From the Archive: An Interview with Jake Vander Ark

While digitizing ExTV’s VHS archive of student work, we find pieces that leave us wanting more. Our archive has work from 1997-2006, and we want to know where these people are today. This segment features an interview with an alumni. 

ExTV: Please speak little about your process for creating “Obsession.”

Jake Vander Ark: Oh God… “Obsession” makes me laugh, and I always think it’s funny that so many people connected with it. I had just purchased my Canon GL-2 (pretty hot stuff in 2003!), and I decided I needed to film anything and everything. I’ve always been more interested in story than experimentation, so most of my work was pretty straight forward.

I remember sitting on the train to Michigan with my portable DVD player on my lap, fast forwarding through every episode of the X-Files until I found phrases that stood out. I jotted the time in a notebook, then imported the scenes into my computer when I got home. I used my parents’ media room while they were asleep… and yes, I actually owned those ridiculous dolls.

ExTV: One element I love about “Obsession” is that your character is silent throughout the piece. Scully’s dialogue at the end creates this beautiful arc to this character piece. The loneliness resonated with me a lot. Did this have any personal meaning to you at the time?

JVA: I could jump into a film-school rant about how I was striving to make “pure cinema” like the silent films of the 1910s; I could go into some art-school crap about the rejection I felt from society in my younger years… but honestly, I’m a horrible actor and I probably didn’t want to talk!

But on a serious note, I have noticed a streak of emotionally vulnerable, quiet characters running through my early screenplays and videos. Thanks to a few brutal (but eye-opening) critiques, I quickly learned about my sentimental tendencies and have since tried to squash them. I’m glad you connected with Scully’s dialogue! As silly as this video seems to me now, I was pretty happy with how it all came together!

ExTV: The final shot of your body touching the screen reminds me of the image of the hand in the X Files intro. I felt you had a real moment of connection with the screen, flattening your character into the TV. The screen goes blue, you are left as a stain on the TV in the real world as the X Files disappears, suggesting the two worlds can never cross over. “Real” people wanting to connect with “virtual” people is currently on the way to realization (with things like oculus rift and vocaloid performers). In William Gibson’s 1996 Idoru, a human marries a virtual pop star. “Obsession” suggests that there can never be a real intersection of virtual and real worlds. What are your thoughts on this in 2015?

JVA: This is an interesting observation, and could have a direct link to my current work. I’ve been rewriting my sci-fi novel and I actually show the evolution of entertainment from books and theater to fully-immersible digital worlds where the human mind can directly interact with old films (as well as anything else their mind can conceive).

I absolutely believe that we will achieve this level of submersion during our lifetime. Technology is evolving so quickly, and we often underestimate its power. Having said that, I think we will always be aware that, no matter how real “Scully” looks, she’s still an illusion. And this would create an emotional barrier similar to the blue screen in “Obsession.” At that point, it would require direct manipulation of the brain for a person to be fully integrated with a virtual world… which may or may not happen in the novel!

ExTV: After graduating and moving to LA, what was the experience of working in the film industry like? What was the transition from college to “real world” like?

JVA: The film industry couldn’t be more different from SAIC. If your plan is to move to Los Angeles to make movies, you must absolutely supplement your art-school education with hardcore books about writing, directing, and producing (no matter what field you want to get into). Believe it or not, it’s even more cutthroat than the art world… and yes, you have to be social. Ugh.

On the other hand, persistent newbies can easily get their foot in the door as PAs on big films or as better positions on student films. I worked as a set photographer and 2nd AD on at least twenty American Film Institute shorts with very little experience. I read scripts for an indie producer, and I worked as a PA on several well-known TV shows.

ExTV: How did you feel when you realized you wanted to write rather than work on films?

JVA: Like I suggested earlier, I dove headfirst into every book I could find about writing, directing, and producing. I had a few chances to direct my own shorts, and I am still very happy with the results. Unfortunately, it was the producing part that brought me down. Like many artists, I had a hard time with networking, and I hated asking for money.

My dad got lung cancer during my third year out west, so I retreated back to my home state of Michigan. As I struggled to find a new creative outlet, I realized that I had learned a lot about writing… so I decided to try my hand at prose. It’s very different from screenwriting, but I picked up on it quickly.

Now, six years later, I’m about to begin my fifth novel.

ExTV: Your writing has a cinematic quality to it, particularly in the descriptions of character’s appearances and the environments.  How has your background in film affected your writing?

JVA: So many people have called my writing “cinematic” and I honestly don’t know why! I’m sure it’s related to my love of film and my pursuit as a director, but I can’t pinpoint what it is about the writing that makes others sense that. I definitely take it as a compliment, though!

When writing screenplays, the focus is always on plot and dialogue. The story needs to be planned out impeccably if you want to fit a story in 90-100 pages, so structure became very important to me. Every scene must contain drama, and it must move the story forward. I know artists often hate these kinds of rules, but if you want people to read your work, you need to learn them inside and out.

As for my movie-like descriptions, these may come from the “pre-production” stage I go through before starting a new book. I watch any movie that might be related to the story, I screen-capture my favorite shots, and I try to fill at least half of a Moleskine with clippings and printouts. I rarely refer to these pictures during the writing process, but I think it helps to establish my initial frame of mind which then influences the mood of the entire book.

ExTV: What are some of your upcoming projects we should look out for?

JVA: My most accessible novel is probably The Accidental Siren, but I would recommend Lighthouse Nights to my fellow artists. It’s pretty damn dark, and the prologue actually takes place at “Immediate Decision Option Day” at SAIC.

This January, keep an eye out for my first sci-fi novel called The Day I Wore Purple. It’s about a “vaccine” that ends aging, and I’m pretty sure I push it as far as any book can ever go… I just hope that’s a good thing.

ExTV: Any general tips for current SAIC students?

JVA: Because I’ve always been more interested in popular art forms like storytelling and cinema, I often butted heads with my “artsier” peers. I had little patience for videos of girls vomiting candy Valentine hearts, or guys pooping on themselves (no, seriously… laying on his back, ankles by his head, shitting on his own face)… so I’m not sure my advice would resonate with every artist!

However, I could talk for hours with any student who wants to make narrative-driven movies or write (semi-)mainstream fiction. The book that influenced me the most was Jeff Kitchen’s “Writing a Great Movie,” and it’s definitely applicable to novelists too! Watch every film you can get your hands on. Watch the classics. Watch every show from HBO’s golden years: The Sopranos for character development, Six Feet Under for story arcs, Deadwood for dialogue, and The Wire for all of the above. Learn and practice the tried-and-true methods that help engage your audience. When you know how to keep them interested in your work, then you can be as artsy as you want.

In short: let the rules be your brain and the Art Institute can be your soul.
For more information on Jake Vander Ark, visit his website