The producer of the film Waitress studied government but his dreams were shaped by theater.
Producer Michael Roiff ’01 worries that he babbles. But, believe you me, he doesn’t. Instead, he is a master spinner of fascinating and funny tales from his career, one that has spanned from Harvard to Hollywood and beyond. Roiff, founder of the L.A.-based production company Night & Day Pictures, spoke recently with American Repertory Theater’s director of artistic programs and dramaturg Ryan McKittrick and students about the life-changing experience of producing the film Waitress, a musical adaptation that recently closed a sold-out run at A.R.T and is headed to Broadway next year. After the talk, Roiff and I retreated to a secluded back room at the Loeb Drama Center and chatted about the myriad ways Harvard shaped his development as an artist. An edited version of our conversation follows.
What advice do you have for artists at Harvard seeking a career in the arts?
Enjoy it. The thing that’s so great about this place is that you get to create things. One of the things that I miss so much is that ability to say, “I’m going to put up a play. I’m going to do that. Today I’m going to direct. And I’m going to do that.” One of the things about it not being this crazy, structured, academic thing with theater here is that we do all of it – we manage it, we create it, we grow it, we live it – and it’s just so awesome, something that you don’t get everywhere, or out in that big scary world outside.
What are your thoughts on the new concentration?
I think it’s great in the sense that it’s all I ever wanted when I was an undergrad here. I did government because, you know, that’s what I did. And I loved government, and I’m glad I learned that stuff, but the things I remember the most came from not inside classrooms. I graduated almost 15 years ago now, and what do I remember? I remember being in this theater at all hours of day and night, and trying to make something of nothing, and trying to create something that people might like. If there’s a way to bring the academic piece to that that doesn’t trample on that experience, I think that’s the best thing ever.
How did your experience at Harvard help develop you as a producer?
There’s nothing that I do that I don’t think I was in some way prepared for when I was an undergrad. The Pudding was a big, big thing for me. We were making this show that no one was in charge of. We were doing this. And that was the same thing we were doing at HRDC. We’d say, “Here’s the season in the Ex, and these are the directors, and these are the shows, and here’s the limited budget that you have. Go make something.” And that gave me the ability to say, “We can do anything if we set our minds to it.” More than anything I was taught that if you trust yourself and take a chance on yourself, there’s no one who can really stop you from doing that.
Who are your artistic influences?
So many people. They played E.T. at the Hollywood Bowl the other night, with a live score, and it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. In so many ways, Steven Spielberg is the reason that I’m out there. All of those movies that I fell in love with as a kid that made me want to do that and be a part of that, that was probably the biggest thing for me. But that dumbs it down and makes it more simplistic than my answer really is. Truth is, there are so many people. Adrienne Shelley is one of the biggest influences of my life; she guided me through so much of who I’ve become. So many wonderful actors who I’ve had the chance to work with and see how they go about plying their craft. Honestly, right now working with Barry and Fran Weissler, or Diane Paulus – they’re inspiring because they’re living the dream. And they’re doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is just go make stuff.
Who’s your dream director to work with?
And your dream project?
I look at J.J. Abrams doing Star Wars right now and know I would have killed to be involved with something like that. I had the opportunity to work with Joss Whedon. That was incredible. He’s a brilliant guy, super collaborative, really smart, incredibly self-deprecating. I think for me, especially as I’ve gone on longer, it’s less about who this person is or what their work has been to date, and more about finding those people who I connect with in a giant way and who I want to be in the trenches with. Making a movie is hard, and you are working 20 hours a day, and you don’t get to see your family, and you may be off in another country. So what I look for in a director? Someone who makes that feel like it’s no time at all.