"The journalistic method is to shed light on something. One of the things that attracted me about moving from the world of government and politics to the world of storytelling and reporting is that a story can open up your mind."
Nayeema Raza is a producer based in New York City. She is currently the showrunner of The New York Times podcast about power Sway hosted by Kara Swisher. Raza’s career began as a consultant at Monitor Group, where she worked on issues of international development and policy. After five years, she returned to school and received a joint Master’s from Harvard and Stanford University. At Stanford, she connected with her professor, documentary filmmaker Bill Guttentag. Together, Raza and Guttentag founded the production house 1891 Productions. Their projects include Sublime, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, and the CBS All Access documentary series That Animal Rescue Show, which they executive produced alongside Richard Linklater.
In this interview, Nayeema Raza shares what it was like growing up as a third culture kid, what led her to create the documentary Sublime, and what attracts her to the stories she researches at The New York Times.
TGL: How was your childhood?
NR: My childhood was defined by my father who sadly passed away recently. He was a lifelong international civil servant and his career at the World Bank meant that I grew up mostly in Asia and Africa. There's a technical term for this type of childhood, it's called a third culture kid. You're a child from one culture, in my case, Pakistan, who grows up in other cultures, in my case Asia and Africa, and you're socialized in a third culture, in my case, I went to international schools with American and European curriculum.
I grew up with a strong sense of individuality and curiosity about why people were the way they were, because I didn't have as many structures. I was Pakistani, but I wasn't the same Pakistani as my cousins in Pakistan. I was also American, but I wasn't the same as other American children. That drove me to curiosity and to bouts of loneliness as a child as well.
TGL: What did you love to do as a child?
NR: I loved to read and consume television. I was always in books and on screens. I’d use dial up internet to read scripts of TV shows that aired in the U.S. and wouldn't come to Asia for many months.
TGL: Did you know what you wanted your career to be?
NR: It depended on the week. I wanted to be an astronaut, a diplomat, the Secretary General of the United Nations, a journalist, a television host. My Pakistani family and friends tended to be economists, doctors, engineers and diplomats. I didn't grow up knowing many people who became writers and filmmakers and creatives. And so while I loved immersing myself in writing and film, I didn't think of it as a career option.
TGL: When did you come back to live in the United States?
NR: I came back for one year when I was very little and my mom was sick, but I came back to live in the States when I was 15, my sophomore year of high school. We lived in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC.
TGL: What did you study as an undergraduate at Georgetown?
NR: I studied international political economy at the School of Foreign Service. I had a strong interest in public affairs and global policy, which I inherited from my father.
TGL: What was your first job out of college?
NR: I spent the first five years of my career as a consultant, working on issues of international development and policy. After five years, I still loved it, but I wasn't learning and growing as much. So I went to graduate school.
TGL: How did you balance attending graduate school at Stanford and Harvard at the same time?
NR: The Harvard Kennedy School and Stanford Business School have a joint degree program for students who are interested in the intersection of both fields. Each program is two years, but when you do the joint program, you can do each in one and a half years and get both degrees. I spent a year at each school, and then split my third year.
TGL: When did you become interested in working in media and entertainment?
NR: I took a class at Stanford called Leadership in Media and Entertainment. It was taught by a double Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Bill Guttentag and we’d have heads of studios, actors, writers and directors visit. Hearing from them, it clicked for me. I thought, I'd love to be on the other side: making a film, not just consuming it.
TGL: Were you still a student when you created the documentary Sublime with your professor Bill Guttentag?
NR: No. I graduated and took a job at a startup started by the founder of Hulu, Jason Kilar, who now runs Warner Media. I was a creative executive. That was what I thought I should do since I had gone to business school. Some months in, I realized that I wanted to be closer to telling the stories, so I left that job and started working with Bill. The first full project we completed together was the documentary Sublime, which he directed, and I wrote and produced. Sublime premiered at the Tribeca film festival in 2019.
TGL: What led you to create this documentary?
NR: The project came through the agency William Morris Endeavor, WME. When Bill asked me if I liked the band Sublime, I said I loved their music. I grew up in Indonesia, which has a bit of a surf and skate culture. I listened to Sublime in elementary and middle school, but I didn't know the story of the lead singer. He has quite a tragic story, which changed the meaning of the music for me. For me, a project always starts with a fascinating character and a question I can’t get out of my head. In this case, I was drawn to the character of Brad, and curious why he made the choices he made.
TGL: What led you to the TV series That Animal Rescue Show?
NR: Bill and I started a production company during Sublime. While we were working on Sublime, we started developing That Animal Rescue Show. The project originally came through Richard Linklater who lives in Texas and has a great community of animals that he and his family have rescued, and a fellow exec producer, Julia Eisenman, connected us with Linklater who in turn connected us with the rescue community in and around Austin. This is a community of people who dedicate their lives to saving animals, and are saved in the process. The humans and animals have these hearts you can’t fit on a screen, and I was just drawn to them.
Another big draw was the opportunity to work with Rick. He is a prolific filmmaker, and I'm a long-term fan of his films. I grew up on the Before series and Dazed and Confused and I learned a lot while working with him.
TGL: In terms of methodology, what were the main differences in approaching documentary versus a TV show?
NR: We saw That Animal Rescue Show as an opportunity to make 10 short films, so I thought less about the format differences of film and TV. But these two projects were different. Sublime was a past tense story because the lead singer had passed away. It told a story that had been versus a phenomenon that was happening. As a result, our approach was much more archival-based. We looked through a ton of old footage and tried to piece together the story and get to the heart of a main character who is absent. He is only present in archival footage. That Animal Rescue Show instead told present tense stories, so you're capturing things as they happen and trying to anticipate what might happen next so you can roll the camera at the right times.
TGL: When did you start working at The New York Times?
NR: Between Sublime and That Animal Rescue Show, I spent most of 2019 working in the Opinion Video department at The New York Times. I loved it. I took the skills I learned as a filmmaker and applied them to short format arguments in the Opinion section, and I learned a lot about journalism, and opinion journalism in particular, from my colleagues there. Being at the Times also allowed me to to work with graphics and in print and audio. Through the process, I discovered that I'm pretty format agnostic.
TGL: Can you explain what you mean by format agnostic?
NR: Some stories lend themselves to audio, some lend themselves to film, and others to print or text or a graphic image. Rather than trying to take the heart of a story and jam it into a format, I'm more curious about how to best honor or present that story.
TGL: What attracts you to the stories you research on a daily basis?
NR: The journalistic method is to shed light on something. One of the things that attracted me about moving from the world of government and politics to the world of storytelling and reporting is that a story can open up your mind. A story that is about one thing is often about another thing. It's a terrible cliche, but it's true.
For example, one of my favorite stories that I've done at the Times was a short video “Meet Memo” that I made with Lindsay Crouse, Taige Jensen and Max Cantor. Memo is one of the best runners in his age group. His workout routine is minimal, and almost free. We started the story there, but the heart of the video is about his immigration story: Memo is also an immigrant who came to the US illegally. He was jailed, paid his fines and naturalized. Now, he is proud to race as an American. He is everything that you think is great about America: he's hard-working, dedicated, humble, and yet he came here illegally. It's a story about American fitness consumption, and it's also a story about illegal immigration and what it means to be American.
TGL: You are the showrunner of The New York Times podcast Sway hosted by Kara Swisher. What is the mission of this podcast?
NR: Sway is a podcast about power. We’re interested in speaking to people who have power and to people who have been denied it. The idea is to examine the power structures that shape our world, and hold them to account in an interview setting.
Once you choose a story or a project and you have an anchor, you lean in fully to the DNA of that project. For Sway, the DNA of the show is Kara. I want the show to feel urgent because I think Kara is an urgent personality. She lives on Twitter and has a sense of what is current.
An example of Sway delivering on this mission was on January 6th when the Capitol attacks were ongoing. That afternoon, we reached out to the CEO of Parler, a social media app where a number of Trump's supporters organized, and he agreed to join us for an interview. By 5:00 PM that day, as the attacks were ongoing, we were taping this episode with him. Kara pressed him on the platform’s responsibilities. He replied that neither he nor the platform should bear any responsibility. That interview was cited in decisions by Apple and Amazon to suspend Parler in the days after the attack.
TGL: How do you manage the emotional aspect of working and reacting to the news?
NR: So I should preface that there are episodes of Sway that are more cultural and not as charged, but I think that's the job. I just see it as our responsibility as journalists to cover and to do the job.
TGL: What research do you do when you look for and prepare for a guest?
NR: We look for timely conversations that Kara should be having and that people should be hearing. Our episodes are generally between 30 minutes and an hour long, so I'm looking for someone who Kara can ask tough, but fair questions. We’re trying to hold power to account while also engaging the interviewee and moving the conversation further. I like when there's different points of view, and you're hearing a conversation that is able to progress even through disagreement.
TGL: Producing a podcast is a more immediate format than a documentary. How would you compare the processes?
NR: There is an urgency that comes with producing Sway twice a week and trying to stay on or ahead of the news versus spending several months or years making a documentary film. But both can be high stress. The thing both have in common though is a sense of trying to shed light, ask difficult questions and work collaboratively with a creative team. I am grateful that in both cases, the adrenaline is shared with a crew or production team that is committed to the project.
We've had a lot of luck in getting timely stories. We had the CEO of MasterCard on after Nick Kristof wrote a great piece about how payment companies suspended payments on PornHub because of child pornography. We had Anna Wintour on when Vice President Kamala Harris’ Vogue cover was published. I love both worlds, but they are different. Being on set is very stressful, and it's always such a collaborative effort. Your adrenaline is being shared by the crew or production team.
TGL: Do you still feel connected to your background in government and policies with your current work in media?
NR: Yes. At Opinion Video, my colleague Alex Stockton and I produced a video about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw support for Kurdish allies. I also worked on a story about young Uyghurs whose parents had disappeared and were suspected to have been detained by the Chinese government. I still want to tell those stories, I just come at them from a different perspective. I see my career as a permutation of my interests, like a Rubik's cube.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
NR: John Oliver. His take on the news is fresh, smart and opinionated, and I love his show.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
NR: The things that have paid off for me are: being open and being optimistic. And do not be defined by what you’ve done, be defined by what you want to do and have some fun in getting there.