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Ed. Magazine

What It Means to Look Like a Film Director

Master’s student breaks out in Hollywood as she breaks stereotypes
Nicole Thompson at work
Nicole Thompson at work
Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime TV

Filming for director Nicole Thompson’s latest film, You’re Not Supposed to Be Here, started at a challenging time: Just two weeks after she started the master’s program this past June.

Fortunately, those initial weeks in the program were remote and asynchronous, as Thompson started the How People Learn Foundations course with her classmates. “I was able to figure out a schedule for myself that said I need to get these assignments done and I need to watch this class by this date in order to hit my benchmarks,” Thompson says. “I had to find a balance, working full-time in the film industry and also being a full-time student.”

That’s a sentence, particularly the film industry part, that Thompson never imagined herself saying when she was growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

“As a kid, I had no idea that people made films for a living,” she says. Then one summer, when she was 13, she took a pre-college film course. “My mind was blown, and I fell in love with filmmaking. Then I spent every waking moment since then, in every film class I could find, every film club, you name it — if it was film related, I was attached to it.”  

This included concentrating on radio, TV, and film in college and a move after graduation to Hollywood. There was an internship through the Television Academy (host of the Emmys) with Stan and Deliver Films, where she found mentors who took her under their wing. 

And there was a lot of door knocking.

“For most people, once you get to a point where you've had a taste of the film and TV industry, but you haven't quite broken in yet, you do one of three things,” Thompson says. “You either keep knocking till someone lets you in the door, you give up, or you build your own door. For me, I wasn't going to give up.” So, she kept knocking, landing a stepping-stone job with SAG-AFTRA’s communications and marketing department as an in-house cinematographer and editor, before going back to school to get her master’s at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

While a student, she started taking on short-term contract jobs, including back to SAG-AFTRA, where she produced a series of actor-to-actor interviews. Thompson was also hired by NBA basketball player Kyrie Irving for a year to direct and film his promotional videos. 

She applied for fellowships, and after being hit by several “no’s,” she finally got a few “yesses,” including one with DB Freeze LA Film.

“That fellowship empowered a group of 10 filmmakers to direct a short film in competition with one another,” she says. Her film originally was going to be a narrative live action, but she had to pivot and turned the same story into animation — something she had never done before.

“Now my career began to move into parallel tracks,” Thompson says. “I began finding opportunities in the animation world and in the live action world.” She also got to shadow one of her mentors, Nina Yang Bongiovi, producer of the feature film Passing. That shadowing led to another, this time on the Lifetime film, Envy, which allowed her to see the entire film prep process. “That’s something that a lot of young filmmakers don't get access to,” she says. “And that really has made a difference for me as my directing career began to bubble and form.”

Then the big break: Thompson had the chance to pitch herself to Lifetime to direct a feature film — and the pitch was accepted. Suitcase Killer: The Melanie McGuire Story, her directorial debut, premiered in 2022.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” she says, and “once again, scaffolding the knowledge that I learned from shadowing, I was able to apply many of the things that I learned from watching a director as I prepped for my film.”

"I want to expose children to the arts and filmmaking that they may not necessarily have access to. I recognize that I’m one of the lucky few, and there are many people in this world who have dreams of working in the film industry. ... I want to learn how to create innovative ways to teach filmmaking outside the classroom." 

Nicole Thompson

She also circled back to animation, producing a series called Rhymes Through Times for Noggin Nickelodeon, and a new series called Iyanu: Child of Wonder for HBO Max and Cartoon Network. Most recently, she debuted her second feature film with Lifetime, You're Not Supposed to Be Here.

“What I love about Lifetime is it gives opportunities to the next generation,” Thompson says.

With her film directing career taking off, why did Thompson decide to go back to school to get another master’s? It all part of a bigger plan, she says — and includes reaching the next generation.

“I’m originally from Newark. I like to preface that because being from a city that I feel is filled with so much potential, I want to find ways to tap into pouring into more cities like my hometown,” she says. “I want to expose children to the arts and filmmaking that they may not necessarily have access to. I recognize that I’m one of the lucky few, and there are many people in this world who have dreams of working in the film industry. Just as I was a kid who had no idea that ‘film director’ was even a job, I want to be that for the next generation. I want to learn how to create innovative ways to teach filmmaking outside the classroom. Here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I'm just hoping to absorb as much knowledge as I can. Although my background is primarily in the film and TV world, I wanted a deeper understanding of the education world, too. For me, this was the perfect pair to marry my love for film with my heart — wanting to give back to the community that poured into me.”

Currently, Professor Karen Brennan is working with Thompson on an independent study that involves a script for a future movie. Brennan says Thompson’s willingness to give back in the film world lines up with how she is at Harvard.

“I have loved learning about Nikki's journey through various roles in the film industry — a journey that has culminated with her in the director's chair,” Brennan says. “She deeply understands the transformative power of mentorship, and her commitment to broadening participation in the industry is clear across her work at HGSE. I admire her dedication to creating an inviting, inclusive, and supportive environment for filmmaking, all while honing her own craft as an artist.”

When Thompson’s classmates in the Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology Program learned about her film background, she says they were “in awe” but also surprised. 

“They were really surprised that I have this second life outside of the classroom,” she says. “When you think of a film director, sometimes society doesn't think of someone that looks like me. So once again, just being in a space where I get to break out some of those stereotypes of what it means to look like a film director,” is important. “We all know that Hollywood struggles with gender inequality with film directors, and it’s a joy to help be a part of the solution. That's why I'm here at HGSE: to once again train the next generation.”

This past summer, she came full circle, teaching filmmaking to students at a nonprofit in Irvington, New Jersey. Currently she’s in talks with officials in Newark to partner on a film training program for young people.

“It’s just about taking something that I'm already passionate about and learning how to take it from a micro level and build it out in a macro level,” she says. “And finding people who are already doing great work in a community and seeing if there's a way we can partner and build out, because I want everyone to have access to achieving their dreams. It's my hope that I get to be a small part in that.”

2024 UPDATE: In January, Thompson's Lifetime movie, You’re Not Supposed To Be Here, was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in the outstanding film-streaming or TV category.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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