Meet MNFF: Alumni Interview with JLee Mackenzie

Welcome to Meet MNFF, a new series of biweekly interviews with award-winning alumni of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. We kick off the series with a conversation with Jeremy Lee Mackenzie, better known as JLee, whose film Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey won the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Award for Best Integration of Music into Film at MNFF4 in 2018. Based on Mackenzie’s own life story, Hidden Blueprints is a hybrid short film that details the history and creation of a collection of wood-scrollwork that was designed and hidden in prison. Interrelated is the story of a champion fighting praying mantis named Mikey, a friend to the inmates and a martyr in a corporate prison riot.

MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Mackenzie about the inspiration behind Hidden Blueprints, his unexpected pivot to animation amid the pandemic, and meeting Whoopi Goldberg.

You screened Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey at MNFF in 2018. What was it like watching audiences react to that film, after working on it in a small team for such a long time? 

That’s always the best part. Even when I’m working with a small team, I’m usually showing a project to people on my phone and taking notes, getting a sense of how it’s being viewed and received. The first note that I take isn’t anything anybody says, the first note that I take is the micro-expressions on people’s faces when they watch something, because I get to see their emotional response. So I got to see, to a degree, what the reception of that film was going to be before it went on the festival circuit, but until you get into a theater, surrounded by an audience, and you can hear them all around you, that’s when you really get to see. And it’s different every time, at all the different places. There are some questions that pop up consistently across the different festivals, but you get a lot of new ones too. It was a very positive experience showing that film.

What types of questions did people ask consistently across festivals? 

People asked quite a bit about the praying mantis in the film. It was surprising how many people thought that it was CGI. But it was a real praying mantis, who did a very good job. A lot of the film team actually, despite knowing me and hearing my stories, when it came to actually making the film, they had a lot of questions like, ‘Is this gonna work? Are we gonna be able to make this with a real praying mantis?’ And I told them, ‘Yes, we definitely are. It’s gonna be totally fine.’ I remember the day Aron Meinhardt, one of my producers, came over when I had Mikey, the actor, the praying mantis in the film, at my place, and Aron was meeting the mantis for the first time, and they just made direct eye contact. A praying mantis will make eye contact with you, it will just look right in your eyes. It will even turn its head to make eye contact, which is something you don’t really see from insects, and it made eye contact with him and he was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And after a few moments, it flew up and landed on his head. He was like, ‘Okay, we are going to make a movie.’

You describe the style of the film as hybrid, in that it’s not in any way like a traditional documentary; it’s narrative and art-based. How did you find this hybrid style?

I had tried to find a way to tell this story a little bit earlier, and found myself struggling to figure out the best way to do so, in a way that felt the strongest and clearest. I had actually made a couple of much more basic earlier versions and abandoned them. At that point, I had cut my way through a portion of the artwork that’s in the film, but there were several big pieces that had not been cut yet. The Flynn Center in Burlington offered a premiere of the artwork before a couple of the big pieces were even finished, so I ended up on a really fast mission to finish some of the work. During the course of that art show, all of the stories that I was trying to tell were in the artwork. So I ended up in front of a bunch of audiences telling these stories over and over again in the gallery, and the stories that I was trying to tell just became more clear. So really, part of the reason that we went in the direction of using the artwork to tell the story was because the art show itself helped clarify how to tell the story. 

You’re an artist in two distinct ways: as a filmmaker, as well as in wood scrollwork. I was wondering if you would describe the relationship between them. 

I mean, when I was designing the scrollwork, I was away. I was on the inside. And I wasn’t able to make films then. But really, each of the pieces of scrollwork is like a frame, like a scene. So each one of them is the setting scene to tell the story. The scrollwork relates directly to filmmaking in that way, so using it in the film, while it’s a non-traditional way to tell a story in film, it was almost as though the scrollwork was like an archaic form of filmmaking. It was like caveman paintings on a wall. The earliest filmmaking that I could do. So for me, there was a direct lineage in how one came to be involved with the other and how they relate to each other. Even back when I was designing some of the latest pieces of scrollwork was when I was starting to study screenwriting, while I was on the inside, which I did for a number of years before I came home, so there was crossover and direct relationship between them.

What have you been up to since the Festival? What are you working on now?

Well, I used Hidden Blueprints for my grad school submissions. So I’ve spent the last three years and back and forth between Vermont and LA in my grad program at USC. I’m in my final year now, and I’ve directed a handful of films since I started. The last live action film that I directed was called Hurricane, and our last day of shooting was at Marshfield Air Force Base, the day they were flying in Coronavirus evacuees from Wuhan. So we were shooting and there was a big plane landing on the other side of the field, and people were saying, ‘yeah, things are going to be closing soon.’ 

When the pandemic hit, everything shut down, and I realized that live action production was probably not going to be happening for a little while. I didn’t want to be stopped from being able to tell stories and make films, so I pivoted to animation. That turned out to be one of the most important moves I’ve made. There is this idea that animation is really hard, and it can be, but it’s also really freeing. There are just so many forms of animation, and so many forms of storytelling you can do within it. So I made my first animated film, a short called There Are Bunnies On Fire in the Forest. It’s a comedy about a little girl who gets in big trouble for kissing her best friend on the cheek at elementary school during the pandemic. I was really happy with how it came out. It was very simple, and I had one goal, make it fun, and it was that. As soon as I finished that, I moved on immediately to making a ten minute animated film, and then made a 360 VR [virtual reality] project, and then shifted into motion capture and now, three films later, Bunnies ended up getting into Tribeca. So that’s what I’m doing in New York now. We had our world premiere at the animated shorts program curated by Whoopi Goldberg, like two days ago. I got to meet Whoopi! It was one of those life goals, one of those things that you didn’t even know was on your bucket list until it happened. I had to write a new thing on the bucket list just to check it off. 

Is there anything else you’d like to plug? 

I have two new projects, one that just finished production and is headed into post. It’s my first full motion capture animated comedy, where each character is performed by a person, with a variety of voice actors. It’s called The Animal Court, about a court of animals that puts a young boy on trial for not walking his dog enough during the pandemic. Funny piece. And we’ll be moving on to another motion capture animated feature called Strange Things Happen in the Forest, and I have another motion capture animated feature that I’m in development on called Definitely Gangster. Both comedies.

I was wondering if we could end by harkening back to MNFF many years ago. Is there one particular story from the festival that you want to share? 

When the festival actually happened, I had to send my collaborators since I was at USC during one of my hardest semesters, so I wasn’t able to go. The following year, when we won the Vermont Symphony Orchestra award, we ended up having a collaboration with Matthew Evan Taylor and the VSO, so I got to come back and see it live at Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, and it was a fantastic experience. Seeing an orchestra perform the music to the image live in person is a really special thing. It was really wonderful.

**This interview has been edited for length and clarity.