newest release is Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, a graphic novel that is a companion piece to the Bridgerton series. You wrote this book in collaboration with your late sister, the artist Violet Charles (aka Ariana Cotler), who created all of the illustrations and contributed significantly to the story itself. Can you tell us more about the genesis of the project, what it was like to work so closely with your sister, and what you hope audiences will take away from the book?

A: Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is a "book-within-the-book" that has existed within my fictional universe since I wrote It's in His Kiss in 2005. Lady Danbury is a bit older in the books than she is in the show, and her eyes are not what they used to be, so Hyacinth Bridgerton visits her every Tuesday to read to her from Butterworth. It's a poorly written, over-the-top Gothic novel, the sort that has a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, usually with the heroine almost dying. I had so much fun with it that I brought it back for another book, and then another, and then eventually wrote one in which the hero is the secret author.

After several years, readers started asking me to write Butterworth in its entirety, which I was never going to do. It's incredibly fun to write snippets of bad writing, but an entire novel would be agony. My sister, however, was a cartoonist and illustrator, and at some point we realized it could make a spectacular graphic novel.

Writing with Aria was a gift. She was my half-sister and quite a bit younger than me. We didn't grow up together, so this was a truly unique and special bonding experience. She was someone who really struggled to find her place in life. Butterworth — and the entire experience of getting a book deal with a big New York publisher — was a big turning point for her. I can't believe that she's not here to see the book land in the hands of readers, but I take comfort in knowing that the whole world will get to see how brilliant and clever and funny she was.

Q: Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is dedicated to your father, children’s author and screenwriter Stephen Cotler (AB ’65, MBA ’68), who perished in the tragic accident that also took your sister’s life. You’ve said that your dad’s skepticism about your middle school reading choices (including the Sweet Valley High series) inspired your first effort as a teenage novelist. In what other ways did your dad influence your path as a writer?

A: First of all, I feel I need to point out that my father and sister were not killed in an accident. They were killed in an automobile crash caused by a drunk driver. A man made a decision to drink for two days straight on a drive from Idaho to Utah. His blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. There is nothing accidental about that.

But I'd rather focus on my father, and not on the man who killed him. My dad was a force of nature, and he inspired me every day to take chances and be creative. He was also always thrilled to be involved in my career, even in the tiniest of ways. Many years ago I needed to research the earliest known mention of the nursery rhyme character Little Bo Peep to make sure it was okay to mention the character in a book set in the 1820s. (Turns out it's Shakespeare, so I'm good.) But it was my dad who did the research for me. I was writing in Starbucks, back before they had free wifi, so I called him on my cell, and he did a web search for me. I told him I should put him on retainer, and he said, "Honey, I've been working for you since 1970."

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share a paragraph that was edited out of the obituary that was sent to Harvard Magazine:

(Steve) took particular delight in being “the most embarrassing dad ever” and may have clinched this award in the late 70s with an appearance on the Gong Show. (He was gonged.) His daughter Julie ‘92, however, tells the story of when she finally stopped being embarrassed by her father: “It was his 25th reunion. I was a sophomore, so I stayed in Cambridge to attend the festivities with him. The entire class of ’65 had gone to a club in Boston for dancing, and Janet Jackson came on the speakers. My father started dancing very badly (typical) but with great enthusiasm (also typical). I saw a few teenagers pointing and snickering, and I thought, ‘Yeah, you WISH your dad danced like that.’ After that, I felt nothing but pride in his geekiness. He was willing to try almost anything, and he never let the fear of embarrassment rule his actions. As a friend said after his sudden death, ‘We should all be a little more Steve.’ ”

If anyone would like to read a little more about how my father has inspired me, I wrote an essay for the back matter of The Duke and I that tells a bit more of our tale.

Q: What are your favorite films, TV shows, and books (both recent and not-so-recent)?

A: I wouldn't know where to begin with such a question, so I'll just say that for Mother's Day, my son said, "Let's have an at-home double feature." I chose Hope and Glory (1987) and The Triplets of Belleville (2003).

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

A: With my family. It doesn't even matter what we're doing, as long as we're together.

 

Share

May 2022 | Romolo Del Deo ‘82

by Rachel Levy

“I think if you give things time, that they will help you. You’re only in trouble when you rush things and, nowadays, a lot of pressure is exerted on short-duration projects and on immediate resolutions, and it’s not good for creative people that need time to sort stuff out.” 

This is the philosophy of ROMOLO DEL DEO, a master sculptor and enthusiast for the more thoughtful, less-wasteful Long Art Movement.

If you were to run into Del Deo on an average day in his native Cape Cod, you’d likely find him walking down the coast enjoying one of his favorite past-times: beachcombing, a process that both puts him in touch with nature and offers new inspiration for his work. 

“I grew up in Provincetown,” Del Deo shares, “which is an interesting place, but also a place where the environment was very present in a way that forces you to think about environmental factors.” His specific stretch of New England coast, however, goes beyond its scenery. Equally as important as its iconic seaboard is P-town’s history as an artist’s colony. In fact, it’s the oldest continuous artist’s colony in America, making it out to be quite an eclectic place to be raised.

“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” Del Deo shares, “and it was an unusual, distorting place to grow up because, essentially, when I was a child here, everyone was either a fisherman or they were an artist.” This upbringing led to a perspective that views art and environment as inextricably linked together. The son of acclaimed artist Salvatore Del Deo and conservationist-minded mother Josephine Couch Del Deo, the young Del Deo was introduced to the intersection of aesthetics and environment at a very early age. 

He reminisces on his youth as a special time in his life that had a great influence on the work he creates now. “A lot of my education [growing up] was very unorthodox,” he says, referencing a period when he had to be pulled out of school for medical complications. “We had all this clay hanging around,” because of a project his father was commissioned for, “and I wasn’t in school, [...] so I just started sculpting. You know, we were artists, so we were very poor, and I didn’t have a lot of toys so my approach to sculpting at that point was to make everything I wished I had.” 

From trucks to trains, he spent his time learning how to construct objects he was seeing all around him with the only tools he had: his two hands and a chunk of clay. “This became really like my first language,” he says. “Instead of learning to read and write, when most of my peers were doing so, I was learning how to look at an animal, or a picture of a boat, or whatever, and sculpt it. I got a very early start on that and it just sort of became my thing.”

Perhaps you’ll sense his humility in that last statement upon understanding how this thing of his has earned him exhibitions around the world and awards from major institutions like the New York Foundation for the Arts and The Henry Moore Foundation. 

Part of his success can be attributed to his commitment to challenging himself. He says he doesn't want his art to become too easy, or “fácil” as he puts it. In Del Deo’s eyes, his training has provided him the skills needed to professionally sculpt whatever he sees in front of him. However, he’s looking to do more than simple recreations with his work. He describes wasted talent in an artist like a poet who just writes Hallmark Cards. “It would be like if you had a good vocabulary, a good way of stringing words together and you just wrote lots of flowery poetry about stuff without actually using that ability to say anything.”

The most recent achievement of Del Deo’s is the installation of his sculpture entitled “The Tree Of Life Which Is Ours” in the Marinaressa Gardens of Venice, Italy, for exhibition in the Venice Art Biennial 22. The inspiration behind this piece brings us back to his hometown coast, a stretch of land that is now feeling the ever-encroaching impacts of climate change.

Del Deo, an observer of the natural world, began to notice the prevalence of ghost forests along his stretch of Provincetown coastline. Ghost forests are stretches of formerly lush coastal estuary where saltwater encroached, killed the trees, and left behind a mass of slowly dying and dead trees. 

During his beachcombing excursions, Del Deo began collecting and studying different pieces of driftwood from these ghost forests. “I have a way of working and it’s kind of like I’m a squirrel and I’m hoarding things for the winter,” he says of the process.

image descriptionEventually, he began making molds from these shapes to see what his work might reveal to him. “What really excites me is to take it through a process of transformation,” Del Deo says. “I want it to be a springboard and I really want it to take me somewhere else.”

After making molds and then twisting, cutting, shaping, recombining and eventually making new molds, he eventually came upon part of “The Tree Of Life Which Is Ours.” He compares the process to writing a script or a novel. “You get to a certain point in which you don't have the ending.” This is where he found himself after completing this initial design based on those pieces of driftwood he collected.

The ending for this sculpture finally took shape as a woman’s head that draws inspiration from the myth of Daphne. 

“Daphne, you see, she turned into a tree,” Del Deo explains. “And I’ve been working with this idea about how I wanted to say something about how climate change is something we are all involved with, and how these ghost forests are a very obvious precursor, which is a global phenomenon.”

For Del Deo, Daphne closed the loop between the ghost forests and their connection with humanity. “[Daphne] became a tree. So her existence and the tree’s existence were united and in that sense, we are all Daphne.”

For Del Deo, now as always, art is indistinguishable from the environment.

Photo credit all photos: Tatiana Del Deo ©2022

The models and studies for the Biennale sculpture as well as Tatiana’s photography documenting the making of "The Tree Of Life Which Is Ours" will be on exhibit at the Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown, MA from July 1-23, 2022.


-----

Rachel Levy ('22) is a published journalist, photographer, and filmmaker studying within the Environmental Science and Public Policy department. She creates work at the intersection of art, culture, and environment and produced her first film “Starving in Paradise” this year about food insecurity in Hawaii. In September of this year she’ll travel to Tanzania on a postgraduate fellowship to produce a documentary about the relationship between female empowerment, eco-tourism, and international development; find Rachel at rach-levy.com.

Share

April 2022 | Donna Brown Guillaume AB '73

Alumni Profile: Donna Brown Guillaume AB ’73 (producer, journalist)

by Dayna Wilkinson

Donna Brown Guillaume was brought up all over the world. “My dad was in the Air Force so we moved a lot.” After a five-year stint in Minnesota, the family relocated to Brooklyn, New York. “It was my last two years of high school, a very tough time to transfer schools. Going from a school with eighty-eight kids in my grade to one with five thousand kids in grades 9-12—that was some serious culture shock.” 

Soon after, a critical chapter in Donna Brown Guillaume’s life and in the life of the nation began. “The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, anti-War protests, the DNC convention beatings, anti-apartheid demonstrations--I can’t overstate how important the year 1968 was,” she recalls.

During my junior year, I went to a college recruiting fair in Manhattan. All the Harvard-Radcliffe recruiters were Black students just a couple of years older than I.  A Radcliffe student from the class of 1971 told me about all the exciting things they were doing. She was so cool and made such an impression that I decided ‘I want to go where she goes.’ I loved the idea of connecting with a community that looked like me. I started college in 1969 when Black Studies departments were being formed and consciousness-raising was happening on campuses across the country.

“At Harvard, Black students had really fought for an Afro-American Studies department. Harvard had pushed back, saying ‘why can’t you have a couple of classes here and a couple of classes there from existing departments?’  The students’ response was ‘you can have a department of Sanskrit but you can’t have a department of Afro-American Studies?’ The class ahead of me was the first year you could have Afro-American Studies as a major. I knew that any liberal arts degree would train me to be a critical thinker; my decision to major in Afro-American Studies was a political one.

“While on campus from 1969-1973, I marched and picketed. I was in the African dance troupe and in AFRO, the Black student group--we had a high level of anti-apartheid consciousness. I was also a cheerleader for the basketball team: ten of us created an all-Black squad that wasn’t Harvard-sanctioned so we made our own uniforms. I also taught at a preschool in Roxbury.

“My college years were transformational. I had a slammin’ group of classmates, many of whom became influential in their spheres. At our 40th reunion we formed ClassActHR73.org, (Achieving Change Together), an initiative of Harvard-Radcliffe Class of ’73 alumni who aim to help solve local, national, and international problems by creating and supporting positive change. We’re still activists who want to make a difference.”

Donna moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and worked on a community newspaper supported by an anti-poverty program. When its grant ran out, she went to work at the local Channel 2 newsroom and then at CBS’ network news bureau.  “Working at CBS network news was heady stuff to me. I could be sitting in the newsroom and Mike Wallace or Ed Bradley (from 60 Minutes) would walk in. Our bureau covered Alaska, Hawaii and all the Western states. I was young and single so I didn’t mind working on the weekends, and sometimes I filled in as weekend assignment editor.  I’d send out correspondents from L.A. to cover breaking news anywhere in the region. I also started writing and producing Newsbreak, a one-minute news broadcast that CBS aired before the start of the 9:00 pm show.”

After about a year, Donna returned to the local CBS station as an associate producer on the magazine show Two on the Town

“A lot of the stories were entertainment-based, and many involved travel. I went to Zimbabwe, Mexico, and in Tahiti spent a day with Marlon Brando.  It was an incredible job. I interviewed Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini and a lot of other artists.  

“Sometimes I could pitch stories with more of an edge. I pitched a story about the KKK in Southern California, and had a close phone relationship with a KKK grand dragon—of course, he didn’t know I was Black. When it came time for the on-camera interview, a white colleague went instead--like in the movie Black KKKlansman.

“I also did a half-hour, Emmy-nominated documentary on Martin Luther King; the host was Robert Guillaume, the man who was to become my husband. Robert opened other doors that I wanted to walk through. 

 “I’ve been in production since I joined CBS, so I understand production and I understand storytelling. Storytelling fuels me whether it’s in news, documentaries or entertainment.”

In terms of her overall work, Guillaume says she’s probably most proud of Happily Ever: Fairy Tales for Every Child. “Meryl Marshall and I pitched and sold it to HBO then oversaw it throughout as the executive producers.

“Most fairy tales we know are from the European children’s storytelling canon but the themes are transferrable and universal. We adapted the tales then cast them to give them cultural diversity so all children can relate to them.  For example, Rosie Perez was Robinita Hood.

“It was great working with wonderful talent like Rosie, Danny Glover, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Alfre Woodard, Blair Underwood, Jimmy Smits, B.D. Wong, Buffy St. Marie and so many more. We went on the air in 1995 and those thirty-nine animated episodes are still running on HBO.” 

Currently, Guillaume is a consulting producer on Eureka!, a musical animated series coming to Disney Junior in June 2022. Ruth Righi (Disney Channel's Sydney to the Max) has the lead role of a talented young inventor living in a fantastical prehistoric world; the voice cast also includes Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) and Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) as Eureka’s parents and Javier Muñoz (another Hamilton alum), as her teacher.

“Part of my job is to go through scripts and flag anything that strikes me as culturally inaccurate,” Guillaume says. For a show about a girl who helps others learn to see the world from different perspectives, that seems just what’s needed.

---

Dayna Wilkinson is a proud New Yorker currently living, working and writing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

 

Share