If you’re unfamiliar with the television work of Andrew Jenks, please read why I think it’s important, especially in terms of the relationship today between young people and the documentary form. And if you need to know why I feel his new book, My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker, would make an absolutely terrific addition to libraries, you can check out the intro to that same giveaway. Of course if you’d prefer an A/V sample of his MTV series, which just this week began a new season, the promo video below should suffice. Then you’d have more than enough background material to prepare you for the following Q&A with him.
I’ve always been fascinated by Bobby Valentine, so your behind-the-scenes account of the ESPN project was particularly compelling. Any thoughts on his life now, by way of an update–his Red Sox stint, his new gig at Sacred Heart?
In Japan, there was a beer named after him, BoBeer. A street, Valentine’s Way. A hamburger, Bobby’s Burger. I can’t imagine coming back to the States after living in Japan where you are the most recognizable face in the country–and treated like a demigod. His latest gig I think speaks to who he is; Bobby loves a challenge, and puts little weight on whether that challenge is getting the Mets to a World Series or taking over the sports department at Sacred Heart. He is, more than anything, a fan of the underdog. I think it’s his most endearing quality.
An important part of your success, in my opinion, derives from your non-tech, non-media skills: it comes from being able to relate to people, talk with them, get them to tell their stories. But is that something that can be taught or coached?
We seem to live in an age where everyone has an opinion. Everyone has an answer. I like when people say, “I don’t know.” What I learned early on–especially after I lived in a nursing home for my first project–was the value of just listening. It was from listening to my grandfather in his nursing home that I realized the value of the elderly and began questioning why they are shunned from society. It was from listening and keeping my eyes open online that I found out what Bobby Valentine was doing in Japan, and then was able to direct my second film with ESPN. I think if you listen, you have a better shot of understanding a story. I think in film schools, there is a huge priority on tech. But tech is changing everyday. The fundamentals of how to tell a story has existed for thousands of years–and won’t ever change.
With its clear, engaging storytelling–I could vividly hear your voice “narrating” events–and its many interesting visuals, your book reads a lot like a good documentary. But I guess that begs the question, “Why a book?” And did you have a sense, one way or the other, that fans of your TV work would want to read about your early adventures?
Scholastic approached me about doing a book about my adventures from a child traveling with my big bulky VHS camera, to my “short films” and public access show in high school, to moving into a nursing home at 19, to the ESPN movie where I lived in Japan for 7 months, to the MTV show. I am certainly not an author just because I wrote a book. But I thought it was a chance to show young people–filmmakers or not–that hard work can put you in the best position to find your own success.
That’s a key emphasis in the book, too–hard work as a requirement for achieving goals in the media world. Still, with the way that the media itself markets its figures and “personalities” it’s easy, I think, for youth to get the sense that one must be innately “cool” or “good-looking” to land one’s dream projects. How would you advise young people who have a little voice in their head saying this sort of thing?
I think most film directors, producers, actors would be quick to note that they aren’t known for their looks but their talent. I’d bet Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher don’t exactly consider themselves “studs”. “Good-looking” is fairly subjective. I am sure Jonah Hill does perfectly fine for himself. Being “good-looking” can also hurt you, seeing as people will think you’re on TV or film because of your looks and not because of your brains or talent. Those that find success usually create their own “cool”–and then are defined by it…good looks or not.
You founded one of the most successful high school film festivals in the U.S. Any tips on how today’s students could develop something similar, even if at a more modest scale, at their school or in their community?
When we started the festival 10 years, it was on a local level; just my small, public high school and a few surrounding schools in the local area participated. We held it in our gym’s auditorium. The night of the festival it was extremely hot and everyone left dripping. But we kept at it. With technology growing so rapidly it has become exponentially easier to make short films (even for my MTV show/documentaries we have had to use an iPhone so that people wouldn’t be intimated by “real cameras”). The quality is just as good. It’s not just easier to film, it’s easier to get access to editing equipment, access to tips online, and research for one’s story. Now the festival gets hundreds of films from all over the country–which is why this year on October 4-6th we are holding the first annual All-American High School Film Festival.
In US schools there’s not much of an emphasis on “media literacy,” at least not compared to some other nations. How would life itself be different for teens and maybe college students if, starting at an early age, they received consistent instruction in how media messages are made, the persuasive techniques employed, and so on?
Information today is like water–it’s everywhere. All media outlets are playing an angle, and most are playing one that speaks to a certain base that agrees with a subjective way of looking at everything. Teaching media literacy seems almost as important as teaching any other subject because it is one of the main ways that young people learn and develop–and if you don’t know how to navigate the basics of consuming media and using media, you’re in trouble. One question I always ask people is if they know the algorithm to how Google pulls up which links when you search for something. Think of how everyday we use Google to search something, yet close to nobody knows how and why certain things come up. We may have an idea, but not really, and this is how we are consuming information.
Finally, you state rather starkly that “There’s a war on youth going on in America” and back it up with some stats about government funding. But how to inspire policy makers and the general public to support youth without also having young people read such statements and feel more alienated from society, more cynical than they may already be? Or am I simply stereotyping today’s youth?
This was in a previous draft that I ended up deleting from the final version of the book, but I think Congress these days is the world’s most expensive nursing home. The last Congress was the oldest since World War II. This won’t change until my generation can get over the partisan politics and get involved ourselves.