When Graham Suorsa ‘02 was still in the middle of his film studies at Fitchburg State, he told Professor Gunther Hoos that he was going to work on his own production the upcoming summer. Hoos presented him a slate, the rectangular “clapper” that is used to mark the start of a shot.
“Now that you're a director, you need a slate,” Hoos told him.
The gesture made a lasting impact on Suorsa, who has used the slate in every production he has mounted in his filmmaking career.
The slate makes an onscreen appearance in Suorsa’s most recent production, the acclaimed documentary The Fastest Woman on Earth, which tells the harrowing and emotional story of Jessi Combs and her efforts to break the women’s land speed record. The film, almost 10 years in the making, premiered to rave reviews on HBO in late 2022.
Suorsa hosted a screening of the film on campus last fall during a visit that included meeting with current film/video students in the Communications Media Department.
“That was a really emotional day for me,” Suorsa recalled later. “Having the students there really reminded me who I was when I was their age.”
He became emotional as he recalled Gunther Hoos and his influence, and told the current students to take advantage of the willing mentors in their midst. “At a university, there’s such an opportunity for connection with professors,” he said.
Suorsa said he felt safe and supported on campus, but knew he needed to venture beyond to get his career going. “I was shot out of the Fitchburg State cannon and into my internship, and it’s been head down, running for 20 years,” he said.
He interned at the film company Good Machine (later known as Focus Features) in the midst of its production of the beloved film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For an aspiring filmmaker, being close to a professional production was a thrill. “It was like a sandbox,” he said.
Suorsa had worked on several film and television productions before the feature about Jessi Combs came into focus. With his production partners, Suorsa started working on the film in 2013, becoming embedded with the driver’s crew through the months and years it took to pursue the speed record.
HBO had agreed to purchase the film even before it was complete, and Suorsa said he was grateful to have the support of a major outlet that would be able to get the story in front of a wide audience.
“It’s what we wanted from the beginning, to have as many people as possible see it, and to have it live in its highest iteration,” he said.
Suorsa, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their children, is currently raising funds for other projects that he hopes will touch viewers the way The Fastest Woman on Earth has. “We did the film with–and for–our friend, and we did it with integrity, and we enjoyed the process of making it,” he said. “I think that love and care made it to the screen.”