Andrew Jenks is a lot of things, but an underachiever definitely isn’t one of them. The former NYU student is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, a creator of a successful MTV series, a founder of a forthcoming nationwide high school film festival, an author of an autobiographical picture book, and a former resident of both Nepal and Belgium. And he’s only 26 years old.
NYU Local recently sat down with Jenks, who is in the process of promoting the second season of his MTV series World of Jenks, set to premiere on Monday, in addition to his his book Andrew Jenks: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker, out tomorrow. Differing a bit from its first season, the forthcoming World of Jenks will follow the lives of three young people: Kaylin, a young fashion designer battling two different types of cancer; D-Real, an Oakland-based dance phenomenon and new father; and Chad, an autistic boy in the process of graduating from high school.
In talking with Jenks, we discovered why he became a filmmaker, why he disliked NYU’s film program and ultimately left before graduating, and how he picks his documentary subjects. We also learned a bit of insider information about the upcoming season of World of Jenks. Check out our conversation below.
NYU Local: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
Andrew Jenks: I grew up a little bit all over the place. I was born an hour north [of New York City] in northern Westchester, not to be mistaken with Scarsdale or other towns known to be rich… But my dad worked for the United Nations, so I lived in Nepal, and I also lived in Belgium. I went through puberty in the fourth grade, so I was this height with this voice and 20 pounds heavier in like sixth grade. And then I ended up coming back to northern Westchester for high school.
When did you first develop an interest in film?
When I was traveling a lot in foreign countries because of my dad’s line of work, it could get very lonely, in the sense that, you know, at that age you love your parents, but they’re not “the cool people.” And where I was, a lot of people didn’t necessarily speak English. So, I would walk around with this big, bulky VHS camera and just film anything. When I was trying to find material for this book that’s coming out, I found a bunch of old footage, and some of it was literally just grass. I was shooting grass. Not weed, like grass. I was just saying, “Right now, this is Andrew from CNN reporting live. As you can see here, there’s grass growing.” And it literally went on for an hour. And I think that’s where it started. It was almost by default, like, I have nothing else to do. And then I just developed a passion for telling stories, and it just kind of went from there.
When I was 19, or really in high school, senior year, my grandfather moved into a nursing home, and I started to think of possibly moving into a nursing home myself and seeing what it was like and documenting the experience. And then freshman year of college, I was really miserable and lonely, and I would go and visit my grandfather in Schenectady, New York and saw that he was kind of going through a similar thing, but kind of on the opposite end of life. He was living in almost a dorm room, by himself, with almost 300 strangers around him. In a very weird way, it almost felt the same for me, except my life was starting and his was ending. So I thought, well, what if I really did move into a nursing home the summer after freshman year and buy a couple cameras off of eBay, convince a couple of my friends to take a van down to the Mecca of senior living, Florida, and shoot this documentary.
So that was Room 335. What about Bobby V?
After that — HBO bought that doc, which was very, vey cool — I got in the door at ESPN… When I’m tired and bored I do a lot of Wikipedia-ing, and I saw that Bobby Valentine, a former manager of the New York Mets who coached them to the World Series in 2000, had moved to Japan and became the first American manager to ever win a Japan series, and thus became a demigod. There is a beer named after him, a street named after him, a hamburger named after him. So I moved to Japan for seven months and made a feature doc for ESPN. And they were really cool. I’ll never forget when they called me and they said, “We approve you to go make this movie. We approve the budget,” which was around $1 million, and I tried to play it off like, “Okay, sounds good. I’ll call you tomorrow with details,” because $1 million was about $1 million more than my first movie. So, it was cool.
Can you tell me about the film festival that you started at your high school?
Yeah, when I was 16, I was making all of these short films. One’s called “The Five Second Rule.” It’s on YouTube… I’ve never actually said that it’s on YouTube, but it is. And so I had it, and I wanted to show it to people other than my friends in their basement. I thought it was pretty cool. And I thought, “Well, what if we use our high school’s auditorium and asked other young students who are into film to have their short films played on the big screen?” ‘Cause that’s like every high school student’s dream if they’re into this film thing. And, it just kind of took off, almost on a grassroots level. By the second year, James Earl Jones came and spoke. And it’s not like I went to some fancy-shmancy school; we were that school that had a nuclear power plant drill. Like there was a nuclear power plant right next to us. And then all of a sudden, for the past ten years, we’ve been getting films from all over the country. And so this year, on October 4th-6th in New York City, we’re starting the first annual All-American High School Film Festival, because I still feel like there’s a void and not enough opportunities for young people to showcase their work, and it’s too bad, because technology is getting better and better, students are making good films on their fucking iPhones, and art programs are getting cut. So we’re working with they mayor’s office in New York and a bunch of other celebrities and cable networks and film distributers, and we’re making it this big event.
What led you to NYU?
I always wanted to be a director and to make movies, and NYU was one of the two or three obvious choices. So, I got in there, and I always get homesick. I’m like a big mama’s boy. So I liked the idea of being only an hour away from home. And I also loved the idea of being in New York City. So when I got in there, and I got some sort of scholarship, it made me feel pretty cool.
How was your experience at NYU overall?
Fairly miserable. I would say this: I met one of my best friends there, Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew. And Jonah went on to film 335, he filmed the Bobby V movie. He’s filmed both seasons of the MTV show, and people knows him as an amazing cinematographer, and just a great talent, and someone that’s wonderful to work with. But other than that, I was just miserable, man. I didn’t relate to a lot of the students. I thought that a lot of them thought that they were better than me, and it would get too competitive. And, you know, we had to make short films freshman year. I remember I would make a short film with the equipment that NYU gave us, which was amazing, but then other students would walk in and their parents gave them like $30,000 to make a fucking movie. And I just didn’t think that was reasonable, and I didn’t think it was a good environment to be learning in. I also really didn’t like that they restricted us from making feature movies. I mean, I made my doc in the nursing home for like $3,000 or $5,000, and here you are, students making films for $30,000. So, I don’t want to bash the school, because someone like Jonah prospered, graduated, did very well. But I think I would do things differently if I ran the school.
When did you leave NYU?
In my second year, when the Bobby V movie was green-lit, I was in an apartment with Jonah, and I got a toothache one morning. It was a lot of pain. I’m not one to like… Like I’ve herniated disks and stuff; I move on. But my tooth was in a lot of pain. It was 5:00 in the morning, so I got on the MetroNorth to go see my dentist, and it turned out I had to get a molar or something taken out. I was on drugs for the pain for the next week, and I was just at home. I couldn’t really do anything, so I was just sitting at my parents’ home, and ESPN called and said they wanted to make the movie, and I never went back to NYU. So I left NYU on a toothache.
How do you pick the people to move in with or follow?
I think there are a few criteria, one being looking for people who don’t want to be on television, who would almost react really negatively to being on television. Because when you tell people you have a show on MTV, or you put out a thing online like, “We’re looking for people for this show,” everyone and their mom will come out. And so, we have to kind of go out and do our own research and look for the right people. So, for instance, I thought that it was incredible that there’s [about 20,000] homeless youth in New York City alone. And I was like, “I didn’t know that. I can’t imagine most people would ever imagine that.” And so I talked to my research team, and I said, “Let’s go find a young person who’s homeless who is accessible, you know, who we can relate to in some way so we can understand that subculture.” We walked the streets, we went to shelters, we went to churches where they help young people that are homeless, and we could not find anyone. So I sent a couple of my researchers out to San Francisco where there’s a sizable homeless youth population, and they went around with an iPhone and they found this one young woman named Danielle. She started talking, and they sent me back five minutes of video, and I was like, “Yep. That’s her. She’s the one.”
How did the first season of World of Jenks come about?
That came about because a guy named Chris Linn here at MTV had seen my first documentary, Room 335, where I moved into a nursing home. Chris thought it was a cool concept and asked if I had any other ideas that could work for MTV. My initial reaction was, “Doubtful.” Like, this was the time of Jersey Shore, so I didn’t have abs, I’m not pregnant, I don’t know how I could fit into programming here. And then I met a guy named Brent Haynes and he said, “I’ll give you some money. Go and do something, and if you like it and are proud of it and we like it, then we’ll move forward. And if it’s too highbrow or you think it’s too good for MTV then fine, keep the footage and we’ll move on.” And who would not take that deal? So, I went ahead and moved in with a rapper [Maino] who I thought had some substance behind him, so I could kind of get what I wanted, which was some storytelling. And I knew that for MTV and the viewers, the world of rap is something that people are interested in, and I am too. And so I shot 200 hours of footage, because I thought MTV wouldn’t pick it up and I’d make it my own documentary. And they only wanted five minutes of footage, so essentially I gave them a trailer of what I thought would be my feature film. And they really liked it, so eventually it was a full pilot that ended up airing after the VMAs in 2010, and a lot of people watched it.
What are some of the biggest differences between the first and second seasons of World of Jenks?
Well, the second season is different because [the episodes] are an hour long, so the idea was that I was going to live with three people for an entire year, which is different from living with various people for seven-to-ten days. And in the first season, in every episode you’d get to know one of these characters, and hopefully like them, and at the end of the episode, you’d be like, “Oh god, I want to know more,” and then boom, it’s on to the next person. So this year, I was like, “Let’s follow three people.” They’ll be in every episode. You’ll follow their trajectory over the course of a year, and I’m happy that MTV just thought it’s just a much better show presented that way. So in a lot of ways it’s a new show. I mean, it’s the same concept, but it’s very different.
What can we look forward to from season two?
You’ll see D-Real, who is a really cool guy and just someone who anyone would want to hang with, start dance battles all over Oakland, and he pulls off the biggest dance battle the city’s ever seen. And he did it at night, which almost always ends up in some sort of gun fight and someone getting killed, and he pulled it off in conjunction with the city. And these dance battles are sick. They’re a lot of fun to be a part of, especially for a white guy like me who doesn’t know a damn thing about dancing. Kaylin pulls off this incredible fashion show, and I’m not even the least bit into fashion, but it was amazing to see. And then for Chad, I think one of the better episodes one can look forward to is when he almost breaks up with his girlfriend over her superfluous amount of Justin Bieber posters.
Lastly, I know your book Andrew Jenks: My Adventures as a Young Filmmaker is coming out on Friday. Can you tell me a little about it?
So it wasn’t like I was going around pitching myself for a book. Scholastic came to me, and they said, “Would you be interested in doing a book with us?” And I thought that was awfully nice of them. And I said, “Well, I’m working on a million other things. It will take time.” They were cool with that. They said they would help me, give me a lot of people that could look into past photos that I have. So, I think it’s a fun, hardcover picture book where you get a chance to see what I’ve done from when I was two years old traveling around in Nepal with my first camera, to moving into the nursing home, to being in Japan. So, everything that you kind of never see in the movie or in the TV show. It’s everything that happens that we aren’t able to capture in those projects.
World of Jenks Season 2 will premiere Monday, March 4th at 11:00 PM on MTV.
[Conversation has been edited for length. Image via]