March 1, 2018
Catching up with Fenwick’s film and television writer, producer and director – a film-school reject who now is ‘running the show.’
By Mark Vruno
A few months ago, on the shortest day of winter’s solstice, alumnus Kevin Jakubowski brightened up Mr. John Paulett’s 2nd-period History & Theory of Film class. “I am amazed that there is a film class here at Fenwick,” Mr. Jakubowski, a 1997 graduate and screenwriter, told the six boys and two girls (seniors and juniors) enrolled in the course. The California transplant wishes Fenwick would’ve had a course like this when he went here.
“I’ve always been interested in film,” Jakubowski shared, since the age of about six. The alumnus made his own way 25 years ago, employing such creative outlets as local-access cable programming. Together with four friends he has known since kindergarten in far west-suburban Batavia, he conceptualized a show called “A Bit Carried Away.” “My Batavia friends and I were like real-life ‘Wayne’s World,’” he says of the “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) sketch that comedic actors Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey made famous. “The funny thing is that ‘Wayne’s World’ was set fictitiously in Aurora, IL, which is just up the road from the town where I grew up.” He admits to watching as much SNL at the age of 12 as his parents would let him.
Jakobowski quoted "The Blues Brothers" in his 1997 Blackfriars Yearbook.
“But no one from Fenwick even knew that I was doing that cable TV stuff” because Jakubowski kept his two lives separate. There was his home life in the Fox River Valley and his school/sports life in Oak Park, 35 miles east. He played soccer for four years, and “had played hockey my whole life. I was a goalie,” he humbly informs. He must have been a pretty good one because he made Fenwick’s varsity club team on the ice as a freshman and went on to play collegiately at Villanova. (More on his school choice in a moment.)
LISTEN IN TO THE CLASSROOM SESSION
At first, “I didn’t want to go to Fenwick,” Jakubowski admits. The school was so far away and he knew no one there, after all. “The commute on the train could be rough. But I was the type of student who would’ve gotten lost in the shuffle at the bigger school close to home [Batavia High School].” He visited Marmion Academy in Aurora and Fenwick. Kevin’s mother, Maureen, now a retired kindergarten and second-grade teacher from H.C Storm and Louise White elementary, public schools in Batavia, wanted her son exposed to a more culturally diverse atmosphere. “At Fenwick there were kids from Hinsdale, Cicero and Chicago,” he points out, “kids from single-parent homes and whose dad was the head of McDonald’s.”
To say that his Fenwick experience influenced Jakubowski might be the understatement of the 1990s. “There were great ‘characters’ at Fenwick,” he asserts, citing Mr. [Tom] Egan, who was a counselor and English teacher who “kept me in line. Mr. [Roger] Finnell got me through Algebra. I had Mr. [Bernard] Rudnik for Bio three years in a row and Student Council.” He also remembers Spanish Teacher Mr. [Alan] Howell’s “dry sense of humor. And I’ve kept in touch over the years with Dr. [Jerry] Lordan, who is a wealth of knowledge.”
Jakubowski has been writing professionally for the past 12 years. He has written and co-written feature and television scripts for Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers. He also wrote for the Nickelodeon TV series “School of Rock,” the Disney kids’ series “Bizaardvark” and the Comedy Central animated series “Brickleberry.” Mr. Paulett asked him to read excerpts from his 2013 book, 8-Bit Christmas, which originally was written as a screenplay. “It was one of the first things I wrote when I got to L.A. [in 2003],” he explained. “I loved ’80s kid pop culture, loved Nintendo [video gaming] and loved Christmas,” so it was an ideal blend of his interests. The book has been described as ‘A Christmas Story’ for the Nintendo generation.” (Remember that for your 2018 gift list for men of a certain age.)
Path to Hollywood
After moving to Los Angeles, the then 24-year-old was hired as a Production Assistant (PA) working on “South Park,” the adult animated sitcom in its sixth season at the time. It may sound like a glamorous gig, but it wasn’t. “A PA basically is a grunt” (or a gopher/go-for) “who got lunch, answered the phones, picked up other people’s dry cleaning and maybe did some research.” Jakubowski wrote screenplays on the side. “Meeting producers can be tricky without an agent,” but he was lucky enough to have one from a screenplay he had written in graduate school. “A friend had worked for an agent and passed it along.”
“I wanted to be a screenwriter but just didn’t know how to get there. Mr. [Rich] Borsch talked me out of going to an ‘arts’ school,” he says of Fenwick’s longtime Associate Principal and Director of Student Services. “He asked me, ‘You don’t want to wear turtlenecks and smoke cigarettes, do you?’” the advisee recalls with a laugh. The answer was a resounding “no.” “‘Get a degree from a good, liberal-arts school,’” Borsch advised in his sometimes gruff tone. His future was in suburban Philadelphia at Villanova University.
Jakubowski, the goalie on the left, was playing varsity hockey for the Friars as a freshman in 1994. He played college hockey for the Villanova Ice Cats.
“In college I was in a fraternity and played hockey,” Jakubowski says. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in communications and English from Villanova, where he wrote a column for The Villanovan student newspaper and tended net for the Ice Cats’ hockey team. “I also wrote two horrible screenplays,” he told a Daily Herald interviewer 10 years ago. “Looking back it’s amazing I ever kept with it. They’re atrocious.”
He didn’t get into any U.S. film schools -- New York University, Northwestern and four or five other schools rejected Jakubowski’s applications. However, he was accepted into a graduate film program overseas and, 13 months later, earned an M.A. degree from University College Dublin in Ireland. “It definitely was the road less traveled,” he says. “I worked nights in a pub, and [financially] it turned out to be about one-fourth the cost of going to film school in the states.”
After his graduation on the Emerald Isle, Jakubowski moved back home, worked in a liquor store and as a substitute teacher. (The latter job provided fodder for his future writings.) He also set aside time to write every day. “That’s how I got good at it,” he told the Herald. “Practice.” A feature script on which he’d been working captured the attention of an agent. Within six months the script got optioned, so he packed up and moved to Los Angeles. He has never looked back.
Fast-forward to 2008, when the independent comedy “Assassination of High School President,” starring Bruce Willis and Michael Rapoport, garnered recognition at the Sundance, SXSW and AFI film festivals. Jakubowski partnered with Tim Calpin, a “South Park” PA buddy, to write the R-rated story about an unaccomplished high-school news reporter – nerdy sophomore Bobby Funke never has actually finished an article -- who uncovers a SAT mystery. The production was shot in the 1940s and ’50s film noir style, a cinematic genre used to describe Hollywood crime dramas marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism and menace. “It’s kind of like ‘The Big Lebowski’ but imposed in a high-school environment,” Jakubowski notes.
“Bruce Willis liked the script, and having his name gave it power to get financed,” he continues. “But then the bottom dropped out of the economy, which affected the distribution” being handled by the now defunct Yari Film Group. The movie was in bankruptcy for a couple of years, which killed the advertising budget, before it was released on DVD in late 2009. (Watch the official trailer for “Assassination of a High School President.”)
Calpin and Jakubowski wrote the script on spec. A spec script, also known as a speculative screenplay, is a non-commissioned unsolicited screenplay without the backing of a studio. It is usually written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company or studio. So no one was paying them to write. “It got passed around by my agent. It’s a real word-of-mouth process,” he explains. Most of his spec work got bought because he cared about it – a lot, he adds. But even then, 80% to 90% of shows that get written never make it to the air waves, he adds, or to the Internet, as it were.
Next, the Jakubowski-Calpin writing team collaborated on studio work for Illumination Entertainment, Lionsgate Movies, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers, but none of that work ever got produced. “That was a frustrating experience,” the former admits. “We got paid to write but our stuff sat on the shelf and didn’t get made.” The writers were introduced to the television world and migrated to TV. In 2012 Fox made “Cops Uncuffed,” an animated comedy written and produced by Jakubowski, into a pilot directed by Frank Marino. (See and hear the rough-cut animatic.)
In 2014 “we pitched to Nickelodeon,” says Jakubowski, the man who “never thought I’d do kid’s stuff … [because] you can’t really push the envelope with stuff for children.” The working title of the project was “Homeroom,” about two brothers who are both in seventh grade – one was moved ahead a year, putting them in the same junior-high class. “It was like ‘The Office’ for seventh graders,” describes its creator.
"Legendary Dudas" aired on Nicelodeon during the summer of '16.
The process was intensive: His “Homeroom” concept was tested with children and parents in focus groups, then revised and tweaked some more. Renamed “Legendary Dudas” for main characters Sam Duda (played by child actor Theodore Barnes) and Tyler Duda (Devion Harris), the show (sample clip) aired for one season, six episodes, in the summer of 2016 “and was immediately cancelled,” Jakubowski reports with a smile. “It was a little chaotic because we were writing while it was being produced. We learned a lot from the experience.”
Jakubowski says one of the reasons he likes TV is because “you can stay with a character a lot longer than 90 minutes on film.” Each season can equate to about a three-hour movie, representing nearly nine hours of intense character development.
Friar Nation has noticed several nods to Fenwick in “Assassination of a High School President.” The imaginary St. Donovan’s Catholic school has a Friar for its mascot and a shield for its logo. Sound familiar? “Fenwick has been a well of inspiration,” Jakubowski confesses with a smirk.
It is no coincidence that his latest project, also written on spec, is set in Oak Park, Illinois. “Play by Play” is a coming-of-age comedy narrated (it’s Jakubowski’s voice) by present-day ESPN sportscaster Pete Hickey, who looks back on his adolescence in the ’90s and gives the play-by-play of trying to figure out life as a kid in suburban Chicago and in high school at St. Roman -- “the best sports school in Illinois.”
On the show, St. Roman’s is a parochial school; in real life, it is public: Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. “We have to shoot during the summer and on weekends,” Jakubowski says. Established in 1923, its exterior looks Fenwick-esque (see adjacent photo). An entire episode is devoted to JUG (Judgment Under God), our Dean of Discipline’s code for detention, of course. Many of the characters’ Irish, Italian, Polish and other ethnic last names were “pulled right out of the Blackfriars Yearbook,” he reveals.
On "Play by Play," child actor Reid Miller portrays awkward teenager Pete Hickey, a student at a Catholic high school in Chicago.
Part of teenage Hickey’s awkwardness comes from being around girls at the newly co-educational institution. Jakubowski draws from his personal experience as a member of the second co-ed class in Fenwick’s now 89-year history. “When I was a freshman [in 1993], the juniors and seniors were all guys,” he explains. “There were some bizarre dynamics. Boys would come to school with stains on their shirts because they didn’t care how they looked. Some probably hadn’t showered in days.” Similar dude-centric scenarios make for some belly laughs in “Play By Play.” Jakubowski isn’t necessarily targeting the “Millennial” generation, claiming, “I write about what I know.” Mr. Paulett offered his critical review to the class, calling the show “funny but warm” at the same time.
The new show is, in part, Jakubowski’s nod to “The Wonder Years” (1988-93). “‘Play By Play’ appeals to kids who are that age [teenagers] now and to adults in their 30s who were in high school in the ’90s,” he believes. “And it’s not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake,” he insists. “There are jokes about the OJ trial,” for example, and “… the Hickeys think the Unabomber lives next door.”
Pete Hickey comes from a family of jocks. He loves sports but didn’t inherit his father’s athletic genes like his siblings did. “Our aim is to combine humor with art,” Jakubowski notes. But he has to be careful because “it’s a big risk doing anything artistic. You may not make any money!”
Complex Networks’ Rated Red bought the series, which made its debut online last June on go90, the free video-streaming platform launched by Verizon Media in 2015. The first season featured eight episodes; seasons two and three wrapped up filming last fall on location in Iowa and now are in the post-production/editing phase. (Smartphone users can download go90 via the App Store or Google Play, or start watching now on go90.com.)
“TV is changing, and for me it’s great,” Jakubowski says, calling right now the Golden Age of Television. “But the bubble is gonna burst pretty soon,” he predicts. “There are so many more outlets now,” including non-subscription Internet Television supported by advertising revenue.
In addition to go90, other popular on-demand, streaming-video services include Sony’s Crackle, Kanopy, Pluto TV and Vudu, most of which work stream through “smart” TV sets equipped with digital-media-playing add-ons such as Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast (from Google) or Roku. Like their subscription-based counterparts -- Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Hulu and Netflix -- these technology options also offer hundreds of titles, including recent releases and original TV series such as “Play By Play.” “go90 is like Netflix but free,” Jakubowski says. “The difference is [that] you just have to watch a few commercials.”
For “Play by Play” he is the Showrunner, which is the TV equivalent of an executive producer in film. “It’s like being the general, in creative control of everything,” he explains. Most Showrunners are writers. “I’m in charge of the Writers’ Room and the entire operation,” he notes while acknowledging that there are “lots of people with ideas who aren’t writers.”
“It’s a low budget [production] and a relatively new studio,” Jakubowski adds. Prior to this hands-on experience, Jakubowski says he really didn’t know the nuts and bolts of how things work with a network and a studio. There is a ton of pressure, he adds, because “if it doesn’t work, a lot of people can lose their jobs.”
See “Play by Play” Episodes
The creative process
“Writing itself is hard,” Jakubowski laments, adding that he is disciplined and methodical about his creative approach. “I get up early every day and write for a couple of hours. Then I have tea and write for a couple more [hours]. After lunch, I’m pretty worthless.”
Fenwick Teacher John Paulett, who also is a writer, emphasized discipline regarding the craft. “It’s like going to the gym – you have to do it [write]. And sometimes you have to be able to write total crap,” he advised his students, some of whom are aspiring writers.
Jakubowski says he was over-involved when he was a student at Fenwick: In addition to playing hockey and soccer, he served on Student Council. “I also started a video yearbook,” he notes, adding that KAIROS was “a huge deal. My big regret was not participating in Banua, but I had no time.
“It’s great to be a Friar,” concludes Jakubowski, who is married, lives in Santa Monica and is a few months into the new experience of fatherhood. (Baby Maeve Kathryn was born on January 19th.) “Fenwick is a special place, which I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older. There’s an alumni community in California, and I’ve been introduced to Mick Betancourt ’92,” a Berwyn guy turned Los Angeles-based screenwriter, comedian, actor, producer and director. Mr. Betancourt is best known for his scripts written for popular TV shows “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Mob Doctor.” “Mick is five years older than me, but we’re buddies now.
“I’ve also met [actress] Aimee Garcia ’96, who I didn’t know in high school.” Originally from Chicago, Ms. Garcia’s TV credits include “Dexter” and “Lucifer.”
More Friar connection in Iowa
A pair of Friars: Kevin on the Iowa set with Fenwick junior John Babbo, an actor who can be seen on Jakubowski's "Play by Play" TV series.
Junior student John Babbo ’19 is an actor who auditioned for a part in “Play By Play,” not knowing about the show’s Fenwick ties. On the set in Des Moines, Jakubowski had no idea that Babbo is a Friar, “but John’s tape was great and we hired him,” he says matter of factly. Babbo can be seen in upcoming episodes as the “eye-patch kid.”
The Babbos are an acting family from Oak Park: John’s younger brother, Charlie, is an eighth-grader who acts, and their father, Tom Babbo ’90, is an actor and fellow Friar/Blackfriar whom Father Peddicord, O.P. taught while he was studying at Fenwick. His 17-year-old son already has worked on stage (“A Christmas Story: The Musical,” the Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” Drury Lane’s “Sweeney Todd”) and in TV (“Chicago Fire”) as well as in the 2016 movie “Not a Stranger.” John Babbo also can be seen in the Netflix scifi TV drama series “Sense8” from 2015.
Student creations: View “Robotito,” a 60-second film produced by Fenwick junior and Berwyn resident Quetzali Lopez ’19 for Mr. Paulett’s History & Theory of Film class.