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October 10, 2015

Andrew Jenks' World: Total Immersion, With a Big Heart

by Anna Dimond, posted Oct 24th 2010 6:30PM
"Always be prepared for the unexpected."

In his July 2008 commencement speech at his alma mater, Andrew Jenks pointed to his own experience as a filmmaker as a model for following one's dreams, taking risks, and turning failure into success.

But his words of wisdom, directed at a roomful of graduates-to-be at Hendrick Hudson High School in Montrose, N.Y., also serve as a logline for his latest success story, 'World of Jenks.'

The MTV series, which debuted Sept. 13 and airs weekly (Mondays at 10PM ET), follows the 24-year-old as he immerses himself in the life of a different young person in each episode, living out an anthropological mini-movie that's made for the millennial set, and offering a glimpse at wildly diverse subcultures, from professional poker to rapping to cheerleading.

The series is Jenks's first, but follows a swift entry into the documentary spotlight. In 2006, he made 'Andrew Jenks, Room 335,' which featured his experience living in an assisted-living facility with elderly adults. HBO snapped up the film. ESPN quickly followed suit, greenlighting 'The Zen of Bobby V,' another film from Jenks and partner Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew. 'Zen' followed former MLB manager Bobby Valentine navigating his new job with a team in Japan, and solidified Jenks's reputation on the documentary circuit.

In 'World of Jenks,' the ingenue director takes on an even wider array of personalities and lifestyles, spending a week with each of his subjects to learn about how they live, and why.

TV Squad recently chatted with Jenks to find out why he approaches his work with total immersion, which episodes have been the toughest and how having a dad who works for the United Nations (his dad is Bruce Jenks, Assistant Secretary-General for the U.N.) informed his work.

What inspired 'World of Jenks,' and how did you get involved with MTV?
Andrew Jenks: I moved into a nursing home when I was 19, and that was because I was really close to my grandfather. I had been living with 300 [people in a] dormitory, and I realized that he was living with 300 strangers as well, except they ... weren't looking toward the future, and all the excitement of things that were going to happen, [like] I was in the dorm room. I was just curious what life was like in a nursing home. So I moved in there.

I got two of my friends who I knew were very good with cameras, we bought a couple of cheap cameras off of eBay, and I think one of them broke, and we just shot it [all]. We ended up getting into some film festivals, and HBO bought it. And then someone at MTV had seen it on HBO, and [called me].

And that spawned 'World of Jenks'?
They were like, 'What would you want to do?,' and I thought what would be interesting to live with a gangster -- not a gangster, how do I put it? A really tough, almost stereotypical rapper, and then we found this guy Maino who was just unbelievable. So we filmed that, and they thought this could be a series where I move in with different people.

I've seen a number of episodes, and so far am a big fan of your approach to documentary filmmaking. ... But have you encountered any hurdles? Some of the people you move in with, like Maino, would be intimidating. Were you ever nervous?
The biggest hurdle for me is the psychological toll, in terms of getting to know someone so well over the course of the week, and almost feeling like we're inseparable -- in fact, that's the essence of the show, we are inseparable. And to be with them for seven days ... takes a toll, in terms of going from someone's life, and really understanding them, to going to someone else's life. And doing that over 12 times is just a lifelong -- it's like speed-living or something. That's the hardest part for me, just mentally being able to focus on each part that I dive into.

There's something almost anthropological about it. Yet, there's a fine line when some of your subjects could really use some help [such as Heavy D, who lives on the street]. Where is the line between your show, and that emotional bond that you form?
My take on it is that I edit the show, and I do what's in the best interest of the story, because the subjects that have signed up to do the show understand that that is what they're signing up for, and if they don't want to do it, then they don't do it, no one's forcing you to do this. We've had to talk to some people where they were skeptical about doing it, but then we'd show them 'Room 335,' and just talk to them and try to get them to really understand where we were coming from.

And where is the line for you?
When we're done editing it, I feel like that's one component. The other is something that has nothing to do with the television show, which is just my own trust that I've maintained and held on to since filming, and since editing. So for instance, with Heavy D, the houseless young woman, I gave her a cell phone. And I could've gotten her a job, I could have given her money. But I thought that Heavy D, more than anything, needed someone to love her, since clearly her parents didn't. And I think she just needed to see that she could call someone at any time, and that person would pick up. And I think that's a personal responsibility that I hold when I go to sleep at night.

Are there any specifics episodes from which you've gotten strong reactions from either the subjects or the viewers?
All of them, really. Because what's interesting about the project is that, with every world that we dive into, we're really diving into a world. So for instance, when the MMA [mixed martial arts] gave up the cage fight, when that episode aired, it's like the whole MMA world was watching. ... So that part is an interesting thing to see, that these communities really do exist, and they're very present.

Have you gotten a sense of how these communities perceive you, as kind of the interested interloper, immersing himself?
The worlds where I read about them don't seem to talk about me as much, which I prefer. They seem to talk about the subjects, because the subjects and their lives are a microcosm of their world.

What are you hoping that MTV viewers take away from the show? Did you have an idea in mind when you went in?
Fresh, unique voices that are really doing something special with their lives, and showing that they're trying to make a difference -- either a difference within society, or a difference within themselves. I hope the show can provide a degree of hope, and a lot of these people that we document are really inspiring -- I think.

What have you learned personally, as well as professionally, throughout this process? It sounds like there are two components, at least.
Personally, I've been surprised at -- it's just incredible how many young people are doing unbelievable things. We followed this 23-year-old girl who was infiltrating illegal slaughter farms and freeing horses, and we followed Danielle, this girl who had been on the streets for 10 years. On a personal level, I've just been in awe of what young people are going through, and are capable of pulling off.

And then professionally, it's been an interesting process of storytelling. I made two 90-minute projects ... and this is a 19-minute, 50-second deal. It tests you as a storyteller. ... To deal with act breaks, and commercials, it's very different. But it's been interesting, it's not a bad thing. ...Your beats are different, your tone is different, it's a whole different ball game. It's helped me become a better storyteller, I hope.

How would you characterize your approach to documenting these young people's lives, this immersive approach to filmmaking, versus more of the traditional documentary style? What are the advantages, or maybe some of the disadvantages?
Well, I'm looking into different worlds, and when diving into different subcultures, my main priority should be gaining the trust of the subjects you're documenting. And I think that me being in front of the camera demonstrates to the subject that I'm willing to out up with a degree of vulnerability as well. And especially with young people, when I'm able to be in front of the camera, I feel like they think that I don't have the nice wall of the camera, and I think that makes a big difference.

So it sounds like power structure shifts a little bit.

Finally, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up, and what the reaction has been from your family -- to the show, and to the kind of work that you do?
Well, I guess why I'm interested in this in the first place, is really because my dad works for the U.N., so we traveled a lot when I was a kid. I was naturally exposed to Nepal and Belgium, and different countries, and I think moving a lot made me realize how much is out there, so I guess I should credit my parents for that one. I hated it at the time. Are you kidding? Moving in the fourth grade, man, that's lonely. All you want to do is be with your friends when you're in the fourth grade.

It's sounds pretty glamorous now.
It's a cool thing now, for me to think, "Yeah, I lived in Nepal. I saw the Himalayas," but [at age 10], not really.

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