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The background image on the computer screen on Erik Forssell's desk in the Newport Beach Film Festival offices shows his then-very-pregnant wife, Claudia, smiling, an image that inspires him. Forssell needs plenty: Besides working for the festival, he puts in hours for the nonprofit Orange County Film Society, classes he teaches at Orange Coast College and on shoots as a filmmaker.
"My life is currently exhausting," he says, leaning back in his chair. "I don't know which ball I'm juggling to catch."
Born in Anaheim, raised in La Habra, and educated at Sonora High School and Fullerton and Orange Coast community colleges, Forssell began studying photography but dove into the "kick-ass" OCC film program after making prints "for hours and hours and hours" in the darkroom one day and stepping outside to catch some fresh air only to see film students across the way having way more fun than he was. On one early shoot, after a director and his cameraman got into a fight, the helmer turned to the crew and asked, "Who wants to be a cameraman?" At 19, Forssell went from production assistant to director of photography on his first picture.
He left OCC with an AA, applied to and received rejection letters from various prestigious film schools, and finally landed at the Art Center of Design in Pasadena. Though he worked as a movie shooter moonlighting as a Maytag repairman along the way, the road led back to OCC, where he now teaches basic film and cinematography classes. "I feel I'm in a groove as an instructor," says Forssell, who's confident the two-year college cranks out students ready to work in the film biz.
The school's faculty and students "are like family" to him, and he found another at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which he joined as a production assistant a dozen years ago. "It's funny; I remember when Gregg and Todd and a fax machine were all we had," Forssell says, referring to festival co-founders Gregg Schwenk (the CEO) and Todd Quartararo (the marketing director), as well as an office device no one uses anymore. For years, Forssell headed the programmers who make the final selections on which films are included in the festival lineup. With a baby on the way, he could not devote that much time, so a new role was carved out: special operations director. He's essentially charged with ensuring festival presentations go off smoothly, something he also does for the Film Society, whose member screenings are shown around the county when the festival is dark.
Whether at school or on a set, he looks forward to "paying it forward" as instilled in him by László Kovács, the legendary Hungarian-born cinematographer whose films included Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Ghostbusters. They met at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2001, "just hit it off" and kept in touch often over what would be the last six years of Kovács' life.
In 2009, Forssell introduced Newport festival audiences to No Subtitles Necessary, a documentary (with horrifying footage) about Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond escaping the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary before both improbably rose to become top Hollywood cinematographers. There's an early scene in which "Happy Birthday" is sung to Kovács as he holds a phone receiver to his ear. Forssell was on the other end of the line.
Kovács did not offer industry advice much, but when he did, he included what's now Forssell's mantra: "I teach you something; you give that to someone else."