St. Joseph film editor makes Sundance

By Blake Hannon
St. Joseph, Missouri (AP) 1-09

For most of his college career, a small, cluttered, windowless oven of a room with soundproof walls is where Thad Nurski spent his time.

The decor was minimal, consisting of a desk, a few movie posters, a flat-screen TV lazily leaning against a corner wall and a hand-me down beige love seat, the room’s only noise coming from the purr of a computer.

But there is no place Thad would rather be. Instead of living the typical college life while attending the University of Kansas, he was logging thousands of hours in this room at KU’s Oldfather Studios. This is where Thad got to live out a dream he’s had since he was a kid, cutting scenes together and synching sound as a film editor.

Even while he’s home visiting his family for the holidays, the 23-year-old finds himself back in this room, putting the final cuts, tweaks and touches to “The Only Good Indian,” an independent film that was one of the lucky few to get accepted into the prestigious 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

It’s a solid step forward in Thad’s singular goal to make it in the film industry, an uphill battle he’s willing to give equal parts dedication and sacrifice to achieve.

As the youngest of two brothers growing up on the South Side of St. Joe, Thad always had more than just a passing love for movies. When he saw “Beetlejuice” as a toddler, he remembers it being a “life-changing moment.”

“It was an extreme fascination,” Thad says. “I wanted to be in that world. I wanted to make that world.”

He would wear out the VHS tape, fast-forwarding and rewinding to analyze his favorite parts while creating his own scenes with his “Beetlejuice” action figures, telling the storyline to his mother, Vickie, who wrote it down before Thad could read or spell.

Vickie also bought a book on Academy-Award winning films for Thad when he was in the seventh grade, the first of many books he devoured trying to gain an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. As a sophomore at Benton High School, he got a Sony video camera, which he used to film everything from his cousins’ weddings to his schnauzer, Regis, who he turned into a superhero thanks to a cape and clever editing.

By the time Thad graduated seventh in his high school class in 2004, he was set on being a film editor or nothing at all. He had no back-up plan. Just a dream he realized at a young age that he refused to grow out of.

“All through school, through kindergarten on, they said you needed to know what you wanted to be when you grew up,” Vickie says. “He never wavered at all.”

When Thad was deciding where he wanted to go to college to study film, USC and NYU were obvious choices, but also intimidating prospects. But then he heard about Kevin Willmott, a professor of film at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who directed the film “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which got accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

The possibility of working alongside Kevin on a full-length feature film was enough to bring Thad to KU with his parents Vickie and Frank footing the bill so he could focus on school.

There wasn’t a program specifically in film editing, so Thad registered as a film studies major, taking any class he could, including a few of Kevin’s courses on an intro to film medium and screenwriting. Through his relationship with Kevin, he landed an internship on his feature-length film “Bunker Hill,” where Thad worked his way up from synching sound and organizing footage to co-editor in just more than three months, learning the complex editing system AVID on the fly and proving himself by cutting complex scenes.

“Thad was smart enough to take advantage of the situation,” Kevin says. “Every once in a while, you get fortunate and you get a student that really gets it.”

A perfectionist with a lot of nervous energy, Thad channeled it into a near-straight A college career (He got a B in Spanish, the one blemish that still irks him to this day), obtaining two film school scholarships and later earning the position as head editor for the Kevin Willmott-directed “The Only Good Indian,” a film Thad edited over a two-year period.

After graduating with a liberal arts degree in film studies in May 2008, Thad got accepted into USC’s summer film program, where he learned the AVID’s more complex applications and made some good contacts. Shortly after returning to St. Joe, he got a job offer to help edit an NBC television show. So he packed up and moved to Los Angeles only to find out that the show didn’t have the funds to hire him after all.

With his parents’ financial support, Thad got a two-bedroom apartment in the L.A. suburb of Toluka Lake, where he and his fellow KU roommate aren’t exactly living the stereotypical Hollywood lifestyle. Thad basically has a computer, a desk, a bed and an old office chair, with one pot, one pan and no TV. Much of the time, Thad eats his meals in the floor of his living room. But he’s looking at the big picture.

“I don’t let today’s inconveniences get in the way of tomorrow’s pay off,” he said.

After the setback of the NBC debacle, Thad got a job as a logger for reality television shows, only to have to quit after coming down with mono in October. It left him bedridden for a month, but it didn’t stop him from calling around for jobs. It also didn’t stop him from freaking out when he got the call that “The Only Good Indian,” the film he tirelessly and obsessively edited, was one of the 200 films narrowed down from more than 9,000 submissions to be screened at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival this month.

“I think I said, ‘No way!?! No way!?!’ like, 20 times,” Thad recalls. “When I got the call, I just said, ‘How on earth did that happen?”’

Right now, Thad is in the quaint little mountain town of Park City, Utah, at Sundance, not as a movie fan but as an editor, one step closer to his Hollywood goal.

But Sundance doesn’t mean instant success. “The Only Good Indian” could be purchased by a distributor and make its way to TV or theaters, but after the festival is over, Thad goes right back to his Toluka Lake apartment, back to eating on the floor, back to making calls for jobs, back to running down his dream, a dream he refuses to let get away from him.

“I know that I have a lot more in front of me,” Thad says. “I’m not going to sit around and wait for it.”