When Luke Jaden's eleventh-grade history teacher offered his class an unconventional choice between two end-of-year projects, Jaden picked the most unusual option.
"We could either write a paper on Abraham Lincoln or make a film about the American abolitionist movement," Jaden says. "I'd written enough papers in my past, so I decided to make a film."
What could have been a quick school project turned out to be a full-fledged documentary entitled Madman Or Martyr
. The film has now had two public screenings and prompted the 18-year-old Oakland County resident to start his own production company. Despite Jaden's youth, going behind the camera is just the next step in what's already been a respectable acting career. After acting in school plays starting at age 12, Jaden signed with Bingham Farms talent agency Productions Plus
and booked small roles in several films including Rumors of Wars
and The Giant Mechanical Man
"Whenever [bigger film productions] got slow here, I decided to turn more to the directing-producing-writing side of things," Jaden says.
His teacher's challenge provided an ideal outlet for those aspirations, and Jaden found a perfect subject in John Brown. Brown was hanged for his 1859 attempt to incite a slave revolt by leading a raid on a U.S. arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Jaden was intrigued by Brown's unusual story.
"I always thought he was an African-American," Jaden says. "I did not know he was a white man. That kind of had my inspiration because it was John Brown who was fighting for these African-Americans as a white man. Especially during the early 1800s, that was just unheard of."
Jaden threw himself into what he describes as "heavy research" for the film.
"I was becoming John Brown and I was just putting my mind in his mind," he says. "It's like, 'Wow, I am this person and I'm helping these slaves and feeling the bloodshed and hardship that they're going through at that time.'"
Jaden also assembled a remarkable roster of professional talent to get the job done. He cast Ed Kelly (the voice of Belle Tire's "Tireman" character) as the voice of John Brown. Tim Holmes (who had a small role in Oz the Great and Powerful
) and Phillip Edward Van Lear (corrections officer Louis Patterson on Prison Break
) filled out the voice cast. Jaden found some of his 35 crew members through ads he posted on the Michigan Film Office's website
, but most were friends he'd met on previous productions. Everyone involved either donated their time or worked under deferred payment contracts, whereby they would receive payment only if the film made money.
"It was very low-budget and bare-bones, but it looks good and I'm very proud of it," Jaden says. "There were a lot of favors that I had to call in."
Recalling his first meeting with Jaden, Ed Kelly says the producers he auditions for typically have "white hair or blue hair" and that he initially thought Jaden was an intern. Kelly says anyone in show business ought to be impressed with Jaden's career thus far.
"This business is a long shot," Kelly says. "I audition for a living. When I land a role, it's a pleasant surprise. So to have his kind of trajectory so early on is really kind of amazing."
Jaden edited Madman Or Martyr's original 80-minute rough cut down to 10 minutes for his class presentation last May, but then he threw himself into cutting a mid-length version of the film for public release. After another seven months of work, he completed a 40-minute cut, which premiered at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in January. Jaden was overwhelmed by the crowd of 400 that showed for the screening.
"I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but I could not have asked for a better crowd," he says. "Fifty or so people had to leave because there was no standing room."
The film has since screened at the inaugural Freep Film Festival
, and Jaden is currently seeking a commercial distributor for it. In recent months he's also involved himself in a dizzying array of new projects. He's currently in post-production on Juvicide,
a narrative short he wrote and directed, starring Laurence Fishburne's son Langston. He'll be directing another short, Monster
, in May, and Frank Capra III is currently directing Snowbirds
, a script Jaden cowrote. Jaden is also seeking new films to produce through his newly minted company, SOS Productions
It's a pretty busy schedule, especially for a kid who's still wrapping up his senior year of high school. Jaden says he intends to study film in college, but he'll also minor in journalism or business as a backup plan in case a career in show business doesn't work out. Michigan's film tax incentives and the big productions they drew helped fire Jaden's interest in the film industry, but he's uncertain about staying in the state for the long term.
"It's a little scary," he says. "It was 42 percent tax incentives and now it's down to 25 percent, which is still not bad, but we're competing with places like Atlanta and New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Even Chicago's been upping their game recently."
But Jaden's still got high hopes for a career in film somewhere. He says he aspires to be a director and actor, to "kind of pull the whole Ben Affleck thing." Kelly says that even at a young age, Jaden's definitely got a remarkable edge when it comes to knowing his way around the industry.
"The way you succeed in the business today is to know every job from the janitor's closet to the penthouse," Kelly says. "He writes, he directs, he produces, he promotes. He's a one-stop shop."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.