Success in filmmaking is a journey past many “nos,” so Mateo Nikolav eagerly answered the call when the Television Academy Foundation chose him out of thousands of applicants for its prestigious summer internship program.
“It was one of the first ‘yesses’ I heard,” he says — but it would be far from the
Mateo fell in love with film at an early age, and seeing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at age 4 spurred him to create his own drawings and stories. But while he enjoyed the Hollywood movies that dominated local cinemas in his native Ecuador, he never thought of filmmaking as a potential career until seeing the Ecuadorean-produced Qué tan lejos (How Much Further).
“I went with my mom,” he recalls, “and for the first time, I was looking at a movie set and shot in Ecuador, about Ecuadorian characters and issues.”
Later, when he was 13, an aunt gave him a digital camera, and his future was set — even though he had a long way to go and numerous hardships to overcome. His journey would take him to Colombia, Washington, D.C., and eventually Los Angeles and Santa Monica College, where he earned two associate’s degrees — in film studies and liberal arts — before transferring to UCLA this fall.
Passion for Storytelling
Although his parents considered filmmaking a hobby and not a career, young Mateo kept
developing his eye for photography and passion for storytelling after his family moved
to Colombia for his stepfather’s promotion when Mateo was 14. He upgraded to a more
advanced camera, offering his services as a photographer for school events and helping
aspiring models build their portfolios. He also started making short films.
He continued enhancing his talents after his family immigrated to Washington, D.C., during Mateo’s senior year in high school. But his parents lacked the resources to send him to college, and, despite the fact that they came on a work visa and paid U.S. taxes, Mateo was ineligible for federal student aid. “I got into some great schools but couldn’t afford to go because I couldn’t get any loans or grants,” he explains.
Nor could he afford the Apple computer needed for professional-level editing, so he relied on an iPad that he had saved up for in Colombia. “There were all these limitations,” Mateo says, noting that such restrictions have forced him to be more creative. He also put that creativity to work in moving to Los Angeles so he could study at SMC. Once he was eligible to obtain a green card of his own, he worked at a Virginia grocery store, saving enough to make the journey west with a roommate. Once here, he took whatever jobs he could while establishing California residency.
Crash Course in Production
Mateo’s paid internship at the Television Academy Foundation included training with
entertainment industry leaders. In addition, his acceptance into the foundation’s
Getting Real: Unscripted Internships Program enabled him to build on his budding expertise as a documentarian by working at Bunim Murray Productions, the reality TV pioneer behind such shows as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Project Runway and The Real World.
The experience also provided a crash course in different facets of TV production. “I was pitching new shows and trying to support everyone on the team as much as possible,” Mateo says.
He spent a lot of time on Bunim Murray’s third floor, where the focus is on series development, absorbing as much information as possible. “I got to have one-on-one’s with everyone to hear about their own journeys, find out how to put together documentaries, learn about getting grants and more,” he says.
But since the media business requires more than production skills, Mateo also made frequent visits to the company’s second floor, home to legal affairs, publishing and music.
“Even though those aren’t my fields of operation, I made sure to have meetings to find out what they do,” he says. “Because, in addition to being a director and producer, my dream is to start a production company.”
When he does, he intends to bring his friends in the field with him. “It’ll be our production company, where we’ll focus on telling stories that celebrate our shared humanity,” says Mateo, many of whose creative works have explored his own identity as a queer person and immigrant. Mateo is currently directing a documentary about the struggles of young LGBTQ+ people in Latin America, but he also plans to pursue scripted filmmaking. “I would love to create dramedies,” he says. But whether working in fact or fiction, he wants his films to be rooted in reality and mindful of different views.
“My challenge as a filmmaker is to create art that moves, questions and disrupts to make people reconsider their perspectives to see the other side,” he says, noting that his own views have been shaped by living in three countries.
Beats of Opportunity
At SMC, Mateo found the mentorship and support to take his skills to the next level.
“I was part of the Adelante Program, which was incredibly helpful,” he says. That support included pointing him toward
SMC CARE grants and other financial aid. Even more importantly, Adelante Counselor Paul Jimenez made sure that he positioned himself to transfer to UCLA.
“I didn’t even think that was a possibility,” Mateo says. “But Dr. Jimenez believed in me.” As a result, Mateo began classes at the highly selective UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television this fall.
Mateo’s talent and drive were again recognized when Apple’s Beats Academy selected him as one of just 15 young creators who earn a stipend while gaining production experience and tech industry exposure. The 10-week program, he says, provides “an exciting opportunity to further grow into my filmmaking skills.”
Since moving to Los Angeles and studying at SMC, Mateo has also built experience by directing short films as well as working as a digital imaging technician and unit photographer for movies and television. “Because of all the jobs I’ve had and the scholarships and grants I’ve been able to get, I feel very lucky and confident,” he says. He is also well on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Mateo urges that young people wanting to become filmmakers not let nothing stand in their way and use whatever resources they have. “I made my first films on an iPhone,” he says. “The stories you tell are so much more important than the tools you use.”
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