Every night since he was eight, Radio/Television/Film first-year Jackson Heller would sit down with his family and watch two hours of television over dinner.
“Have you ever seen Matilda? You know how they sit in front of their TV trays?” Heller asked.
His family, in fact, had their own TV trays.
Unlike in Matilda, where television kept the family from having quality time together, watching television was a form of bonding for Heller’s family.
“That’s what a lot of our language is built off of, what a lot of our connections are built off of,” he said.
This family tradition ultimately led Heller to pursue screenwriting in college.
This past winter, Heller received a $1,500 grant to direct his short film “INB,” which he said was short for “in between.”
INB is a comedy-drama about a man who fatally chokes on an M&M and finds himself in a dreamlike office. He can choose to either work at this company in the afterlife forever or return to the real world — without a second chance the next time he dies.
Heller began the script of INB in his fall Foundations of Screenwriting course. Despite being a comedy, the script’s deeper themes have roots in the mental health struggles Heller experienced earlier this year after he was turned away from multiple extracurriculars he applied to, he said.
“There was a very specific feeling of rejection that I interpreted as being in purgatory,” Heller said. “I didn’t feel like I was moving forward in my life, and I wasn’t exactly moving backward.”
Heller said he came first in everything at his high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin, from being the head of honor roll to the captain of the soccer team. He experienced imposter syndrome when he arrived at Northwestern and didn’t receive a callback from any of the sketch comedy groups on campus.
Still, Heller immersed himself in his screenwriting class, regaining confidence from his peers’ positive feedback on his work. When his professor told him Studio 22, one of Northwestern’s student production company, was offering the New Student Grant for first-year and transfer student screenwriters, Heller went for it.
During the winter quarter, Heller made adjustments to his script and submitted it for the first round of decisions. He received a notification that his script was chosen to move on to the pitching process, where he went full out, dressing up as a character in his film for the presentation.
“I really wanted to put not only my project but also me as a person and a writer out during the pitch,” he said.
The night of the decision, Heller woke up at 4 a.m. with a gut feeling that he had won the grant. He thought, “Wait, no, I have to check my email first,” before he checked his email and saw that he actually did win the grant.
“I don’t know if I dreamt it or if I already opened the email while I was half awake, but it was so surreal,” he said.
Allan Rodriguez and Tanya Herrmann, co-presidents of Studio 22, said Heller’s humorous and engaging pitch stood out to the whole board, making them enthusiastic about seeing it turned into a film.
“Jackson knew his story like the back of his hand. Somebody who has a very direct vision always makes us feel good about choosing them,” Rodriguez said.
Heller jumped into filming the first week of spring quarter. He overcame many challenges, from finding a location to facing a steep learning curve in technical skills throughout the filming process – with the support and collaboration of his close-knit team, he said.
On the first day of filming, Heller got to perform one of his tasks as a director: calling action. Unfortunately, the first time he called action, he called it too early, he said.
“So, my first steps into directing were wrong and everyone laughed at me. If these weren’t my close friends I would have just gone home,” he said.
Surrounded by other first-year or transfer students on the crew, Heller brushed off the embarrassment and leaned into the learning process alongside his team.
“Jackson really fostered a welcoming community where everyone of all experiences felt like they had a part on our crew. He’s just a unifying person,” Mia Bassett, the film’s director of photography, said.
Co-Producer Leela Malladi noted that Heller took on the same roles as other members of the crew, from carrying equipment to helping with set design, and welcomed input from everyone.
“Especially as a female producer, it’s easy to feel undermined, but he never made anyone feel that way,” she said.
Bassett added that Heller’s leadership skills shone through his elimination of a hierarchy in the crew.
“You want to have a relationship with the director where when you get orders, you don’t feel bossed around and you really feel like they’re your friend,” she said. “That’s exactly what Jackson is.”
The team dynamic turned into a close friendship — the crew members often found themselves hanging out with each other even after they finished their work for the day, Bassett said.
Seeing his team come together to create his film “was the exact opposite of imposter syndrome,” Heller said.
“I felt so special and also so proud of myself, which is something that I haven’t felt that much since I came to Northwestern,” he said.
At the end of the film, as the main character rushes to make his decision, he finds some old M&Ms in his pocket. After he enjoys the delicious morsels of his favorite candy, he ultimately chooses to return to his life.
The film debuts at Studio 22’s premiere in June, and the message Heller wants to leave the audience is to “find your M&M, that little thing you can keep living for.”