April 27, 2023

From SCA Orientation Chat to Hollywood: Brazilian-American Duo Awarded $40K Comedy Screenplay Award

By Benjamin Pola

Gabby Fizsman ’22 and Isabella Ares ’23 accepting the Kevin Smith Comedy Screenplay Award on YouTube live with Kevin Smith.

When Gabby Fizsman ’22 and Isabella Ares ’23 messaged each other in an SCA Group chat to connect over their Brazilian heritage, they had no idea that this was the beginning of what would become a dynamic partnership. Fiszman, who graduated from the Film and Television Production Division last year, and Ares, who is about to graduate from the John Wells Writing Division, became fast friends, and naturally (this is SCA after all), started talking about how they could collaborate. It was the right move. Fizsman and Ares are the latest recipients of the Kevin Smith Comedy Screenplay Award. This award comes with a $40,000 grant, industry mentors and the opportunity to bring their original script, Holy Smokes, to life!

We sat down to chat with the two writers to hear more about their project, their journey with this project and what they have in store.

1. How did this project come about? From the YouTube link I saw it started from a pitch in a class, but was developed outside on your own. Can you tell us how you two connected and that process of developing it?

We messaged each other in the SCA GroupMe when we saw the Brazilian flags by our names. After getting to know each other at USC orientation, we realized we had a lot in common: we were both first generation American, Brazilian, and raised in the Deep South. We immediately became best friends and knew we wanted to try working together creatively, especially after we realized we shared the same sense of humor. And thus, Holy Smokes was born.

Holy Smokes began as an idea for a final project in the Stoner Comedy writing course at USC, taught by Robert Ramsey. As our class final, we were tasked to write a treatment for an original stoner comedy feature, either individually or with a partner. We decided to work together and quickly realized we loved the characters we were creating and the world they lived in. After we submitted our final, we both knew Holy Smokes had to become a feature. For the next year, that’s what we did. After many long FaceTimes, glitchy Final Draft collaboration modes, and an entire pandemic, we finished our first draft. Our process for co-writing is very collaborative and conversational, so we end up with words on the paper that are more equivalent to a third draft rather than a first. We revised the script, and decided it was ready to share with the world.

It was a Quarterfinalist in the 2021 Final Draft Big Break Screenplay contest, and a 2023 Sundance Feature Development Finalist. For the Decentralized Pictures Kevin Smith Comedy Screenplay Award, we took the story we knew so well and adapted it into a short proof of concept.

2. What is Holy Smokes about? What inspired it?

Holy Smokes is a dark stoner comedy. The logline is: After matching with weirdo Johnny on holyhookup.net, estranged best friends and Catholic School survivors, prudish Emma and ‘corrupted stoner’ Lauren, embark on a sin-filled roadtrip to get Emma laid and save their friendship.

Holy Smokes was born out of our shared experience growing up as Latina women in America and never seeing ourselves on screen. When we realized there were so few Latinx writers and directors, especially women, we were disappointed. When we realized that there were practically NO comedies directed by Latina women, we were appalled. Something had to change.

Holy Smokes is an answer to both the lack of representation of our identities and the lack of representation of our generation’s sense of humor, that is able to find comedy in dark and crazy situations (one of the quirks of being raised at the brink of a climate and economic crisis!).

3. How did you hear about the Kevin Smith fund and how that process was?

We heard of Decentralized Pictures through our friend Kelly Yu (Production Fall ‘22), who had recently won another of DCP’s awards for her short, Plum Town. After some digging, we discovered the Kevin Smith Comedy Screenplay Award on the platform and knew we had to submit Holy Smokes. Since we had been working on this project for the past three years, we had many of the materials ready— we just recorded a pitch video, polished up our proof of concept, and submitted our project. The process was long— we submitted in October 2022 and spent the next few months trying to gather as many votes from the community as possible, which we ended up winning.

After we won the community vote, which prefaces the board review and final announcement, we waited patiently to find out the results of the competition. To our complete surprise (and delight!), we discovered we had been chosen as the sole recipient of the $40,000 award. Although we kept a professional look on the live stream, we were over the moon. It was definitely one of the most exciting days of our lives.

4. Do you have a timeline on when you all will start working on the proof of concept? And will you be recruiting any other SCA/USC alumni/students to help once production starts?

Holy Smokes is currently in development for the short, which has been an incredible experience so far. The timeline for shooting is still unclear, but we believe the short will be shot within the next few months. Of course, we would love to involve SCA students and alumni whenever possible, but since this is going to be a union production, we are not sure how many of our usual collaborators we will be able to involve. That being said, we’ve collaborated with many talented people in our cohort in the past and would love to work with them again. Most recently, we worked on an independent short entitled Becoming Bigfoot, which was written by Isabella, directed by Gabby, and included an almost entirely SCA crew.  

About the Writers:

Gabby Fiszman ‘22 is a writer, director, and producer whose upbringing was just as eclectic as her storytelling. As a first-generation American raised by Brazilian immigrants in California, Maryland, Tennessee, and Florida, Gabby encountered a wide range of cultures and individuals, which exposed her to diverse perspectives and instilled in her a deep sense of compassion — both of which were crucial in her path to become a storyteller in Los Angeles. Gabby is currently an Associate Producer at Aether Films, a full-service production company that specializes in commercials and branded docs, while also independently producing and directing narrative shorts, music videos, and more. In her writing, Gabby loves combining genres and using comedy to reflect the absurdity of the world around her.

Isabella Ares ’23 is an Arab-Brazilian screenwriter from Atlanta whose innate interest in understanding people’s mannerisms and what makes them tick found an outlet in film. A natural storyteller, Isabella’s work explores life as a woman of color, challenging cultural expectations, gender roles, and taboo issues in a comedic way. She writes about people who seek belonging in an isolating world. With experience interning at Studiocanal, as well as having numerous scripts under her belt, Isabella has developed a strong understanding of striking the balance between what makes a story both touching and funny, by using her own cultural backgrounds and experiences to inform her work.