Recently, Russell M. Nelson, the Prophet and President of the church I belong to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, issued a challenge to the world to spend the next week giving thanks each and every day, and post our expressions of gratitude on Social Media.
Millions of people took up the challenge. What happened was a week of almost total positivity on social media feeds and it was an incredible (and needed) change of pace.
Here, then, are my contributions:
Friday, Nov. 20
Stepping up to the challenge to #givethanks this week. I am eternally grateful for my wife who, in every other, more likely alternate universe probably ended up with someone else. I don’t think there was any ball during our pre-marriage gamesmanship I did not fumble. How she saw through my bad plays to the devastatingly handsome and athletic husband I mostly became, I’ll never know. But it fills me with gratitude. (Also, she has the best smile in the world. I should take lessons.)
Saturday, Nov. 21
Today, I #givethanks for the girls who turned my world upside down in the best possible way by making sure the second half of the life I’ve lived so far is the extended gender studies lesson I probably needed. I would do anything for them.
Sunday, Nov. 22
Say what you want about a pandemic, but DO NOT knock week-in-and-week-out church attendance in pajamas. Grateful for my Creator. Grateful for billowy pants that feel like they’re barely there. #givethanks
Monday, Nov. 23
Today, I #givethanks for hair. Not because I have any, but because I once did and I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. Hair really is the whipped topping on the marvelous sundae that is our bodies. Or maybe the cherry. Or the nuts. The point is: my sundae stops at the ice cream now and I’m grateful for the time when I got to have toppings.
Tuesday, Nov. 24
I have to #givethanks for creativity. I went from wanting to be a banker or a lawyer as a kid, to creating comics, writing books, and making movies as an adult. I don’t know why I always seem to walk the wrong path first, but the brush clears away eventually and I am happy to take off running.
No matter how brilliant the light—the fortune, the love, the joy, the strength, the blessing, the peace—we can never truly comprehend or appreciate it without the dark—the poverty, the hate, the sadness, the temptation, the trial, the conflict. One without the other is meaningless, so I #givethanks for both.
Thursday, Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving)
Finally, I #givethanks for faith and science. For that which can give us confidence we will see an end to this pandemic, and for that which tells us how.
I #givethanks for the many inspired women and men who are working tirelessly to heal and to prevent. My hope is that they are properly supported and that the rest of are making the small sacrifices necessary–masking up, social distancing, taking time away from family and friends (especially during the holidays), and prayer coupled with fasting–to stem the tide of this thing and be rid of it once and for all.
There are spiritual laws and there are natural laws, and He is the master of them both. I am so, so grateful for that understanding and the peace that comes with it.
I gotta say, I super enjoyed doing this. I make it a point to be grateful every day, but thinking harder about it and all putting these things out there like this gave them even greater resonance and importance. My contention is that even in the most dire of circumstances we have much to be grateful for, and if we can focus on those things, we might not find our burdens changed, but they will be lifted.
I’ve come to believe that patience is more than just a feature (or, as I once regarded it, a bug) of faith. It’s pretty much synonymous.
I can’t think of any past exercise of my faith that was not also a sweaty, when-will-this-be-over-and-how-has-it-only-been-60-seconds workout of my patience. Sometimes, the wait is brief. But not usually, and however long the question is the same: can we wait upon the Lord? Do we have what it takes to endure his better timing?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially this year. 2020 feels like I’m back in college. I know it’s going to end, and I know this pandemic/studying constantly thing is going to end, but it doesn’t feel like it most of the time and I’m not sure the reward at the end will be worth it.
But it was and it will be. My college degree reaped great rewards and my life settled into a groove afterwards that was never again so frenetic and busy and packed. We will all get our groove back, I’m certain of it. Even while it doesn’t always FEEL like it.
(The groove may be slightly worn and the needle might skip a bit, but that’s okay. It would be weird if we returned to an old record only to find it shiny and new. Maybe we’ll discover a new hidden track we didn’t know was there before.)
And I say all this while acknowledging that 2020 hasn’t been THAT bad for me and mine. Have we been quarantining for over 240 days thus far* in what sometimes feels like a futile and disrespected effort to do our part to minimize the effects of this virus and keep it away from ourselves and Cami? Yes. But, the upshot? Not one of us has been sick since February. Not even a sniffle.
Have we suffered disappointments, job and opportunity loss, and distance from family and friends? Yes. But, the upshot? Other opportunities have come our way (there’s the matter of a little movie I’m putting together, among other things) and we have found joy in being together in new ways. See: Erin’s amazing ability to celebrate every ten (now twenty) days.
Has there been death? Yes. And there is nothing not tragic about that. While I am grateful that we have not been personally so affected, I am saddened, just like all of you, that so many have been lost.
With the announcement of vaccines this week and a return to purple status, a little bit of light seems to be shining between the rocks of the 2020 cave-in, showing us hope and also how much of the collapse we still have to clear to make our way out. The time for patience/faith is not yet over. And that’s okay.
Every good thing I have ever received has been on a time delay. Never when I wanted it, always when I needed it. I believe all things can be for a higher purpose, even the very worst things. But only if we do not with our bitterness shut down that possibility. I say none of this as a minimization of suffering, only as an argument in favor of faith; in favor of having the patience that we will get to that point of understanding if we so choose.
That’s my prayer: that 2020 is not a pothole to dodge on the way to the next thing, but ultimately a hard-yet-enlightening detour we can be glad we took to fully appreciate the better sights ahead.
*Minus, for me, the two weeks I spent in The Chosen set bubble of tight COVID restrictions and precautions.
If you knew the way I voted, you might question whether I’m a good person, a moral person, or even a Christian.
If I knew the way you voted I might raise my eyebrow at how that vote could be consistent with being a good person, a moral person, or a Christian. Whatever you profess to be.
But, that’s dumb. Judging and making enemies of each other based on votes cast is dumb and unproductive and puts us on a dark road where intellectually dishonest thieves and flag-waving-and-desecrating robbers lie in wait.
I’m as frustrated as anyone else by the head-shaking bad takes on the happenings of the day that come across my news feed, but I’m increasingly convinced that no good comes of letting those bad takes–that propaganda, the disinformation and opinion and incendiary headlines of it all–seep into our hearts and minds and curdle into a hatred that turns monstrous those we would otherwise call brother and sister.
My prayer is always–but especially here at the end of the count–that we can recognize that we all have far, far, far more in common than we have different, and that those commonalities can be points of unity between two people with even the most vitriolic of takes.
There is hate on the one hand, and on the other there is the charity and grace we can extend towards each other even while we disagree with each other. Whatever wisdom I have attained thus far tells me this: the choice, when you boil it all down, really is that simple, and anyone who claims otherwise is victim already to the great lie that complicates with ifs and ands and buts the greatest teaching the world has ever known:
I had the great privilege of spending the past two weeks on the set of The Chosen at the invitation of the show’s creator, Dallas Jenkins. Dallas, of course, recently signed on as the Executive Producer of my feature film, The Shift, and this was a chance to not only see him at work and see a production on a scale unlike anything I’d experienced before, but also an opportunity to sit at his feet and learn (well, not literally “at his feet” [which I’m sure are fine and never smell]—more like on the couch next to him).
The days were long, as they always are on a production. We were out the door by 6am most mornings, and then didn’t return until around 8pm. The set, built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is more incredible than video and pictures can capture (though, as you can see, I tried). It’s the detail of the place that got me. There’s no corner that would not stand up to the tightest closeup; the feeling of immersion as you walk the streets and dart in and out of the synagogue and dark alleyways is total. It’s hard to believe that under most of the stony facades is dense Styrofoam.
The first few days I was there, I hung back. My only purpose was to observe Dallas, invading his space while also trying very hard not distract or be a nuisance. I was a little too successful. Thanks to my reticence and the face mask I (and everyone else, of course) wore constantly, no one noticed I was there at all. The most interaction I had with anyone was when Yasmine Al-Bustami (who plays Ramah) said she liked my Baby Yoda hat and Shahar Isaac (Simon) gave me a big end-of-shooting-day hug. He probably thought I was someone he knew, but I received the hug gladly anyway. Oh, and I stole Noah James (Andrew) away for a moment to tell him how much I enjoy his (seemingly—I know better) effortless, kind, and genuine performance on the show. My usual policy with actors is to leave them alone. They are so used to being accosted and the focus they must have is total, so I don’t want to disturb that, but Noah was just kind of wandering around by himself between setups and no one else was around.
I finally switched over to Production Assistant on the fourth day, and the crew were shocked to learn I’d been in their midst the entire week. Face masks really do render you invisible, though I wouldn’t recommend betting on that and trying to sneak onto set. Security and COVID protocols being what they are (I was tested for the virus 6 times over the course of the two weeks), you would not be successful.Production Assistant is a crucial position the production depends on to prevent a slide into chaos, but it’s not the most creative or active position. At least, not as a volunteer. As a Writer/Director myself, it doesn’t exactly take best advantage of my talents, but it’s a great vantage point from which to see all working parts of the production, and that’s what I was most curious about so I was happy to serve. I worked in the Assistant Director Department, under 1st A.D. Adam Drake and 2nd A.D. Mitch Hudson. Alongside me (or rather, I was alongside them) were P.A.s Willie Mellina, Jordan Roby, Gwendelynn Martindale, and Avery and Larsen (additional volunteers whose last names I didn’t catch).
What I saw was a crew designed to support Dallas in every conceivable way, to the point where he isn’t bothered with the small things and focuses almost entirely on his primary job: directing. This may seem like how it should be—and it is—but coming from the indie filmmaking world with a couple short films under my belt and some producing credits, I know it’s very easy for a director’s day to be almost entirely about anything BUT directing.
I was fortunate enough to stay with Dallas at the rather large house where he and a few of the other people on the production were staying, which afforded us plenty of opportunities to talk outside of the set where things are quite a bit more relaxed. I found Dallas to be a forthcoming mentor, willing to answer any questions I had and share insights on casting, directing actors, working effectively with the Director of Photography, etc. that are going to serve me REALLY well as I prep and shoot my film. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the importance of a solid team that works well together. Dallas has been in the game long enough he’s been able to assemble a group of people at all levels that work incredibly well together, without the personality clashes and occasional bad apples you’d normally and understandably find in a group this size. From the Production Office to the Art Department to Wardrobe to Catering to the actors to, crucially, the team that immediately surrounds him on set day-in-and-day-out, my close observations didn’t turn uncover any weak links. I’ve worked on some great, friendly sets, but this seemed to me to be on another level.
Word slowly got out about who I was, and I even got recognized a few times by some on the production and a few extras thanks to all the livestreaming I’ve done and my dumb face being out there so much. The Shift does not have near the fame and online presence The Chosen has (…yet?), so that was nice. Not that being known is a goal of mine (I’d rather be behind the camera, thank you very much), but The Shift’s message is important, something I feel led to create, and a movie a lot of people believe in, so getting it out there and known is crucial to its success. I’ll be the vessel if I have to be, reluctantly but also gladly. I would like to have a team that works as well together and is as highly functional as Dallas has, and connecting the community of professionals who create The Chosen with me and The Shift is no small thing. It’s fair to say I’d be happy to have the opportunity to hire a bunch of them. Can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
I admit I was a bit nervous to go to Utah. Living and working with a group of people I’ve never met for two weeks is high on my list of anxiety-inducing events, and I’m sure those nerves exhibited themselves through a few awkward interactions here and there, but I figured the pay-off would be worth it. I was not only correct in that assumption, but I made friends and, in some cases, solidified existing relationships along the way.
There was Dallas, of course. With so much on his mind and plate, I was grateful to have a good portion of his time and attention. Turns out, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else (note: I did not personally verify this; I’m not a creeper).
Composer Matt Nelson, who along with Dan Haseltine, creates not only the score for The Chosen but will also be doing the score for The Shift, visited the set for a few days (Dan was supposed to come, too, but he was busy with his “band” or something…musicians, amirite?). After all our conversations online it was a pleasant happenstance that Matt and I turned out to be kindred spirits with a shared love of good ice cream and discussing the intersection of politics and faith. No one was listening, but I’m pretty sure we solved the world’s problems in the space of about 30 minutes.
Associate Producer Justen Overlander is another person I connected with immediately. While his endless lobbying for playing the part of ‘Satan’ in The Shift feature film did begin to wear me down (NOT in the good way, Justen!), he proved to be as kind and personable as anyone who has seen his numerous behind-the-scenes videos for The Chosen imagines he would be. Just as an example: on my first day he found me eating alone in the on-set cafeteria during lunch and came over to sit with me. A small gesture, but my inner 4th grader who was sure the entire cast and crew was snickering at him was grateful. I made no secret of wanting to work with Justen someday. And play board games together. Turns out, it’s a shared past time.
Jonathan Roumie (Jesus) and I have exchanged a few emails over the past year and there were several moments during my first week I wanted to go up and say hi, but he’s an intensive and intentional performer and I never wanted to break his concentration. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered he was not due on set at all during my second week. I’d missed my chance, or so I thought. Jonathan actually stopped by on his day off, clad in jeans and a baseball cap and a face mask, but nevertheless I recognized him and took the opportunity. We compared notes on coming up through the entertainment industry (he worked for several years behind the camera, including as a P.A.) and promised to keep in touch. A gracious man I’d be more than happy to cast in just about anything I do.
From VidAngel, I was able to connect with both Neal Harmon (CEO) and Brad Rhees, my undercover brother-in-arms during the Shift crowdfunding campaign and secret moderator on all the livestreams. Aka, “Batman.” Again, it was a true meeting of minds and hearts, with all of us sharing not only a love for The Chosen, but also for what I’m doing with The Shift and beyond. I hope to have a partnership with VidAngel for a long time to come and I can’t wait to see where they go from here. The Chosen is just the beginning.
(Look, I’m not trying to be annoying and sickeningly Pollyanna about how nice and supportive and positive everyone was, but it’s simply the truth. For me personally, I’ve fought for a long, long time to get to a place where I’m working with people who share my passions and who believe in me and the kinds of stories I want to tell, and for a good while there I wasn’t even sure that was possible. Now that it’s happened, I’m going to celebrate that…and them.)
Taking a two week break from my life and my family to go visit the bubble world that is the set of The Chosen (seriously, it’s like a Fort Knox against the coronavirus; congrats to the entire COVID team) was not easy for my family, so special mention must be made of my wife, Erin, for making this all possible. All I can say is: it was worth it. I learned SO MUCH (only a tiny bit of which I’ve revealed here), and it made me even more excited to get going on my own project.
There is a wave of good—genuinely GOOD—Christian/faith-based entertainment coming, and The Chosen is ground zero. Hollywood is going its way, so we’ll go ours, but we have to be as good as or better than them, artistically speaking. To get just a tiny peek at those who actually ARE doing it better was an amazing thing. It looked and felt exactly as I’d hoped. I’ve been saying since I first saw The Shepherd (the Chosen pilot) that The Chosen—the quality, the depth of characterization and storytelling, the high production values, etc.—is what I aspire to, but now I have such a better idea of how to hit the target.
A big thank you to Dallas and the entire Chosen team.
I love to write, but my love of writing started with movies. It is my great privilege right now to work in film, and below is my first short film, The Shift.
I recently ran a crowdfunding campaign with the help of VidAngel Studios to turn this short into a full length feature film. The campaign did not reach its ultimate goal of $1M in funding, but the $152k it did get was enough to attract the right kind of attention and I’m extremely optimistic about the film’s chances of getting made. Plus, I’m building a great team around me, with Dallas Jenkins, the creator of The Chosen, and Dan Haseltine & Matt Nelson, the composers for the The Chosen, recently signed on board to lend their magic to The Shift (as Executive Producer and Composers, respectively).
More–and more team member announcements–coming soon!