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Multimedia Man

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By Lyndon Stambler, Photos by Tamar Levine

Published Jul 1, 2009 10:00 AM


This UCLA grad penned a bestseller that's influencing corporations everywhere.This UCLA grad penned a bestseller that's influencing corporations everywhere.This UCLA grad penned a bestseller that's influencing corporations everywhere.

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Q: How did you start making webisodes?

A: Heroes creator Tim Kring hired me as a new media producer. I started with Takezo Kensei: Sword Saint, Ken Burns-style documentary, three-minute segments about a fictional hero in feudal Japan. People thought Takezo was real. We used various techniques — talking heads, computer graphics, animation — which kick-started my desire to use different storytelling methods.

Q: What attracted you to filmmaking?

A: When I was growing up in Berkeley, all of my dreams opened and closed with credits. I grew up in a single-parent household in the basement of an old Victorian house. I'm a child of the Free Speech Movement. My mother was a student at Berkeley. Her contemporaries were political activists, Black Panthers. I had one suit — my "Huey Newton" suit. There were times when friends would come home tear-gassed and I'd hear them saying, "The pigs did it." As a kid I thought they were real pigs. All I can say is, it wasn't boring. I ended up writing about it in a screenplay, Snail Trails.

Q: You got an early start as a child actor on PBS' Up and Coming.

A: My best friend took drama in junior high and got to kiss a girl onstage. I knew right then I had to take drama. My teacher said, "You've got talent. You should try the American Conservatory Theater." At ACT, I started working professionally in theater and television and landed this series called Up and Coming about a successful black family. It was a precursor to The Cosby Show. I met Danny Glover, Laurence Fishburne and several black directors and producers whom I still see. That show spawned a career for me.

Q: When did you move behind the camera?

Follow the Script

Learn more about all the amazing things Bruin stars of stage an screen are doing. Visit UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.

And learn more from TFT grad Yule Caise in the Heroes Wiki online Q&A with him.

A:I made my first movie, Shoes, while attending Harvard. It was about three inner-city kids working in the basement of a posh restaurant and how one ends up almost killing his friend over a pair of shoes. I set it at the dawn of hip-hop. That short film played festivals and caught the attention of Robert Townsend after he made Hollywood Shuffle. Crazy as it sounds, he called me and said, "I saw your movie and it really moved me. Come to L.A. The first six months are on me." He was good to his word.

Q: Your early experiences helped when you became an acting coach for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

A: Yes, that and the fact I'd worked with a lot of rap artists and directed a music video for Run-D.M.C. During a dry period, a friend was producing a comedy with Dr. Dre and Snoop called The Wash. I'd been the dialogue coach on Robert Townsend's television series, The Parent 'Hood, for two seasons. Talent has always been comfortable with me.

Q: Why did you go back to school at UCLA?

A: Next thing I know, I'm driving out to the San Fernando Valley where Dr. Dre was working on an album. Once you got by the bodyguards and the smoke, it was like watching a masterful symphony conductor. We met and vibed, and I started coaching. Then Snoop wanted me to work with him, too. Snoop's trailer was like a party, people coming and going. All the bodyguards were playing dominoes or checkers. Dre's dressing room was completely quiet and the bodyguards were playing chess.

Q: How'd you get your fellowship?

A: I taught a couple classes at UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Department. I thought, "This is fun, but it sure would be more fun to be a student." I always knew UCLA would be a good fit for me. I was producing films, working on everyone else's stuff, but I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, which was writing and directing. The department chair, Richard Walter, could see I was at a crossroads. "I don't try to convince anyone of anything, but this is the right place for you," he said.

Q: You made Heroes' first live-action web series, Going Postal, and the TV show's first interactive graphic novel, The Last Shangri-La. So what was it like for you when NBC.com won an Emmy?

A: Going to UCLA was the next best thing to happen to me, after my two children. The screenwriting department is a place where adults come to play. It was supportive, challenging, and it forced me to go deep inside myself. I wasn't sure whether to write Snail Trails or something more "commercial."

Q: What do you think of emerging media as a platform for storytelling?

A: Hal Ackerman, the screenwriting co-chair, said, "Let's say you're going to die; which one do you want to leave behind?" That was a no-brainer. Snail Trails encapsulated what it was like to grow up in that time and place. That script won awards and, ultimately, it's how I ended up on Heroes.

The faculty nominated me to be the first NAACP/NBC fellow. Every week I spent time at NBC learning the TV business. My mentors asked me what my favorite show was, and I said Heroes. "Guess what?" they said. "We have a meeting for you with Tim Kring." It was supposed to be a one-hour meeting and it turned into the better part of the day. Tim called a month after I graduated: "Hey, I've got something for you on Heroes. Do you want to come play?" I was over the moon. I would not [have been there] were it not for UCLA.

I was thrilled to be part of that team. By the time the Emmys came around, I had been bumped up to the writing staff. I was no longer doing new media. But it's nice to see one's work rewarded.

Technology evolves, but the thing that still stands is good storytelling. Every morning my kids say, "Tell us a story." There's an innate joy and beauty in using the imagination. That's part of every culture. I just hope to be part of that legacy.

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