From 7th to 11th grade, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Jonathan Pickett (17) skateboarded every single day. He spent his summers taking buses to unexplored skateparks and unconquerable handrails.

When he and his friends finally landed those tricks they’d spent weeks perfecting, he’d film it, edit it in Windows Movie Maker, throw some pop-punk rock music underneath, and press publish to YouTube. 

“That was kind of the first experience of creatively putting together images with sound and having this thing that you could show people,” Pickett said. “The excitement of that was definitely the seed of [filmmaking].”

Those MySpace-era skateboarding videos still detailed a story; they documented the triumph of sticking a landing after multiple failed attempts. They captured the look of relief after the board smacks against the pavement, feet still glued atop. They gave you someone to root for… all while emo rock bands like Escape the Fate play in the background. 

Pickett on set with film crew and a women lying in a bed.
Summer 2023 in Tombstone, Arizona during production on a new Western short film project starring a 75-year-old cowboy musician. The film is based on the cowboy’s life, and he plays himself in it. The film also stars Lindsay Burdge (Black Bear, The Invitation, Easy) and Annalee Jefferies (Monsters, Hellion). The film world premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April, and won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award at Independent Film Festival Boston. Photo by Katie Burkholder.

When Pickett arrived at PLNU, he thought he wanted to continue being in front of the camera, so he chose broadcast journalism as his major. He’d be a reporter and cover the news, he thought. But as the courses developed, Pickett remembers it being a confusing time. 

“It was interesting having classes with Media-Com students where their project was going to make a short film and mine was making a news package. I [thought], I kind of want to do that instead,” Pickett said. He later added Media Communications as a minor. 

Pickett sitting with his camera.
Photo by: Katie Burkholder

“But I didn’t really want to do that either,” Pickett remembered. “I wanted to do this in between, which is like a short documentary. Because it’s this cool blend of reporting and journalism and truth-telling…but it’s also much more creative and cinematic.”

Pickett remembers creating his own projects by taking the department’s camera home on winter break to film with his friends back in Santa Clarita. 

“I was always trying to make as many things as possible,” he adds, jokingly, “and make as many bad things — because they were all bad. Like, all of them.”

Even the “bad” films Pickett made allowed him to hone his craft. It kept the creative juices flowing while helping him tinker with his creative process. Rather than academic-feeling documentaries with archival footage interspersed between stiff interviews, Pickett wanted to be part of projects that were more cinematic, exciting, and immediate.

“[It’s] observational, almost participatory. They call it vérité filmmaking,” he explains. “It’s not sitting people down and asking them about a thing that happened. It’s being in the room when the thing happens and documenting that in real-time.”

Pickett speaking in front of an audience at a pitching competition.
In the Czech Republic, Pickett (left) participated in the Sandbox Films-backed artist incubator/pitch competition. Here, Pickett is pitching a new documentary in development to an industry audience. Photo by: Tomáš_Kozohorský

In Clean Slate, a feature documentary that follows two recovering addicts attempting to make their own short film, Pickett served as an editor and producer alongside director (and fellow PLNU alum) Jared Callahan. Pickett said he bunked in the residential rehab center in Georgia while filming. To best capture the story, he was fully immersed in their world. 

“That, to me, has the most exciting, magnetic energy to it. When you’re filming something that’s happening in real time, and you’re like, Oh my gosh, I’m witnessing this moment that is so singular and unrepeatable,” he said. “That is wildly, wildly exciting.”

Pickett explained that finding which subjects to cover is art in itself. People want to tell their story, they want to be seen and heard. That can happen in a scripted medium, of course, but with documentaries, it hits differently. 

“With a documentary, there’s no end goal in mind,” he said. “It’s a journey — the journey is the point, and the process is the point.

Pickett standing holding a Rooster.
Photo by Stuart Ballew

“That’s my favorite thing about it. You can sit in your living room but be completely teleported to some part of the world or niche community or meet a remarkable person that you would otherwise never encounter in your day-to-day life.” 

In Chicken Stories, Pickett teleported us to a small farm in the Bay Area. It’s a 17-minute short documentary — directed, produced, and edited by Pickett — where the chickens are the main characters, not the amateur farmers asking Siri how to care for them. He became enthralled by the chickens, so much that he even strapped a GoPro to a hen in hopes of learning its secret egg-laying spot. What started as innocent time-capsule footage became a jury prize for Artistic Vision at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and was soon after acquired by The New Yorker and selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick.

“It was a good lesson to me because you hear that you can’t try to aim to make a thing that’s an awards movie. I’m gonna make a festival darling movie, that’s a fool’s errand,” he said. “But, if you make the thing that only you care about…that’s the thing [that] inversely ends up finding other people [who] are passionate about the things that you’re passionate about…There’s some real beauty in that.”

Now Pickett is a full-time freelancer and enjoys being able to choose each project he’s interested in. 

“This is the first time in my life I’ve felt like I’ve had this open road in front of me,” Pickett said. “Opportunities are unfolding in every direction and I have 100% autonomy over which ones to follow and which ones to pursue…I’m not scared by that. I’m energized by it, and I’m stoked for it.”

To find fresh ideas for stories, he forced himself to get out of his apartment, off his phone, and bump into real things out in the world. These days, Pickett casually rides his skateboard around his Normal Heights neighborhood with his camera in tow. The kick-push serves as a nod to where his love for filmmaking began. This organic method nudges him to talk to people and pay attention to life around him. There’s a new story out there, just waiting to be told the only way Pickett can tell it. 

Pickett speaking at a dialogue lab.
Photo by Natalie Oh
Jordan Robinson (Ligons) (16) is a former PLNU women’s basketball student-athlete who studied journalism and women’s studies. Currently, she’s a freelance sports journalist, TV host, and WNBA podcaster in Los Angeles, CA.