Author: unsimplysara

Kennedy, Anderson, and Linklater: the Best of the Best

I got the oscarsrather excited for the Oscars this year as it was the first year I’ve actually paid attention to and done minor research on the nominees, but after the show and all of its almost four hour splendor, I couldn’t help but feel that something just wasn’t quite right.

Most of the hard-core film buffs I know have threatened time and again to steal the Oscars away from me by telling me it’s all a joke, it’s all about money, about who you know, and not about the art at all. Nonetheless I have persevered in my child-like faith that the Academy Awards mean something more. That there’s some kind of magic to the red carpet and the pretty lights and the conglomeration of beautiful, talented individuals that meet up every gloomy February to make people’s dreams come true and honor the Best of the Best in filmmaking.

I don’t know what happened this year. I don’t know how I began to see through the curtain of pretense that suffocates the Oscars like a too-heavy cloak, but it’s really all a joke. How can someone be ‘best’? How can two completely different films like Wes Anderson’s the Grand Budapest Hotel and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood ever be put in the same category as even remotely comparable?


The way the show is set up, to give actors and actresses more time to speak then sound editors or foreign filmmakers, and to give Lady Gaga more time than either of the two is just…I don’t know–ludicrous?

Thankfully, my Oscar experience did not begin yesterday with the Red Carpet, but rather on January 30th, when I met Rory Kennedy after a screening of her Academy-Award nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam. My experience continued over the next few weeks as I attended screenings in Santa Monica and Hollywood where I was lucky enough to breathe the same air as Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson and see them speak in the flesh.

Here is a very BRIEF account of what I learned from them:

What I learned from Richard Linklater: Money is nice. Texas is better. Texas AND money is the jackpot. In other words, own who you are and make films where you want and about what you want even if it means a smaller budget.

last days in vietnam

What I learned from Rory Kennedy: There’s a time for research and structure, and then it’s time to put the notes down and just be present with the subject, to look into their eyes and see more then just the story you’re trying to pull from them, to cry, to laugh, to be present.

What I learned from Wes Anderson: The satisfaction is in the art, not in the praise.

Interviewer: “Your film is nominated for Best Picture. How do you feel?”

Anderson: “Mm, well it’s great to get nominated for an Oscar…What do people say normally?”

I also learned that what appears to be a fault can end up being what makes you stand out.

“Plot’s never been considered my strongest area…”

Wes’s lack of story and flow is what some viewers absolutely love about his films.

the grand budapest hotel

This was Post-Oscar Monday with Sara. Until next year!


It’s a Relationship Business: Sebastian Twardosz

sebastion twardoszLast month I went to what I thought was going to be an hour and a half long lecture on how to sell your screenplay in Hollywood taught by Sebastian Twardosz, which turned out to be a four hour long workshop on the ins and outs of the entire Hollywood film industry. Saying it was an overwhelming amount of information would be the understatement of the semester, but I’m so grateful that I chose to attend the class rather than Pepperdine’s annual tree lighting ceremony.

Sebastian Twardosz is a professor at USC who has been working with leading companies in the film and television industry for over twenty years. His short film, Silent Rain, won the student academy award in 1993, and he then went on to work on the first two Mission Impossible movies with Tom Cruise. More recently Twardosz co-produced an indie film called Small Town Saturday Night and he is also currently hosting a weekly show called The Insiders which aims to shed light on the “behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood” for aspiring filmmakers.

If you want all of my notes I would be glad to scan and send them to you, but for now all I’m going to write is some basic, but crucial information on screenwriting, producing, and a bit about the Hollywood film industry.


There are only two ways to become a writer. To write and to read. Read a script a week  and read scripts you haven’t watched.

Consider writing your screenplay as a play or a novel first. It’s a bit safer and can make you more money.

You have to have an agent. And if you live in LA there are probably only two degrees of separation between you and an agent at CAA or WME. Work it.

Studios read 100 a week and make 12 a year. A lot more scripts get bought but get lost. Hollywood buys a lot of books. So you can write a screenplay or a book—and there’s a lot to be said for this. If you write your own book you’re your own boss. No rules in books. Lots of rules in screenplays. Majority of movies are based on preexisting material. Writing screenplays are important because they’re closer to production and also about voice—screenplays are all about your voice as a writer. You can write really bizarre indie scripts and get plucked to do blockbuster films—Rian Johnson, who’s doing the next two Star Wars movies—did Looper and Brick. They just want to know that you can write—they’re not genre specific. What’s important is that you write in a good voice and have good structure.


Producer Skill Sets:

  • Creative—good notes on scripts etc; came up the ranks at studios
  • Packaging—get directors and actors and attach them to a project; former agents
  • Finance/Money (who knows where they got their money)
  • Nuts and Bolts/Line Producer/UPM—physically know how to actually produce a movie-know what a C Stand is.
  • Power—actors and directors (whoever becomes famous)


Ideally you have two or three.

Who’s the least important?

Nuts and Bolts.


You can hire people to make a movie, but all the other things you can’t hire.

Far more important that you have access to a good script or book or a good relationship with an actor.

The Industry: High School with Money

Be nice to all assistants because they’re the next VP of Paramount.

Hollywood’s the last vocational town. No one cares about your degree in these companies. Having an MFA tells people that you care and are passionate about what you’re doing. An MFA degree isn’t gonna get you a job but it’s building the personal relationships that counts.

Speaking of personal relationships here’s Sebastian’s spiel:

Some of you will be successful and some of you will be less successful—it’s a numbers game, but regardless of the stats, you will likely fail if you don’t help each other. (I’m not sure I agree about it being a numbers game–I think there’s room for everyone at the top if they have the right skill sets and pursue knowing the right people but…I’m not the expert and I’m bound to be optimistic.)

It is all a relationship business and what goes around comes around.

Here’s an example: One of the biggest management companies was started by a USC student who just said, “okay I’m gonna represent everyone in this room.”

“Try never to burn a bridge.” Know about their kids, go see their plays.

It’s High School with money so don’t give the mean girls a chance to direct their hatred toward you. You don’t have to be them but you have to be their friends because it’s all just a relationship business.

Link to The Insiders website:



Rollin’ with Nolan: An Interstellar Interview

InterstellarChristopher Nolan is 44 years old. He was born in London to an advertising copywriter and a flight attendant/English teacher. He started making films when he was seven and decided to make a career out of it when he was eleven. He’s written and/or directed the critically acclaimed and commercially successful films Memento, the Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. His films have grossed over 4 billion dollars and have received 21 Academy Award nominations and 6 wins. He has four children.

Just like his films, Christopher Nolan’s interview with Rian Johnson at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica left me with more questions by the end of the discussion than I originally began with. Regardless, I am so incredibly grateful to have been just a few yards away from Nolan, listening to him talk about the creative process behind Interstellar, and about his views on life and film in general.

Nolan On Set

Nolan is known for the sociological and philosophical themes wound throughout his action and science fiction films. From his interview on Saturday I learned that the foundations of Interstellar lay in the idea of the relationship between father and child. Nolan admitted that while his previous films have left more up in the air, Interstellar is him laying the cards down and saying what he thinks a bit more–about love and the father-child relationship–the responsibility of a parent to his kids. As well as lots of thematic and technical talk, Saturday’s interview was full of fun facts about the creation of Interstellar:

  • Nolan planted 800 acres of corn specifically for the film. “We actually made money on the corn,” Nolan laughed.
  • Nolan didn’t tell Hans Zimmer what Interstellar was about when asking him to compose the music. He doesn’t use temp music so he told Zimmer to take a day and compose around the idea of the father child relationship. The music from the film is what Zimmer composed on that one day.
  • So much detail went into the spacecrafts in an attempt to make them tactile, to make them feel not so foreign and like humans would inhabit that space. Many of them were built full sized and enclosed.
  • Nolan researched the Dust Bowl and agricultural calamities because he felt that Interstellar‘s story was “something people might try and dismiss as improbable” but something he wanted to give a feeling of reality.
  • Matt Damon was cast very specifically as Dr. Mann and not put on any of the posters so that when he popped up in the film, audiences would feel that perhaps everything would be alright from that point forward–it’s Matt Damon after all!

Aero Theater

Christopher Nolan is a big proponent of filming on and projecting with real film stock. On Saturday I got to see Interstellar in 70 mm which was really interesting. Nolan said that when film is projected this way it’s part of the magic of movies and makes them more like a live performance. It’s scientific fact that film gets better resolution than digital and that film movies lack quality only when projected with poor prints and on poor projectors. But the possibility of sub-par distribution of films doesn’t sway Nolan. “I don’t think you should ever make a film for the bad theater.”

Two questions he answered:

What informs his views on metaphysics?

“Fiction. People who explain these things not as straight philosophy.” And also the process of making each film.

What’s the industry like for aspiring filmmakers? Welcoming? Cold?

“It’s a mixture of both.” But it comes down to this: “It’s not the camera, not the film format, it’s the distribution and the advertising. You need tenacity, luck, and a break. “Have a script and be ready to go if you can get that chance.”

Perhaps Nolan isn’t the most optimistic or encouraging person I’ve heard speak on filmmaking, but I appreciate his honesty. Nothing of importance ever comes easy and he sure told it to us straight: Be persistent, be lucky, and be ready when the luck comes.

You have to wonder, are you ready?

The Art of Finishing: Sonay Hoffman

Layout 1You probably haven’t heard the name Sonay Hoffman lately, but you’ve most likely heard the name Shonda Rhimes. You know–the woman who owns ABC on Thursday nights, creator of the hit shows How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy. Like the credits state, Shonda did create all of these shows–but she didn’t write every episode single-handedly. During Season 5 of Grey’s Anatomy, Sonay Hoffman was working as a production assistant when she and the rest of her fellow production assistants were offered the opportunity of a lifetime–they could write and submit an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and have the opportunity for it to actually be made. This turned out to be Sonay’s big break.  Out of all of the production assistants Sonay’s episode was chosen, not because it was brilliant, but because she was the only one who finished a script.

“All you have to do is finish one thing and you set  yourself apart from a lot of people.”

In this case, Sonay set herself apart from the handful of production assistants, and in actually being chosen to write an episode of Grey’s she set herself apart from thousands of wannabe screenwriters desiring to be paid to do what they love–to write. Now Sonay has an incredible resume and a job as a writer on another television show. But she says that those other production assistants are basically in the same place.

“You have to be ready for your windows, that one shot.”

I was able to meet Sonay at a networking event last month where she not only shared incredible advice for aspiring writers, but her personal story. Sonay grew up in South L.A. and was raised by a single mother who had three vices: drugs, alcohol, and men.  She left home at the age of 17, graduated from Crenshaw High, and didn’t know if she’d make it through college. But then she found theater and through it a group of people who understood real hardships. They wrote short plays together and acted them out and when she saw an opportunity to work for David E. Kelly Productions, she said, “I can do that” and she went for it. This mentality of “I can do that, and I can do it well” and then actually doing it has gotten Sonay to the point she is today.


Sonay at an event supporting the non-profit, Writegirl.

No matter what it is you want to do, whether it be screenwriting, starting your own business, or anything else that seems impossible, Sonay says to consider where you’re at as a stepping stone, to listen and pay attention to everything, and to work diligently even if that means smiling after fetching coffee for the tenth time today. And while you’re doing this, you write or whatever it is you aspire to do–just go do it, finish something, and then celebrate that victory.

“I firmly believe that this is the difference between making it and not making it. Just finish it.”

What do you need to finish today? What phone calls do you need to make? Research you need to do?

Go do it and be ready for your window, because you might only ever have that one shot, and it might be that the one thing that pushes you over into the net, that makes you stand out, is the fact that you’ve persevered and finished something. Anything. Even a blog post.

I Know Why the Free Bird Cries: How to be Remembered

Today free birds all over the world are crying over the loss of an incredible woman.

A little over 86 years ago, a baby girl named Marguerite Ann Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri. The world would later know her as Maya Angelou—the poet, author, and world-shaker.

Writing from the very city in which Maya Angelou was born, I can’t help but think about how many lives have been changed by her, and how it all started right here. This woman, who was raped when she was seven, who became everything from a cook to a prostitute to a civil rights activist, who was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who wrote seven auto-biographies, who won a Grammy for the poem she performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, was one of the most accomplished and respected women who’s ever walked the planet. And in the tenth grade, I fell in love with her poem, “Caged Bird” ( and was inspired by the truth that she spoke. It was for this reason that I was incredibly grateful and honored to have a ticket to hear her speak on May 9th of this year.

Unfortunately, a couple weeks prior to her speaking engagement at Pepperdine University, an email was sent out to ticket-holders saying that she was sick and unable to travel–doctor’s orders. Today, just a month later, the world celebrates her life while mourning her passing. So while I never did get to hear Maya Angelou speak in person, I’d like to take this time to share some thoughts on why this “cool person” will be remembered long after her death and how you can be too.

There are some people in this world who desire fame and fortune and others who want to lay low, keep it simple, and be happy. Today, I’m not going to address either of these people. Today, I’m writing to the people who want to make a name for other people, and as a result, perhaps make a name for themselves along the way. It is these people who will truly be remembered.

In an article on, Oprah Winfrey said this of Angelou,

“She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. The world knows her as a poet but at the heart of her, she was a teacher. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”

I’ve always thought of Maya Angelou as an artist first, but this is not what she’ll be remembered for. Maya Angelou will be remembered for the truth that she spoke, and the lessons she sharedit just so happens these truths and lessons were wrapped in beautiful poetry.

Maya Angelou was a teacher and a mentor. Her life wasn’t easy, but her struggles gave her wisdom, and she chose to share her wisdom with us.

What have you been given that you can share? To whom much is given, much will be expected. (Luke 12:48) You may not think you’ve been given a lot, but if you’re reading this, you have.

What skill do you have in abundance that you can teach? What youth can you mentor? Which new coworker can you give helpful advice to?

Mentoring means that the struggles you’ve persevered through were not in vain. This weekend at a seminar called, Creating a Dynasty, I learned that the words you speak are seeds—good and bad, and that these seeds grow into trees that bear fruit—good and bad—and that this fruit contains even more seeds—good and bad.

So today, we are free birds with the power to plant seeds that will become huge trees, with the opportunity to share our words with others. Maya Angelou used her words to impact the world. What will you do with yours? If you know why the caged bird sings, what are you going to say to free him?








The People’s Bus Driver: The Road to Unusual Success

IMG_0062There are many different definitions of ‘cool’; here are a few:

Cool (Webster’s Dictionary slang): Fashionable; Hip.

Cool ( slang): sophisticated or elegant, esp. in an unruffled way.

Cool (according to hipsters): person who wears chucks, skinny jeans, scarves, hats, and eyeglasses, esp. if they don’t need eyeglasses; person who was listening to indie pop music before it was popular, esp. Mumford and Sons.

My definition of ‘cool’ changes day to day as I meet new people and am exposed to different ways of thinking, but there is one type of person who will always be cool in my book—the kind of person who gets to know strangers for who they are and genuinely cares about them.

Alvaro Valencia is 62 years old and has been driving Metro buses for 26 years which is approximately 50,000 hours. He is also ex-navy, ex-army, and an amazing son and grandfather, but what strikes me most about Alvaro is his relationship with the passengers that ride his bus.

Last Thursday I had the privilege of riding with Alvaro on his final day driving this big orange bus through Los Angeles before he entered retirement. It was incredible what I observed.

Alvaro spending his break talking to the local high school students.

Alvaro spending his break talking to the local high school students.

Alvaro knew half his passengers, and when I say knew, I mean really knew. This girl lives with her dad and is a senior in high school and I keep telling her she needs to go to college (she’s currently considering community colleges to save money). This woman owns a thrift store up the street and is really devoted to her Mormon faith. This woman always brings me something to drink (that day it was a Sprite).  The man walking his dog who waved as we passed was in a terrible accident and damaged his brain…

There are too many stories that Alvaro told me as we drove along route 665 to share with you here, but I’m sure he could fill a book with them. These people’s stories were fascinating, sad, and hopeful, and through them all, I could tell that Alvaro genuinely cared about these people. If his passengers had a need, he’d look into it. If he saw something that reminded him of a passenger, he bought it and brought it the next day. Unlike the bus driver who drove my friend, Jiwoo, today who stopped at subway for a sandwich while confused passengers waited, Alvaro strove to be timely because he knew that being behind schedule could mean someone missing their train.

Dani Johnson, multi-millionaire, says that if you know more about people than you do your product or business, you will be unusually successful. While knowing how to drive a large bus is crucial to being a successful bus driver, knowing his passengers led to unusual success. Alvaro Valencia wasn’t just any bus driver, he was a favorite. He made people’s days and cared about people’s kids. His presence will, without a shadow of a doubt, be missed.

In many ways, Alvaro was “the people’s” bus driver and this is why he is cool.

No matter what occupation you have, if you learn more about your customers and the people you work with, you will be unusually successful. So what can you do to show the people you work with you care? And is your definition of ‘cool’ what it should be?

Blood and Guns: A Man Named Ni

imagesY0KY7XVPGunfire is a common occurrence in Hollywood films, but it’s not something I had ever personally experienced before today when my grandpa took me to the shooting range. We all have images in our heads of our favorite actors looking like models as they point their guns at whoever or whatever is opposing them—people like Jennifer Lopez, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., and Harrison Ford. Even young, cute Chloe Grace Moretz has gotten a piece of gun action in a couple of her films.

So holding and using a gun must be really easy right?


I was really afraid to go shooting today, but I went anyway. It’s not what I thought it’d be like. The gun is heavier, louder, brighter, and more powerful than my gentle spirit was prepared for. When my grandfather (who is ex-navy and ex-army) was trying to help me shoot because I was too afraid to hold the gun on my own, he cut himself and started bleeding profusely, which, you can imagine, didn’t lessen my fear.

While my grandpa was cleaning up his gash and I was standing alone on the verge of tears (it was a lot of blood guys) the man at the counter started talking to me. I didn’t ask him any questions but he seemed to answer them anyway: Was I a total loser for being afraid to even be near a gun? Was I a complete failure for allowing my fear to get my grandfather hurt?

The man at the counter’s name was Ni. From what I can remember in my fragile state, Ni said he’d been training policemen, SWAT teams, and other law enforcement groups on how to shoot for over twenty years. At first Ni was shaking his head at us in disapproval, but then he realized I was shaken up and started to comfort me in his own way. Ni said three things that I’ll share with you:

1. If you come in here, you’ve never shot a gun before, and you’re not afraid, you’re not human.

2. Shooting is easy for me; I’m not afraid of using a gun, but I absolutely would not teach my son or anyone how to drive. I also will never jump out of an airplane because I’m afraid of heights. Guns I can do; planes and cars I cannot.

3. It’s okay to be afraid, but you come in and try it, and if you don’t like it you don’t come back. At least you tried.

I apologize if this is the lesson you learned when you were three and your mother told you to try zucchini and that if you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to eat it, but Ni was really cool and I want to recognize him. He realized that everyone is not like him and that everyone is not good at everything, and he reached out to me so that I didn’t have to feel like a failure even in failure.

Sometimes I think I need to be amazing at everything, but Ni knew the truth:

I can’t be perfect.

And that’s perfectly alright.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”

–2 Corinthians 12:9

Who can you extend grace to today?

A link to Ni‘s shooting range:

Crushing the Little Opportunities: McBeard Media

In 2011 Alec McNayr and Alan Beard were dirt poor. Today, they run the most successful social media campaign company in the entertainment industry and they love what they do. McBeard Media has run the social media campaigns for films like American Hustle, Monsters University, Wall Street, Life of Pi, the Great Gatsby, and Avatar. You see a billboard, a poster, a Facebook page–McBeard Media is behind it. They’ve had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a room full of the very best creative minds at Disney Pixar, and the way things are going, they will probably be running the social media campaigns for five out of the top ten films this year.

But things didn’t work out for Alan and Alec on their own. So how’d they get here?

In the talk Alan admitted that he and Alec were not  “big believers in the idea that undergraduate students come out of college knowing anything,” so I asked him in a round about way: “Are you saying I shouldn’t go to college? What’s college good for then?”

Alan reaffirmed his previous statement, but noted that college is great for learning how to communicate with people, how to lead, and how to speak in public. He also said that the contacts he made were crucial to the place he’s at in his life right now, and that without having attended Pepperdine, he and Alec would not be business partners. Simplified: In college you learn good communication and you network; your major doesn’t matter (unless you aim to be something like a doctor of course!); you will learn from actual experience working a job.

I filled more than three pages of cramped handwriting with the wisdom and advice that was pouring out of Alec and Alan’s mouths, but for now I’m just going to share one thing that Alan said that stood out to me that night: “Crush the little opportunities.” This advice is rooted in the scripture in Luke 16:10 that says “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…” I’ve also heard it this way: “Be faithful in the little things and you will be made ruler over much.”

When Alan and Alec were given their first film–Vampires Suck–they were told to get 100,000 people to like the Facebook page. Instead of meeting this expectation, Alan and Alec exceeded it by 700,000 more likes. Seven. Hundred. Thousand.

To put it nicely, Vampires Suck is not the kind of movie that is nominated for academy awards. But Alan and Alec chose to treat it like it was the biggest movie of the year. That’s why today, Alan and Alec actually campaign for the biggest movies of the year–they crushed their little opportunities.

In my life, “crushing the little opportunities” looks like aiming to be the best Jamba Juice employee at my school. It means treating everyone I meet with respect and honor. It means going to events where I might learn something from someone cooler than me–as often as I possibly can. It means being consistent with a blog that may only be read by my mom. I do this because I know that in the long run, if I crush these small opportunities, God will give me bigger opportunities to crush.

What little opportunities can you can begin to crush this week?

In Their Footsteps: Why You’re Reading This Blog

Footprints and handprints of Hollywood legends outside of Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Hi! Welcome to Cooler Than Me Blog, which has nothing to do with the song by Mike Posner, but everything to do with genuine cool people and a series of events that I will briefly describe in a second.

Cooler Than Me Blog is where I’m going to write down the questions I ask of businessmen, celebrities, and every other kind of person who is good at what they do—in essence, this blog is all about people who are ‘cooler than me’. I aim to stretch myself and contact people it seems impossible to get a hold of, but I’m also going to write about what I learn from people you probably haven’t heard of, who are equally as cool in their respective areas of expertise.

In 2012 I attended an event called First Steps to Success, a business, communication, and life training seminar taught by multi-millionaire, Dani Johnson. It’s hard to explain exactly what Dani teaches in this seminar, but what I can tell you is that going to First Steps to Success changed my life.

Before attending First Steps to Success, I was an aspiring writer, musician, and filmmaker with absolutely no direction; I was struggling in my faith; I was a prisoner to fear; and my relationships were suffering from a seemingly impassable communication barrier. After attending First Steps to Success and continuing to plug in to the monthly events and radio shows, I now have vision and hope for my career; I have a strong faith in God; I rebuke all fear in the name of Jesus; and I have amazing relationships with people in my life I thought it would be impossible to have.

I’m the same person, with the same background and upbringing, but the course of my life is forever and remarkably changed. I am so grateful to God for his undeserved love and grace that is so obviously visible in the doors he has opened for me and in the way he has told other people in my life (usually my mom) to push me through these doors when I won’t walk through them on my own.

Becoming a part of the Dani Johnson community has led to many incredible things, one of which was beginning to read the 4-Hour Work Week, by Timothy Ferriss. In his book, Ferriss talks about his challenge to a group of Princeton students to get in contact with a number of high-profile celebrities and CEO’s, ask a question they’ve always wanted to ask, and get it answered.

This challenge, combined with something Dani Johnson frequently says: “Find someone who has what you want and do what they do,”  has led us to this point in our lives—me writing, you reading.

I hope that you will get something from this blog, that you’ll choose to take your education into your own hands, and that you’ll find yourself taking every opportunity to learn from people who are cooler than you—and follow in their footsteps.

–Always, Sara

Timothy Ferriss’s Blog:

Dani Johnson’s website:

My mom’s blog: