Dan Cohen ’05, executive producer of Stranger Things and several other popular movies and television shows, reflected on how his love of writing and interest in cinema shaped his career during a lecture in a packed Goldwin Smith Hall auditorium on Friday.
Cohen, who majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Cornell, said his passion for storytelling helped him land producing gigs for Stranger Things, The Spectacular Now and Arrival.
“I’ve always had a real love of movies and cinema and storytelling,” Cohen said. “It was at Cornell where I worked at Cornell Cinema and I really started to devour films, and in my third and fourth years, [I] kind of [made] that my focus.”
In addition to working at Cornell Cinema as an undergrad, Cohen also reviewed films for The Cornell Daily Sun.
Cohen said classes he took at Cornell served as major influences on his career.
“It was in some of these classes where I started thinking about films and storytelling in a more subjective and analytical way, and sort of falling in love with it all,” Cohen said. “I just kind of began to make movies my vocation from day-to-day and tried to figure out what I would do within it all.”
During his senior year, Cohen enrolled in an independent study, allowing him to “read every book on screenwriting I could possibly read and write drafts of a screenplay,” eventually convincing him to go to Los Angeles, he said.
Cohen said that when he first arrived in L.A., he did the “well-known introductory balance of waitering and writing screenplays.”
“My roommates in L.A. were both Cornell grads, and we would go out nearly every night,” Cohen said. “We would watch movies and just sort of ingratiate ourselves into the town, even though we were totally broke and had no idea what anything was, or how to get places.
“It was all terribly confusing when we first got there, but it was also exciting because we were all figuring out where we fit into this creative entertainment community,” he added.
His first official job was as an assistant working on The Firm in 2005, and he later joined Sidney Kimmel Entertainment in 2007, finding that he was no longer as interested in working as a manager.
Cohen then worked to “keep pushing up the hill as a producer,” finding that it made his work more satisfying and allowing him to find a niche beyond family and genre films.
The intersection of science fiction and horror became a fascination for him, resulting in his upcoming projects Kin, Stranger Things 2, and The Darkest Minds.
Cohen said open-mindedness is key to exploring new ideas that may not seem appealing on first look.
“I wouldn’t write anything out,” he said. “A great story is a great story. Projects that initially came together, fell apart, and then came together again reinforced the idea I should be following my gut.
“The world is keen on finding new ideas, and the most important thing, I would say, is to just always stay curious.”