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August 12, 2010

CU: Christophe Nassif

"Don’t try to tell a story you do not connect with."

By Mel Cowan

Christophe Nassif, on the set of The Bad Habits of Time Travelers
Chances are that as you read this, Christophe Nassif, 3rd-year M.F.A. Production, is hard at work. In addition to recently completing an eight-week sound internship at Larson Studios through the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation, Nassif has been in pre-production since April for a 546 project he’ll be directing in the fall, and still finds time to work with QueerCut, the LBGT cinematic arts group he helped found.

The Annenberg Fellow and Jack Nicholson Scholarship winner spoke with us via email about his current projects, and provided some “sound” advice.

How did you end up at USC? Did you come in with a clear career goal? I went to USC as an undergrad, in the School of Engineering, and I had no idea that there was a great film school here. One day, I walked by the old George Lucas building and thought “George Lucas? I wonder if this is a good film school.” After finishing my degree, going through a life overhaul, and applying twice for an MFA, I finally got in.

I came here thinking that I would be a director and a picture editor. But later on, I discovered that I enjoyed sound editing and re-recording mixing more than picture editing. And that’s the great thing about SCA: you come here with an idea of who you are, but you discover new passions and skills.

Talk about your experience collaborating with your fellow students on projects. During our welcome orientation, Dean Daley told us “Look to your left, and to your right. These are the people who will hire you, who will fire you, and who will hire you again.” And it has been very true. We all learned during our first year that there is no way we can make it on our own. And so all of us kept jumping from project to project, helping others and being helped.

The great thing is that since we have to learn all aspects of production during our first year, you know that other people on set understand what it is that you’re doing, and you also understand better what they are doing. Out of it comes greater respect, better collaboration, and the appreciation that all the different departments are here to work for the greater good: the movie.

It has been a blast learning from more experienced fellow students, and showing tricks to less experienced ones. Regardless of the level of experience, I found everyone to have a great professional attitude, and a great sense of fun. After all, we are here to make movies!

Talk about the Annenberg award. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been awarded an Annenberg Fellowship. Fellows are graduate students from the school of Engineering, Communication, and Cinematic Arts, and are nominated by their respective schools. The Fellowship relieves us from financial strains, allowing Fellows to focus on their studies and research. We also have micro-seminars throughout the year, and “cross-pollinate” with Fellows from other schools to advance digital media and communication research.

Talk about some specific classes or professors that have made an impact on you. I came here knowing very little about filmmaking, so all classes have had a tremendous impact on me. Midge Costin and Doug Vaughan, who teach sound in 546, have shaped me both as a sound person and as a director -- and they also turned me into a sound snob. In 546 sound, my partner and I went through the whole process: from capturing the sound on set to the very final step of re-recording mixing. I got to witness the entire making of a short film from start to finish, and I learned invaluable lessons by observing others.

And of course, Helaine Head in Intermediate Directing, passed on her tools to get stronger performances from actors. She really taught me that when you think you have done your homework, you really can and should be digging deeper.

What are some films/filmmakers that you look to for inspiration? I always have the hardest time answering this question, as my inspirations change according to what I’m working on. Currently, the Dardenne brothers are on top of my list, especially with their film The Child (L’Enfant). I love the stark naturalism of the film, and how answers are never given to the audience. It’s so engaging, because as you’re watching the film, you keep wondering “who are these people?”

Talk about your current or in-the-works projects. I’m currently in pre-production for a 546 film I will direct in the fall called What to Bring to America, the story of a 30-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who needs to decide whether or not to circumcise her daughter. We were selected out of an internal competition that takes place every semester, and out of which three projects get made.

So as I’m writing this, we’re deep into casting, long conversations with the production designers and the cinematographers, scouting locations with the producers, and I am digging in deeper and deeper every day to understand the characters and the story better, so that I can make all the decisions that are right for this project.

Talk about QueerCut, the LBGT group you’re a part of. We founded QueerCut over a year and a half ago, and it has been quite a journey. Currently, members communicate online to ask each other for help on projects that they are working on (we have about 100 members on our mailing list), and we do our best to pass along information about LGBT events happening at USC to keep our members informed about what’s happening in the community at large.

In a recent survey, we found that while members want to be part of QueerCut, they don’t necessarily have the time to commit to actual events. So we’re trying to restructure the group to make it better, so that it serves our community the best way it can.

Do you have any advice for current or aspiring SCA students? Sleep a lot and keep your health above everything else. The program is extremely demanding, with very long days and hours. Work on as many different projects as you can. That way, you meet a lot of people, and see how others work and can learn from both their mistakes and their successes. Be yourself. I know this sounds corny, but that’s the only way to make it work. Don’t try to tell a story you do not connect with. Do not try to pretend you’re something that you are not. Throw your ego out of the window: this is school, and this is where we learn and where we grow. And be open to change, you’ll be surprised.