Trojan Slamdance Alumni Profile: Sara Fenton and Ewen Wright


Ewen Wright and Sara Fenton

The short film is the bread and butter of the graduating film student. It’s a calling card. It’s a work of art. It’s an incredible amount of work.

This year, alumni Sara Fenton ’17 and Ewen Wright ’17 hit pay dirt with their narrative short FALLING which was honored with a screening of the Slamdance Film Festival They answered five quick questions about Sundance for their alma mater. They are below.

FALLING – 19 min – Narrative Short | Official Selection – Slamdance 2018 

A potentially psychosomatic white man, a woman stuck in a vortex of man-splaining, and a young black man caught in a racially charged standoff are set on a collision course as society falls apart around them in this absurdist dark comedy.

How did you come up with the idea for it and what message do you hope it conveys?

Ewen: This started as a writing project that I didn’t intend to make. For that reason I was unconcerned with production logistics and it became a project that was more of a cathartic exercise and an expression of many things I felt were insane in our society. I was representing these things using metaphor and was playing with what would happen to make those metaphors come back into the literal. So many elements and characters came to life in a very absurd and surreal world.

In terms of the message that it conveys the intention was always for this piece to provoke questions and conversations rather than provide easy answers. It’s taking on many issues and centers around questions of race and gender, and I certainly don’t have clear solutions to the problems within, so I wanted to express that in a way that would be meaningful, entertaining, and thought provoking all at once.

Sara: I like to describe this film as a comedy about racism, sexism, privilege and police brutality – because those things are hilarious, right? The tendency for social change films is to be  heavy handed and serious and treat issues with reverence and gravitas.  While there is definitely a time and place for that, I’ve always believed in laughing your way through difficult conversations.  I don’t advocate trivializing or making light of serious issues, but believe humor is a way of revealing truth and easing into what can sometimes be fraught conversations.

What were some challenges you had in bringing your vision to life?

Ewen: As I mentioned, I didn’t actually think I would ever produce this piece when I wrote it. However, once it was on the page it really became an exciting prospect. This did mean that we needed to figure out a bunch of production hurdles including a different location every day, stunts, weapons, street closures, visual effects, vehicles, and lots of background actors.

Sara: When Ewen and our co-producer Rachel approached me with a script containing children, weapons, police violence, racial tensions, moving vehicles, street closures, overnights and a large ensemble cast, it seemed impossible to put all those things into a student film.  But even as we talked about simplifying, scaling down, and re-working the script, we also kept asking for help, pulling favors, and believing in miracles.  What you see on the screen is the result of a lot of people believing in a scrappy can-do group of students. Including all those elements could have been prohibitively expensive if we hadn’t had all the USC resources at our fingertips and the generosity of family and friends.

For the big crowd scenes and police officer interactions, we worked with Film LA on a closed street downtown and one overnight on the CBS Backlot.  You may recognize the restroom at Town and Gown on campus. We got a great package deal on the cop cars and SWAT gear including uniforms and guidance from a former police officer.  Pretty much everyone we know has a background role in this film!

What’s it like to have your project be in one of the world’s best known festivals?

Sara: The Guardian describes Slamdance as the “edgy, no frills sibling to Sundance”.  I relate to that both personally and in terms of the content and tone of our film.  We got to experience both festivals and it was nice to bounce back and forth between the larger, sleeker, excitement and hullabaloo of Sundance and the grassroots DIY feel of Slamdance. One evening we’d be celebrating in a heated tent, with a DJ and fancy appetizers and the next we’d be rubbing elbows with off beat filmmakers in what felt like a house party in your friends’ basement.

Maybe it’s my Fringe festival background, but my favorite part was creatively promoting our screening.  One of the storylines in the film is a woman who self medicates to calm her emotional distress so, we had customized Falling M&M “happy pills” in dime baggies with our screening information. We distributed hand-warmers & toe-warmers with one of the quotes from our film “here: this will help” and went out daily with a staple gun to participate in the unregulated “poster wars” in the designated promotion areas (pictured).

It was great to have brunch with Dean Daley and connect with other alumni at the festival in the events organized by USC industry relations.

Ewen: We’re in Slamdance, which is a great fit for this project. The piece is a bit edgier in both content and form, and the support and reception at the festival has been really meaningful and rewarding. I can’t think of a better premiere home for it, and the experience in Park City has been deeply inspiring and a blast.

How did your USC experience help you in creating this work?

Ewen: This was a 581 Thesis – almost all of the key crew was made up of USC students either in the MFA program with us, or undergrads we’d SA’d for, or connections to those people. I want to give a shoutout to Brenda Goodman who is an incredible ally to the thesis program and all of her students and made this project feel doable despite its ambitions. Everett Lewis, Barnett Kellman and Michael Uno, none of who were direct mentors of this project, all gave me tools and advice that were constantly resonating in my mind through this process.

Sara: Michael Taylor from the Media Institute for Social Chance was our faculty mentor. Torrie Rozensweig & Ari Sandel, my Organizing Creativity profs helped prime me for the festival experience and gave me pre-Sun/Slamdance pep talks (ask Ari about his West Bank Story experience).  As much as we may grumble about doing hazardous shooting forms and rules and restrictions at USC, that framework of conscientious filmmaking allowed us to pull off some riskier shooting conditions knowing we’d done everything to ensure the safety and well being of our cast and crew.  Thanks Joe Wallenstein!

info & links:

Ewen Wright’s Website

Instagram @you_n_ewen

Sara Fenton’s Website

Instagram @fentonova

Fallling Website www.

Instagram @fallingthefilm


Instagram @slamogram

5 Questions with Alum/Producer Natalie Qasabian

Producer of “Search” Natalie Qasabian is having quite the Sundance with her film Search going to Sony for $5 million. She sat down with her Alma Mater for 5 questions below.

SPWA Lands Inventive Thriller ‘Search’ In $5 Million World Rights Deal – Sundance

What kind of project you do you have at Sundance (film, interactive, short) and what is it about?

This year I’ll be coming to Sundance with a narrative feature film called SEARCH which is playing in the NEXT category. SEARCH tells the story of a desperate father who tries to find his missing teenage daughter by hunting for clues on her laptop. It’s a thriller that unfolds entirely on computer screens.

How did you come up with the idea for it and what message do you hope it conveys?

I didn’t come up with the idea for SEARCH but I was the first person Aneesh (Co-Writer/Director) and Sev (Co-Writer/Producer) gave the script to. At the time I was in the middle of producing a Duplass Brothers film, DUCK BUTTER, and wasn’t sure that the scheduling gods of indie film would allow me to do both projects. But as soon as I read the story, I knew I had to be a part of the project even if it made it no sense for my schedule (or sanity). I hope people who see our film walk away with a different perspective on how we connect with our loved ones… and that they just have the urge to hug their families after they watch.

What were some challenges you had in bringing your vision to life?

SEARCH is pretty unconventional in its format because everything unfolds entirely on computer screens. That unconventionality created challenges that permeated through every aspect of actually making the movie (especially the cinematography, post-production and more). But specifically, one of the biggest challenges was taking the screenplay whose slug-lines included things like “INT. GOOGLE CHROME – FACEBOOK” and coming up with a plan for creating the hundreds of assets it takes to make just one Facebook page look and feel real. It turned into a balance of first planning conventional live action scenes and then strategizing how to create assets for fictional social media pages within the same limited resources that most indie films have. Luckily we had an incredible team to put it together, including and especially the only two editors in the world that could have pulled this movie off. At the end of the day the process that made SEARCH so difficult was exactly what also made it so unique and fulfilling as a producer. There wasn’t a clear roadmap… so we became pioneers.

What’s it like to have your project be in one of the world’s best known festivals? (If you’ve had a project (or projects) at Sundance before please mention that experience and say what it feels like to be selected again).

I was lucky to be at Sundance in 2016 with a short I produced, JOIN THE CLUB, written and directed by Eva Vives – which is now a feature we just completed: ALL ABOUT NINA. I also had a film that I’d worked on as Production Manager that same year called the THE INTERVENTION, which premiered in US Competition (and by complete chance the short was programmed in front of the feature, so I got to premiere both projects at Eccles on the very same day!) This time around, as a Producer on SEARCH, it feels even more special. I’m looking forward to celebrating our film’s recognition with all of my film team members. A good sale would be nice of course, but I’m mostly excited to share our hard work with audiences (after 2+ years in the making) and see some great movies while we’re out there!

How did your USC experience help you in creating this work? (For example, are there fellow USC alums/current students or professors who you regularly collaborate with or who have helped you? Is there a particular skill or experience from School that informs your creative process).

Almost all our core members of this team (12 to be precise!) were USC grads. It’s a story about a family and it was made by a true Trojan Family. Many of us had worked together before, and for those of us who hadn’t, the trust was there right away. Of course the lessons we learned in our classes carried over, but the biggest gift SCA gave us was their incredible collaborators. So thank you big time USC!

Trojan Sev Ohanian has huge day in Park City

Producer/Writer Sev Ohanian is having a massive day in Park City.

‘Search’s Sev Ohanian Wins Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award

Photo by Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock 
Sev Ohanian – ‘Search’
Deadline Studio Portraits at Sundance, Day 3, Park City, USA – 21 Jan 2018

FIRST, Sev was awarded the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award

Second, his film Search was picked up today.


SPWA Lands Inventive Thriller ‘Search’ In $5 Million World Rights Deal – Sundance

Sundance Trojan Spotlight: Steve Holleran

Let’s start with your name and graduation year. Hi I’m Steve Holleran and I graduated in 2013.

So we’re here to talk about your Sundance film A Boy A Girl A Dream. Can I get a quick pitch? It’s about two strangers who fall in love the night of the presidential election last year. The film is shot as a single take oner which immerses us in the last ninety minutes of the election. It stars Meagan Good and Omari Hardwick and was directed by Qasim Basir. It premieres next week at Sundance.

What was your role on the project? I was the cinematographer on the film.

How did you get involved with the project? There was a lot of serendipity with the way the film came together. The director Qasim Basir and I had actually met in person at the Laemlee in Hollywood when my last Sundance feature, The Land, came out in theatres in 2016. We met again to talk about A Boy A Girl A Dream the day of the Women’s March last year. I remember we found this hole in the wall coffee shop in the LA Arts District and talked for

hours about not only the film but about life. It was clear by the end that we were going to do the movie together. It felt like a great fit not only for our similar creative sensibilities but our outlook on life and the future of our country. We both wanted to create a film that said love and hope trumps hate.

Were you excited or worried? About the one take? It was a mixture. I’d always wanted to do a oner but — at the same time — we had some pretty serious constraints on the film in terms of time and budget. It was a difficult challenge to make it seamless but at the end of the day we decided it was the right way to tell the story.

On a technical level it was very exciting because I was able to bring together a lot of technology that hadn’t been used on a feature or a oner before. I had tested the prototype rig called the Anti-Gravity Cam on my Netflix series “Fire Chasers” which came out last fall. The rig is body mounted so it revolutionizes gimbal use and stabilized shots in general. With the rig you can move the camera from zero feet to nine feet and pan and tilt it all around like a mini jib. It’s like combining a remote head, jib, and steadicam into one mobile device. I’d never seen another feature shot in this fashion and for the mobile needs of the production it was a perfect fit.

What were some of the technical problems that you have to overcome to shoot in that style?

The camera had to follow our actors into a lot of live cramped and crowded spaces where crews don’t fit easily. You quickly realize in these environments that ceilings aren’t as tall as they seem and doorways aren’t as wide. Fitting through nightclub hallways, doing three sixty rotating shots, and keeping up with the actors moving at full speed was the ultimate film ballet. We even had to get the camera into a car without cutting. Twice. It required us to find a way to dismount the camera mid shot from the rig to temporarily hand it off to another operator in the car. We started calling it the Frankenstein rig due to its unique build and requirements. Since then named everything from the Terminator to the Preying Mantas!

I was looking over your IMDB and it seems like your projects have a wide variety. How do you go about choosing what you’re going to work on?

I’ve shot two features since graduating in 2013, both which have have premiered in the NEXT category at Sundance. With these films, I gravitated towards the underdog narrative. The Land is a story about kids trying to make it from the rough part of town in Cleveland. In A Boy A Girl A Dream its two strangers inspiring each other to follow their dreams when the world seems to be falling apart.

On my Netflix original series Fire Chasers, again it’s the story of the underdog, in this case people banding together in the face of an insurmountable enemy, wildfire. There’s a very strong dynamic of good versus evil in my work and I find it’s that conflict which inspires me and attracts me to a project.

So you graduated in twenty thirteen. Do you remember your decision to come here?

It was a circuitous route coming to USC but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in San Diego but my family has been in Los Angeles for five generations so SC has been a big part of my life whether through the watching the football team at family gatherings, studying film legends like Lucas, or alumni in the family. I applied as an undergrad but actually didn’t get into the film program so I decided to go east to Bowdoin College in Maine where I studied history. My passion for film persisted and pushed me to apply for a post-graduate grant called The Watson Fellowship. The fellowship affords 40 graduating seniors from across the country individual grants to leave the country for one whole year to pursue a project they each design. I was awarded one in 2008 and set off to create a feature length environmental documentary about overfishing in the Pacific. For one year, I lived on my own in fishing villages across Samoa, Chile, and New Zealand shooting and editing a project that became much bigger than I had ever imagined. It was doing this documentary on the edge of the world that taught me volumes about filmmaking and eventually became my submission film to USC’s MFA program.

Cinematography isn’t the first thing you hear from students. We have a long history of it but most people think directors producers and writers. What was USC right for you — as a cinematographer?

What I wanted to learn at USC was story. Knowing how to talk about a story is an essential element in a cinematographers bag of tricks and in my opinion, out of all the film programs, USC is the king of narrative. Whether it was the script writing classes, directing exercises, or budgeting meetings, we constantly came back to how each element of a film was tied into the story. I learned how the narrative connected to each shot that I wanted to create rom the lighting to camera placement and movement. This was a powerful tool for me and one that has come in handy over and over again on every set I’ve been on. So in that sense I think USC is a wonderful school of cinematographers.

If you can take yourself back to your time here what are some lessons that you learned here — navigating the School of Cinematic Arts — that you feel a student should know before they get here.

School is what you make it and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has a ton of different opportunities. I quickly learned to hone in on what I loved to do and to squeeze every little bit of juice out of each moment. Plus the school is loaded with of lots of like-minded young artists so it’s an ideal moment to begin collaborating.

Were there individual professors or classes that really formed you as an artist?

Yes my 507 instructor Larry Carroll.

That’s the first production class? Yes. And I remember one moment after we screened our first films, Larry brought me up to the front of class and said, “What did you do wrong?” I remember saying, “Nothing.” Then he pointed out that I had committed a cardinal rule as a cinematographer and had crossed the line in one of my dialogue scenes with the character’s eyelines. That moment really stuck out to me.

What’s “the line?” It’s an imaginary line that you draw in a scene between two or more characters in which you get to place your camera to maintain an eyeline. There’s all sorts of different rules about it and you can break it but at the time I didn’t understand it’s applicability and I was just blowing it. In front of the class.

I had another instructor, Chris Chomyn — who taught my cinematography class. He had me come up in front of the class one day and pick up a C-Stand, a metal stand on which you can place a variety of lights and other grip related items. I picked it up by the inside collar and Chris instantly grabbed the outside arm which pinched my hand inside the stand. He literally held it up for the class to see with my hand stuck between the stand and I’m sure a look of shock and pain on my face. He said “This is why we don’t pick up the C-stand from the inside.” I never forgot it.

These two lessons drilled home a dedication to craft and the notion that there’s a set of rules in the film industry that’s standardized. It’s stuck with me to this day.

Where can people find more about your film?