SEV OHANIAN: When the Stars Align, Movie Magic Happens

By Barbara Twist

The launch of Dear Producer began with an interview with Sev Ohanian, producer and co-writer of SEARCHING and winner of the 2018 Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Feature Producer.  With SEARCHING in theaters on August 23, we’re excited to bring you Part Two of our inaugural interview and hear from Sev how SEARCHING came to life and how he went from the classroom at USC to the set of FRUITVALE STATION.

Sev Red Carpet Searching
Sev Ohanian, Aneesh Chaganty, and Natalie Qasabian at the premiere of SEARCHING

You got involved with FRUITVALE STATION right around the time you graduated – how did that happen?

I was sitting in class at USC, a few months away from graduating, and I got a call from a student who had graduated a year before me: Ryan Coogler. He said ‘Hey, man, I’ve got this movie that I’m going to direct and I’ve got these great producers on board. But I also want to bring on some people I know to help produce as well.’ [You speak the same language, having gone to USC…] Exactly, we both went to USC.

I met with Nina Yang Bongiovi, Forest Whitaker’s producing partner. The offer was to come on and be an associate producer and at the same time learn the ropes. No joke: for a kid about to graduate film school it was a dream opportunity. Then a week later I got called in, and I don’t know what exactly changed, but Nina said ‘You’ll be the co-producer now’ and immediately I found myself having far more responsibilities and control over this project than I thought I probably deserved. Not going to lie, it suddenly became a really stressful period in my life.

It was truly a lot of pressure. Here I was, this little Armenian dude who had some small position of authority and with no previous producing credits on feature films. It was daunting. In a perfect world if you want to produce feature films, you can spend some time working on features in other positions to understand the job. Film school can teach you countless things about filmmaking, but until you really do it, you can’t be prepared. And I felt especially out of my element because beyond my own USC student films, the only other experience I really had was making my own Armenian-language movie… that had a  total budget of $800. At the beginning of the project, I wasn’t sure how in my role I could help lead the project and all of our experienced crew members when my experience was limited to non-traditional projects.

How did you navigate that?

It was a beautiful thing. The key for me was to stop being concerned with the fact that I didn’t have any real feature films under my belt and stop worrying that my experience was basically limited to $0 budget student films. The solution was to embrace my non-traditional experience and apply it to our film. After all, a low budget indie feature film is honestly not that much different than a lot of student films. And at the end of the day, that film really came together because of the pure passion of everyone involved in front of and behind the cameras. The fact that I didn’t necessarily know all of the “traditional” ways to accomplish things in a film ended up being a strength of mine – and all of us who had come from USC to make the film, Ryan included.

In terms of working as co-producer on FRUITVALE, what were your responsibilities and your day-to-day like?

When I look back, I realize there weren’t any “official” responsibilities. Part of my job was to report back to the producers in LA while I was up in Oakland in prep and represent the production company. But of course that led me to naturally starting to create a lot of jobs for myself. I would start to identify areas that needed work, like ‘Okay, we don’t have a plan for this scene that we’re shooting in two weeks.’ And I would just start getting in touch with department heads, making sure things were covered, following up, etc. It very quickly spiraled into an endless To-Do list.

I specifically remember realizing the immense power of the “three-way-dial” feature on phones. If I was talking to our line producer about a situation involving a department, I would loop him in directly with that department head and help facilitate a solution with everyone on board. After all, a producer’s job is to keep everyone communicating. Three-way calls are sort of a real-life metaphor for doing that right?

One of our big victories of the film is that we were able to get permission to film at the actual Fruitvale BART station. Because that was the site where Oscar Grant had been shot by a BART police officer, literally nobody on our team thought BART would ever be open to that idea, except for Ryan. So we gave it a shot and made the request, and then we got amazing news from our Location Manager that BART was actually open to us filming there! We were all very excited until we realized they were asking for three times more than our budget allowed. Ryan asked me and Gerard McMurray, a fellow producer on the film, to get involved directly and help make our case to BART. Being recently broke student filmmakers, we were absolutely no strangers to asking for huge locations on tiny budgets, and luckily BART ultimately came through and to their credit, they were an amazing partner with the film.

There was no shortage of problems on FRUITVALE: we were under budgeted, we were understaffed, it was just constantly putting out fires. But for every problem we faced, we came up with great innovative solutions. I’m beyond proud of that film and my small part in helping to produce it.

After the success of FRUITVALE STATION, what happened?

I was in such an amazing place and had this co-producer credit on this amazing movie. But at the same time I didn’t really have access to money or access to talent or access to material. I wasn’t a “real producer” at the time. I went to a lot of my mentors for advice, saying, ‘where do I go from here?’ Ryan was on his own trajectory, of course, and I was not going to be producing studio movies alongside him anytime soon. The advice I got from my one of my mentors who is a badass producer and also professor at USC, Gail Katz, was to just ‘keep producing.’ And specifically she encouraged me to not shy away from learning how to line produce. Her argument was that it would get me credits on films, proximity to the creative producers and financiers, help me build relationships, and ultimately build a reputation – all without needing access to money, talent, or material.

I took that advice… and probably took it too far. That year, I started building credits on a bunch of movies. After I worked with them on a USC project, I got involved with James Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini, which was an era in James’ career where he was making 1,000 movies all over the place. I met a producer while I was in Cannes who led me to producing a faith-based move in Kentucky. I somehow ended up being an American producer on a Mandarin-language big budget Chinese indie here in Los Angeles. A digital feature for Fox Digital Studios. In a short period of a few years, I racked up a ton of credits working as a line producer or junior producer and at the same time was preparing myself for when I would finally be the “lead” producer on a film of my own.

Sev Ohanian
Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty on the set of SEARCHING

This week, your newest film, and your first co-writing credit, will be making its debut as SEARCHING. Can you talk about that process?

It starts when I met Aneesh Chaganty who would go on to be the director of SEARCHING. At USC, I was a TA in this undergrad producing class with like eight students. There was this one student that just had a lot of energy, had a lot of creative ideas, and more than anything, just came across as the biggest hustler I had ever met. This was Aneesh.

I was really drawn to him and we kept in touch after I graduated. After I got back from Sundance with FRUITVALE, he emailed me and was like, ‘I have five ideas for movies I’d love to run by you.’ Over drinks, he pitched me his five ideas and I fell in love with one of them. By a stroke of luck, it turned out that my favorite idea also happened to be his own favorite idea of the bunch too. I wouldn’t find out until five years later in the middle of an on-camera interview together that he completely lied and said we had the same favorite idea to entice me to work with him. Like I said, he was a hustler.

Over the next couple of weeks, we started calling each other and developing that project together. Over time it became apparent that we would be co-writing a screenplay for that film. The film was a 100-million dollar four-quadrant family adventure that never ended up getting made of course. We realized we were relatively first-time filmmakers, so maybe we should start with something smaller so that I could produce and Aneesh could direct.

We heard about this Google Glass situation where Google reached out to a few film schools to have student filmmakers and alums create content on their Glasses to show that they were viable filmmaker tools. (By the way, they absolutely were not.) USC asked me to produce, and I then asked Aneesh to direct and we made an awesome two-minute video titled SEEDS on a budget of $1,500. We released it online on Mother’s Day and it blew up. We started getting tons of press coverage. I was put on this list of 11 of Hollywood’s biggest innovators along with Angelina Jolie, and Jimmy Fallon – which was completely nuts. Most importantly though: Aneesh got hired to write and direct Google commercials off this one video.

One day, I had a general meeting with Bazelevs, which is Timur Bekmambetov’s company. He directed WANTED with Angelia Jolie and BEN HUR two summers ago. They had produced a movie with Blumhouse called UNFRIENDED that had done really well for them in the box office.

The movie was on a computer screen and they wanted to do more. At the time, Aneesh had been working with Google for over a year and we were developing our own projects, trying to find the right time for him to quit Google and come back to LA. I pitched them on Aneesh, who was literally making commercials on computer screens in New York. Aneesh happened to be in LA that week so we had a follow up meeting. The company loved us and said they were working on an anthology film that would be eight short films on a computer screen and would we be interested in making one of those?

In my mind it was a perfect opportunity. If I could get Aneesh a job directing a stylish short film for a legit production company, it could open the doors to us writing our own feature and making that movie.

We came up with an idea for a short film about a father searching for his missing daughter. In our eyes, it was an eight-minute short film that would fit perfectly in their anthology. We put together a five-page pitch packet, sent it to them via email, and they got back to us saying, ‘Hey, when can you guys come and meet with us about this?’ Again, Aneesh happened to be in LA, so we went and sat down with them. They started with, ‘hey, guys, we don’t want to make it as a short, actually.’ We were kind of bummed. But then they said, ‘We would rather make it as a feature. Aneesh, you can direct it, Sev, you can produce it, and we’ll finance it.’

It was a dream situation for any first time filmmaker. Aneesh said ‘no’ in the room, and I immediately started spinning it and trying to salvage the opportunity. His reasons were valid: he didn’t want to make an entire movie that could be seen as a gimmick, especially not to follow in the footsteps of UNFRIENDED. And trust me, I shared those concerns. But I knew we had a chance to make something great so I told the company we’d be in touch with them. Aneesh and I eventually figured out a way to develop SEARCHING into a cinematic experience with a really emotional story.

What was it like producing SEARCHING?

It honestly kind of felt like the “final exam” of indie producing. Making any feature film is really difficult. But at least with most movies you are more or less following a determined path of tasks. With SEARCHING we were trying to make a movie that hadn’t really ever been done before. Other films had taken place on screens, but not like what we were attempting. I knew I needed some backup, so I brought on my producing partner Natalie Qasabian to help produce. We had done a few indies together. And I’m proud to say I gave my former assistant Congyu E her first ever producing credit on our film as well. With those two having my back, I was able to really focus on creative producing more than I ever had before.

The movie has enormous scale. We see entire childhoods in a matter of minutes including aerial shots, driving shots, crowds, lakes, forests, and stunts I can’t talk about it without spoiling the movie. And it was all shot in 13 days. That’s a straight up testament to our producing team (and specifically Natalie and Congyu) for devising a plan that our cast and crew pulled off beautifully.

For me, I was really concerned with making sure the final product of the movie would feel polished and ‘studio-quality’ so I asked Aneesh to do a crazy thing: I asked for us to start editing the movie seven weeks before we even started shooting the film. I was inspired by a behind-the-scenes video I had once seen of this film SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and the result was basically an entire version of our movie but all very low-res and starring Aneesh in every single role. We screened that cut to our crew the night before we started filming for real, and used it in every step of the way as a guide to direct us.

Sev Test Screening
Sev Ohanian leading a test screening conversation for SEARCHING

In post-production, beyond the countless months in the editing room with Aneesh, Nat, and our two editors, I got very involved in our feedback screenings. In so many of my movies as a junior producer, I would get somewhat frustrated by test screenings in which only a handful of vague questions would be asked. For SEARCHING because we have a classic whodunit mystery thriller, I insisted that we do something far more robust. For our first test screening, we had 12 unlucky friends of ours who we locked in a room for three hours and I asked them over 210 questions. And we were methodical about writing down every answer and quantifying the results. Our goal was to make a mystery that people could follow closely – but not too closely.

It was incredibly satisfying when we were asked to do a professional test screening with over 200 random theatergoers in Long Beach…. The result was nearly a perfect score. And we made no further changes. Don’t get me wrong by the way, I don’t think the key to making great movies is strictly about data and an appeal to a lowest common denominator. It’s ultimately about taste, instincts and that gut feeling. But for a movie as unusual as ours, we couldn’t take any chances and really wanted to make sure the end result would be a crowd pleasing movie for all audiences. We wouldn’t have been doing our jobs as producers had we not taken those steps.

Any last words on SEARCHING?

I want to make movies for audiences, movies that can fill theaters. With SEARCHING we had this idea that we could kind of get audiences to care about these characters, get fully invested in the story and ultimately forget that what we’re watching is taking place on a computer screen. I’ve been a producer on some small indie films that have sold to big distributors, released in theaters and made absolutely no money. When we won the Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I thought ‘ok, maybe this means something.’ My goal will always be to make movies that audience members will want to go see, whether they’re indie films or blockbusters. Ultimately, to keep our industry alive, we need butts in seats.

Go see SEARCHING in theaters starting Thursday, August 23 and that whole weekend in select cities (LA, NY, SF and San Jose) and then starting August 31 in wide release all across America!

Sev Ohanian is a screenwriter and producer native to Los Angeles. Since graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2012, he has been a producer on over a dozen feature films, four of which have been Sundance Film Festival Official Selections. His first film, Ryan Coogler’s FRUITVALE STATION, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2013. Andrew Bujalski’s RESULTS premiered at Sundance 2015 and was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. Clea DuVall’s THE INTERVENTION, premiered at Sundance 2016 and was acquired by Paramount. 

Most recently, his film SEARCHING premiered at Sundance 2018 and will be theatrically released by Sony Screen Gems. On SEARCHING, he co-wrote the script and produced the film, starring John Cho and Debra Messing, and it won the Sundance NEXT Audience Award as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Award.

Sev was the 2018 recipient of the Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Narrative Producers Award. He’s been recognized by The Wrap in their annual list of 11 Innovators Changing Hollywood, alongside Angelina Jolie, Jimmy Fallon and other industry names. Additionally, he’s been a part-time faculty member at USC since 2014, teaching three classes in producing. He’s repped by CAA.