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.”
Connor 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.
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.
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 is a proud New Yorker currently living, working and writing in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
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.
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.
Eventually, 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.
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.
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.
March 2022 | Debra Martin Chase HLS '81
by Aissata Bah
Debra Martin Chase has always been an avid lover of movies and television. Though Chase didn’t initially know how to enter the elusive world of entertainment, doing so was always the dream for her.
Chase studied political science at Mount Holyoke College and later attended Harvard Law School. While she was at HLS, Chase would visit revival theaters in Harvard Square in between study sessions at the library. Through watching old French movies and Hollywood classics at the theaters, Chase continued to nurture her creative interests and passions as a student. After graduating from HLS in 1981, Chase went on to practice corporate law until she had an epiphany.
“I realized,” Chase said, “this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I wanted to see if I could make the dream come true.”
Chase decided to change careers and spent a year researching the film and television industry as well as the various roles within it to identify the specific aspect of the business she wanted to be a part of. Chase gained admittance into a prestigious two-year executive development program at Columbia Pictures, which presented her the opportunity to learn more about the industry from within. While in the program, Chase met the chairman of Columbia Pictures and became his executive assistant.
As an executive assistant, Chase polished her skills on how to develop scripts, find property, and produce. While her first few years in the industry were difficult at times, Chase says, “I was guided by my love for storytelling, and I just worked really hard to learn the job.” Her experience as an executive assistant was particularly invaluable as she was able to follow her boss into meetings, read scripts for him, and ask questions.
Chase soon joined the creative staff at Columbia. While walking across the Columbia lot one day, she saw Denzel Washington and took the chance to introduce herself to him. At the time, Washington was looking for someone to run his production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, and soon offered her the role about a week later. Chase’s decision to join Washington’s company reflected her motivation for entering the entertainment industry in the first place.
“I got into this business to tell different stories about people of color and women that had not been told prior to that,” Chase shares. “For me, it’s just really about finding stories that I’m passionate about, that inspire people, and that deserve to be told.” Chase specifically gravitates towards stories with positive messages about taking control of one’s destiny and empowering women. While at Mundy Lane, Chase worked on films such as The Pelican Brief and Crimson Tide as well as the Academy Award-nominated and Peabody Award-winning documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.
Chase then partnered with Whitney Houston’s Brown House Productions where they produced Cinderella in addition to the first Cheetah Girls and Princess Diaries films. Following the large-scale success of these films, Disney offered Chase the opportunity to create her own production company, which became Martin Chase Productions, and Chase became the first Black woman to have a production deal at a major studio. In the fifteen years that she partnered with Disney, Chase continued producing the Cheetah Girls and Princess Diaries franchises and also produced The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Lemonade Mouth among other films.
At the beginning of Chase’s career, there were no figures in the industry that she looked up to or sought to emulate because there wasn’t anyone who was doing the work that she wanted to do. Finding fresh voices and surrounding herself with a strong team of talent has always been a priority to Chase. She has subsequently launched the career of several actors, writers, and producers, including Shonda Rhimes, who was a former intern of hers and whom Chase offered her first paid writing job.
With the emergence of film and television shows like Scandal, Black Panther, and Chase’s Harriet in the last decade that centered Black narratives and proved that racially diverse stories can be enormously successful, Chase believes that the entertainment industry is moving in the right direction. However, Chase also believes that there needs to be increased representation of people behind the screen. “There need to be even more people of color in decision-making positions at studios and networks,” and, she adds, especially on the feature side.
To aspiring creatives, Chase stresses the importance of honing one’s skills and researching how the film and television businesses work. But, at the end of the day, she emphasizes, “you’ve got to bet on yourself and take a chance. Hopefully, it works out, and if it doesn’t, you learn from your mistakes as much as or sometimes even more than your successes.”
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Aissata Bah is a sophomore at Harvard College originally from Atlanta, GA. She is an aspiring television writer majoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with a minor in Statistics. She hopes to create stories that specifically center and affirm women of color.
February 2022 | Jeff Yang AB '89
by Sophie Kim
JEFF YANG launched one of the first Asian American national magazines, A. Magazine, in the late 1990s, and is now a frequent contributor to CNN, Quartz, Slate, the New York Times and National Public Radio. He has written/edited three books—Jackie Chan’s New York Times bestselling memoir I Am Jackie Chan, Once Upon a Time in China, and Eastern Standard Time—and three graphic novels, Secret Identities, Shattered andNew Frontiers. His elder son, Hudson Yang, starred as Eddie Huang in ABC's groundbreaking sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. Yang was born in New York and lives in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology from Harvard University and was a Harvard National Scholar with coursework in Asian languages, literature, and civilizations, media studies, and economics.
Yang was born in Brooklyn, and raised in the white, conservative community of Staten Island. As a child, he struggled with his Asian American identity, and often wanted to “become invisible and erase [his] identity.” However, at Harvard, Yang was able to embrace his heritage and connect with other Asian Americans. While Yang initially believed he might go into medicine or law, he soon realized that he wanted to be a writer. Yang joined the Harvard Lampoon and, with a group of other Asian American students, relaunched East Wind, a Harvard student publication about East Asian American politics, identity, and culture. East Wind evolved into A. Magazine, an East Asian American focused magazine that, until it ceased publication in 2002, was the largest publication for English-speaking East Asian Americans in the United States.
After graduation, Yang decided to pursue a career in journalism, with a focus on Asian American identity and issues. Early in his career, he grappled with the idea of being pigeonholed as someone who only wrote about these issues. When he would reach out to interview artists and other personalities for A. Magazine, they would often downplay their Asian identities, saying things like “I'm not an Asian American writer. I'm a writer who happens to be Asian American.” This mentality frustrated Yang, who said that these statements felt like “direct assertions that being Asian American was a liability.” Yang purposefully chose to focus on Asian American identity in his reporting, and went on to become a columnist for publications such as Alternate Weekly and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Yang spoke about the importance of collaborating with other Asian Americans on projects such as Angry Asian Man (an Internet blog founded in 2001 with blogger Phil Yu), multiple graphic novels, and his newest book, RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now, which comes out in March 2022. “I think that collaboration, intrinsically, is how creativity happens. We are stronger when we come together,” Yang said.
Yang also spoke about how increased anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic made him fear for the future of Asian American representation in entertainment and media. “We [Asian Americans] realized that everything that we thought we'd built on, from Fresh Off the Boat to Crazy Rich Asians, to the rise of the Gold Open, was in danger of going away. And we knew how long it took to build all that, and the kind of sweat and sacrifice that it took from predecessors of ours to get us here,” Yang said.
Yang’s desire to document this history was the driving force behind his newest book, RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now. The book, co-authored with film director Philip Wang and Phil Yu, comes out in March 2022. Yang emphasized that representing a diversity of Asian American voices in the book was important to him, as well as providing guidance to future generations. “We just said, we need to document this for future generations in case it all has to be rebuilt, in case we have to do it all over again, because we could be all torn down in an instant. That's the early lesson we thought we were getting from this pandemic,” Yang said.
Yang believes there is still progress to be made, especially in terms of uplifting multiracial perspectives and other identities that are underrepresented within the Asian American community. Yang also said that he felt encouraged by the growing numbers of Asian Americans who are involved in politics, and urged more Asian Americans to speak up and become more politically active in their communities.
Despite the setbacks of the COVID-29 pandemic, Yang remains hopeful for the future of Asian American representation. “I feel like we are resilient and stronger than we had feared and bigger than we'd hoped. I'm really looking forward to what happens next for all of us,” Yang said.
Lastly, Yang advised Asian American students to believe in themselves, pursue their goals, and collaborate with others. “Just know that there are people who are out there who are more willing to support and give you a chance than ever before,” Yang said.
RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now is available for pre-order.
Sophie Kim is an award-winning performance poet, playwright, filmmaker, lyricist/librettist, and author of the poetry collection, SING THE BIRDS HOME (2019, Penmanship Books). Kim served as the 2018-2019 Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate. Kim co-wrote THE FORTUNATES, an original musical that premiered virtually at Harvard College in spring 2021. Kim is currently working on a queer, heretical musical comedy about Judas Iscariot. Find Kim at thesophiekim.com.
January 2022 | Rupak Ginn AB '05
Rupak Ginn is a Los Angeles based, New York raised actor who has appeared off-Broadway as well as in numerous TV shows and films including USA's "Royal Pains," Universal's "The High Note," and "The Stone Witch" off-Broadway. He is also the host of the upcoming food and travel show "Dhabas" for ITVS.
Rupak Ginn was raised in Harlem. The son of immigrants from India, he still marvels at his parents’ courage in “crossing the ocean to this strange new land where they knew no one”. They taught Rupak to work hard, for which he is extremely grateful.
Rupak caught the acting bug in high school, but it flourished once he arrived at Harvard. “I signed up for the Freshman Theater Program as soon as I got to Harvard. But I didn’t think about committing my life to performance until halfway through freshman year when I got my less-than-stellar first report card. I realized then that I had become more obsessed with speaking beautiful words out loud in the theater and trying to understand what makes us humans tick than doing problem sets for my classes. You are what you do, not what you say you do. You can imagine how awkward that first holiday break was when I told my hard-working immigrant parents that I wanted to cast aside the certainty of a respectable job post-Harvard for the precarious life of an artist. But I plunged headfirst anyway, taking all the acting courses I possibly could at the ART, performing as often as possible in undergrad productions, and even auditioning for local shows and commercials in Boston - somewhere out there there’s an ad starring a nineteen-year-old me telling folks to buckle their seatbelts in Spanish!”
After performing in the safe space of Harvard that allowed him to play substantive and multilayered roles, Los Angeles was a rude awakening. Rupak found himself often being slotted as a South Asian American actor into one of two categories: the terrorist or the comedic buffoon. Recent changes due to increased awareness about diversity and inclusion in the industry have made a difference to actors and Rupak feels it is long overdue: “Now we’ve entered this period where brown actors are getting the chance to have a much more significant impact, and it’s very exciting. It’s important that we are given the opportunity to carry shows on our shoulders because the lead actor often provides the gaze for the entire show, and differing perspectives are at the heart of empathy. It’s also good for business since a fresh POV is fascinating to everyone - just look at the run of recent success stories from Korea (Parasite, Squid Game, etc.). For me personally, I have found that writing also gives me a greater hand in sharing my point of view, not just in terms of ethnicity but ideology as well.”
Rupak is a member of a growing cohort of South Asian American creatives including Nisha Ganatra and Sami Khan, who support and challenge each other through their work. “Early on as an actor, I struggled with being fully seen as a 360-degree human in Hollywood. When I became lucky enough to start working with creatives with backgrounds like mine, I loved feeling like I wasn’t the colorful side garnish on a dish; I finally felt like I was permitted to be the main dish itself and encouraged to feel comfortable taking up that deserved space. Storytelling unapologetically while building communities is what I’ve dreamed of since childhood, and it’s what I’ve grown up watching others do. Some of our most well-known creators have told stories related to their own backgrounds and cultural identities and also brought our attention to fellow artists from their community in the process. The Italian American directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola rose alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who are also both of Italian heritage. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington similarly had some vital early collaborations. My point is that it’s wonderful to have South Asians on all sides of the camera to make our voices heard in their most authentic, nuanced and riveting power.”
Rupak also credited Harvardwood for providing a sense of community along the way as well. “I just need to say that I absolutely love Harvardwood. This organization has provided me with so much support and affection in an industry that can sometimes feel remote and isolating.”
Rupak’s latest project Dhabas, a food and travel series for ITVS, is co-produced with Sami Khan. The two have loved working together since their first feature Khoya, which Khan directed and Rupak starred in, about an adopted Canadian man who travels to India to find his birth family. Dhabas however, is something wholly different, an exploration of the world's best Indian food in the American heartland. “Sami and I have always been fond of vérité style filmmaking that incorporates a journey of exploration and discovery. Add to that the fact that we both love food, and we thought it would be really fun to do a show where I traveled across America meeting and eating with South Asians who’ve taken big risks in immigrating here to set up no-frills food stands called dhabas. In each episode of Dhabas I also invite my South Asian friends from different walks of life like entertainment, academia and business to join me in chowing down as I get to learn about their own uniquely gripping journeys. Particularly because of the level of xenophobia that’s struck the nation recently, we’re traveling to places like Alaska, Mississippi and New Mexico where you might not expect to find thriving South Asian communities and yet there they are. There’s this growing narrative that rural and small-town America are synonymous with hatred, but we aim to flip that script. We have to try - things can’t keep going as they are. The image of a brown man enjoying delicious Indian food in the deep south has a subtle power and a resonance that can reach beyond pettiness.”
Rupak also collaborated with Amar Shah on the screenplay Gas-N-Shop, which won the recent Harvardwood Writers Competition. “My co-writer and longtime friend Amar Shah and I were delightfully surprised when our pilot script Gas-N-Shop received the award. I feel lucky that we are able to explore the touching and humorous story of Amar’s family and their struggle to set up a gas station and convenience store in small-town Florida as they try to make their dreams come true against crazy odds. I feel doubly blessed because the year prior my pilot script for Uprising, set in the 1857 siege of Delhi during the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the British Raj, was also honored by Harvardwood. I co-wrote that with my Oscar nominated other brother-in-arts, Sami Khan. Both times the recognition has been helpful, and not just professionally. Knowing that our stories click with people gives me and my collaborators the confidence to keep pushing forward.”
When asked what advice he would give Harvard students today, Rupak answered: “Never give up on your dream but develop enough awareness to realize when you may already be living your dreams in their most basic elements. And keep working on yourself. Especially if you’re a creative, realize that showbiz is not always a straightforward progression of A+B=C. Sometimes it’s B-A=C. There’s also a healthy dose of luck involved, so the best you can do is be prepared to fail more than you’re used to and keep doing the work in all areas from craft to consciousness so that when you do get an opportunity, you’ll be ready. I meditate every day because my main priority is maintaining balance and sanity as things come and go. I also love actor André De Shield’s advice which applies to this business and life in general: ’Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming’.”
Rupak also benefits from his partnership with wife Nancy Redd ‘03, an acclaimed author and media personality in her own right. Balancing family and dual entertainment careers is not easy, and Rupak hesitates to give advice but did note being aware of the need for balance required is important. “Nancy has been a dream partner for me, and it was pure luck that we happened to meet when and where we did. She was taking an acting class at Harvard for fun, and I was taking it to be an actor. She asked me to be her scene partner, and next thing I know we’re a couple! I’m immensely proud to be her husband and awed by her abilities to be both such a great wife and mother as well as host and author. We sometimes joke how random it is that an Indian-American from Harlem and a Black Baptist southern belle ended up walking down the aisle and around the sacred fire together, but then I guess that’s the only advice I can offer: stay open and life might exceed your ideas of it.”
December 2021 | Lance Oppenheim AB '19
by Sophie Kim
Lance Oppenheim is a filmmaker from South Florida. His feature film, Some Kind of Heaven, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Oppenheim was a 2019 Sundance Ignite Fellow, and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's "25 New Faces of Independent Film 2019.” He is also the youngest contributor to The New York Times Op-Docs. Oppenheim holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University.
Oppenheim first started making films in his early teens, and was drawn to documentaries because of how many interesting real-life stories were out there; a case of truth being stranger than fiction. “Making documentaries [seemed] almost like making science fiction films, because the kinds of behavior that I would see in my neighborhood, in my backyard, were bizarre,” Oppenheim said.
Oppenheim knew he wanted to make films before coming to Harvard, and his experiences at Harvard further helped him on that journey. He decided to concentrate in Art, Film, and Visual Studies, or AFVS (formerly called Visual and Environmental Studies, or VES). Oppenheim credits the AFVS program with teaching him the vocabulary of film, and helping him to form artistic and mentorly connections. He was able to access the resources and time to shoot and edit films for classes, as well as benefit from critique from professors and fellow classmates. Oppenheim’s first feature film, a documentary called Some Kind of Heaven, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, actually started out as his thesis film.
Oppenheim spoke about his inspiration behind Some Kind of Heaven, which is about a Florida retirement community called The Villages. He was fascinated by the way that entering The Villages felt like entering a different time and place. “I’m very interested in people who decide to cocoon themselves inside of a fantasy world, a world that they can control,” Oppenheim said. Oppenheim lived at The Villages, without a camera, in order to immerse himself in his subjects’ lives and gain their trust. He emphasized the importance of staying true to his subjects and the risk of exploitation. “I feel like, sadly, the most popular way that people make documentary films reminds me of a mosquito. It's a mosquito that, you know, bites someone and sucks their blood, and then paints a portrait of them with their blood, and then basically asks, at the end of the process, how do you like it? I'm always trying to kind of not do that,” Oppenheim said.
Oppenheim described how acknowledging the construct of filmmaking allowed him to get closer to his subjects and produce more honest work. He was aware that, as a non-resident of The Villages, he “stuck out like a sore thumb,” because of both his profession and his age, and leaned into that. For example, he would occasionally tell his subjects to repeat a routine for the camera, or show them rough cuts of scenes. “It was like they were actors playing versions of themselves, being themselves for this movie. It's a magical realism, in a way,” Oppenheim said. He was also interested in the theatricality of the world of The Villages, describing it as “like a movie set”.
Oppenheim also spoke about his experiences with artistic block. He acknowledged that procrastination is “part of [the] process” and noted that absorbing inspiration from other sources can help jump-start the artistic process. “I think it's important to know how you work, trust how you work, you know, and don't beat yourself up, if you're, if you're not feeling it, you know, for a long time,” Oppenheim said.
Oppenheim discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his work. Although the news cycle caused him to struggle to produce artistically at times, he was grateful that it forced him to take a break from working and spend more time with his family, which included the birth of his niece.
Lastly, Oppenheim advised aspiring student filmmakers to foster relationships with professors and mentors in the arts, and to take advantage of Harvard student grants to fund their artistic projects. He also emphasized the importance of not just creating work, but publicizing it. Finally, he highlighted how being surrounded by driven, like-minded individuals at Harvard inspired him to create. “If you’re stressed about thinking about finding a crew, or finding people to work with, just shut those feelings down. See who's in front of you, and see who's around, and embrace what you have in front of you,” Oppenheim said.