Next up in our thesis interviewees, Chris Jackson ’20! Since September, Chris has been writing a TV pilot & season outline about a black college student’s sudden rise to political activism (but also so much more.) Read after the jump to hear more about Chris’s story & what he’s been up to!
Chris Jackson ‘20 uses he/him pronouns and is a double major in English and the College of Film and the Moving Image. His thesis, in the Film department, is an hour-long television pilot and full season outline, or “bible,” as they call it in the biz’.
Wesleying: What’s the title? What’s it about??
CJ: It’s called “The Party,” and it revolves around this 21 year old guy named Calvin Green. He comes from this like upper middle class background and up to this point in his life he’s had things pretty good for himself. He’s going into his senior year at Harmon College – a small liberal arts school in Connecticut, not unlike Wesleyan, but not specifically Wesleyan, because I can’t I can’t be that obvious.
So he’s going into his senior year, and his younger his younger brother, Jason, is starting his freshman year at Harmon college. The big difference between the two of them is like, Jason is very sort of politically active and like social justice minded. And Calvin’s, just like, that’s just the last thing on Calvin’s mind. He’s just not interested in it whatsoever. It’s just not really his thing.
So Calvin sort of is forced to reevaluate the way that he sees sort of his life, his activity, his activism and race relations when on the on the the very first day of the school year, Calvin and his friends take Jason to a party at a house off campus and the police get called to break up the party and Jason is tragically and accidentally killed by a police officer. In the in the aftermath of that, Calvin forms a student group called The Party on campus to sort of advocate for the rights of black students. And through that work, he eventually leads to using the members of the group to assist a black woman Georgia Hodges, who is running to be the mayor in the town where they go to school.
How’d you decide on a teleplay?
I was kind of like knocking around a couple of different ideas for my thesis. I was originally going to do a short film that was going to be about this kid who was obsessed with this old superhero show that his parents showed him all the time. And the guy who played the superhero was going to move in next door, and it was going to be about the kids relationship with him.
I also had another idea about a black director in Hollywood who was like fresh off some big awards that went to one of his movies, and he’s been making mostly independent sort of movies about the struggles of being black. So kind of like a “Fruitvale Station” or “12 Years a Slave” type of deal. Then he decides he wants to make a big budget superhero movie about this superhero that I was really into when I was younger. I wanted to see what happens when this guy tries to move out of his lane and what would be the ways the industry kind of pushes back on him, but then I was like, no, that’s not quite it.
Then, I was in an English class last semester about Neo slave narratives – we read different narratives about slavery like the Frederick Douglass autobiography and stuff like that. My professor eventually told us about this guy named Fred Hampton, who was a member of the Black Panther Party back in the 70s. He was a charismatic 21 year old leader, and the FBI thought he was a threat. So they had people like infiltrate the Chicago Black Panther Party, and they had him assassinated. And I knew I wanted to write about that. So I sort of came up with my own version of it and centered around this guy who’s thrust into this political activist leadership role. How does Calvin rise to the occasion? What does leadership of that kind look like?
What was your favorite part to write?
In the in the first episode, there’s like this big rally against like police brutality for in like memory of Calvin’s brother Jason. And he’s like, he doesn’t really want to speak at it. He’s sort of like, trying to push his feelings of sadness aside and kind of move on and doesn’t want to really interact with it. My first draft of the speech was like, okay, but when I kept going back to my advisor, he was like, “This is your moment to say something really important. You have to find the right words to put in this guy’s mouth to tell the right speech.” And I just gave him this anecdote from my own life during our thesis meeting and he was like, “That’s it. Like, that’s your speech right there. Put that on the page.” And wasit. So that was like one of the real moments where everything came together and I felt like, “Okay, this is what I’m doing. This is like the whole reason that I’m writing it.” It felt really good to have that big moment. It was a really major part of this character’s development like putting that down on the page
What’s been among the more difficult parts to write?
Developing the rest of the season has been pretty difficult as a whole because I’ve never written anything of this sort of length before. I’ve like written short stories. I’ve written like short scripts and a one act play before. But something that requires this much planning is a new concept for me. I’m someone who’s pretty good with beginnings and endings, and I’m really interested in the big moments that are important to a character, but writing all the rest of that middle stuff which strings it all that together is like a big challenge for me. So that that’s been pretty difficult.
What’s the thing you’re most excited to share about your thesis?
I think the perspective that I’m articulating through this character is something that I’m really excited about. I really wanted to play with the idea of what happens when this guy, for whom everything has been going absolutely great, has everything shattered? I think showing that kind of vulnerability is really important, especially especially with something like this. You don’t have to be like an amazing activist or whatever to make effective social change. You just need to be motivated about it and also willing to sort of learn from your mistakes.
Current mental state?
We had to turn in work like every Tuesday by 4:30 last semester, so I would Usdan furiously typing away on my laptop, getting really stressed out. It’s like, “I gotta make it I gotta make it I gotta make it I gotta make it.” Like that was probably when I was like the most stressed about it, but right now it’s fine. Maybe it’s like the combination of being at home where school feels like it doesn’t exist right now. Nothing really matters but it’s like, this is my big thing at the moment. I’m trying my best to not let it stress me out too much.
How has the Coronavirus affected your process?
In terms of writing, it really hasn’t changed a whole lot to be honest. I have been wondering, Are we going to present these? Like, how is that gonna work? Are they even gonna? I assume they may be like, “Oh, Let’s get them all on a zoom call together and like livestream it,” which could work. The thing I’ve been most excited about this entire time is having people read it and be able to talk about it in that group. That presentation was the thing that I’ve been really waiting for.
Though, I will say, I really do appreciate the fact that like, the university gave us an extension and then the film department gave us like another extension on top of that, so the film department made the deadline for everyone that 27th instead of the 21st. So if this if the virus hadn’t happened, I would be literally down to the wire right now like scrambling to get my stuff in.
Favorite form of procrastination/quarantine activity?
I feel like I’ve been sleeping a bit more than normal. I’m staying with my cousin right now and I’m in a spare room that has a chair and like a TV tray for my laptop. And I’ve got like a ton of pillows on my floor. So I’ll just like, be like, you know what? I’m still in my pajamas. Like, let me just take a nap really quickly.
I’ve been like, trying to watch more TV. Like everyone, I watched all of Tiger King over a couple of days. Like I think that’s what everyone’s doing right now. But it’s been good, I’ve been doing trying to talk to a lot of my friends back home.
I want to say it might be more than like 10 days or so since I’ve left the house. So it’s been a while. So I’m just kind of like, trying to make sure I stay connected to people as many as possible right now.
What’re you gonna do once you turn in your thesis?
The main reason that I’m happy that the deadline, for the film department, this is the 27th is because my birthday is on the 28th. So I think I’m gonna have like joint Thesis Over and Birthday party over zoom on the 28th. That’s probably what I’m going to do. And honestly, I’ll probably start applying for jobs.
If you could compare your thesis to one other song/movie/tv show, what would it be?
This is something that I thought about a lot when I was trying to figure out what kind of show I wanted to make. And also to make sure that I wasn’t making something super derivative. [Some friends] compared it to the show “Dear White People” on Netflix that was like their first sort of like point of comparison. But I think something that I’ve really tried to focus on is not making it so dour. I feel like a lot of shows that deal with police brutality and other issues like this are so serious and they can honestly be kind of depressing. And it’s like, that’s not the kind of story I want to tell. It’s like, yes, this guy has been through like this big tragedy, but he’s a college senior – the rest of his life doesn’t go away.
So it’s been really important to me to make sure to hit on that political commentary and make sure I’m saying something important. But it’s also like I want the show to be fun and entertaining to watch because I feel like that’s something that’s really necessary; we don’t need to kind of talk about these issues in this beating over the head way all the time.
Any advice for future thesisers contemplating a TV pilot?
My best piece of advice I think is that when it comes to selecting your idea, you have to really look for something that jumps out to you, that really kind of grabs your attention and screams to you that you should do this. Because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with this thing. It’ll be a challenge, but it has been a super fun and super rewarding exercise to to pursue this whole project for a whole year.