The Writer/Director

By Julie Sobel
Illustrations by Owen Davey - Folio Art

Variety chose her as one of 2013’s “10 Directors to Watch.” She earned a coveted Guggenheim fellowship. Her first documentary was nominated for an Emmy. Her films have won awards around the world. But writer, producer, and director Gita Pullapilly ’99 wasn’t always bound for Hollywood.

A South Bend native, Pullapilly graduated from Notre Dame with a B.B.A. in finance, and was recruited to General Mills out of college. Pullapilly recalls getting to her first day of work and immediately realizing, “Oh no, what did I do?”

She had already cashed her signing bonus, so she spent the next three months sticking with the job and trying to figure out what she actually wanted to do with her life. She knew that she loved storytelling, so she thought perhaps journalism would be the more fulfilling career path. She went to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for a Master’s degree and went into broadcast news. But she found the reality of work as a local news reporter – short stories, breaking news, and fast turnaround time – to be far from the long-form stories she longed to tell.


She worked in television news until 2005, when she met the man who would become her partner in film—and eventually in marriage. "We bonded over our love for hating local television news," says Pullapilly of Aron Gaudet, who worked for a competing news station. "We realized that we loved the idea of storytelling but we felt that there was a better way for us to take what we loved doing and have it be a more meaningful experience,” for themselves and for audiences.

Gaudet and Pullapilly were careful in trying to pick a subject for their first documentary. Pullapilly notes that making a documentary can take years, so it’s crucial to feel passionate about the subjects. It was on a trip to Bangor, Maine, for Pullapilly to meet Gaudet’s mother for the first time, that they stumbled on their story. Gaudet’s mother was an enthusiastic participant in the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of elderly citizens who went to the airport to greet troops headed off to war. Gaudet and Pullapilly went along on one of her airport trips during the visit. There, Pullapilly talked with the World War II veteran who would become one of the subjects of “The Way We Get By.”

"I remember thinking this is what it means to really profile someone, this is what it means to really interview someone,” she says. “I had a profound experience. Totally different than any other subject I'd interviewed in television news."

By the end of the experience at the airport, she and Gaudet were both moved. "We knew instantly,” she said.

They embarked on what would be a five-year process of creating the documentary, undaunted by setbacks along the way. "Hollywood distributors basically told us to stop making the movie, we were wasting our time, because audiences wouldn't come out to see it,” says Pullapilly. "But we felt it could be something.”

Pullapilly and Gaudet pushed on, and the film ultimately ended up being released nationally and internationally, as well as winning some major film festival awards. "That kind of launched us as filmmakers," she says.

But rather than follow their initial success with another documentary, the two decided to try a different form of storytelling. "We really wanted to play in the art of storytelling, whether it be documentary or narrative,” says Pullapilly. “And we really wanted to write our first fiction film."

They wrote and directed the narrative film “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” a drama about teenagers in a small Maine border town. “We found our voice as filmmakers,” she says. “What we do is keep it real. Even if it's a fictional background and fictional setting.”

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and had its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It ended up being released across the country and is now being released overseas. When it was released, Variety listed the couple as one of the top ten directors to watch that year, and they were signed by a talent agency. “‘Beneath the Harvest Sky’ really kind of broke us through to Hollywood," says Pullapilly.

Though Pullapilly has found success in filmmaking, she calls the field very challenging. "It's really hard to make cheap films. So there's a lot of money that goes into it, a lot of time, a lot of manpower that goes into making a film. Everybody has to bet on you. You have to convince people to take a chance on your work, and your vision, and your art,” she says.

"It’s amazing and completely overwhelming too,” she says of the chance to work in Hollywood. “Because it's an honor that people want to trust us with making a large project, but with a large project there also comes a lot of responsibility."

Pullapilly doesn’t necessarily advise eager young filmmaking aspirants to head west immediately.

"A lot people ask us should they be moving out to L.A. for their work,” she says. “From our perspective, you don't want to move to LA too early.” She compares it to athletes proving themselves in school or the minor leagues before trying to play in the major leagues. “If you come too early you're not getting to the meetings you need to get to meet the executives that can fund a project, that can get a movie made with you," she says. "So from the filmmaker's standpoint, it's about moving at the right time.”

Now that they’re playing in the majors, Pullapilly and Gaudet are working on a drama that takes place in Chicago, which she describes as a "much much larger Hollywood film."

Though the scope of the projects may have changed from when they started out, for Pullapilly it’s still all about the storytelling.

“For us, it’s really about making – whether it’s in the fiction state, or the documentary state, whatever we’re doing – making it feel like this is really happening to these characters,” she says. “To bring the audience into that world.”

The Actor/Entrepreneur

Catch up with William Mapother '87, and learn about his journey from Louisville to roles on hit shows like "Lost," "Mad Men," and "Justified."

The Producer

By Josh Stowe ’01
Michael Swanson ’93 is the man behind the curtain.
As a studio production executive for Universal Television, he oversees a handful of shows across several networks, ensuring they stay on budget without compromising their artistic visions.
That means everything from juggling meetings with crew members, writers, and producers to spotting cost overruns and negotiating creative fixes to handling a wide range of personalities without getting ruffled.
“If there’s this big pressing issue or fire that needs to be put out, I can assess a situation and come up with a very wise way to handle an issue without becoming flustered or frantic,” he says. “And I think producers have to have that quality because you will always have something that takes you off track. Production is really about problem-solving and executing.”
Swanson likens himself to a backstage fixer watching a symphony orchestra. If he notices a problem with a violin’s sound, it’s his job to get it tuned properly or replace the violinist so that the conductor—and the musicians—can focus on delivering a great performance.
Swanson’s education at Notre Dame helped prepare him for this role. He majored in Film, Television, and Theatre, where he learned to make films for class. Outside of the classroom, he received an excellent education in navigating relationships, living in Dillon Hall and serving on a multicultural executive council.
“I came to Notre Dame from the south side of Chicago and made friends with people of different experiences and backgrounds from all over the world,” he says.

“In production you must learn to adapt and work together with different personalities. Everyone does not have the same background and experiences, but you still have to work together to reach the goal.”

Now, when he sees a writer sending scripts that would take a show over budget, he draws on those experiences as he suggests how to massage the scripts rather than simply nixing the writer’s ideas.
“I try to make it work financially first before saying no to creative,” he says. “I want them to feel that they are creating the best show possible.”
Those skills allowed him to produce “The Wayman Tisdale Story,” an Emmy-winning documentary that chronicled the life and legacy of the late NBA player and jazz musician who courageously battled cancer. And it’s enabled him to work on shows like “Community” and “Parks and Recreation,” which finished its seven-season run in February. These days, he works on and upcoming Netflix comedy series and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a comedy series set in a fictional New York City police precinct.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the one shows that I have been a part of since the very beginning,” he says. “To be so involved from the pilot stage and then to see it get ordered into a series, and then a few months into production to receive the news it was nominated for best comedy, that was mind-blowing for us.”
He and his wife, writer-director Christine Swanson '94, live in Los Angeles. The couple, who have four children, founded Faith Filmworks as an outlet for creative storytelling that draws on their values.
“We wanted to tell stories that had moral resonance but at the same time would do well at the box office and have good love stories, family stories, and character-driven themes,” Swanson says. “Compelling content that would be an extension of who we are as creative people of faith.”
No matter the project, Swanson loves his work, and enjoys becoming a part of a bigger team working toward a common goal.

“Production is such a collaborative effort,” he says. “There are so many different moving pieces and everyone has to do his or her part. And everyone, to me, is equally important.” 

"Whether you are the star of the show or the production assistant, your role is important and necessary to keep the show moving forward.”


The Actress/Comedian

Meet Katherine Dudas ’14, who moved to New York City after graduation to pursue acting, improv, and standup comedy: 

The Documentary Filmmaker

By Kevin Brennan ’07
Illustrations by Owen Davey - Folio Art

All Patrick Creadon ’89 needed was one great idea. After a decade working as a freelance cameraman on other people’s projects, he was ready to make his own documentary film. He just had to find the right subject.  

One afternoon, frustrated while editing an uninteresting corporate video, Creadon turned his attention to the day’s New York Times crossword puzzle. And that’s where he found his answer.  

“It just hit me like a lightning bolt,” Creadon says. He called his wife, producer Christine O’Malley, and told her they needed to make a documentary about Will Shortz, the crossword editor for the Times. A little more than a year later, Creadon and O’Malley went to the Sundance Film Festival, where their first film, “Wordplay,” debuted to rave reviews.

For Creadon, it was the realization of a lifelong dream and the beginning of the second chapter of his career. Ten years and four films later, he is recognized as one of the top documentary filmmakers working today.

His love of documentaries can be traced back several decades to Riverside, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where he grew up. “I was probably the only 8-year-old on my street to run home Sunday nights just to watch ‘60 Minutes,’” Creadon says.


But Creadon’s first experiences in the industry came in front of the camera rather than behind it. He and his siblings worked as child actors and models in the Chicago area. He appeared in several commercials, but his biggest break came in “Rascals and Robbers,” a made-for-TV movie about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Creadon played Sawyer, while Finn was portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall, who over the following five years went on to become a megastar thanks to roles in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Weird Science.” Even on the set of “Rascals and Robbers,” though, Creadon knew he didn’t want to go down that same path.

“I definitely was drawn to the work that the director and the cinematographer were doing,” he remembers. “Because I realized that really those are the people making the movie. As a 15-year-old, that left a real impression on me. That’s when I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a director.”

Creadon left acting behind when he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and enrolled at Notre Dame. He flirted with various majors before landing on political science. As he neared the end of his senior year, he assumed he should start focusing on a more realistic career path than the movie business. “Even with all the experience I had, it still seemed like sort of a far-fetched dream,” he explains.

That’s when Professor Dan Lapsley, now the chair of Notre Dame’s Department of Psychology, offered advice that Creadon is still thankful for today. With Creadon making plans to attend law school, Lapsley encouraged him to take at least one year off and give his true ambition an honest try.  

He moved back to Chicago and, before long, scored an internship with PBS working -- unpaid for the first six months -- on the documentary series “The 90’s.” He absolutely loved the job, and the inclination to attend law school quickly vanished. Instead, he left Chicago and PBS behind for Los Angeles and the American Film Institute, where he earned a Master’s in cinematography.

After finishing his graduate degree, Creadon found consistent employment as a cameraman and editor on a wide range of projects. But eventually he grew tired of this work and felt unchallenged. He became increasingly determined to make his own films with his wife. “Neither one of us came out here to make others people’s movies,” he says.

Creadon knew that his first film could be his last if the project failed, so he focused intensely on identifying the perfect topic. And that’s why he was so excited when he thought of Shortz and the legions of crossword puzzle fanatics across the country. O’Malley loved the idea too, and Creadon’s brother and best friend from Notre Dame both agreed to help finance the film. He cold-called Shortz, who said he'd participate as long as Creadon promised to finish the movie within a year.

Almost exactly a year after that phone call, “Worldplay” premiered at Sundance. Getting into the festival at all was a huge accomplishment -- only 16 documentaries were chosen from a pool of 900 applicants. Still, so much was riding on that first screening.

“First-time filmmakers are like start-up companies,” Creadon explains. “You’ve got a little bit of money, you’ve got a little bit of time, and hopefully you’ve got a really great idea. When all is said and done, at some point in the future, you’re going to have to be in a theatre with 500 strangers, dim the lights, and play your movie. And your movie either works or it doesn’t.”

“Wordplay” definitely worked. It was a smash hit at the festival, and within a week, influential producer Harvey Weinstein purchased the documentary for $1 million. It went on to be the second-highest grossing documentary of 2006, trailing only Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth.” It also established O’Malley Creadon Productions as a rising star in the field of documentaries.

With Creadon directing and O’Malley producing, they’ve gone on to make three more feature-length documentaries. “I.O.U.S.A.,” a nonpartisan examination of the threat posed by America’s growing national debt, debuted at Sundance in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Academy Awards. “If You Build It,” released in 2014, documented a school year in rural Bertie County, North Carolina, where two design teachers led high school students in a building project that was meant to help breathe some new life into the struggling area. An early cut of “All Work All Play,” Creadon’s newest film, played at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. The movie, which chronicles the rising popularity of eSports, is scheduled to open in July in 2,000 theatres across the country -- a huge release for a documentary.

In between these feature-length documentary projects, Creadon occasionally directs television shows and commercials. Last New Year’s Eve, he led a team of film crews in seven different cities around the world shooting babies being born at different hospitals. Creadon edited the footage overnight, turning it into “Wishes for Baby,” a heartwarming Fisher Price commercial that Creadon says he loves like it is one of his films.

But documentary films remain Creadon’s passion. He’s grateful that he’s been able to make each movie with his wife, and that he no longer has to work on other people’’s projects. “No one ever greenlights our movies,” he says proudly. “We greenlight our movies.”

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Despite all his successes, Creadon is still on the lookout. He’s searching for his next great idea, that next bolt of lightning that will land him back in a dimly lit theatre, anxiously waiting to see if his movie works.