SEV OHANIAN: Working with Writers and the Value of Google Sheets and AirPods

By Barbara Twist

Last month, I spoke with Sev Ohanian, producer of SEARCHING and winner of the 2018 Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award for Narrative Feature Producer, to discuss his recent work and to gain insight into one of the most misunderstood jobs in the industry: producing. The goal of the interview: to stay away from “fluff” and really dig deep into the details.

Sev Ohanian, Photo by Andrew JericAfter the requisite chatter – and the minor technology blip – Sev began telling me, in great detail, about his job. As a burgeoning producer, I was in heaven. We talked so much that I’ll be splitting our chat into two parts. Part one delves into Sev’s past, his philosophy on working with writers (it’s all about the data), and insights into his process. Part two of our chat will dig into his experiences with two of his films, SEARCHING and FRUITVALE STATION, and how he’s quit producing multiple times.

What has been your overall trajectory so far as a producer?

I’ve been out of film school now for six years and I’ve been involved as a producer in some capacity in 13 or 14 feature films. Which is kind of insane, but was very much a systematic goal of mine. I really wanted to get involved in as many diverse types of projects as possible in a short amount of time. And luckily, I got to help produce everything from a Mandarin-language movie to a faith-based movie, and quite a few very unique indie features. Don’t get me wrong, I loved each and every film I produce, but at the same time each experience taught me more about producing, and gained me valuable credits, relationships, and maybe even a reputation.

With every year that goes by and every project I’ve picked up, I tended to start earlier and earlier in the process. A big part of what characterizes my early years is that I would often join a project as a junior producer, like a co-producer or in some cases as the line producer. Often, the project was already fully financed, may have already been cast, and they were hurtling towards a start date. They knew they needed some extra help and I always found a way to make sure their eyes would be on me. In recent years, as I’ve been able to start leveling up as a producer, my focus is often on finding scripts or finding a director with a script and helping get through all of the hurdles together and ultimately hiring my own junior producers and completing that circle.

What’s your process as a producer working with a writer? What do you think the producer/writer relationship should look like?

Any time I team up with a writer with me acting as a producer, I genuinely feel I’ve been given a privilege to help champion this writer’s work. It’s something I don’t take lightly at all. I have a lot of friends who are writers or writer/directors who would vent to me, “this producer is attached to my script, or they’ve optioned my script and they’ve made me do 50 drafts and the project hasn’t moved forward.” Or people often saying that about their own representation. I’m always incredibly sensitive to that when I’m working with a writer, even a first time writer.

When I’m working with writers, it’s important that we establish goals early on. More than anything, especially with younger writers, it’s about curbing their expectations and knowing this will be a very long process. And at the same time, there has to be an understanding from the writer that the producer cannot just send scripts out into the world. I’m very turned off by producers who reach out to me regularly and email me a script and say, “Hey, do you like this?” It’s like throwing darts at a wall, hoping one will stick. More than anything, what you don’t want to do is end up in a situation where a writer is changing their script because they think that is what will satisfy you as a producer and push you to champion their project more.

As a writer myself, I know it’s incredibly frustrating to be given vague notes. The notes that I give tend to be pages long with very specific page numbers and suggestions on how to actually execute notes. On top of that, for me, one of my secret weapons when it comes to development is testing. When I was a junior producer, I would be invited to go to editing feedback screenings and I would always sit in the back of the room and watch. Often the producer would ask a couple of questions and the people who watched the movie would raise a couple of interesting points, but more often than not, I would be thinking to myself why aren’t the producers taking the lead in the feedback and interrogating the audience? And more importantly: why weren’t some of these questions being asked in the development phase, where we could actually do something about them?

I do this thing where I choose five trusted friends, often screenwriters, directors, producers, and I send them the script I’m producing. I schedule a one-hour phone call and prepare a list of questions in advance. It’s a massive list. It’s general questions, macro questions, such as “did that relationship play well for you?” There’s even micro questions such as “On page 14 if you flip to it, that line, did that resonate with you? And why or why not?” I literally interrogate the hell out of everybody who’s unfortunate enough to agree to read what I’m developing. I take those comments and we turn it into data. Filmmaking is undoubtedly an art form, but I think there’s a way to bring data into it. Making movies, it’s important to remember “is it going to be audience friendly?”

Your credits include Executive Producer, Producer, Co-Producer, Associate, etc. What do these producing credits mean to you?

On RESULTS, I was actually the line producer, but my credit is as an Executive Producer. One thing I learned really early on was that so often, none of the credits mean anything. In the past, financiers would take the executive producer credits, but then they all started to realize that producing is technically a higher credit. So, then the financiers started asking for ‘produced by’ credits. And a lot of growing a career as a producer is navigating how to ‘move up’ with your credits, which mostly boils down to precedence. For example, when I was doing WHERE HOPE GROWS, the credit offered to me was co-producer, but my lawyer asked for co-executive producer. There is a train of thought in the industry where co-producer is sometimes considered higher than co-executive producer so they were baffled wondering why I would want the lower credit. In our minds, the reasoning for asking for co-executive producer credit is because if I can have a co-executive producer credit on this film, it can open up the path for me getting an executive producer credit on the next film, which is valuable to me. Those early years for me of back-to-back films producing as a co-producer or a line producer was about creating a level of precedence in how much I get paid, the amount of backend I receive and my credits, etc.

For you, what are the key roles that no matter what the size of film, you won’t cut out of your budget?

This is going to sound so fricking obvious, but… I think you’ve got to have a location manager. You’ve got to have your accountant, a line producer, a UPM and a production coordinator. All of those roles are super vital if you’re working with a budget over $300k. And trust me, I’ve been asked multiple times by financiers to cut every one of those positions! I also think it’s crucial to have an assistant or a producer’s assistant who works with all the producers.

What do you see as the role of the producer’s assistant?

It is such a vital role. I used to think I was being humble by not having an assistant, but in truth they do so much more than classic assistant tasks if you have the right relationship with one. I lean on my assistant so much and in return I make sure to return the favor by offering an incredible amount of inclusivity. I bring them into the process more than probably most people might. I’ve been lucky to work with so many amazing producer assistants, but I had one assistant in particular, Congyu E who’s especially become a partner. I was doing the Chinese film in Los Angeles, and because I didn’t speak Mandarin, I needed to bring on someone who could to be my assistant and help me navigate those waters. She came on board and was amazing. She pretty much produced the movie with me.

As far as the most important quality that I need in an assistant, it’s simply just the ability to read my mind. Is that too much to ask?! And Congyu was able to do that. She knows exactly what I want before I even want it. I also lean a lot on technology. I have a Google Sheet for any problem you can imagine so I need someone who can navigate that for me and, again, Congyu was phenomenal at that. What I love about my relationship with Congyu is that over the last couple years, she’s come with me from project to project. And I’m really proud to give her own first-ever producing credit on a film: on SEARCHING she was our Co-Producer. I can’t wait to see what she does on her own.

Speaking of technology, what would you say are your go-to tools of the trade? Do you have any favorite apps or technology wise?

I’m all about those apps. It’s kind of a boring answer but Google Sheets: For SEARCHING, as an example, we have a spreadsheet for everything: From coming up with a list of potential cast that we want, all the story notes that we tracked, locations, crew, etc. It wouldn’t be crazy to say SEARCHING, presented by Google Sheets. My writing partner Aneesh Chaganty and I even have our own Google Doc that’s our email drafts; often times when we respond to an email, I’ll put my draft on that Google Sheet, and Aneesh will edit it and then I’ll send it. We even use it to communicate together in that context.

As a producer, you can be working on a film for years before you get paid (if you get paid at all). How do you manage that, especially when you’re starting out? For example with SEARCHING?

To get started as a producer, if you have any kind of savings, this is the time to use it. You might need to have a day job, and start small like producing a short film, or things that you can do in your spare time while you’re supporting yourself with another job. Some of my first few feature producing jobs, I was paid almost criminally low, but it was worth it to build credits, experience and all of the things mentioned above.

As far as SEARCHING as an example, this was my most recent film so at this point my fee was good enough that I could take time away from other projects and focus just on that, although during post-production on SEARCHING, I was given the opportunity to help produce a season of a digital series for YouTube RED called FOURSOME.

How did you juggle being in production on FOURSOME while also being in post on SEARCH?

It’s so hard as a producer to get television experience, so I did not want to pass up the opportunity when it came to me. FOURSOME was looking for a creative producer to help out with season three since it was the biggest season that they’ve ever had of the show. A lot of it was on location and they had a whole new creative team involved. I was referred to it by a really good friend of mine, Rachel Miller.

FOURSOME was shooting right as we were picture locking SEARCHING and moving into music, where I’m a bit less involved up front, so it was sort of this perfect window. One of the things that helped me juggle both projects at the same time, as well as a few other ones was… the very long commutes.

FOURSOME was shooting for 40 days in Malibu, which was a long drive for me. I would usually be driving at 5 AM every day, so I started to strategically schedule all of my East Coast calls during my commute. Also during production whenever I had time when the crew would be setting up for the next scene, I would quickly open up my email and check and see how my other projects were going. I would often be on a phone call with Aneesh or Natalie [Qasabian, Sev’s producing partner] in between takes. On my drive home, I would call Aneesh, because we were developing our next script. We would usually have one or two days off from shooting, and he would come over to my apartment and we would be writing together. Basically, I constantly maximized every ounce of time I had so I could oversee both projects without compromising either of them.

I sound like an automaton I realize, but in all truth it’s all really fun for me.

It sounds like you never sleep, but I’ll ask the question anyway, what’s your morning routine?

Oh man, my morning routine. I usually write everyday with Aneesh starting at 10 AM and we do meetings together in the afternoon. All of the phone calls that I have…and I tend to do a lot more phone calls instead of meetings or lunches for efficiency’s sake… I have to knock those all out in the morning. I’m also in need of more exercise. So, to combine all of these things into one: Every morning I wake up at 7ish, eat a light breakfast while I’m catching up on news or emails, then starting at 8AM until 9:30 AM, I will do 3 phone calls: 8a to 8:30a, 8:30a to 9a, 9a to 9:30a. And this is the embarrassing part: I do these phone calls while wearing my Air Pods and vigorously walking in my neighborhood. I’ll literally be on the phone with an executive, somebody who needs advice, a friend, or whatever the phone call is – they just kind of hear me huffing and puffing as I’m trying to walk my ass off. Come home, shower, and then I’ll meet with Aneesh, and we go from there.

Yup, this is absolutely the most candid interview I’ve ever done.

Thank you Sev so much for taking time out of your busy day to share your experiences. I hope our interview sheds a little more light on the mysterious nature of producing.  I look forward to sharing the second half of our conversation where we dive deeper into SEARCHING and FRUITVALE STATION.

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.

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