CONQUERING SELF MUTILATION AND MORE
JUSTIN CALEN CHENN
I used to be in a dark place I couldn’t get out of. Many people have. For me, I was stuck in a cycle of negative emotion that left me unable to breathe since I was age 11. Self-destruction, as well as many subsequent years of brushing elbows with homelessness, the law, gangs, and substances destroyed me, both mentally and physically. When I look at my arm, there are six dark remnants, which serve as reminders of that period of time in my life, and they will always be around. Kind of like Mick Jagger. (Cue melancholy piano from Door in the Floor. Or Nellee Hopper’s Balcony Scene.)
But this article isn’t about scars. It’s about having scars and turning them into a star. Not a literal star like Cassiopeia, or Brad Pitt, or Judy Garland or Paris Hilton. Okay, maybe Paris shouldn’t be lumped with those others, but you get my point. When I say star, I mean turning your life into something where you yourself are proud to say you are living in the moment. You are radiating like a star because inside, you’re whole and in a good enough place to say so.
Since 2007, I have written and directed two micro budget feature films, and am in the process of trying to get together a third one. Yes, I even produce them! At this level, it’s about maximizing what you have, and not being afraid to go after what you don’t have.
I started the film journey without any real film knowledge, and without any people to learn it from. (You’ve heard that story.) But after discovering illustration wasn’t for me, I decided to self teach myself all the ins and outs of film because I felt it gave me the best chance to fully express myself. This self-teaching debacle ended up becoming THE WAY OF SNOW, my first feature. (http://www.thewayofsnowfilm.com) It was a Super 16 film shot with a 2-person crew. I was the lead actor (only because my actor dropped out to do a commercial. No hard feelings, my friend), DP, editor, soundman, production designer, and…you name it. I was it. The experience also left me massively injured (physically), but the experience had left me hooked. Before making this film, I was still a haunted man with nothing but scars. After this? I felt something. I started to realize that for the first time, my scars of night could possibly be turned into a star of light. The prospect of feeling whole again was exciting to me because it had been gone for so long.
So then came the next step. I had finished The Way of Snow, but now had to start getting my name out there. I had no clue how to approach something like that. So I did what every person did. (At least what every naïve negligent person did, which I was. Hi.) I emailed, called, harassed and annoyed people until they would agree to watch the film. Ninety nine percent declined, 1 percent didn’t. Like many a first timer, I couldn’t figure it out because I felt this film was an “announcement” that I had arrived, that such a personal heartbreaking story would surely gain an audience and at least, my scars would turn into a star and I would be whole again. But it didn’t happen, and I was still left with a void. It wasn’t because the film had failed to garner much acclaim. It was because my mind wasn’t in the right place. But I ignored the feeling at the time.
In 2010, on I went to my second micro budget feature, a sci-fi anthology called EMBERS OF THE SKY (http://www.embersoftheskyfilm.info). This time, I told myself, I’m coming out with a gameplan. I’m Roger Staubach and Pele in their prime. I had interviewed and talked to hundreds of people to find my team, and being that they had worked on some of the biggest films in the world, I felt confident because getting them to believe in me had made my confidence in myself grow. I had actually gotten to a place where I felt I could actually be called something only talented people were called…Filmmaker. But despite a few successes with Embers, I still felt empty. My scars were still scars. This made me finally acknowledge that something was wrong, so off into deep thinking I went. And this is what I came up with.
If I was truly to turn my scars of night into a star of light, I realized I needed to fully be present in each moment of my life. I had worked so hard on my films that I forgot to fully be thankful and happy for everything I had around me. It was all about the balance, a word I had long since forgot about. I was an extremist in many aspects, always tilted to one side or the other.
But now? Not anymore. In 2011 and for the first time (maybe) ever, I’m in the moment, calm like a sloth, and working to get my third micro budget feature, FOLKLORE (http://www.folklore-film.com), off the ground. Every day is beautiful and a joy, even when times aren’t that great.
So yes, in the end, this is a small, personal story about a guy who found his dream, but realized that turning the scars of night into a star of light is a process, and that it has to be enjoyed and done with balance. To conquer and succeed in something as mammoth as the film industry, you first have to conquer and come to peace with yourself, even when you think you’ve done it already.
BIO: Born in Whittier, California, Justin Calen Chenn has battled homelessness, self-mutilation, crime-related behavior, and many self-destructive habits before turning his life around and focusing his attention to art. He was admitted as an illustration major to Pasadena Art Center College of Design before turning to film. For his first feature, The Way of Snow, Justin served as lead actor, director, writer, and also sold things like his vintage toy collection to raise money for the Super 16 drama.
For his second feature, the sci-fi anthology Embers of the Sky, he worked with an esteemed team whose department credits included films such as The Dark Knight, Tron (1982), Star Wars, I Am Legend, Angels & Demons, Captain America- First Avenger, Cinderella Man, Harsh Times, You Me and Everyone We Know, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and many more. He is a first generation Chinese-American and loves to speak his native tongue, Mandarin Chinese, even in his sleep.
Thank you to David Branin and Karen Worden for giving me the chance to write an article for Film Courage.
To contact and/or get to know more about Justin: