MIGHTY MOVIES

From convicted felon to George Lucas Scholar: USC student brings a fresh perspective to filmmaking

He was once in prison, now he's enrolled at one of the world's top universities. J. Lee tells us about his journey to a better life and chasing his dreams.

Joel Searls

Jeremy Lee MacKenzie is an artist & filmmaker whose career began after being incarcerated as a teenager. His artwork, "Hidden Blueprints," is a collection of wood-scrollwork cut from blueprints that were hidden in the prison system. He discovered the blueprints while serving sentences that totaled eight years, for bank robbery & drug trafficking.

He was inspired to become a filmmaker while working as a prison movie projectionist where he studied screenwriting and was released with scholarships to Champlain College. In 2015, he was awarded a screenwriting fellowship to Stowe Story Labs and that same year, won gold in the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards in LA.

In 2017, MacKenzie completed his film "Hidden Blueprints: The Story of Mikey," and received the James Goldstone Emerging Filmmaker Award. In 2018, he was chosen for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Award and was then admitted to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to pursue his MFA on a George Lucas Scholarship.



C. Craig Patterson and J. Lee MacKenzie

(Photo by: Feyza Nur Safoglu)

Annenberg Media: Tell me about where you are from and your life growing up?

MacKenzie: I'm from Burlington, VT and my childhood was complicated. I had a lot of challenging things happen while growing up and I ended up in adult prison at the age of 17 for bank robbery. Looking back, it feels like it was 100 years ago, like I've lived in quantum time where every year contained the events of five years.

Annenberg Media: What is the most distinct memory you have of your mother and father?

MacKenzie: A positive memory I have of my mother is how she always encouraged me to be an artist and be creative. She was always very honest and encouraging if she thought I was good at something. My father encouraged storytelling and read me a lot of books growing up. He tested me on the stories to see if I was listening. He would reread me the same story and then change certain plot lines to see if I was paying attention. I would stop him and tell him, "no dad, the storyline goes like this…"

Annenberg Media: What challenges did you face at school and in the community?

MacKenzie: My parents separated after my younger sister passed away. I lived with my mother most of the time and my father during summers. When I was really young, I did well in school. At a certain point in my childhood we moved into a trailer park where we were living in poverty. A lot of the people living in that trailer park did not care much about school and were into drugs. Those became really tough years since I valued education but was now being punished for valuing academics.

At first I had to fight kids often when getting off the school bus because I was into focusing on school. My parents always tried focus my attention on education. I was very young and got sick of fighting and being an outsider, so I ended up joining the crowd. I got into drugs to succeed in that world. I often wondered if people around me who chose the drug path, went through those same bad experiences as I did.

At the age of 12 or 13, I transitioned into selling drugs and became a drug dealer. I wanted to excel in a world I was way behind in. By 14-years-old, my parents had lost full control. I had an 18-year-old stripper girlfriend living with me. I was deep into the world of drug dealing: at age 14, it was cocaine, 15, it was opiates, at 16, I was arrested for dealing heroin and at 17, I was locked up for bank robbery.

Bang, that escalated quickly! My parents were baffled at how things changed so rapidly.

Annenberg Media: Where did this lifestyle lead you?

MacKenzie: I served three sentences totaling eight years. During one of those sentences, I earned my high school diploma but was still struggling to separate from the drug world. During the course of one of my sentences, I was sent to a corporate prison in Kentucky. When I got there, I got my first college opportunity. Hazard Community College selected 20 inmates who they gave grants to start college while incarcerated.

Due to overcrowding and the mistreatment of inmates, a lot of violence was going on in the facility. It was a for-profit prison and the administration was not friendly. I had to make a choice between focusing on college or joining an uprising in the prison. A group of inmates were planning a revolt and ended up having a riot at the facility. The riot took over the facility for a night and the administration building was burned which included the education facility. The college opportunity went up in smoke. We were in lockdown for many months while they rebuilt the prison around us. This gained a lot of national media attention.

Annenberg Media: Did you have any creative outlets while incarcerated?

MacKenzie: Isolation can be a powerful tool. After the riot, while in lock down I started designing artwork. I would design blueprints for big pieces of wood-scrollwork. I had learned this wood cutting technique as a teenager from an old clock maker in prison and I taught myself how to design. I was designing on taped-together pieces of paper but we weren't allowed to have the paper so I had to hide my blueprints until I could bring them home.

Those blueprints came to be my artwork years later. I used them as a tool for storytelling. Many of the blueprints I drew didn't directly depict prison but told the stories of our experience on the inside through ancient themes. When I was not designing I started getting into TV and movies and I started watching this show called "Medium." Everybody watched it. It was a way to escape from prison.

Scrollwork by J. Lee MacKenzie.

(Photo by: Mike Jacobs)

Annenberg Media: Did you ever hit rock bottom?

MacKenzie: My darkest moment came during my third sentence when I could no longer hide from my darkest truths and my responsibilities. I couldn't hide the impact my actions had on my friends, family and community; I experienced a paradigm shift. I was in a segregation cell where I had more charges coming. The drug dealers who had been supplying me since I was an adolescent, who I had been protecting my whole life, were not protecting me or anyone else. The whole veil of that world came crashing down.

I realized the effect my life was having on everyone around me and the people I had protected and followed didn't care about me anymore. I was in the segregation cell and I noticed there was a broken razor blade on the floor. "This is my out," I thought. This was one of the few moments in my life where I contemplated suicide. But, I looked out the window and thought to myself, "No one could explain this to my dog, she's never gonna know what happened." I just wanted to see my dog again. She probably saved my life. Tests find a way of placing themselves in your path, especially at your darkest moments. I needed to let things play out until the end.

Scrollwork by J. Lee MacKenzie.

(Photo by: Mike Jacobs)

Annenberg Media: How was your life impacted after making the decision to stay alive?

MacKenzie: That was a very challenging period of time, but it passed. And I ended up getting a job as a prison movie projectionist. It was a makeshift movie theater with prison walls. We screened everything from the original "Star Wars" to "Casablanca" and "Chinatown." It was a powerful experience watching "Star Wars" projected onto a prison wall.

While working as a prison movie projectionist, I started writing stories with the women's prison. The women were relatable and had similar situations to mine. But we weren't allowed to write to other prisons so I would send the letters to my father and he would re-address them to the women I was writing. I invited them to write a story where the women and I could insert our own characters and set them off on a journey together. I was very grateful to the women for that, as it provided a creative medium that was very valuable. It also provided companionship and helped with loneliness.

Working with the prison movie theater was a crucial time for me. All those earlier years of my father testing me on stories came back to me. I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. I focused on screenwriting and reached out to different colleges to get the books they used in their screenwriting courses. I was no longer in a corporate prison and I made a deal with teachers to recycle prison paperwork. The education offices would print scripts on the back of the recycled paperwork I brought them. Filmmaking was like life or death- in my previous life I was going to die and this new life was the only way out. There were no other choices.

Scrollwork by J. Lee MacKenzie.

(Photo by: Mike Jacobs)

Annenberg Media: Did you plan on getting further education?

MacKenzie: I got a scholarship to go to college when I came home. The scholarship letter came from Bernie Sanders, which I still have. When I came home I realized there was all this time that I had missed. I did a lot of catching up in college.

As soon as I got to undergrad, I won gold in the Page International Screenwriting Awards for a screenplay. The award and screenplay got me connected with Julie Pacino, Al Pacino's daughter. I began to excel and was pushed more towards directing. Julie ended up producing my film, "Hidden Blueprints." Things began to happen much more rapidly and I ended up using "Hidden Blueprints" to apply to USC.

Back then, Ben Stiller was making his show "Escape at Dannemora" and his group reached out to have me in the show as an inmate. I have an escape on my record- at one point I tried to run away from prison- so I was not able to get security clearance to enter prison. But, I took a role as an extra on a different part of his show so I could still be apart of the production. I had this really funny moment where I was standing on set with Ben Stiller to my right and I was quietly watching him work. Then, the main actress comes out and I'm suddenly hit with this really familiar feeling: the actress was Patricia Arquette who I watched in the TV show, "Medium" years ago in that destroyed prison in Kentucky. I realize I'm standing in the middle of a show about escaping from prison starring the actress of the show we all used to watch to escape from the prison we were in. It was an interesting and affirming moment.

I sent the production staff of the show an email about it. It made me reflect on how far my arc had brought me. Within a matter of days the George Lucas Scholarship came in for USC. It gave me chills. I had projected "Star Wars" movies on a prison wall. Now I was headed to LA.

Aron Meinhardt, J. Lee MacKenzie, and Julie Pacino

Annenberg Media: Why Hollywood and why now?

MacKenzie: This is the epicenter of storytelling. I came here to fully engage in storytelling and USC helped me get here. I knew this was the path. This is the place to begin and branch off. This is a time when people from all different places and backgrounds can tell stories. I felt like I was one of those people that could have a place here.

Riley Lynch, J. Lee MacKenzie, Polina Yamschikov.

(Photo by: Aron Meinhardt)

Annenberg Media: What is it like to be a George Lucas Scholar at the School of Cinematic Arts?

MacKenzie: From where I come from, it has been extremely helpful and it has been an honor to have the opportunities I've had. I had the opportunity to work with some incredible people like Riley and Austin Lynch, Julie Pacino, Aron Meinhardt and many others. I got to collaborate with C. Craig Patterson who is a great friend, he is on a George Lucas Scholarship as well. I look forward to seeing who else I get to meet and work with.

Annenberg Media: What are your career and life goals?

MacKenzie: I want to direct movies. I direct films not because I love it, but because I feel compelled to. Telling stories was my only way out and it is the only pathway I see forward. I am going to continue on that path and see where it leads. It took a lot of people helping and believing in me to get this far. It didn't start out that way. I deeply appreciate the people that helped me along the way. Wherever this path goes, I hope it is fruitful for both myself and for those that helped.

Annenberg Media: How is the coronavirus social distancing affecting you and do you have any recommendations?

MacKenzie: As I said, isolation can be a very powerful thing. I know a lot of people are stuck inside right now, for much longer than they are used to. A lot of movies are not getting made. People are scared and they are experiencing their own moments of darkness. But some of the most creative years of my life began with isolation and darkness like this. It wouldn't surprise me if the solitude of this pandemic inspires and gives birth to a lovely period of filmmaking in its wake, the likes of which the world has perhaps never seen. I really hope to be a part of that movement and I think we will all feel fortunate when we see it happen.

Featured image shows J. Lee and Isabela Penagos—USC arts students.

This article originally appeared on Annenberg Media. Follow @AnnenbergMedia on Twitter.