In an age of nepo babies, Nik Sysuev doesn’t have the typical Hollywood story, nor even one of a typical immigrant. Born in the USSR, Syseuv’s journey has taken around the globe where he’s worn a variety of hats before becoming an acclaimed filmmaker of many skills – writing, acting, directing and producing.
Now, as his work is getting major notice and he’s on the precipice of huge breakthroughs, revisiting how he got to this point proves quite remarkable.
Sysuev was born in a small industrial town in Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union. His mother was a mathematician and his father was a flight engineer who later got involved in politics.
Life was tough in the USSR, especially in the years just before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Political strife and the economy falling apart meant most people were dramatically poor.
“My earliest memories would all be in some way connected to try to ‘get’ things with my mother,” Sysuev recalls. “Waiting for a pawn shop to sell her coat to buy us some food. Waiting in line for two pieces of cheese because they only gave ‘one per pair of hands’ so my mother would drag me with her at 6 a.m. to the store. Helping my mother build me a locker for the kindergarten out of the scraps of old furniture because they didn’t have enough lockers for all the kids.”
It certainly built character that would later be critical to his success.
In the 90s, Sysuev’s family moved to Moscow. As a teen, his parents kept him busy with sports and music, but his big obsession was with American movies and TV.
“The U.S. market finally opened and we started getting U.S. TV shows. I would devour them. I watched everything from Miami Vice, to X-files, to Ally McBeal,” said Sysuev. “U.S. films were pirated and sold on VHS. I probably saw Robocop and Lethal Weapon more than 200 times.”
But with things going terribly in the country, at the age of 16, Sysuev’s parents decided to use what little money they had to send him to boarding school in the UK. He had already completed high school, but had to redo the last two years in order to get into a UK university.
It was there that his interest in becoming a storyteller was ignited.
“I started writing and reading lots of fiction. This was the first time I got a feel for the story and structure. It was challenging but I was getting good feedback and continued to write,” he recalls.
He then completed a Masters in Maths and Economics from the University of Edinburgh, which put him on the path of working in finance in London. “2007 wasn’t the best year to start working at a bank but I managed to trudge along for 10 years earning a living as a trader.”
But finance wouldn’t prove to be his ultimate calling, as filmmaking beckoned.
“A few years ago, I realized that I wasn’t following my real passion. In secret I did a short course at a local film school. I quit my job, worked on sets, produced a play, almost got into drama school, read books on screenwriting and then finally decided that I needed a bigger change and applied to AFI, which ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.”
At AFI, Sysuev got to work learning all aspects of filmmaking and found the creative jolt he needed, and as he puts it – “finally found my passion and I am following it with full commitment.”
Sysuev has already found success as a filmmaker with his thesis films at AFI, Why Don’t You Like Me? and KUSH: A Bubblegum Western, earning high levels of distinction, including being Official Selections and screened at Oscar Qualifying film festivals, a rare feat. WYDLM received an Audience Choice Award, and was a recipient of a $25,000 Sloan production grant.
His long-term goal is to try and emulate successful producers and writers he’s met who not only establish their own unique styles but also give voices to so many diverse new talents.
But his journey to get to this point hasn’t been lost to memory – it informs the art he creates. His background in finance has allowed him to pursue filmmaking with a level, business-oriented mind.
“My career in finance taught me to always think about the bigger picture in the times of short term volatility.”
And the stories he wants to tell harken to his origins, including a dark comedy based on his mother’s life called BAD SOVIET and another based on his father’s career in Russian politics.
Other films he wants to make tackle various aspects of his origins and unearth stories the world needs to hear.
“Recently I have been re-discovering stories that are deeply rooted in my unique cultural background. Through interviews with my relatives, re-reading of Russian history books and Russian fiction classics I discovered that there were so many voices and stories that I feel so much personal connection with that are not being heard or told. My goal is to become a creator who would channel his own unique background in his work, stay true to his voice and find a way to push the boundaries of the medium and entertain.”
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