In September, Janet Graham Borba traveled to Ireland where she was on location for A Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. Martin’s medieval fantasy book.With Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, she oversaw production on The Pacific, a sequel to the highly successful Band of Brothers. In the time she had left over, she developed a new miniseries about the Lewis and Clark expeditions with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
Not bad for an economics major who didn’t know what she wanted to do after college.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” Graham Borba insists, but she is also clearly a hard worker. A fan of what she calls “the tangible work product,” Graham Borba realized in those amorphous post-college years that she thrived on projects—ones that could be finished definitively, ones with results. So she went to Los Angeles to attend the Peter Stark graduate program at the University of Southern California, which trains entertainment producers. It was her first foray into the film industry, yet she impressed producer Jim Abrahams enough that he hired her on the 1991 feature film, Hot Shots! From then on, her career snowballed.
Graham Borba recalls being a young freelance producer working on the 1995 film Hackers, starring a fresh-faced Angelina Jolie. “I remember really clearly standing on the sidewalk next to the steps of a Manhattan high school and hearing the assistant director roll camera on this picture that I felt like only through force of will we had finally gotten made. It was a fantastic moment.”
Shortly after, she was courted by HBO and took the job. Now, after 14 years, she is vice president of production; in that position, she’s overseen the highly acclaimed miniseries Angels in America and John Adams, among other projects.
Of Angels in America, she says, “We sort of knew we had lightning in a bottle,” and praises HBO for having the guts and foresight to invest in a complicated and sometimes risky series. Angels in America depicts 1980s gay culture devastated by AIDS.
In contrast, she calls the extremely popular John Adams, which could have fallen into a black hole of historical fiction, a “delightful surprise.” She credits the 2008 presidential campaign—which coincided with the air dates of the series—with some of its success, but, like a true cineaste, she saved the highest praise for the creative team. “The performances of Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti were what really made that come alive,” she says. “That, and the director [Tom Hooper] gave it such vitality.”
Graham Borba teaches at the Stark program at USC and is an active member on the board of the Virginia Film Festival. She considers the festival, which brings films and filmmakers to the University, both an entertaining and educational affair. “It’s important to show young people that these careers are accessible and sane,” she says.
Graham Borba relishes working on television that has “societal resonance” and is enthusiastic about the talent that she has the opportunity to work with at HBO. “They work on projects I think are really important and I get to participate in that,” she says. “I now live in fear of the time I won’t get to do that delicious thing every day.”
2009 Virginia Film Festival
The Virginia Film Festival runs from Nov. 5 to 8. This year, several alumni will bring their films to Charlottesville. Find out who they are and read about their projects.