Set Visit: The Chosen

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.

The Chosen creator Dallas Jenkins and me.

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).

Me and Composer Matt Nelson

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 and Me

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.

Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) hanging with the apostles between takes.

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.

VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon and Me
VidAngel Moderator Guru Brad Rhees and Me

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.

Just happy to be here

A big thank you to Dallas and the entire Chosen team.

I Am The 7%

Ever since losing my job back in August, 2014, I’ve been looking for a new job/identity*. At first, I looked for Art Director jobs. That’s was my old job, why not just do that again? The universe responded “Because” while I applied to dozens and dozens of places for months until I finally got it through my head I needed to move on. So, I poured myself into other things. I finished the book I was working on and submitted it to my literary agent. I doubled down on freelance graphic design and my online comic to generate a bit of cash. I designed a new religious symbol and started a business. I got a new, demanding calling at church. And, of course, I joined up with Tremendum Pictures to make movies. Just recently, I wrote and directed my first short film.

*Because, let’s face it, what’s the first thing you ask someone when you meet them? You ask about their job. Our occupations are inextricably linked to our identities as human beings. How do you talk to an unemployed or homeless person? The answer should be “Like everyone else,” but when you remove occupation from the equation you’re already handicapping the conversation right from the start.

But here’s the thing about all of that: none of what I do is a 9-to-5 job and none of it pays a whole heckuva lot right now. What I actually do with a big chunk of each and every day is completely unrelated to all my other pursuits. And it is the most important thing I do, period.

My wife went back to school this past semester to get her Master’s Degree in Communication. She’s an incredible public speaker, but more importantly she’s extremely talented at helping other adults become great public speakers. Her dream job is teaching them how to to do just that at the community college level, so, Master’s Degree. But here’s the thing about a Master’s Degree: it is a MASSIVE time suck. If Erin isn’t at school–which she always is–then she’s reading, or writing papers, or grading papers as part of being a TA, or meeting with professors, or etc. Most weeks, she makes cameo appearances in our lives, like a welcome guest star in a sitcom that everyone cheers when she walks through the door. Christmas Break was amazing; an extended guest stint where myself and our three girls got to remember what it was like when Mommy’s dressy pants weren’t permanently attached to her legs.

All of this is okay. It’s what we all signed up for and it’s temporary. In college, they tried to convince us that if we couldn’t handle the workload of all our classes then we weren’t ready for “the real world.” This was, of course, a lie. I’ve never been so busy as when I was in college. I was oppressively busy in college, same as Erin is now. This is temporary and, one day soon, Erin will just go to a job like a normal person and the hustle and bustle of College Round 2 will be over. All of this is okay.

This morning, Erin left for a weekend long conference. She won’t be back until Monday. It was at some point between saying goodbye to her after doing dropoffs with the kids and realizing I had better call the school about registering our youngest, Violet, for Kindergarten that I realized that, despite everything else I’ve got going on, I’ve got another identity altogether that I maybe haven’t been acknowledging.

I am a Stay-at-Home Dad. I am part of the 7% of American dads who stay home, with their kids, and parent while the mom goes off to do other things. I am the current, primary caregiver.

Photo on 2-26-16 at 4.05 PM #2 copy
Me and the only child I was able to wrangle for a photo, Violet.

This means I go to the doctor appointments. This means I do the dropoffs and pickups. This means I do the shopping. If the house is a mess, it’s my fault. If the kids don’t eat, it’s my fault. If Erin has to go to a conference for the weekend, I smile and see her on her way, knowing she doesn’t have any choice in the matter.

Being a Stay-at-Home Dad means all of that, but, for some reason, I don’t think I really realized that’s what I am until today. I’ve been pretty much doing all this since last August, but there’s something about realizing there’s a label attached to it that suddenly makes it different.

“Well, good,” I can hear a lot of you Stay-at-Hom Moms out there saying. “Now you know what it’s like for us!”

Well, yeah. But, to be fair to me… and I hate to disappoint you… but whatever else my faults may be (and they are legion), I like to think my batting average for not taking the work my wife has been doing all these years for granted is pretty good. I always, always, always thought her job was harder. And told her so, repeatedly. When I came home and the house was a mess? I said nothing. Why would I? How can anybody be expected to keep up with the house when there’s small gremlins running around it constantly, destroying it, and then demanding fruit snacks as a reward. What I do is a pretty poor imitation of her job, really. Erin and I both know that if the kids are going to eat anything other than fast food any given night then she’s gonna have to prepare something I can put in a crockpot. Tonight: Black Bean Cilantro Soup. Tomorrow: …probably pizza. She’s out of town, you see.

Already I can see some huge benefits to being a Stay-at-Home Dad. Every time I pick up Violet from preschool, she insists we run around a nearby tree together. That’s something we do together, just her and me. Cami, our middle daughter with special needs, greets me with squeals and hugs every afternoon when I pick her up. Elora, our oldest and newly christened teenager, depends on having some time with me every night so we can watch cool shows*. We talk a lot more now, too. I actually do know what’s going on her life, which is awesome.

* Currently: LOST, The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Agent Carter, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So, anyway, I am a writer, a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, an artist, and the 7%. A Stay-at-Home Dad. Weird hats to be wearing all at once, for sure, but I’m going a bit bald now so hats are helpful. Even weird ones.

Why I Won’t Watch Breaking Bad

bbadrect011-460x3071As someone who is both a Christian and a lover of good television and well-told stories, whether or not to watch Breaking Bad is something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

I tried to watch the pilot a couple years ago and made it about 15 minutes in before stopping. Too many F Bombs, a topless woman and an overall dark and depressive feeling to the entire proceedings left me feeling cold and like I needed to spend some time repenting.

Some time passed, Breaking Bad entered its final stretch, and I started hearing from friends at church about how much they enjoy Breaking Bad. They dig the show and don’t have any problems with it like I did. I decided to give it another shot. I did some research and found out the rest of the show isn’t like what I saw. The F bomb doesn’t really appear all that often and nudity is at a minus. Besides, Citizen Kane is my favorite movie. What is that but a movie about one man’s descent into self-destruction brought on by his own selfish choices? I love the movie BECAUSE it’s about that. It’s a great lesson about the kind of lives we should be living. No one wants to end up like Kane.

SO, I queue up the pilot to Breaking Bad again and this time I forced myself through it. There was lots to love, certainly. It’s well photographed, holds your interest, and the psychology of the thing was fascinating. I loved all the actors and their performances–Bryan Cranston in particular is always worth watching, as everyone knows. Loved Aaron Paul, who was new to me. The writing was so, so good. It’s exactly the kind of show I could really get into.

And I won’t watch one minute past the pilot even though I desperately want to. The storyteller in me is dying for the master class I know is just waiting for me on Netflix, but I won’t do it.

I won’t watch again because that feeling I got the first time I watched it–that dark, depressive feeling–never went away. In fact, it only got worse and it wasn’t really coming from the R Rated content that I’d already seen the bulk of two years past. It was just the vibe of the show. Now, I’m told Breaking Bad gets much, much worse as it goes along. Walter White becomes Scarface, I know this. Is that really worse than what became of Charles Foster Kane? I don’t know, but I know that the way Breaking Bad chooses to depict a fall of such magnitude is not something my Father in Heaven wants me, personally, to be watching. I think God often communicates with feelings like the ones I had when I watched the pilot. I do my best to pay attention to them.

Breaking Bad wallows in the evil it depicts. It is, as Blake says, visceral. I don’t think I need to give the devil that much airtime. I don’t think storytellers need to do that to get the point across. I know Kane cheated on his wife without ever having seen him in bed with his mistress. Was the impact of the betrayal of his marriage vows lost because I didn’t see it actually happen? Of course not.

I think there’s a fine line between showing consequences and glorifying them. I’m not saying the show is ever trying to put forth Walter White as any kind of example of what we should strive for, but in its effort to show the evil that one man can do because of his selfish choices, the show revels in the entertainment value of that very evil. This cannot be a good thing. I think it’s the source of that awfulness I’ve felt the two times I’ve watched it. I think it supersedes whatever other benefits may come from watching the show.

To be clear, I’m not saying anyone who watches Breaking Bad is evil or wrong for doing so. I’m simply trying to share my experience with the show, such as it is.

This post was in part inspired by Wes Molebash’s great cartoon on this very subject over at Insert [IMG] and the commentary below by Blake Atwood. I don’t know where Wes lands on this subject, but Blake offers an opposite–yet still Christian–point-of-view. Check it out.

The R-Word

Language is an ever-evolving form of communication. Over time, word meanings can shift and what once was clinical can become derogatory and damaging. This has happened with the R-word.

For those who don’t know: The R-word is “Retard” or “Retarded.”

My daughter Cami has special needs. She has both physical and mental handicaps. She is also beautiful and sweet and perfect. Like so many children and adults like her, her life is hard enough without having to endure name-calling. But, the use of the R-word goes beyond that, doesn’t it? It’s not just a name. We hear the R-word used in casual speech all the time.

“That’s retarded.”

I’ve heard it said so many times in reference to anything from a bad movie to an ugly shirt. The meaning is understood: anything described as “retarded” is bad. But “retarded” is so much more than that. It is also a clinical descriptor of mentally handicapped people (though it is quickly going out of fashion even in those circles) and a derogatory term for people like my daughter.

I’m reminded of the TV show Community. One character on the show, Britta, is known as “the worst.” She perpetually screws things up to the point that, now, when anyone on the show does something wrong or incorrectly, they’ve “Britta’ed” it. Britta, understandably, is offended and hurt by this. Since the show is a comedy, we laugh. In the context of the show, “Britta’ed” is an inside joke among friends.

But the R-word is not an inside joke. It’s a real word that means something real whose meaning has been twisted into something almost entirely negative. When you use the R-word to describe something you disdain–even if you’re not referring to a person–it still hurts. You are “Britta’ing” the English language and bringing down an entire, amazing class of people to make your point.

Words aren’t just words. They come loaded with meaning, and that meaning can change over time.

Right now, there’s a way for you to take a stand against the R-word. I encourage you to go to this site to help “spread the word to end the word” by taking a simple pledge.

I took the pledge for my daughter Cami and for all the people with mental handicaps just like her. Is sacrificing one word in our vocabulary too much to ask to promote love and thoughtfulness? I hope not.

What do you think? Did you take a pledge? If so, please let me know in the comments!

How I Learned to Write By Watching Mad Men

Mad Men is the best show on television. You can try arguing with this, but I have verifiable proof.

For those of you that don’t know, Mad Men is a(n excellent) show that takes place in the New York world of advertising during the 1960’s. It’s the 1960’s from the perspective of the suits–the people who resisted the great changes and cultural and moral upheavals the 60’s brought us. It’s a show about drinking, illicit sex, smoking, deception, abuse and smoking (yes, I wrote that twice).

And I’m Mormon. And I love it. What further proof do you need?

I was reading Matt Stoller Zeitz’s fantastic essay What Makes Mad Men Great? yesterday, and I was reflecting on how much the show has given me. Since Twitter is such a great place for thought vomit, I just put it out there: I learn A LOT about writing and plotting just by watching Mad Men.

Confession: I think I’ve learned more about writing from DVD commentaries and watching layered, unconventional shows and movies like Mad Men than I ever have from reading books. (I can’t imagine many writers will share this sentiment, but there it is. It’s probably why I write about movies and TV shows so much in this blog.)

Here’s the thing, you don’t get to just say something like that and leave it there. @smash_is_nerdy challenged me on Twitter and asked how I could have taken any writing and plotting lessons from a show like Mad Men. She didn’t see it.

The following is an edited and expanded version of my reply to her:

Mad Men is about character behavior. It excels in presenting its characters as inscrutable but still understandable. The show goes out of its way to provide legitimate possible explanations for behavior without defining motivations one way or the other. It allows us to imagine and let our perspective inform our judgments and conclusions about the lives of the characters without telling us we’re wrong.  

Scenes are often juxtaposed with other scenes to create meaning and leaps are made in time from episode to episode to imply journey and resolution without actually showing either thing. Like any effective use of juxtaposition, what is learned goes beyond the text and, in this way, Mad Men always knows what you’re thinking. Audience participation is not only encouraged, it’s an essential component of the storytelling. To watch Mad Men passively is to see a completely different show than the one intended.

Any given episode will defy one or more of the show’s conventions and then reinforce that convention stridently, lending great weight to the shock of unfamiliar images or tones. The show is shifting sand, never quite the same from the week-to-week, no matter how familiar it may appear at first glance.

I could keep going. I’ll spare you instead and just give a brief example of how I’ve used one of the lessons in my own writing:

For me (and for many of my early readers), the highlight of my memoir is a chapter in the middle of the book that is, essentially, a very long, metaphysical, spiritual, and uncomfortable conversation between my Dad and me. It ends on what can only be described as a down note. The tension builds and builds for the entire chapter as the character revelations pile on top of each other, and then there’s no release. No catharsis. Mad Men has done whole episodes like this. Two people, in a room. Talking.

For the next chapter, I chose to go with a humorous story that seemingly has nothing to do with the earth-shaking conversation of the previous chapter. It’s a wild tonal shift that makes little sense until the very last line when its place in the narrative is finally revealed. Mad Men does this all time. The one-two punch of those chapters juxtaposed against each other is something early readers have told me they’re quite keen on.

I like trying new things and seeing what I can grab from one medium to adapt into another. Have you ever received inspiration or stolen ideas from an unconventional source? I’d love to hear about it.

Mad Men Season 5 starts on March 25th on AMC. If you have Netflix, you can stream the first four seasons right now. Just don’t start smoking or I’ll feel bad.

How Elmo and Michael Caine Cleaned Up My Yard

This past weekend I saw two movies that couldn’t be more unlike each other and yet are equally as good: 1966’s Gambit (starring Michael Caine and Shirly Maclaine) and 2011’s Being Elmo (starring Elmo and all the cooler-than-you humans who make the Muppets come alive). Both movies got me thinking in substantial ways about creativity and storytelling and how important it is to always ask more of our entertainment.

I think of my mind space as precious real estate. I don’t want your Saw movies and gorefests and pornos coming in and junking up the place with trash and rotted out couches. I want to put things on my mind’s front yard that are pleasing, things of worth and value. Call me old-fashioned, but art is not intrinsically valuable to me. I think art’s greatest value is both in how well it is done and how much it improves life.

Let’s take Being Elmo first. Elmo is after my time. I always found him annoying and kick-in-the-faceable. But the little dude works. Kids love him and, with time, I’ve come to appreciate the character as well. Being Elmo is the story of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash–a 53-year old black man who grew up in Baltimore. Yeah, I was surprised too.

Kevin inspires me. From an early age he knew what he wanted to do with his life and he’s done it. That’s amazing. How many get to say that? With Elmo, he’s found the purest expression of his art, and through that art he has found the purest expression of the purest, finest emotion: love. Elmo is love. That’s Kevin’s guiding principle: Elmo is love.

And Kevin is brilliant. It’s a magic trick, what he does. Even when Elmo is hugging sick children who want to meet Elmo as a last wish, there’s Kevin. The kids can see him, but their attention is on Elmo. They don’t care about Kevin. That’s magic. So his art is the whole package: it is very good and it is very valuable.

Gambit is an underseen gem of a film with enough twists and turns to rank it among the very best of heist films, but its biggest surprise is that its biggest twist occurs in the first half hour. And it’s genius. Flat out. It’s genius.

The original poster for the film even featured the tagline, “Go ahead and tell the end, but please don’t tell the beginning!” And they meant that. The beginning blew me away. Jaw dropping moment that I won’t ruin here but whose implications reverberate all the way through to the end of the movie when the sweet message at the core of the film becomes obvious.

That’s the kind of creativity I want–so good that it astonishes. Elmo, who I once derided, now astonishes me. Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine and the writers of Gambit astonish me. And I thank them for that. This past weekend, I was shown new horizons of what it is possible to achieve creatively and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.

Both Gambit and Being Elmo are currently available on Netflix Streaming, though Gambit expires on 2/29/12. Hurry.