Emerson filmmaker wants you to think about drama unfolding over 18 minutes

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Nicolas Thilo-McGovern (in red hat) works with actors Sean Thomas Smith and Terry Reed before a take. Other crew members are, from left, Alec Cerutti, Sean Thomas Smith (front), Maryam Fassihi (back), Terry Reed, Albert Rano, Clay Sosis, Andrew Jacques, Nicolas Thilo-McGovern, Laina Swatek (back), Will Solomon (front), Elizabeth David, Chase Ybarra and Nuria Pellicer. 

Do student films speak to you? Find out at noon Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Capitol Theatre.

Among two hours of screenings from young directors during the Arlington International Film Festival is "Speak to Me," a thoughtful 18-minute drama by Emerson College student Nicolas Thilo-McGovern.

Having its world premiere, the film by the Cambridge native tells the story of a has-been, best-selling author and his fiancée. She is promoted; he has his latest chapter rejected. That triggers resentment and jealousy.

Full festival film lineup for 2018

More lurks behind this basic plot, as the 21-year-old senior describes in response to YourArlington queries.

"I wrote this story for one main reason: I wanted to show someone who has a mental illness, but not make that their defining characteristic.

"I hated seeing people with different forms of mental illness being portrayed as if that was the only driving force in their life. No one greets each other on the street and says, 'Hi my name is Joe; I am bipolar.'

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Student Filmmaker Program
Saturday, Nov. 3 

At noon, the Capitol Theatre presents the festival's student program. A reception follows at the Fox Library, with a moderated conversation led by Emerson College film students Nuria Pellicer, Nicolas Thilo-McGovern and Shuyi Wang.

Filmmakers, 18 and younger, bring to the screen with their agility of mind, inventiveness and passionate idealism. Besides "Speak to Me," described in the main feature, here is the lineup of films:

CALAVERA (6 min) | Adele Rankin | Austin, Texas | Thriller| World premiere A young woman purchases a mysterious book at a yard sale but gets more than she bargained for.

TREJUR (10 min) | Thomas Kim | Concord, Mass. | Animation | World premiere, best animation A modern woman remembers her wretched, toy-giving grandmother in this dark, hand-made, fantasy, stop-motion animation. Trejur (pronounced "treasure") is a story that questions how desperation can transform us into something we never thought ourselves to be.

HE DIDN’T MEAN TO (6 min) | Emily Steinbomer | Austin, Texas | Nar | World premiere A film about unhealthy relationships and the toll they take on the body and the self.

UNDOCUMENTARY (11 min) | Karla Cortes | Somerville, Mass. | Documentary | SCATV Youth Program | World premiere A discussion on endangered DACA and TPS programs and how the lives of many undocumented people now hang in the balance.

PALEHOUND “If You Met Her" (5 min) | Caitlin LeBlanc, Jeovana Almeida, Kiely Quinn, Michael Escobar, Rachel Newman, Sara Tesh, Tatiana Marquez, Tom Quigley | Lynn, Mass. | Documentary | Raw Arts Works | Boston premiere Is an empty house a home?

NEEDLES AND THREATS (10 min) | Alyssa Abreu, Moises Vargas & Anisa Hamilton |NYC | Documentary | Maysles Documentary Center | Boston Premiere | Best documentary, Derek Freesed Youth Media Film Festival, 2018 The despairing effect of one woman's addiction on two families.

THE ART COLLECTOR (5 min) | Saoirse Loftus-Reid | Lexington, Mass. | Documentary | Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, Lexington; MA Regional Silver Key Award; A-Town Teen Video Contest, Arlington A mysterious woman uses her ability to live in paintings to influence artists for her art collection.  

EBI SUSHI (6 min) | Karla Cortes | Somerville, Mass. | Documentary | SCATV Youth Program, A-Town Teen Video Contest, Arlington A Latino restaurateur’s challenges of being recognized as a major player in the sushi world.

VIOLENCE IN BALTIMORE (21 min) | Brooke Anderson, William Coles, Katia Crawford, Marc Cruise, Jayla Elliott, Joelle Faison, Kailah Hall, Michelle Hill, Eric Hunter, William Mitchell, Sama Muhammad, Ade Ogunshina, Eva Ojekwe, Brian Thompson, Ayanna White | Baltimore, Md. | Documentary | Wide Angle Youth Media | Boston Premiere, Best of Festival In Spring 2017, high school students investigated the cycle of violence in Baltimore, searching for real- world strategies to prevent violence from escalating among their peers and their communities. This powerful documentary provides insight into the ways young people are challenging dominant narratives and seeking peaceful, de-escalating methods of conflict resolution.

IRONY (8 min) | Radheya Jegatheva | Australia | Experimental | U.S. premiere, Best Experimental A film that explores the relationship between man and technology told from the perspective of a phone.

BLACK & WHITE (10 min) | Kunga Choephel, Zola Gray & Asa Spellman | NYC | Documentary | Maysles Documentary Center | World premiere Tracie's journey through her childhood in a unique family.

AWAKEN THE DRAGON TOGETHER (6 min) | Shuyi Wang | Boston MA | Documentary | Official Selection: HUA International Short Film Festival Dragon-boat racing began over 2,000 years ago on the rivers of China. Today, dragon boat festivals and races are celebrated around the world. This film follows a team of cancer survivors, known as the Wellness Warriors of MA as they use this ancient sport as an unconventional path to wellness.
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"People are what they are and have what they have, and that is their life. So I wanted to combat that a bit."

Mysteries remain

The film leaves the author's illness unexplained, the filmmaker said, not wanting it to distract from the main story.

The story follows two people who are just trying to make it, but instead of doing it together, they grow apart. "What I like about the two characters is that they really do love each other," he added, "but the conflict of goals, and not the conflict of personalities, drive them into each other.

"I think people are going to walk out of the theater with different opinions about what the story is truly about, and I don't think any of them are wrong. Whatever people get out of the film is great. At the end of the day, my job is to make people feel something, whatever that is, I did my job. If they don't feel anything, then I didn't."


How did the project evolve? Thilo-McGovern explained:

The writing process took about a year and another six months to be fully funded. A 2017 Kickstarter campaign raised $2,220 while the film was in production. Another six months passed before the final cut. 

"I would be lying if the reason that I liked this story didn't change as I developed," he noted.

The visual- and media-arts major, with a marketing minor, began making films after his parents split up, when he was 7.

What happened after 'Star Wars'

"My dad showed me 'Star Wars' when I was 9 or 10, and that opened the floodgates for me.

"I used to hang out at my friend's house on the weekends. He got a camcorder from his mom, so we used to film ourselves having light-saber battles in the backyard.

"Over time, we added characters, more scenes and editing. We just kept making stuff and experimenting. I did not know why some stuff worked and other stuff didn't, but we just kept trying."

When he was in high school, at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, he worked at a public-access TV station, CAETV, until he went to Emerson, long providing germinating ground for young filmmakers.

Parental support

"I am really fortunate to have parents who supported me through the process," he wrote. "My dad and I still go to movies, and my mom reads every script I work on.  His father is Marc McGovern, the Cambridge mayor,  and his mother, Pamela Thilo, is an online marketer and is on the board of A Better Cambridge.

Asked what excites him about filmmaking -- and about his film -- he explained:

"I think films are a great way to affect a lot of people for a long time. I hope people walk away from watching 'Speak to Me' and think about it. That is really what excites me in the simplest form."

He also focuses on an ethical dimension: "I also think that the power of the medium is a lot of responsibility to filmmakers. It is our job to make films ethically in front and behind the camera.

"One thing that was important to me was to take the extra steps to making sure the set was 50/50 men and women. I know my impact on the film industry is small, but there is no excuse for not putting into practice the change that should be seen in the industry at large."

Directors that inspire

Asked what directors inspire him -- and why they do -- he responded: "This is a tough question because I think there is something to be learned from every director, but of course I have my favorites. The first movie to really blow me away was 'The Big Lebowski,' directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. I think they capture the awkward moments in life really well."

Some of his favorite moments in that movie are between plot points: "I don't want to spoil anything, but from that movie I learned about the importance of every single second.

"If it is in the final cut, it is doing something, it is progressing the story."

Another director he likes is Nicolas Winding Refn. "I have seen almost everything he has made, and I think he does an amazing job of making the abnormal normal by altering your expectations.

"I actually watched 'Neon Demon,' 'Drive' and 'Bronson' while writing 'Speak to Me,' so I think his influence synced in to the film without my realizing it," he wrote.

He also judged high school films for the Arlington International Film Festival through the student-run production company that helped fund his film, Emerson Independent Video, and was impressed with the AIFF entries. "The one thing I would tell anyone who submitted is to watch films you don't think you would like. Pick a random movie on Netflix or go to an indie theater.

"There are so many great movies that get little to no distribution. One piece of wisdom I heard from Linda Reisman, producer of 'Leave No Trace' and "Danish Girl," among others, was 'If you don't go see movies, who do you think will come and see yours?' I think she makes a really good point about supporting the industry and learning something that can help your own filmmaking in the process."

What's ahead?

For Nic, where would his like his life to go? "One of my filmmaking friends at Emerson asked, 'If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?' and I very honestly said, 'Make movies.'

"Despite the odds of being successful in this industry, I'm determined to dedicate everything I have to telling the stories I want to tell. I just want to be able to keep making films for the rest of my life. I am working on another project right now, that is filming in late November and Early December, and it is a ton of work, but I wouldn't trade it for anything else."

This news feature was published Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. YourArlington is a financial supporter of the student part of the film festival.