Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A scene from “Speak to Me,” directed by Nicolas Thilo-McGovern.

Among the works by young directors coming Nov. 3 to the Arlington International Film Festival is “Speak to Me,” a thoughtful 18-minute drama by Cambridge’s Nicolas Thilo-McGovern, 21.

The film tells the story of a has-been, best-selling author and his fiancée. She is promoted; he has his latest chapter rejected. That triggers resentment and jealousy.

“I wrote this story for one main reason: I wanted to show someone who has a mental illness, but not make that their defining characteristic. I hated seeing people with different forms of mental illness being portrayed as if that was the only driving force in their life,” Thilo-McGovern said.

Thilo-McGovern, 21, attends Emerson College in Boston.

The film leaves the character’s illness unexplained, he said, not wanting it to distract from the main story: Two people just trying to make it, but growing apart. “What I like about the two characters is that they really do love each other,” he said.

“I think people are going to walk out of the theater with different opinions about what the story is truly about, and I don’t think any of them are wrong,” he said.

While attending Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Thilo-McGovern worked at its Cambridge Educational Access Television; after graduating in 2015, he crossed the river to attend Emerson College in Boston, long a germinating ground for young filmmakers. He began working on “Speak to Me” soon afterward, in February 2015. The writing took about a year, and funding took another six months. A Kickstarter campaign last year raised $2,220 while the film was in production. Another six months passed before the final cut.


Given the short’s commonplace drama, its directorial influences may come as a surprise: Thilo-McGovern credits Joel and Ethan Coens’ broad comedy noir, “The Big Lebowski” – “from that movie I learned about the importance of every single second” – and the stylized, violent work of Nicolas Winding Refn. “I have seen almost everything he has made, and I think he does an amazing job of making the abnormal normal by altering your expectations. I actually watched ‘Neon Demon,’ ‘Drive’ and ‘Bronson’ while writing,” he said, “so I think his influence synced in to the film without my realizing it.”

Perhaps the biggest influence was being shown “Star Wars” at age 9 or 10 by his father, Mayor Marc McGovern. “That opened the floodgates for me,” Thilo-McGovern said.

Hanging out at a friend’s house on the weekends, they would film themselves having lightsaber battles in the backyard with a camcorder. “Over time, we added characters, more scenes and editing. We just kept making stuff and experimenting. I did not know why some stuff worked and other stuff didn’t, but we just kept trying,” he said.

“I am really fortunate to have parents who supported me,” he said. “My dad and I still go to movies, and my mom reads every script I work on.” His mother, Pamela Thilo, is an online marketer and on the board of the citizens housing group A Better Cambridge.

“I just want to be able to keep making films for the rest of my life. I am working on another project right now that is filming in late November and early December,” he said. “It is a ton of work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

The eighth annual Arlington International Film Festival takes place Nov. 1-4 at The Capitol Theatre, 204 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington.

A version of this story appeared originally on, a financial supporter of the student part of the Arlington International Film Festival.