Alumni Spotlight Justin Nickels ’05

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I was born in North Little Rock, Arkansas and grew up in Sherwood, Arkansas. I graduated from UCA in the Spring of 2005 from the school’s film program. I’ve since worked on various film and television projects including Shotgun Stories, Paradise Lost 3, and Frontline on PBS.   In 2011 I married Mallory Nickels and we have two dogs, Keela and Vito.  I co-wrote the short film Europa with Mallory for Bruce Hutchinson and I’m currently in pre-production on a film I wrote that I hope to direct later this spring or early summer called Strangers.

What are you doing now professionally?

I actually do political work professionally and have for the last five years, but for the past seven I’ve worked for the Little Rock Film Festival and I’ve become very passionate about the work we do there.  I also happened to meet my wife Mallory there when she volunteered the second year. Two years ago I created the Little Rock Horror Picture Show as a spinoff genre festival for the LRFF and we’re about to have our second March 22-24th. I also try to work on as many production projects as I possibly can.

What books, artwork or other movies have inspired you, overall or recently?

The Godfather (really part I and II) has been my favorite movie for about 17 years now.  I watch it at least three times a year and I almost always pick up something new every single time, either some nuance in a performance or shot composition I didn’t notice.  I’ve owned it on vhs, dvd and the latest digital remaster that’s been out on bluray the last few years, so I feel like I’ve been peeling back its layers with each upgrade and viewing.  It’s almost the perfect film.

I’ve recently discovered the show DCI Banks from Great Britain, thanks to my wife’s new obsession with Downton Abbey.  It comes on right after on PBS here. It’s a police procedural that’s only been on for two seasons over there, and now here, and I’ve now seen every single one. I think the lead, Stephen Tompkinson, is pretty brilliant in the show.  He brings a freshness to the hardboiled cop role, going from intense interrogation scenes to being quite tender with the people he cares about.  You can’t help but root for him over the course of the investigation.  I hope I can work with him someday on some sort of project.

Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, Red) is something that’s been speaking to me lately. I watched the trilogy about 8 years ago for the first time, after hearing about it for years from various people and seeing clips in classes at UCA. I got it on bluray for Christmas this past year, and we were lucky enough to not lose power so I sat down with my wife and watched all three in a row while we were snowed in. The films are fascinating and the fact that they were all made and released so quickly is amazing.

The comic book Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is something wonderful.  It’s a full blown space opera with lasers and magic, and it deals with some very serious issues all while maintaining a level of farcical, ridiculousness. It’s a really great love story as well.

Who are some early mentors or teachers that have inspired you?

Bruce Hutchinson has played a big role in my life the past 10 years first academically and then personally.  I’ve worked on three of his films and helped out a day on another.  My wife and I wrote Europa for him and I was assistant director on Sidearoadia.  We actually live two blocks apart now.  He’s got a great objective eye when you take a script to him, and I’ve always appreciated that.

Brent and Craig Renaud are friends and mentors. They founded the Little Rock Film Festival with two of their friends. They’re also pretty fearless documentarians who have shot all over the world including Iraq during the height of the war and Juarez, Mexico.  They keep winning awards for journalistic excellence but are always extremely down to earth and level headed people.

My wife inspires me every day and I love her for that. My parents have always inspired me to learn as much as I can and to fight for what I believe in.

What is the most helpful professional advice you have received?

Don’t stand and watch while someone is doing something difficult. Run in and help them out.  Also, if you don’t know, then ask. It’s usually quicker to ask before you go into a grip truck than to try to figure it out once you’re in there.  I feel like that last bit really applies to any profession in some form or another, not just film and television production.

How did your experience at UCA help shape your professional career?

When I was a student at UCA Jeff Nichols was about to start shooting his first feature, Shotgun Stories.  The production sent a notice to the film department that they were looking for extra crew to work on it and a few folks and I signed up.  None of us really knew at the time how big of a deal that the film, and it’s director, would become several years down the road.  I think we all learned a lot and it was a huge opportunity and lead to many more. I’m really thankful that the school was able to provide us with that experience.

While I was still at UCA, the film and television students were required to do an internship for a semester somewhere. Many people would intern at one of the local television stations in Little Rock at the time.  I worked it out to where I had all of my credit hours completed by the end of the fall semester in 2004, but I still needed an internship. I was able to move to Los Angeles and intern at Film Independent (then it was called IFP/LA). I got to go to the Independent Spirit Awards that spring and help out in various departments.

The most important thing is the people I met while in class at UCA.  Many of them are people I think I will always try to work with as much as possible.

What is your dream project?

I’d love to have my own hour-long drama television show one day, but I’d also really love to make genre films.  I’m a big fan of realistic science fiction films and I’ve got some ideas for a film and or television series that I think could be cool and interesting.  I’ve been keeping a running Google doc of ideas that I try to go back to when I can.  It’s easier for me to do that than keep a pad of paper on me at all times.

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