July 21, 2022
Alumni Spotlight: Nicole L. Thompson '19
By Olivia Kuhn
Nicole L. Thompson ’19 is a filmmaker helming from Newark, NJ and a graduate of SCA’s MFA for Film and Television Production. A jack of all trades, she has accumulated an impressive and diverse body of work in both communications and filmmaking, working for companies such as SAG-AFTRA and Nickelodeon. She has also been featured in Forbes Magazine and Variety Magazine’s Power of Women Issue with Lifetime Television Network. Nicole joins us today to discuss her journey to the director’s chair: her directorial debut, Suitcase Killer: The Melanie McGuire Story, which premiered on June 18th on Lifetime.
What inspired your love of film?
My love for film began when I was 13 years old when I was taking pre-college courses during the summer at NJIT. That summer, they offered three electives to take alongside our regular courses and I chose filmmaking. When I took the class, my eyes were opened to a career field that I didn’t know existed. I loved watching movies and TV shows. When I learned I could do this as a career, I was inspired to become a filmmaker. I’ve been chasing this dream for the past 17 years and filmmaking is the only career I’ve ever wanted to have. I have been blessed to work in the TV & film industry as a professional director, writer, and producer.
You are an avid traveler, having visited over 25 countries. In what ways does immersing yourself in various cultures inspire you as a creative?
I love traveling! I have filmed video blogs in every country I’ve traveled to. Traveling inspires me as a creative because it helps me learn from other cultures and their ways of living and drives me to tell stories from different perspectives. It is my dream to travel to all 7 continents and I have been to 6 continents so far. Antarctica is my next destination to check off.
Are there specific classes, faculty, or other students at SCA that you can point to as instrumental in your development as a filmmaker?
All of the directing classes I took have been very instrumental to my career. The final directing class I took was taught by Robert Townsend. Robert taught us that we must have a director’s toolbox that we can figuratively reach into and grab different tools from. This can help strengthen a performance. What I learned has been very crucial to how I prepare to direct projects and I constantly refer back to many of his lessons. I also took the pitching class which has helped me when pitching to network executives and potential collaborators. Lastly, the feature screenwriting class at USC helped prepare me to write my own scripts.
While at SCA, you served as president of the African American Cinema Society. How did your work with the AACS prepare you as a collaborator and leader?
I really enjoyed serving as the President of the USC African American Cinema Society. My position as President allowed me to advance my communication and public speaking skills, as well as prepared me to be a better collaborator and leader. While in the organization, I brought several filmmakers to campus to screen their work and interviewed them. One of my favorite screenings was Love & Basketball, where I was able to interview director Gina Prince Bythewood and actress Sanaa Lathan.
Your SCA thesis film Blackbird was inspired by your grandmother. What role does family play in your drive to tell stories?
My family plays a big role in my drive to tell stories. They are my support system. Without their love, support and guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am at today.
You just made your directorial debut with Suitcase Killer: The Melanie McGuire Story. Can you discuss how you became involved with the project and why you decided on it for your feature debut?
Prior to the pandemic, executives from Lifetime watched my thesis film Blackbird. This led to me being invited to shadow on the feature film Envy, which was a part of the Broader Focus Initiative at Lifetime. I learned a lot on this film and my experience prepared me to pitch myself as a director on future projects. When I learned about Suitcase Killer: The Melanie McGuire Story, I pitched to direct. I enjoyed collaborating with such a talented cast and crew on this film. The story is such a tragedy, but my hope is to spread awareness. I am very fortunate to have been hired to direct this project as my directorial debut.
What was your directorial process to approaching a true story and translating it to the screen?
My process began with doing research. I read every article I could find about my subject Melanie McGuire. I watched the 20/20 documentary where she tells her account of what happened and listened to the Direct Appeal podcast where she speaks to the audience from prison. With all of this research, I then created a timeline of her life. I wanted to make sure I had everything organized so that I could portray this project with as much accuracy as possible. From there, I read the script several times and identified the arc of the story, each character’s arc, and the subtext for the scenes. I then broke down the script scene by scene, so that I could have an account of what was needed for each department. I created a lookbook for each department, met with each department head to discuss my vision for the film, and then collaborated with them on what they proposed could be done to achieve my vision. I went on location scouts, I created a shot list, drew overheads, and much more. I also collaborated with fellow USC alum Kevin Lax on the score for this film, who also composed the music for Blackbird.
You’ve done some work with animation, including your short Between the Pages. How have these experiences differed from your work in live-action filmmaking?
Working in animation is like working in another world. I love it because it feels like there is a vast amount of possibilities that can be done. With my animated short Between the Pages, I was able to direct a story filled with magical realism about a young boy who travels into a book. I also got to collaborate with fellow USC alum Franklin Okike, the talented animator for this project who helped take my script and storyboard and bring it to life. Following the success of this animated short, I was hired as a producer on Nickelodeon’s Noggin animated series Rhymes Through Times featuring Nick Jr. Characters.
What advice would you offer to those aspiring to work in the film industry?
One piece of advice I would give is to write down your dream on a piece of paper. Create a list of several steps you will need to take to get to this dream, and then each day, make a to do list. On your list, make sure one of your action items services you getting a step closer to your dream. I decided I wanted to become a director in 2013, a dream that took me 17 years to realize. For some people, their dream job in the industry will come quick; for others, their dream job in the film industry may come slow. No matter how long it takes, you must continue to keep trying. If you love it, never give up. Keep creating even when no one is watching because one day, someone will be. You will have to be ready when the opportunity is in front of you.
What are some goals you have for your future in directing?
As a director, I want to get into directing television and more feature films. I also hope to create my own production company, own a television network, own a movie theater, and create a pathway program to help more people get into the film industry.