Name any one of Hollywood’s hottest directors and the majority of the general public will be able to name (at the very least) one of their biggest films. Quentin Tarantino? “Pulp Fiction,” of course. Marty Scorsese? “Goodfellas,” naturally. Steven Spielberg? “E.T.,” a classic.
Like those big names, local actor-turned-filmmaker Luke Jaden is making a name for himself in the Michigan movie scene, and it just so happens that he has not yet graduated from high school. What started out as a history project for Black History Month turned into a documentary film that has thus far been screened at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Cinema Detroit, The Redford Theatre and, most recently, the Freep Film Festival.
Jaden broke into the industry at the ripe age of 12, acting in school plays and eventually signing with a local agency and going on auditions. Today, he’s the proud writer, director and producer of “Madman or Martyr,” a documentary that tells the tale of abolitionist John Brown and the history of abolition in Detroit during the early 1800s.
The script itself took about three months to write, with Jaden spending hour upon hour conducting research and writing three different versions of the script—one dedicated to information gathered during interviews, another for the actors, and a third for narration purposes. As for casting, Jaden assembled a crew and auditioned actors from everywhere from L.A. to New York to Chicago to Michigan.
“We then began filming in and around Detroit,” Jaden said. “The shoot took about four to five days, and then we went straight into editing, which took about six months… it was an amazing process and I seriously could not have learned any more than I did on this set, especially since it was my directorial debut.”
The research portion of “Madman or Martyr” was the most rigorous aspect of the entire process, according to Jaden. He spoke with historians and authors, and spent hours at the Charles H. Wright Museum, Detroit Historical Museum and Detroit Public Library compiling notes. By the end of it, Jaden said he had to adapt the mindset of John Brown and each additional character in order to bring every single one (and the overall story) to life.
Jaden called the casting process “very intense… but definitely worth it,” and ultimately he cast Phillip Edward Van Lear (of TV’s “Prison Break”) as Frederick Douglass, Ed Kelly as John Brown and Tim Holmes as George DeBaptiste.
What may be a little known fact is that the story of “Madman or Martyr” is one with strong ties to the city of Detroit—as Jaden states, Brown transported nearly a dozen slaves along the Underground Railroad to Detroit in 1859.
“To me, (filmmaking) is all about telling new and innovative stories that haven’t been told yet and creating and producing a new form of art that the world and our culture hasn’t seen,” Jaden said.
While most high school-aged kids are concerned with passing AP French and acquiring the snazziest prom attire, Jaden is laser focused on what viewers take away from his film. He calls Brown “one of America’s greatest unsung heroes,” and hopes that notion is crystal clear to his audience.
“John Brown should be looked up to in our world today because he was the main reason slavery ended, and many people don’t know that,” Jaden said, adding that he learned so much valuable information about African American history and was thrilled to have the necessary support to make his film historically accurate.
“Madman or Martyr” premiered at the Charles H. Wright Museum in January and was very well received—every seat was filled and nearly 100 people had to be turned away at the door. Jaden is in talks with several other companies and theatres about future screenings, so stay tuned!
Jaden isn’t taking a break anytime soon, as he currently has several films in development, including one in post-production called “Juvicide.”
“It is a narrative short that we plan on taking through the festival circuit about a struggling Detroit family that gets swept into a corrupted world filled with crime,” Jaden said, comparing it to the likes of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” meets “Mystic River.”
“Juvicide” stars Langston Fishburne (Laurence’s son), Joseph Kathrein and Sam Brice, and Jaden hopes to debut the short this summer.
Jaden’s already got a pretty impressive resume, one that will soon include a diploma from Detroit Country Day, and in the future, a college degree. He plans to continue his education in film and wants to learn all aspects of cinematography and editing.
“But, first I plan on getting a degree and a good education at a college majoring in film and minoring in journalism or business as a backup plan,” Jaden said.
For more information on Jaden and all of his projects, visit SOS Productions LLC on Facebook.