Sergio began his studies at AISB in Kindergarten, at a mere 5 years old back in 1999, growing with his AISB family and graduating in 2012.
|11 Jan 2016|
|WM Winter 2016 edition|
WM: Sergio, tell us a little bit about what your life looks like at the moment
SZ: I am currently working with Sonar entertainment, a small production company inside of Fox Plaza with many up and coming projects that you probably haven’t heard of as of yet, but a few names will ring a bell or two in a year from now. This is my second internship throughout my time at Chapman University where I am studying Film Production. I used to be with Blumhouse Productions, which is the biggest company in cinema right now for horror lms. My job currently consists of reading screenplays and giving feedback on whether or not they are viable business options for the company. I read the script, do an analysis/breakdown, identify the pros and cons for the script, and look at whether it would be better as a series or as a lm, and I also read lots of books and articles that would make for good content.
WM: What do you enjoy most about what you’re doing?
SZ: I really enjoyed my job while working with Blumhouse because I watched a lot of lms, and I like the idea of a horror production company. Blumhouse, in particular, do a bunch of low budget horror lms and then invest a lot in a big production. I was with them before they received an Oscar nomination for Whiplash. As far as Sonar goes, it’s cool being in a very executive building, but for a lot of it you show up and do a 9-5 job which is not what I want to be doing when I’m done with school. However, it’s good to get a balanced view of the industry. Outside of that, my entire focus has been on my senior thesis lm which I shot in December 2015.
WM: Tell us more about your senior lm
SZ: The lm itself is a 20 minute piece that I teamed up with my roommate to write. Because my focus is on Directing, we then partnered with a student who is a Producing Major. Together we built a team of fellow students including a cinematographer, sound designer, manager, etc, to raise the money for the lm and do all the paperwork to make a legitimate lm at an industry level.
When you say student lm people think about something very simple lmed in a back yard, walking a dog, so on and so forth. This is much larger – tens of thousands of dollars have gone into this movie by now. For example, we have had proper casting calls in LA with professional actors who are all paid and we’ve had to do the screen actors guild paperwork for that.
The whole process started back in May 2015 and the whole project culminated in December when we shot – now we have until April to do all the post-production. It’s a huge undertaking with the idea that when we graduate, everyone in the project walks away with this lm as a calling card when they go into the industry. We shot the entire thing in the Californian desert on a 6-day shoot. We drove up a cast and crew of roughly 30 people, accommodated everyone in overnight cabins, fed everyone, and rented and brought the professional lighting and camera equipment with us from rental houses in LA to make sure we could pull this lm o as best as possible. The film, called Whining Low, is set at a gas station in Texas, where an illegal Russian immigrant lives and works the midnight shift. She’s put into an awkward moral dilemma when a man walks into the station who she suspects is a local kidnapper and although she wants to call the police, she can’t because she’s an illegal immigrant and she would get deported. The movie touches on racial pro ling and xenophobia, with 21st century American undertones supposed to apply universally towards what’s happening with Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants. We have a FaceBook page for anyone who’s interested in the project: https:// www.facebook.com/whininglow
It’s been a really cool experience; I have an incredible team together and I’m truly fortunate to have such a talented group of very supportive and dedicated people. It’s been a big undertaking – getting what we want out of this process, getting our artistic vision out, and making the best lm we can to tell the story we want to tell.
WM: What about your brother’s role?
SZ: My brother, Oliver, is the assistant director of the project. He ensured all the safety protocols on set and made sure we were always on schedule. A set day is roughly 12 hours, never over. So when shooting over those 12 hours, you have to have literally everything mapped out, organized and prepared in advance to make sure you can get the shots that you need and stay on time. It includes the big things, like making sure items are reserved and picked up, to the small, like making sure make up and sound are ready.
WM: What’s the best thing about this experience so far?
SZ: It’s pretty crazy but super fun, especially because it’s my lm, too. This has been my baby for over a year. I’ve written over 40 drafts of the script. At this point we’ve gotten to a point where we know the entire lm inside out. We’re pushing things out and we will nally have an actual lm, which is crazy. Up until now I’ve helped out on other sets or made something small in my back yard. But it’s the rst time we are making something that has money involved, a huge team, and everyone going out of their way to make this happen. I’m working with 30 people together as a unit to make an ensemble piece.
WM: Where does the funding come from?
SZ: All over the place. We’ve won a few grants, including one from the school giving us funding for the location, accommodating crew, and for paying for the set location. We have a lot of money coming indirectly out of the tuition fees: part of the initial tuition is saved up when you enroll and given back to you through this process for your project. We had a fundraising campaign to cover the last thousand dollars that we needed. We also have our individual families helping to a degree as to their personal investments in the project, but the majority of the money is coming from the school and the grants. A lot of the gear we are using is also for free because it comes from the school. If this project wasn’t going through the school curriculum, we would be having to pay for so much more and we wouldn’t receive certain waivers; that alone would have accumulated at least an additional 20,000 USD. We are lucky to be able to save on those fronts. But it makes it all the more terrifying considering the prospects of making a lm outside of a school curriculum.
WM: What about using techniques to o set some of those high costs?
SZ: You want to be able to gure out the budgeting aspect early on. That’s where the education of being an artist comes into play. The whole talent of being a good lmmaker is that you can be creative about your solutions to problems. There’s a great Orson Welles story where his friend Henry Jaglom wanted to do a huge explosion scene. Welles said “it’s simple, get the character to look at the city then light a match – you’re not showing the explosion but you are showing the thought.” That’s the art of lm making – how you connote to a certain message without actually showing it. Many people are taken away by the spectacle of a huge blockbuster movie, but the real art is how to show those things without the money to do so.
WM: So where did this all start?
SZ: I was de nitely more into theatre back at AISB while my brother was more into the backstage and technical stu . He got into doing tech for Mr. Jemison’s plays all the time while I was more interested in performance. Throughout my upbringing, my dad had exposed me to decades worth of lm content and I absorbed so much that at some point I realized maybe it’s not the acting I like, maybe it’s the lm making. If it was the acting, I would have gone into a musical theatre profession but I had no interest in being on Broadway, I had an interest in lm making. My family supported me in attending summer camps and then in 9th grade I got into the lm class with Mr. J and from there on it was pretty cemented to me that the only thing I could see myself studying at university was film. Film became my passion and I was interested in music too, though in 11th grade I realized that although I loved music it wasn’t something for university. I realized that if I ever wanted a profession in lm I had to study it at a higher level; I couldn’t just leave AISB and say, “yes I’m a lmmaker.” Studying it at a higher level gives you the opportunity to meet people and make connections over at least 4 years, or 6 with a Master’s Degree.
WM: Who was your biggest influence?
SZ: My brother because him and I did everything together. Mr. J was my teacher, he taught me how to look at and analyze lms and he helped me become a better storyteller, but my brother took me out of my comfort zone. He would say things like “We are going to make movies this weekend. We are not sitting at home and playing video games, we are going to make a lm.” My dad helped me watch lms; I started to learn this as I came to college – the way lm schools are set up – they either teach you about lm theory, or they teach you about the craft. Chapman is a great example of a craft school where they teach beautiful cinematography, editing, and sound design. They teach you how to create lms that are technical marvels but not necessarily great stories, for that you’d have to go to a school that teaches academia to learn why a movie woks as opposed to how.
When you realize which of the two things your school does not o er, you need to make sure you teach it to yourself. I quickly realized the school would teach me about all the technical things, so I had to teach myself the aspect of storytelling. I absorbed lms like crazy. I was watching lms and reading scripts, day in and day out. As of May 2015 I started writing non-stop about all the lms I watched. I have cataloged literally every lm I have ever seen on this website: http://letterboxd. com/immigrant lm/. Then in August 2015 my friend and I started an online publication where we review lms and do podcasts and interviews with musicians, called Crossfader Magazine, here: http:// www.xfdrmag.net/
These two things have given me the tools to be able to absorb, dissect, and gure out exactly what I like or dislike and what the movie does right and wrong. The common thread of all of my favorite lmmakers and the reason why I think they are so good is because they spent years cultivating the world around them, absorbing everything from the people they met to the foods they ate and everything in between. They are good storytellers speci cally because they understood the art of cinema – and you are only able to do this by watching lms. You can make a million movies but to really understand the art of cinema, you have to look at the shapers of cinema. You have to be diligent to watch something every day. If you can consume something every day and write about it I think it helps you grow as a lmmaker – that’s the best lesson I learned throughout my four years here.
WM: What’s it like working with your brother?
SZ: It’s a lot of fun. We’ve been working together for years now. With every project that we work on we hone in our skills and start to realize what each one of us is good at. He’s a fantastic writer, he’s better than me at writing dialogue, for example. We both have di erent approaches to how we would shoot a scene but it doesn’t make one better than the other – we complement each other. It’s strange – what I would love to do is co-direct but the school curriculum doesn’t allow for that – he’s a sophomore and I’m a senior – his project is a 3 minute lm with a crew of 8 people. Mine is 20 minutes with a crew of 30. We’re not allowed to work together per se but we can help each other out and we do as much as we can. I would really like to see what we could achieve hand in hand as a directorial team but that’s something that’s going to have to come way down the line. My priorities right now are to find places to work and get experience in the industry. We are both going to go our own separate ways to a certain degree and I hope we will nd each other again down the line.
WM:What are your plans after you nish University?
SZ: I finish university in May. Once I’m done in May it’s a matter of guring out employment. Ideally, I want to work somewhere in the industry professionally for 1-2 years and then go and get a Master’s Degree to help me hone in my craft. I want to study at a higher caliber. Undergraduate school is great for meeting people and becoming a networker, and it provides the education that helps you ultimately make a great movie. I don’t think about all the great classes I took, I think more so about all of the great people I met. My nal lm won’t be good because of the teachers, but because of the students.
This is the result of the fact that the school functions much like a studio – essentially, it’s for students by students. I would like to do a Master’s Degree so I can be more entrenched in the academia of cinema. When you look at most people who come out of lm school, a lot want to be directors or cinematographers. For me it’s very clear that I would love to make lms but coming out of university to say, “hey I’m a director,” isn’t plausible. What I really like to do is write. I would love to be writing for magazines and reviewing lms but I would also just as much love to be involved in the writing process for Tv shows and films.
WM: How would you describe these last few years?
SZ: enlightening - it’s been an interesting and enlightening 4 years – I came from Romania to the US by myself. I didn’t know anybody and
I took it in with open arms. I love California’s culture and people, and I love the city of LA. I identify a lot with California because it’s a state full of people from everywhere. Every single neighborhood has a different predominant cultural background. When you ask people where they’re from, everyone says LA, but in reality everyone is from somewhere else. It’s a nice melting pot. That’s why I feel very much at home here, much more than I did in Romania in a lot of ways. I loved the fact that when I came to the US, there was a certain freedom of expression – I could be who I wanted. I could be a lmmaker and it wouldn’t be looked at as a crazy career path because it wasn’t a traditional career.
When I look at a lot of my Romanian family, the expectation would have been for me to study business, medicine, or law. I acclimated to the American culture so well that I’ve been able to do something more risky. I wouldn’t change anything of the last 4 years. Sadly, as I am nishing this 4 year process I am realizing that I might be forced to go back to europe because my student visa will no longer be valid, but I don’t feel like I have anywhere to go back to because the US is my home. It’s a time-will-tell situation. I’ve really enjoyed this entire experience.
Read the entire WORLD Magazine Winter 2016 edition here.
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