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Alumnus directs feature film

When Todd Strauss-Schulson ’03 was an Emerson film student, he was obsessed with pursuing a career as a director. He plastered his residence hall room and the campus with posters for his films and spent most of his nights in the Little Building residence hall working on films with his friends.

Today, less than a decade after his graduation from Emerson, Strauss-Schulson has directed his first feature film, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (HK3), and he’s still collaborating with many of the same Emersonians he worked with in the Little Building. In fact, he credits his Emerson friends with helping him land his directorial debut.

Todd Strauss-Schulson (center) worked on the set of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas with stars John Cho (Harold) and Kal Penn (Kumar).

“The whole Emerson crew that I had been working with—I felt like it was a success for all of us because we had been working together for so long,” he said.

Post-college, Strauss-Schulson continued working with his classmates after most of them moved to Los Angeles. He started his career working odd jobs to pay the bills and, whenever he could, making music videos. The first video job he got was for a Christian rock band and had “basically a fully Emerson crew.”

After a couple of years, it became clear to Strauss-Schulson that directing music videos wasn’t going to land him a career in film. He decided to take a job in Bangkok working for MTV Asia for eight months, creating humorous segments for one of the most popular shows on the network.

“It was a huge learning experience,” he said. “We had different cultural references and different languages, and I started to learn what is funny to people no matter what their language or culture.”

Once he returned to Los Angeles, Strauss-Schulson was signed by a manager and began working on branded web viral videos and as an in-house director for Improv Comedy Club in Hollywood. At the comedy club, he had the opportunity to shoot promotional videos with several comedy legends. That experience, he said, was “like a comedy school. It became very clear to me that the delivery of the joke was as important as the joke itself.”

In addition to his jobs, Strauss-Schulson began making visually agressive, humorous video shorts with his Emerson crew. One of those shorts, about two straight men fighting to get a job as a gay sex phone operator called Mano-A-Mano, became an Internet sensation. The film starred two Emerson alumni, Evan Mann ’03 and Gareth Reynolds ’03, and was produced by Strauss-Schulson and his friend Ken Franchi ’03. Its success led to Strauss-Schulson getting “a big fancy agent.”

Gareth Reynolds ’03 (left), and Evan Mann ’03 starred in HK3, which their friend and fellow alumnus Todd Strauss-Schulson directed.

With the agent came scripts to read, meetings with movie executives, and, eventually, opportunities to make pitches for movies. Ultimately, he landed Harold and Kumar 3 at age 29.

“It was shocking and euphoric,” he said. “My mom and I cried, and it was hyper-emotional. I’d made thousands of things prior to getting the movie, and it was a lot of work to get there.”

After his friends and family received the news, they threw a big congratulations party for Strauss-Schulson, “but really to me that party was for all of us, that whole group from Emerson,” he said.

Once he started working on HK3, Strauss-Schulson made sure to get his Emerson friends involved with the film. “It’s what we do. We all lift each other up. Whenever we get opportunities, we try to get the others involved,” he explained.

In total, five Emerson alumni worked on HK3 in different capacities. David Lebensfeld ’04, owner of Ingenuity Engine visual effects, and Matt Poliquin ‘04, executive producer at the company, oversaw and produced many of the special and visual effects. Mann and Reynolds acted in the movie and helped Strauss-Schulson punch up the script. Dan Levy ’03 also had an acting role. Stephen Moreau ’03 is working on the movie’s press at Warner Brothers (the film’s distributor) in New York City.

“This movie has a certain look and feel because of Emerson and because of those relationships we made at Emerson,” said Strauss-Schulson. “We have over 400 visual effects shots in this modestly budgeted movie because my oldest friend in the world [Lebensfeld] wanted to help me make a movie and agreed to do extra work on off hours so long as I brought him Red Bull and hung out, just like we were still in the LB.”

Up next for Strauss-Schulson: plans to grow the production company he started years ago with Franchi called Ulterior Productions. The duo has already sold a pitch for an action comedy that takes place in Brazil to New Line Cinema.

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is in theaters November 4.

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