October 1, 2023

Alumni Spotlight: Sergio Zaciu '20

By Quinn Soltesz

Born in Germany to a Romanian father and a Turkish mother, Sergio Zaciu '20 is one half of the filmmaking duo, the Zaciu Brothers. Sergio moved to California in 2012 to attend Chapman University for his BFA. In 2017 he began his graduate film production studies at USC. In 2018, he came under the mentorship of Palme d'Or's winning director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days). In 2022 he helped Mungiu write his latest feature film, R.M.N., which took him to the Cannes Film Festival's Official Competition.

1. How did your journey to becoming a filmmaker begin?

Long before I picked up my DV Tape camera to make goofy short films with my classmates, I was already acting in school plays and in a rock band. I was a cinephile from a very young age, but I didn’t quite realize that it could be a career path until high school. It all clicked when I realized that acting, music, and photography (my three favorite hobbies) were all intertwined in filmmaking. My parents encouraged me to think critically about movies, and broadened my horizons by introducing me to international films. Suddenly watching movies became more than a popcorn pastime; they became an integral part of studying cultures and learning more about the world.

2. How is your experience of learning and practicing filmmaking different in the U.S. than it is at home?

The greatest thing about living in L.A. is that you meet niche experts: sound engineers, gaffers, and so on. Romania’s miniscule film industry can’t compete with such a breadth of craftspeople. I believe this is where the notion of “American exceptionalism” comes from. It has nothing to do with the nationality of the person, but rather with the notion that America’s diverse melting pot of interests and skills bring out the best in those who seek to do great work. That said, there’s something creatively inspiring about not living in a city populated by other filmmakers. L.A. is often creatively stifling. You’re so wrapped up in the hustle that you rarely get a chance to stop and think about what you want to say or do as an artist. Sure, the industry moves slower in Europe, but your proximity to thoughtful art is much higher. As someone who loves arthouse cinema as much as the latest Mission: Impossible, I often find myself flip-flopping on where I’d rather be.

3. During your time at SCA, were there any classes, professors, or experiences that were the most memorable to you?

Stephen Flick remains one of the most valuable professors I have ever had the pleasure of knowing; a true craftsman and a gifted, patient teacher. Everett Lewis and his advanced directing class motivated me to stop overthinking projects and just do the damn thing. Bruce Block’s famous 506 class completely redefined how I approach audiovisual composition. I wish I could do just one more year with those three!

4. What have been some personal highlights of working with one of the most respected filmmakers in the world, Cristian Mungiu?

I had come under the mentorship of Cristian when my brother graduated from Chapman University in 2018 (I had previously completed my BFA there in 2016). Knowing that we were from Romania, Associate Dean Pavel Jech had seen my brother’s thesis film and referred us to a masterclass in Bologna, Italy, where Cristian was teaching. What began as a 10-day summer course quickly blossomed into a genuine friendship with Cristian. When I moved back to Romania during the pandemic, Cristian offered to give us feedback on the screenplays we were writing. His notes were tough and honest, and quickly became the most valuable screenwriting class of my life.

5. How was your experience working on the script of R.M.N. and helping to create a film with a major international director?

During the pandemic lockdown I spent every day tirelessly writing screenplays as part of the aforementioned “Unofficial Mungiu Screenwriting 101” class. I ended 2020 having written five feature film screenplays (all to varying degrees of success), and after having my fifth script torn to shreds, Cristian encouraged my brother and I to pursue a true story. As such, he told us of a script he was facing writer’s block on. The story concerned a case of xenophobia in a small Romanian village. We took it upon ourselves to research the events and draft up a potential story outline. This inspired Cristian to continue honing in on his screenplay. A mere seven days later, he had a full script written. We gave our feedback on his draft, kept workshopping it, and, within 18 months, the film was financed, shot, edited, and taken to Cannes for its world premiere in the Official Selection. To call it life changing experience would be an understatement. This process not only made me a better writer, but gave me a sense of validation that I was on the right track.

6. What aspects are crucial to you when developing your own projects? From where do you take inspiration?

Truth first, regardless of genre. This can be kind of misleading for students sometimes. I’ve heard classmates say “how can I make a zombie movie if I have to draw from personal experience?” but that’s mistaking the forest for the trees. Figure out what you want to say, and be bold about it. This might be my inner provocateur speaking, but great art should be a reflection of your most controversial opinions, your “hot takes.” I believe the best way to develop a project is to engage in conversation, not only with other artists, but with ordinary people who might vehemently disagree with you on a whole spread of issues. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more inspiring than discourse. Studying how people form an opinion is integral to nuanced writing: It’s what separates realism from caricature. As such, the development of a project benefits tremendously if you throw yourself into the world you’re depicting. If your film is about a father and child surviving a zombie apocalypse, then don’t go to the morgue, hang out with your dad.

7. What is your creative process like when working with your brother, Oliver?

Usually one of us has a core idea for a concept and takes charge in the development process. The other person is a sounding board, allowing the project to move from outline, to script, to pre-production by being passed back and forth between us. We’re very fortunate to have each other, especially because we have identical taste, so there’s never much of a disagreement in regards to style.

8. What is your creative process for developing a narrative (or documentary) film?

I’m always initially drawn to something conceptual; an idea I feel the need to express. Cinema is an incredible tool to empathetically articulate something that might be impossible to communicate in a speech. From there I usually begin mining this material with my brother (a safe space for my thoughts), and slowly begin carving out a narrative plot. With documentaries it’s very much the same thing, only that I’m using a real-life subject as my vessel to communicate this idea. Talking about the idea, reading about it, listening to others have similar discussions (be it in podcasts or real life) are all integral to the creative process of development. My priority is not to operate in an echo chamber.

9. What’s next for you?

In the wake of the WGA strike I can consider myself lucky to be a writer in Europe. We’re currently under contract writing two Romanian TV shows and narrative feature films for multiple producers. That’s what keeps the lights on. But perhaps more importantly, we’ve spent the past year developing a number of projects for ourselves that are finally starting to bear fruit. We just received funding from the European Union to direct a Romanian short film we wrote. We are in the development process on a documentary spotlighting the lives of extraordinary blind individuals across the globe. And perhaps most importantly, we’ve been writing a feature length narrative film for the past two years that we intend to direct as our feature debut. The film is a culture-clash comedy about modern gender roles that plays on our experience of having lived between Europe and America; two continents that approach the subject of sex very differently. It’s a long-term project and we don’t yet know when it will see the light of day, but that’s par for the course for aspiring debut directors. The point is never to stop having a “next project."

10. What advice would you offer to aspiring filmmakers?

I have seven! And conveniently have them all available on my (now inactive) TikTok!

  • Find a mentor! Specifically, find someone who culturally aligns with you.
  • Just go make a micro-budget feature the moment you’re done with college!
  • Don’t blow all your savings on screenwriting competitions.
  • Rewatch your old films, especially those that didn’t get into film festivals.
  • If you really want to improve your writing, consider writing reference outlines.
  • Study and learn how the film festival circuit works. There were no semester-long classes about this at either film school I went to (*there should be and I would love to teach one*). Learn how to suss out scam festivals, learn that there are different sidebars to a major festival like Cannes and not all are created equal. If you need help navigating this, reach out: I love supporting young filmmakers!
  • And finally: Watch movies! I maintain a meticulous Letterboxd profile (@immigrantfilm) in which I catalog everything I watch. In my opinion, the best filmmaker is someone who can eloquently articulate why something does or does not work for them in a movie.

IG: @sergiozaciu

Email: zaciufilms@gmail.com