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Interview with PGA International Commitee Chairman, Kayvan Mashayekh on Mentor, the Late Oscar Winning Producer Branko Lustig

Interview with PGA Producer Kayvan Mashayekh About His Mentor, the Late Academy Award Winning Producer Branko Lustig

Producers Branko Lustig (left) and Kayvan Mashayekh (right)

 

Interview with PGA Producer Kayvan Mashayekh About His Mentor, the Late Academy Award Winning Producer Branko Lustig

Producers Kayvan Mashayekh (left) and Branko Lustig (right)

On November 14th, 2019, Hollywood lost eminent and legendary producer Branko Lustig at the age of 87 who passed away in his Zagreb home. Before his role as Co-Chair of the International Committee of the Producers Guild of America, PGA Producer Kayvan Mashayekh worked as an apprentice and mentee to Multi award winning producer Branko Lustig. Most known for his Academy Award winning films Gladiator (2000) and Schindler’s List (1993), Lustig was a Croatian Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps and supported Croatia during the Homeland War (Domovinski Rat). At the age of 78, Lustig returned to Auschwitz - where he was once a prisoner - to celebrate his bar mitzvah. Because of his imprisonment in the extermination camp, he missed his rite of passage as a 13-year-old boy. Branko Lustig was the honorary president of the Jewish Film Festival in Zagreb. Branko resided between Los Angeles and Zagreb but, in an interview in 2012, he stated: "But more and more, slowly, I am returning to Zagreb. I'm coming back”.

I asked his friend and mentee, Kayvan Mashayekh to speak about his own career and his experience as friend and colleague with the great Branko Lustig. Here is what he had to say:

 

 

How did you get started in the producing side of the film industry?

KAYVAN: It was simply a desire to challenge myself and work outside my comfort zone. My story is similar to many other Iranian immigrant children who land in the States. My parents were highly educated but lost everything in their home country. They were quite strict and believed you only had three career choices if you wanted to be a success - doctor, lawyer or engineer. It was ingrained in me that a strong education and career could not be taken away from you no matter what.

Three years after my father passed away from brain cancer, and much to the dismay of my physician mother, I decided to jump headfirst into film. I have always been an animated person and love telling stories to entertain my friends. This, coupled with my tenacious attitude developed during my time as an attorney, gave me the self-belief to go for it.

I went through hell for seven years with a tsunami of negativity while trying to get my first feature film, The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (below), onto the screen. Thankfully my dedication paid off and I have now reached a point where I can guide others into pursuing their own goals and ambitions in the creative industry.

 

How did you meet Branko and start working with him?

KAYVAN: Branko has always been a father figure for me. I first met him years ago in Abu Dhabi but the story of how I got there and ended up being his mentee is worth mentioning.

I was feeling down one rainy morning in Los Angeles (yes, it does rain in LA) on my way to a cafe down the street from me. I was lost in my thoughts, staring at the sidewalk, when I saw a soggy copy of Variety. It was folded open to a one page ad for The Middle East International Film Festival. The ad was a call for scripts with the finalists having a chance to pitch their projects to top Hollywood producers and financiers with the chance of financing. I went home and fired off my latest script, Batting for Palestine, inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A week later I got a call telling me that my project had been selected for the Pitch Competition in Abu Dhabi.

Branko was one of the judges. He loved the script as did famed entertainment attorney, Craig Emanuel, Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh and super WME agent Graham Taylor. I won the USD25,000 Relativity Pitch Prize but the project was never made despite all the support I had (the project eventually became the graphic novel Round Rock). Branko brought me under his wing, thanks to his wife, and I began my education as an apprentice to one of the greatest producers of all time - the Oscar winning producer of Gladiator and Schindler’s List.

He taught me the finer points of the craft of producing and people management. His most valuable lesson to me was that no matter how your story is written there will always end up being three scripts; the initial written script, the shooting script and the final one which is sometimes also re-written in the editing room. Despite of this, your story must have a soul for the audience to connect to. Without that, you have nothing. As a Holocaust survivor who endured the most awful atrocities, he was a beacon of support for me and my project. I was blessed to receive his kindness and guidance throughout my career. His life experiences taught him about the power of tolerance and eradicating hate through thought provoking stories that bring people together. That was the strong common denominator we shared.

He passed away recently and I was devastated over how much I loved him for what he instilled in me…as my own dear father did when he died 25 years ago leaving a void that makes me very vulnerable at times when I’m confronted with a situation where I cannot go to either of them to seek their sage advice.

 

What inspired you most about Branko's life and film philosophy?

KAYVAN: His love of story…tolerance what he was all about…I remember him telling me about his interview with Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List. He had no idea what to expect when he was called in by the famed director…all he knew is when the interview ended, SS was in tears and said, “You’re my Producer.” 

 

Do you think Branko was part of a dying breed of old school classic epic studio producers? 

KAYVAN: Most definitely…Naturally for me he will always be a legend…a producers Producer. In my 12 years of knowing him…the talks, the minutes turning into hours turning into days, the advice, strategies, tips, psychology of human management when producing laced in pure love and respect for each other coming from different perspectives. It was a beautiful dance with him and his colossal trust in me and my judgment. Ultimately, he was a survivor on many fronts and my love for him as deep as the ocean that separated us when he died abroad in his native Croatia. Nonetheless, my tears since his passing have dried but my love for him and what he taught me will only cement his influence on me moving forward.

 

Do you have any anecdotes to share about your time working with him? 

KAYVAN: He used to hold my arm when we walked together and I called him “Papa”…like an old dad always telling me his stories…He told me there is only one other guy that calls him, “Papa” and that’s Russell Crowe…I thought he was bullshitting me and just shook my head up and down, like "yeah right.”

Well, one day we were walking back from lunch on Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills and from across the street someone started YELLING “PAPA”!! I looked over and it was Russell Crowe…I was speechless..freakin’ Gladiator called us over to an ice cream store as the Papparazzi quickly descended like locusts while Russell and his two young boys were treated to ice cream as we discussed his latest acting gig.

 

You are now the co-chair of PGA int. How has that been going?

KAYVAN: The PGA is the world’s largest trade organization of producers in film, television and multimedia with a membership nearing 9000. It includes a global powerhouse of working producers in all aspects of the entertainment industry and focuses primarily on promoting the craft of producing and helping educate our industry on the often misused credit proliferation of the producing title. The PGA acronym after a producer’s credit on a production, the Producers Mark, certifies that the producer has truly done what they are supposed to do.

 

Being an expert in the international producing world, how has old school producing changed compared to today?

KAYVAN: As one of my recent panelists (Sam Klebanov) said during a Blockchain workshop I conducted in Berlin, “The biggest deficit in the film industry is the deficit of trust.” Old school or new school, the only thing that grinds the gears of producing is creating real relationships over time with people who you can trust to collaborate, create and deliver content. If you’re lucky enough as I have been, they also become your friend and will always help you out of a bind.

 

What works are you most proud of in your career, either while with Branko or on your own?

KAYVAN: As time goes by, I’m very proud of “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.” No one knows where the soft spots in the story and the narrative are more than me, but the whole film carries my soul…and that’s something that Branko would smile about

 

What are you working on now?

KAYVAN: Six different projects in development that I’m not at liberty to discuss in this interview.

 

Interview with PGA Producer Kayvan Mashayekh About His Mentor, the Late Academy Award Winning Producer Branko Lustig Interview with PGA Producer Kayvan Mashayekh About His Mentor, the Late Academy Award Winning Producer Branko Lustig

ABOUT THE PGA:

Kayvan Mashayekh is excited over the prospects of expanding the PGA brand globally. With multiple committees dedicated to perfecting their craft along with 17 other affiliations in other countries, the PGA is on the forefront of creating tomorrow’s best producers. With future programs being prepared for Cannes, London, Berlin, Toronto, AFM, Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, the International Committee is pursuing an ambitious agenda to bring their membership closer to collaborate with other content creators around the world.

 

Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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