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Columbia College Today March 2005
Cover Story


 Dan Harris ’01 Begins
    An Amazing Career
 Ivan Koota ’60 Goes
    Home to Brooklyn


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Dan Harris ’01 Begins an Amazing Career

By Claire Lui ’00

Dan Harris '01

"Amazing” is a word that pops up a lot in conversation with screenwriter and director Dan Harris ’01. Getting to work with Woody Allen during his first week at college? “Amazing.” Discovering he lived one block away from his writing partner in sprawling L.A.? “Amazing.” Showing his short film at Sundance in front of John Waters and Robert Redford at 22? “Amazing.” Writing X2, the sequel to X-Men, a year later? “Amazing.” Casting Sigourney Weaver in his first full-length feature film, which he wrote and directed at 23? “Amazing.”

And who can blame him? Barely four years out of school, Harris is having the sort of success that only Hollywood could dream up. He’s co-writing the new installment of Superman (already having made his mark in superhero movies by co-writing X2,) and his first solo feature, Imaginary Heroes, starring Weaver, Jeff Daniels and Emile Hirsch, was released last month. The film had an early, limited release in December, though, because of the buzz around Weaver’s performance.

Harris arrived at Columbia without any film aspirations. Coming from a small town in Pennsylvania, he says, “I never thought I wanted to make movies because it wasn’t something that I thought was possible. It wasn’t even something that crossed my mind. It was too big a dream.” He came to Columbia with other dreams, thinking he might want to be a painter, a photographer or a writer. Landing a job as a production assistant on the set of Woody Allen’s Celebrity during his first week of college, Harris had a revelation: “I realized I could do all those things: It’s called being a movie director. I decided right then that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

By his sophomore year, Harris thought he was ready to start making his own films. Interning for producer Scott Rudin the previous summer helped clarify his thinking. “It was a great experience because it made me realize I don’t want to be a producer,” notes Harris. “I like to tell stories. It made me realize I didn’t want to be Scott Rudin; I wanted to be Woody Allen.”

So Harris raised $4,000 from family and friends and made a seven-minute film. The next summer, he raised $50,000 to make his second film, the 20-minute Urban Chaos Theory, which won a prize at the No Dance Film Festival.

Despite that recognition, Harris knew he had overspent. After graduating from the College as a film major, he was determined to make another film, but on a much smaller budget. Knowing that most investors had not recouped their money from Urban Chaos Theory, Harris describes his financing effort for his next film as an act of desperation: “I sat in my house in L.A. and said, ‘How can I make a short film for less than $50,000, for less than $4,000?’” Scrounging for cheap film stock, calling in favors from actors and cameramen and shooting in his house, Harris made The Killing of Candice Klein, which he describes as “a morbid musical about Vietnam and death and alcoholism,” for less than $1,000. It was accepted at Sundance in 2002.

Harris turned to scriptwriting because he needed something to direct. “You want to be a director and you want to make short films, but short films aren’t going to fall into your lap. You need to write them. So I became a writer to facilitate becoming a director,” he says. Crediting Professor David McKenna’s scriptwriting class as “hugely influential,” Harris wrote a number of scripts, including America’s Least Wanted, which won the Louis Sudler prize in the arts at Columbia in 2001, and another, Imaginary Heroes, which he started shopping around town. By 2002 at Sundance, Harris was seen as one to watch. Managing to get the script to a number of people, including Weaver’s agent and director Bryan Singer, Harris landed two deals from his script. First, he got a commitment from Weaver to star in the film, and second, he received an offer from Singer to try his hand at writing X2.

Imaginary Heroes
Harris describes Imaginary Heroes, his first full-length film as writer and director, as a dark comedy that captures part of his past.


Harris’ writing partner on X2 and other projects is NYU alumnus Mike Dougherty. They met in New York in 2000 at a party following the final performance of Cats. Remembering the surreal scene, Harris says: “The party was half-filled with theatre elite like Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd Weber, and the other half was Cats super-fans, people who dressed as Rum Tum Tugger and their favorite characters. Mike and I were on the outside, thinking, ‘How did we end up here?’ ”

It was a wacky meeting, suitable for the pair, who have written a number of comic book adaptations together, including X2 and their current project, Superman. Dougherty says their shared sense of the ridiculous is a reason why their partnership works: “Dan has a knack for twisted, offbeat humor, on the page and in real life, and that’s a big reason that we hit it off.” Before writing X2, the pair sold a horror movie, a spin-off of Urban Legends, and Singer, knowing the two sometimes wrote together, reunited them for X2.

X2’s ensemble cast features Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. For some movies, a script is rewritten by several teams of writers before going to the director. In the case of X2, Harris and Dougherty flew to Vancouver, where the movie was filmed, and lived there for a year, on call every day for script changes. “It’s a unique experience to be in your first real job, a young kid just a year out of college,” says Harris, “and knocking on major stars’ trailers and bowing to them and saying, ‘I’m sorry Ian, uh, Sir Ian, the scene is changed, and here’s your new dialogue, and we’re shooting in 20 minutes.’ ”

Singer, the director of X2 and of the upcoming Superman, is honest about demands he makes of the young writers. He recalls one instance where he held up filming for 21–2 hours, insisting on immediate rewrites from Harris and Dougherty in front of 200 cast and crew members, only to decide to return to the original script as written. It’s this kind of devotion to the finished product that Singer admires in Harris and Dougherty. “They were dedicated to the movie, not to their fee,” says Singer. “That’s something a lot of writers in this town don’t do.”

By the time Harris was finished with X2, his agents had put together financing for Imaginary Heroes. He was back in the director’s chair, but this time with a $10 million budget and a cast of A-list stars. A dark comedy about a family coping with the aftermath of a son’s suicide, the movie blends offbeat humor and poignant revelation. Weaver plays an earthy mom whose unusual ways of dealing with the tragedy — one funny scene has her alternating between smoking marijuana and tobacco before passing out on her lawn — are a sharp contrast to those of her husband, played by Daniels, who responds by becoming detached and ignoring their other two children.

Though Harris describes the film as a comedy, albeit a dark one, the undercurrent of secrets and lies makes it an often-disquieting family saga. Kip Pardue, who plays the son who commits suicide, points out that although the audience might be unnerved by the long, deliberate exposition, the uncomfortable family sequences “are really the elephants in the living room that the family is unwilling to discuss.” Daniels, a real-life parent, adds, “There are thousands of parenting books, yet none of them will help you. [As a parent] you’re winging it and you’re doing the best you can. In this family’s case, all of their inadequacies rear their ugly heads.”

Harris talks about the movie as a way of capturing part of his past. “Growing up in Pennsylvania had a huge impact on me, and I wanted to tell that story without telling that story,” he says. “I wanted to tell what it felt like to grow up at that place at that moment. I experienced tragedy, and I wanted not to tell that story but instead to capture it by telling somebody else’s story.” He describes the movie: “it’s like a soup, a melting pot of experiences. It’s the archetypal experiences in your life turned into someone else’s story.”

Though Imaginary Heroes is a realistic story and X2 is about superhero mutants, Harris drew on his personal experiences for both. “There are a lot of things in X-Men, believe it or not, that I’ve witnessed,” he says. In X2, his connection is “a sense of what it felt like to be an outsider, to feel repressed by a world that doesn’t understand you. For everyone else, it might be a story about people with superpowers, but for me, it’s a human story about a general who wants revenge.”

Imaginary Heroes
Harris landed big-name talent for his first feature film, Imaginary Heroes, including Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels as grieving parents.


Coming to the Imaginary Heroes set with such a strong vision of the film made directing easy for Harris, though he says he was “in way over my head” on the first day. His anxiety went unnoticed by the actors. Daniels says, “He looks 12 — that was a little disconcerting. But you listen to him talk about your take on your character and you realize you’re in good hands.”

Harris chalks this up to his directing philosophy: “The first rule is to project confidence. When Sigourney Weaver asks me a question about her performance, I give an answer. I commit to it. I might change my mind, fine, but I do it in a straightforward way that makes everyone feel that I know what I’m doing. Some days it’s true. And some days it’s not. I’m just there and I’m overwhelmed, but the No. 1 rule is to give off a sense that you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, everything else will fall apart, people won’t trust you and actors won’t trust their performances. Movies fall apart all the time for first-time directors because on the bad days, they don’t know how to turn that around and use it for their advantage.”
Pardue describes Harris as the “picture of authority on the set,” crediting his low-key manner to the filming’s success. Pardue comments that the script was “one of the most beautiful I have read,” and was worried that he would be disappointed by meeting Harris in real life, only to be surprised by Harris’ calm, humble demeanor. “People in my generation tend to think they’re the greatest thing,” Pardue says, “but he really is.”

Harris tries to fight the temptation to read reviews, but admits to getting worked up over what critics say. Yet it’s what the average viewer, not the critics, think that affects him the most. Remembering an early screening of Imaginary Heroes for friends and family, Harris describes how he walked out of the film and passed the wife of the screening room owner at the back of the theater; she was crying. Seeing Harris, she said, “Oh, wasn’t that a great movie?” Harris reacted with pleasure, thanking her profusely. Confused, the woman said, “Why? Did you work on it?” Smiling at the memory, Harris imitates himself, saying in a small voice, “I wrote it and I directed it.”

With Superman coming out in 2006, another planned collaboration with Dougherty and Singer on Logan’s Run and a half-finished script for his next directing project, Harris says, “I just want to be a filmmaker who makes a film every two years that affects people. I don’t need to become an important filmmaker or to make a huge amount of money. I want to be like Peter Weir, who takes his time and makes stories, not concepts, and jumps from genre to genre. I love horror movies, I love romantic comedies, I love thrillers.” Describing his next possible directing/script project as a kind of “ ’80s Spielberg film,” a science fiction movie that’s also a human drama, Harris is clearly at the start of a big career. Amazing.

Claire Lui ’00 is a writer based in Queens. She has written about books and the arts for Entertainment Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle and Print. Her last article for CCT was about political cartoonist R.J. Matson ’85.

Columbia in Comics

Dan Harris ’01 is writing Superman, but he’s not the only connection that Columbia has to caped crusaders. You might have spotted the Columbia campus in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, as well as seen Peter Cincotti ’05 playing a tune during the black-tie gala in the second movie, but there’s more.

Columbia has a long history of popping up between the pows, wham and zowies, according to Peter Sanderson ’73, a comic historian, former Marvel editor and comics critic on He wrote The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, co-wrote the documentary Sex, Lies and Superheroes and teaches a comics history class at NYU.

“Comics in America always have had the reputation of being junk for kids,” says Sanderson. “But right now, comics are getting a lot more publicity thanks to movies and a reaching of critical mass in terms of comics being taken seriously.”

Sanderson notes that academics have long ignored comic books as a field for serious study, and comic books returned the favor, sending their characters to vague fictional universities in Gotham and Metropolis. Nevertheless, Columbia has managed to sneak into a number of superhero storylines.

Fictional Characters

Though it’s not specifically mentioned in any of the comic books, Sanderson maintains in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe that Professor Xavier of X-Men not only did graduate studies at Columbia, but also taught at the school. Sanderson says he heard it straight from X-Men writer Chris Claremont.

In Uncanny X-Men, No. 192, Professor Xavier is seen teaching at Columbia. In the same issue, the professor is beaten up by a number of Columbia students.

In Iron Fist, a 1970s Marvel series, Iron Fist had a girlfriend, Colleen Wing. Colleen’s father, the learned Professor Wing, was a professor of Oriental studies at Columbia.

Though Spider-Man frequents the Columbia campus in the movies, Stan Lee originally sent Spider-Man to Empire State University, a fictional stand-in for NYU.

Keep your eyes out for a possible reappearance of Professor Connors (Dylan Baker) in Spider-Man 3. Fans of the comic book know that Dr. Connors, a Columbia professor in Spider-Man 2, is the alter-ego of the villainous Lizard.

In Marvel’s Daredevil series, Daredevil, aka Matt Murdock, goes to Columbia and meets his best friend, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, there. He also meets a woman who becomes his girlfriend (and who is a comic book heroine in her own right), Elektra Natchios, at school.

Elektra, a feisty Columbia alumna, becomes one of the world’s most dangerous assassins and was given her own series. The movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Garner, was released on
January 14.

Real-life Alumni

Jerry Robinson, a noted artist from the golden age of comics, attended Columbia for two years in the late 1930s while working for Bob Kane, creator of Batman. Robinson started by inking Kane’s Batman stories and went on to create the Joker and Batman’s sidekick, Robin.

Harris, in addition to his screenwriting credits for Superman, X2 and uncredited drafts of Fantastic Four, is writing a year’s worth of the Ultimate X-Men comic books with his writing partner, Mike Dougherty, and director Bryan Singer.

Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen, both of whom attended Columbia, played Rogue and Dr. Jean Grey, respectively, in X-Men and X2.

Claire Lui ’00





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