Jean-Paul Chreky describes himself as a man of science. Ironically, his love of science fostered a passion for the arts – specifically, the art of film. While he had planned to go to medical school, Chreky, a Potomac native who grew up at Congregation Har Shalom, decided to explore his interest in film as an undergraduate biology major at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, after getting cast as an extra in an episode of the youth-oriented television show Dawson’s Creek, which had been filming on campus.
“I was always drawn to the arts, because you can actually express how you feel as opposed to just doing research and making conclusions,” the 33-year-old said in an interview. “What art really is, is taking facts and presenting them in a different way. You need science to have art and art to have science.”
Chreky traveled farther south for graduate school and received an MFA in motion picture production from the University of Miami, with an A average in both his fine art and science degrees. His first-year graduate and graduate thesis short films, Triton and The Shell, both took top awards at the prestigious University of Miami Canes Film Festival in 2004 and 2005.
Since then, Chreky has worked as an assistant to producer Jerry Bruckheimer on Glory Road and as a script supervisor for a number of notable films, including That Awkward Moment, Take Shelter, Mud and Dark Skies. Chreky recently spoke to WJW.
WJW: Your career path could have gone a number of ways. I read that you were very well-rounded, excelling at activities including Tae Kwon Do, the violin and clarinet, and you had a passion for nature that led you to study biology at UNCW. What ultimately made you decide to choose filmmaking as a career?
Jean-Paul Chreky: It was never one specific moment, but several that led to me having the courage to at least entertain the idea of this as an interest. I got into this class that was taught at Screen Gems Studios by Frank Capra Jr. His father made It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. I went to the class’ screening room and sat in silence, thinking I didn’t know what I was doing. The students started coming in and sat right next to me, surrounding me and talking to me. Frank Capra Jr. came in and all the students were like, “Oh my God, there he is!” I had no idea who he was. We went over the syllabus, and it was huge. In science, our syllabi weren’t even that thick. So I was already completely blown away.
I decided I had to drop that class, and it was the last day to drop. You know when you get something and you really wanted it, but once you have it, you’re like I don’t even know if I really wanted this? I motioned to the professor to come out into the hallway and told him how I felt. Frank Capra Jr. put his hand on my shoulder and [told me] “It’s going to be OK. I majored in geology.” I went back in, sat down in the chair, looked at my watch, and I was stuck in that class. I learned after that class that that was really what I wanted to do.
WJW: Your graduate thesis film, a short called The Shell, won four of seven possible awards at the 2005 University of Miami Canes Film Festival, including best picture and best director. What was this experience like for you, taking home some of the top honors?
JPC: My graduate first-year film, when that did pretty well at the Canes Film Festival, that made me feel like, “OK, maybe I can make film.” I was the first grad student there to win back-to-back best director for their final projects. Getting the graduate one, that just made me feel that I did the right thing by going [to University of Miami]. When I won those awards, I remember my editor for The Shell, when it won best picture, he came up on stage with me. We had this thing we were always saying to each other during the making of the film: He said, “Professionals built the Titanic. Amateurs built the ark.” Which is basically saying I wasn’t even supposed to be in graduate film school. Making my graduate thesis film, we shot 20 hours a day for eight days. I had a great group of fellow classmates that were willing to do whatever it took to help us make the best film.
WJW: How do you ultimately want the audience to feel after viewing your films?
JPC: I think for short films [such as The Shell], primarily what you’re trying to do is just make them feel something. If you can make them feel something in that short amount of time, where they actually care about something in some way – which I think is the hardest type of storytelling cinematically – that’s the job of the short film. I know what I feel when I watch it, but I don’t know if everyone feels the exact same thing or not. Just really that they feel something is all that matters to me, that they feel it’s worthwhile they experienced that story and felt whatever emotions they felt.
WJW: You seem to have done it all, acting, writing, directing, editing, art directing and more. Do you have a particular favorite?
JPC: I think what I enjoy most is directing. I recently haven’t done it as much, except for directing commercials. I haven’t directed a feature film yet. I enjoy writing as well, but I think if I had to pick one specific role, I do enjoy directing a lot. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the others just as much; as long as the people I’m working with I enjoy, and as long as the story we’re trying to tell is something I care about.
WJW: Lately, you’ve been heavily involved as a script supervisor for many feature films. What other upcoming projects are you working on?
JPC: The movie I’m about to work on this fall is Louder Than Bombs, which is by Joachim Trier. We’re going to be filming in New York City. I can’t really say too much of what it’s about, except that it’s definitely a beautiful film about so many things. It stars Jesse Eisenberg [The Social Network].
WJW: I wanted to ask you about your Jewish upbringing. Was the religion and identity a big part of your life growing up and is it still?
JPC: Yeah. I had a bar mitzvah. I went to Hebrew school where I was the top of my class. My father is from Fez, Morocco. He’s French-Moroccan-Jewish. Sephardic. My grandma is from Algeria, she’s also French-Jewish. We always celebrated all the holidays and traditions with a lot of our relatives. Being raised Jewish was a wonderful thing. I really feel close to God. It’s something that keeps me who I am. Regardless of what we’re doing or how successful we might be, I feel like Judaism has helped me maintain who I am as a person. What life is about is just really appreciating what you have in simple ways. Sometimes when you get so caught up in your work, you kind of forget to live your life. That comes from my religious background in many ways.
WJW: What’s the best film you’ve seen?
JPC: It’s such a hard question. It’s a thing based on your mood, too, in a way. As a boy, I loved E.T. When I was growing up, E.T. was like the most amazing thing ever. Everything about it is just phenomenal. Even the really dark, upsetting moments. I don’t know what it was, but E.T. stuck with me for a very long time. I think usually the best things we’ve ever seen is something that really affects you when you’re a kid and you’re going through that adolescent time. That’s when you’re trying to figure out how you see the world. Those are more influential than seeing films when you’re an adult.
WJW: And the worst?
JPC: Oh I can’t really answer that, because then I’ll get enemies. There are three films that I walked out of, but I can never say what they are [laughs]. Because I probably will work with those producers.
This Q-and-A has been edited and condensed. For more information about Jean-Paul Chreky and his films, go to jean-paulchreky.com.