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Cinematic arts alum takes a Mammoth step in the right direction

Master of Fine Arts graduate Ariel Heller wins a Student Academy Award for his film about terminal illness

Ariel Heller directing actor in Mammoth
Ariel Heller directs a cast member of Mammoth. (Photo/Bing Putney)

Ariel Heller MFA ’17 has won a Student Academy Award in the narrative filmmaking category for his thesis film Mammoth.

Heller talks about the inspiration for the drama, which deals with terminal illness, and other projects.

What inspired you to make Mammoth?

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 California, where Elliot plans to end his life under the Death With Dignity Act.

I discovered the script, written by my fellow USC grad student Celia Rettenmaier, in the spring of 2016, and I immediately fell in love with its themes. I related to the profound loss at the center of the story; when I was 20, I lost one of my best friends to brain cancer. Adam was only 21. Though Adam’s death did not involve the Death With Dignity act, I felt that Mammoth was a story I would be able to tell in a personal and honest way.

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.”

What advice do you have for current students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts?

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:

Be kind, both to yourself, and to your fellow collaborators.
Always have backups. Always have backups.
Always respond to e-mails quickly, you never know when you’ll need a fast answer.
Ask questions, be proactive.
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.

What are you involved in right now?

I am producing a short documentary for a Meet the Filmmaker series by Criterion Collection. The doc features 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 comedy pilots … and preparing for the advanced writing lab at The Groundlings Theatre.

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Cinematic arts alum takes a Mammoth step in the right direction

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