SCA students premiere indie short film ‘Booba’

A portrait shot of the filmmakers at the TCL premiere.
Students Hunter D’Ancona (left), Gao Ganjin (middle left), Joe Grode (right) and alum Gabby Fiszman (middle right) premiered their independent short film “Booba: A Twisted Fairy-Tale” at the TCL Chinese Theatre April 24. (Brooks Taylor | Daily Trojan)

Making movies while living in Hollywood’s backyard is a fantasy for many young filmmakers. Hence, there’s a reason USC’s School of Cinematic Arts is regarded as the poster child of film schools. To make it to the big screen is a whole other feat.

SCA students Gao Ganjin, Hunter D’Ancona, Joe Grode and alum Gabby Fiszman have accomplished this goal with their fantastical thriller “Booba: A Twisted Fairy-Tale.” But the real twist is that they produced their ambitious endeavor independently of USC, assembled a crew of industry professionals and film students, and, as the big finale, premiered at Hollywood’s historic TCL Chinese Theatre April 24 to a packed theater of family, friends and USC students.

The title “Booba,” sans context, encourages curiosity on its own. In true Gen-Z fashion, it originates from a YouTube video with more than 47 million views titled “Dog eats Bean Burrito in 1 second.” As for the film itself, the titular Booba is a man-dog owned by Maestro, a weathered “Napoleonic figure” whose life falls apart following the unprecedented betrayal of his once loyal companion.

“Booba” director Ganjin, a junior majoring in film & television production, finds strangeness in the dynamic between owner and pet. In his director’s statement, Ganjin credited his father’s relationship with their family’s German Shepard as inspiration, and wrote he was fascinated by the ability for the two archetypal roles to become blurred.

“We call our pets ‘man’s best friend,’ but at the end of the day, we put them in a collar, we put them in a cage when they don’t behave and we give them very specific hours when they can run around,” Ganjin said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. 

Writer D’Ancona, a junior majoring in writing for screen & television, was inspired by classic Victorian elements in crafting “Booba” as a fairy tale.

“It [ended up] being a more psychological film than, say, a monster movie, [because] you start to unlock those same themes that make ‘Frankenstein’ a centuries old story,” D’Ancona said. “Looking into that idea of cyclic horror really gave birth to something crazier than any of us could have ever imagined.”

The film’s center of gravity is Ganjin, whose self-described stark and ethereal film aesthetic attracted the core team members to the project, all who shared the mission of creating an “arthouse thriller” with “strong shock value.”

“[Ganjin] and I met early on at USC [and bonded] over our love through similar genres in film … kind of like this horror, dark, psychological thriller taste in film,” said producer Grode, a sophomore majoring in cinematic arts, film & television production.

Producer Fiszman, who graduated from SCA’s film & television production program last December, also connected with Ganjin’s vision as a filmmaker.

“[Ganjin] approached me after we had worked together on a friend’s film, and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of the stories that we like to tell,” Fiszman said. “[We enjoy] pushing boundaries in storytelling and making people uncomfortable and making them think through film.”

With the freedom of making a film independently, the “Booba” team set no limits to their imagination. 

“We never were writing with stifled ambitions,” D’Ancona said.

The theatrical release poster for “Booba: A Twisted Fairytale."
“Booba: A Twisted Fairytale,” directed by Gao Ganjin, a USC junior majoring in film and television production, premiered at the TCL Chinese Theatre April 24. It’s about a man-dog who betrays his owner. (Courtesy Gao Ganjin)

Fiszman and Grode found that making a film independently brought unique opportunities, one being the ability to work with professionals in a variety of departments. Grode cited “Booba” art director Kat Yeh and James Lew, an Emmy-winning stunt coordinator.

“It was very liberating to be able to operate in an [environment] more reflective of how actual independent shorts get made in the real world,” Fiszman said. “It was very rewarding for me to gain real world experience producing this short of very high magnitude.”

Ganjin expressed excitement for the film’s score, which was composed by USC Thornton alum Alex Mansour. The music was performed live by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, boasting credits on acclaimed films “Parasite” (2019) and “Get Out” (2017).

“We’re bringing back sort of this old Hollywood John Williams type score,” Ganjin said. “That’s epic.”

D’Ancona said that housing the premiere of “Booba,” a project of extravagant scope that echoes the iconography of old cinema, at such an iconic Hollywood landmark was significant.

“I’m hypothesizing an extreme shift toward the theatrical experience,” D’Ancona said. “[The TCL Chinese Theatre] is associated with a very certain type of movie, and we want to be a part of that same conversation.”

The “Booba” team plans to distribute their short through the festival circuit first, followed by a public release on YouTube.

“We’re not trying to make money off of [‘Booba’]. We all worked for this just because we love the film,” Grode said. “We really want as many people to see it as possible.”

Though USC is the thread that lies in the heart of “Booba,” students at NYU and Chapman also contributed to its creation. Fiszman expressed deep gratitude for the entire team that brought the film to life.

“There was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of generosity from all sides,” Fiszman said. “There were lots of people who worked on this project and we are so thankful for everyone’s help, because without every single person, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

The “Booba” red carpet premiere felt just as professional as the film itself, but it was the spirit of film kids passionate about their craft that lit up the room. The theater fell silent during the screening as visions of operatic drama backed by grand melodies captivated the attendees.

Following the screening, the team announced future projects from their production company, Ingsane Productions. Their second film “Born Under Punches” is slated for an August 2023 release and will be performed live with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. Their newest project “Einar” is currently in pre-production and set to film this winter.

Premiering “Booba” on the big screen was an aspiring filmmaker’s Hollywood fantasy made real.

“I’m extremely happy that all the cast and crew could see this and all of our family members could experience what we’ve been working on for the past year of our life,” Grode said. “I grew up coming [to the TCL Chinese Theatre] to watch movies, and now the fact that we have one of our movies playing here, it’s a dream come true.”

All around, the “Booba” team was euphoric from the success of the premiere and expressed gratitude for the TCL Chinese Theatre and all who have supported the film.

“I feel very content right now. I love the movie,” Ganjin said. “I hope that [the premiere] was an experience for everyone, rather than just coming in, sitting and waiting for a movie … I can’t wait for more.”