The Documentary Film Maker: Jenny Abel

January 19, 2012

I love this story! A supportive mother and father raise a talented young musician, named Jenny, who realizes her true passion isn’t music. Jenny takes a courageous leap to pursue a career in film when she realizes the subject of her ten year film project will be about someone she’s known her entire life. Her father. Who happens to be a professional prankster!  I love this story!


where are you from?
I was almost born in a taxi on the way to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. My parents lived on the upper west side of Manhattan. When I was two, they decided to move to the Connecticut suburbs. They wanted me to get a “better education” than the New York Public school system might offer. PS 75 was literally across the street from our apartment, but a lot of tough little kids came out of that place and my mom envisioned me turning into a gang member at the age of 4. So they bought a small house in Westport, CT and kissed New York goodbye. Even to this day, I have trouble proudly stating, “I’m from Westport, CT,” because it’s such a snobby superficial town. But that’s where I grew up. And I did get one hell of an education there.

what did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was really young, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I would find caterpillars in the yard and ‘nurse’ them back to health. As I grew older, though, music became my focus. I was pretty serious about pursuing a musical career, even as a kid. I started playing the viola when I was 8 years old and I guess you could say that I was fairly decent at it. My early claim to fame was being one of the youngest musicians accepted into the New York Youth Symphony at the age of 12. We rehearsed and performed in Carnegie Hall. Looking back, it’s crazy how I took it for granted at the time. Despite my love for music, though, there was a persistent desire to follow in the footsteps of my mom and dad and do something ‘show business’ related. But exactly what, I wasn’t sure.

how did you get into film making?
That’s a long story! About two years into my studies as a musical performance major at Michigan State University, I became weary of my viola, and music in general. I was practicing or performing at least sixteen hours a day. I felt lonely and depressed. I decided to apply to other schools, switch majors, and get the hell out of Michigan. I ended up transferring to Emerson College in Boston and studying communications and television production. After graduation, I was hired by the college to manage the video and audio production facility, with all kinds of shooting and editing equipment at my disposal. It was mostly analog, but this was right around the beginning of the digital age. So we had non-linear editing, compact recording devices, and digital video cameras, too.

It was a perfect place for me to start going through my dad’s crazy archive of films and old videotapes. You see, my father is a professional prankster and performance artist. Over the years, he infiltrated a countless number of TV programs and caused general havoc on-air with his subversive satirical art. Miraculously, he managed to get tapes of the shows he hoaxed, even from the networks with egg on their faces!

As I reviewed clips of my dad that I had never seen before, I realized that I had a documentary in the making – a portrait of an eccentric father who pokes fun at the media, told through a daughter’s POV. I was hesitant at first to dive into it, because I knew it would be challenging. But friends urged me to push forward. This was in 1998.

That summer, I felt compelled to pack up all of my belongings and try my luck in Hollywood. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to accomplish there. I could have continued working on the documentary in Boston. But something told me that I needed to get a ‘real’ job in the film industry if I was going to call myself a filmmaker. Within a couple of months, I got my foot into the door at a company that produced bad ‘B’ movies about killer sharks and giant octopuses. Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal were recurring “talent” whose asses I had to kiss. By the way, people think that Hollywood is a magical place to work. It’s really not at all. It sucks, and I was burnt after five years. Meanwhile, I had put my independent documentary project about my dad on the back burner.

In 2003, the gnawing feeling that time was wasting away reached its breaking point. If I didn’t switch gears and focus solely on my own film making career, the documentary would turn to dust and I would go through life with a deep sense of remorse for not having pursued it. So I quit my job in Hollywood and started work on the documentary full time. My partner, Jeff, who had a background in news, came on board at this juncture and we threw ourselves into the movie making process. We worked until the point of exhaustion, not really knowing what we were doing or what we were getting ourselves into, and this is how we both got into film making.

how long did you work on your documentary film, Abel Raises Cain?
Initial conception and shooting began in early 1998. Over the course of five years, I made frequent trips back and forth to Connecticut and followed my parents everywhere with a video camera. I amassed over a hundred hours of footage. Then, every time I went home, I collected more of their memorabilia to take back with me to California. My parents’ vast archive of print materials, clippings and photographs required months of organizing, cataloging and digital scanning.

Sadly, I often had to let the project sit untouched for weeks at a time. After quitting my steady job, I picked up freelance production work in the commercial industry, which is even more vapid than the film industry! Working these so-called ‘real’ jobs here and there slowed down production for more years than I care to admit! Jeff definitely saved the sinking ship at the end. He and I plowed full steam ahead on post-production for a solid two years. The film was completed in fall of 2004 and ‘Abel Raises Cain’ premiered at Slamdance in January of 2005. Technically, I am still working on the film, since I’m self-distributing!

what’s the hardest thing about making a film of this nature?
A documentary by a daughter about her father opens the door to criticism that, if it’s too personal, it becomes a “love letter.” On the other hand, if it’s too objective, audience involvement in the story is weakened. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Generally speaking, when working on a project of this nature, you don’t just close up the briefcase and ride the subway home. You eat, sleep and breathe your film 24 hours a day. It haunts you, in a way that invokes passion, and also in a way that you have this thing permanently chained to you. Working with my parents also proved to be difficult at times, because they were too close to the subject matter. When I excitedly brought the rough cut home to show them, flying all the way from California to Connecticut, my mom and dad sat silent throughout the film. And afterwards, they prepared a full 8-page report with their suggested changes.

at any point did you feel like quitting?
Oh God, yes! Post-production was the most grueling process. It took forever just to write narration and map out the storyline. Then the actual editing was a beast in itself. The final logging process, pouring through hundreds of hours of footage, whittling the looming mass of material down to a little over an hour, will make or break you. Luckily, Jeff kept a steady hand on the tiller and I backseat drove all the way.

did your family nurture and encourage you while on your career path?
My parents kept saying that I would never finish the documentary! Their joking only pushed me further. No, but seriously, my mom and dad have ALWAYS been supportive of me, whatever I’ve chosen to do… although my dad jokes about my viola collecting dust in the closet.

who inspires you?
I care deeply about my folks and their interesting collaborative relationship over the years. Both my parents serve as an inspiration to me. I wouldn’t have spent the past ten years on a film about their lives if this weren’t the case.

what is your dream project?
Jeff and I are currently writing a screenplay based on – you’d better sit down for this – my parents’ life story. The first draft is in the can and we’re in the midst of the second revision. The screenplay is my dream project, not necessarily at the creative level, although it’s been fun to work with Jeff again, but as a means to an end. Like, if, in fact, our screenplay is made into an actual film, backed by a studio, directed by someone we admire, that would be pretty cool. It’s a bit of a fantasy, yes, but I think my dad’s story would translate well to the silver screen. Of course, my dad thinks that Brad Pitt should play him. But that’s his dream, not mine!

you need a break. what will you do for jenny time? the sky is the limit.
I’m a total tree hugger. I love taking a walk in the woods and checking out all of the birds, butterflies and other small creatures. If a forest isn’t available, and the sky is the limit, running through a field of wildflowers with Jeff and our dog, Cecil, will do.

if you could spend a week in any era which one would it be and what would be your part?
I really want to go back in time to the 1940s. Forget about the war, I LOVE Big Band music. Maybe I’m a singer or dancer in a packed smoky joint, maybe just a waitress. It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m close to the music, seeing and hearing it performed live by the Big Bands!

what do you collect?
I mostly collect old family photos, knickknacks, films, press clippings and memorabilia relating to my parents’ pranks over the years, and tons of random stuff that I don’t even remember why I saved it in the first place! Unfortunately, chronic hoarding runs in my family, so I have to be careful.