October 2012 | Valerie Weiss PhD '01

Valerie Weiss PhD '01 (Writer & Director, LOSING CONTROL)

By Dayna Wilkinson

Weiss.jpgWriter/Director Valerie Weiss PhD '01: "I decided to go to Harvard Medical School. If at the end of my PhD I was more in love with science than the arts, then great. But if I wasn’t and still wanted to do film, then I’d never have any regrets.”

After graduating with a PhD in biochemistry, Valerie hung up her lab coat and never doubted her career choice. Still, it’s appropriate that her movie, LOSING CONTROL, is about a female scientist, and that it was filmed in part at the medical school.

Her film also reflects her early influences. "I loved Pedro Almodovar’s WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, which I saw in my 10th grade Spanish class,” Valerie says. "Everything that happens in the film is very real to the characters, even when it’s absurd.” Valerie had started acting lessons at 9, and she continued to act through her high school years.

Also in 10th grade, science came into her life. "I got into biology because of a great teacher, Mr. Charambura,” she says. "He showed me that a tremendous amount of creativity goes into picking what experiments you’re going to do to figure out a problem.” At 15, she learned lab techniques in a program at the University of Pennsylvania. With an eye to an acting career, Valerie considered going to college in California, but her parents had impressed upon her that "acting is great and we support the arts, but you need to have a real job.” Instead of California, she chose Princeton. "I had a lot of cousins who went to Princeton, and from the time I entered high school they’d taken me up there for football games and reunions. It didn’t really occur to me to apply to Harvard,” she notes.

It was a fateful choice. Freshman year, she met Rob Johnson, HLS ’99, a fellow cast member in CYRANO de BERGERAC--and her future husband. As a sophomore, she directed her first play. "I realized that I preferred directing to acting because I could think about more aspects of the production. I directed five plays in college and took every class in theatre that Princeton had to offer,” earning a degree in molecular and cellular biology and a certificate in theater and dance.

"I loved directing theater but you invest all this energy and it’s up a few times then it’s over,” Valerie says. "I wanted to make something that lasts past closing night, something that everyone can see.”

Valerie created this opportunity for herself at Harvard in her second year as a Dudley House theater fellow. On top of her PhD studies and theater work, she offered to create and run a film program if Dudley House gave her a Macintosh and a digital camera.

"It was an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Valerie says. "I brought in industry professionals to teach everything from screenwriting and directing to editing and distribution, and along the way I received a full film education.”

She supervised the students' production of 10-minute films, and ultimately collaborated with six co-writers on a mini-feature film, DANCE BY DESIGN, which she directed. "It’s kind of impressive,” she notes, "considering our budget ($5,000) and that it was made by grad students who weren’t studying film. Two weeks after we wrapped production I defended my med school thesis.” (For the record, Valerie solved the X-ray crystal structure of an arginine methyltransferase involved in nuclear transport.)

"In science, you don’t get credit for trying to make a discovery, you learn to keep going,” she says. "My adviser Jim Hogle taught me that how you finish is just as important as what you do along the way. I never thought about leaving my PhD even when I wanted to do film. I wanted to finish my degree and finish it well. Having done a PhD, I understand persistence.”

Equipped to go in either direction, Valerie made her choice between science and the arts. "The processes are pretty similar the way I pursue them,” she says. "I loved being a scientist, but with science, the kinds and numbers of questions I could ask were limited. With film, I can think about anything and work with all kinds of people anywhere. Life is short and I don’t want to be limited.”

LOSING CONTROL has more than a touch of Crimson. "It was inspired by my time at Harvard Medical School,” Valerie says. "I met so many wonderful and quirky people there who made their way on-screen in different ways.” In addition, Bitsie Tulloch, ’03 is in the film, as is Rob Johnson who is also a producer. Jeff Loeb, HLS ’04, is the executive producer. "I’ve also worked with lots of interns from the Harvard community—you’re automatically getting people who are really bright and have an amazing work ethic,” Valerie notes. "It’s great knowing they’ll be as committed to getting things across the finish line as you are.”

LOSING CONTROL premiered at the Vail Film Festival as the closing night film. "The 400-seat theater was totally sold out, and we got a distribution deal that night,” Valerie says. "Even better, the distributor offered us a theatrical release which is rare for independents without big stars or the imprimatur of a Sundance or Tribeca.” On October 9th, LOSING CONTROL has a major release on Video On Demand on Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, and 30 other cable carriers, putting it in 100 million homes. Overseas the movie is called PROOF OF LOVE and has sold to the UK (premiering this month), Australian, Brazil, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic and several other countries so far.

Valerie is now focused on three new projects: a feature about estranged siblings who move back in with their hoarder father called OVERSTUFFED; a film for Troika Pictures; and an indie called BREAD AND BUTTER which will shoot in the fall.

She has this advice for aspiring filmmakers: "Becoming a filmmaker is like developing your body as an athlete—you have to train every day, it takes real commitment. Every free moment you have you should be writing and not judging yourself. Start it, nurture it, work at it all the time.”

Valerie can be reached at [email protected] The LOSING CONTROL trailer can be viewed at www.losingcontrolmovie.com, and the DVD is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other stores.

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