‘Mammoth’ accomplishment for Wilton brothers, filmmakers

  • From left: Elliot Thompson and his brother Paul in the opening scene of a short film directed and co-written by Ariel Heller.   Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, October 05, 2017 9:44AM

The 22 minute short film called “Mammoth” opens with a shot of a character named Paul Thompson sitting in his parked car looking his face hard and serious.

The camera moves over to Paul’s brother Elliot asleep in the passenger seat.

Paul tries to wake him up gently at first, but when he doesn’t respond, his attempts grow louder. There’s a few moments of concern, but eventually in a surge of energy Elliot wakes up and shouts, “Got you!”

“I knew you were faking, I said, ‘you were faking,’” Paul responds.

The scene sets up each of the character traits between the two brothers that plays out throughout the rest of the short film — Paul the more serious one, and Elliot making light of the situation. The story follows the brothers as Elliot, who is terminally ill, checks off the last items on a list called “Elliot’s Farewell Tour” before he decides to kill himself at a cabin in Mammoth under the Death with Dignity Act.

The film, directed and co-written by Ariel Heller, was recently selected for a Student Academy Award. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose 17 students as winners from a pool of 1,587 entries for the award. Each of the award-winning films is eligible to compete for a 2017 Oscars in the Animated Short Film or Live Action Short Film category and the 2018 Oscars in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Heller, who grew up in Wilton, said the film was created as his thesis project for his master’s degree at the University of Southern California. Heller said he was immediately drawn to the subject called the Death With Dignity Act, or physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in five states including Oregon, Vermont, Washington, California, and Montana.

Heller said he and his brother Caleb, who filmed “Mammoth,” lost a friend of theirs to brain cancer when they were in their 20s. Caleb said while the friend didn’t die at his own will, as the character in the short film does, the experience of losing a friend drew him to the story line.

“It was a long time ago, but it was tragic. He had so much life still to live,” Caleb said of the loss.

Caleb said during the most emotional points of shooting the film, he was able to access some of those feelings of losing a close friend.

Heller said the experience of loss is one that everyone can relate to in one way or another, whether through the passing of an animal, a loved one, or a friend.

“Everyone can relate to loss in some way,” Heller said.

And he likes exploring complicated relationships and subject matter.

“I like complicated relationships where things aren’t black and white,” Heller said.

Heller said he was also drawn to the film because the story because it’s about a relationship between two brothers, a bond he has with his brother Caleb.

Caleb said the two grew up recording small segments on a camcorder with no real intention of ever pursuing filmmaking.

“I remember them making short little comedies they would mimic Peter Jennings (an anchor of ABC World News Tonight for 22 years),” said their sister Sarah Steinberg Heller, who lives in Peterborough.

She said growing up they would hold black-and-white family movie nights, and on road trips they would cram into the back seats and watch movies on small screens.

“We always sort of gravitated toward film and music,” Steinberg Heller said, adding that she too has produced a few films and is part of the Telluride Film Festival and a founding member of the Monadnock International Film Festival.

She said her two brothers couldn’t be more different; Ariel more outgoing and “what you see is what you get,” and Caleb more of an introvert and pensive. Despite their differences, she said they work well together.

“Their styles meld really well together,” Steinberg Heller said.

She said she and her husband watched “Mammoth” for the first time on a blue-ray disk. She said she was a little nervous to pop the disk in the first time because she didn’t know what she would say if she didn’t like it. But that didn’t end up happening. She Facetimed Ariel not long after they had watched the short film through and told him she was proud of him for the piece.

“I could recognize our childhood,” Steinberg Heller said of the movie.

The film follows the brothers as Elliot checks off items on his list, which includes telling off Elliot’s old co-workers, visiting his friends, and heading to the cabin where he eventually ends his life. The heavy material is cut with bits of Elliot’s humor, although the situation comes to a climax when Paul can’t handle him brushing off the situation with humor anymore. They have a moment overlooking a lake where they repair the damage.

Heller said he had no idea the film would catch any attention after it was made. He said he found out about winning the academy award while he was out to dinner in Paris.

“It was pretty surreal,” Heller said.

Abby Kessler can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 234 or akessler@ledgertranscript.com.