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They could hardly have come from more different backgrounds. Sebastian Schnabel grew up in a forest town of 16,000 in northern Germany called Königslutter am Elm. Cici Yixuan Wu hailed from bustling Zhengzhou, China, an agricultural, mining, and manufacturing center with a population of about 10 million.
From an early age, Schnabel dreamed about making movies. Wu harbored plans to become an architect.
They met in 2012 at a summer school session at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Schnabel, now 31, was studying film–a passion he pursued since he first started making short movies with dad’s camcorder at the age of 8.
A directing class Schnabel planned to take was unexpectedly canceled. A bit reluctantly, he signed up for an introduction to film class. It was a stroke of luck–that’s how he met Wu.
Today, they’re a husband-and-wife team who own and operate the Twin Cities-based video production company, MindTwist Studio.
Wu had gone to UCLA with no intentions of studying film. She was looking to improve her English skills and prepare for college entrance exams. But on a whim, she enrolled in the introduction to film class instead of a math course.
They were a couple by the end of the summer session.
“I thought it would just be a two-week thing: I would go back to China, he would go back to Germany,” recalled Wu, now 28. “But we kept a long-distance relationship going for two years.”
Wu returned to the United States in 2013 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she took architecture and design classes. A year later, Schnabel followed, enrolling at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to pursue a film degree.
By 2018, Schnabel and two film buddies joined forces and founded MindTwist Studio. At the same time, Wu, who had abandoned her plans for a career in architecture, was freelancing in the local film scene in various roles, including as a set decorator on the horror movie, “The Harbinger.”
Wu eventually partnered professionally with Schnabel, and the couple has run MindTwist as two-person after their collaborators moved on.
At the outset, it was a struggle to drum up business. In large part, Wu said, that’s because the film industry relies on word-of-mouth and, “When you’re new, there is no word of mouth.”
But the couple found work shooting video for a local theater group housed in the same office building they used in Minneapolis’ Lyn-Lake neighborhood. That opened the door to other work in the arts community.
Schnabel said it seemed like MindTwist was hitting its stride by the winter of 2020.
“Then COVID happened. Theater clients, event clients–all those things didn’t happen any more,” he recalled. “So we had to shift and figure out what we could do.”
They found themselves doing more corporate work and, after a lean period, business slowly picked up. All along, the couple pursued their own projects. This May, Schnabel and Wu screened a short movie, “The Flour That Made Us,” at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival.
The movie, directed by Schnabel and co-written by him and Wu, tells the story of a multicultural couple dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. It was voted an audience favorite, and is scheduled to be screened at a film festival in Japan.
Schnabel and Wu sat down with Sahan Journal recently to discuss their experience as fledgling filmmakers, how they collaborate, the obstacles they face, and their hopes for the future. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you start a new business, do your research and talk to people in the industry. “I did a lot of informational interviews,” Wu said. “I love doing informational interviews. I did that when I started freelancing. That’s how I got my first job–I met with a production designer and, after we talked, I wound up getting the job.”
If you want a career in the arts, a thick skin helps. “The amount of rejection outpaces acceptances or rewards,” Schnabel said. “That’s a big thing. I have to keep telling myself, ‘Don’t give up and don’t think because someone didn’t pick you, they hate your work.’ ”
“And you have to hold on to those people who you respect–those people who say you did a great job,” Wu said.
Your partner might be the best collaborator. “In the beginning, I would share scripts with Cici,” Schnabel said. “She gave such good suggestions and is so good at thinking about characters.
“We had a good time discussing things. She brings a side to the writing I am not as good at. Our goal for years ahead is to make feature films. We’ve been writing a feature script together for two years now.”
So you’re an artist? You still need to learn your business basics.
“I mostly do the administrative side and the day-to-day producing side,” Wu said. “I was thrown into the position, but slowly I have tried to create a system. Now, we have a pretty good budget sheet.
“I read a lot of business books during the pandemic. Working with numbers is one side, but you’re also working with people. Communications and relationship building are important.”
And pay attention to the bottom line. “You need to be realistic about your business,” Wu said. “If you don’t have the money, don’t spend it if there is a cheaper way. A lot of businesses go bankrupt in the first three years because they lose too much money. You need to look at your expenses and ask, ‘Can I do it cheaper?’ ”
“During the pandemic, we were looking at what expenses we can cut,” Schnabel said. “We cut the office. Then we found more clients and grew the business.”
And always keep your options open. “I think we want to go to other places, but I don’t know where,” Wu said. “It feels like home here. I’ve been here for nine years now. I know we’ll move, but thinking about that feels sad. This is like our hometown. We had nobody. Now we have a community.”