From Harlingen to Hollywood: Young filmmaker with local ties heads to the Oscars

HARLINGEN — The winners of the 91st edition of the Academy Awards tonight will take home Oscar gold, but not without the help of an aspiring young filmmaker.

Her role is to walk the famous statuette from backstage, on to the lights and glamour of live television and into the hands of an emotional celebrity about to thank all the people who made this possible.

This lucky 22-year-old film school student, who will graduate in May from the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts, is well on her way to making her Hollywood dreams a reality.

After all, only 70 students from across the country were selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018 to participate in its talent development summer program, called “The Academy Gold Program.”

And out of that elite group, only four were selected as interns for the actual Academy Awards ceremony.

Lights: Her name is Natalia Bell.

Camera: She’s a native of Harlingen.

Action: This is her inspiring journey.

Good Morning America

On a typical weekday morning in 2017, Natalia’s mother watched Robin Roberts interview a member of the Academy Gold Program on ABC’s Good Morning America.

“I saw this, and I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing. This is something my daughter needs to be a part of,’” said Melinda Guzman Bell, who relocated with a kindergarten-aged Natalia from Harlingen to Richmond, Virginia. “I looked up the program, and I sent her the info. I told her, ‘Mijita, you need to apply.’”

After an extensive application process that included several rounds of interviews via Skype, Natalia was selected for the 2018 program, which took her to Los Angeles from late June to early August.

According to its website, the Academy Gold Program provides participants exclusive access to technical, educational and networking opportunities with members of the Academy and film industry professionals.

“Every week they would have different classes and would hear from directors, from cinematographers, and they had the privilege of being able to attend some film screenings and things normally open only to people who have been nominated by the Academy or have won awards,” Melinda said. “She was just able to take advantage of all this industry knowledge. It was really exciting for her.”

The Academy Called

Just a few weeks ago, Natalia received a call from the Academy Gold Program with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“They reached out to her and said, ‘We’re interviewing people to be part of the Oscars, to represent us as our rising filmmakers. Would you be interested?’” Melinda said, explaining her daughter and three other students were eventually selected to help hand the Oscar statuettes to the presenters.

According to Melinda, Natalia will have about 10 opportunities to be on live television.

But before taking the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, the four Oscar interns were busy preparing behind-the-scenes content for social media and sharing their experiences through Snapchat.

“It’s exciting that we’ll get to see her,” Melinda said. “She’ll get to hold the Oscar and bring it out to the stars.”

Besides Natalia’s mom, her grandparents Jesus and Elena Guzman, who reside in San Benito, and the rest of her family will tune-in to tonight’s ceremony, hoping to catch several glimpses of Natalia and keeping track of all her encounters with Hollywood royalty.

And the Oscar Goes To

Natalia arrived in Los Angeles Tuesday night – and getting her there was a family endeavor.

“I’m a proud uncle,” said Richard Adrian Guzman, a 1975 graduate of San Benito High School and a media and communications professional currently living in Seattle.

He has been in constant contact with his niece, advising her throughout her preparations.

“I’ve been encouraging her as much as I can, helping her financially at times, being a friend if she needs anything,” he said. “This is a big step for her to get to the next level. With my background in media, I’ve been trying to prepare her.”

As for Melinda, she only had one big concern.

“As a mom, of course, I was worried about the dress. What kind of dress could I afford to buy?” she said, jokingly. “I told her, ‘Oh mijita, we’re going to have to go to one of those rent-a-dress places because how could I possibly afford this?’”

Luckily, the Academy provided a personal stylist to prepare Natalia for her glamorous Oscar debut, including a selection of dresses.

She’s ready for Oscar gold, and if you ask Melinda, her daughter will one day return to the Academy Awards to claim her own award.

“At the end of the Academy Gold program, they had a ceremony, a program with presentations, and each student got to pose while holding an Oscar, kind of planting that filmmaker seed as an inspiration for their dream,” Melinda said, commenting that her daughter was familiar with the 8.5 lb. statuette made of solid bronze and plated with 24-karat gold. “She told me, ‘Mom, this will be my second encounter with an Oscar. My third encounter with Oscar, it’s going to be mine.”

Encourage Your Children

“There’s no dream that’s too big,” Melinda said. “We need to encourage our children to pursue their natural interests, what they enjoy.”

As a child, Natalia always showed interest in filmmaking, playing with cameras and being a story-teller, Melinda said. She even started her own photography business while in high school.

In addition to her internships with the Academy, Natalia has worked in the production companies of Martin Scorsese and Reese Witherspoon. She also spent time learning the business of movie-making as an intern for Bob Weinstein.

The one thing that I’ve always told her is to try,” Melinda said, explaining her daughter oftentimes expressed hesitation to apply for these big opportunities. “The worst thing they can tell you is ‘no’ but at least you tried, and you won’t sit at home wondering what if. What if I only had tried?”