Film School Blog

What We Think of Our Classes: Interview Edition

You may recall that the last thing I wrote was in September…about feeling creatively dry… I wasn’t kidding. I’ve tried to write a post so many times on why the dots weren’t connecting, but it took until now, eight weeks into the spring semester, to finally internalize a powerful lesson: you are the product of the people with whom you surround yourself.  

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Feeling Creatively Dry

Coming back to school after doing very little creative work all summer feels like I took a three-month nap on my arm, cut off all the circulation, and am trying to make a fist to get the blood flowing again.  

Whether or not this is a bad thing, I don’t know. It happened, and I’m adapting to that. The things I’ve experienced this summer have forced me to slow down and ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it more often. I really want to focus more on quality of concept rather than quantity of output.

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My Favorite One Second Everyday Films

I’m a week behind on these blog posts, so rather than force no longer relevant information into this post, I’ll just share what were my favorite final projects everyone turned in last week.

Our first and last assignment was a “One Second Everyday” film which we started filming (you guessed it) one second every day since the first day of this semester, and then compiled those shots into a 90 second film for the last class.

All 50 production students united for the final class to watch all of our films, so there is an overwhelming number to choose from. Any project that deviated from what I expected (i.e. a collage of moments strung together with one inspirational song) is memorable to me and thus, makes the list. That’s not to say that the others weren’t good – it’s just that after watching 50 films, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other unless they did something no one could anticipate.

Here are my picks:

Theo Buckwald’s “One Second Everyday” (very original title) 

This one made me laugh so fucking hard. I’ve watched it five times since class. 

Zack Hosseini’s “An Honest Mistake” 

I think I could make a compelling case to nominate Zack as the most cinematic filmmaker in our year. He goes above and beyond what everyone else does in order to make his projects cohesive and totally dramatic. 

Bogui Adjorlolo’s “A Second a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” 

Obviously Bogui spent a good amount of time thinking about the execution of this project, which clearly paid off. I love how Bogui's editing style so strongly motivates his concepts. I remember how we all got so annoyed when we realized what a ridiculously good filmmaker Bogui was when he came out of nowhere and dominated the SCA Alphies with "Snooze". Butthole. 

Peter McGarry’s “Soda Quest: The Search For Diet Coke” 

In which Peter spends an entire semester on an odyssey to find a diet coke. 

That's all.

Mo Thompson’s “1SE”

Mo is definitely a thinker before she is a filmmaker which is why her work is always so conceptual and deeply engaging. I can’t wait to see what else Mo Mo makes in the next three years. I can't wait to see what kind of impact her films have in the future. 

Fiona Kida’s “Grade A F*cker (1SE)" 

I admire Fiona's enormous bravery and willingness to be vulnerable. Probably resulted in a really fun and memorable semester. ;) 

Those are my favorites. :) I'm so sad 285 is over, but I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such talented filmmakers and such incredible friends. If anyone is really into these and wants to see mine and the other 50 films (minus Savoca's section --  waiting for Omar to send them all to me) here ya go: 

Juli’s section: 

Marcel the shell with shoe on’s section:

Urban Runoff's Risk to Surfers and Why I'm Expanding This PSA Into A Documentary

The most important lesson that was reinforced in making this project was to only pursue the films you have genuine passion for. Picking a cause that truly matters to you is your insurance: you won’t grow bored while making it or feel like it was a waste of time – even if it doesn’t turn out like you wanted it.  


In this case, surfing and the environment are two things I care about a lot. A few months ago, I learned you can’t go surfing in Southern California after it rains because of something called “urban runoff”. Urban runoff is the drainage of pollution, oil, trash picked up by rain water and carried into the ocean. This is a problem in major cities like Los Angeles and San Diego because they’re mostly covered in cement and pavement, and as a result, rainwater isn’t absorbed into the ground.

This is a rather disturbing realization of how profoundly we’ve affected our environment. The fact that I can’t even go out and do something I enjoy (like surfing) not one, not two, but three days after it rains here is just gross. No one should go in the water after it rains, but surfers are particularly at risk because they’re in the water year-round (winter is rainstorm season, after all) and for much longer periods at a time.

I started getting Erin Brockovich af looking into this further, and was shocked to find very little information. It seems like this issue isn’t really talked about; it’s just something that you either know about or you don’t. That doesn’t seem sufficient considering how potentially harmful the water is after it rains. There have been a plethora of cases of ear, throat, and eye infections, and even more extreme cases of surfer Chris O’Connel having to get his arm amputated after it became infected, someone contracting hepatitis, and another person being hospitalized for two weeks with a bacterial infection. (More information on these cases here: http://www.surfline.com/community/whoknows/whoknows.cfm?id=1157)

Clearly, this is a problem.

What surprised me even more is that given the limited amount of information about this, the information that is out there is pretty staggering. Moreover, when Lukas and I went to El Porto (a popular surf spot next door to the Hyperion sewage treatment plant) a day after it rained in Los Angeles, we were both dumbfounded to see how many surfers were out there. Our camera attracted some attention and when I told them what we we doing and whether or not they were aware of this risk, some said they didn’t know, or worse, some did know about the “rule”, but presumed the probability of them getting sick was pretty low.

The lovely El Porto. 

The lovely El Porto. 

If there is anything I learned while scouring the depths of the internet researching this, it’s that Los Angeles is probably the most polluted city in Southern California, and that any surf spot near some sort of drainage facility is WAY more likely to expose surfers to these contaminants. Guess what, El Porto? You’re in LA and next to Hyperion. Definitely a bad mix.

In making this PSA, I left with far more questions than answers. I really could not believe how stubborn these surfers were, but didn’t feel like it was completely their fault. There is little to no communication about these risks. I wouldn’t have even known about this problem unless I had been with a SoCal local who told me about it while it was raining in January. Why are there no signs posted on beaches explaining to surfers what urban runoff is and what hazards there are?

Surfrider Foundation seemed to be the only source of information for this, and they brought up this point too with The Orange County Department of Health. Their response?

"We just assume all surfers know that the water is polluted after it rains."

What?

I can hear my mom’s voice now saying “to assume is to make an ass out of u and me” in the back of my head.

That’s completely irresponsible. How are we supposed to stay safe if the very establishments we trust to ensure that safety haven’t even initiated a dialogue in the first place?

I really think this issue is worth exploring, and I feel compelled to expand this PSA into a documentary. I wrote numerous emails and tweeted the video link to different people and organizations who seemed to be the few spearheading any movement to raise awareness. Rick Wilson from Surfrider wrote me back a long email answering all my questions, and Chad Nelsen, the founder of Surfrider, retweeted my video. I have a phone interview with Ken Schiff, the Deputy Director of SCCWRP (Southern California Coastal Water Research Project) tomorrow. SCCWRP and Surfrider are working together to release a Surfer Health Study that will more closely examine what these viruses and bacteria are and how likely it is that a surfer can contract them.

Lukas and I had to turn this PSA into class before I got Rick’s email, so it’s missing some pertinent information:

-The three-day time frame IS accurate.

-Aside from just staying out of the water, surfers should wear ear plugs, shower/rinse off immediately after getting out of the water, wash hands before eating or touching your mouth, eyes, ears, etc., don’t go surfing with open wounds. Vaccinations are an option, as well.

My questions as to whether or not something can be done about the pollution that’s already in the ocean or how we can prevent more urban runoff have yet to be answered, but I’ll be sure to bring that up to Ken tomorrow.

This is why it’s important to only spend your time doing the things you want to do, and to not wait for permission to do those things. Lukas and I shot almost all of this in one morning -- minus the stock footage which is the shitty (lol no pun intended) urban runoff stuff-- which we intend to replace with higher quality shots next time it rains, and edited it in a couple hours. I spent probably twice as much time researching this issue and writing emails, and now I’m in the beginning stages of making a documentary about something that matters to me. Equally important is getting your film noticed. Social media is a powerful tool that can enable people to be informed and involved. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial these lessons are in filmmaking and I’m so thankful to have grasped this concept early on.  

My (Current) Favorite Films

The second most popular question you'll get in film school right after, "What do you want to do after you graduate?" is the less intimidating and more fun question of what your favorite movies are. I love hearing which films resonate most with my classmates and friends. It tells me so much about them. After all, you are what you watch!  

While my friend Annalise and I were indulging in homemade vegan avocado ice cream a few nights ago, we were talking about all the films we're embarrassed to have not seen yet, and how our tastes are inevitably going to change once we get around to them. We listed off our current top ten favorite films (because it's basically impossible to pick just one), and plan on revisiting this list every ~six months or so~ to see how we grow as filmmakers, and how our tastes evolve too. I don't have any new 285 films to post this week, nor a corresponding blog post, so I thought this might be a fun filler. 

So, here are our top ten favorite films (in no particular order) as of right now: 

Soraya's:

  1. Pulp Fiction
  2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  3. Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2 (shut up, it counts)
  4. Into The Wild
  5. Dances with Wolves
  6. Little Miss Sunshine
  7. American Beauty
  8. Anomalisa
  9. Wait Until Dark
  10. Apocalypse Now

Annalise's:

  1. Blade Runner
  2. Mustang
  3. Little Miss Sunshine
  4. Moulin Rouge
  5. Moonrise Kingdom
  6. Boyhood
  7. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  8. Dead Poets Society
  9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  10. Amélie

As you can see, we are unsurprisingly post-modern-ethnocentric-millennial-pieces-of-shit whose selection revolves mostly around films made in the last 20 yearsDeal with it. *sunglasses descend onto our faces* We are open to any recommendations and would love to hear what your top ten favorites are in the comments! :) Don't be shy!

Five More Tuesdays

This week our project was to make a Perspective film, which entailed shooting with devices like cellphones or GoPros to capture moments and point of views those cameras enable us to see.

Tuesday came around (our films are due on Thursday) and I realized most people were already editing their films while I had yet to come up with an idea for mine. I was talking to my friend, Michael, about how overwhelmed I was, how Tuesdays are the worst, how I never have enough time for anything, and how I needed to come up with something to film quickly.  

His answer has been on repeat in my head this entire week. “You can do it. Only five more Tuesdays, Soraya.”

Five.

More.

Tuesdays.

That’s the rest of my freshman year summarized in three words.

Unbelievable.

We are running out of time, people.

After I picked my jaw up from the floor I began to go over what resources are readily accessible to me so I can crank this thing out.

Luckily, I happen to be roommates with quite possibly the most talented guitarist in the Pop Music program here at USC, Mallory Hauser, and she happens to be best friends with quite possibly the best singer in the program, Madeleine Meyer. We often have quality jam sessions in our dorm (and by we, I mean them while I sit back and Snapchat how spoiled I am) so I figured I could just film one of those from some interesting perspectives.

And voilà:

While I'm extremely proud and happy with the results, I didn’t really learn a huge amount much making this project -- which is what this blog is about: reflection. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means I didn't venture out of my comfort zone or leave much room for failure, because that’s usually the best way to learn and grow. I knew this would work quite nicely so wasn’t really gonna go out on a limb to make it more difficult than it needed to be. #SorryNotSorry #5MoreTuesdays

One thing I did learn, however, is that GoPro footage does not play well visually with DSLR footage, but I kept it in for the sake of fulfilling the project requirements. I'd recommend picking one or the other to film something in its entirety as I have yet to see an example of one not devaluing the integrity of the other when combined.

There have been some exceptionally creative projects, like Alex Ioanoviciu’s film, which is the story of baking an apple pie from the point of view of an apple Ty Leet used his iPhone to capture what it would be like to fall victim to a campus shooting (ambitious, but well executed) … Peter McGarry made a film about his dog vs stairs (hilarious, sad, and sweet). Annalise Pasztor made a beautiful dance film that I can’t stop watching… Gillian Annis put us in a unique spot to witness a goldfish’s funeral… Emily Hadley illustrated how filmmakers perceive the world differently… and so many other amazing short films came from this assignment.

My favorite so far (I haven’t seen everyone’s yet) was Neal Mulani’s blunt and brilliant short film, “Camera Phone”. He used the front camera of his iPhone to capture a normal, everyday conversation with his friend that is abusively interrupted, adding a dual layer of perspective to this film that yields a much more impactful argument. I don’t want to give too much away because I think the film does a better job showing this story then I could ever put into words. Amazing work, Neal. 

Why Now Is the Best Time To Do Anything

It’s funny how when you start to think about one idea, suddenly everything around you becomes associated with it. Maybe it’s that all those details are always there, dormant, and it’s only when we pay special attention that they become apparent. This phenomenon operates like a symbiotic relationship between your mind and your reality: your thoughts manifest the information that surrounds you, fueling you to think more about it, one inevitable feeding into the other. You become obsessed.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Beethoven.

He is the imponderable man, a fascinating puzzle which my brain has worked tirelessly trying to solve. How could he lose his hearing, the most vital sense which allows a musician to practice his art and live from it, yet still be one of the greatest composers of all time? His music transcends what can be heard, and penetrates the depths of what can be felt.

This kind of approach in anything – a refusal to accept the impossible (be it courage or madness) – is the human survival story I never grow tired of.

The last few weeks of making this short film have seen a bombardment of conversations and clues relating to this larger theme adversity and resilience, of what we can endure and how we can prevail.

I got the idea for this short film when my iTunes shuffled to a slam poem, “Beethoven” by Shane Koyczan which I hadn’t heard in a few years. Shane Koyczan is one of my favorite modern poets. You enter a trance when you listen to his poetry; it’s as visual as it is musical, and I can’t help but envision pictures in relation to his words every time I listen to his poetry. For example:

the man got down on his knees for no one
but amputated the legs of his piano
so he could feel the vibrations through the floor
the man got down on his knees
for music

This time was no exception as the pounding beats and rhythms of his poem conjured the image of a boxer, punching and hitting and dancing to the beat and rhythm of the poem.

Boxing.

I couldn’t get the image of boxing out of my head. 

I hit replay. Again and again and again.

I started imaging this story more clearly than the time before: cherry red gloves… sweat dripping down foreheads…the hypnotic slow swing of a punching bag. I can’t explain why. It just seemed to fit.

Conveniently (and serendipitously), the assignment for 285 that week was a re-contextualization film. Context (n): the frame surrounding information which identifies something. Re-contextualize (v): process which extracts meaning from an original context and implies a change of meaning and of the communicative purpose.

I wanted to make a boxing film about a Beethoven – if that makes sense. I wanted to find someone who was pursuing something that maybe didn’t make any intuitive sense for him or her to pursue, but they did it despite all odds because they loved it. Same message, different context.

Fortunately, a journalist friend of mine, Julia Poe, had just written an incredible article on Pico-Union Boxing Club, in which she talks about a 17-year-old girl, Stephanie, who boxes three times a week.

Stephanie is who I wanted to be Beethoven. Not because she was good, not because she had a certain look, not even because she was a girl or that she was young, but because she showed up for practice consistently to do something she loved, something which inspired her in a way nothing else did.

So, given the resources I have, what is the film I can make right now?

I messaged my friend, got the contact information for the coach, Jeff Sacha, and sent him an email telling him my idea and asking him if I’d be able to come film. Jeff wrote back almost immediately, saying that yes, it was okay for me to come film and he’d ask Stephanie if she’d be up for the task, and that I should come shoot the following evening. I texted my friend Lukas to see if I could borrow some equipment, and if he could come help me film, to which he said he’d be out of town, but I could borrow some gear.

All in 30 euphoric minutes, the idea, story, and subsequent game plan to make it happened, happened.

Then reality hit.

Did Jeff say tomorrow?

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.

There’s no way I’m going to be ready. There’s no way I can shoot this alone. I want the ultimate cinematic quality for the execution to do justice to the vision I had. How am I going to figure this all out in such a short time frame??

I have to email Jeff back. 

I have to tell him tomorrow is too soon. 

I have to come up with a different idea for this class project. 

This is a film to make some other time. 

I need to stop overcommitting and overwhelming myself. 

I have to tell Lukas nevermind.

My pulse was racing as I opened my computer to text Lukas and (ever so inelegantly) have a mental breakdown, to which Lukas responded in the most cool-headed, helpful, and sweet manner any friend possibly could, thereby teaching me a very important lesson: trust yourself.

Long story short, that was precisely what I needed to hear. Lukas was telling me what I already knew: don’t be afraid of failure, do more things that scare you, create only the projects you feel passionate about, and that right now is the best time to do anything.

Apart from those four crucial lessons above, I think another rather obvious one is the importance of having quality friends who want you to do well. That’s something which you can probably find outside of film school, sure, but undoubtedly is fostered to much deeper levels when you’re here, making yourselves vulnerable together and on a consistent basis.

And anyway, how much of a hypocrite would I be if the very story I wanted to tell was one I couldn’t manifest in my own life? I had to put my actions in line with my beliefs: the idea that right now is the time to relentlessly pursue what it is that you want.

In accordance with the strange relation to how everything seems to revolve around whatever you’re currently obsessed with, an email I received recently from a former high school teacher of mine articulated this mentality rather well:

“I feel that it is a consistent, deliberate pursuit of your priorities that makes you successful.” –Jonathan Torrez

Sometimes people say exactly the things you need to hear at exactly the right time. Lukas and JT did just that, and I’m very thankful to have them as friends. Also, thanks to Zack Hosseini for being such a reliable friend and filmmaker, who last minute said he would come help me film, and is definitely the reason the visual quality is prime. 

Here is the film, Beethoven: 

I guess this post is less about what I learned filmmaking-wise, because if I delve into how it took 2 days of shooting, 6 hours of footage, and easily over 30 hours to edit a two-minute film, that’d be another post entirely. Creating work you’re proud of is exhausting and immensely time-consuming, but if you value the quality of work you’re outputting more than the time you spend making it, then it likely will be better work. That’s not to say that this film is flawless by any means. I wish I could edit the middle a bit differently (I actually probably will) so that the story of the poem aligns better with the visuals, and I wish I would have captured more footage of Jeff and Stephanie in the ring together, as the father/son, coach/pupil dynamic is really interesting. That’s documentary work, though – none of this was scripted, I just shot what was available to me and didn’t interfere with their practice.

A final note to emphasize once more the importance of doing anything right now, is that I don’t want to ignore the role that Pico-Union Boxing Club plays in the lives of the kids who attend it. This boxing club is a sanctuary, a place of physical, emotional, and psychological catharsis for kids living in an unsafe and less affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles. What Jeff has offered these kids is a truly remarkable gift, something I was lucky enough to personally witness with my own eyes, and hope will continue to exist. Jeff volunteers his free time to ensure that his boxers have a safe and affordable place to go to after-school. Pico-Union Boxing Club needs our help. They’re crowdfunding on GoFundMe to raise $25,000 to help upkeep the gym, buy new exercise equipment, and allow more kids to come take lessons. Please know that any amount you can give will help, and if there’s a time to do anything, it’s right now.

I'm immensely grateful to the Pico-Union Boxing Club for allowing me to be a fly on the wall for a few nights and enabling me total artistic freedom. Thanks to Jeff for being so cool with letting me come shoot (and if he hadn't said to come in the very next day, who knows if this film would have ever been made). Especially big thanks to Stephanie Varela for being the most badass 17-year-old girl I know, and had the confidence to be filmed by someone she didn't know. I don't know if I could have done that when I was 17, so thank you for being my Beethoven. :)