Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler, and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media, about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between.
Caroline Waxler: The human dog buddy comedy is a staple of American cinema, with classics like Turner & Hooch, Best in Show, and of course Air Bud. Today, we’re speaking with Solvan ‘Slick’ Naim, star and creator of the new Netflix series, It’s Bruno!, which is an incredibly funny tale about a man and his dog, in Brooklyn. Solvan, thank you so much for joining us.
Solvan Naim: Thank you for having me.
Caroline Waxler: Great. Would you prefer that I call you Solvan or Slick?
Solvan Naim: You can call me Slick.
Caroline Waxler: Excellent. How did you get the name Slick?
Solvan Naim: I got that name, I would say, in middle school. I was always doing slick things, to get out of class early, and get better grades, and stuff like that. The one that I recall is our homeroom class. The clock that we would all go by, had a missing face plate, so you could mess with the hands, the ticking hands. Basically, I would take the janitor’s broomstick … Because it was all the way up, it was 10 feet high or something, I would take the janitor’s broomstick, and always knock the minute hand a little further ahead, so we’d always get out of class early, and, “Oh, there goes Slick again.”
Caroline Waxler: That’s funny. I wish I went to school with you. Where did you grow up? You grew up in New York, right?
Solvan Naim: Yeah, grew up in New York. Yep. New York City.
Caroline Waxler: Where in New York?
Solvan Naim: I grew up in Washington Heights, Uptown, Queens, and then when I turned 18, I moved to Brooklyn.
Caroline Waxler: Excellent. Brooklyn is the setting for your show, which I am obsessed with, It’s Bruno!
Solvan Naim: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: I want to hear all about how It’s Bruno! came to be, how you pitched it to Netflix. But, for those in our audience who aren’t yet familiar with It’s Bruno!, it only came out about a month ago, in mid-May, can you describe it?
Solvan Naim: It’s about a Brooklyn native and his Puggle dog, Bruno, and the quirky adventures that they go through on a daily basis. It’s pretty much my version of a Seinfeld with dogs in the hood.
Caroline Waxler: Now, I know you have three dogs, so how did you choose to focus on Bruno?
Solvan Naim: Well, I mean, it didn’t take too long. I mean, if you just look at Bruno’s face, he’s got so much expression, and so many different vibes that come from him. I don’t want to jump ahead of your question, but I started the whole series by listening … Music is my background, I work while listening to music. Bruno, Bella and Angie, which are my three dogs, that are all in the series, but Bruno was the star, were sitting on my little couch next to me, while I was working. There was some music playing, and I looked over, and Bruno’s face just started cracking me up. So, I just took my iPhone and started slow-motion videotaping him, and then I did the same with the other two dogs, and it was Bruno’s by a landslide, was just so much funnier.
Solvan Naim: I showed that to some friends and family, and everybody was laughing, and I was like, “All right, I think there’s something here. I think I’m going to start writing some stories about Bruno and his owner,” and this followed.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. The stories are amazing, and they’re so relatable for everyone who is a dog owner. Did they all come from you, or did you get some inspiration from others in the writer’s room?
Solvan Naim: Well, we didn’t really have a writer’s room, it was just me. Later on, I met this other writer named Dave Ebert, this comedic writer, who also is a dog owner. We came up with some funny ideas, but I mean, a lot of it is based off of just every day in the life dog stories, that are just super-exaggerated.
Solvan Naim: Like, I remember coming to a crosswalk, and having another gentleman come up with his dog, and him telling his dog to sit, and then looking at me, as if, can I get my dog to sit? You know what I mean? I’m like, “Of course I can,” so boom, I got my dog to sit.
Solvan Naim: That’s where it ended, but obviously I wondered, what if we took it to the next level, and then all of a sudden it became this huge competition, before the sign turned to Don’t Walk to Walk? You know what I mean?
Solvan Naim: Or, there’s a kid that I know, that dances all the time. You know what I mean? This Dominican kid I know, every time he hears salsa music, he just starts dancing. So, I took that, and I said, “What if this kid is stealing dogs to pay for his salsa dancing classes?”
Caroline Waxler: It happens.
Solvan Naim: Yeah. Yeah, you never know. So, it’s just taking these real stories, and just exaggerating them, make them more entertaining.
Caroline Waxler: I love it. I mean, all the scenarios are so relatable. I mean, from navigating what stores you can go in with your dog, to having somebody pet your dog that you don’t want. I mean, it’s all super-relatable and hilarious.
Solvan Naim: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: I liked that you also gave Angie some airtime in that.
Solvan Naim: That’s right. That’s right, Angie and Bella.
Caroline Waxler: Totally. I want to know, how did you get to Netflix, and what did that pitch process look like?
Solvan Naim: Okay. To continue off what I was saying, so I taped some iPhone videos of my dogs, saw that Bruno was getting a great reaction. Then, like I said, a few of these incidents happened to me, like the guy telling his dog to sit, and looking at me, and just a few things in my neighborhood, that I found funny.
Solvan Naim: So, I started writing these small scripts, and I actually wrote the first episode, what ended up as half as the first episode from the Netflix version. I went out with a little camera, and a few of my buddies. A few of my boys, we went out and shot, pretty much, a proof of concept for it, so we actually shot the first episode of Bruno four years ago.
Caroline Waxler: Oh wow.
Solvan Naim: Yeah. This was coming off of my films Full Circle and Stanhope, so I knew how to edit, I knew how to put stuff together myself, without too many resources. I was used to that low budget life. So, we went out and shot the proof of concept pilot. I put that together, I cut that up, and then it came out great. And then, I ended up writing another script. I ended up writing the second episode, the Shit and Runner.
Caroline Waxler: That was a little real.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, exactly. Again, I was walk down the street, and especially in Brooklyn, in Bushwick where I was from, where I was at, there was dog shit everywhere, people don’t pick it up. We actually had an incident, where someone was letting their dog shit right in front of my stoop, and so I had a security camera out there, that I was trying to check, and backlog, and find who it was. I finally got an image of the guy, but it was so pixelated, I couldn’t really tell who he was, but I could see the kind of dog he had, so I was looking out for that guy.
Solvan Naim: I would take little stuff like that, and turn it into this story. I wrote that. Same thing, we went out and shot that, and the same cast too. Pretty much the same cast as well. So anyway, basically, long story short, I shot three episodes of It’s Bruno!, with just a few of my friends, and edited that together myself. So, with those three episodes, and basically a script of a treatment, of how the whole season would continue, I took that with the written treatment, and I started shopping that around. We shot that around town.
Solvan Naim: Warner Brothers was very interested. Their Stage 13 division, a guy named Chris Mack, loved it. A few people liked it, but I liked Chris Mac’s take on it, so we ended up doing a deal with him through Warner Brothers. Mind you, I think this is three and a half years ago now.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Solvan Naim: So, I started it like four years ago, got it off, sold it to Warner Brothers shortly after, and we were supposed to make it. I think it was maybe eight months in development with them, or something like that, so we were supposed to make it over two and a half years ago. And then, this whole merger happened with Warner Brothers and AT&T, and we just got lost. We got lost in the sauce. We just got pushed aside, and everything got backtracked. So, I was pissed off, but this is what happened. These kinds of things happen all the time in the business.
Solvan Naim: But, it all ended up working out, because basically, Chris Mack and Warner Brothers, they ended up taking it to Netflix, and Netflix saw the proof of concepts and the treatment, and everything, and the script. We had a full season script, at that point, that we developed with Warner Brothers, and they were like, “We love this. Let’s do it.”
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s great. What I saw for the first episode, was that the one you originally shot with your buddies?
Solvan Naim: No. No. A lot of the scenes were the same, but we re-shot everything in much higher quality cameras and-
Caroline Waxler: I was like, “That’s a great first outing.”
Solvan Naim: Yeah. Yeah. No. No. We definitely redid everything on a much higher quality.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. What has been the reaction you’ve gotten, both from neighborhood people, and in general, since the show debuted?
Solvan Naim: I mean, it’s been crazy, amazingly positive feedback. Probably the most surprising thing that I … Look, I knew the show was good. I knew I had a good show on my hands. What I didn’t expect was the global reaction, and how all these different countries, all these people, in all these different countries, related and loved it.
Solvan Naim: I started getting video. I still do. Videos and pictures of people in Italy, and South Korea, France, Russia, India, all around the world, sending me photos of their dogs, or pictures of the dogs. And then, this It’s Bruno! challenge started. Some fans started doing the It’s Bruno! challenge, where basically they all … basically they get their dog to sit with the wrist flick, and then down, with the whole slow arm movement down, so it’s matching the arm, matching the body language, and the tone of that.
Solvan Naim: So, it became, can you get your dog to sit and go down? People were doing it, sending me videos of bunny rabbits, trying to get their rabbits to do it, and birds to do it. It’s crazy. It’s just amazing. Brazil, also Latin America, the reaction’s been great, and I think that’s one of the benefits, obviously, of having Netflix as a distributor, one of the many benefits.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I love that. So, if there’s a season two, and I hope there is, what do you have in store, potentially, for season two?
Solvan Naim: Well, we’re going to get the backstories of how Bruno and Malcolm met. Obviously, his previous owner, that Malcolm knew nothing about, got out of jail, and is coming for Bruno. So, it’s going to be a lot of crazy things that happen, and a lot of context, and backstory to a lot of the characters as well.
Caroline Waxler: Great. Will we find out how Bruno got his name? I keep calling him Charlie.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, we might find out how Bruno got his name. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caroline Waxler: Excellent. You do it all on this show. I mean, you write, you edit, you produce, and you even sing. Tell us about your singing career, and how that informs your work?
Solvan Naim: Well, I edited on the proof of concept, but on the series, we had a great professional editor named Ryan, but I mean, the music-
Caroline Waxler: And you act.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is my baby, this is my little brain child, but music informs pretty much everything I do creatively. If there’s an idea, it’s usually sparked from listening to a song, to music. If there’s a script I’m writing, usually I see the scene prior to writing it, by listening to music. It’s like my muse. I was rapping and singing way before I picked up a camera.
Solvan Naim: Directing, filmmaking wasn’t in my plans. That’s not something that I aspired to be as a kid. It all started, actually, through shooting music videos. I was rapping and performing in New York City, and these two NYU film students, who were fans of my music, and were at one of my shows, they actually approached me to shoot my first music video for free. Of course, I took them up on that.
Solvan Naim: Prior to that, like I said, I was listening to music, and visualizing scenes and characters, but I never wrote anything down. So, this was an opportunity to write a treatment to one of my own songs, and write down these images I had in my head. I gave it to these NYU students, and sure enough, they shot it, and a couple weeks later, I was looking at what I had in my mind on the screen. It was like my mind was projected on a screen, and to me that was amazing. That was this cool thing that I’ve never done before, and that’s when I got the bug of like, “Wow, I want to do more of this.”
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s great, and I like that they work together, and congratulations on your album release.
Solvan Naim: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, so that’s what I do. Whether it’s film, or television, that I’m directing, I’ll implement songs of mine into the series, or into the film that I’m doing. I did that for Bruno, where I released an album called Proof of Concept, the same day that Bruno released, and that’s available everywhere. There’s a few songs that are in the series, that are on the album as well.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I love that. Going back to It’s Bruno!, were there any particular scenes that you thought translated well from the script onto the screen?
Solvan Naim: I mean, almost all of it, really. I was very happy with everything that I was getting, honestly. Some stuff would be a lot more elevated than what was on the page, actually, with the actors that I was working with, and some of the improv, or something that I would find on set, that I wouldn’t have been able to write. I think we elevate the scenes.
Caroline Waxler: Cool. Where do you like to write, and what’s your environment? You mentioned that you have music playing. What kind of music plays?
Solvan Naim: Oh man, it’s such an eclectic mix, I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s hip hop, it’s soul, R&B, stuff from the ’60s, sometimes, we’ll be like some hippie music. It’s a lot of different music, very different stuff, very random stuff.
Caroline Waxler: Where do you like to write?
Solvan Naim: I like to write anywhere really. I mean, earlier, I would do the stereotypical coffee shops stuff, you know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: In Bushwick?
Solvan Naim: Just to switch … Yeah, in Bushwick, or I would take the train to Manhattan, and find a spot to do it, but there was definitely a few coffee shops in Bushwick, that I wrote a lot in.
Caroline Waxler: Where? Which ones?
Solvan Naim: There was one on … I don’t remember the name of it, because it’s like, these bush league coffee shops, they don’t even have a name over it, over their thing. It’s just a brick building, and just a door there, and an awning, but there was one on Wyckoff that I would go to often, near the L train stop. Then, in Manhattan, actually, I wrote at a Starbucks in Soho a couple times. I write at home a lot, definitely write at home a lot. When I was in Bushwick, I was writing at home a lot. Yeah. I mean, I write wherever. I don’t have my writing spot, where I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’m going to go here,” and just write it. I like mixing it up and stuff.
Caroline Waxler: Cool. I understand that you had a very important mentor in your life, John Singleton. Tell us how you met, and what impact he had on you.
Solvan Naim: John Singleton, I think his whole life, and his career, proves it over and over again, he lives off putting talent on. He finds talent, and puts them on, as much as he can, which is one of the most abnormal things you can do in this industry, and something that I’ve been doing as well, and I strive to continue to do.
Solvan Naim: I met John from his show Snowfall, which I got on through my short film, Stanhope. So, first I did a feature called Full Circle, which did the well in the festival circuit, then I followed up with a short film called Stanhope, just usually the opposite way it goes. I did a feature, and then a short.
Solvan Naim: Stanhope did very well in the festival circuit, even better actually, because it was shorter, it went more viral. Through that, a bunch of studios hit me up, and wanted me to join their Diverse Directors Program. Fox was one of them, and Snowfalls through FX, so I was able to shadow on that show, and then do that shadow, and flip it into a directing gig, and that’s where I met Singleton.
Solvan Naim: I actually met Singleton at a film festival a year before that, and he was aware of my film Stanhope, so when I saw him again, we connected right away. His face lit up, and he’s like, “Slick,” and that was it, man. He was always a fan of my work, and from then on, we would be in Video Village, while I’m directing Snowfall, and it’s like having a mascot with you, a team mascot. You get a scene that he loves, and he just goes crazy. You know what I mean? He’ll go throwing his arms, flaring, he’ll be like, “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking …”
Solvan Naim: As soon as I yell cut, he goes out there. It’s like the kind of energy that he had was unmatched, and yeah, I mean, he was just a big champion of mine. He pushed me to whoever he met.
Caroline Waxler: That’s great. Those kind of relationships are irreplaceable.
Solvan Naim: Yep. Yep. Yep.
Caroline Waxler: How nice to have exposure to such an accomplished and amazing person, and have him champion you.
Solvan Naim: Yeah. I mean, we had a lot of stuff in the works together too, unfortunately.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, you did?
Solvan Naim: Yeah. Yeah. We were doing a feature together. We had a lot going on. It’s unfortunate what happened.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. I want to touch on one thing. Well, actually I’m curious, so of those projects, where do you think they’re going to go? What do you plan to do with them?
Solvan Naim: Well, I have a few projects set up already. I have a couple films that I’m doing, that I’m attached to, directing and co-write, and some more TV stuff in the line. My projects, they’re in development, so you know how that goes.
Caroline Waxler: Yes. We’re talking to you now in LA, and I know you’re typically based in New York, so are a lot of them LA-based projects?
Solvan Naim: No, actually. Any project that I write, is usually set in New York, is usually set in Brooklyn. I’ll take meetings out here, and I’ll write out here, but my whole mantra is like, shoot in New York, sell in LA. You know what I mean? Shoot it there, sell it here.
Caroline Waxler: We love that.
Solvan Naim: Yeah. This is where the business is, this is where the studios are, and so you got to come out here and do the business.
Caroline Waxler: Got it. I wanted to go back to something you were talking about, these fellowships and festivals, that recognized you, and you were involved in. I know you mentioned Full Circle, and that one, you won an audience award at the 2013 Urban World Festival, and The Writers Guild is a sponsor of that. You were also selected as a finalist for Sony Pictures Diverse Directors TV Program in 2015.
Caroline Waxler: How important have festivals and fellowships, that support diversifying the film and television industry, been to you in your career? I know you’re of Algerian descent, and I want to know if that’s been particularly helpful with the fellowship and festival world?
Solvan Naim: Well, I mean honestly, they’ve been crucial. All of the Diverse Directors Programs that I’ve been in, Sony, Fox, and NBC, all translated, eventually, into directing gigs on shows that are on those networks, and which translated to more directing, and more networking, and help me set up my projects. So, I mean, they were all very instrumental, Sony being the first one. Sony was the first one that I went to, and they ended up putting me shadowing on The Get Down. That was the first show that I ended up directing on, and that was on-
Caroline Waxler: In the Bronx, the Baz Luhrmann show.
Solvan Naim: Yeah. Yep, Yep. Yep. That was a wild one. That was a wild show.
Caroline Waxler: Why?
Solvan Naim: It was far from traditional TV preparation and shooting. It was very high budget, but yet guerilla filmmaking, which coming from … It’s funny, I went from … Full Circle, at the time that I made it, it was the lowest budget feature registered with the New York Mayor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television. So, I went from that, to-
Caroline Waxler: You were the youngest person to register a film with that office, right?
Solvan Naim: Yep. Yep. Yep. So, I went from that, to the biggest budget series, which was The Get Down, at the time, but it was still the same kind of filmmaking. You know what I mean? It was basically like I was still shooting guerilla style, but just with a lot more crew, and a lot more money, and a lot more equipment.
Caroline Waxler: Did that take a different mindset to adjust to that, or was that just an easy transition?
Solvan Naim: No, I think it was actually one of the defining moments from my career, to know that this is what I’m supposed to do, because I was very comfortable on both sets. That chair was the right fit for me.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. What advice would you give to other people applying to these types of programs and festivals?
Solvan Naim: Just create your own content. If it wasn’t for me writing my own stuff, none of this would have ever happened, period, plain and simple. It all starts with the pen or the keyboard. That’s how it all started for me. I mean, that’s always my advice that I give to anybody, write your own stuff. If you can’t write, find a writer that has the same sensibilities as you, and team up together, and create content, and eventually something will hit. If you can laser focus on that, and have a very distinct vision and POV, something will happen, but obviously, it’s a very difficult business to break into.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, very difficult business to break into, but your talent was recognized, so I think that’s a good lesson, that people should go for it.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, absolutely. Go for it. I mean, it’s always important. I always say I had absolutely zero connections in the film business. There’s nobody that I know at the time, or that I was related to, or even friends with, that was in the movie business. You know what I mean?
Solvan Naim: I didn’t go to film school, or anything like that. I would just jump right in head first. I would pick up scripts from films that I knew, some of my favorite films that I knew front to back. I would read those scripts, and figure out how they wrote them, how the format was, by just reading some of my favorite films’ scripts. Through that, I was able to start writing, and obviously, learning final draft, and stuff like that.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. It sounds like you had your own distinct style, and were fearless when you went for it.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, but it came out all right. You know what I mean? I was just learning as I was going.
Caroline Waxler: Cool. One thing that I think is so interesting, that you did go forward with your own style, is that the episodes are about 15 minutes long, of It’s Bruno! How did that come to be?
Solvan Naim: Well, it actually came to be through those proof of concepts that I was talking about. Those proof of concepts, they were seven minutes, eight minutes, or between seven and 10 minutes. I think by doing that, by setting that off, I think that sparked the idea from Warner Brothers and Netflix, like, “Ah, you know what? Let’s keep them short. Let’s keep them nice and short, and distinct, and see how that format works.” That’s, I think, how it started, and I think it worked out well.
Caroline Waxler: Perfect. Finally, I understand you’re working with one of the best managers in the business. How has he impacted your career, and how did you guys team up with … How’d you team up with John Huddle at Fourth Wall Management?
Solvan Naim: John’s my guy. John, I met when I … Well, it’s tricky, because this is something too, that I … Big advice that I would give up-and-comers, is finding your team, finding the right team. At least for me, it was one of the most difficult things in my career, because I went through a lot of different managers, and different agents.
Solvan Naim: When you first come in the business, you come in thinking that they know more than you, because this is what they do. You’re just stepping into their world, pretty much, this Hollywood world, so you put a lot of faith into them, and you put your own decision making and sensibilities on the back burner for a little bit, because you’re stepping in an unknown world, that they’re already living in.
Solvan Naim: So, I think that there’s a balance that you have to have, of still sticking strong to your sensibilities and decision making, but also taking the advice of your reps. But, that’s it, just the advice, and then taking their advice with your own thoughts, and then creating a decision from there.
Solvan Naim: I actually ended up with Huddle midway through my career, which I mean, I haven’t even been here that long. I think I’ve been with Huddle for a year and a half now, maybe a little more, or something like that. He’s from New York. You know what I mean? He has a hustler’s mentality. He has a get it done by any means mentality. And my wife liked him, so that was pretty much a done deal. Since then, he’s doing exactly what a manager should do, and championing his client, making sure that they’re in the best situation that they could be.
Caroline Waxler: Great. Yeah, he’s the best, and always good to follow the advice of your spouse.
Solvan Naim: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Right?
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. Finally, I am obsessed with It’s Bruno! I’ve only watched three episodes, so any spoilers for me, for the remainder of the season?
Solvan Naim: Well, I mean, I gave you a couple spoilers already, with the season two ideas, but I mean, let’s just say that Malcolm goes through some tough times.
Caroline Waxler: Oh no.
Solvan Naim: If you can imagine, what could possibly be the worst thing that could happen to Malcolm?
Caroline Waxler: Yep.
Solvan Naim: And then, how can he get back on track?
Caroline Waxler: I hope it’s not as bad as I’m imagining. I’m excited to binge the rest of the series tonight, so I’m excited Netflix gave you It’s Bruno!
Solvan Naim: Yeah, I’m happy they did too, and that’s another thing. You know what’s great with Netflix is, they really gave me my creative freedom, and didn’t change much on the page.
Caroline Waxler: Perfect. Well, looking forward to seeing more of your work, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Solvan Naim: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I had a great time with you.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of The Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about The Writers Guild of America, East, email@example.com, and follow the Guild on social media at @WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in, write on.