Writer & Producer (Fargo, Parenthood)
By Sara Lynne Wright
Growing up with an African American dad and a Jewish mom in a diverse neighborhood of Philadelphia, Monica Beletsky AB ‘99 cultivated the empathy she now uses as a TV writer to step into different characters’ points of view. “People who are different from me aren’t just an abstract idea. I was lucky to grow up in a unique neighborhood of ethnic, religious and economic diversity.”
This multiplicity of viewpoints is reflected in the wide range of shows on which she’s been a writer-producer, including Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, The Leftovers, and Fargo.
“The decade before my parents moved to Philadelphia, Black people and Jewish people were being prohibited from getting mortgages. But there were these special twin sister realtors in my neighborhood, West Mount Airy, who found a way to get mortgages for would-be homeowners who were discriminated against.” So by the time Monica was born, her parents’ neighborhood consisted of African-Americans, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, interracial and (later) gay families who were all homeowners or renters in the same neighborhood.
Co-Founder & Partner, Double Nickel Entertainment; Producer (The Book of Henry, Gran Torino); Former President, DC Comics
By Terence O'Toole Murnin
At a time when mere mortals may be content to rest on their laurels, Jenette Kahn AB '68 continues to tell powerful stories with words and images at a dizzying pace suggesting the best is yet to come.
In what has been an extraordinary life—in April of 2000, the Library of Congress bestowed on her the Living Legends award in the “writers and artists” category for her significant contributions to our country’s cultural legacy—Jenette Kahn has known two constants: art and basketball. So, in 2003, when Kahn left DC Comics and MAD Magazine after 27 years heading the two companies to pursue a new role as a film producer, she named the venture she founded with Adam Richman after one of the most infamous moments in Madison Square Garden’s annals.
TV Writer & Actor (Fuller House)
By Henry Johnson AB '18
Scott Weinger AB ‘98 has worked in entertainment for a long time.
When he roams the soundstage where Netflix’s Fuller House is shot, Weinger likes to joke with colleagues that “I’m so old, I remember when these were all orange groves.”
It was on the original Full House—shot on that same stage—that Weinger earned America’s adoration as Steve, D.J. Tanner’s high school sweetheart. But he had been acting long before then.
“I was always a hammy kid,” says Weinger, “and I loved putting on shows for adults.”
At age eight, Weinger mimicked Loony Tunes characters well enough to win a talent show. He realized his passion could become a profession in third grade, when an actor visited his Hollywood, Florida elementary school for career day. Weinger raved to his parents, “He does what I do, except it’s, like, his job!” They agreed to take him on auditions in the area.
Actor (The Book of Henry, Breaking Bad)
By Nicole Torres AB '11
Dean Norris AB '85 humorously recalls his earliest experience with acting as a young boy in Indiana: “I think my very first play was Richard III. I played the young prince, so I had to learn Shakespeare at age 7 or 8.”
At Harvard, Norris was heavily involved in theater, participating in at least two plays per semester, and often more. He comments, “I did so many productions I can’t even remember them all.” At that time, the American Repertory Theater (ART), now one of the country’s great regional theaters, had just moved to Cambridge. The ART served as a fantastic resource, where he could watch and learn from the professional actors there. He spent a lot of time as an understudy, and would also play small parts in the professional plays.
He recalls his time at Harvard and the ART fondly, where he was surrounded by a great group of people, some of whom also incidentally found success in Hollywood, such as Bill Rauch AB '84 and RJ Cutler AB '83.
Lisa Joy Nolan JD '07 (Co-Creator & Executive Producer, Westworld)
By Brittany Turner AB '10
For Lisa Joy JD ‘07, co-creator of the smash hit HBO series Westworld (with her husband, screenwriter and director Jonathan Nolan), writing is, and has always been, a gamble. She jokes, “I went to law school and I still re-up my bar membership every year. I’m basically like, I don’t know when this could end!”
Despite her success, Joy still admits herself to be “risk-averse,” citing her circuitous path to a full-time writing career. Born in New Jersey, she studied English and Chinese at Stanford before working in business as a consultant and corporate strategist. After a few years, she attended Harvard Law School, writing screenplays in between classes; upon graduating, she returned to consulting for a short while before a smartly written spec episode of Veronica Mars landed her a first-time staff writing gig on ABC’s Pushing Daisies.
She notes that the conventional rites of passage facing a young, aspiring writer in Hollywood can be daunting, especially without the right tools—or access—starting out.
By D. Dona Le
“You have to back your instincts in the face of opposition, especially as a producer,” says Tracey Bing MBA '01. “You might be wrong sometimes, and that’s okay. But without conviction, it’s really hard to do this job.”
Bing’s conviction in her judgment and choices as a producer and executive has certainly paid off. Her credits include March of the Penguins, which won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary, and most recently, Southside with You, a feature film about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. After premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Southside with You was released late this summer in the United States and garnered rave reviews from critics nationwide.
Asked to define what exactly it means to be a producer, Bing first laughs before launching into a clear and comprehensive job description.
“To me, producing is finding the story, working with the writer to develop that story, attaching the talent, and then finding the financing to make that movie.” She continues, “Then, overseeing that whole process from pre- to production to post-production until you deliver it to a distributor. Sometimes you get involved later on in things, but I like to be involved from the ground up.”
Roger Neill AM '90, PhD '94 (Composer, Mozart in the Jungle, 20th Century Women)
by Kristen Strezo
Growing up, composer Roger Neill AM ’90, PhD ’94 wanted to be a rock star. But he found himself torn between his love of classical music and his love of rock. He was studying Beethoven piano sonatas, yet drawn to power pop and The Beatles.
When it came time to choose a career, this intense curiosity eventually led him to the field of film and TV scoring.
“Film music really became the obvious choice because I was able to combine my interests from all these mediums, all these different kinds of music,” he says.
Today, Neill has worked on over two hundred feature films and decades worth of television episodes and TV commercials backed by his extensive musical knowledge.
The musical process Neill uses to draw out that humanness of his characters and the emotion are just as vital as the music he chooses.
Kemper Donovan JD '04 (Author, The Decent Proposal)
by Terence O'Toole Murnin
In a world where dating now often means swipe left or swipe right, Kemper Donovan creates an old fashioned romantic comedy set in Los Angeles, one of the most unlikely places to find true love.
Kemper Donovan sounds like the name of an indie-rock band you may have seen at Coachella, and the actual guy—impossibly handsome—looks like the leading man in a Hollywood rom-com. Possessing a resume that includes an undergraduate degree from Stanford followed by Harvard Law School, he “retired” from law at the age of 25 to pursue a 10-year stint at Circle of Confusion in LA, where he represented screenwriters and comic books. Donovan is currently sporting the hat of published author, and his debut novel, The Decent Proposal, was recently named the “#2 Summer Beach Read” by Cosmo.
David Eilenberg AB '97 (President, ITV Entertainment)
By Sara Lynne Wright
David Eilenberg AB '97, the new President of ITV Entertainment, who has developed and produced such groundbreaking shows as The Apprentice and Shark Tank, loves how working in reality television forces him to come face-to-face with real world events on a daily basis.
“In general, the entertainment industry makes it very easy to spend lots of time cloistered. In nonfiction, you’re interacting with your subjects every single day, which I find exhilarating.” Beyond that, the shows David works on can immediately and tangibly affect the lives of their subjects.
A case in point is Cold Justice, a show David oversaw on TNT, produced by Dick Wolf and Magical Elves. “The unique thing about that project was it was a real life cold case series, in which episodes really helped open murder cases that had gone unsolved and in some instances helped local police solve them. There are criminals now behind bars and families who got resolution as a result of that show existing. And that’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”
David H. Mandel AB '92 (Showrunner, Veep)
By D. Dona Le
“I didn’t know you could even be a comedy writer,” says David H. Mandel AB '92. “In terms of trying to engage the entertainment industry, I thought maybe I would be a lawyer, so I could be an entertainment lawyer.”
To the great relief of comedy lovers, Mandel escaped the practical clutches of a legal career. He’s currently the showrunner of HBO’s Emmy-winning Veep, and his credits include some of the top comedies of all time: Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He also co-wrote features The Dictator (2012) and EuroTrip (2004) with fellow Harvardians and frequent writing partners Jeff Schaffer AB '91 and Alec Berg AB '91.