MTV’s Jenks: Don’t take ‘no’ for answer

Director Andrew Jenks, 24, spoke to the College and fielded questions about potential subjects for his MTV documentary series, ‘World of Jenks.’ (Photo courtesy of Kate Stronczer)

When some people are told “no,” they simply accept it and move on with their lives.

This isn’t true for filmmaker Andrew Jenks, the mind behind the MTV show “World of Jenks.”

To him, the phrase poses a challenge, and instead of ceasing his creative thoughts, it only fuels them.

Passion and persistence were two themes highlighted in the College Union Board’s Welcome Back Lecture, featuring Jenks, on Jan. 20.

“It sounds really cheesy,” the documentarian said on Thursday night to a crowded Kendall Hall auditorium. “But, ‘no’ has become a turn-on to me.”

After a slight pause, “That’s not the best advice for a relationship or with girls,” he added, with a laugh.

If he had listened to all the rejections he’s received, Jenks may not be where he is today.

Although only 24, he already has his own television series and made an ESPN-funded documentary in Japan, about baseball manager and former player Bobby Valentine called “The Zen of Bobby V.”

Yet his real breakthrough came several years ago. At age 19, Jenks moved into a nursing home.

He had asked numerous facilities for permission to spend time as one of their residents, he said, but he repeatedly received the same response: “Absolutely not. That’s absolutely ridiculous,” he recalled.

At the time, his grandfather was struggling with dementia. This inspired Jenks to delve into a world not otherwise seen, he said, explaining that he wanted to view senior citizens as people, “not statistics.”

Although many didn’t take him seriously because of his age, he continued pursuing the project until eventually a facility in Florida accepted. The finished project became “Andrew Jenks: Room 335,” a documentary picked up by HBO after winning best picture awards at several film festivals.

After seeing “Room 335,” MTV contacted Jenks and offered him a show.

His response? “No, I’m not going to be on MTV. That sounds like a terrible career choice.”

After much deliberation, though, he took MTV up on the offer, only to find that it wasn’t so terrible. In fact, he now speaks highly of the network.

“I had 100 percent creative control, as much as you can,” he said. “Everyone blames MTV for airing ‘Skins’ and ‘Jersey Shore’ and all that crap, but they gave a guy like me, who’s 24, complete creative control, and that’s a pretty damn cool thing.”

Jenks is the executive producer of “World of Jenks” and in each episode he moves in with a young adult for a week, sharing the individual’s story as much as the restriction of a 21-minute segment will allow.

“What inspires me is trying to find those pockets in the world where there’s people doing great things, but no one’s documented them,” he said.

Over 12 episodes, he follows a homeless girl named Danielle, who goes by the name “Heavy D” and prefers to classify herself as “houseless”; Chad, a young man with autism; Maino, a Brooklyn rapper, and

Jenks (Photo Courtesy of Kate Stronczer)

nine others, including a poker player and a female surfer.

During the Q&A session, Joe Webb, an audience member, marketed himself to Jenks, in the hopes that he could be cast for the show. The English major and transfer student with “a British last name” received the response of “maybe” from the filmmaker.

While it’s doubtful that Webb will be featured on the show, Jenks did share information about next season.

“Right now, we’re researching for season two. We’re out and about looking for subjects,” he said. This time around, he plans on following only three or four individuals for the entirety of the season.

As of now, prospective subjects include a terminally ill young woman, who spends time creating comic books in the hopes that money raised can be given back to children struggling with her strain of cancer; a man who tours with and takes the stage before Lady Gaga; a NASCAR driver; and a transgendered man, who transitioned from female to male.

Jenks would also love to feature an Amish teenager on his show, or someone fighting overseas. He explained what he typically seeks for the show.

“It’s usually worlds I’ve always wanted to explore,” he said.

The evening of anecdotes was tied together by three lessons that Jenks learned through his travels: adaptability, or respecting and understanding the culture of those he’s living with, never taking “no” as an answer and to “fake it ’til you make it.”

When asked what’s been the biggest change in his life since being on television, he automatically responded, “Girls.” With a grin, he said, “Next question?”

After a moment, he answered seriously. “I’m the same person I was a year ago, and no one wanted to listen to what I had to say a year ago.” He also gained 12 new friends, he said, because he’s gotten close with those he documented and makes an effort to keep in touch.

“I usually like to find people that are difficult to find, since they’re that much more interesting,” Jenks told The Signal in a pre-show interview, when asked who would be his ideal subject. “I almost prefer to stay away from celebrities because they tend to be obviously overexposed, otherwise they wouldn’t really be celebrities.”

“I love the Danielles of the world, (the ‘houseless’ girl in San Francisco),” he continued. “No one knew her story, not even her parents. I think that was a fantastic opportunity to really get to know someone that would have never crossed my spectrum otherwise.”

Jamie Primeau can be reached at primeau2@tcnj.edu.