Local filmmaker, attorney team up for new reality show

Local filmmaker, attorney team up for new reality show
Warren Skeels (center) talking with Siesta Key stars Brandon and Madisson. Notice Skeels is proudly wearing his Hendricks Avenue baseball coach’s jersey. (Photo credit: Nick Shirghio)

Little did Jacksonville natives Warren Skeels, a filmmaker, and Lawrence Najem, an attorney, know that serving as members on the Mayor of Jacksonville’s Advisory Council for Film and Television would lead them to produce MTV’s hit reality show, “Siesta Key.” Perhaps it was kismet.

After all, both had produced and sold a number of full-length motion pictures. Both appreciated what each other had been able to achieve in the industry. They became friends and, as the saying goes, the rest is history,.

Skeels, 42, was born and raised in Neptune Beach. Filmmaking is part of his heritage. “My uncle, Arledge Armenaki, is a cinematography and film educator,” Skeels said.

Skeels attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and continued his theater and film education at University of Southern California. He worked in Los Angeles and New York City after college. When he and his wife, Cristi, decided it was time to start a family, he brought her back to the place where he grew up – Jacksonville. They chose to live in the San Marco area.

“We love the quaint feeling of the area, while being so close to everything,” Skeels said. Cristi and he have two children, ages 9 and 11.

Lawrence Najem in his Prudential Drive office at Ossi & Najem, PA.

Lawrence Najem in his Prudential Drive office at Ossi & Najem, PA.

Najem, 54, was also born in Jacksonville. He grew up in San Jose and attended Bishop Kenny High School. He remains rooted in the neighborhood, living with his wife in the old Oriental Gardens area of San Marco, where they have raised three children, ages 16, 18 and 20. His law firm, Ossi and Najem, is also in the neighborhood, on the Southbank.

After learning about Skeels’ background in filmmaking, Najem decided to approach him about an idea he had for a reality show.

“Having served as general counsel for John Travolta, I am attracted to the production, finance and business side of film and entertainment,” Najem said. “In 2015, I met with a client in Sarasota who told me that he thought his kid and friends might make good material for a reality show.

“Warren and I decided that we really had something here,” Skeels said. He directed a pilot, which included framing the most important relationships and showcasing the personalities. They chose to partner with Entertainment One Television to pitch the project, and MTV became a natural fit for the young adult show. Skeels is both the show’s creator and executive producer. Najem also has a dual role as attorney and producing partner.

“We knew from the inception that we wanted to not only capture the natural beauty of Siesta Key, but also showcase a narrative style that isn’t represented in the reality TV category,” said Skeels. To achieve his goal, Skeels tapped several North Florida artists for the project, among them Flagler alumnus and cinematographer Gareth Paul Cox.

While “Siesta Key” is the first reality foray for Skeels, he’s an award-winning filmmaker known for his work on documentaries “Chops” and “Thespians,” and the features “Who’s Your Monkey” with Jason London and Kevin Durand, and “Surfacing” with Joy Thomas and Lin Shaye.

“Siesta Key” follows a group of young adults confronting issues of love, heartbreak, betrayal, class, and looming adulthood as they spend the summer together in their beautiful hometown. Nothing is off limits while these friends come of age, figuring out who they are and who they want to become – LGBTQ issues, interracial relationships and mental health. The show has consistently been No.1 on Mondays at 10 p.m.

“We’re really proud of our work,” said Najem. “It meant a lot for us to represent North Florida on this show, and it was important for us to showcase local crew with us on the shoot.”

By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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