Today we’d like to introduce you to Jeni Jones.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Jeni. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
Right now, I’d say I’m a working artist who has been blessed with a lot of tools and unending enthusiasm for hard, concentrated work.
I direct film & theatre. I rap, write, produce, make music, dance, act, and practice martial arts. All in varying degrees of enthusiasm and varying degrees of ability on any given day. Success to me is doing the work. In that sense, I am always living my dream and succeeding. Some days I am a better rapper than director. Other days I’m a better dancer than producer. Often times, I’m chained to my computer editing a video or writing a play. I can happily go hours or even days focused on one activity. Eventually, though, I’ll crave movement and trade my pen for my wushu sword.
For as long as I can remember I’ve derived joy and satisfaction from imagining things, then converting them into a reality. First as a dancer. My first paid gig about age 9 was with the Joffrey Ballet, performing on sizable stages at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Segerstrom Performing Arts Center. I was a kid who loved music, loved hard work, loved to dance and to create magic on stage.
By high school I was on a dance scholarship and performing in Jazz Spectrum, a professional Dance Company, touring around SoCal. I was attending high school while working, teaching dance, choreographing pieces, designing costumes, working with lighting designers, etc. I was also juggling my role as a competitive snowboarder and training to go to the US Amateur Snowboarding Nationals. I would do my homework during lunch so I could dance 4+ hours after school.
At some point I attended Broadway Theatre project in Florida where I trained with Tony Award winners Ann Reinking, Tommy Tune, and Joel Grey. Ann Reinking was coming off of CHICAGO on Broadway and sorting out her FOSSE choreography and staging. It was pure heaven having Ann put Fosse choreography on us. Musical theatre is in my bones. Directing and choreographing a movie musical has always been a goal.
After high school, I ended up at Orange Coast College for 2 years. It was there I realized I was a director. Kinda randomly, I directed my first play KRAPP’S LAST TAPE by Samuel Beckett – I was 18 or 19. My love for all things Beckett began.
By the time I transferred to Fordham University in NY, I had enough credits to double major in Theatre Directing and in English Literature. I got to simultaneously study dramatic literature, learn to write plays and poetry AND direct. It was there I directed Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT. I lived in Brooklyn, went to college, bartended, and worked on many Off-Broadway shows as a Stage Manager, Dramaturge, Assistant Director, etc. It was then I started training at Upright Citizens Brigade and doing comedic improv mostly as stress relief.
After undergrad, I stayed in NYC and kept working in the theatre. One day I wrote a screenplay (in a Word doc) and suddenly needed to figure out how to turn it into a movie. Prior to then, I hadn’t thought much about film, other than I watched 3-4 new movies every Friday by myself, sneaking from one movie theatre to the next, smuggling in Panda Express takeout. It was kind of my solo therapy. I got into CalArts for their MFA Directing for Film, Theatre, and Television. CalArts was amazing and very hard, and I almost died.
After CalArts, I had no idea how to get a job. I started teaching martial arts to pay bills. There was NO internet. NO email. NO IMDB! No way to really KNOW anything useful about jobs at film companies. There was just some printed UTA List a nice neighbor handed me and expensive FAX machines at Kinko’s. I applied to every single internship.
I got interviewed and offered an internship at “someplace” at Paramount. I wasn’t even really sure what they did… other than make movies. (It ended up being Scott Rudin’s offices at Paramount.) I remember seeing posters on his walls and thinking, “Oh good! Okay, I like these movies. I LOVED LIFE AQUATIC! This must be a fine place to intern.” I went into those offices every day I could. Even days they didn’t need/want me there. EVERY day. I was an annoying intern sponge who basically declared, “I’m not leaving here til you guys help me get a job.”
As an intern, I did a lot of coverage, delivered a lot of lunch orders, filed emails, bound scripts, crashed a golf cart, maybe cleaned a toilet, definitely cleaned a fridge, saw Justin Timberlake in person, delivered a poster to Matthew McConaughey, learned how to answer a phone, how to roll calls, how to identify an Oscar-winning script. I learned all the things actually needed to be a functioning assistant. I remember babysitting a big director’s kid for the day while he took a meeting. We got a private tour of the whole lot! Big intern win!
After about 6 joyful months (I’m not kidding), the guys (whom I respect immensely and to whom I’m ever indebted) – Scott Aversano, Mark Roybal, Danny Roman, Will Russell-Shapiro, Sam Cassell (R.I.P.) – vouched for me and got me a job at Starz Media in International Sales & Acquisitions. It was the beginning of my career as a Film & T.V. Executive. It was also almost the death of me as an artist. LOL.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I worked on the development and production side as an executive for 10+ years. At one point, I calculated I’d read 5,000 feature screenplays. I used to read about 20 scripts a week, mainly working for indie companies with traditional foreign sales-driven models. I’ve worked on and developed all kinds of films, some of which you can see on IMDB, others which you’ll never know I left my creative mark on.
Some of these movies are probably still being made, perhaps with new money or at some new studio. For a long time, aside from a “new” script, you couldn’t hand me a script I hadn’t read before. Development is weird. You can pour your whole creative soul into someone else’s screenplay, only to find out the company you’re working for decided to let the option lapse or just decided to ditch the project. Then a year or two later you see the same movie made and see your invisible hands in it. You see dialogue you suggested or a plot point you solved or an actor or director you helped find.
My biggest struggle was the day I walked away from my last desk job to actually do what I’ve been put here to do: CREATE. I went from people caring what I thought all day, every day, from weekends filled with scripts, from people asking me how to spend their millions of dollars and trusting my expertise, to nobody returning my emails or calls. I mean NOBODY. Crickets. Overnight, I wasn’t representing the money. I wasn’t representing anything. It was a low point for me. I remember signing up for spammy newsletters just to get some regular emails. I am still grateful for daily Domino’s Pizza offers cause for a while that’s all I’d have in my inbox. Thanks, Domino’s Pizza! I heart you.
I’d spent so much time solving other peoples’ creative problems that I had stopped creating. All I had was the memory of a faint voice from the past, whispering maybe my name and some poetry fragments every now and then. It was dark and lonely and scary.
My first year was rough, so I focused on discipline. I wrote about 10 feature screenplays, about one a month, from ideas I’d gathered over the years, just to stay sharp and sane. Fortunately, I gradually started getting paid writing gigs and some random freelance development and coverage work. At the end of the day, I’m guessing no one loves reading screenplays as much as I do… and can do so as swiftly as I do.
Also, finally, I started directing again. Slowly. One of my former interns hired me to direct an episode of her low-budget web series. I was grateful for the opportunity. I also had only ever directed using actual film before. Tech-wise, it was like I crawled out from under a rock.
I realized my training as an “old-timey” film director at CalArts (i.e.-planning insanely detailed coverage, efficient narrative shotlists, cutting physical film, editing in camera, scheduling, etc.) combined with new digital technology makes for a fun, short, enjoyable day. I think we wrapped both days 4 hours early, and I was honestly kinda embarrassed. LOL.
It’s been years now working for myself, and I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing now for anything. I love working. I love directing. I love writing. I edit music videos. I perform, I dance, I rap, I act. I love getting up early and going to set – my set, your set, anyone’s set! If you invite me to your set, I will show up ready to work or to just watch and learn my craft. Being on set is always a pure joy for me. Even at 4am. Even if I’m just doing background work for fun.
People in L.A. love to put stuff into neat little boxes. It’s comfortable. It makes their own self-image clearer. If they can define you, they can understand you, and then they can dismiss you. Labels say a lot about the label-maker.
When I meet people who moved to Hollywood, I ask them what they came here to pursue. Doing business with an annoyed executive who REALLY just wanted to be an actor or director, or an agent who moved here to be in a rock band, usually makes total sense once you know what dreams of theirs have been deferred. I used to be one of those people. No one ever asked me what I REALLY wanted to do. You’re just expected to be grateful you’ve got a job. I was always grateful to work, but I was also always a dangerous shadow artist.
Now I am out of the shadows and hope to inspire more people to listen to that voice. It’s never too late.
When I started rapping and releasing music and hearing my hip-hop musical called THE SHORE, former film colleagues would assume I “gave up” on my film directing dreams or had stopped writing screenplays. People would comment – almost gleefully – about my “departure” from the film industry. Like, “Good for you, you finally gave up!” Nope! I’m just hearing music now too. In fact, I’m probably more annoying and louder than ever.
I see my work on Earth differently. As a creator, there is only one box: MY TOOL BOX. My personal toolbox contains stuff like pens, ink, paper, a mic, tap shoes, a snowboard, a camera, a toy accordion, puff paints, words. No matter what I always have words. I am not defined by what I manage to cobble together. I’m just a lowly co-creator, working alongside my big creator above, to make things that perhaps occupy other people’s time while they’re here.
On a good day, I make things that entertain and bring joy. Sometimes people like what I make and want to celebrate it. Sometimes I cheerfully bore people (WAITING FOR GODOT). Or accidentally annoy them. Some people are angered by my finished products. (Those people all seem to congregate on Facebook!) I don’t even call what I make “art” for the most part. It’s just more work, new work, different work, hopefully, better work. All I’ll ever have is the work and my varying levels of enthusiasm and aptitude for it. That’s either the saddest or most empowering truth I’ve ever admitted.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Plank Productions – what should we know?
Recently, I directed WOMEN ON THE VERGE written by Kimba Henderson which won us an NAACP Theatre Award. That was an example of meaningful hard work being well-received and celebrated. I was so humbled and grateful.
I also directed the award-winning short film CLUB RAT$ which is now available online and being used to raise money for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network). Yet another humbling experience working on a project much bigger than me, being called higher with dope co-creators.
I’ve also directed several music videos for myself and other artists, as well as staged a few theatre pieces I wrote. I’m always writing screenplays and have several feature film projects I’m attached to direct. My goal is to direct a feature film in the near future, God-willing. I think it’s time. If it’s not time, then I’m grateful for whatever other opportunities present themselves.
I have a full slate of film & T.V. projects ready to go, including a music-driven fantasy show, a female-driven football movie, a horror film, a travel romcom, and a beautiful biopic. I’m working on attracting the right partners and co-creators. Hit me up if you want to work.
On the music side, I released my 1st kid-friendly hip-hop single inspired by a recent trip to NASA, called SPACE DRAGON. It’s available on iTunes, Spotify, and everywhere else.
And I’m def looking forward to workshopping my original hip-hop musical THE SHORE when it’s ready. Right now I’m performing songs from it around town.
I’ll release a full album this year. I have all the songs written and am just looking for the right situation to record them.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I am so grateful for my teachers…
In dance, Gloria DeFore has always been in my life. When I was a small kid in her tap class, or even a rebellious teen, Gloria approached me like I was a fully grown artist. She was my 1st believing mirror. Hama has been my jazz dance teacher, guru, and friend forever, still teaching me how to dance and live life. Christine Baltes who recently passed is missed and heard. Years of training with Chris taught me to love specificity and detail.
In theatre, Matthew Maguire at Fordham University was the 1st human to treat me like a serious theatre director and was the ONLY human who didn’t flinch when I said I was going to direct WAITING FOR GODOT.
In film, Gary Mairs at CalArts was the 1st human who really “saw” me as a film director. Gary, Lou Florimonte, Nina Menkes, and Berenice Reynaud all handed me powerful storytelling tools and room to make a total mess.
In martial arts, Hu Jianqiang patiently teaches me Wushu (Kungfu). I earned my blackbelt, but I’ll always be a beginner. I spent time learning straight sword from Yu Te from the Zhejiang Wushu Team. I thought I knew what discipline was, but then I encountered Yu Te from China.
In music, Know-Madik, a gifted artist and my best friend was my 1st believing mirror. One day, he casually introduced me to a total stranger by saying, “Jeni is also a RAPPER.” I hadn’t actually released music, but in that moment, Know saw me and created space for me to be fully me. He’s always challenging me as a “rapper” and human. He co-produced my new song SPACE DRAGON. We’re always finding ways to collaborate and on the lookout for other co-creators.
Lastly, please keep an eye out for my SPACE DRAGON music video. It contains footage from my trip to NASA Kennedy with NASA Social for the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 launch, as well as footage from inside JPL in Pasadena & the California Science Center. I’m beyond grateful to NASA for the unique opportunity to visit them, get inspired, and spread my enthusiasm for space exploration and science through music.
Space Dragon Album: Photo by Tracy Lee. Cover Art by Know-Madik