Professor’s daughter contender in 2011 Oscar race

Unexpected phone calls can be nerve-racking. Filmmaker Sara Nesson, daughter of adjunct Emerson professor Bob Nesson, was in her kitchen when she received that phone call from her HBO film editor. The news was fantastic. She had been nominated for an Academy Award.

“I was like ‘what?’” said Nesson over an exclusive phone interview with the Beacon. “I had to see it for myself so I kept refreshing the Academy website,  and when I saw my name come up it hit me. I started screaming, ‘I’m going to the Oscars!’”

Nesson has been nominated for her first Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category for her film Poster Girl — a chronicle of a cheerleader turned Iraq War sergeant. In the film, Robynn Murray comes back from the war facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the red tape of Veteran Affairs.

Nesson found her subject in her own backyard of Burlington, Vt., the base of the Combat Paper Project. The organization helps soldiers turn their uniforms into paper, then embrace their military experiences through art. In Burlington, she met Drew Cameron, one of the project’s founders.

[elementor-template id="60935"]

“My dad had been working, trying to make a documentary about veterans and PTSD, but he wasn’t getting access to their raw feelings, because they were closed up,” said Nesson. She admitted to stereotyping veterans as silent about their experiences.

“But the vets I met [at the Project studio] were different,” she said. “They really had something to say and wanted to be heard and express themselves emotionally.”

That’s when Nesson had a light-bulb moment — to chronicle the veterans at the Project and make it into a documentary. She followed five veterans at the Project for a film she intended to call Iraq Paper Scissors.

“I was directing, shooting, sound, and editing on my own — I was literally a one woman crew,” said Nesson.

Knowing she needed help, she attended a producing workshop in Los Angeles with Mitchell Block. There, Block, who has a producer credit for Poster Girl, singled out Robynn Murray, who had previously graced the cover of Army magazine.

He told Nesson, who had already shot everything, to restructure the film into a short documentary which could be submitted to HBO and the Academy.

“He called it all, right then and there,” reminisced Nesson. “Just taking [the footage] to a seasoned filmmaker who has fresh eyes and can look at it from a different perspective was the best.”

Titling the newly structured film Poster Girl, Nesson “wanted to personalize [the veterans’] stories and to get people to understand that these were individuals with real emotions and had to be heard.”

Nesson, who is still in contact with Robynn, said that her film’s subject thinks her role is “very ironic.”

“She went from being the poster girl [for] women in combat to the face of PTSD,” Nesson said. “She’s serving this role with pride, and she knows she has a powerful voice and she’s taking that responsibility to represent others.”

The documentary inevitably delves into politics, but Nesson was “very conscious of keeping a balanced film.” Though the film highlights anti-war veterans, she thinks it “is about healing and redemption. Anyone who is pro-war or against war can relate to that.”

Nesson’s own feelings on the war weren’t changed by her documentary. However, what did shift was her perspective on the military.

“I thought people who joined the military went for gung-ho, macho reasons,” Nesson said, “but… a lot of these guys went for very altruistic reasons. They wanted to support humanitarian work; they wanted money for college.”

Nesson, who graduated from the University of Vermont as an English and Art double major, was inspired to make movies by her father.

“Growing up I would see him come home with stories and adventures,” said Nesson. “I was just so fascinated with his lifestyle.”

After initially dissuading his daughter from becoming a documentary filmmaker because it is a “hard and uncertain life,” Bob Nesson eventually supported her when she decided to follow in his footsteps. The two even worked together for a couple of years after Sara graduated college.

“We made a really great team and I learned so much from him. We talk all the time and constantly [are] showing each other proposals, editing each others work, giving each other feedback.” As for now Sara said, “He says he is living vicariously through me with all of my new adventures.”

Already reaping the benefits of an Academy-Award nomination, Nesson met one of her favorite actors, Geoffrey Rush. She said it feels “like [she’s] living someone else’s life for a brief period of time.”

However, Nesson is not taking this opportunity for granted. “I can’t expect everything to come to me. I still have to work really hard, and I’m planning on it.”

That hard work includes beginning the preliminary stages of a Hollywood feature narrative that will focus on the other female soldiers on the cover of Army magazine, which Robynn Murray graced, working with The Sting producer Tony Bill. After that project, though, she intends to take on lighter subjects in the future.

Calling the Oscar nomination “beyond my wildest dreams,” Nesson is looking forward to wearing the dress and celebrating with eight of her friends. “I’ve never been married, so this is sort of like my wedding,” she laughed.

With her acceptance speech prepared, Nesson said that all of the nominees are allotted 45 seconds for thank-yous. Sara’s speech currently runs 13 seconds over. However, after whittling 80 hours of footage into a 38 minute film, cutting those few seconds shouldn’t be a problem.

Watch for Poster Girl to tentatively air on HBO this fall. The Oscars air Sunday, Feb. 27.