From the producer’s mouth: Thierry Cassuto

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Legendary Both Worlds producer, Thierry Cassuto chats to Screen Africa about his journey as a producer…

How did you come to find yourself working in film and TV? Was it always the plan?

No, not at the very beginning. I initially studied literature and went to work for a book publisher. Back then, in the 80s, French book publishers, especially those that specialised in art and nice coffee table books, thought they would be forced to evolve or disappear, as video cassettes were now the hottest thing in the market. My employer decided they needed someone young to take them into the ‘video’ business and, along with the Guild of Publishers, they came up with some money to send me to study in the US. I managed to add to that a scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and off I went to Boston University to study for a Master of Science in Broadcasting.

Upon my return to France, I started to work as a production manager on TV and film projects, then handled international distribution for a television company before I got hired as director of Programming for the largest French cable TV operator. I created the popular arts and entertainment channel Paris Premiere before joining the team that would launch the M6 channel, today one of the largest broadcasting groups in France and in Europe. After a few years, I decided to create my own independent production company, TVTV, and we managed to get at least one regular TV show on each of the seven networks. After selling my company in 1997, I decided I was ready for a new adventure and I moved to South Africa along with my family – where we’ve been happy and busy for 20 years now! So, no, it wasn’t always the plan – but film and TV have been in my life for the last 35 years.

You’ve found your niche producing comedy. What drew you to the genre and what challenges does it present?

While in France, I was presented with the opportunity to produce the Montreux Comedy Festival for television, featuring some of the best local and international TV comedians, which my company did for several years. And before that, when I was running programming at M6, we bought the rights to the UK satirical puppet show Spitting Image, which we also tried to adapt for the French market. We didn’t have enough money back then so we passed, and Canal Plus ended up doing their own version, Les Guignols. When I came to South Africa, in 1997, ZANEWS was the first project I developed. It took over 10 years to get a pilot commissioned by the SABC. And then you know the story… Every writer and every actor will tell you that comedy is more challenging than drama. Comedy is so hard to nail! For a producer, creating a successful comedy show is one of the more satisfying professional experiences. Convincing the broadcaster or the distributor that the show’s going to be funny and popular is already quite a challenge, as many will rule out the genre altogether on the basis of previous programmes that tanked. That never happens with drama. Ruling out comedy because the previous comedy show a channel tried didn’t do well is like saying I’m never going to eat bread again because the last piece I ate was stale! In film and TV you always have to try new stuff, and fail until you succeed. Now if comedy is challenging, imagine how difficult it is to do satire, especially in a conservative TV country like South Africa… But we’ve succeeded, with ZANEWS’s Puppet Nation (25 SAFTAs and two Emmy Awards nominations), Point of Order (SAFTA 2017) and now Parlement Parlement on kykNET. Hopefully the next one will also tickle the country’s funny bone.

As someone who I’m certain has mentored many in the industry, who were/are your mentors? Why them?

My key mentors were French, and probably unknown here in South Africa. But there is one person whose incredibly successful career, finding and developing new talent, and building a very successful small comedy empire in the US, has inspired me – that is Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and many other powerful and long-lasting comedy franchises. I hear the man is not the easiest or friendliest of producers (but then a bad rep often comes with the title) but he certainly is the TV comedy czar in the US!

What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date?

I had to produce the first day on air of M6, the French TV channel, which was going to broadcast live for most of the day from various locations, with music acts and star interviews, with only a week of prep.

What has been your career highlight(s) to date?

See above. That I managed to pull it off!

What advice do you have for young people wanting to follow in your career footsteps?

Don’t. Create your own path. In our business, footsteps get blown off very quickly by the winds of technology, new narratives and styles. To be a producer, you must first immerse yourself in all aspects of film and programme making, to know how to plan, to budget and to manage teams. But if you want to be a creative producer, who can speak head to head with writers, directors and cast, and come up with ideas that will impress, then I’d say read, read and read more. Go to art galleries, go to plays and concerts, learn about design. Watch good, classic movies and good TV. Then the ideas will flow, and if you work at them hard enough, you might develop projects that you can shop around. And maybe one of them, one in ten if you’re lucky, will convince a jaded TV executive or a film financier that your idea is worth trying.

Three people, dead or alive, that you would love to work with on a production?

  1. Donald Trump. That would mean he’d be out of the White House. And I’d fire his @ss immediately.
  2. John Belushi. The funniest and craziest man once alive.
  3. Djimon Hounsou. He’s attached to our next big international project, which is not a comedy at all.

If you weren’t working in film and television what would you be doing? 

I’d run a French beach restaurant on a South African surf spot. Or vice versa.

What can we expect next from Both Worlds?

More comedy on kykNET, Showmax and StarTimes. A musical gameshow. A big international drama series with Israeli and French partners. And very funny, angry, hungry puppets looking for a new TV home!

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