About Sev Ohanian
Sev Ohanian is a writer, producer, and recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award. His credits include Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Clea DuVall’s The Intervention. Last month he spoke to us about his latest film, Searching, in theatres now. He came back this week to tell us a bit more about his career and dole out some more great advice.
Lunacy: We met you at USC, but even before you got to grad school you’d already made a feature film. Talk us through your “origin story” if you will. What was behind My Big Fat Armenian Family?
Sev Ohanian: Sure. Well, to start, I am an immigrant. I was born in Germany. My parents moved to America when I was only four months old. And like many immigrant cultures in America, it’s still natural for our parents to kind of nudge us lovingly in the direction of being doctors or lawyers, finding jobs that have stability, and maybe even prestige and a steady income. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but it didn’t feel right trying to explore that kind of career path with so much at stake for my family.
So I initially found myself heading in a more conventional direction and went to college at UC San Diego for journalism. But while I was doing that, just for fun while I was in college, I shot a five-minute video on my dad’s home video camera of one of my friends lovingly poking fun at his Armenian parents. I put the video on YouTube, just to share with my friends, and then I went to get a haircut at Supercuts, and when I got back, this thing had blown up. Within four hours the video had people from other countries commenting on it. It was like a really, really early viral video, in the Armenian community. So I decided to make a follow-up video. These videos had the budget of, like, negative $6, but the second video also went viral.
Then I thought, rather than making another short, I should just make a feature film. So I wrote an entire feature film about this Armenian family in America, where the parents are old-fashioned and the kids are a bit more Americanized and the natural clash that occurs. I got my friends together and started shooting the feature film at our houses … all shot on real locations.
I remember the very first night of filming at 4 a.m., we got stopped by police officers in Santa Clarita. Literally, they pulled guns on me and my 16-year-old sister. It was kind of crazy. I had no idea that we were supposed to have permits and you should probably not have your characters screaming dialogue at 4 a.m. in a really nice suburban neighborhood.
The movie was smaller than micro budget. I wrote it, I directed it, I shot it, I produced it, I edited it. I did every single job except for makeup. And then the makeup artist quit, so I did that too. We made this movie for $800 on my dad’s video camera.
LU: And it actually found an audience! Tell us more about that, because that’s often the hardest part.
SO: We lived in Glendale, which is a huge mecca for Armenians in LA. I got Glendale High School to let us screen it there, and I sold tickets. Then I sold DVDs. Within a month, I made more money than I could’ve ever dreamed about. This tiny movie made a profit with several zeros at the end. But more than the money itself, the success of the film was what empowered me and motivated me to go against my natural programming and say, “You know what? Maybe I shouldn’t go down the stable path. As foolish as it sounds, maybe I have a talent or two here.”
Luckily, I was able to put that money directly towards USC to help cover some of my tuition. Initially, I was a little bit embarrassed by the fact that I made that film, so I never mentioned it. Partially because I didn’t want anyone ever thinking I was trying to brag, but also out of an inherent insecurity I had that I’ve only made this really tiny, no-budget Armenian movie. It doesn’t really count.
Only in recent years have I realized how meaningful that entire experience was, and as a result, I’ve more open about it.
LU: From a Return On Investment standpoint, it’s insanely impressive.
SO: Yeah, I’ll never meet that again. Trust me. I know.
LU: You accomplished a lot at SC too, but you also formed a pretty significant relationship there in Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther), so talk to me a little bit about that. Did you work on Fig [Coogler’s acclaimed student film] together?
SO: No, actually. The truth is I didn’t work with Ryan on anything before Fruitvale Station. I knew of him, certainly. And I was completely blown away by what he had accomplished with Fig. But Ryan and I only kind of knew of each other in the way that every student at USC kind of knows each other.
I was actually in class when I got a call from Ryan and he said, “I’m putting together this feature film with all these experienced people, and I want to bring on a team of younger producers who can have my back.” He had heard good things about me from other students and professors, and he wanted to know whether I’d want to get involved.
So I read his script. I’m sure you’ve seen the film. It’s about Oscar Grant being killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009. When that happened I remember watching all of the videos on Reddit and trying to find the one angle that would justify why the police officers had shot this young man, and it really made me angry. But more than anything, it made me feel powerless. I felt like there’s nothing I can do about this. It blew my mind that this was that same story from all those years ago, and I knew I wanted to get involved with the film.
But it wasn’t an easy decision. I thought I might’ve had to drop out of USC to take the job, and I had a full scholarship at the time. I was so close to graduating and I didn’t want to drop out of the race just before the finish line. But [USC professor] John Watson told me, “You’re quitting to go make a movie! That’s like quitting a race to go to the Olympics.”
So I drove up to the Bay Area, and I started working closely with Ryan and our whole team to start putting that movie together. I was initially hired on to be an associate producer and assist the lead producers, but about a week later they brought me in and told me, “Hey, you’re a co-producer now. You’re going to be running a lot more than you were previously.”
LU: How was that production different than anything you’d experienced as a student producer?
SO: The Fruitvale production was a real production. 50 to 70 people on set. We had a really experienced line producer. I mean, just about everybody was experienced except for Ryan, myself, and our two fellow producers who came from USC.
Early on, I always worried that a more experienced crew member would point out, “Hey, this is only your first time doing this. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done.” And my biggest challenge wasn’t trying to earn the respect of crew members or cast or whatever. It was, more than anything, trying to earn my own respect. Does that make sense?
LU: To feel like you deserve to be there.
SO: Yeah. That confidence. I remember a big moment for me was when I had the realization that even though I didn’t have traditional feature-film experience, I still DID have meaningful ideas. And that came because making a low budget independent film like Fruitvale requires the same exact amount of resourcefulness that you would need to make tiny student films, for example, or even a micro-micro budget Armenian movie. As a student filmmaker, I was used to working with limited resources, so we had no choice but to be really clever about how we used them. That usually results in really good filmmaking. I would argue that a lot of what Ryan did as a first-time director probably went against the norm, but that might the reason the movie worked out as well as it did.
LU: I’ve never met him, but he seems like a remarkably modest and gracious individual, for a guy who’s had as much success as he has early in his career.
SO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
LU: Well, speaking of guys who’ve had a lot of success, since Fruitvale Station, you’ve continued to find great projects. I’m sure we have a lot of readers who would love to be where you are someday. Without revealing all your secrets, what’s your formula for success, whether it be picking projects, work ethic, etc. I mean, I don’t know how you get so much done and still sleep!
SO: I’m happy to reveal all my secrets because I don’t think I actually have too many. I’ve been told that one of the biggest things people notice when working with me is my die-hard work ethic. It’s no secret that sometimes the standard for how hard people work in this industry, at least in the independent films that I’ve worked on, isn’t as high as it could be. I’ve always had a policy that if I say I’m going to do something, I’ve got to make it happen. Or if any responsibility falls in my lap, it would kill me to under-deliver. To be honest, a big part of what I’ve done is just absolutely bust my ass.
The second thing is self-education. It’s probably the boringest thing I could say, but I’m a huge believer in reading. If you just type “how to produce a movie” on Amazon, I’ve read just about every book that pops up.
Film finance. I’ve read all those books. Screenplays, storytelling, every one of those books, I’ve read them cover to cover. There are so many resources at everyone’s fingertips. I read every blog you can imagine. I love watching all those YouTube filmmaker videos that are popping up everywhere. My absolute favorite are the great Lessons from the Screenplay series. And obviously a podcast or two as well. That’s always been the foundation; just living and breathing all this information from all these people who are much smarter than myself about the industry. It’s so crucial.
I also do an exhaustive job of watching every movie I can. Any time somebody’s ever referenced a move that’s worth watching or that they liked, I add it to my list and I check it out on iTunes. I’m trying to have a really good backlog of films that I’ve watched that I can reference. I think that just kind of helps over time develop your own taste when you’re looking for material.
As a producer out of USC, I get submitted so many scripts all the time. My method of knowing what material really stands apart is simply having approaching every script as if I 100% want to produce it. So when I get a script, I always expect it to be the best thing I have ever read in my life. Hoping it is, pretending it is, believing it is, and basically going in with high expectations to let the script itself decide whether it will blow me away or disappoint me. And sometimes by page 10 it’ll introduce the wrong character or the wrong plot turn will happen and it will take me out of the script.
As a producer, that’s disappointing, because you want to find good material. But sometimes you come across a script that manages to survive your high expectations up until the final page. Those are the ones I try to bring to life. And the bonus for me is that just by reading these scripts, and being really conscious of what works and what doesn’t, it has helped me avoid those pitfalls as a writer myself.
LU: You co-wrote Searching with Aneesh Chaganty, who directed, so let’s talk about collaborators for a minute. What are you looking for in the people you work with?
SO: With my collaborators I really look for people who are hard workers. People who work as hard as me if not harder. I think, I’ve really hit the jackpot with my two main collaborators, Aneesh, who is my writing partner and directing partner, and Natalie Qasabian who’s my producing partner. I mean, I could probably spend four interviews talking about how great those two are, but I’m looking for people who match my intensity when it comes to working on something, and not giving up, and having the intelligence to back it up. I think those two not only match me, but outdo me.
LU: Thank you. You’ve been insanely generous with your time. Is there anything you want to add? Any random advice to potential producers or writers out there who might read this?
SO: Yeah, I think that there’s a really harmful attitude that prevails out there about getting movies made that, “I really just gotta get one person to read my script and really believe in me. I just gotta get one executive, one producer, one financier. If I could JUST GET ONE PERSON to see how good I am, they’ll give me my chance. And that chance will allow me to move forward and then make it eventually.”
And this is how I used to think as well.
But this idea that you have to impress one person and get their permission to make your project, is a really, really horrible attitude to have. I would recommend to people, don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for someone to sign on or meet your vision. Just do it. Whether it’s an $800 Armenian movie, shot on your dad’s home video camera, or whether it’s me and Aneesh making a short on Google Glass, this industry has grown so fast and there’s so many people involved that you’d be doing yourself a real disservice by waiting for other people to give you a green light. I think at this point we should all be green lighting ourselves.