At a Trumbull College Tea on Tuesday, pediatrician, screenwriter and television producer Neal Baer chronicled his career journey — from a doctor to a showrunner of television programs that focus on public health and social issues.
During his career, Baer has served as a writer and executive producer of “ER” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” In addition, he will be the showrunner of the third season of “Designated Survivor,” a political thriller drama that will be released on Netflix this year. Over his career, Baer has written or produced about 500 hours of television, with “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” alone garnering more than 258 million views.
“As a senior, it’s nice to hear people have not direct paths to what they want to do — [Baer] has a lot of education and is doing something super unrelated to most of his formal education,” said attendee Liliana Marmolejo ’19. “I think his presentation style was really great and will help me think about TV and social lessons you can implement in entertainment.”
Baer’s talk focused on telling stories to inspire social change. In addition to describing his path to finding work with purpose, Baer showed clips from some of his shows and shared his thought process behind generating those storylines.
“How do we find our way without stories?” Baer asked.
He found that when the public reacts to stories, emotions hit people before facts. People are more likely to connect with a single character than with a large population’s collective experience, according to Baer. Thus, he gives multiple perspectives through the lives of different television characters.
Baer said he always thinks of telling the most pungent story: If he is stirred, then the audience is also stirred.
Baer added that his education — which includes a political science bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, a graduate degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School — was influential in constructing the ideas behind the television scripts he writes and produces.
Baer weaves his knowledge in these fields together to shed light on complex subjects. He has collected documentary footage on topics he cares about, including voter suppression, child marriage, opioids, transgender issues and HIV. A few of his episodes have been shaped by his opinions on the potential drawbacks of CRISPR technology, a relatively new genome-editing tool, which now makes it easier for individuals outside designated state organizations and research institutions to combine dangerous viruses and synthesize them. Some of Baer’s other episodes have also covered ethical issues in the treatment of diseases.
“This college tea proves that the liberal arts education is very valuable, because as an aspiring filmmaker, producer or director, you need to be able to bring in all aspects of your life and everything you’re interested in,” Charlotte Hylinski ’21 said.
Baer explained that meeting a man who produced documentaries while in graduate school shaped his future career path. Baer was interested in sociology but could not find a framework in which to apply it, until this chance interaction exposed him to documentaries and filmmaking.
The interaction drove Baer to become interested in an Ed Pincus documentary course at Harvard College. According to Baer, Pincus — along with documentary film director Richard Leacock — changed the way documentary films were made. Pincus did not let him take the class at first, since it was only designed for undergraduate students, but after some convincing, Pincus allowed Baer to join the class.
Over time, Baer’s mission became searching for stories that moved him and then translating them into television stories for the public.
“I knew I could tell stories about what I care about,” he said.
Other notable guests at the event included Dean of School of Public Health and Fellow of Trumbull College Sten Vermund as well as Associate Fellow of Trumbull College conductor Sir Gilbert Levine.
Katherine Du | firstname.lastname@example.org