Nielsen ’92 Moved from MHC to Film and TV

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 4:30pm
Janet Nielsen ’92 on the set of a "Star Wars" movie

Janet Nielsen ’92 credits her mother and Mount Holyoke for making her who she is: a woman comfortable in many situations and unafraid to speak her mind, who earned a spot working alongside the legendary director George Lucas on some of the Star Wars films and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV shows.

Nielsen’s mother broadened her world by taking her on a seven-week trip through Europe when the teenager had recently lost her father, and the international community at Mount Holyoke expanded her horizons even more.

Nielsen grew up in Petaluma, a small town in northern California. “My life was tiny before I got to Mount Holyoke,” she says. “It just opened everything up.”

She was delighted that her first-year roommate at Mount Holyoke was from Sri Lanka and that “the second floor of Prospect was like the UN. There were so many interesting people, and that was my first taste of wanting to know what other people were up to and being less worried about being interesting myself,” she says.

Nielsen attended Mount Holyoke for three semesters beginning in 1988, studying English, communications, and history. A member of the MHC crew team, she regretted having to transfer when a medical condition worsened in the cold weather. She spent her junior year in Edinburgh, Scotland—where it was warmer than in New England—and graduated from Mills College.

A year later, she got a job as an assistant in the library at Lucasfilm, the legendary director’s film and television production company. Three hours into her first day, she jumped at the opportunity when a producer of the new Star Wars film said he needed someone for the art department.

She gained the confidence to do that at Mount Holyoke. "I had no qualms about talking with producers or directors and saying yes to everything they put in front of me because Mount Holyoke lets you know it's okay to do that,” she says. “In fact, it's expected that you will make your own opportunities.”

Later, Nielsen realized she was better suited to be an assistant director—part of the team that organizes everything from Jedi wardrobe fittings to making sure the “Headless Horseman” has a horse to ride on the day of shooting—so she spoke up again and got that job. Since then she’s worked on films including Wall-E, The Man Who Cried, and Sleepy Hollow, and has written seven feature-film screenplays.

Her film work led Nielsen on adventures in places such as Morocco—where she worked on a set where the extras included 50 camels—and elsewhere, with director Tim Burton and actors Johnny Depp and Nicole Kidman. During a five-year stint in London, she worked on such films as Band of Brothers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

“My chosen career is very male-centric, and I just know that without guidance from attending Mount Holyoke, I would not have navigated these waters as well,” she says.

Now that she has a six-year-old son, Nielsen has pulled back on traveling. Along with creative partner and photographer Tim Mantoani, she produces SnapShot, a public television program profiling interesting people in San Diego, where she and her husband live. She also writes screenplays, and credits MHC English professor Eugene Hill for giving her the best advice on telling a good story: “Write like you talk.”

—By Ronni Gordon