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How Arts and Letters and FTT formed the foundation for husband-and-wife filmmaking duo’s Hollywood success

Author: Jack Rooney

Swansons 900Christine Swanson ’94 and Michael Swanson ’93, both graduates of the Notre Dame Department of Film, Television, and Theatre.

Christine Swanson ’94 has written and directed multiple award-winning films. Her husband, Michael Swanson ’93, is an Emmy-winning producer and studio executive who has worked on hit Universal Television shows including Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Master of None, and The Good Place

But until they saw acclaimed director Spike Lee speak at Notre Dame in 1991, neither realized that filmmaking could be a viable career path for them. 

“Something went off in my head, because I had never seen a filmmaker before,” Christine said. “And it had never dawned on me that I could make movies for a living. And I kid you not, by the time Spike Lee left campus, I changed my major, and so did Michael. 

“And it’s funny, we ended up in the same classes together, and we just came into the business and the education of filmmaking at the same time. And lo and behold, we’re still doing it together.”

The married Department of Film, Television, and Theatre alumni make movies together through their Los Angeles-based production company, Faith Filmworks.

Grounded in their Notre Dame liberal arts education and inspired by their deep Christian faith, Christine and Michael Swanson continue to use their skills to tell the type of uplifting stories they feel are missing from big Hollywood studios.  

“On my TV shows or films, it takes hundreds of people to complete a project, and everyone is different. I have to know how to communicate effectively with my team in a way that will get results and also see issues from many different sides in a sometimes hectic production environment. I learned that at Notre Dame, where I worked with people from all walks of life in study groups and in the classroom.” 

— Michael Swanson ’93, Emmy-winning producer and studio executive

Finding fulfillment in FTT

Before Lee’s serendipitous visit, Michael was a government major. He figured he would go to law school and become a public servant, like the community leaders he knew growing up on Chicago’s South Side. 

Christine spent the first six years of her life in Korea before moving to Detroit. She entered Notre Dame as a Japanese and finance major, figuring that combination would offer strong job prospects.

Swansons And Regis PhilbinThe Swansons on set with Regis Philbin, who appeared in commercials the couple created for Notre Dame that aired during football games on NBC.

Both were first-generation college students, navigating Notre Dame in search of an education that would help them find fulfillment. They found it in Arts and Letters.

“What I loved about the College is that I could take a variety of courses in what interested me the most,” Michael said. “I took all kinds of English classes and American studies classes, and I knew those would give me a well-rounded education, regardless of what I decided to pursue. The liberal arts were a wonderful foundation from which to build.”

The problem-solving and communication skills he developed in those classes serve him well in the entertainment industry.

“On my TV shows or films, it takes hundreds of people to complete a project, and everyone is different,” he said. “I have to know how to communicate effectively with my team in a way that will get results and also see issues from many different sides in a sometimes hectic production environment. I learned that at Notre Dame, where I worked with people from all walks of life in study groups and in the classroom.” 

Christine, who spent entire days at the multiplex growing up in Detroit, took her love of movies and focused on film theory. 

“I could not have been more fulfilled in terms of my curiosity and education because of the courses offered in my major,” she said. “‘I went on a very fortuitous path of discovering the power of cinema — while trying to fumble my way through the technology.”

After graduation, Christine pursued her Master of Fine Arts degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, even getting the chance to learn directly from Lee — who inspired an entire generation of black filmmakers, including her, she said.

A Notre Dame connection helped Michael find a job in ad sales for NBC after graduation. And in his spare time, he produced Christine’s short films at NYU.

Swansons 2The Swansons working on the set of their 2007 film All About Us, which Christine wrote and directed and Michael produced.

The Notre Dame family

One of her final projects — a short film called Two Seasons, which she’s currently turning into a feature film — was a hit on the festival circuit, and the Swansons used that momentum to launch their careers and their production company.

“We decided to start Faith Filmworks back in the late ’90s because we wanted to tell certain stories that were not being told — compelling stories with black people that had universal appeal,” Michael said. “We didn’t see as much representation of these types of stories coming from Hollywood studios.”

Christine felt a strong desire to tell stories that are “universal, inspiring, and heartfelt,” she added.

“To this day, we have held true to our mandate and our mission,” she said.

That mission has guided the Swansons throughout their careers, and it shines through in films like All About You, All About Us, and The Wayman Tisdale Story

It also drives them to give back to Notre Dame, where the Swansons are members of Notre Dame’s Media and Entertainment Leadership Committee.

“What I take away from my education at Notre Dame is this: I am an intelligent, highly educated person of faith who is equipped, challenged and even charged to make a difference in our community and our world. I think I am a person who is specifically endowed with purpose and talent to be used, ultimately, to bring God glory.”

— Christine Swanson ’94, filmmaker and screenwriter

“I want to leave my mark at Notre Dame in such a way that other people benefit from what I benefited from,” Christine said.

That desire to give back takes many forms. Michael regularly hears from Notre Dame students and alumni seeking advice about the entertainment industry, and he’s happy to offer his guidance. 

“I feel like I’m connected to the University more than ever now,” he said. “Even after you graduate, Notre Dame is family.” 

Christine recently directed a short documentary for Notre Dame’s First Time Fans series. The film, titled “Legacy,” focuses on the Swansons, their four children, and two other black alumni couples — including Notre Dame football star and American studies alumnus Raghib “Rocket” Ismail — each of whom also have four children. 

Shot over the course of a home football weekend, the film shows how the parents share Notre Dame with their children, creating the sort of legacy they didn’t inherit.  

In this film — and in all her work — Christine said she strives to use the skills and service-oriented worldview she cultivated at Notre Dame to make a difference in the world.

“What I take away from my education at Notre Dame is this: I am an intelligent, highly educated person of faith who is equipped, challenged and even charged to make a difference in our community and our world,” she said. 

“I think I am a person who is specifically endowed with purpose and talent to be used, ultimately, to bring God glory.”