As a documentary filmmaker, St. Stephen’s alumnus John Harrington ’89 has spent most of his life telling stories. His interest in filmmaking began in grade school, while his love of writing developed during his years as a St. Stephen’s Upper School student. He is a self-proclaimed history buff, so he is naturally drawn to producing documentaries that uncover “little-known” stories about significant people or events in history. In addition to studying historical subjects, he has developed films about Native American health and wellness, veterans’ issues, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Mr. Harrington is the president of the Alexandria-based production company Madisonfilm, which he founded in 1997. Previously, he was the president and chief executive officer of NetBlender, Inc., a software company, which he sold to Sony in 2011. His work has received a number of awards and nominations, including: Madisonfilm earned two Emmys in cinematography and musical score for The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine, which aired nationally on PBS in 2005; and NetBlender received a nomination for an advanced media technology Emmy in 2007.
Mr. Harrington has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. He and his wife, Mary, have six children and live in Alexandria. His sister, Stephanie Harrington Hurd ’86, is a St. Agnes alumna; and her husband, Scott Hurd, graduated from St. Stephen's in 1985.
Q: What path in life led you to a career in documentary filmmaking?
A: My interest in filmmaking started with a stop-motion photography class I took with a friend at the Smithsonian when we were in grade school. Soon thereafter my family won a super 8mm camera as a door prize—it must have been destiny because from then on, many weekends and summers were spent making movies. They tended to have a horror theme and often involved my sisters alternating as monsters and victims—or sometimes playing both within the same film. In high school I realized that I enjoyed writing and thought for a period that I wanted to be a journalist. A scholarship to USC allowed me to pursue film school, but I spent my summers working on the newsroom floor at The Washington Post to keep a hand in journalism. Producing documentaries provides a nice balance between journalism and filmmaking. This career path has taken me to some amazing places, and I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible people.
Q: What skills did you take away from your St. Stephen’s education, and how have they played a role in your life experiences?
A: I recall writing constantly! There is no better skill in life than to be able to cogently apply your thoughts to paper under a deadline. Whether you’re writing a script, proposal, business plan, or simply dealing with the details of daily life, well-honed writing skills are crucial. Overall, St. Stephen’s prepared me well for college and beyond. It was academically rigorous, yet small and personal so that you could participate in a wide range of activities. Most importantly, the faculty really cared about your success and growth, both as a student and as a gentleman.
Q: What advice do you have for SSSAS students interested in filmmaking as a career?
A: While I was at USC, George Lucas visited regularly and passed on some advice that I will pass along here. He said “film school is great, but make sure you take as many non-film school classes as possible.” His point was that filmmaking—whether documentary or narrative—is about telling stories. And you can tell better stories when you have an abundance of life experience in a variety of areas. I made sure I took at least one class that was not part of the standard cinema school production track each semester. The second bit of advice I would pass on is to think entrepreneurially. The film industry is on a convergence path with the Internet. More movies are being watched on mobile devices than on home screens these days. No one has truly harnessed the power of social media in cooperation with traditional media. This creates exciting opportunities for young people just entering the industry, but the key is carving out your own niche—no one will hand it to you.
Q: What production is next for Madisonfilm?
A: We are developing some projects around veterans’ issues and PTSD. There are some important stories to tell around the legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that I would like to help move into the public consciousness. It’s also a way for me, personally, to honor the service of our country’s military families.