From Hollywood to Hartford
UHart's assistant professor of communication, Susan Cardillo, shares the compelling story of how she got from Hollywood to Hartford.
Susan Cardillo, Associate Professor of Communication
Teach your students how to passionately tell a story and how to work with a team to make it happen.
University of Hartford Assistant Professor of Communication Susan Cardillo had just started working as a production assistant on the set of the Hollywood movie A Month of Sundays, starring Rod Steiger, in 2001. “I’m standing next to the production manager and the executive producer walks up to him and punches him in the face. He says, ‘get off my set, you’re fired.’ Then he turns to me and says, ‘you’re the new production manager.’” Having no experience, Cardillo later found out her “promotion” was due to the fact the production manager was having an affair with the executive producer’s wife.
A self-proclaimed “Jersey Girl,” Cardillo went to the University of Arizona on a baton twirling scholarship, majoring in theatre and television production. After graduation, she was looking for acting jobs in New York City when she saw a job posting for a flight attendant. After working for five years in the airline industry, Cardillo took a corporate buyout that included free travel anywhere in the world for the next five years. That’s when she decided to move to Los Angeles. She did sitcom work in the mid-to-late 80s, playing a gym teacher on a TV pilot called (appropriately) Faculty, and appearing on the show Down the Shore. Because acting wasn’t steady work, Cardillo waitressed at a restaurant across from Universal Studios. Among her customers was a film crew who invited her to join their team as a production assistant on A Month of Sundays.
Cardillo worked out of her tiny L.A. apartment and a little office off Laurel Canyon Boulevard securing contracts and scouting locations. “It was a great way to learn, but there was nothing glamorous about it,” she recalls. Her boss was Suzanne DeLaurentiis (yes that DeLaurentiis) and since their first names sounded alike, Cardillo had to change her name at work to “Delilah” so people didn’t get the two of them confused. “I worked for a ruthless woman who knew what she was doing,” Cardillo explains, “and I knew I didn’t want to be mean to people. I didn’t want to stay in the business too long.”
When Cardillo’s husband, a Spanish teacher, wanted to move to Florida in 2003, they flew there for a weekend and wound up buying a house. After the move, with no idea of what she was going to do, Cardillo applied for and got a TV production teaching position at T. Dewitt Taylor Middle-High School in Pierson, Florida, a position she held for eight years. “I got lucky with the first class of kids I got,” she says. “The most popular kid spread it around the school that I was the coolest teacher. Everybody started taking my class and it became a reward elective. If you did well, you were allowed to take the TV class.”
The school also had a beautiful theater that no one was using, so Cardillo asked if she could teach drama. She built the Taylor Academy of Arts and Technology, where the students could do video and stage work together. “I’m still very close to almost every kid I taught,” she says. “One of my students just got engaged and she wants me to officiate at her wedding!” Every day, Cardillo says, she pushed higher education with her students. She thought if they were doing it, that she should set the example, too. “I started a master’s program at age 50, and finished both a master’s and doctorate online in five years.”
In 2016, Cardillo joined UHart’s School of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences where she teaches courses that include advanced video production and The Studio, where students are taught the art of digital storytelling. “What’s significant now in advertising is telling a story about someone using a product in a quick and exciting way,” Cardillo says. “It’s fast moving and more like you would see on social media.”
Her film industry experience came in handy last fall when she and Kyle Conti A’18, ’20, a double major in cinema and digital media and journalism, attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Sightlines 2019 Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia. There, they presented and discussed their documentary Finding Matilda, which was filmed on location in Lithuania. The film tells the story of Matlida Olkin, a college student who was killed along with her family during the Holocaust. The documentary was also a finalist in the Southeast Regional Film Festival in Jacksonville, Florida, and was supposed to compete in the Fiorenzo Serra Film Festival in Sassari, Italy, this spring before the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cardillo started working on another documentary with a dozen UHart students titled Smartphones, Dumb Kids? about how cell phone addiction is adversely affecting students’ ability to learn. This project is on hold due to the current health crisis.
Cardillo says she’s constantly in touch with people in the business who tell her what qualities they are looking for in her students. “They say to teach your students how to passionately tell a story and how to work with a team to make it happen,” she says. “They want people with innovative ideas and thoughts. They can teach them all the rest.”