LZ: Picture this: I enter my boss’ office in the midst of a busy production day on a documentary series. This is Edmonton circa 2006. My boss asks how things are going – I am about to answer with a professional update to reassure her that things are going great! Fantastic! In fact … waaaaaaah!!!!
I burst into tears.
Projectile tears through which I managed to choke out that now would be a good time to hire a Story Editor. As the Executive Story Editor on a documentary series I was managing development, production, and post production simultaneously on thirteen episodes. On a nice, cushy prime time drama – there is often both an Executive Story Editor and a Story Editor – at least – if not a baseball team of creative people all schlepping their ideas (and often their egos) in the door.
But this was reality. TV to be exact. And there was no budget for a team. No space for any more egos. Whatever ‘mythical’ story editor savior was out there had to be the best – and also great to work with.
Enter Lewaa Nasserdeen. A kid fresh out of college who already had a feature film produced and another optioned. I read ten pages of one of his screenplays and some lyrics – and I knew.
Like lightning across the water – when you see it – you know.
Flashforward 9 years later and Lewaa Nasserdeen is now an award-winning filmmaker whose career spans comedy, drama, and documentary with both series and features to his credit. Currently writing for the ABC hit comedy series, ‘The Goldbergs’, Lewaa has also penned hard hitting dramas such as the 2008 film ‘Baby Blues’. He was selected to take part in the prestigious 2014 Disney/ABC Writing Program and has also written and executive produced the satirical indie short, “Stray” (2015). Previous story editing series gigs include the award-winning ‘X-Weighted’ (Discovery) and the gritty doc, ‘The Rig’ (OLN). He is currently developing numerous writing, producing and directing projects.
Below – he shares his insights and experience in this first interview of The Genius Series:
LZ: What initial steps did you take towards your chosen career path?
Lewaa: Right out of high school, I kind of weaseled my way into a producing night class for established filmmakers (I did not fit the requirement but I sure played the role… no one was buying it. I think they just took pity on me and let me stay.) It was a real crash course and immediately broke down any illusions I had of the process. I quickly understood the miracle it takes to get a project off the ground. I am so fortunate that the beginning stages of my career were filtered through a producer’s lens. It really informed not only how I wrote my films but how I pitched them. From there, I went to film school where I found I resonated most with writing/directing.
LZ: Please describe your first break in the industry and how you felt at the time.
Lewaa It was probably my last year of film school. I had finished my first feature screenplay with an eye to direct as my thesis. A professor of mine read it and responded to the script and suggested I send it to a Producer who was making some really interesting films. I was lucky enough to get the screenplay over to this producer with no real hope of hearing back from him. A month later he called and he could not have been more generous and receptive. A couple weeks after that, my script was optioned and I was set to direct. You’ll hear a lot of ‘no’s’ in this industry but I find that one ‘yes’ goes a long, long way.
LZ: From the moment you chose this career to today – what three things have you done differently to distinguish yourself as an artist?
Lewaa: That’s a really interesting question. I would say the three things I would have done differently are 1) relax… just know that if you put in the work, reward is inevitable. There is an awful lot of pressure to scale the mountain in record time and be hailed by audiences and your peers as a great artist. That works against you. You are not in control of the timeline of your success, only the time you put into your work. Having faith in your craft, and understanding that a lot of it is out of your control is such an important element when pursuing this career. It will help calm the noise in your head and distinguish you from the crowd immediately. Looking back, I wish I just relaxed into the process more.
2) Read as much as possible. Although I studied, read and went to as many seminars as possible – I think there is no such thing as too much when it comes to submerging yourself in material. Notice how I already contradicted my first point haha. But you want to read good scripts, bad scripts, all of them. They will all teach you something. Most importantly it will help to hone your own style. That is the best way to diversify yourself.
3) Focus on writing but don’t forget to pursue life. I think I forgot to live a little in my pursuit of having a career. Finding a healthy balance is crucial. The more you live. The more you grow and experience. Your job is to comment on the world. So start living!
LZ: What three things have you learned that you consider to be invaluable?
1) Be kind to everyone from presidents of studios to assistants. Your reputation is everything. This is a collaborative industry and people want to work with collaborators not people who are too precious.
2) Don’t settle on good enough. Strive for your best. Really attack your screenplay from every angle and don’t start a script until you know why you are writing it. Hold yourself to the highest standards.
3) Be Kind to yourself. It’s an industry full of rejection. The whole world will pile on top of you. Don’t add to that pile. This will be hard. Trust me. But it’s really important.
4) I’m gonna add a fourth. Surround yourself with talent. I’m currently writing for the ABC series ‘The Goldbergs’ and being in a room of 10-13 other talented writers will inevitably help sharpen your skill set. Surround yourself with talent. It will rub off. Even if you don’t write for TV, start a writing group.
(LZ note: Having witnessed Lewaa’s output over the last nine years, I would also add: write like hell. Lewaa is too modest to admit to how prolific he is. This is where having ‘insider’ knowledge of this particular genius comes in handy – he is always writing and encouraging other writers).
LZ: You have written in multiple genres including movies for television, feature films, and series – what do you feel is your ‘artistic signature’ consistently throughout each project?
Lewaa: I’ve been really fortunate to work across different genres but ultimately I will only write or take on work that comments on/explores the human condition in a very real way. That’s what gets me most excited.
LZ: You have been nominated for a number of awards – what role does awards play in your career and goals?
Lewaa: It’s an amazing feeling to know that your peers and audiences are recognizing your work. As for the role it plays, I try my best to not think about it and just stay focused on what I’m trying to say in a piece. If I can get that across in a clear and concise way, then I feel I’ve done my work.
LZ: Flashforward several decades – you are looking back on your career – what would you like to have achieved and what would you be most proud of?
Lewaa: I feel it’s an exciting time for creators. There is less of a barrier between film/television, which is great if you kind of want to explore and express stories in different mediums. My passion is content creation so having a production company is an exciting next step in my career. On a nerdy note, I’d love to write an iconic superhero film. I can’t get enough of ’em and I think what Marvel and Fox are doing with those intellectual properties is pretty great.
LZ: What is your definition of GENIUS?
Lewaa: Someone who only competes with themselves to achieve greatness, while allowing the people around them to elevate. It’s someone who inspires greatness in others. That’s my definition. Oh, and Game of Thrones haha.
LZ: Do you believe GENIUS is a gift of birth – or can it be acquired?
Lewaa: I think it depends on your definition of genius. I think anyone can be a genius. It’s about the hours you put in to your work, your commitment to excellence and understanding that being a genius doesn’t mean not ever failing.
LZ: Which GENIUS living or dead would you want to date?
Lewaa: I’m a comedy writer – that means I would be riddled with insecurity on any first date with a true genius. I’d end of self-sabotaging and just watching Netflix instead.
LZ: Which GENIUS living or dead would you want to have as a mentor?
Lewaa: Nelson Mandella for his generosity and patience, George R.R. Martin for his world building and scope, Jay-z for his business savvy and ability to build an empire, and Stan Lee because…well, he’s Stan Lee.
To learn more about Lewaa:
Instagram – lewaanass
Twitter – @lewaanass
Facebook Lewaa Nasserdeen
Photo of Lewaa Nasserdeen by AnnaLesa Alverio