“A series of happy accidents,” that’s how Marion Lear Swaybill ’63 describes the journey that took her from a Wheaton freshman to Emmy Award–winning television producer and founder and president of Molly Two Productions.
“There was no path,” says Swaybill, “no bold idea.”
Swaybill majored in American history, “mainly because it interested me.” History proved fertile ground for the future documentary filmmaker. Her films have covered a wide range of topics: the Holocaust (“Witness: Voices from the Holocaust,” 2000); growing up in war-torn Kosovo (“A Normal Life,” 2003, winner of the Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary award); sex trafficking in America (“10,000 Men,” 2012); and choral music (“Conspirare: A Company of Voices,” 2009).
After graduating from Wheaton, Swaybill studied for her master’s degree in social work at Columbia University but left after a year. Though she worked in foster care for a time afterward, social work did not fulfill her, she says.
In the spring of 1966, she met Roger Swaybill, her future husband. “He hated the fact that I didn’t like what I was doing and encouraged me to quit my job and find something more satisfying—and fun. So I did.”
The first happy accident: Swaybill was hired as a secretary at Francis Thompson Inc., a small film production company. “It was an extraordinary learning experience,” she says. “I had my hand in everything. In retrospect, it laid the foundation for my career as a documentary producer. When I started there, I was unaware that Francis was an iconic figure in documentary filmmaking in America.”
Three years later, Swaybill wanted to expand her horizons and landed her first of several jobs at NBC News. She moved up the ranks from film researcher to associate producer to producer. “I had incredible mentors at NBC, men and women who invented television documentaries. I learned and loved production.”
Another happy accident was being recruited as director of program acquisitions and international co-productions at WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York City. “It was a dream job.” For more than 10 years, Swaybill was responsible for hundreds of hours of programming, raised tens of millions of dollars in production funds and created financing models that became the industry standard.
Swaybill’s projects received numerous awards, including the International Emmy for Outstanding Drama for “A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia” in 1991.
She says the projects she has most enjoyed in her career are those where she followed her instincts against the odds. “A Dangerous Man” was like that. “It was a great script that had been kicking around for years. No one could figure out how to get it funded. I knew I could make it happen and dug in.”
In 1992, Swaybill struck out on her own and founded Molly Two Productions. She’s still making films, consulting on a range of media projects and has no interest in slowing down.
She has several documentary projects in the works and an option on a book that she plans to adapt for the stage. Swaybill is on the board of Conspirare, a choral organization in Austin, Texas, and is a pro-bono consultant for two nonprofits that deal with sex trafficking and girls’ empowerment. She is always happy to mentor young women (and men) interested in film and television production, a reflection of her early professional experiences.
“I have been blessed with terrific opportunities and a rich, diverse career,” she says. “In many ways, it began at Wheaton.”