Valerie Weiss, PhD ’01, medical sciences, is an award-winning director with numerous credits as a producer, writer, and director. But in the late 1990s, she was a student wondering whether she should follow her love of film or dedicate herself to a career in science. Hedging her bets, she enrolled in PhD studies at GSAS, where she joined the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program in the Division of Medical Sciences. But she never let go of her more creative ambitions and found an outlet for them through Dudley House, where she received tremendous support as a Dudley Fellow. In the end, Weiss gained expertise in science that continues to impact her filmmaking today. “Dudley House was a crucial part of my time in graduate school,” Weiss shares, “as well as my path to becoming a film and television director.”
You earned a degree in science at Princeton before studying biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at GSAS. Had you intended to pursue science as a career?
While I was at Princeton, I majored in molecular biology, but I also earned a certificate in theater and dance. It was there that I transitioned from acting in plays to directing them, and a whole new world opened up for me. I found that directing fed both the analytical and creative sides of my brain in a way that neither performing—nor science—ever did. I was hooked and went on to direct five plays by playwrights like Edward Albee, Peter Shaffer, and Christopher Durang as an undergraduate. These plays dealt with darkness cloaked in absurdity and set a tone for the rest of the work I would end up doing, but I didn’t know it then. I just knew that I was at a crossroads at the beginning of my senior year because while I loved directing, I wasn’t sure if it made sense as a “serious” career. So few students at Princeton were pursuing performing arts careers that it seemed like a strange thing to do after graduating from an Ivy League school.
I loved working in the lab, and the professional path for science was clearer and more celebrated. I finally decided to go to graduate school and do both until I figured out which I was more passionate about. You can direct on the side but you can’t do science on the side, so I decided to pursue a PhD at Harvard in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and study filmmaking every waking moment that I wasn’t in the lab.
How did you become involved in filmmaking?
When I got to Harvard, there was already a Princeton alumnus named Dan Fitzgerald who was directing plays and acting through his role as the Dudley House Arts Fellow. He asked me to direct a play my second year at Harvard, which I did, but I was really itching to start doing film. This was 1997 and there were already miniDV cameras and rudimentary computer editing software, and I could feel that the digital revolution would give way more control to indie filmmakers. I approached Susan Zawalich, the Dudley House administrator, and asked if I could become Film Fellow. Susan wanted to make sure that theater still had a presence at Dudley, so we struck a deal—I would do theater in the fall and film in the spring and, if Dudley House purchased a computer, a miniDV camera, and editing software, then I would do the rest. Susan agreed, and I recruited amazing filmmakers who were passing through Boston to speak as part of the new Dudley Film Program. We organized seminars taught by Hal Hartley, James Toback, Brad Anderson, Dylan Kidd, Uta Briesewitz, Debra Winger, and even playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and A. R. Gurney, Jr. The program was meant for graduate students (and interested undergraduates) to learn how to make their own short films that we would screen in our own Dudley Film Festival, and it turned out that about 70 to 80 percent of the students making films were getting PhDs in science.
Dudley House is celebrating its 25th year as the GSAS student center. What did it mean to you to have Dudley as part of your graduate student experience?
My tenure as a Dudley Fellow was a tremendously important and joyous part of my time at Harvard. It was at least equal to getting my PhD in importance and in shaping my future. It also gave me the courage to try something that seemed so risky and foreign in a safe, nurturing environment. Dudley House was my film school, my film studio, and the launching pad for my future career. Ironically, my PhD advisor, James Hogle and his wife, Doreen, became familiar with Dudley House through the work I was doing there and eventually became the Faculty Deans!
Does your background in science influence your films?
Absolutely! Both directly and indirectly. My first feature, Losing Control, is a romantic comedy about a female scientist who wants proof that her boyfriend is “the one” and is loosely based on my time at Harvard. My second feature, A Light beneath Their Feet, starring Taryn Manning (Orange Is the New Black) and Madison Davenport (From Dusk till Dawn) is about a mother suffering from bipolar disorder. It was important to me that we get the portrayal of mental illness right, so I dove deep into research. I attended conferences from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation so I could understand the latest scientific research and how medication affects behavior. I am extremely proud of the authenticity of the characters and the film has repeatedly been lauded by mental health professionals and organizations. My latest project is an “American Girl: Maryellen 1955” Original Special for Amazon. The film has a polio storyline and my advisor, James Hogle, solved the 3-D structure of poliovirus! I am pretty sure mentioning that in my interview helped land me the job.
What’s next for you?
“American Girl Story: Maryellen 1995” will premiere on Amazon Prime the day after Thanksgiving. I also directed my third feature, “The Archer,” which is a coming-of-age feminist action/thriller—think Thelma and Louise meets First Blood. The film will be released next year. Next up, I am developing a science family film about parallel universes and have a half-hour comedy pilot that I am pitching and looking for more episodic television directing work.