January 2023 | Sumalee Montano AB '93


by Laura Frustaci

Sumalee Montano (AB '93)’s recently released film The Deal is available to stream on The Roku Channel. She sat down with us to give us the scoop on creating the film, wearing multiple hats, and her transition from investment banker to successful actor/producer. 

Sumalee tells us The Deal is exciting for her because, “We made a sci-fi adventure film that takes you on a fun emotional ride. And it’s my love song to my mother,” she continues, “At its heart, our film is about love and sacrifice, which are universal themes. We meet a single mother and her teenage daughter who live in a post-pandemic world that’s short on resources and devoid of compassion. They find themselves in a desperate situation, and we experience what they go through trying to escape from a cruel, callous system and protect each other.” That definitely sounds like a captivating emotional journey– and pretty topical considering our current societal circumstances. 

At the center of this filmic journey, of course, is Sumalee – she had originally planned on just producing the project, but when Electric Entertainment (the film’s production company) team members Dean Devlin and Lisa Brenner came to Sumalee to pitch her the leading role, how could she say no? “I was more excited than anything else. For veteran producers like Dean and Lisa to entrust a lead role to me is a dream come true!” Sumalee says. “Prior to them coming on board, I had spent a couple years in script development, working closely with our writer Sean Presant, also a Harvard grad,” she explains further. “I discovered early on that in order to give good notes on the script, I really had to divorce myself from thinking I might ever play the role of Tala, the mother in our story. So when I pitched the film to Lisa and Dean at Electric Entertainment, I was so used to only being a producer and not thinking of myself as an actor that I didn’t pitch myself for the role.”

Which leads us to the next question: how did she manage to wear both hats during the same film? “We filmed The Deal in 2019, before the pandemic hit,” Sumalee reflects. “Since then I’ve executive produced a few films that I don’t act in. The Deal is special because I got to do both... For the six weeks we spent filming though, I was able to take off my producer hat and just focus on acting, because we had such a wonderful director, Orsi Nagypal, and an awesome producing team. It would have been too hard for me to try to do both, especially on the first film I produced. But before filming started and again after we wrapped, I wore both hats.” Overall, Sumalee appreciates the unique challenge that being a multifaceted creative presents. “There are times when I feel like ditching my producer hat and disappearing into my actor hat and vice versa,” she tells us. “At best, getting to wear both hats feels like a lovely dance between different perspectives that I hold. But sometimes it can feel like a conflicting interplay in my mind that I have to consciously resolve. I’m always learning, evolving. And that’s what I love about my work.”


Another potential challenge for this project is that the character Sumalee played, Tala Bayani, is based on her mother. While some actors may find it daunting to hold such a personal connection to the role they’re portraying, Sumalee found it refreshing: “As an actor that’s what I love doing most. My mom would’ve gotten such a kick out of knowing that Tala is her. Although she would argue that she’s the funny one in our relationship and I’m the serious one.

But in the film, we gave the humor to Analyn, the daughter character.” More on the mother-daughter dynamic of the film in the next paragraph! Sumalee explains further, “In terms of how the mother character came to be, I had the basic storyline of The Deal in my mind a couple years before we started developing the script. I just hadn’t decided what the relationship between our two main characters would be. Do they know each other or are they strangers? After my mom died, a friend suggested that I tell a mother-daughter story because I was thinking so much about her. And that was a watershed moment. Everything fell into place after that!”

Says Sumalee about the mother-daughter relationship between herself and her mother, and then her character and her on-screen daughter, “I love how our relationship ended up on screen, everything from how we used to argue when I was a teenager to entire conversations we had later in life, like her instructing me on how to survive when she died. There’s a scene near the top of the film that was completely borne out of those conversations. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a teenager. And at the time, I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with that. When it came time for my mom to go to the hospital for surgery, I refused to go. I disappeared to go hang out with my friends, which is exactly what we see Analyn do near the beginning of the film, when faced with her mother’s impending death.”

Sumalee concludes, “I easily saw how my relationship with my mom, especially what we went through during the last year of her life, fit perfectly within the sci-fi adventure story I wanted to tell. And what a great way to also disrupt a genre that historically hasn’t centered people of color, women of color, specifically. I was so excited!”

It may surprise readers to learn that Sumalee began her professional career as an investment banker. This foundation, however, did set her down a path towards her current success: “I think if I hadn’t been an investment banker, I wouldn’t be a producer today. Getting my foundation in business is where a lot of my producing instincts come from… The business instincts you also need in Hollywood, for me, come from working at a global financial services company, serving multiple client teams, on deals worth tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.” Sumalee laughs, “It’s funny how a job I quit so many years ago still has relevance to my work now.”

As a successful working actor and producer, Sumalee certainly has wisdom to share with aspiring creatives: “Remember that the journey is the destination. Find a great acting school or coach you vibe with. Hone your craft by studying and taking classes. Try to stay in class until you’re getting paid to act so frequently that being in class doesn’t make sense anymore.” And, another piece of advice, “Those friends you make in class will be your support system to help you weather the inevitable highs and lows of Hollywood. And as a former teacher once told me about your acting muscles: ‘If you’re not using it, you’re losing it.’ That’s why I believe in finding ways to keep building your muscles, like class.”

Sumalee’s time at Harvard had a big impact on how she ended up where she is today, especially with regard to The Deal. “Because of friendships from Harvard, I met Grace Lay, who also produced The Deal with me. Since then, Grace and I have executive produced multiple films together, including Nanny, the 2022 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner (Amazon/Blumhouse), and Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures), which premiered at Sundance and is now up for Best Documentary at the Indie Spirit Awards.”

Sumalee explains that her creative relationship with Grace is harmonious because they strive to tell similar stories: “Grace and I focus on telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural people in front of and behind the camera,” Sumalee says. What are they planning to do next? “LinLay Productions has several other films on its slate. I’m also working on developing my own ideas now for animation and live-action.” And we’re looking forward to seeing all of them!

Sumalee holds a breadth of perspectives in the industry, originating her career as an investment banker and now as an actress-producer. On-screen, Sumalee is a series regular in the action series Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (Peacock). She has recurred and guest starred on dozens of television shows, including VEEP, This Is Us, and S.W.A.T. She has also acted in nearly 200 animated roles to date, across film, television and triple-A video games, including Sony's Ghost of Tsushima.Off-screen, Sumalee is an advocate for telling intergenerational stories that center multicultural talent in front of and behind the camera. A founding partner of LinLay Productions, Sumalee produced the sci-fi dystopian drama, The Deal (Roku) and executive produced multiple films that have premiered at Sundance Film Festival, including Nanny, which won the 2022 U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Amazon/BlumHouse), and the documentary Riotsville, U.S.A. (Magnolia Pictures).


Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.


December 2022 | Desta Tedros Reff HLS '13


by Laura Frustaci

“Entertainment is the most effective form of advocacy,” says Desta Tedros Reff, HLS ‘13. Most recently, she’s been executive producing the Amazon TV series A League of Their Own. The show has seen really positive reviews, especially with regard to its LGBTQ+-centered content. “We’re infusing both queerness and Blackness into this classic American film,” says Desta. “I was a lover of the film. As a queer Black woman, I’m very excited about putting myself into a narrative I always had to imagine myself in.” That’s part of what makes the show so resonant with audiences right now. Desta explains, “This was the first show I’ve ever been on where the room was so diverse in so many ways - queer writers, writers of color, trans writers, and non-binary writers. More than just the writers’ room, across the spectrum of the show, it was a supportive and safe space that translated to the screen.”

This is too infrequently the case in Hollywood spaces. “When I’m trying to translate my experiences, there's usually a communication barrier being surrounded by the straight white male as I try to explain myself to them,” Desta says. But, on A League of Their Own, Desta and the rest of the team have discovered, “We’re all speaking the same language, so we can have more nuanced and specific portrayals that people don’t usually see.” 

Desta didn’t always intend to go into TV writing. She attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 2013, then pursued social justice work, most notably in a small town in Mississippi (where she earned a Community Public Health Award, one of her proudest accomplishments). “They don’t give [the award] to outsiders very often, but I worked hard to be accepted into their community,” she smiles. And Desta continues this legacy in her work in the entertainment industry, citing a self-imposed “advocacy mandate” in everything she creates. 

Desta has certainly found television, film, and media to be extraordinarily effective advocacy resources. “I’ve done advocacy on multiple levels, and the hardest part is getting people to show up and listen,” Desta explains. “There’s much less convincing in entertainment. People come to you and they want to see what you have to say.” So, it’s been a rewarding career shift for her to be able to continue focusing her talents on helping people, but using television to appeal to a much broader and more willing audience. “We’re shaping culture and the way people see the world, so it’s the highest opportunity for advocacy. There’s opportunities in everything we create, and for me I’m always looking for that.” She parallels law and entertainment: “[TV] is not that different from what I do in the legal spaces. I’m working with smart, interesting people with diverse backgrounds trying to build something, whether that’s an argument or a story. It’s the same skills: I have to convince you, either to be on my side or to emotionally invest in the story I’m telling.”


Desta also points out that, “Advocacy exists on different shows on different levels. When I was a staff writer for Shooter, I wrote this scene in the show, and the leads drive by a confederate flag, the white lead and Black co-lead, and they have a semi-critical conversation about the confederate flag, and on that type of show with that type of audience, that can lead to tremendous change.” 

What does she like best about TV? Well, “What’s nice about television is that it’s really collaborative, which is what I enjoyed about law school. You are all the time creating with really cool people with really unique points of view and they bring pieces to a project that make it better and make you better…The strength of your collaborators elevates your skill.” How is this different from film?I like the idea of film,” says Desta, “Most people who are writers start writing features, but it’s different in film because there’s so much time. [TV] is more think-on-your-feet in a way that I find really engaging.” 

When asked what advice she had for aspiring writers and creatives, Desta replies, “Don’t lose your point of view because that’s what makes you special. Your POV can be a lot of things, for example, mine is a deep empathic storytelling - I always have to figure out what motivates people and the way people work, and I can’t help but empathize with them.” She continues, “What is your unique lens? Finding ways to show that is what will set you apart. A lot of scripts don’t jump off the page; there are good bits and pieces, but it still doesn’t jump off the page. What jumps off the page is pieces of you, as many pieces of you that you can put on the page, it makes a difference.” She also says to never stop creating. “The more you do things and put out into the world, it will help you be seen and it will help you get better.”

Desta also emphasizes the importance of living life in order to feed creativity. “You need to write and have interesting experiences. I’ve lived a full life, and it helps me balance the stakes of the career which can feel completely all-consuming. It’s so high stakes and so low stakes at the same time, so having a life helps you be a better creator and helps you weather the storm better. And it was the same thing when I went to law school.” Finally, she recalls, “Another writer gave me this advice once: 'Listen to your life, and it will actually guide you.' It’s not a race. If you put enough effort into something you will be successful you just can’t control when.”

Her success in the entertainment industry has come at the perfect time for her. Looking ahead, Desta is excited to be co-writing a pilot for HBO and hoping for a second season of A League of Their Own. In this industry, Desta says, “You’re always doing 50 things and nothing simultaneously.” In the time between that, Desta enjoys finding low-stakes, tangible creative projects with a beginning, middle, and end (like building her kids a playhouse) and then playing with her kids (in said playhouse).  

Desta Tedros Reff is a writer and director that has written for a variety of different shows, from character dramas (Sorry for Your Loss, The Last Tycoon) to action (Shooter) and then some (The Purge, Grand Hotel). Currently, she serves as an Executive Producer on Amazon's television reboot of A League of Their Own. Before transitioning to entertainment, Desta had a former career as a lawyer and spent several years in the Mississippi Delta working as a social justice advocate. Desta loves to tell stories from a place of empathy and is driven to bring marginalized perspectives into the mainstream, specifically through authentic portrayals of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters and stories.


Dayna_Wilkinson_headshot.jpgLaura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and  the American Repertory Theater.


Exclusive Q&A with Loni Steele Sosthand AB '97

Loni Steele Sosthand AB '97 is currently a Co-Producer going into her third season on THE SIMPSONS. Prior to that, she was partnered with Jim Hope as Consulting Producers on Nickelodeon's COUSINS FOR LIFE. Loni has written for various multi-cam family comedies including LAB RATS, DOG WITH A BLOG and BEST FRIENDS WHENEVER. Loni also co-created, co-wrote, and co-produced KATRINA, a half-hour dramedy pilot for The-N (Teen Nick), executive produced by Warrington Hudlin.  Loni is a graduate of Harvard University where she wrote a novel for her honors thesis.  In addition to her writing life, Loni lives in Santa Clarita with her husband, a Stunt Coordinator/Stuntman, her ten-year-old triplets, two dogs, and one very abused minivan. 

Q: Congratulations on your recent trailblazing episode of The Simpsons, the first-ever episode featuring the use of ASL and the show’s first-ever deaf voice actors. How did you end up as a writer and executive story editor on the show?

Well… it was the summer of 2020, and our family, like most, was in the thick of pandemic related stress. My husband is a Stunt Coordinator and performer so his work is dependent on productions happening, and they were barely coming back.   The few that were would require him leaving us for months of quarantine apart.  Our triplets were going into the third grade and we were scrambling to figure out how to best assist their “at-home” schooling. Though I’d written on several multi-cam comedies over the years and built up my writer’s room experiences, I wasn’t staffed at the time.  With three kids, a mortgage, grocery bills and so much uncertainty, I began doing some on-line writing tutoring and started a graduate program in Psychology, finally initiating the Plan B career.  I hadn’t given up on my dreams, but I couldn’t just sit around and count on some out of the blue miracle like Al Jean and Matt Selman, the showrunners of The Simpsons reading my material (submitted by my agent), offering me a meeting and hiring me.  Then, in a merciful twist of fate, that is what happened.  

Q: What inspired the storyline of your episode “The Sound of Bleeding Gums”?  

When I became a The Simpsons' writer, I really wanted to tell a Bleeding Gums Murphy story because I loved that character so much from when I was a kid.  I’ve long been a jazz fan, and those early episodes with Bleeding Gums had such a delightfully bluesy sense of humor.  Of course, in pitching any idea for the thirty third season of The Simpsons there is a great challenge to do something new, while still honoring the legacy of the show.  So, in brainstorming ways to explore Bleeding Gums’ character with a fresh take, we talked about how Lisa might have missed out on some aspects of his life and not known her hero as well as she thought. That’s where the idea of her meeting his son, Monk Murphy, who happens to be deaf, came into play.  My brother Eli was born profoundly deaf, and so it excited me to get the opportunity to pay witness to some aspects of the deaf experience in the Simpsons world, something that hadn’t been done before.  My brother got a cochlear implant in his twenties and I was with him when he heard sound for the first time.  There were many moments surrounding that miraculous change in his life that were full of bluesy humor that fit into the tone of those early Bleeding Gums episodes. 

Because of my brother I was sensitive to how we represented this deaf character and knew we’d need a deaf voice actor for the role.  When we were still in the outlining phase of the episode, I told Al Jean about John Autry II who I had in mind to play the role of Monk Murphy.  I’d work[ed] with John over a decade earlier on a pilot I did for Nickelodeon when John was still a teenager.   John uses total communication, meaning he both signs and uses oral speech to communicate and he also got a cochlear implant in his twenties.  There is a moment in the episode when Monk gets his cochlear activated and hears the sound of his father’s music for the first time, and I think that John’s performance which draws on his personal experience, combined with the beautiful animation really makes it very poignant. 

Q: What was it like to work with your brother, Eli, who voiced one of the characters on this project? 

My brother and I have collaborated before on different projects and it’s an easy fit because we know each other so well.  I showed him early drafts of the script, mostly to get his approval for elements of the story that borrowed from his life.  There is a segment of the episode that shows how Bleeding Gums discovered that his son was born deaf that is directly drawn from how my parents discovered that Eli was born deaf.   As a baby he was napping when my father dropped pots and pans near his crib and when he didn’t wake up from the clatter they knew he couldn’t hear.  We animated [this] in the scene where Bleeding Gums comes home late at night with a bandmate who drops his cymbals in a loud clatter that doesn’t wake the baby.  After the show aired my brother expressed how moved he was by seeing that moment represented on The Simpsons. So, when it turned out we needed one more deaf voice in the episode it made sense to cast him.  He has, of course, bugged me ever since about when his character will return and perhaps carry an episode [arc]. 

Q: You talked a bit about the challenge of animating ASL for characters who only had four fingers– were there any other unexpected challenges or surprises that cropped up while you were creating this episode? 

Well, the challenges of drawing the ASL were mostly taken on by our wonderful animators. I do believe one of the animators had some knowledge of ASL, but we also sent clips of their animatics to several ASL experts.  I turned to two family friends: Michelle McAuliffe, a childhood friend who is a professor at Gallaudet, and Cindy Herbst, who is a professor of ASL and an interpreter at Cal State Northridge.   Both these women were generous with their time and happy to help as we sent drafts of the animation to them and made slight adjustments.  After the show aired I visited one of Michelle’s classes at Gallaudet (via Zoom) and it was a real honor to get to meet with her students and get their feedback.  I was deeply touched by what it meant to them to see ASL on The Simpsons, and I was also happy to hear their pitches for how to do it even better and more often. 

Q: How is writing for animation different from writing for human actors, if at all? Do you like one more than the other? Do you find writing for animation to be easier because cartoon characters have more flexibility in terms of what they can be made to do?

I just love how patient the process is in animation. It takes about a year from the original pitch to the airing of an episode, so there are a lot of opportunities to make improvements.  I love the collaborative discussions with the animators that come after the table read.  For example, for this episode I was able to send them many images for how to draw Monk’s hearing aids and later his cochlear implant.  And the moment when Monk gets his implant turned on for the first time is illustrated to show the musical notes coming off of his father’s album, entering the cochlear implant, and then lighting up Monk’s brain with memories and images of his father.  This is a beautiful moment conveyed through animation, that could only be drawn.

Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?

I went to Harvard knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea I’d write for television.  At the time my ambition was to be a novelist. I took as many creative writing classes as I could and got to study with Jamaica Kincaid and Jill McCorkle.   I was able to do a novel as my creative writing thesis and I went on to graduate school in the MFA program at UC Irvine.  As I struggled to finish the novel, I began writing scripts on the side just for fun.  Eventually the form of writing that I had the most fun doing took over the form I was most stressed about.    I participated in writing workshops at Harvardwood that really helped me get my early spec scripts in shape.  Those workshops were great opportunities to collaborate with other writers, many of whom have since gone on to have successful writing careers. 

Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring comedy writers? 

Get into or start a supportive writing group and use it to keep creating and revising your specs to get them in better and better shape. Rewriting is the main part of the job and collaborating is the other.  So, getting to workshop your work in a group setting is really good preparation for the writer’s room.    

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

When I’m not working it’s all about family time.  Our triplets are now ten years old and we are just trying to savor this particularly fun time in childhood.   

Loni's Simpson's episode of The Simpsons, "The Sound of Bleeding Gums", was released on April 10, 2022 and is available to stream now.



Exclusive Q&A with Andrew Bujalski AB '98

Andrew Bujalski AB '98's first feature film, Funny Ha Ha, was called one of the most influential films of the '00s by New York Times critic A.O. Scott. He has also written and directed the films Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax, Computer Chess, Results, and Support The Girls which have played festivals worldwide including Sundance and Berlin, as well as the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The Boston Globe describes him as "unerringly polite and somewhat disheveled." He types 89 wpm.

Q: Congratulations on There, There's upcoming release! There, There was shot completely over quarantine, and the actors were never in the same room as one another. How did this affect your process as writer and director?

Well, it's an exceedingly perverse way of working--of course it affected everything. But it also seemed like a unique and special opportunity to make a movie about trust, and about faith. As "bubble" conditions became the norm in moviemaking--and indeed most professional production has always operated on "bubble" principles anyway--I figured we might as well push this thing to the max, lock everything all the way down, and see what connections we could still forge in limbo space. So I wrote with this all in mind. The movie essentially takes place in limbo.

The performers were set up in whatever city they were in, with a micro-crew between 2 and 4 folks, and minimal equipment that fit in one Pelican case, ready to be shipped to the next location. Myself, the d.p., producers, and others were all on Zoom. Despite best efforts we had imperfect monitoring of picture and sound...and all our communication had to be through the one Zoom channel--so if my d.p. was talking to the operator, I had to wait to talk to the actor. All quite cumbersome, but oddly not unpleasant to feel so united in our bafflement. And what immediately became clear to me was that all the insecurities and uncertainties that I was experiencing were entirely familiar. The fact is, even on a more conventional shoot, sitting at a state-of-the-art monitor with great headphones, I'm experiencing the same fear that I'm not processing the information quickly or sagely enough...So actually it was surprisingly normal for me.

Q: A quarantine movie was fairly ambitious. What was the inspiration for There, There, and what were the unforeseen challenges (aside from the obvious)? Do you feel this movie is quite different in any other ways from the films in your repertoire?

Undoubtedly, it was the bizarre situation we all found ourselves in in March 2020 that sent me down this path, but it's an experiment that would have appealed to me at any time, and really could have been done at any point in the last hundred years if anyone had been nutty enough to try it. To me it goes to the heart of the cinematic magic trick. Every edit is a kind of lie-in-service-of-a-truth. So it was exciting to think of pushing that in a way I'd never seen it pushed before.

Formally, visually, structurally, I'm on alien terrain with this project. But from a story perspective, I suppose I'm in my wheelhouse. Everything I've ever done has been about people trying to connect--succeeding, failing, and sometimes not knowing the difference. As always it all comes down to the performances, here from a crazy talented cast including Jason Schwartzman, Lili Taylor, and Harvard's own Jon Natchez ('99)!

Q: Do you feel that what you’ve done with this movie has sort of paved the way for a new type of filmmaking, or do you think we’ll continue to see movies made in this experimental, quarantine style?

Oddly enough I think the actors were all pretty accustomed to the kind of isolated performance they had to do here. Self-taping auditions at home is now the norm for working actors. And many have worked in the green screen world where their scene partners are tennis balls on C-stands. So in some sense we were just making a green screen movie without the green screen. But as for the particulars of our approach...I'd love to see someone else's take on it, of course, but no, I don't expect to set a trend here. Too weird!

Q: You’ve previously been dubbed “the godfather of mumblecore”. How do you feel about this title? What do you think it means? And how do you think mumblecore as its own style or genre has influenced the evolution of the film industry?

It's been fascinating to witness the lifespan of that word--my sound mixer Eric Masunaga said it as a joke to me in 2005, I made the error of repeating it to a journalist, and now it seems to have a reach much farther than any of my actual movies ever had. So I've kind of gleaned a definition for it just from context over time, but it took a while for me to get past the alienation of seeing it applied to my work as if it were an aesthetic style or anything anyone had consciously set out to create. Mostly I think it's just a kind of generational catch-all. Nirvana and Pearl Jam never sounded much alike to me but they were both "grunge" because they steered away from the mainstream pop that preceded them and wore flannel shirts. (I also like flannel shirts.)

Q: You’ve been credited as a writer, director, and editor for most of your projects, as well as appearing as an actor. Do you have a favorite, between the four? Why or why not?

It's all torment. At best, divine torment. At worst, just regular torment. Of course it's most gratifying when I get to see a project through from the first kernel of an idea to the final sound and picture tweaks. At that point I've also collected energy from dozens if not hundreds of brilliant collaborators along the way, and I never tire of enjoying their great work.

Q: Do you feel that your work has thematic elements, or messages, that you’ve consistently tried to either consciously or subconsciously incorporate?

Of course! I've tried running in many different directions but as Buckaroo Banzai said, "No matter where you go, there you are."

Q: Which film have you made that you’re most proud of? And which project taught you the most?

Irrational as it may be, I love them all.

Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?

Oh enormously. I was a VES kid and delightedly drank all the Kool-Aid the program had to offer. The hardest part of filmmaking, so often, is just seeing what's in front of your face (or camera) and knowing how to respond to it, so the strong verité documentary backbone there seemed great preparation for really any kind of filmmaking. VES trained me not to fear reality, which tends to seep into your frame no matter how much you bulwark against it.

Q: What’s one film you think everyone should see in their life?

Another impossible question! If you find one that moves your soul, you've done well.

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

Feeling guilty that I'm not working.

Andrew's film There, There will be released on November 18, 2022.


November 2022 | Susan Walter AB '91

amanda_micheli_cropped.jpgby Laura Frustaci

“You have to walk toward the industry that’s opening its arms,” author and creative Susan Walter AB ‘91 says. That’s how she ended up as a bestselling author with a new book just out and two more in the works to come.
Over Her Dead Body is available for purchase as of today (!), and the story about how this book came to life is a bit… surprising. 

Just before the pandemic, Susan wrote a book on spec called Good as Dead. She tells us, “I wrote it because I was frustrated with the movie business after a good solid decade and a half of doing rewrites and selling specs that never got made. I hit a brick wall and just needed a break. So, I wrote this book for me.” Throughout the writing process, she secured a literary agent who shopped the book around until they got an offer. However, the publishing company’s offer was contingent on also getting a second book from Susan. “They said, ‘So, what’s your next book? We need a proposal by tomorrow,’” Susan recalls. “It took me nine months to write the first book, and I had to plot book two in 24 hours.” She had roughly one day to come up with the concept, plot, and characters of what would soon become Over Her Dead Body– easy, right? 

Armed with this challenge, Susan did what anyone would do: take her dog for a walk. “I was walking my dog by this one house that just excited my imagination,” says Susan. “Across from what was rumored to be Gwen Stefani’s house, enshrouded in barbed wire, there’s a ‘Keep Out: No Trespassing’ sign, and I always wondered who lived there. What if my dog wandered down that driveway, and I got to meet the person who lived there?” That initial train of thought was the jumping off point for Susan’s protagonist. “What if that person walking their dog was an actress, and the dog disappears, and she meets the owner of the house who turns out to be a casting director,” Susan explains, “The casting director offers to help her, and then of course dies, because it wouldn’t be a thriller without a dead body. Then what if the actress gets all the money left to her, and then the family descends on her?” This intriguing plot captured the publishing company, and Susan suddenly had a two-book deal. 

As someone who’s worn several different hats in her career, including director, screenwriter, and producer, how did Susan come to wear the author hat? “The kind of stuff I was writing, I don’t know if the [film] market got saturated, but I wasn’t writing what was selling at that moment,” Susan reflects. But she chose to view that not as a closed door, but a sign “that it was time to turn around and see what’s out there.” And she found that novel writing suited her. “It was fun writing a novel because it’s complete,” Susan says. “When you write a script it’s a blueprint for someone else to take it and mangle it. I got to see what I can do, without any other input. If screenwriters want the opportunity to write, to tell their story without anyone mucking it up, they should write novels. You’ll find out quickly if you really know how to write,” Susan laughs.Bros.jpg 

This wasn’t the only difference Susan noticed between screen and page. “The
easiest part [of the publishing industry] is the people,” Susan reflects. “Everybody that I encountered was crazy smart. They read for a living! Every note that I got was good. I never had to question a note under a note, like with screenwriting. At the end of the process, you have in your hands a book that you wrote, and nobody can take that from you.” When asked what the hardest part of writing a novel was, Susan tells us, “The movie business is so hard, there is no hardest part of the book industry. It’s very straightforward. It’s more of a linear process. Once you find a buyer, there are no surprises. When you write a screenplay and find a buyer, there are nothing but surprises.” Clearly, there’s quite a different energy from industry to industry. 

Susan began her career on the directorial track. “Directing is the best job in the world. It’s just really hard to get into the director’s chair. I’d love to do it again, but I want to be productive. There aren't that many movies getting made anymore. Plus movies aren’t story driven, they’re team driven. Nowadays, you need attachments. It’s not enough to have a good story. Even if you’re adapting a book, it needs to be a best-seller, internationally. You have to have a strong fanbase and history, or a star, or a proven showrunner. Books are story driven, and movies are package driven.” Her early directing days started at the DGA Assistant Director’s Program. “I wanted to be a news broadcaster, and I tried that at WBZ-TV, and they gave me a screen test and I was supremely terrible. They asked me to write, but it paid $5 a day. When I was a senior at Harvard, my dad said I couldn't move back home, so I applied for the DGA Assistant Director’s Program, and they train you to run movie sets.” 

Susan emphasizes that she “walked toward the profession that walked toward [her].” And this program was an incredible experience. “I worked on movie sets at a time when I couldn't have sat at a desk all day, for ten years. I was able to travel, and work with different people, and be creative,” Susan recalls. Eventually, the training from that very program led her to create what she says she’s most proud of in her career: writing, directing, and producing All I Wish, a romcom starring Sharon Stone. “I had to be a lot of different things, I had to be a writer, I had to direct the film, I took an acting class, I educated myself in a really rigorous way. It was gratifying because it put all the pieces of my career together - the set, writing and managerial experience, and taught me a new skill with the acting classes, and I also had to raise money for it, so I had to put on a financial hat.” 

When asked what advice she had for young creatives, Susan had these wise words to say: “Make sure your work is creatively fulfilling to you. People will tell you to have a brand and do it for the marketplace, but you make yourself really vulnerable to criticism if you’re only making it for other people. Creating for the joy of creating has to be enough.” Basically, if you’re doing something creative and you love it, “it’s a win-win. If you’re doing it to please somebody and they’re not pleased, then why did you do it?” 

Susan is already in production for her third book, Lie By the Pool, to be released fall of 2023. And she’s working on her proposal for book number four. When asked how she writes with such speed but with such masterful knowledge of a topic, Susan explained her secret weapon: “The Harvard Class of 1991 Facebook page. I scroll through all the members and find an expert in the subject, and everyone’s been really generous with sharing their knowledge. Harvard is an incredible resource.”  

Susan Walter AB '91 is an author and director known for her first novel Good as Dead and her film All I Wish starring Sharon Stone. Her most recent novel, Over Her Dead Body, is available for purchase now.


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.


Exclusive Q&A with Nikki Erlick AB '16

Nikki Erlick AB '16 is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Measure, which was selected as Jenna Bush Hager and The TODAY Show’s #ReadWithJenna Book Club pick, as well as the Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Translations of The Measure are forthcoming in 14 languages. Her writing has also appeared online with New York Magazine, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, and Vox Media. She graduated Harvard University summa cum laude and was an editor of The Harvard Crimson. She earned her master's degree in Global Thought from Columbia University.

Q: Your debut novel, The Measure, was an instant New York Times Bestseller after its release this past June. Why do you think the themes, characters, and storyline of your book are so resonant with readers? How do you feel your novel connects to society and the world around you?

I started writing this book at least a year before the onset of the pandemic, so it’s been quite powerful to see the way the story has resonated upon publication. Even from the earliest brainstorms in late 2018, I always intended for this novel to explore questions of how we value our own lives, how we value other people’s lives, how we want to spend our time, and what our priorities are in life. But those questions have taken on an even greater sense of relevance and urgency in light of recent global challenges, which has allowed the story to resonate in a much deeper way than I ever anticipated, and I’m incredibly grateful to every reader and bookseller who has recommended this book as a way to potentially reflect upon these difficult years.

Q: The premise for The Measure is fascinating: one day, a box appears on everyone’s doorstep containing the knowledge of the amount of time they have left to live. How did you come up with the idea? How did you know that was the idea you should follow through with when brainstorming?

I’ve always been drawn to big questions: How much control do we have in our lives? How much power do we have over our destiny? I wanted to see if I could tackle these big questions in the form of a story, because I’m someone who turns to stories to help me make sense of the world and navigate its many complexities. As I was wondering how to craft a story about something as complicated as destiny, I remembered the ancient Greek vision of fate. I was fascinated by the figures of the Three Fates, who had this immense power to spin the strings of life on their spindle and measure out the amount of time that each of us would receive. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if? What if we were able to see our strings? How would that impact our world? What would we do with that knowledge?

The decision to have the strings arrive in a box for each person came a little bit later, when I realized that I wanted people to have a choice of whether or not they would look at their string. Even if the characters’ fates are pre-determined in one sense, they still retain a sense of power and agency when it comes to choosing whether or not they wish to know, and then, of course, choosing how to use that knowledge. The box itself was inspired by another famous Greek myth—Pandora’s Box—as the ultimate test of willpower: Can you resist the temptation to look?

I knew this was the idea that I would stick with when I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, and all the potential characters and problems that could arise from this premise.

Q: Did you always know The Measure would be a novel, or did you play with other forms (screenplay, short story, etc.) initially?

My dream had always been to write a novel, and The Measure was actually my first attempt at a full-length manuscript.

Q: Your writing career spans across genres, not limited just to fiction. What type of writing is your favorite to do?

I received a crash-course in journalism as soon as I joined The Harvard Crimson, and I’m so grateful for the training I received in reporting, interviewing, writing, and editing. I’ve loved my assignments as a journalist and travel writer—exploring new corners of the world and meeting so many fascinating people—but writing this novel has been the most challenging and rewarding of all my experiences so far.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of writing a novel? What did you find was the easiest part?

I think the greatest obstacles, as a first-time author, were simply all of the unknowns and the accompanying self-doubt: Was this even a good idea for a story? Would I actually be able to complete a full manuscript? And if I did complete it, would anyone want to publish it? Writing a novel had been my dream for a long time, so there was a lot of fear and uncertainty as to whether this was, in fact, an impossible dream.

I’m not sure that any of it felt easy, but in those magical moments when the writing flowed smoothly, it certainly felt fun. And the whole process—from finishing the first draft to connecting with thousands of readers this past summer—has felt incredibly fulfilling.

Q: Who are your biggest writing influences?

Oh my goodness, there are too many to list! As a young reader, the works of Lois Lowry, Natalie Babbitt, Betty Smith, and Markus Zusak stand out in my memory, awakening my love of reading and showing me the many magical directions that a story can take, as well as the profound emotional impact of fiction. Two of my favorite contemporary authors are Ann Patchett—her style is beautiful, and her wide range of different tales is truly impressive—and Ted Chiang—his imagination is astonishing, and his short stories are deeply thought-provoking. But the greatest influence on my writing will always be my family, for inspiring me, supporting me, and encouraging me to pursue my passion.

Q: How do you feel that your time at Harvard prepared you for your career as a travel writer, a journalist, and now an author?

My time at Harvard gave me the incredible freedom to spend hours and hours immersed in books. I studied Comparative Literature, so I was exposed to a wide variety of literature from around the world, and my main extracurricular was writing for The Crimson. I spent four years constantly thinking about language, storytelling, structure, themes, and ideas. It was an excellent training ground in all forms of writing.

Q: What feedback or review have you received for The Measure that’s been the most exciting to you?

It was quite thrilling to see my novel featured in the New York Times Book Review—and also an incredible honor and excitement to be profiled in the New York Times myself and interviewed live on The TODAY Show—but I think the most meaningful interactions have been the personal exchanges with readers who reached out to me directly just to share how much the story meant to them or how it resonated with an experience in their own lives. It’s been a real privilege to have so many people share their stories with me.

Q: What media are you currently consuming? What are your recommendations for compelling, powerful, or just straight-up delightful books/shows/films/etc.?

I try to read and watch widely across different genres. Some recent books I enjoyed: The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang, The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. Some recent shows I enjoyed: Severance, Call My Agent, For All Mankind, What We Do in the Shadows, Abbott Elementary.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young novelists? Any tips on getting your manuscript seen by a publisher?

I think the most common advice that I was given was to “keep writing,” which of course is excellent advice. But, sometimes, it felt difficult to keep writing when I had no idea if anyone other than my family was ever going to read what I was writing! For me, the best advice was actually to keep reading. Writing can be challenging, and we all suffer from bouts of writer’s block, but reading is a never-ending well of inspiration. And reading a wide variety of stories will provide the best sense of what’s possible on the page and what makes you personally feel excited and inspired.

In terms of getting your manuscript in front of a publisher, my best advice is to find an agent with whom you feel a genuine connection—and can see yourself building a lifelong career alongside. Fortunately, many publishing agents are open to email queries from unpublished writers where you can pitch your novel directly. The hardest part is that you can’t just pitch an idea—you have to finish writing a full-length manuscript before you can start querying agents!

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

I just moved from NYC to Los Angeles earlier this year, so I’ve been using any free time to explore this new city. And I’m always looking for new spots to visit, so if anyone has a favorite place to share, please let me know!

Nikki Erlich's book The Measure was published in May 2022 and can be purchased on Amazon and other places where books are sold.

Photo Credit: Federico Photography


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.


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.


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.


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).