Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thoughts on faith-based filmmaking

This is an interview I recently gave for a magazine on the topic of faith-based films and the retail market.

2008 Trends -- Faith & Family Films

Looking back on 2008, what happened in the world of faith and family films? How did this portion of the industry grow, change, or regress?

It's hard to say if it's growing or regressing, but it's definitely changing. The studios are proving that they only know how to reach one part of the Christian market, and that's the core church crowd, the crowd that showed up for "Fireproof." And they're also showing that they don't know how to do it themselves; they need Christian filmmakers to make the films and even spearhead the marketing.

The market is growing, but I fear that it's only growing in one direction. I think we're getting further and further from the idea of a mainstream faith-based film; any faith-based films are going to get pushed into one particular box.

Looking forward into 2009, what trends or changes are studios anticipating?

There will be more films like Fireproof--lower budget, straight-on Christian movies marketed directly to the church crowd. The idea of doing a faith-based film and then marketing it like a mainstream film is going to be less viable.

How can retailers prepare for 2009?

They need to develop stronger and more direct relationships with the Hollywood studios, and make sure that they're communicating clearly what they want and need. The studios are listening more than ever.

What products do you have coming out in 2009 that retailers should start to have on their radars?

We're developing a couple of films with Pure Flix Entertainment(Hidden Secrets, The Wager) that we're very excited about. Jenkins Entertainment plans to have a bigger role in this growing movement.

What can retailers do right now to help capitalize on Christmas DVD sales?

The Christian market is really starting to embrace faith-based films; we're where Christian music was 20 years ago. As Christian films get better and more common, the retailers need to really communicate that to their consumers. Movies can be a massive business, but right now, the consumers don't really look at their local Christian store as an outlet for a wide range of choices.

How has the level of "Christian filmmaking" improved over the past few years?

It's improved in some ways, in that the the production is being taken more seriously, the actors are getting better, etc., but we've still got such a long way to go. We've got to find a way to be more artistic, as opposed to just turning the camera on to film a message. And if we increase the artistic quality of our films, which is glorifying to God (the greatest artists of the early centuries were Christians), the audience will start to appreciate that part of it even more, and we can increase sales. And better yet, we might even make a film good enough to be appreciated by non-believers on a mass scale.

Where does "Christian filmmaking" need to go to continue to be relevant to consumers?

In addition to getting better artistically, we need to offer a wider range of genres and storylines. Romantic comedies, teen dramas, even crime stories need to be considered.

Looking out 5+ years, where will this portion of the industry be, or what is your hope for the future of faith and family films?

It can only get bigger. There's such a big audience, and it's being underserved. As long as we continue to make better films, the industry will grow. My ultimate desire is for there to be more mainstream films with Hollywood-style production values and size that come from a faith-based perspective, as opposed to the current status of Christian films being set apart from secular films. But until the market supports that, we have to work within the system and hope to improve it.

Is there a phrase that accurately describes this type of filmmaking other than "faith and family" or "Christian?"

I wish there was.

How do you anticipate VOD or any other type of downloading video service affecting how retailers sell their products in brick and mortar stores?

They should be in conjunction. Hopefully, the retailers can be part of the VOD movement.

How would you motivate consumers to purchase or even to just begin being interested in faith and family films?

It's all about word of mouth. If a retailer has something really good to offer, the audience will embrace it. Retailers haven't always had much to be excited about.

Why is it important to support faith and family filmmaking efforts?

Because film is the most important medium of all time in communicating messages. Films combine every audio and visual element imaginable, and for the last 50 years, Christians have backed off and let filmmaking be controlled by people who don't share our values. That's our fault. But that can change if the films we make are successful, so consumers must vote with their dollar and help these films succeed if they like them. If they make money, then more will be made, and we'll have a better chance of impacting culture.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Plugging along...

I wish I had more to report, but it's the same old-same old. This is the movie business, unfortunately. Movies take time. It's a wonder any movies ever get made. Once we go into official pre-production on this film, the updates will come daily, and we'll also have video blogs a few times a week.

Recent movies I've seen: Being There and The Last Detail, both by Hal Ashby, the director I'm studying right now. He and I have similar style sensibilities, so I'm watching all of his films. Both were great films, although I'm not always emotionally connected to Ashby's films; I'm not quite "anti-establishment" enough, I guess.

Books I've read/am reading: the book on M. Night Shymalyan was great (did I say this already? guess I should re-read my blogs, but I'm too lazy), and I'm currently reading "Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know." It's pretty good. Always good to get a reminder of the basics.

Monday, June 16, 2008

More Casting...

Still playing the casting game, trying to find the right actor who's not only available (which isn't easy to find) but interested in a non-studio picture. There are a few names that I think are really interesting, but I really don't want to talk about them here. So what I'm left with is yet another boring, unproductive blog, and you're left with reading it and thinking, "Is this how movies go, or is this guy a moron?"

The script is getting good responses from the agencies, so hopefully something will break through soon.

Continued casting
Published: June 5, 2008
I wish I had exciting things to report, but there really isn't much. We're continuing to pursue a lead actor for the film. Our next offer is going to the actor I actually think would be one of the best people in Hollywood for the part, so I really hope he at least reads the script.

I just finished reading "The Conversations with Walter Murch," which was great and insightful. He's not only a genius editor and has great things to say about the directors he's worked with, but he's got good insights on storytelling, pacing, etc.. I'm now reading "The Man Who Heard Voices," the book about M. Night Shyamalyan's making of "Lady in the Water." It's important not to just read "how to" books, but "behind the scenes" books as well, because they give important looks into the mechanics and personality of Hollywood. Dealing with people and understanding how a set operates is just as important as learning the craft.

In the last couple weeks I've seen The Wild Bunch (pretty ground-breaking for its time), Shampoo (didn't actually enjoy it all that much, as I found it meandering and ultimately empty, which was the point, but it didn't work for me), and Harold and Maude (very funny, and I wish I would have watched it before I made Midnight Clear, but it also didn't reach me emotionally). I'm going to be watching Bound for Glory next; I'm on a Hal Ashby kick, as his style seems very close to mine.

Friday, May 16, 2008


We've officially made our first offer for the lead role in Mountain. We just don't want to lose any time while we're completing the financing deals. I'm going to keep names off this blog for now, but hopefully I'll be able to make an exciting announcement in the next few weeks.
Please forgive any glitches or mistakes with the new site, we're working to perfect it.

Slow but sure...
Published: May 05, 2008
We seem to be making bits and pieces of progress here and there. We're currently in discussions with a few different financial options. One big foreign sales company has verbally committed to a $1 million "minimum guarantee," which is something that they give to a bank in exchange for a loan of that amount. That would get us close to our budget, and with the money that comes from whatever state we shoot in, we'd be just about there. There are also a couple other private investment people and groups that I'm talking with, all of which have some level of serious interest. Who ever knows what's going to happen? This is my least favorite part of the whole process. We're also going to talk about casting this week--we might just go ahead and start making some offers.

I'm currently reading "The Conversations with Walter Murch," a book of interviews with the legendary editor Walter Murch. Terrific book. Up next are a couple similar books, interviews with Truffaut and Kurusawa. I'm watching "The Seven Samurai" today, "Wild Bunch" tomorrow," and I watched "The Godfather" a couple days ago. I'd seen it before, but watching it after reading some of Walter Murch's comments on it was great. I'd always encourage filmmakers to watch films before or after you read some good analysis or inside info on them. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say that The Godfather is a solid film. I know that may put me in the minority, but I'm holding strong in that belief.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Georgia on my mind....

Just got back from a trip to the South, where I first gave a few workshops at a media conference before spending a day in Georgia.

I was given a tour of Senoia, about 30 minutes south of Atlanta, which has an incredible studio called Riverwood. I came away from the visit believing that there is no question that Mountain could be shot in that area and be very authentic and high quality. I also met with a few potential investors. Who knows if anything will come out those meetings, but they were relatively encouraging. Either way, I've gotten to a place of contentment where I believe that I need to take things one day at a time and simply focus on being in God's will. Where I'll be in a few months really isn't my business (I stole that line from Phil Vischer, the Veggietales creator who I heard speak a few days ago), and I'm fine with that.

We've also been discussing casting, possibly making offers now. There's some consensus about Kevin Bacon, so he might be the first guy we approach. He's someone who has unique appeal both to American "heartland" audiences but also in the foreign market. Some actors are either/or, but Bacon goes beyond that, so he's probably going to be our first approach. I'll let you know what happens.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Well, I write this with some frustration and embarrassment, but a blog is a blog, warts and all.

It looks like the financing we had lined up, that was such a sure thing, has fallen through. I'll spare all the details, but the company we were talking to won't be able to put a deal together. Everything's still good on our side; our money is real and we're ready to go, but they weren't. So we're somewhat back to square one. So maddening.

So we'll pursue some of the other options we have, some of which are actually promising, but we're only going to give it another three or four months. So we'll see how this all turns out. I continue to watch a movie a day and read a book a week, furthering my education and preparation as a filmmaker. If I get the chance, I'm going to make a great film, that I know, and anyone who gets involved in this project is going to end up being very proud of it.

Still not much to report...
Published: March 17, 2008
I wish I had big news, but the money stuff is still taking a long time and is complicated. This is my least favorite part about filmmaking, the whole "paying for it" stuff.

That said, I just finished one of my favorite directing books of all time; normally I have to force myself to keep reading academic filmmaking books, but I was excited every time I sat down to read this one. "I'll Be In My Trailer," by John Badham, is a book about directing actors that I'm recommending to every director I'll ever talk to. It's not just boring theory (I've read some books on directing actors that were boring and meaningless, normally written by teachers), it's written by a successful director with dozens of anecdotes from actors and directors. Go get it right now if you're a filmmaker.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Not much to report...

The money and legal stuff is taking awhile, as it always does, so there's not much to report. In the meantime, I continue to watch movies, read books, and now I'm starting to look at paintings. Some of the movies I just saw include Nashville (I appreciate Altman but don't "get" him--too emotionally detached), 400 Blows (loved it--what a devastating film), Witness (BEAUTIFUL), and I'm about to watch "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Both 400 Blows and Witness had great composition in the shots, something I'm really working on.

I continue to read MacKendrick's "On Directing," which is deep and difficult but helpful.

I'm already having some conversations with my production designer Jim and DP Randall. They both agree wholeheartedly with my ideas about shooting the first chunk of the film in a raw, desaturated way, with the latter part of the film more composed and colorful.

Really hope we get this money stuff taken care of ASAP, I'm eager to get going.

A Perfect Film
Published: February 12, 2008
Just read this from Roger Ebert:

"Now what do I mean when I say a film is perfect? I described Atman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" as perfect, that's what I mean. A perfect film is serious or funny or anything in between, but in its way it owns wisdom about life, and we learn something from it. Our attention is fully engaged by it. If we are movie critics, our notebooks rest forgotten in our hands. It is cast so well that the roles fit the actors like a second skin. It has dialogue that functions to accomplish what is needed, and nothing more; it can be poetry, prose, argument or bull----t, but we believe the characters would say it. There is not an extra or a wrong shot. The compositions make everything clear but not obvious, and they work on an emotional level even if we're not aware of it. And when it's over we know we've seen one hell of a film."

I'm going to post this wherever I can to remind me of what I'm shooting for.

Script, locations, movies, books
Published: February 6 2008
I think we're pretty much done with the script. I can't think of any more things I need to do to it; or, at least, I can't think of anything I CAN do to fix any of its needs. At some point you get to close to it and don't know what works and what doesn't. I feel like I've addressed most of the problems that my friends and advisors have pointed out, so I'm feeling pretty good. Right now the script comes in at 111 pages, which I think is too long. Page count is usually equal to minute-count. If the movie came in at exactly 111 minutes, that wouldn't be awful, but I'd prefer to get it down to 100. Just not sure how to do that at this point.

I had a good talk with a production studio in Georgia that might end up being our shooting location. Nothing has come from Virginia, and with the money we'll save shooting at one location, along with the fact that Georgia offers a 10% or so tax rebate (meaning you get 10% of all the money you spend in Georgia returned to you at the end of shooting), I'm leaning in that direction. I should be flying out there to check it out in a month or so.

Just watched "Badlands" for the first time, the Terence Malick film with Marty Sheen (I can call him Marty because I'm in the biz) and Sissy Spacek, made back in the 70's. I'm trying to watch as many great films as I can, of course, but I'm concentrating on films that have a lot of exterior locations, made by directors known for the visual brilliance. The film really was gorgeous. As I've said, I plan on shooting the first half of the film, when things are rough and raw, with a loose, rougher style, and the second half of the film more composed and pretty. I already do loose pretty well (although I'll get better), but I'm not as great at the composed, pretty stuff. It's not my tendency, but it sometimes needs to be. After watching some Wim Wenders, Kurosawa, and Terence Malick films, I feel like I'm getting better versed on the subject.

Finishing up "Our Southern Highlanders," which will help me understand the setting better, and then I'll read "On Filmmaking," by Alexander MacKendrick, which will help me shoot said setting. Hopefully.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Still working through the deal with these guys for financing of Mountain. Nothing indicates the money isn't real, but we have to figure out all the particulars of how it's going to be distributed, who's in charge of what, etc. The least interesting and most frustrating part of making a movie by far.

In the meantime, I finetune the script and prepare for making the film. I'm currently reading the book "Our Southern Highlanders," a book about the Appalachians written in the 1920's. I remember when I made Hometown Legend, I read a book called "Friday Night Lights" (which inspired the best show on TV) while we were already in pre-production. A regret of mine on that film is that I didn't read that book sooner. I underestimated how valuable "color" is to a film, the little facts and figures and characterizations that go into creating a world that people want to see. If you as a filmmaker become an expert about the topic that you're telling a story about, then all the "color" that you understand will make its way into the film and add authenticity. For instance, you can tell when watching a sports film if the director didn't understand the sport.

I'm making a film about the Appalachian mountains in the 1920's, so I want to know as much as I can. And in reading this book, I've already read a few things that I've added into the film, whether it's an interesting anecdote, a description of a cabin or a custom that the people performed. These things can provide cool background to the main story, and as a director, understanding these things will allow me to better supervise the production design, accents, even the accuracy of the dialogue. If I read something in a book that makes me think, "Oh, cool! Very interesting! That's something I didn't know, and now that I know it, I'm a better human for it!" two things will result--one, I'll wonder why I started talking like a moron, and two, the audience will probably have a similar reaction when I portray it on screen.

Published: Januray 21, 2008
So now we get to the contracts stage. I like the money guys and producers who have approached us on Mountain, they like me, and now we exchange deals. To be frank, I suck at this. I tend to want everyone to be happy, I don't like fighting for my stuff, I always assume we'll piss off the other side. My lawyer is the opposite--he doesn't want to give anything up, he thinks I deserve everything, etc. I suppose that's good. So we end up somewhere in the middle.

We still haven't made too much progress on the location thing, although I'm talking to a Georgia production facility tomorrow. I'm guessing that's our most likely location if we don't end up shooting in Virginia. Man, I want to shoot in Virginia, the actual setting of the story, so bad. Doesn't look like it's going to happen, though.

Still finetuning the script. Trying to get it as tight as possible. We've decided to alter history a bit and put Bob in attendance at the famous courtroom massacre. In 1912, there was a massacre after a man was found guilty in a courthouse--his family shot the judge, a jury member, the sheriff, etc. It had a huge impact on the community, and the subsequent national media attention really affected Bob (main character) because it caused him to realize that the rest of the country didn't live in the ignorant and dangerous way the mountaineers did. We've decided to actually put him in the courthouse to witness the massacre, which cinematically will personalize it more and send Bob quicker on his journey towards change.
Mountain journal
Published: January 8, 2008
I'm going to start journaling more frequently here as we start the new year with the development and hopeful production of "Mountain," my passion project. I'll try to do this once a week, and perhaps you can get a glimpse into the process of how a movie gets made.

Today, Monday, Jenkins Entertainment officially secured our side of the financing. I won't give details, but we put a chunk of money into an account, combining investments from a few different people including our company. There is a financing group that loves our project and has verbally committed to bankrolling the picture assuming that they can verify our funds. Today was that verification. So now they get their stuff together to put up the rest of the money and greenlight the movie. Of course, we have to agree on all the terms and the contracts and all that, and that will likely take some time, but we're moving along.

Ironically, there's another company that is showing the same interest. I met with these guys a couple months ago, and they said they were in, but they didn't get back to me with anything official. The group from the above paragraph came in out of the blue, so I hit the ground running with them. After all these years of frustration with this project, it's bizarre that I might actually get to a place where I'm turning money down.

Here's how this current group came about, it's quite a story. A producer from Texas named David Chandler, who's been trying to get some projects set up out here for years, has always loved Mountain. We became buddies through our discussions about each other's projects, and he's always tried to get Mountain in the hands of various people, but nothing has come of it. We don't have a deal or anything, he's just been doing what he can on the side. Anyhoo, a couple months ago his aunt was in a small town in Georgia and struck up a conversation with a stranger, who told her about all the developments that were taking place in this town. For some reason, she mentioned a movie studio and gave David's aunt a brochure. David's aunt then passed it on to David, who decided to contact this production facility for the heck of it.

He cold-called them and said basically, "I know you guys are a production facility and aren't investors, but I've got a cool project that should be shot in the south, and I'm wondering if you know of any money guys who are shooting some films at your place." The guy gave David contact info for some guys, David got ahold of them, sent them the script, and wala (how do you spell that?)--they loved it, one of the producers grew up near where the story took place and had heard of Bob Childress (the man on which the story is based), and they wanted to make it. Unless these guys are liars or stupid, neither of which appears to be the case, they've got the money and are on board. All they needed was proof from us that we can guarantee some funds as well, which we did today.

Funny how God works, assuming He cares about my career and the movie business and actually has a hand in all this. Of course, I know He cares about my career, but sometimes I think we think He's devoting more time to our vain pursuits than he actually is. Either way, I'll take it and give Him credit for anything good that happens.

So right now I'm preparing to make this movie assuming everything gets in order. I need to get the script in great shape before it's sent to actors, so I'm doing some last minute minor adjustments and clean up.

One common note I'm getting from a few people is that there's a problem in the first act. This story is about a man who goes from being the hardest drinker and biggest fighter in his mountain region to a preacher who civilizes it. The thrust of the story is in the change he brings to the people in this depressed, backwards, deep mountain region, but we also need to take some time to show how he transformed. Not an easy task, because we have to do it in 20-25 pages so we get to the meat of the story quick enough.

Our trick is to try to show what would lead him to be desperate to make such a big change in his life. That's easy to talk about--"he was sad, depressed, felt like his life wasn't going anywhere, and actually contemplated suicide"--but not easy to portray on screen. We've got plenty of moments and incidents in the script that cause Bob to be frustrated and angry about how insane and violent the mountain region is, but we need moments of inner turmoil for Bob as well; private moments that show how dark and down he is. So that's what I'm working on right now, just moving a few things around, making slight tweaks, trying to spotlight those moments.

The good news is the majority of people really like the script a lot. The bad news is that those who don't love it make some decent points. It's always easier when someone doesn't like something you've done but they can't give good reasons why. That said, I think it's more important to seek out people who disagree with you or don't like something you're creating than to surround yourself with unconditionally supportive people. I'd rather hear bad things now, while I can still correct them, then read them in the paper from a critic after the movie's out.

I'm also reading Steven Soderbergh's journal while making "Sex, Lies, & Videotape," which was his debut feature. I suppose that journal is inspiring this in some ways. It's a great book, from the perspective of one of my idols, about a movie that really changed Hollywood in many ways. I'm reading this while also reading books and watching DVD's on Appalachia. I'm making a movie about the Appalachian mountains in the early 1900's--I suppose it's a world I need to know really well. I also figure that maybe I can get a few nuggets that would look good in the script.

All right, that's enough for now.