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Harvard film student gets his shot — at Cannes

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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Harvard film student Andrew Wesman was on a Utah road trip over spring break with his best friend, Ian Carr, when they stopped to take pictures in Zion National Park. An e-mail popped up on Wesman’s iPhone: The renowned Cannes Film Festival in France had accepted Wesman’s senior thesis, a low-budget, 21-minute narrative film called “Shelley.’’ His tuxedoed presence was requested on the red carpet on May 21.

Wesman was dumbfounded. He had been so sure his film — a dark, brooding story about a 14-year-old who kills her parents — stood no chance that he never mentioned it to Carr, who had produced the film.

“Ian, we’re going to Cannes,’’ Wesman told him when the news sank in.

“I was speechless for probably close to 10 minutes,’’ Carr said. When he recovered, he said, “This is huge.’’

Having a film screened at the premiere showcase for international cinema is something seasoned filmmakers only fantasize about. Getting one into Cannes’ Cinéfondation competition for student films is an uncommon coup, unheard of at Harvard until now.

“It never happens,’’ said Alfred Guzzetti, who teaches filmmaking at Harvard. “Rarely has a student even tried to get in.’’

“Shelley’’ is one of 13 student films from around the world chosen from among 1,600 applicants and one of only two from the United States.

At 22, Wesman, an earnest San Francisco native with a mop of brown hair, has a number of fiction and documentary films to his credit, “about 20 that I’m proud of,’’ he said. Most of them are unknown, though two have played in small film festivals in California and Oklahoma.

He has been making films as long as he can remember: “I stumbled upon some home video a while ago of me playing with a video camera when I must have been 3 or 4 years old,’’ he said.

In first grade, Wesman became friends with Carr, who lived next door, and by the time the boys were 9 they were hopping over the fence between their backyards and making films together: claymation movies, video adaptations of their favorite books. Although they attended different schools, Wesman often made films for class assignments and recruited Carr to help him.

Even at an early age, Wesman was drawn to subjects reflecting angst and the existential. His eighth-grade project was a black-and-white drama called “Renaissance Man,’’ about a boy crumbling under the pressure of final exams.

“It’s what I knew,’’ said Wesman, interviewed in the Harvard apartment he shares with two other film students.

He went to a private high school in San Francisco, where he made a strong impression on his film teacher, Chesley Chen.

“He was so determined; he was so ambitious,’’ Chen said. “He stood out because he wanted to know more and more and more. His desire to know ideas about filmmaking, the theories behind filmmaking, were that of someone who was incredibly set on what he wanted to do.’’

When Wesman was accepted to Harvard, he was set on studying film, but he got cold feet during his sophomore year.

“I had this practical realization over winter break,’’ Wesman said. “It might be crazy to be a filmmaker.’’

Opting for a more practical option, he switched to premed classes.

“It killed my GPA,’’ Wesman said. It also made him miss filmmaking, “an integral part of my identity.’’ He switched back to film when, during one physics assignment on momentum, he realized that his favorite part was to film magnetic balls as they were colliding.

“Shelley’’ took shape over a year, evolving from a story about a woman who kills her employer to a woman who kills her dog (“a lame idea’’) to a girl who kills her parents. It is a highly visual film, with little dialogue or plot, except for the murder, and it is intensely focused on the inscrutable 14-year-old’s psychological state.

Wesman directed and wrote the screenplay for the film, which had a $7,000 budget. It was shot in his family’s vacation home in Harwich, with an eight-member crew including Wesman’s two roommates and Carr, now a senior at Pomona College, and Chen, whom Wesman brought aboard as cinematographer.

It didn’t even occur to Wesman to submit “Shelley’’ to Cannes until the last minute. He was staring up at a movie poster on his wall for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’’ which bore the logo indicating that it had been an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival. “It made me think, ‘Why don’t I submit mine to Cannes?’ ’’ he said.

So he Googled “Cannes’’ and discovered that the deadline for the student competition was that day. Unfortunately, the Post Office was closed and a courier service told him it would cost $80 to send it overnight.

“I decided it wasn’t worth it,’’ Wesman said. “But my girlfriend told me to just do it.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

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