December 10, 2008

CU: Eric Nazarian

USC Filmmaker Wins Nicholls Fellowship

By Mel Cowan

Try to imagine 5,200 bound screenplays: if you figure about an inch per screenplay, that’s a stack of brass-brad-bound dreams about 433 feet high. Now imagine being one of the five screenwriters in that 36-story pile to be recognized as the best of the bunch. If you’re having a problem picturing it, Eric Nazarian, B.A. Production ’99, winner of the prestigious 2008 Nicholls Fellowship for his screenplay Giants, can help.

Eric Nazarian
During his recent trip to Paris where he screened his micro-budget award-winning feature, The Blue Hour, we 'spoke' to Nazarian, via email.

What was the Nicholls process like? It was like screenwriting Disneyland for me. When the finalists were announced in October, the avalanche of inquiries to read Giants was incredible. I got a lot of genuine and perceptive feedback. The script seemed to resonate with the producers and development execs, who felt a personal and immediate connection to the characters and story. 
Talk about the script itself. I wrote Giants in the ICU waiting room and cafeteria of the USC University Hospital where my brother Kevin underwent open-heart surgery. My brother’s courage in facing the biggest challenge of his life was the core inspiration to me. The lead character is a community college student who has a deadly aneurysm in his heart and only seven days to prepare for the operation. Feeling that he might not make it back, he decides to do whatever he can to leave something behind and live those seven days as if they were his last. He loves whales and dreams of going to Patagonia to see the beautiful right whales. Throughout the story we don’t know if he will get to Patagonia or not.

The Blue Hour
I love the process of taking a character on a journey, whether it is inside his or her neighborhood, or to the other side of the world. Giants is different in tone and character from my other screenplays, yet there is a thematic thread that connects the main characters in my other scripts, who all make personal journeys. No matter how different the roads they tread, the characters are all dreamers deep down.

How did USC prepare you to get to this point? USC provided the right environment to make short films and discover what I love about cinema, which is writing stories for the screen and visualizing those stories through images, actors and sounds. I spent many afternoons in the Doheny Library reading my favorite screenplays and watching films in the Norris Theatre. Woody Omens in the production department and Paul Wolff in the writing division are wonderful teachers who share a passion for cinema and remain true inspirations. The friends I made at SCA, and the creative fever we had to make films, remain my fondest memories.

How did The Blue Hour come together? I wanted to write and make a film about a group of very different Angelenos who live side by side near the Los Angeles River, yet don’t communicate. The screenplay was 66 pages with four pages of dialogue, so finding investors was extremely difficult. I wanted to go back to the roots of movies and tell stories using images and sounds. How to communicate audio-visually is one of the first things you learn in 290. We cobbled the financing together grassroots style from friends and family and made the film on a shoestring budget. My girlfriend Lynnette Ramirez and Brian Knappmiller, one of my classmates at USC, produced the film. My friend Spiros Diamantis, who was in the MFA program at SCA, graciously came out from Greece to help me make the film in the concrete jungle of the L.A. River. My USC classmates Joe Ballarini and Ziba Shadjaani served as co-executive producers on the film. We shot 235 scenes in 21 days in 34 locations, averaging 11 to 13 scenes a day. It was the most exhausting and exhilarating creative experience of my life so far, reminding me of the insomnia-ridden days of 290, when we had to write, direct, shoot, edit and mix sound and music for our short Super 8mm films. I definitely put the lessons I learned from Woody and Paul to use on The Blue Hour.

Alyssa Milano with Nazarian
Who were some of your filmmaking/artistic influences?
My father Haik Nazarian is my biggest filmmaking inspiration. Coming from the Soviet Union where he wasn’t given the chance to express himself, when we docked in Los Angeles as refugees when I was four, he wallpapered the walls of our apartment with images of his favorite directors and movies: The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Papillon, Doctor Zhivago, Spartacus, Cool Hand Luke... The first film I ever saw that truly rocked my world was E.T. Steven Spielberg will always be my first inspiration alongside my dad. He helped me realize that our imaginations are boundless. Stanley Kubrick taught me that films have the power to provoke ideas and create new ways of thinking about the world. Bernardo Bertolucci inspired me to travel. As a son of immigrants, I love Martin Scorsese who is the patron saint of world cinema and an inspiring preservationist. Billy Wilder and Woody Allen taught me that laughter is important to your health. Budd Schulberg’s On The Waterfront is my favorite screenplay of all time. My dad bought me that script for my 14th birthday. The most profound thing that happened during the Nicholls Fellowship week was meeting the wonderful Eva Marie Saint who presented me with the Fellowship 18 years after my dad bought me On The Waterfront.