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May 30, 2019

90th Anniversary Alumni Conversation Series

’90s Alumni Talk 290, Collaboration, Pursuing Passions

By Ben Del Vecchio

The School of Cinematic Arts’ 90th Anniversary Alumni Conversation spring series concluded with a bang as a cinematic coterie of late 1990s alumni congregated in Norris theater, chatting about their respective careers, reflecting on the classes they shared, and projects they created while at USC.

The night began with the group recounting childhood memories of films, and their earliest recollections of wanting to attend SCA. For most of the group, their cinematic eyes developed early.

For jack-of-all-trades Danny Strong (School of Dramatic Arts Class of ‘96), the exposure came thick and fast:  “When I was five, I was watching movies five year olds don’t watch, All That Jazz and Chinatown. Literally! All That Jazz was my favorite film as a five year old, and I’d run around going, ‘It’s show time, folks!’ I was alone a lot as a kid, so I would watch tons of TV. I was sort of a latch-key kid.” The influence on Strong’s ever-growing oeuvre, from eagle-eyed political scribe (Recount, Game Change, The Butler) to his role as creator and executive producer of Fox’s smash-hit Empire, is palpable.

The strains of showbiz, for some, ran just as deep. Susan Downey ’95,  producer (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes series, Rock N Rolla, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) reminisced on growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. She started in front of the camera, not behind it, doing modeling work for the Sears catalog in her preteens — mostly, she confessed, to get out of school. Despite modeling, she was “far more interested in what everyone else was doing. So I started asking questions: ‘What’s that guy do?’ What’s that girl do? What’s a c-stand?’ I knew by the time I was twelve that I wanted to make movies. As far as ‘Why USC?’ I mean… is there someplace else?”

But, of course, not all the alums on the stage began as starry-eyed film lovers. As the son of Nigerian immigrants, and a first-generation American, Rick Famuyiwa ’96 (writer/director Dope, director/producer FX’s The Chi) always thought he was set to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. He believed he had little say in the matter, and came to USC as a political science/pre-law major. Then, something changed. Famuyiwa recalls having to take Cinema 190 for his art elective, taught then, as it is now, by Professor Drew Casper (over which the whole cohort share a celebratory laugh). The four-hour classes, pairing screenings and discussions, and the idea that you could go to school for film “blew [him] away.” He applied to the production program, laughing as he remembers thinking: “You know, it’s film. I’ll probably get in… I didn’t. And then I found out what a big deal [SCA] was when I first came to the school and saw the George Lucas building. Here was this movie I watched as a kid, and it was like, ‘Holy crap… he went here? He went to this school? For film?’” Famuyiwa reapplied a few more times (as did Rian Johnson, seated beside him on the night) before finally getting accepted. “I was a sponge once I got in. Coming in, I was a film lover, but I left a filmmaker.”

Responding to Famuyiwa’s story, Downey asked: “When did your parents come around, what did it take?”

They were very excited, once I got in,” Famuyiwa replied. “I told them, ‘Look it’s your fault I watch all these movies, you took me to all these movies. You can’t really get mad. This is why you came here, right?”

You should also know that Rick’s 480 got into Sundance,” chimed Joe Nussbaum ’96 (director American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile, MTV’s Awkward).

Which Joey actually edited,” Famuyiwa replied.

That’s why I mentioned it,” laughed Nussbaum.

I remember I applied to Sundance,” recalled Famuyiwa, “and we weren’t gonna make the deadline. We had to work long hours with film—”

On the flatbeds,” Nussbaum adds.

"—on the flatbeds, yeah, at the time to get it [into the festival].”

The memory sparked something in Nussbaum, too, who remembers being told, while attending, that USC’s film school was “cutthroat.” “Someone once said that to me while I was here, and I got really angry at them. It’s competitive—and I’m as competitive as they come… but cutthroat means I would cut your throat to make mine better… we all tried to help each other out. Competitive as hell, but never cutthroat.”

Sasha Alexander ’97 (actress NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles) concurred. “One of my best memories of 310 and 480 was that we all got to to different jobs, and we’d interview to see who should be editor or who should do sound and I found that staying up late together and doing all these different positions was the most gratifying thing.” In fact, of the seven panelists, six had worked on a project together while at SCA.

The chimes of collaboration and community echoed throughout the conversation, as Rian Johnson ’96 (writer/director Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) discussed the benefits of an SCA education, and the lifelong friendships he formed while here. “Another benefit of going to school in LA, we all stayed friends and struggled through our 20s together and helped each other as we were all trying to find out footing. I met Steve Yedlin, my DP… on a student film set.” After graduating SCA, Johnson was out of work, but Yedlin was working as an electrician’s assistant on sets and would bring copies of Johnson’s Brick script to give to line producers he liked and thought might like it. “Y’know, it sounds Hollywood hustle-y. It’s not that. It’s the friendships that you make and people that you’re actually going to struggle with. For me, that’s the real concrete benefit of the student film experience.”

The conversation then turned away from production and towards development, as the writers on the panel discussed ways of overcoming writer’s block, generating new ideas, and finding passion projects on which to focus. Strong recounted staring at a shelf rife with countless scripts he wrote “for the market” that weren’t selling –– mostly “high-concept Jim Carrey comedies,” he laughed. “I had this epiphany moment, and I thought: ‘Oh, I would never go see any of these movies.’ And in that moment, I thought, I’m not gonna write another script until it would be something I would actually go see.” Months went by before Strong saw a play (Stuff Happens) and, “within thirty seconds of walking out of the show,” was inspired to write Recount. “It just came out of me,” he recalls. “It was really natural. But that’s what it was. It took all those years to figure out: I need to be writing something I’m passionate about, not something people or the market wants.”

Richard Kelly ’97 (writer/director Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) built on Strong’s sentiments. “If you find your voice, it’s not just keeping it, you have to grow with it. You have to evolve, to keep your discipline. Restrictions are necessary, like the restrictions we had here in 310: writing to a budget, servicing what the producers need, what the cast needs.” Kelly’s been taking a break from directing to ensure his motives and efficiency in his writing are in the right place. “You don’t want to take a detour into a place that doesn’t feel honest… Don’t be afraid to take your time.”

Downey responded: “It’s about your motives. And you have to sometimes be careful, because if you’re trying really hard to achieve something with a really specific motive that isn’t… pure, in a way, it might not result in what you want. But if you take something and you treat it with energy and love, it might result in something you could never have imagined.”