Amid the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, Edmonton native Lewaa Nasserdeen finds the tranquility to write.
By Caroline Barlott | October 11, 2015
Across from the handprints and footprints of stars past and present is the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It’s an 88-year-old building on Hollywood Boulevard that hosted the Academy Awards in 1929, and once catered to stars like Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. The high ceilings and romantic lighting ooze Old Hollywood glamour – a stark juxtaposition to the loud circus outside, where two men in dirty Spider-Man costumes don fanny packs and aggressive attitudes, demanding passers-by take photos sandwiched between them.
But it’s in the grandeur of the nearly century-old hotel that Lewaa Nasserdeen, a writer who grew up in Edmonton, finds his inspiration. The lobby, with its plush chairs, is refined, but it’s still a hub of action. Back home, in Nasserdeen’s former Edmonton neighbourhood, this kind of activity would be more indicative of a big summer festival than business as usual in the Hills.
When I meet him, his smile stretches wide, dancing across his eyes as he launches into a fast and exciting description of what he’s been doing the past week – the list includes a full slate of meetings with Hollywood executives and work on his own projects in between. It sounds hectic, but Nasserdeen is energized.
The bustle of the Hollywood strip suits him well; the constant flow of people inside and outside the hotel acts as the ideal backdrop as he relays ideas onto his laptop. Over the last year, he has come here often while writing for The Goldbergs, the ABC sitcom set in the ’80s about producer Adam Goldberg’s early life.
Nasserdeen himself was born in the mid-’80s, but his dream wasn’t initially to be a writer. Instead, he pictured himself as a director or a producer, calling the shots behind the scenes. But that shifted when, in his fourth year of a Red Deer College film program, Nasserdeen wrote a script that was optioned as a screenplay – a massive success for any writer, never mind a 19-year-old still in school. His success continued as he wrote and made another film, and then landed a job as a story editor for the documentary television show, X-Weighted.
In 2007, Nasserdeen came to L.A. for a screenwriting conference.
“Within 10 minutes of landing, I had an intuitive feeling that this is where I was supposed to be,” he says.
He moved to the city six months later, with only a few possessions and a plan to write and produce in Hollywood.
“L.A. has its own culture. It’s like Lost. It’s its own island. You don’t know how you landed here. You don’t know who to trust. And it draws a certain type of person that believes they could be the 0.5 per cent that’s going to be on screen or have their name in the credits,” says Nasserdeen, 30. “It comes from a real, genuine self-belief or a real, genuine insecurity – or a mix of the two.”
On Hollywood Boulevard, Nasserdeen’s comments ring true. Outside the TCL Chinese Theatre, the celebrities are hidden from sight – Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy are inside for the unveiling of Mad Max: Fury Road – but the aspiring talent is in plain view. A man yells, “Get out of the way!” as the sidewalk is transformed into a stage for a 10-year-old dancer, her hair flying as she twirls and bends to the live guitar music. Meanwhile, every block is occupied by musicians keen to sell their songs for whatever pocket change is available. Catwoman, her ears slightly askew, vies for the best spot to stand with a wind-blown Chewbacca. “You’re challenged constantly in this city. It’s a place of rejection, rejection, rejection. But it’s how you take it and find the ‘yes’ in it,” says Nasserdeen. When he arrived in L.A., he didn’t have a backup plan and the experience he had in Canada didn’t really matter since Hollywood is its own little bubble.
To make the experience even more challenging, he didn’t own a vehicle. In most big cities, that might not present a problem, but L.A. isn’t known for its public transit. It’s known for its mess of freeways, sprawling neighbourhoods and traffic jams that make roads look like parking lots. Travelling 10 miles during rush hour can take over an hour in a car. That time can easily double on a bus, which needs to make multiple stops along the way.
But none of this deterred Nasserdeen, who travelled by bus to multiple meetings with Hollywood executives. Screenwriters in L.A., he explains, get work by going to general meetings with different production companies looking for talent. Securing a spot at one of these meetings is very challenging for writers new to the city, but Nasserdeen lucked out. A friend of his former boss at X-Weighted read his work, liked it, and passed it along.
Nasserdeen met with Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and many others. Then, he got a call for a meeting with Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded by Ron Howard. “I was like: ‘What’s Imagine?'” says Nasserdeen of the company who produced many films and television series including Felicity, Arrested Development and 24. “Of course, I knew Imagine, but I just didn’t believe they would meet with me.”
By this point, he had a routine down for these meetings. He’d arrive early, find the room number prior to his meeting, and then go to a nearby coffee shop and change from an undershirt into a suit. On this day, he made it to the third floor of the building where Imagine is housed and the fancy elevators opened to reveal a waterfall, and the front desk people staring back at him. He immediately hit the close button, went back downstairs to change, and came back up. Meetings like these are “like speed dating,” Nasserdeen says, and the experience didn’t faze him because it was all about building connections.
“It’s really just a tenacity game. Your success is determined by the person next to you just kind of collapsing because they’re so tired,” he says.
In 2014, Nasserdeen was chosen from a pool of over 2,000 applicants to be one of eight participants in the prestigious Disney/ABC Writing Program. The program helps connect writers with those in the industry, and past participants went on to positions with shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Psych. It was through this program that Nasserdeen met Adam Goldberg, who decided to hire him to be part of the writing staff of the ABC show, The Goldbergs.
He worked on the show for a full season, but that wasn’t the only iron in Nasserdeen’s fire – he has a full development slate, working on a horror film and creating his own series. He has produced several shorts, including Stray, a film about what it would be like if straight people were treated with a similar stigma as gay people. The film won an audience choice award at the Hill Country Film Festival in Texas and was accepted to the Las Vegas Film Festival. And for the past few months, he’s been working as a staff writer for a new ABC show, The Real O’Neals.
This year, he received his green card and, every year, he goes back to Red Deer College as a guest lecturer. “I have a responsibility to balance out that whole ‘Look to your right, look to your left; one of you is not going to make it’ bullshit. This is the only industry where you can fall upwards, where your hairdresser can one day become your producer,” he says, paraphrasing a quote from noted director (and Edmonton Oilers fan) Kevin Smith.
Nasserdeen also thinks there’s a manufactured sense of competition that plays out in stereotypes about Hollywood being full of cold, uncaring types ready to trade their souls for a slice of the fame pie. He might be driven, but he sees other people in Hollywood as allies. Since he came to L.A., he has made friends in many different areas of the industry.
He has also developed tight ties with colleagues at The Goldbergs and the ABC Writing Program, and was impressed by producer Adam Goldberg’s inclusive attitude with the team. The story line of the show is meant to reflect Goldberg’s own experience growing up, but the producer incorporated details and even plot lines from the backgrounds of his staff. There’s an episode, for example, where Adam’s father, Murray, goes to a hockey game with a colleague who turns out to be an Oilers fan from Edmonton. The mention was a nod to Nasserdeen’s hometown, where his whole immediate family still resides.
Nasserdeen tries to go back home as much as possible. But even when he’s in L.A., he acknowledges that his roots influence his work every day. In the City of Angels, he explains, people tend to stick with one genre. But in Canada, that’s harder to do.
“You have to take every opportunity that comes along, so that’s really what helped me when coming here.”
The upbeat hilarity of The Goldbergs is the polar opposite of the emotionally dark tale of 1950s actor Montgomery Clift, told through Nasserdeen’s feature film, Monty. The film was optioned in 2013 by an Academy Award-nominated producer. And it’s strong characters like these that helped get him a meeting with Oprah’s company, Harpo. “They said they expected someone completely different to walk in – maybe a 50-year-old woman,” laughs Nasserdeen, or a more brooding personality based on his work.
For the past several years in Los Angeles, Nasserdeen has focused on work that explores current, relevant issues that speak to his own values. His energy may seem boundless, but he admits that it’s not. He’d rather not waste it on projects that aren’t worthwhile. He thinks too many people worry solely about the way their work will resonate with an audience. Instead, he wants his writing to resonate with his own beliefs – and if it comes from a place of passion and authenticity, he thinks the success will follow. It has worked out so far.
Nasserdeen says it’s important to have balance, but when I ask him what he does for fun, he hesitates. He mentions that he occasionally hikes and gets outdoors, but it’s not so much fun as it’s a way to get completely out of his head.
“At first I was like, ‘Ugh, I’d rather sit there and watch Daredevil.’ But what’s good about that, is it forces you to get out,” he says. “Even during this interview right now, an idea came into my head, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s how I solve that.’ Writing is 24 hours; a lot of the best things that happen aren’t when you’re thinking about it.”
The next day, I’m reminded of Nasserdeen when a group of runners race past me near the beach. They’re sweating profusely from the heat, their thoughts probably of rehydration and little else. The aspiring musicians are out in full force, too. They peddle their CDs for change in the same area occupied by taco stands and an old-fashioned freak show. I feel a twinge of dj vu when someone hollers to make way for a girl who wants her 15 minutes of fame dancing on the boardwalk. I can imagine Nasserdeen clearing his head here. L.A. is full of action, but the noise can act as inspiration.