The final Cinémathèque screening series held by the College of Communication Department of Film and Television featured Luke Matheny, an Academy Award winner, on April 29. Matheny joined the audience over Zoom as he clued students in on how he navigated a notoriously difficult industry.
There were two screenings — one of his award-winning short “God of Love,” and the series finale of another award-winning Amazon family series “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street” which he produced and served as the showrunner — followed by a Q&A and discussion with Matheny.
“God of Love,” Matheny’s short that ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Short Film, was the product of his thesis film in the graduate program at New York University, he said.
“We had three years of classes and then two years to finish your thesis and I did it right near the end of that,” Matheny said. “[I] was met with a wall of rejection, didn’t not get into any big festivals, Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, screened at the Telluride Film Festival, which was cool … but certainly didn’t like open doors or anything.”
He said during his time working a “miserable, soul-sucking job” at MTV in New York, his short ended up winning the Regional Student Academy Award, which led to the Student Academy Awards. After this, Matheny said, he knew he could be eligible for an Oscar nomination.
“We just kept having parties, you kept thinking ‘Okay we did this,’ and then it just kept getting a little further and then we get everyone together at a bar to celebrate the next little step,” he said.
When he ended up winning, he said it was a life changing experience.
“It was met with so much rejection elsewhere, I’ve always taken the whole thing with a grain of salt and you could see how just one little shift in the whole thing could have changed the whole trajectory of my life,” Matheny said. “But that just happened to fall into place for me.”
Matheny said it led him to a career in TV. He got his first professional job directing some episodes of “Maron,” a sitcom about the comedian Marc Maron, he said.
“It was very strange to be going from directing myself and friends or like friends of friends,” Matheny said. “But it’s also sort of nice to be thrown into something because all you can really do is your best, you don’t really have time to overthink it.”
He said, unlike film school where it takes two years to create a short, that’s not the way it works in life or in the industry. Matheny said he had to learn to do things fast and successfully.
In “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street,” Matheny had a hand in all areas of production. Like his short, which he wrote, directed, and acted in, Matheny said he got to be in the writers room for the first time and he had a lot more creative control.
“I was excited to do Gortimer because I was excited to have a job and then when it ended, I was very much expecting to do something else that wasn’t in the kids’ world,” he said. “I spent a year learning the ropes of development and pitching and things like that, which was weirdly completely overlooked in film school, and I had to kind of figure it out myself.”
He said the kids films were the only opportunities that kept coming to him, but for the first time he feels cool about the work he’s doing in kids television now that he’s working on adapting the classic novel, Charlotte’s Web, into a mini-series.
Marni Zelnick, an assistant professor of film and television writing in COM who moderated the event, said she and Matheny were actually classmates at NYU.
“I’m a huge fan of Luke because he has a lightness of touch and real sense of humor that is combined with gravitas,” Zelnick said. “He’s… taking on big subjects, subjects that are important to kids growing up that are coming of age … and I appreciate that and maybe more and more in a very complicated world that we live in in the last few years.”
She said it was also exciting to have Matheny because not a lot of people have come to talk to students about experience and interest working in children’s television.
“The hope is that [students] will see someone sitting up there, that in hearing how they got to that place, it will seem more possible to them and then that will allow them to follow the same path and become what comes back,” Zelnick said.
Max Hakim, a senior in COM, said it was really inspiring to hear from someone who made a short in film school and won an Oscar for it.
“I really resonated when he was saying just to continue writing because … any opportunity like you do get your foot in the door, you need to have stuff and time slips away from you,” Hakim said.