Justin Calen Chenn Finds His Way

Justin Calen Chenn | Photo: Courtesy Justin Calen Chenn
Justin Calen Chenn | Photo: Courtesy Justin Calen Chenn

My world revolves around people. I gravitate toward those who see the glass as half full - the ones that can push ahead despite the odds. They are not the leaders - leaders pull people forward with a singular vision - as they push everyone ahead with them because they see that improvement can only happen when you move together as a community.

Justin Calen Chenn inspires me and pushes me ahead. He is open about his demons, not because he is seeking attention, but because he is telling you that he understands and is here to help. As a filmmaker his first film, "The Way of the Snow," is about a young man seeking a way to break away from destruction, both mentally and physically. In fiction and in reality, Justin has fought with his self-mutilation, a fatherless and homeless teenage life and a stint in petty crime. As a first generation Chinese American he had to find his own footing within the Chinese community, which has called for his assimilation.

The following is my interview with Justin Calen Chenn:

Ophelia Chong: You went from a home to living on the street. People who have experienced trauma such as you, come out with physical scars, but it's the invisible ones that no one sees. Vets coming back from the battlefield are hyper vigilante, experience insomnia and deal with bouts of anger and depression; this is characterized as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Would you say you went through your own PTSD before attending Art Center College of Design? You are quoted as "content now to let the past be the past"; is it not that past that built the vision you have in art and life?

Justin Calen Chenn: What a great question. I'd never attempt to say my life has been anything like what soldiers and vets have gone through, but what I can say is, on a solely personal level, something inside me definitely changed the day I became homeless!

I will always remember the feeling of hopelessness I had when my mother, sister and I pulled into the parking lot of the motel we would end up living in for nearly a year. I was about 16 and unable to understand why my birth father had kicked us out of our house. Perhaps that's why in the years that followed, I grew to rely on those PTSD-like frequent bouts of anger and depression to sustain myself. Things were a mess internally, and my lifestyle mirrored that chaos because I just didn't know how else to deal with the situation. It was an extreme time of self-destruction that has just started to calm down in 2012 - on the year of the dragon no less.

Therefore, when I say I am "content to let the past be the past," I say it relieved because I'm glad it's starting to move behind me. I think the past will always influence everything I do, so I will just have to make sure it's always in a positive and productive way, which I believe it can be, despite the painful nature of it.

OC: How has your personal experience been incorporated into your films and artwork? Your film "The Way of the Snow" seems drawn from your personal experiences. Was it a catharsis to write?

JCC: "The Way of Snow" (2008) was my first feature film and also my first foray into filmmaking. About 90% of it was autobiographical, though I did water things down about my self-mutilation, depression and being haunted, as to not totally scare people when they watched it! Since I was forced to be the lead actor after the original one dropped out, it was not only cathartic to write and direct, it was cathartic to actually act the part, too. Though I must say, diving back into those dark feelings of anger and bitterness didn't make me the most pleasant person to be around. That didn't end up mattering as much though, since the film only had a two-person crew! By the end of it, I was injured, sick and emotionally wrenched. But I refused to quit and eventually finished the film. The accomplishment in itself was cathartic for me because I truly learned that after conquering self mutilation, I also had the willpower inside me to conquer even more. All I had to do was set my mind to it.

OC: Your films "Embers of the Sky" and "Folklore" touch upon fantasy, sci-fi. Like the director/producer Georges Méliès, you are the driving force behind your films. What is your process? Do you start with the word or the illustration?

JCC: I went to [Pasadena] Art Center [College of Design] for illustration because I had no idea what Art was about at the time. I never had any artistic training or done anything creative before I got in, so it was all a big playground. If I can achieve a tenth of what George Méliès achieved, then I'll be one happy man.

For [sci-fi anthology] "Embers of the Sky" (2010) and [sci-fi comedy] "Folklore" (2012, now touring the festival circuit), the process was still like a playground, varied and different for each feature.

For "EOTS," I started with words. Because it was a feature comprised of three films, each had a poetic line that inspired the story. For instance, one of the segments [The Reve] which revolved around an alternate realm, the words that inspired me were from a poem. The line went, "I have not knelt outside the door to kiss what seems. But I have seen a ghostly shore that no one sees..." Since I also write my films, words sometimes aid me greatly in formulating the story like they did on "Embers of the Sky."

For "Folklore," the idea for the sci-fi comedy just sort of came randomly one day when I was daydreaming. I thought the idea of all of our favorite myths (vampires, aliens, androids, trolls, etc) being interviewed had the potential to become something quite comedic and emotionally resonating if pulled off. After the initial seed had been set, I started looking for ideas that would help shape the film. The inspirations came from a poster from the film "Trainspotting" and the logotype usage from the Norwegian film "TrollHunter." Those ideas led to me putting together a crowd-funding campaign on the popular website Kickstarter. Thankfully, I reached my budget because people were gracious enough to donate and support the film. Without them, "Folklore" would not exist!

Budget wise, it was a jump up from my previous features, especially my first film, which was financed by me selling my beloved collection of vintage 80's toys and also, not very smartly, using my student loan money. Hopefully, on my next film, I'll take another step up the ladder.

OC: Your family came from China (mainland or Taiwan?) as a first generation child, how did you bridge the past of your family with your future?

JCC: I think to bridge the past with the future, you need to have the want and desire to honor it. My mother is from Taiwan, and since I'm a first generation American, I work very hard to ensure that bridge does not and will never fall apart. I speak relatively fluent Mandarin Chinese and teach myself new words every day. I also study the culture as much as I can and try to incorporate Chinese traditions into my daily life. Also, my stepfather, whom I call Dad now, is from Shanghai, so it's exciting for me because there is a whole other side of Chinese culture for me to incorporate into my life!

On a fun note, I've become quite the avid Mandarin pop music listener. Jay Chou is a favorite, of course. Faye Wong, Na Ying, S.H.E., Soda Green are some others that I've grown quite partial to as well.

OC: As an illustrator, you tell a story in a static form; as a filmmaker you tell a story with moving imagery. What was the impetus that drew you to film?

A craving for an emotional outlet was one reason and British director Mike Leigh was another. Since I never had an interest in movies through my youth and was only a casual moviegoer, I never paid attention to the power of what film could do. That all changed when I saw Mike Leigh's [Oscar-nominated] film, "Secret and Lies" when I was 24-years-old. The hard-hitting emotion struck a deep chord in me and from that moment on I realized film had the things I sorely needed at the time: the combination of moving imagery plus language that would allow me to fully express the emotions that I wasn't able to get out with illustration. I desperately needed an outlet, and when I found film, I knew that it had the potential to help and save me in a way if I could learn the ways of it. And so the journey continues! Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview here.

Justin being interviewed at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Pasadena, CA on July 2011. His film 'Embers of the Sky' was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress there. | Photo: Courtesy Justin Calen Chenn
Justin being interviewed at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Pasadena, CA on July 2011. His film 'Embers of the Sky' was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress there. | Photo: Courtesy Justin Calen Chenn

Links: The Way of Snow
Justin Calen Chenn

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog.