If you think you’ve gotten too old to want your MTV, Andrew Jenks is just the guy to change your mind.
The 27-year-old, critically-lauded documentary filmmaker (The Zen of Bobby Vee; Andrew Jenks, Room 335) brings a very different look at the Jersey Shore generation — emotional, inspiring and warmly funny — to the network via his absorbing docuseries, World of Jenks.
For the show’s second season, which premieres Monday, March 4, the charming New Yorker spent an entire year chronicling the lives of three other remarkable twentysomethings, each of whom is determined to rise above intense challenges.
Oakland native D-Real, 21, is reeling from the recent murder of his younger brother whom he ushered into a life on the streets. With a brand-new son as his salvation, D-Real hopes to use dance battles to being peace to his violent city, one young person at a time.
A fan favorite from Season 1, 21-year-old cut-up Chad, who has autism, is thrilled to have his partner in crime back as he graduates from the safe haven of his private school and navigates his first romance, a job hunt and other adult milestones.
And spunky 27-year-old San Francisco clothing designer Kaylin chases a fashion career in New York City even as she fears, then faces, a third bout with cancer.
Each episode elicits tears and laughter (often simultaneously) making it impossible not to wind yourself into the deepening bonds formed between Jenks and his three captivating subjects.
Channel Guide Magazine: You said that you never intended to be a character in your own projects, but I loved Andrew Jenks, Room 355 and the first season World of Jenks — what compelled you to stay in front of the camera and keep telling these great stories?
Andrew Jenks: A big part of it was that a lot of the people that I follow that are my age or younger are in very vulnerable situations that are even tougher to reveal or expose in front of the camera. I’m asking them to go into the hospital to see if they have cancer. I’m going to the graveyard where their brother was shot and killed. So I think that my being in front of the camera and me showing my emotions where maybe I’ll cry or I’ll get mad — they’ll realize that I’m willing to expose myself and not hide behind the camera.
CGM: It was pretty heartbreaking to see you say goodbye to some of the subjects in the first season — and heartbreaking for the viewers to say goodbye, as well. Is that what led you to decide to move in with fewer subjects for a longer period of time for Season 2?
AJ: I just felt that it would better if we would follow the same three people in every episode over the course of the year, so you could really attach yourself to them and get to know them and their stories. In Season 1 it was a little bit difficult, because the episodes were only a half-hour — really 19 minutes and 20 seconds with commercials — so it was really hard to properly capture each person’s story. And so this year, with the show now being an hour long, I feel like we’re able to get into how dynamic and layered their stories really are over the trajectory of the year.
CGM: It’s so great to see you and Chad back together again — and to be able to delve deeper into his life and his world.
AJ: We were going to go for three new people, but I just loved, loved, loved Chad so much and I’m close with his family and I knew that he was going to be going through senior year, that he had a girlfriend, that he would be looking for a job and his story was so rich. And on top of that, I think he does such a wonderful job of de-stigmatizing someone with autism, with special needs — which I think is important in an age where one in every 88 young Americans have autism.
So I went up to Chad’s place and filmed for a day and edited it down to 5 minutes and showed it to MTV and said, “Look, we really have to bring this guy back.” They agreed.
CGM: I’m also the parent of an adult child with special needs, so I especially appreciate the approach you choose to take with Chad and his family — that the autism itself isn’t the focal point of their lives and making sure he has a happy, colorful, fulfilling life takes precedence.
AJ: It’s so tough for anyone to understand what it’s like as a parent, which is why I admire Mike and Sheri so much. Because once you’re in those shoes, from what I experienced, it’s so difficult to realize that day in, day out you are fighting for the best that your child can get.
And unfortunately there are not nearly enough programs that can challenge these students. The resources aren’t there. And I think we as a country have done a poor job of lending a helping hand. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who do, but I think that as a country we could be doing a heck of a lot better. And I think people don’t realize that Mike and Sheri are there 24/7 for Chad.
CGM: You also do a great job of shedding light on how adults with special needs are often pigeonholed into jobs that they can do but that are certainly not making the most of their personalities and their ability to contribute.
AJ: Originally there were some people who thought that Chad could work at a factory assembly line, and I think that would be a good example of where we’re not giving people like Chad a fair shot. He is an extremely personable, funny, amazing human being. And although that line of work is great for many people, for him, he should be around people. So he ended up finding a job at a pizzeria, which is perfect, because he loves Italian culture and loves food and it was a perfect fit for him.
And he was also an asset at that workplace. He wasn’t just a guy hanging around — he was helping them out. I think that’s a really great example of how, if it’s done right, young people with autism can help all of us out.
CGM: How did you find D-Real?
AJ: Somebody sent me the video to check out because it was really cool and had, like, 3 million hits and I said, “Let’s do some research on this guy and find out what his story is.” It turned out that the day before, his best friend had been shot and killed on the cross street where he danced. And in Oakland where he lived, he was not really taught how to properly grieve. You can’t talk to someone. You can’t cry. You put someone’s face on your t-shirt with “R.I.P.” and that’s about it.
What he did the next day was go and dance, because he’s an incredible turf dancer and that’s what he knows best and that was how he expressed his emotions. Someone happened to be filming it and it became a YouTube sensation, even though no one knew that that was the backstory. So once we found that out and got to know his story a little bit more and found out that he was doing these dance battles across Oakland to promote peace and had newborn son, we had some researchers go out and meet him and we got him involved in the show.
CGM: To see him with his baby son and realizing that he wasn’t a good role model for his brother and that he has a chance to do something great with his life is pretty moving.
AJ: All three of them have incredible spirits. None of them feel bad for themselves or have any self-pity. This is the cards they were dealt and they don’t know any different. It’s very interesting.
CGM: I’ve seen the first and fourth episodes now, and we do see D-Real start to withdraw a little. Since you are with these three for an entire year, were you prepared for the idea that they might not feel the same way about being on camera later in the process as they do at the beginning?
AJ: For each project that I do, I try to do a decent amount of research through articles and documentaries and such to try to find out some of what the subculture is like or some of the intricacies that someone wouldn’t normally know. But I also like to be on the journey with the audience, and so I make sure I don’t know too much.
So I definitely had no idea that he was struggling with the death of his brother to that extent. He was such a nice guy and always smiling and dancing and all this fun stuff, and then you find out that he’s — I don’t want to say almost in denial — but the idea that he had no idea how to properly grieve was so shocking to me. So, as time went on, I kind of told him, “You know, it’s OK to cry.”
And so when we went to this area in Oakland called The White Crosses, he cried for the first time. And I think it was a huge relief for him, and, in a much smaller way, for me as well.
CGM: Kaylin is something else, too. How did you find her?
AJ: We found her through her blog, actually. We’d been doing all this research on different young people who had a particular disease and we kept calling different camps and different schools and we couldn’t really find anyone. And then we ended up doing a Google search, believe it or not — young people+cancer — and Kaylin has a blog that was the first thing to come up. I’ll never forget it.
She just articulated what it was like to go through chemo and cancer so incredibly well and she was also doing this comic book to give to young people who were going through chemo about what it was like for her, and she just had this wonderful spirit that I thought was an incredible opportunity for us to be able to capture.
CGM: In the two episodes I saw, we don’t see a lot of her family or her friends. I had cancer, too, and it was interesting to see the varying degrees to which the people closest to me could handle it. Do we see that element of Kaylin’s story?
AJ: We eventually meet some of her close friends, her mom, her sister. We go up to San Francisco where she’s from and stay at her mom’s place for a couple nights. It was great for us to be able to record what it was like for them. When they found out she had Ewings Sarcoma, they had no idea what it was, so they immediately hopped on Google to find out about it. So the idea that this family was huddled around a computer trying to find out what their daughter had and how it was this very dangerous, deadly cancer was just mind-boggling..
That was one thing I definitely learned was how much a strong family can make a difference. And then it was interesting, because she did find out that people had a tough time relating to her — we show in the first episode that when she says she has cancer, people are like, “Oh, my dog has cancer…” or “My grandmother has cancer.” And she’s like, “Oh, OK, well that’s a little different.”
She’s a special person.
CGM: You’ve got a new book, Andrew Jenks: My Adventures As A Young Filmmaker, out this month, as well. Tell me about that.
AJ: It’s awesome! Scholastic had contacted me, and at first I was like, “Oh God, I don’t want to talk about myself, and I probably should be working on some future projects.”
But I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I keep all these items like photos and film festival tickets. So we came up with this book that takes people behind the scenes of what it was like to make a movie in a nursing home and what it was like to live in Japan for 7 months and how we went about filming when we were homeless for 10 days and just the sort of work ethic that it takes to pull all of these projects off — and the difference they made personally in my life as well.
So it’s a really unique, cool look at how everything happens, from inspiration to research to production to post-production to actually putting the project out in the public.
CGM: How much did your parents and your childhood influence your ability to connect with people and assimilate into their lives and tell these sorts of stories?
AJ: My mom works at a public heath clinic in a not-so-nice area about an hour north of New York City. So she works with a lot of immigrants who aren’t here legally and poor people who don’t have the proper medication that they need sometimes to save their life. And if they’d had money, they would have been able to do it. So I have a good understanding of how broken the system is. And my dad works for the United Nations, so he deals with it on more of a global scale. So a lot of times our dinner conversations would be my dad talking about genocide and my mom talking about a simple pill that would have helped save someone’s life.
So sitting there, sometimes it got kind of depressing [laughs], but it also very much shaped the stories that I want to tell.
CGM: So what comes next? More television? Another film? Both?
AJ: I’ve had a film festival at my local public high school for the last 10 years — I started it in high school. And we’re now making it bigger, just because we’ve had so many submissions and the quality of the movies have gotten so much better. We’re doing the All-American High School Film Festival, which is happening in New York City October 4-6. So that’s been a big project I’ve been working on. And then I do have a TV script and a movie script that I’d like to do down the line when the time is right.
So I’m always interested in doing a wide variety of projects. I’m working on one right now with a New York Knicks player named Iman Shumpert; we shot a little mini-pilot. So I’m always working. I love doing this sort of stuff.
New episodes of World of Jenks air Mondays at 11pm ET/PT on MTV.