MUSE: Filmmaker Andrew Jenks
(Above photo courtesy of manjr.com)
Andrew Jenks has been a person of interest since growing up in the tree-filled town of Cortlandt Manor, NY. Following his career from the start at Hendrick Hudson High School, we saw him make a household name for himself through the simple formula for success: hard work + risk x dedication = dreams coming true. The films he's created have touched upon topics from such wide varieties as nearing your final days in nursing homes to baseball coaches in Japan to covering the unjustice in our judicial system in his most recent film, Dream/Killer, which is out in select theaters now. This inspired us to find out what influenced him to take the docu-world by storm.
Traveling to his new duplex on the Upper West Side - “I just moved here a year and half ago from downtown,” he mentions, Jenks gave warm greetings at the door and the first question he had for me was where I was from. Both being native New Yorkers, we immediately bonded talking about our love for the city. After a quick glance around the room, I saw an old school NBA arcade game and could barely contain my excitement. “Man, it’s my most proud possession, this is from 1993,” he stated. Beside the game, I saw his huge desk and writing on the wall, which had another interesting story we touched upon later in the coversation.
Just being in his presence I couldn’t help but be enthralled by Jenks’ passion for every project he’s taken on. While talking to him, he remembers the interaction he’s had with each person and can recall vivid details that happened years ago. Fiercely loyal to his subjects, this oh-so-(still)-young filmmaker is the proud future of his industry. We delve into each of his films, his unwavering affection for those he's worked with, and his latest project, which you may be hearing about sooner than you think.
Labeling Men: How did you first start with getting into documentaries?
Andrew Jenks: When I was 19. Well, I traveled a lot when I was a kid, and when I was 19 I was at school and not having a very good time. My grandfather was going through dementia so I thought it would be interesting to see what life was like in a nursing home, so I moved into a nursing home and made a movie. We shot like 200 hours of footage, came back, edited it in my parents basement and started submitting it to film festivals. Got rejected from a lot and then started to get into some and then got some good reviews and HBO called and so they wanted to buy - or acquire - the movie [“Andrew Jenks Room 335”] and that's how I started.
Labeling Men: That's great. How did you go from that, to Bobby V [Bobby Valentine, in his second movie “The Zen of Bobby V”]? I was thinking that was from Point A to Point Z, so what was the reasoning behind that? Are you a die-hard Mets fan?
Andrew Jenks: I'm a big sports fan. I thought of that idea in high school, of moving out there and trying to make a movie out of his life in Japan ,and once the HBO movie came out, I was able to get in the door to ESPN and pitched those guys the idea of going out there, shooting a movie. It’s sort of like this "Mister Baseball meets Lost In Translation" type of film, but it’s a documentary, it’s real. This guy is out there, the first American manager to win a Japanese Series and is treated as a demi-god with shrines that are built in his honor, and a beer named after him, a burger named after him. I was really lucky the people at ESPN believed in me and gave me the chance to make my second movie. It was also cool that they didn't think I had to be in it, which was nice, which I am always appreciative of.
Labeling Men: And what did you think of him overall?
Andrew Jenks: We followed him for nine months. In my opinion, he is an extremely generous person. He's also just a baseball - he doesn't need me to say it - but he's a baseball savant. He is a baseball wizard. I would have him mic-ed during games, listen to him talk to his bench coach and stuff, he would be calling what the next pitch would be, what the hitter would do. They say the greatest athletes are always three steps ahead and he was always three steps ahead, and it was interesting to watch and I learned quite a bit.
Labeling Men: That's really great. Do you think that he was inaccurately portrayed in the media when he went back to America to manage the Red Sox and then the next year [after he left] they won the World Series? Do you think it was unfair or an inability to relate to American players?
Andrew Jenks: I have no idea. I know Bobby as someone who always roots for the underdog and that’s what I liked about him. He has an affinity for giving an underdog a chance, he did that by allowing me and these two other guys that were 20, 21 years old to go and make a movie about it and give us the access that he gave us. I tell stories [about him], I don't really know what happened in that situation, but it stinks to see a friend go through that, to read those headlines and that sort of thing.
Labeling Men: From those two experiences, did you take any of them into "World of Jenks" [a docu-series on MTV]?
Andrew Jenks: From both of those, I realized how you really have to be persistent. I think with both of those films, halfway through I thought I still had nothing. I was petrified and…that would be the best way to put it - petrified. I was out shooting a movie and had no story so I think I was prepared in the sense on how to try and tell good stories and I think those two movies helped.
Labeling Men: Where did the initial idea of "World of Jenks" come from?
Andrew Jenks: It came from talking to MTV and discussing different ideas and then we came up with a premise similar to “Room 335,” where instead of moving into a nursing home, I'd move into different worlds or cultures and what was really cool with MTV and the experience was that they did an awesome, spectacular and sometimes frankly I’m in awe job of letting me tell these stories of young people in the country who often times are not given a voice. Autism, cancer, young people living in poverty, people who suffer from depression - I shouldn't say suffer, live with depression - people who have gone through abuse and so that was really neat to work with people who would let me do that.
Labeling Men: Was there one story that maybe resonated with you just a little bit more than the others?
Andrew Jenks: It’s kind of like having 22 kids and picking your favorite one, you like all of them for different reasons. I probably stay in contact most with Chad, who is the young guy who has autism, him and his family the most.
Labeling Men: What do you like most, being in front of the camera or being behind it?
Andrew Jenks: Both. Both have their benefits. I think that probably in terms of enjoyable factor, I think being behind the camera is a little bit more fun in the sense that in some ways its easier being behind the camera because you can hide from the camera. When you're in front of the camera you are documenting yourself and you want to make sure you're being real and being who you are and that you're being respectful to the film, the people that you're filming. There is an added element of being vulnerable in front of the camera as well, because you’re part of the story, it’s a tricky balance.
Labeling Men: When do you think people started to recognize you on the street? Was that after "World of Jenks" and did that affect you in any way?
Andrew Jenks: No, I'd like to think not. It’s not like I’m Justin Bieber or something!
Labeling Men: ::laughs::
Andrew Jenks: It’s cool because you get people who have seen the show or the movies and feel like it spoke to them in some way and so I have people who are cancer survivors or have a friend that might be going through cancer or have autism or a fan of the UFC and got to know Anthony Pettis who is now the world champion and that episode maybe helped them, like I did, rethink what a professional fighter is and what they are about. I think it’s cool to see people come up and feel like the show or the films resonated with them. I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a nice feeling.
Labeling Men: Was there any moment - we know some celebrities attended your premiere - where you were like, "Wow, this is crazy, this person knows who I am!"
Andrew Jenks: Yeah of course, it’s cool! I'm a big Ed Burns fan and he saw “Bobby V,” which was cool for me. I know Alicia Keys tweeted something about the show. I met Rihanna and she told me she really enjoyed the show. It’s fun when you hear other people you have known and grown up with like it or respect it. Especially someone like Ed Burns, he's a cool New Yorker, you know, and a super nice guy, especially those people you have looked up to your whole life, it’s sort of surreal.
Labeling Men: Speaking of, are you worried that with dating, any girls will try to date you because of the show or based on your TV persona?
Andrew Jenks: There have probably been some scenarios in where people weren't reaching out for the most sincere reasons. I remember I went out with this woman once and we went on a date, I really liked her, went on a second date, really liked her. We went on a third date and we were talking about something and she suddenly went "It reminds me of Season 1 when you lived with so and so." I had said that I did documentaries but it was only then that I realized that she was a fan of sorts, a fan of the show, and so there were little moments here or there, but it’s usually pretty easy to know whether someone is being real or not. I hope! Otherwise I'm kind of...
Labeling Men: Well, this is New York, like we said before, people are more genuine.
Andrew Jenks: People here are straight up, which I like.
Labeling Men: Absolutely! Do you feel like being recognized would affect you in any way?
Andrew Jenks: I'm really proud of everything that we've done. I've done some projects that aren't the best thing in the world, and probably far from it and could have probably done a better job. I know that everyone I've worked with I really enjoy working with. The show or movie that we put out, always proud of, I don't think there is anyone we have filmed or followed feels that we didn't capture them in the right way. I feel when I go and approach somebody about following them or shooting them for a film or show, I feel like if anything, the work speaks for itself, it’s what we do, it’s what we are about, that usually gets us in the door I think.
Labeling Men: What would be your favorite project if you had to choose, or are they so different like you said before?
Andrew Jenks: They all are. I think the first one, living in a nursing home, is always going to be hard to top, because I just lived with a group of people who changed my life, not even in being able to make a movie and have it be on HBO, the fact that they opened up their lives to, just what I learned from them. You're talking about a 96-year old-woman who could hardly see, could hardly walk, had a tough time hearing, had her mind which was totally intact. Physically was unable to do what others can, but mentally she was just so sharp and she would go around the nursing home and tell sex jokes.
Labeling Men: ::laughs::
Andrew Jenks: [She would] look for somebody whose spirits were down and try and lift them. There was another guy, Bill, who was 82 years old and very forgetful; maybe it was dementia. I hung out with him every day, and three weeks in he still didn't know my name. The one thing he could do was walk, he was physically able to do whatever he wanted and he would walk to the dollar store and pick up candy and if there was anything he remembered, it was who liked candy and what candy it was. He would go back and hand it out and kind of take solace in that brief moment of putting a smile on someone else's face. The idea of these people who really had nothing - life, family, friends - they were by themselves in this home, using whatever they did have to help somebody else, is stamped in my mind, so to speak.
Labeling Men: That is really great. We know your next project is about Ryan Ferguson. Without revealing too much, tell me about that.
Andrew Jenks: Ryan is an incredible [pauses] Ryan is like Gandhi. It might be a bit much, but he is an unbelievable guy. He spent 9 and a half years wrongly incarcerated. I think most people would feel bad for themselves or cynical. Instead, the second he got out was the moment he started to try and change the system that failed him and have a smile on his face, very well read, has already come out with a book which you can get on Amazon [click here to check it out] and taught me just a lot. We are the same age. He was actually here yesterday, we went to the Knicks game together, he's a basketball fan so...he’s an exceptional, exceptional person, I don't know anybody else quite like him. His story is something else and to think that he lost his 20s because someone - a few people - said that he did something that he didn't, and to not feel anger towards anybody else, to keep and stay above that is so admirable.
Labeling Men: That's amazing.
Andrew Jenks: And the movie is fucking awesome, so there's that too.
Labeling Men: What drew you to Ryan Ferguson? Was it the case, because I personally found it really interesting when I was looking it up myself?
Andrew Jenks: No, a guy named Chip Rosenbloom, who is from Missouri and a film producer, approached me about it. I think at first the idea was for me to be in it and I really thought that would hurt the film because Ryan's story is so powerful. His dad, who really goes on this nine and half year odyssey to help get his son out, was so powerful and they are such dynamic and interesting characters that there was no need for me to serve as a conduit. I don't know how to say "no" to something like that. You don't really make a lot of money off doing a project like that; you do it because you meet somebody like Ryan, if you're given that sort of opportunity you got to fucking go.
Labeling Men: Absolutely! A bit more personal about yourself, what is your personal style?
Andrew Jenks: A lot of Dunks, Nike Dunks and really whatever is comfortable to be honest - sweatpants, t-shirts. It’s like as simple as it gets. If people send me some cool shit, like cool clothes or whatever, I'd like to wear and experiment but by large, I am obsessed with working so I do a bad job and need to work on other components of my life such as dressing myself.
Labeling Men: ::laughs::
Andrew Jenks: …And kind of the basics: eating properly, going to sleep, keeping my place clean...
Labeling Men: I think it’s pretty clean, by the way.
Andrew Jenks: Yeah, this isn't bad right now, but it can be pretty treacherous.
Labeling Men: I have to ask, is there any symbolism of the stuff that is on the walls? [Editors Note: He has walls filled with lists and writing on it]
Andrew Jenks: It sounds very artsy fartsy. Brian [his colleague and friend] actually told me this thing where you can paint your wall and then write on it and erase it. It’s all erasable, and it’s good for me because we usually have about up to ten projects going on at once and so it’s good to just have lists. Every morning I write a list and I have this on my computer and it’s a way for me to track everything that we are doing at once.
Labeling Men: What advice would you give to other kids who are in high school who want to do what you’re doing?
Andrew Jenks: I think you got to go and make a movie. It’s really hard to learn it by reading or studying or watching. I think all of that is necessary, all of it is second to going out and trying it on your own. We have a film festival that we started called “The All-American High School Film Festival,” that’s the largest film festival in the world. We have over 25 colleges, we have thousands of submissions around the world for high school students, specifically over 25 colleges come to the fair for technology, we showcase submissions from 17 countries, 48 states.
Labeling Men: That’s awesome!
Andrew Jenks: That gives kids a chance to have their film on the big screen to realize that they can get into this line of work, that it’s plausible and a possible career.
Labeling Men: That’s really amazing. And you started it?
Andrew Jenks: Yeah, I started it with Brian [Lindenbaum] and another guy named Tom [Oliva]. It first started when I was 16, we had a local high school film festival and it just kept growing. A few years ago we decided we wanted to make it a bigger event, because we were getting so many great, so many awesome - you’d be shocked at how great these films are. It’s really, really cool. It’s the best weekend. Every year, it’s the best weekend that I have, it’s just inspiring, not to be too earnest, it’s pretty incredible.
Interview and photos by Nisim Frank