Grads find careers in creativity

By
University News Editor
Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

The path to a career in writing, media and film can be daunting for recent graduates who are used to having every step planned out for them. But these fields offer many possible routes to success, and each journey requires spontaneity and innovation. Life after Brown often begins with waiting tables — a job to pay the bills while true passions are pursued on the side or at night, in lieu of sleep. Five alums, many of whom are returning for their class reunions this year, said their Brown education fostered the passions, skills and close friendships that have accompanied them in their pursuits of their dreams.

Though they have established themselves as standouts in their chosen fields, these writers and producers still cherish the relationships they developed as undergraduates, and many of them regularly convene and collaborate with old classmates.

 

Just beyond the gates

After graduating from Brown, independent film producer Christine Vachon ’83 worked as a proofreader at a cable television company. At night, she proofread to pay her bills, and during the day she pursued her dream of a career in television by working as a production assistant. After years of working her way into filmmaking, Vachon broke into the business in 1991 when she produced “Poison,” written and directed by Todd Haynes ’85, and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival for her work. Since then, she has produced several acclaimed films, including “Boys Don’t Cry,” winner of an Academy Award in 2000. Another, “Far From Heaven,” was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2003.

Many seniors leaving Brown can feel like they cannot support themselves unless they land their “dream job” right after graduation, Vachon said. But this fear is misplaced, she said, adding that there are many opportunities in television and film for entrepreneurial students. “If you want to tell stories, the most important thing is to start doing it.”

Jeffrey Eugenides ’83 had to work a series of “lousy jobs” right after college to support himself, he said. His first job was as an editor for a “failing magazine” in Northern California. He continued to work various secretarial jobs before publishing his first novel in 1993.

Still, Eugenides cautioned that even for talented novelists, the writing profession is filled with uncertainty and ceaseless doubts about the future.

“It’s not a career that you can rely on a series of defined steps,” Eugenides said. “There’s no point to know when you’ve arrived.”

But Eugenides himself has found success in the field, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003 for his novel “Middlesex.” Two years ago, he published “The Marriage Plot,” a novel about three friends who graduate from Brown and start out on the confusing world of post-college life. Eugenides is now working on a book of short stories.

Writer Lois Lowry ’58 said she worked as a freelance contributor to various magazines and newspapers early in her career. Though she has since won wide acclaim for her novels, she said writers cannot start with “phenomenal success” as a primary motivation, since such achievement is rare.

Lowry, who dropped out of Brown after her sophomore year, said she focused on raising her children before she fully pursued her writing passion. She published her first novel, “A Summer to Die,” in 1977 at the age of 40, and later achieved her most well-known success with her 1993 novel, “The Giver,” which received a Newbery Medal.

For other alums in the media and entertainment business, finding a first job after college flowed naturally from extracurricular pursuits. Director and producer Doug Liman ’88 began his life after Brown heading a nonprofit association of college radio and TV stations. After briefly living in France, he decided to jump into the filmmaking business and moved to Los Angeles, where he connected with several friends from Brown. Liman has since directed and produced the 2002 action film “The Bourne Identity” and served as executive producer for the other two films — “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” — in the “Bourne” trilogy. He also directed the action film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and most recently directed “Fair Game,” a 2010 biographical film about former C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame.

Television producer Lauren Corrao ’83 P’16, who now works as a consultant for Comcast Entertainment Studios, began as an intern at a Providence television station during her senior year at Brown. Three days after graduating, she started working as a production assistant for MTV, where she would remain for 10 years. Since then, Corrao has worked as an executive at FOX, Comedy Central and A Very Good Production, Ellen DeGeneres’ production company.

“I think Brown graduates are positioned quite well these days,” Corrao said, citing the Internet’s impact on media production, which allows tech-savvy producers to cut costs and work outside traditional corporate structures.

 

Built by Brown

Regardless of the paths these alums took to get to where they are today, they all noted the importance of their experiences at Brown, particularly in helping them cultivate a sense of independence and drive.

“The Brown curriculum and the unstructured nature of it taught me the skills I needed to survive in the film business,” Liman said. “No two directors follow the same route, and no two Brown students have the same education.”

Noting that the entertainment industry is in “a state of flux” in the digital era, Liman indicated Brown graduates are well-positioned to thrive in the newly entrepreneurial environment. Since “a core aspect of the Brown education is independence and leadership,” self-motivated alums have an edge in today’s filmmaking business, he said.

Eugenides said the “self-discipline” demanded by the writing profession is a quality that goes hand in hand with the independent streaks of many Brown students. As a former actor in Production Workshop shows at Brown, Eugenides used his theater experiences to try to place himself inside a character’s skin, a skill that came in handy as a writer, he said.

“I think there’s a connection between playing a role in a play and trying to inhabit a literary character,” Eugenides said, adding that though theater was his main extracurricular focus as an undergraduate, he also wrote for a campus literary magazine.

Corrao explored political science, philosophy and even a “detour” into computer science before being drawn by the film studies classes in the semiotics department, she said. “I felt like I found my passion,” Corrao said, adding that she had never seriously considered filmmaking as a career until taking film studies courses at Brown.

She decided to leave her executive job at FOX in 1997 to get away from the corporate environment, and she went on to produce her own show on ABC. Her desire to always challenge the status quo was fueled by “the freedom to explore” that was central to her Brown experience, Corrao said.

Lowry said that though she dropped out of Brown after her sophomore year, the English courses she took had a profound impact. One of Lowry’s instructors, the late Professor of English Charles Philbrick, gave Lowry newfound confidence in her writing talents. “He was really the first person who told me I had the makings of a professional writer,” Lowry said. “That was really very affirming for me.”

Other alums pursued academic interests farther afield from their chosen profession. Liman, who concentrated in history, said though he knew he would go into filmmaking after graduation, he sought to use his undergraduate years to get a broad education. “I just wanted to take classes that taught me about the world,” he said.

 

Lasting ties

Though they have now spent decades outside the Van Wickle Gates, these alums said they have maintained ties with their alma mater and often create their own reunions.

When Eugenides was just starting out as a writer after graduating, he spoke with other alums who had also become novelists. “We all gave each other feedback and support,” he said.

He added that he still keeps in touch with many friends from Brown and just recently wrote a favorable blurb for “The Interestings,” the latest novel by his former classmate and fellow writer Meg Wolitzer ’81.

Corrao, who will be hosting a “Brown Women in Comedy” Commencement forum May 25, said she has come to every fifth-year reunion since graduating.

“I’ve stayed in touch with Brown since the moment I graduated,” she said, citing her involvement with a group of alums in the entertainment industry who gather at least once a year to “mostly reminisce” about their undergraduate years.

“My closest friends are still the people I was at Brown with,” Vachon said.

Liman said he plans on attending this year’s reunion and added that he maintains a whole network of friends from Brown whom he often sees. In fact, he said, his current office in New York City is located just next door to his first-year roommate’s office.