Inside the Mind of 20-Year-Old Filmmaker Luke Jaden

| October 31, 2016

When Luke Jaden isn’t attending his creative writing classes at DePaul University, he’s likely traveling to Hollywood to work on his upcoming feature films. The young filmmaker hailing from small town Detroit, Michigan is making his mark in the industry with his personal approach to storytelling and ambitious attitude.

In addition to directing the film, Luke stars as Walla in 'King Ripple.'

In addition to directing, Luke Jaden stars as Walla (CENTER)—one of the four teens who dare to venture into the desolate world of ‘King Ripple.’

An official selection of Season 4 of Film School Shorts, Luke’s sci-fi, dark thriller King Ripple follows four teenagers into a decrepit urban wasteland where an unknown being makes people suddenly disappear through his own imagination. We had a chance to catch up with Luke to learn more about his four upcoming projects (all features!), why he’s majoring in English instead of film in college, and the personal significance behind King Ripple.

(This interview has been edited for reader purposes.)

It’s been some time since we last spoke with you. What are you up to these days? How’s school?

Yeah, it’s been quite the journey. I’m at DePaul [University] majoring in English. I’m focusing on creative writing, trying to build those chops up in multiple areas. I’m currently in Chicago but I’m always going back and forth between there and Detroit, my hometown where I’ll never leave my roots behind. 

Obviously, it’s challenging but my professors, they understand. Which is the most important thing; to have a support system from them and from those around you. It’s something I take day-by-day and it’s one of the greatest adventures I could possibly take.

What drew you to a major in English instead of Film?

For me, I just really wanted to learn about the origins of English and the language of storytelling because some of the best short stories have been made into movies. I grew up reading books and I love books; it’s what I live and breathe. I grew up reading Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, [William] Faulkner. And Stephen King is my hero. It’s been fabulous being in that creative writing program and learning new areas that I didn’t know. I like soaking in as much as I can. I think creative writing has its tolls, but it also has its momentum of really pushing you as a storyteller in areas that you never knew you could discover.


An early artwork sketch of the dark world imagined by Luke Jaden in ‘King Ripple.’

What is the filmmaking scene like in Chicago? Why is location such an important aspect to your filmmaking?

Any time you can shoot in the Midwest, it’s beautiful. The Midwest is something that has really become a part of my blood. I love Chicago, it’s a great city. It’s close to anything you need. If you need to shoot in the city, if you need to go out in a farm land shoot. Obviously, I’m from Detroit and that is my home. It’s what I want to utilize because I think that, for storytellers, telling a story in your backyard is one of the greatest advantages you have. Detroit is such a creative place. It’s what I call my “safe haven”; it’s what I know.

► LISTEN: In this short audio interview excerpt, Luke explains why he likes riding the trains in Chicago “for fun” to get inspiration for characters in his films.

I believe the most important thing as a storyteller is knowing your identity and finding your voice within your own element. That’s what I loved about the movie Short Term 12 so much. It was like, “Woah, Destin Cretton (‘Short Term 12′, Season 2) found his voice.” It’s what I loved about Ryan Coogler doing Fruitvale Station. You could tell it was personal for him. Filmmakers—the ones that are really crushing it right now—are those who are telling the stories from their own backyard where they feel most comfortable.

Tell us about the process of creating the incredible special effects in your film, King Ripple (Season 4). What were some of the challenges you encountered while making the special effects on a low, indie film budget?

King Ripple was a passionate story of mine that I wanted to tell. I teamed up with Josh Malerman, who’s also a Detroit native. He wrote a novel called Bird Box. One of the best novels I’ve read in my entire life. And Universal [Pictures] is making the movie, which I’m so pumped to see.

King Ripple 3

The visually stunning and terrifying world of ‘King Ripple‘.

I was going through a lot at the time of making King Ripple. My mom was fighting a battle with stage IV cancer and… It was something where, as a teenager, when you hear about your mother fighting for her life from a monstrous disease that totally consumes your body, it leaves you with this path of emotions and feelings that is very surreal. Until you see cancer up close and you really bring a lens to what it is, it’s something absolutely terrifying. And during the making of King Ripple, it was really a movie of all my feelings and expressions jumbled up in a collage. And, though some people don’t understand that movie, it’s something where I’m all about the story, not so much the plot.

PHOTO GALLERY: Storyboarding Luke Jaden’s Horror Film ‘King Ripple’

Method [Studios] came on set and worked out all the visual effects. Obviously, we talked about it beforehand. I storyboarded the whole movie, did concept art so they could see the visual effects of how I saw this film and this world playing out, and also just what the landscape looked like. Some visual effects were challenging to do but we managed to get through it. I’m so grateful to have these resources and people around me that want to hop on this journey with me because that’s the most important part of filmmaking or any creative endeavor in the arts is having that community of resources that believe in you and wanna be on this journey with you. It was very much a support system because without them—and without everyone involved—this film would never have been made.

How do you decide which ideas to pursue for your films?

I can’t ever not think of an idea. If I think about it, it’s going to be a trash idea. The best ideas come at unexpected times. Like, I’ll be at dinner or I’ll be bowling, or driving, listening to music on the train, not thinking about anything, and then all of a sudden, that genius light bulb comes to me.

keith stanfield

Keith Stanfield (Straight Outta Compton, Short Term 12, Selma) stars as the haunting King Ripple in ‘King Ripple‘.

A lot of my friends are in the film industry and are much older than me. I’m 20 years old but a lot of my friends are 27 or older. I think it’s important to be surrounded by those people because they push you further. Surrounding yourself with positive people and hardworking folks—people that just get it done… There’s so many people that just talk about it, and you could’ve already executed it by now but you’re still talking about it! I’m all about the execution. Obviously, I know, things take time and you have to be patient about it. But, for me, it’s just: stop talking about it and start doing it.

As for choosing a project, I look for something that hits me emotionally. Something that I can relate to personally. Or something that is a message I’m feeling deep inside my soul that’s haunting me at 2 or 3 in the morning and I can’t sleep. I mean, that’s what I look for in a project. I don’t look for just a story to tell. I mean there’s so many great stories that you can tell but that’s just not me. It’s got to have that deeper meaning that I can connect to.

Can you let us in on some of your upcoming projects? Do you think you’ll start doing features anytime soon?

Yeah, I’m doing a sci-fi movie that’s very much like, um, Memento meets Source Code, in a sense. My agent sent me the script and then I pitched for it at a studio and ended up getting it. It’s a very personal story even though I didn’t write it. Once I read the script, I knew I needed to tell this story. I can’t say too much about it! We haven’t released the press release yet but we are casting right now. It’s been a patient process because that’s what casting is.

I’m also writing a sci-fi story at the moment and it’s very… I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s changing every single minute. It’s a very personal story to me but it’s something we haven’t really seen before in the science fiction world. Very real, gritty, just something very honest. It’s set in Detroit.

king ripple abandoned church

King Ripple‘ was set in Detroit, MI, which Luke considers as his “safe haven.”

And then, I’m working on another project right now with a musical artist. The idea has been 6 years in the making and it’s just coming to life on the page now. So, I take it very seriously and try not to rush it because the process itself is the most rewarding part. It’s coming along. I’m writing the script for it right now. Besides that, I’m also looking at a few books that we’re trying to possibly option. Obviously, my dream would be to do a Stephen King novel—I love Stephen King. Currently, at the stage of writing, casting for the movie that I’ll be directing. But it’s something that I really enjoy. I don’t try to rush it. I really like to take my time with it.

Yeah, and they’re all features! I just got back from L.A. yesterday so there were a lot of cool updates and things I’m working on and fleshing out. It’s been super cool.

I noticed that your website is down. Where can we follow your work and learn more about your production company, Derry Films?

I want people to look at the work, the stories. I’m all about the work and I think that’s what it should be. So many people get caught up in that social media scene, and it’s great and all, but I just want to be focused on the work. In some ways, I want to become the story and even live like the character to a certain extent.

Derry Films is a kind of a collective I created for my projects to be produced under. The word “Derry” comes from Stephen King’s fictional character in the book, It, which I love. I’ve always looked up to Stephen King and I think he’s one of my most brilliant storytellers—and I think one of the best writers—that ever lived.

Maybe I’ll get back on Twitter or Instagram but for the time being, no, I really just want to be focused on the work. Especially in this writing stage, it’s very important for me to be focused on the story and these characters and not get distracted by other things, which is very easy. Haha. I struggle with it everyday.

What tips or advice can you share with other filmmakers who are also trying to stand out in the film industry?

Honestly, I think the best I can say is to just keep at it. Don’t hop off the bandwagon when you feel down. I mean there’s been many times when I felt like quitting the film industry but that’s like the 1 second before something actually happens, you know? Expect rejection a billion times but you got to keep at it and keep pushing forward because it will happen.

I’m really pumped to see what’s next for the upcoming filmmakers and the filmmakers coming from Film School Shorts. I think there’s just so much talent coming out of there. Not being biased, I really think you guys are finding the next greatest filmmakers. I mean, Short Term 12 (Season 2), finding Destin Cretton’s work through his first short film. Also, Ana Lily Amirpour (‘I Feel Stupid’, Season 1). I think these have been some of the greatest filmmakers hatching out of today’s generation.

Watch Luke’s film ‘King Ripple‘ below:



Luke Jaden Director Pic


Hailing from the ruins of Detroit, Luke Jaden is a director and writer. Jaden recently wrote and directed Wolf Who Cried Boy with the Oscar®-nominated Captain Phillips star Barkhad Abdi and Beasts of The Southern Wild’s Dwight Henry. Jaden has also been tapped to write and direct the adaptation for ‘New York Times’ best-selling author Ted Dekker’s novel, Hacker. Jaden has completed King Ripple starring Straight Outta Compton’s Keith Stanfield (War MachineShort Term 12, Selma, Dope) and The Listing starring Erin Cummings and Rob Zabrecky. He also directed, wrote, and produced The Neverlands starring Langston Fishburne. Jaden has gained lots of notoriety from his critically acclaimed documentary Madman or Martyr telling the story of John Brown, the Underground Railroad, and the Abolitionist Movement.

Learn more about Luke and his work on Film School Shorts!

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

Film School Shorts is a production of KQED.



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