Zack is a screenwriter and director based in California. He has worked as a writer, cinematographer, director, and producer for various well-known projects in Hollywood.
1. How did you get into filmmaking?
When I was a kid I wanted to be a stuntman. I used to jump off every staircase in our apartment complex, and when we would go to the park, I’d find the highest slide and leap off the top into the sand or woodchips below.
I watched behind-the-scenes stories of stunt people working and would create fight choreography with my cousins, seeing how close to each other we could get before being hit, just to be like the movies and TV that I loved.
As I grew up, I grew out of this, but I kept my love for the performing arts. My mother put me in acting classes in grade school to help my confidence. Didn’t help with my self-esteem issues, but it did crystallize my passion for performance.
Even so, growing up as the son of two immigrants, I didn’t even consider filmmaking a career throughout high school.
In my senior year of high school, however, I was given a class project to shoot one act of a play on our school’s broken-down Handycam, using my classmates as the actors and crew.
I filled an entire notebook with directors’ notes, sat down individually with each of my performers to go over their roles, composed the best rudimentary shot list I could, and we ended up shooting all day on a Sunday.
The next week, me and the one kid in my class who knew how to cut sat down to edit and discovered that due to some coding issues, we had lost the majority of our footage. I failed the project, but I had gained a passion. From then on, my work became figuring out what the right path was to my realizing it.
2. How would you describe an average day working as a writer in LA?
I’m currently working on Batwoman and I had the opportunity to write an episode for Season 2. A thing I didn’t realize before getting into the business is that there’s a whole infrastructure built up around writers on the creative side of television.
As someone who is still relatively new to creative, I was extremely gratified to even get a job supporting the writers’ room, and when I was able to win my episode in just my first season on the show, that was wonderful icing on top of the cake.
Joining the room was incredible. There’s no feeling like it in the world. You pitch, chill, eat, joke around, pitch some more, and sometimes do some writing. It’s everything that I’ve ever wanted — to just play pretend all day and get paid handsomely for it.
It’s definitely not all easy. There were times on my episode where I was stumped for answers and felt like everyone else was looking at me expecting something I didn’t have.
But at the end of the day, myself and everyone I’ve worked with always seems to remember that we’re getting paid to entertain people. That’s a pretty special feeling. It’s easily the best job I’ve ever had.
3. Most filmmakers have their own process of going through scripts, what’s yours?
I’m honestly still trying to figure out my best process. I’m an extremely emotion-driven writer, kind of in the way a method actor is driven by throwing themselves into roles, I throw my feelings into my characters.
I’ve started to realize that, this can be limiting so I’m working on building discipline and order to my process while still trying to balance deeper emotional resonances.
However, when I write a script I’m planning to direct myself, which makes the process of going through it very straightforward. I try to recapture the feelings and arcs I wrote it with, feel what the actors throw back at me as they begin to bring it to life, then adapt and tweak emotion and resonances from there.
For scripts that I haven’t written, I try to identify throughlines and emotional arcs in a similar way, then build to themes and implications.
4. You’ve also worked as a director and producer. Did you feel like you had more creative control when directing and producing a project than just writing?
They flex different muscles. In each case, you’re trying to tell the most honest version of the story that you can. There’s a lot of pressure associated with coming up with a story out of your mind.
It can be a super lonely process when you’re actually physically writing and that is really rough at times. One of the best writers I’ve worked with seems like he is in total agony every time he has to churn out an episode.
But the writer is the first spark of the magic. They light the fire and dictate the way things will play out. Directing and Producing is also super high pressure, but the pressure becomes bringing the words to life with integrity.
As a director, it’s so easy to fail, even with a well-written project. There are so many moving elements and most of them aren’t magical, they’re incredibly technical, so you end up having to balance that with the ethereal story you’re trying to tell, and no one can see it except you because it’s all in your head.
That is to say, filmmaking is a collaborative process. Without each piece in front of and behind the camera working in harmony, the idea of creative control becomes irrelevant (that’s why you always treat your crew well).
Who wants total control over a failed project just to claim it as theirs? No matter what, I always try to remember that.
Whatever role I’m playing, it’s all in service of the story. Tell the truest story you can as the writer, director, or producer, and that’s the best kind of creative control you need.
5. How does it feel like to write for a TV show with pre-established characters and worlds rather than creating your own from scratch?
Working on a team as a part of a writer’s room is much easier. There’s a whole support system in place to help you along the road to success. There’s nothing like writing something from your head which you and others think is good.
That feeling is so crazy, particularly when you’ve suffered through insecurity and doubt the whole way through.
Having validation at the end of the tunnel that the project that sprung from your head is actually meaningful, is a total trip, but I truly do love the collaborative process of working on a show with established characters, a delineated season arc, a built world — it just gets rid of a lot of the anxiety.
Plus, in a good room, when people are on their game, ideas flow like electricity and it’s magical to be a part of.
6. The pandemic has heavily affected studios, independent filmmakers like you, and every professional who’s connected to this industry? Do you think Hollywood is picking up speed in being back to normal again?
Hollywood has a lot of money riding on getting back to business as usual. To be honest, I think everyone in the industry is wondering what normal is going to look like going forward.
I’m not sure if it’s the case for most shows or even any other shows, but on our show, we’ve been hyper-efficient on the writing side during the pandemic. People really seem to be enjoying working from home and we’re putting out a ton of drafts on a rigorous schedule.
I imagine that things will slow down for us a little bit as we get back into the office and people start to enjoy spending time with each other again.
Ironically, the more you hang out together at the office, the longer things seem to take, so it’s possible shows switch to a more hybrid style of office.
As far as the industry at large, things will go as productions go. So far, with the vaccine and Covid protocols, large productions have been able to start up again and manage any instances of the virus popping up.
I hope that will continue and I expect it to continue, but I know that it has also made things much more expensive, so it remains to be seen how that will impact independent projects.
I think that things will continue to pick up for the industry as a whole, but I’m concerned that a lot of the kinds of projects that allow new filmmakers to break through will become prohibitively expensive to make.
7. Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I’ve got a project I was a staff writer on called Deal which will go into production in September. I’m very excited about that!
It’s been my first opportunity to tell a story set in my hometown, Chicago, that is entirely written and created for and by South Asian Americans like myself.
I can’t wait to see it come to life. I’ve also been working with a friend of mine, Rika Bhakta, to come up with a mentorship program for other South Asian Americans working in Hollywood on the writing and executive side.
We’re calling it Brown Storytellers’ Collective and it’ll hopefully be a great way to connect and give back to the South Asian community in Hollywood that is currently working its way up the ranks.
As I’ve built my career in the industry, I’ve always sought out other brown folks to partner with and support because there aren’t that many of us and though we come from a number of different experiences, we have a cultural familiarity that binds us together.
It’s important to me to give back as I grow myself, so I’m really hoping that this group can be a way to create a lasting impact for other future versions of myself building their careers in the industry.
Our goals are to make friends, give support, get jobs, and tell stories, and we’re planning to launch at the end of September.
We are also hoping to someday add an initiative to that group where we would be able to facilitate South Asian Americans who are trying to get into the industry as well.
We’re not quite there yet, but I know that growing up in Chicago as the son of a pharmacist and a computer programmer,
I would have loved to have some resources and mentorship into becoming creative, so I’m really hoping that we will be able to get enough momentum inside the industry to eventually provide that resource.
8. What’s some advice that’s really helped you in your career so far?
Just keep grinding. There are a ton of people in this industry making a living and when you’re on the outside everything can feel like it’s so far away.
But truly, something I’ve realized over the six years I’ve been working here, the line is so thin between you and your buddies that you shoot with on weekends and shows like Ramy and Insecure.
Obviously, there’s a ton of luck and skill involved, and nothing ever feels totally linear, but the people that make it are the people that stick around and keep working.
I won’t lie, if you don’t come from money or you don’t have a supportive family around you, things are going to be difficult, maybe prohibitively so (and a lot of us are trying to fight that status quo from within Hollywood), but the thing that I always try to emphasize is that it is completely POSSIBLE to make it, you just have to work hard, make friends, be good to people, and above everything else, stick around.