September 14, 2017

SCA 2017 Grad Ariel Heller wins Student Academy Award

By Sabrina Malekzadah

Recent MFA Production grad Ariel Heller is a Student Academy Award winner in the narrative filmmaking category. We spoke to Ariel about the inspiration behind his winning thesis film, Mammoth, which deals with the turmoil of terminal illness, and about his current projects.

1. Tell us about Mammoth. What inspired you to make this film? 

The story follows Paul, who struggles to hide his grief as he drives his care-free terminally ill brother, Elliot, on a prank-filled farewell tour to Mammoth, California, where Elliot plans to end his life under the Death with Dignity Act.

The need to tell this story was an instantaneous gut reaction. I discovered the original script, written by my fellow USC grad student Celia Rettenmaier in the spring of 2016, and I immediately fell in love with the themes that were embedded in the concept. I related to the profound loss at the center of the story; when I was 20 years old I lost one of my best friends, Adam, to brain cancer. Adam was only 21 years old. Though Adam's death did not involve the Death with Dignity act, I felt that Mammoth was a story that I would be able to tell in a personal and honest way. 

I became aware of the Death With Dignity law in 2014, when the twenty-nine year-old Brittany Maynard announced she would be moving from California to Oregon, where she legally could have access to the prescription drug that would eventually end her life. Brittany formed a powerful partnership with the non-profit organization, Compassion and Choices, an alliance that would eventually lead to the End of Life Option Act in California over a year after Brittany's death. At its core, Mammoth is a not a film about cancer or the Death With Dignity law itself, but rather the different ways we struggle to come to terms with loss when given the choice to end things on our own terms. 

Mammoth was my first opportunity to share a vision on this kind of a scale, so I wanted to take this incredible opportunity to tell a story that felt like me. With the knowledge and resources of USC, and my wonderfully talented mentors and collaborators, I pushed myself to get my heart and brains onto the screen. It was, of course, my hope that what I made would resonate with its audience, so to receive this recognition feels incredibly special. Ultimately the film is nothing without an audience. 

What interests you the most about Production?

To me, there's nothing better than falling in love with an idea and then asking the question, "How do I get this done?",or maybe more accurately: "I won't stop until it's done". It's the main perk (or curse) of being a single-minded and obsessive filmmaker. It's a giant puzzle and I must solve it, I must make this this movie, and I must make it good.

What advice do you have for current students at SCA?

Well, everyone is different so you've gotta take it with a grain of salt, but here's some highlights from my experience at USC and the world at large that I think are objectively worth trying to do- geared towards writer/director/producers:

Be kind, both to yourself, and to your fellow collaborators. 

Always have back-ups. Always have back-ups.

Always respond to e-mails quickly, you never know when you'll need a fast answer.

Get good food on your sets. 

Ask questions, be proactive. I find it's hardly ever useful to focus on what you can't do, it IS useful if you put that energy into figuring out how to make it work another way, or make them let you do it your way.

Make a shot list. Do overheads. 

Take an acting class.

Utilize your faculty. Bug them, go to office hours, do what you need to get the most out of your time. Remember, our debt pays their bills, they're here for you, they want to help.

When you feel deeply that everything has been done before, just know it's true and accept it. No big deal, because no one sees the world like you do, so don't let it scare you away from something immediately. Your point of view is unique, it's your style. But be careful; it's not style over story, it's style in story.

Think like a director. Shots as thoughts, i.e. "What is the thought behind each shot?" "What shots do I need to tell the story?". You won't have time to get them all so be efficient. 

Think like a producer.

Think like a DP.

Think like a production designer.

Think like an editor. 

Think like a sound designer. 

What are you involved in right now? Where can people find out more about your work?

Currently I am producing a short documentary for a Meet The Filmmaker series by Criterion Collection. The doc features auteur director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger), and is directed by Robert Townsend (Hollywood Hustle, Meteor Man). I am also developing two half-hour single camera comedy pilots, if you've got a feature, send it to me! I am also preparing for the advanced writing lab at The Groundlings Theater. I've been in their program for four years now, and am hopeful I will have the opportunity to be a Sunday Company member sometime in 2018.