Todd A. Kessler '94 & Glenn Kessler '92 (TV Writers & Producers)
By Dayna Wilkinson
Todd Kessler: "It’s a rare moment in one’s career when you get to work with people you’ve known your whole life and do a show that’s inspiring with great actors…We really try to not take it for granted.”
Glenn Kessler: "To be able to work with people you’ve enjoyed for so long and you’ve been interested in collaborating with is certainly a dream come true.”
Phrases like "Inherent trust,” "rare opportunity,” and "long-time friends” are often heard when the topic is Damages, the character-driven legal thriller starring Glenn Close, now in its third season on FX. Todd Kessler ’94, Glenn Kessler ‘92 and Daniel Zelman ’90 are the show’s co-creators and executive producers. On the Damages set the three men are referred to simply as KZK—also the name of their production company.
Other Harvard grads can be found among the show’s actors and on the production staff. "It’s been a pretty terrific creative experience, working with people with whom you have a shorthand because you’ve known them for 20 years.”
The shorthand was developed at Harvard where Todd, Glenn and Daniel did a lot of performing and writing. (In one of those classic Harvard coincidences, Glenn and Daniel were members of The Hasty Pudding Theatricals in 1990 when the Woman of the Year was none other than Glenn Close. "Daniel and I met Glenn Close seventeen years before we met her to ask if she’d like to star in Damages.”)
How did their undergraduate dramatic experiences lead to where they are today? "You never know how a hobby and passion can end up as something you can turn into a career,” Glenn says.
"None of us went to film school,” Todd adds, "we all just started working. Glenn and Daniel started first as actors and I started as a writer, and we’ve been able to use these professional experiences as our training ground. There’s no better way to learn than to throw yourself into it and pick up as much as you can from actually having the deadlines and having to produce material.”
After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard with a degree in Dramatic Literature & Playwriting, Todd began his career as a playwright working with David Rabe. He moved into film and television when Spike Lee hired him as a screenwriter. Before Damages, he wrote and produced "The Sopranos” for two seasons, Michael Mann’s "Robbery Homicide Division” and the first season of "Providence.” Glenn graduated from Harvard with honors with a degree in English and American Literature, after which he earned an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program. He started as a playwright and is an acting veteran of film, television and stage. He broke into television writing on "Robbery Homicide Division.”
Which brings us to Damages. "One of the great things about one-hour dramas,” Todd notes, "is that as writers and creators, we have a tremendous amount of creative control. Glenn and I have each acted in the show, and all three of us have been able to direct episodes.”
Their main motivation with Damages was to show two women in power relationships--the ruthless mentor Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), and mentee Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) who becomes a formidable ally/adversary. Things are never as they seem, and each season-long case promises twists, deception and shocks. Season three includes new cast members Martin Short, Lily Tomlin and Campbell Scott, as Patty Hewes goes after a Madoff-like character.
Damages has been notable for its extraordinary cast. "The experience of working with actors like Glenn Close, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and Ted Danson -- you learn so much every day,” Todd says. "The actors and everyone we’ve been working with have been able to create a community that’s collaborative and very unlike a lot of what happens in the entertainment industry.”
Critics have been enthusiastic and the show has garnered numerous nominations and awards. Damages has won four Emmy Awards, including two for Glenn Close as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2008 and 2009. The key to it all has been the writing. "I have always been seduced by really good writing," Glenn Close has said, "and very early in my career I made a decision to go where the writing was.” Todd, Glenn and David have also been nominated for Best Writing, Best Directing and twice for Best Drama Series, a first in basic cable history.
So what is it that makes Todd, Glenn and Daniel a successful writing team? "I don’t know if we have a full understanding of what makes it work,” Todd says, "except for the fact that it’s in the spirit of collaboration. The desire to hear each other’s ideas is really at the forefront.”
Glenn adds, "There’s a great faith that through debate--sometimes spirited debate -- every idea is going to get better. There’s no sense of proprietorship or protecting your ideas. We want the best idea to win.”
When asked how they would advise aspiring writers and others, both said to look inside for direction and rewards. "The biggest thing is to pursue what’s of interest, and write what’s of interest,” Glenn says.
"There’s no one path to take,” notes Todd. "Lead an interesting life and follow what inspires and excites you. As a writer, having diverse interests is going to feed you.”
"No one knows what’s going to be successful or what people are going to respond to,” adds Glenn. "If you create something that you’re actually interested in, the rewards start to come from within as opposed to hoping that other people might also be interested. These things can take years of your life so the best you can do is start with something that you actually have a passion for.”
What does the future hold for Todd, Glenn and Daniel? "We don’t know yet whether we’ll have a fourth season of Damages. It’s standard FX policy to not pick up shows until their season is finished,” Todd says. "But the three of us will continue to work together. We have ideas for new television shows and will also be writing and directing features.”
Glenn adds, "We want to continue to branch out and maybe try something with a different tone, whether that’s actually a comedy or some version of a half-hour show. Also, I’ve written some plays, and have some theater work that I’d like to accomplish. We have a lot of ideas and we’re excited to continue to explore.”
Now that we have established a company in New York” says Todd, "we’re very excited about what’s ahead and will continue to challenge ourselves.”
Top photo - Todd Kessler, credit: J. Vespa/WireImage
Bottom photo - Glenn Kessler, credit: Craig Blankenhorn/FX