Forever Duke Q&A: Mark Vahradian '89

Sterly Wilder '83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, has three questions for the Paramount Pictures producer and writer known for his work on blockbusters, like the Transformers series.

Were there any favorite classes at Duke or professors who were particularly formative?

When I got to school, I was, like a lot of Duke kids, dead set on continuing to be a 4.0 student, which didn’t work out for me in the end. I also had been a competitive swimmer. Swimming was something I wasn’t planning on doing when I went to college because I had grown up doing too much of it. But when I got to Duke, swimming coach Robert Thompson found me on campus. He said, “This isn’t going to be like your high-school experience. You’re going to have more fun.” He sort of talked me into it, and, surprisingly to me, I kept doing it for four years because of the people I met and because of Coach Thompson. He cared more about our personal development than he did about the performance of the team. My senior year in college my brother died. I was out of town, and somehow Coach Thompson heard about what had happened and was the first person to call me. He said, “I’m getting in my truck, and I’m driving up to Washington, D.C.,” and that was something I’ll never forget.

You’ve produced a host of what you describe as “summer popcorn movies.” Can you talk about the level of artistry that goes into producing these films and why you consider them high forms of art?

Every little bit of it is artistic—the colors we choose, the color timing, the sound work. We’re not exploring the deepest issues of human drama, but we are creating art, and if you take those movies apart and look at the complexity of the process, which is one of the categories of evaluating any form of art, it is one of the most complex and impossible processes that’s ever been invented. Also, kids want to go to the movies. So that gives us an opportunity to inspire and influence them. I think in a lot of movies that I’ve worked in and the movies I grew up loving—like Star Wars—in all of those movies, I found inspiration. Kids, they see Star Wars, and they want to be heroic. So it’s an art form that has responsibility also.

You’ve been an involved alum in the Los Angeles area. Why do you give back to Duke and stay engaged with the Duke family?

I was never more joyful in my life than during my four years at Duke, and I always appreciated that. As an alum, I knew that Duke didn’t yet have a major where kids who were interested in media could find daily guidance. It made me want to find a way to make media something that kids who were going to Duke could be interested in and could feel like there was a path for them if they came out to Los Angeles. I would like, on a very selfish level, nothing more than to see Duke students thrive out here and someday hire me for a job.

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