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 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.
UPDATED: The blogs containing the chapters have been removed, as promised, so the links below will not work. I leave this post up to preserve the reason for the removal at the end of it, and also for those curious about the book itself. Hopefully, I’ll bring the whole thing to you again one day, bright and shiny and new.
ORIGINAL POST:Below is a table of contents for all the chapters. If you haven’t finished yet, you should be able to find where you left off and pick it back up. I’ll leave all the chapters up for another week or so, but after that I think it’s better to take them down, including this post. If you’ve been reading along, I’d love to hear from you. Even if it’s just a “hi.” I miss contact with the world!
Prologue – Ready:The funeral is over and it’s time to go to the cemetery, but before we get there my mother has a striking revelation to share.
Ch. 1 – Shooting:Eight years earlier, two men burst into my father’s store and immediately begin shooting.
Ch. 8 – Superdad:Months later, Dad is unstoppable, coaching little league, attending Sixth Grade Camp with me, and running down a guy who steals from him.
Ch. 9 – The Wrong Side of Town:On the night before 7th Grade begins, a FBI sting operation gone wrong in our neighborhood prompts Dad to grab his gun and head out on his own to track the criminals down.
Ch. 10 – A Friend in Need:When helping one friend comes at the expense of my relationship with another, I’m at a loss for what to do.
Ch. 11 – Fight:A friend turned enemy wants nothing more than to beat me to a bloody pulp. A school yard confrontation leads to big changes.
Ch. 12 – Hollywood:A reality show comes calling and Dad leaps at the chance to reenact his shooting for national television.
Ch. 29 – The Shoulders:The house has been overrun with mourners, and I doubt very much all of them are there for the right reasons.
Ch. 30 – Speaker for the Dead:Mom has asked me to speak at Dad’s funeral, but I have no idea what to say. A forgotten recording reveals Dad’s feelings about the shooting in his own words and confuses me further as I wrestle with his contradictions.
Epilogue:Decades have passed. What happened to me? To my family? What’s the takeaway?
Why take it all down? Because:
I’m just going to do it. At the encouragement of my wife and a few of you, I’m changing the name of the book to The Other Side of Fear and I’m shopping it out…again. After 7 years.
The funny thing is that The Other Side of Fear is SUCH a better title and I don’t know why I never thought of it. That’s really what the book is about: what is on the other side of the worst thing thing you can imagine happening? This is such a theme in my life (and I’m sure many others). I have faced down my worst fears many times–literally the worst things I could think of–and you know what’s on other side of that? Peace. Quite honestly, it’s peace. The worst thing is never so bad as you imagine it to be, and you can never anticipate the ways you will grow and learn and change from those awful happenings. Calamity is how God operates on us. It’s how He fixes us into who we should be (but only if we allow it). And that’s a good thing. That’s what’s on the other side of fear: good things.
Maybe the syncing up of all this with the coronavirus is nothing, but it feels oddly right and clarifying. I’ve been in the house for two solid weeks now, and despite the occasional passing panic when I give into the temptation, I don’t really have any trouble centering myself. There’s a great freedom in knowing the universe will you up at any given moment and that you can take that beating and emerge victorious.
So, into the world this book goes once more. Maybe it will find a home, or maybe it won’t and I’ll get beat up again. Whatever happens, I’ve certainly got enough time on my hands to find out.
After proving there was real merit to the Empty Tomb symbol and that people were genuinely interested in seeing it on some type of accessory, my thoughts went immediately to who in the world I could call upon to help me make my germ of an idea into something real.
Thankfully, I’m Mormon. That means I know a guy for just about everything. Need work done on your car? I know a guy. Your house? I know a guy. What about a lawyer or a handyman or a foot doctor? I know a guy. A cop? I know a few. Mormons are everywhere and we’re all connected to each other with not very many steps in between. Basically, every Mormon is Kevin Bacon.
I didn’t even have to go outside of my own circle at to find the perfect partner for the Empty Tomb project. Jeff Kennington at Kennington Jewelers sold my wife and I our wedding rings. My Mother-in-Law is one of his most frequent customers. He’s also my uncle.
Jeff reminds me of my dad probably more than anyone else I know. Hopefully, he takes that as a compliment because my father was not only one of the better people I’ve known, he also had no small part in inspiring the Empty Tomb symbol in the first place.
Dad died as a victim of an armed robbery in 1996 after claiming for years that he would die before seeing his sons grow up. I was 19 at the time, and my youngest of three brothers was 10. Dad was 47. H is final years were full of pain and struggle as he had suffered no small amount of physical complications from another armed robbery eight years prior.
If you watched the above videos you heard my dad say it boldly: “I’m not afraid to die.” He really wasn’t. He talked all the time about what a grand adventure death would be and how much at peace he was with the idea–to him, fact–that he was not long for this world. He was a believer in the resurrection. He looked forward to living again and his body being restored to perfect order. It was his understanding of the gifts Christ had given him that got him through some pretty tough days and gave him a courage I still envy. Dad taught me more about the Living Christ through his powerful, matter-of-fact faith than any other book, teacher, or person I’ve known.
Jeff was a good sport about my email inquiry. He didn’t even tell me straight off like he should have about how he gets a million of these proposals from people who have the “next big idea” in jewelry that will make him millions. Instead, he looked at the design, considered the social media response and read the reactions, and ultimately concluded that I just might have something.
“There are no guarantees,” he said. “But this probably has the best shot of anything I’ve ever seen.”
Jeff, who I like to refer to as “Master Craftsman,” is real DIY jeweler.Kennington Jewelers specializes in high end and custom jewelry and Jeff has all the tools and equipment he needs to make just about anything he or anyone else can imagine. Immediately, we both wanted to make the symbol real. We wanted a pendant, in our hands.
Using the computer at the back of his store, Jeff immediately went to work on a 3D model using CAD to bring my flat design out of the 2D realm.
And, specifically, to my wife.
The road from designing the pendant to reality was a bit longer than I might be making it seem. Once the design was finessed in the computer (Jeff was extremely patient with my requests to take off 1/8 of a millimeter here and add 1/10th of a millimeter there), Jeff made a wax mold, cast it in white gold, polished it, added a chain, and probably did a whole bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting or just plain don’t know about. Because Jeff is the real brains of this operation.
In the end, we ended up with something that very, very closely resembled my initial drawings. We opted for putting two o-rings on either side of the pendant because of concerns over the inherently uneven weight distribution across the symbol. The thinking was that splitting the chain and attaching it at the o-rings would balance it out for the wearer.
But, as it turned out, we didn’t need to be all that worried about imbalance. There was a much, much simpler solution…
On August 28th, my wife lost her job. 24 hours later, I lost mine. This blog is a continuation of the day-by-day chronicling of our emotional journey back to employment. This is bound to be upsetting, hilarious and hopeful.
Saturday – October 4, 2014
Today, Cami rode a horse. She does this every Saturday morning, at the Heart of the Horse Therapy Ranch just outside of town. At the Ranch, they work with kids and adults with special needs, performing miracles on a daily basis. I don’t know what it is or why it happens, but there’s something about some horses that is magical* that brings out new things in people with difficulty.
*Besides unicorns, obviously.
The first time Cami went to Heart of the Horse, she did something Erin and I had never seen before: she sat up still and straight. Cam is a fidgeter and to see her in total control and perfectly balanced moved Erin to some very real tears. We’ve been going every week ever since, for the past year and a half. Each time, without fail, a melt-your-heart grin washes over Cami’s face as soon as the horse starts moving. It’s incredible. It’s this whole other side to her we don’t see any other way.
The new thing Cami did this morning was push everybody away when they tried to take her down off her usual horse, Bandit. We already knew she loves to ride, but she’s never asserted herself like that before. We love it when Cami fights like that. Usually, she’s so agreeable and, because she’s nonverbal, it’s hard to tell what she wants. Not today.
This is a short video I edited, and shot with my friends Austin and Jesse. We did this as gift to the Ranch to help them with their first fundraiser (Cami is in it quite a bit):
* * *
For Mormons, today was huge. Twice a year we gather at church buildings and around TVs and computers to hear the words of Apostles and the Prophet to know God’s will for his children today, in real time. It’s a stone tablets down from the mountain kind of thing, but via the internet. It’s a real time of spiritual refreshment and uplift.
It’s also terribly, at times, truly boring. The Conference lasts two days and plays out over five 2-hour sessions of, mostly, old men talking heads. If you’ve ever thought about becoming Mormon, I probably just ruined it right there. Also, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir tears the roof off throughout the sessions. This is all great if Errol Morris docs and organ-inflected hymns are your thing, but it can be a bit of a challenge it sit through if you prefer your visuals lean towards the Steven Spielberg end of the spectrum and your songs accompanied by more than one instrument.
So why watch this thing? Well, why I admit Conference is boring, that doesn’t mean I’m bored watching it. It engages me and others who watch it on a level beyond its entertainment value. I think entertainment is important, but the actual benefit entertainment provides is, essentially, escapism. Conference, and other religious services (when done properly), nourish and comfort, and that’s far more important. I approach Conference with a spiritual hunger. I don’t need to be entertained. What’s more, to be honest, I don’t even want to be entertained during what is supposed to be a direct download of truth and perspective. I think there’s a certain amount of artifice that goes along with entertainment–a manipulation–and if you lean too heavily on those tricks you risk compromising the message. I don’t want to be “sold” an idea with bells and whistles and jazz hands, I want truth presented to me, plainly, that I may see it accurately and can decide for myself without manipulation whether or not it is right.
THAT’S Conference in spades. That’s church. It’s boring, but it’s engaging. If you’re watching, really watching it to discover and participate–if you’re having that internal dialogue within yourself about how what you’re hearing applies to you and seeking to know God’s will for you from what you hear–you can’t help but be swept up in it just as much as you would the latest blockbuster.
And it’s boring. It’s dead boring and all the more glorious for it.
* * *
The preceding had nothing to do with unemployment, as was my day. I don’t know if I should be worried about that or relieved that I’m not obsessing over our predicament quite as much.