Erika Green Swafford

 

Erika Green Swafford Lands Firmly on the Creative Side

Erika Green Swafford (’99) says that “weird and wonderful things happened” as a result of connections she made while she was studying at UCLA Anderson. Still close with a core group from her “E” section of classmates, she remembers “They didn’t look at me crazy when I started talking about entertainment.”

Nor should anyone: Green just won the prestigious NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for an episode of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. The Shonda Rhimes property was created by Grey's Anatomy writer/producer Peter Nowalk and debuted in September 2014 to broad critical acclaim. It stars Viola Davis as a criminal defense attorney/Philadelphia law professor whose students-cum-interns become entangled in a murder plot. Lives and relationships unravel in courtrooms and drawing rooms alike.


ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder
ABC's How to Get Away with Murder stars (left to right) Charlie Weber as Frank Delfino, Liza Weil as Bonnie Winterbottom, Billy Brown as Nate, Matt McGorry as Asher Millstone, Aja Naomi King as Michaela Pratt, Viola Davis as Professor Annalise Keating, Katie Findlay as Rebecca, Alfred Enoch as Wes Gibbins, Karla Souza as Laurel Castillo and Jack Falahee as Connor Walsh. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)


Green is humbled by her win. “Like most writers, I lede with self-deprecation,” she says. She grew up in a family aware of the significance of this distinction, and at a young age she regarded it as the paragon of esteem for African-American talent. “It’s mind-boggling to me, to be honest.”

The nomination was enough to floor her, she says; she regards it as a rare honor. But because she anticipates a long creative career, she doesn’t describe herself yet as having “made it” — which, for most, an award of this caliber would signal. Now she finds herself in the same category as Image Award winners she looks up to, like Janine Sherman Barrois, a writer and producer for Criminal Minds; Zoanne Clack, executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy; and writer/producer Cheo Hodari Coker, who began his career as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times. “Those are the people I’m trying to be like,” she says, recalling meeting them when they were already established in the industry and she was just entering it.

Self-identifying as a writer whether she’s paid for it or not, Green counts many years of hard work — including six seasons with CBS’s The Mentalist, where she moved from staff writer to story editor up to producer — before signing on with How to Get Away with Murder. “No one is an overnight success,” she says.

Green studied at Cornell University in the renowned School of Hotel Administration. But she always knew she wanted to work in entertainment. In college she pursued independent study and took classes at the business school, in addition to writing — which she continued in Washington, D.C., while working full time in management at a major hotel. “I was taking writing courses at Georgetown, and doing comedy improv at night after work.”

She landed in the entertainment capital of the world with a clear notion that an MBA would help launch her career in the industry. For Green, writing wasn’t the area she wondered about, she’d been exercising those muscles for years. Rather than pursue a dual degree by straddling business school and film school, she sought a program nimble enough that she could adapt it to her own interdisciplinary purposes.

Business school, she felt, was more of a grown-up choice than advanced degrees that students traditionally pursue right out of college. A conversation with then-Assistant Dean of Diversity Initiatives Linda Baldwin, who advised her to connect with a few students after she applied, cemented Green’s feeling that Anderson would provide the perfect fit. She admits Anderson’s high rankings played a part in her decision, too.

“Anderson was where I first decided to test my mettle. I was always verbal, I never thought of myself as very good at math. I went to Anderson because I wanted to challenge myself, though I was scared of what the outcome would be. I thought I might bail out. While there, I met some really amazing people who were also challenging themselves in different ways. I think that experience opened me up as a human being.”

She interned at Sony, where she was mentored by Mike Stradford as he was developing the earliest value-add content for DVDs, and she worked at CBS in the daytime programming department (perhaps not knowing she might put soap opera elements to work later in an award-winning capacity). She had taken the late Tom Sherak’s classes in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television when Sherak was still an executive at Fox.

As it happens, though, an Anderson classmate connected Green with her first full-time job in entertainment.

Her friend Laura Spence Miller (’99) had been on a study-abroad program in Japan, where by chance she met someone poised to join Oxygen’s comedy division in Los Angeles. He agreed to grant Green an informational interview — which she remembers conducting clad in a suit and armed with a very businesslike CV amid the Oxygen startup culture of jeans and sneakers.

Her credentials seemed beside the immediate point, she says: her future boss was looking for a script coordinator, could she fill that slot? “Can do” was essentially her answer — though Green had no inkling what the job entailed and doubted her ability to bluff her way into it.

Down to what she describes as her “last couple hundred bucks” while visiting some Section E classmates in New York and wondering what her next move would be, she got the call that she landed the position at Oxygen. She quickly found out that in her job she backed up virtually every studio department to ensure both progress and continuity, and it gave her great exposure to the creative side of the industry, exactly where she wanted to be.

She says she “worked her way around” the operation; and she realized that working in the production office was like working in a business office, and even required facility with HR and payroll. Except, she says, in entertainment the work is generally carried out in trailers instead of high-rises.

She became an assistant in acquisitions working for Elizabeth Cullen, who was tasked with establishing a movie block for Oxygen, funded in the millions of dollars. Cullen knew Green held an MBA and she put it to work. She says that despite her conscious goal of breaking into entertainment, when she was at Anderson she never imagined the creative and business sides would come together in such an applicable way. But, she found, “I was giving my opinion on creative content in a business context.”

So, from creating spreadsheets to negotiating new deals, Green kicked her business school training into high gear. Using her knowledge of finance and contracts and refining negotiation techniques on the job, she learned from the content creators what an effective pitch sounded like. Recognizing the importance of the new acquisitions, the network moved Green’s boss up and Green with her.

At Oxygen and beyond, Green has found she’s in a good position to help guide other people hoping to work on the creative side of entertainment. “I’m very mindful of how difficult it can be, especially if you’re coming from a business school as opposed to coming through a film school.”

Firmly on the creative side at ABC, Green calls How to Get Away with Murder a “room-heavy show,” with a team of as many as nine writers holed up together for long periods to conceive and knit together a story.

It’s a show Green says she loves. “I’m writing for a really strong, wonderfully flawed woman of color, who also happens to be an Oscar-nominated actor” (Davis also won the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her role on How to Get Away with Murder). The series is recognized as bringing to television the types of things not usually seen on network TV. Cicely Tyson has guest starred as the mother of Viola Davis’ character, and her performance was received with great audience approval. “I appreciate that we are creating whole characters,” says Green, pointing out that viewers also see a real relationship develop between two gay men.

But most of the action takes place against a backdrop of betrayal and homicide.

“It’s intense, but it’s funny!” Green insists about the series. “That’s what I love about it. Yeah, there’s murder. [But] there’s a gallows humor to it that I really enjoy. I love the comedy in novices having to try to get away with murder,” she says, referencing the students on the show just trying to get through law school while having to cover their or someone else’s criminal tracks practically on a weekly basis.

Green doesn’t need a palate-cleanser after the intensity of her mainline, but, she says, “I do a lot of ‘smaller’ writing on the side, where I get to perform. You know, I’m a big ham.” She pursues a host of creative projects, from singing to teaching a monthly cooking class (“I still want to be a chef in my heart of hearts”) to performing regularly with Write Club Los Angeles at the Bootleg Theater. Two writers square off with opposing ideas, stage them before a live audience, and then the audience decides the winner. The triumphant writer chooses the charity the evening’s proceeds will go to.

If Anderson teaches its students to Think in the Next, Green might well personify that competency. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without my Anderson degree. It taught me that I am limitless. I embraced things I didn’t even know that I could do. So now I think, ‘What else do I believe I’m unable to do, or that I haven’t even thought about doing, that I will totally crush?’”