Born in Whittier, California, Justin Calen Chenn has battled and survived being homeless, self mutilation, criminal behavior, and many self destructive habits before finally turning his life around and focusing on film at age 24 and then, making three features by age 29.
Justin was living a comfortable well-to-do life before things started to spiral down at age 10. At age 16, Justin, his mother, and his sister lost everything including their home, and from there, things only worsened. After getting kicked out of his first college, Justin’s goal was then to become a “criminal with a lot of scars.” But he eventually put his demons to rest and was admitted as an illustration major to the prestigious Pasadena Art Center College of Design, despite no formal training in the arts. However, halfway through his education, he decided to turn his attention to film.
In 2007 and inspired by British filmmakers Mike Leigh & Ken Loach plus the stye of American visionary Tim Burton, Justin decided a feature was going to be the first thing he would do as a filmmaker. For the film, which eventually became THE WAY OF SNOW (2008), Justin self taught himself every facet of production and sold things like his vintage toy collection to raise for the Super 16 drama. He also served as lead actor, writer, director, editor, DP, and sound recordist. The film was semi-autobiographical and told the true story of Justin’s battle with self mutilation. The host of branded scars on Justin’s arm seen in the film are real and added to the haunting power that drives the film.
Justin and the film went on to premiere at the UK Bradford Film Festival in England in 2008. He was also nominated for Best Director at another festival and picked up an Honorable Mention as well as awards for Best Editing, and Best Production Design at the 2010 LA New Wave Intl. Film Festival. Since then, Justin has made another micro-budget feature, titled EMBERS OF THE SKY (2010) which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress at the 2011 Action on Film International Film Festival.
Justin is a first generation Chinese American who enjoys speaking his native tongue, Mandarin Chinese. He has lived and worked in motels for a large potion of his life and attributes the molding of his personality to some of the things he’s experienced, which includes running a motel in a gang and crime infested city. He continues to be an avid British cinema enthusiast, and is also content now to let the past be the past.
What did it feel like when you found out “Folklore” won Best Director and Best Acting Ensemble at Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival?
I was incredibly excited because it was the first time I had won anything in film! It’ll definitely be something that I will remember forever. And I was especially happy for the cast because film is all about collaboration and sharing, so with those two awards, I felt like we all won together.
Where will your film be screening next?
Folklore will be screening at the Phoenix Film Festival in the International Horror and Sci-Fi section of the fest in early April. Hopefully, there will be a lot more to come after that.
How do you handle rejection?
I think I handle it well, because it’s something I’ve learned to thrive on. Maybe it’s because I have a nasty competitive streak like many people that have played competitive sports, I’m not sure. Whatever it is, I find it a bit of a thrill. I don’t know if that’s good or bad!
What is your writing process like?
It’s a mix. Sometimes, I write ideas longhand on paper first, and then slowly start to flesh out the entire structure from there. On paper is where things always come together for me. I have to feel myself writing with a pen in order to get the creative motor in my head running full blast.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
No, sir. I never even thought about it until I was 24 years old. Before that, my goal was to become a criminal with a lot of scars. I know that sounds quite dumb, but it was true. I am quite thankful for film though because it took me away from a lot of troubling things.
What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
British director Mike Leigh and his [Oscar nominated] movie, Secrets and Lies (1996). The emotions he tapped into during that movie were revelatory to me at a time when I desperately needed an outlet. After I saw that movie, I decided I wanted to make a feature film. That became my debut, The Way of Snow (2008). I ended up writing/directing/producing/starring/editing the film and to boot, I shot it on Super 16. It was quite the experience.
Who is your favorite filmmaker?
I’m a bit of an anglophile, so Mike Leigh is tops. In terms of what I want to accomplish career wise, I would point to Tim Burton, David Fincher, and JJ Abrams for their otherworldliness, precision with darkness, and mastery of genre scope, respectively.
And of course, I’m inspired by all the legendary big names (Wilder, Spielberg, etc.) because I hope to achieve what they’ve achieved one day!
What do you like to do besides filmmaking?
I’m a sports fanatic, especially with soccer (aka football) and basketball. My favorite club is Chelsea FC and the Toronto Raptors. I also like to play sports too but injuries have sort of stopped me from doing it as much. I also like to read books that range from historical to fluff. I hope to get back into painting one day because that’s what I studied. I’m also an avid collector of 80’s vintage toys (Battle Beast, He-Man, Centurions, etc), though I sold a lot of them to finance my debut feature back in 2008. One day, I plan to buy them all back when I have money!
What are some of your favorite American films? Foreign films? Television shows?
I know there are a ton of great TV shows on these days, but my TV only has HBO and a scattering of other channels, so I don’t and can’t watch a lot sadly. Film wise, some of my favorites, both American and foreign, are Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, Edward Scissorhands, anything with Audrey Hepburn, any films of Ken Loach,The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. There’s a ton more, naturally, but those are some of the stickers.
How would you describe your film education?
Hmmm. I would say I was self taught. The first thing I ever did with film was make a feature, so my education was just trial by fire. I figured everything out as I went along, and just made features while doing it. It’s not something I’d recommend to anyone because it’s mad to work that way, but that was just my way.
What’s your opinion on crowdfunding?
[Justin’s sci-fi comedy] ‘Folklore’ was funded by Kickstarter, so I am all for crowdfunding and support it very much. You’ve got to thank the guys who came up with the idea because it’s given little filmmakers like myself a chance to keep going after their dream.
What current projects are you working on?
I’ve got a no-budget monster movie short film I want to do soon as to keep the creative juices flowing. You know how it is at the micro level: keep making product, keep moving forward.
Feature film wise though, I have a small scale sci-fi drama I’d love to do next at a level one notch higher. The micro/no-budget level has been great for me and working on such an intimate scale is a treasure, but I hope, with ‘Folklore, an opportunity will come where I will get to move a step up and work with a bigger budget.
I’ve also been writing a ton as well, screenplays that are all in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but we’ll have to see where it all goes. I remain optimistic that great chances will come.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I found a sort of inner peace in 2012 that had been out of my reach for years, and film had a lot to do with that. It has calmed a lot of demons that I had. That’s why I genuinely hope that I will keep getting the opportunity to do more with film. Thank you for the opportunity to interview, John. Much appreciated.
Thanks so much for doing the interview Justin. I really enjoyed seeing “Folklore” at Boston Sci Fi. It was a pleasure meeting you there as well. I’ll do what I can to spread the word about you and your film.
Below is a picture taken of me and Justin at the Boston Sci Fi Film Festival