FOXBOROUGH — Joe Mulherin made his first movie at age 11 with an old video camera he found in his father’s office. So what if he didn’t know at the time that the lens cap had to come off, he said recently. He eventually learned.
“Once I got the hang of that, things really started rolling,’’ he said.
Last month, the 21-year-old Foxborough filmmaker made his mark at one of Europe’s most prestigious film festivals, when a short film he had just four days to create swept its category for Short Film Slam at Cannes with prizes for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Script, and Best Actor. It was, said Mulherin, a “surreal” experience.
Considering the avalanche of accolades he is still processing, the 2011 graduate of Foxborough High School, who has two more years of college to complete, knows that from here on in, the sky’s the limit in his blossoming career.
Mulherin traveled to France in May with The Creative Mind Group, a Southern California organization that helps young filmmakers get noticed. He and his crew competed with 16 others on a challenge to shoot a five-minute film in four days. The result, called “One Day,” depicted a fateful encounter between a successful Cannes filmmaker and a down-on-his-luck former photographer.
And then came the moment when his name was called.
“All I could think about was all those hours I spent in my room editing and how they are beginning to pay off,’’ said Mulherin. “Everyone started clapping, and it didn’t register that I had to stand up.”
That’s because he was overwhelmed, he said. Not because of the honor, which he cherishes, but for the catharsis it represents, since he began making films to help offset his shyness.
“Thank you” was all he could muster as he accepted the first of the four awards, he said. “That’s about as deep as my speech got.”
The son of Paula and Ed Mulherin knows he has come a long way since those first frames as a child, yet he downplays his success.
In high school, Mulherin studied computer-based design, produced the senior class video, and ran a broadcast news program on the town’s cable access channel.
At Burlington College in Vermont, he said, he made online video ads for Ben & Jerry’s and other businesses during a paid internship, and was co-creator of an 11-minute film, “The Watcher,” which won the Vermont International Film Festival’s “film slam” prize.
That honor is given to a movie made in 24 hours, and was the clip he e-mailed to Cannes that got his foot in the door, he said.
“When I got the e-mail that they were going to screen it, I started screaming,’’ he said. “My mom called everyone she knew.”
Paula Mulherin can’t say enough about her son who, as a student, struggled to sit still in school, preferring sports and the arts to the classroom.
While he never ran with the pack, Joe always had a lot of friends and everyone liked him, she said.
“When you love what you do, success comes to you,’’ she said. “I am so incredibly proud of what he’s doing — it takes my breath away.”
Mulherin credits his parents and older sister Rory, 23, for the love and support that helped back his dream.
As a high school freshman, Mulherin chose to live a sober lifestyle, his way of respecting himself and the world he lives in. The theme that transcends some of his work, including rap videos and lyrics, came from a documentary about Buddhist monks that touched him, he said.
“You can’t truly be free if you depend on a substance to get you through the day,’’ whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or even coffee, he said in a phone interview from Vermont, where he was at work with Rightside Productions, his own multimedia firm.
“The truth is, I could be at the Oscars tomorrow and then I’d go home, eat a bowl of cereal, and head to the Foxborough Skate Park,” he said, still a skateboarder at heart.
School administrators in Foxborough are equally proud of Mulherin’s success.
“Such achievement at such a young age,’’ Superintendent Debra Spinelli said. “I am in awe of some of these young men and women and what they can accomplish.”
For Mulherin, the two weeks in Cannes was “crazy,” including the opportunity to don a tux and walk the red carpet at “The Great Gatsby” premiere. But it felt right to get home and shake off the glitz that conflicts with his preferred lifestyle, he said.
“I had to wash off the Lamborghinis and the yachts,” he joked. “The next week I was in ripped jeans with my friends.’’
Mulherin said he was barraged with e-mails and calls from Hollywood following his victory, but, true to his plan, he will finish college first, then revisit the offers later.
Later this summer, he plans to move to Los Angeles, where he will finish his undergraduate degree at the New York Film Academy’s West Coast campus. At the same time, he plans to work as an intern at the Cartoon Network.
Many in the film industry believe it takes thousands of dollars in equipment and the right connections to make a good movie, Mulherin said, and he is enjoying proving them wrong.
“Your average college kid can make a good film,’’ he said. “If you have a passion, do it. If it puts a smile on your face, do it.”