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UCLA alumnus explores intersection between passion and expectation through film

Thiago Leoni is seen through a rearview mirror. The Brazilian alumnus’ first short film is titled “Querido Espaço” or “Dear Blank” in English. (Courtesy of Thiago Leoni)

By Aditi Sreenivas

Feb. 3, 2023 6:09 p.m.

This post was updated April 26 at 5:16 p.m.

Thiago Leoni is bringing his filmmaking career to life, one frame at a time.

The alumnus said he was drawn to storytelling since he was a child growing up in Brazil. He said he discovered his love for capturing stories through writing classes, music, and piecing together video footage for his friends as a student. He added that he found more enjoyment in creative expression, straying from academic pursuits oriented toward college acceptance.

“I always wanted to explore more, but I felt trapped,” Leoni

said. “In my Brazilian, small Catholic high school, I saw writing classes as an escape from the reasoning from the numbers.”

(Courtesy of Thiago Siqueira)
Leoni sits against a wall with a pile of papers on the floor. “Querido Espaço” is based on Leoni’s own experience of feeling pressured to follow typical social conventions. (Courtesy of Thiago Leoni)

[Related: UCLA student creates films to share personal, relatable experiences]

When Leoni arrived at UCLA, he majored in economics, as he said it was the best fit to combine both his interest in the entertainment industry and the advice he was given growing up to pursue a degree in a more conventional academic field. He said he later decided to minor in film after witnessing diverse student backgrounds and interests and experiencing the joy of pursuing his passions through film. Contrasting with the prior pressures he felt to pursue certain prestigious career paths as a high school student in Brazil, he said he began to feel the freedom to express himself in college as well.

“For me, it (filmmaking) kind of came naturally,” Leoni said. “The basis of it all is to be open to being influenced by everything you’re watching and hearing and seeing.”

When creating a film, Leoni said his creative process is a combination of observation and sparks of creativity. Upon finding ideas in the world around him, he said he elaborates on thematic concepts, and has found that the best way to hone his creativity is to write or discuss his ideas with others. For example, Leoni directed, produced and starred in his first short film, “Querido Espaço,” which translates to “Dear Blank.” In the movie, he portrays his own worry about leading a routine life without the ability to pursue what he finds meaningful in a world filled with societal pressures, Leoni said.

“Querido Espaço” captures shots of cyclical and repetitive movements in the natural and human world. Between frames, Leoni can be seen expressing agony, discontent and boredom as he goes through the motions of a daily routine alone. Leoni said this illustrates his inner conflict of observing the pressure to live an adult life without being allowed to express his passions and choices to fit what is socially expected of him.

(Courtesy of Thiago Siqueira)
A picture of an eye from Thiago Leoni’s short film “Querido Espaço” is displayed. Being from Brazil, the alumnus said he grew up feeling the need to pursue a more traditional academic career. (Courtesy of Thiago Leoni)

The film is narrated in Portuguese and relates to the impact that culture and language have had on his experience in finding a career path as an immigrant. Leoni said he believes that the ideas he depicts in his films such as “Querido Espaço” have the ability to connect to vast audiences, especially those also undergoing the transition into adulthood who may feel similarly.

“The world is way bigger than I thought previously,” Leoni said. “I met people from other continents that went through the same thing as I did in my childhood.”

After graduating from UCLA in 2022 and releasing “Querido Espaço,” Leoni said he is currently in postproduction for a new project entitled “Manziello.” He said the recognition brought to “Querido Espaço” also attracted cast and crew members to his new short film, including lead actor Leo Cidade, a well-known Brazilian actor. “Manziello” follows the story of a Brazilian trying to find success in America working as a metal detector, making his living off others’ valuables lost in the ground, Leoni said.

Assistant producer Pedro Frey said the plot of the film mirrors Leoni’s own experience as an immigrant trying to attain success in America while undergoing the pressure of feeling that his methods to do so differ from social norms. By releasing this short film, Leoni said he hopes to encourage others to pursue their passions rather than follow convention.

After working on “Manziello,” Leoni said he finds learning from others in the film industry and hearing people’s opinions about his work to be important factors in his creative process and growth. Max Civita, assistant producer of “Manziello,” said bouncing new and occasionally conflicting ideas off each other allowed the team to make the best executive decisions for the production. Civita said Leoni’s passion for film drives his clear visions for his scripts and cinematography, which helps him build upon his ideas with Civita.

“Having someone who is directing the story and also being the engine for it makes everyone think about the movie as well,” Civita said. “He just wants to get the best movie (and) something people can get behind.”

(Courtesy of Thiago Siqueira)
Leoni lays against a yellow-toned floor. Leoni said he hopes his films are able to universally resonate with audiences. (Courtesy of Thiago Leoni)

[Related: UCLA student Connor Gilbert unites passion for film, music through score writing]

Through depicting the challenges in finding acceptance within the film industry and in American society, especially as an immigrant filmmaker, Leoni said he aims to impart empathy on those who also experience self-doubt due to various circumstances that differ from his own. While his stories reflect his experiences that are tied closely to the culture he comes from, Leoni said he creates films with universal themes that anyone can resonate with, especially relating to social pressures for success that conflict with the desire to pursue a passion.

“What I really want to project (are) … stories that highlight my culture in a way that people all over the world can (say), ‘I thought it was just me,’” Leoni said.

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Aditi Sreenivas
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