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.

Day 59 – Fate, Ruined

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.

Monday – October 27, 2014

No_fate_but_whatever
Let’s face it, at this point I’m willing to attach any picture that’s even tangentially related to the point.

I heard back definitively on the Salt Lake job. This big time, multi-million dollar company was kind enough to call personally to say I didn’t actually have the job. It was down to me and one other guy for the Creative Director position. I got close… but no. I wasn’t their guy. This is a big “coulda’ been.”

I experienced a brief second of disappointment and feeling a bit like I’d been faked out (don’t they typically only call back if you have the job?), but it really was a classy way of taking care of what could be some messy business, depending on how I reacted. To go just a step further, they’re sending me some free product in the mail. That’s a pretty solid thing to do for someone they ostensibly will never deal with or see again.

Credit where it’s due: that company was Perfectly Posh.

The tricky thing this afternoon was that this latest rejection sent mine and Erin’s emotions flying off in two different directions. She was sad and upset because our unemployment ordeal is not yet at an end and she was actually kind of excited about moving to Utah. I was just relieved. As completely pumped as I was for the job, it was also a very big job in a high pressure situation. That’s awesome and exciting, but also a situation I now don’t have to adjust to.

In other words: I, the drowning man, just found a silver lining after being thrown an inner tube attached to a too short rope.

I think sometimes I err in putting too positive a spin on things. My attitude frustrated Erin. Do I not have ambition? Am I not concerned? Or am I content to watch the ship go down with a fiery burning? (It’s possible I’m crushing this blog under the weight of too many metaphors.)

The truth is I was just taking my time getting around to being really, truly bummed. Working at Perfectly Posh would have been absolutely amazing. I hear they ride scooters around the office and I OWN A SCOOTER. Fate has been ruined. It’s possible I don’t even believe in it anymore (okay, I never did).

Salt Lake probably would have been an incredible journey for our family. Instead, we’re still here, doing our best to make our money go as far as we can for as long as we can. There are still other irons in the fire–the San Francisco job, for one–but this hurts. Right now, it just hurts.

* * *

Tried to get to writing all day today, but what I wanted just wasn’t in the cards. Should have taken that as a sign.

Instead, in the one bright spot of the day, I went to the park with Erin and Violet. Lately, Violet is fascinated with all things Mario and she insisted we act out her every video game fantasy. Mommy was Mario and she was a very modern day Princess Peach/Elsa hybrid who fought off Bowser (me) with her ice powers. I died a lot this morning.

Day 46 – Is It Time to Move Away?

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.

Monday – October 13, 2014

After receiving my call to the Elders Quorum Presidency last night, I did a bit of work for the calling this morning, to prepare, then immediately headed out to our local Social Services office to take care of some stuff there. Part of my responsibilities as the new President is to assess needs for poor or needy families, particularly welfare needs. It’s more than a bit odd to be one of those needy people at the same time I’m supposed to be helping them.

Odd, but not a bad thing. My empathy level is certainly through the roof right now.

All of this contributed to some severe whiplash today. In the afternoon, I had an interview with a company in Salt Lake City. This is a new, fairly big company that has a real need for additional personnel, particularly a creative type who can lead a team. Seems like a terrific job I could be very, very good at.

But living in Utah? Is that really something we’re prepared to do?

Utah, aka Mars
Utah, aka Mars

Yeah, sure, I always said I’d never do it. “Too many dang Mormons,” I’d say. I mean, when the religion becomes the culture, how can that not be a potentially toxic combination? One of the reasons I love California is that we Mormons stick out a bit. I think that makes is easier, not harder, to stay true to our beliefs.

We’re different, and that difference gets highlighted in the oddest of situations. When I was in high school, for example, everyone knew what I believed. One time–only once–I left the F Word slip from my mouth and you’d have thought the Apocalypse had arrived. I mean, I felt terrible about it, but those who heard me say it were beside themselves. It was like they’d seen a unicorn fart in the wild. They held me to a certain standard, and that made it easier for me to hold myself to that same standard.

I want that for my kids, but I know–when I’m honest–that that kind of fidelity to my religion doesn’t just happen in California, or even come from living here. It comes from how I was raised and my own personal testimony. Unless I’m doing a poor job as a parent, my kids should be able to benefit from similar checks and balances, but within themselves.

The reality is, moving to Utah? It’s not impossible. We could do that, and we could be happy doing it. That’s a change I and my family would be willing to make.

And that’s terribly hard to take in and process.

Since I basically knew the changes in the Stake were coming and that we’d be shifted over to a new Ward, I’d been anticipating what my new role in that Ward would be. I thought knowing what calling I would have might be some indication of whether we needed to stay in town or move on to something else. I thought some clarity would come from having somebody, somewhere say, “We want you here.”

This is exceedingly stupid.

I knew it was stupid, and I still thought it. Callings are temporary and I could do this job for just a few weeks and be done with it. That might just be the entire plan. I don’t know. I don’t know what the Lord is thinking and how this is all supposed to play out.

What I do know is this: I’m more conflicted now than I was 48 hours ago. I want to be part of the all the exciting changes and stay here and serve. I want to move away. I want to stay here and serve. I want to do something new somewhere else.

If anything, I have less clarity than ever.

But no matter what–no matter what–moving away will/would be incredibly difficult. Moving away is to leave behind not only family and friends and stores you like and restaurants you frequent and side roads you know to take and that park nearby your daughters love and the house you’ve imprinted yourselves on, but also all the things you were going to do. All the things you could have done had you stayed. All the friends you would have made and all the ways you could have contributed and helped someone.

Those are the things that are hard to think about. Usually, I don’t. But today, it’s like the universe is throwing it all in my face.

Day 41 – Why I Refused to Give My Daughter a Cell Phone, and Then Did Anyway

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.

Wednesday – October 8, 2014

Elora
Elora

I promised Elora she would get a cell phone when I did. Which, my shiny crystal ball reveals to me, is never. Why? Because I don’t believe in cell phones. Oh, I know they exist, but only to tempt and torment man. Somehow we went from being to able to talk–talk!–to people the next house or city or state over from the comforts of our home, to being able to talk to them from giant stretch limos in 80’s movies, to just sending written messages with bad spelling, to putting pictures of our private parts in each other’s back pockets. I shudder at the thought of what comes next. Alexander Graham Bell would weep.

I don’t want any part of that, and I CERTAINLY don’t want my kid dealing with it. It used to be the devil would possess our bodies to make us to do horrible things, but that’s so old school. Now, he just puts a cell phone in our hands and all of the sudden we transform into rude, inconsiderate, loud, obnoxious people.

Heaven forbid the only one who can hear you yakkin’ it up with your mom in the line at the grocery store is you.

No, no. Of COURSE you have to take that call that text right now. We were just having a live conversation is all. If it was important I’d be texting you.

Hey guy, why don’t you take that selfie right here in the movie theater? I mean, it’s not like you’re making any sounds. And, please, I can just pretend the tiny, bright, glowing screen in front of me is part of the 3D effect. Wow! Everybody wins!

I’ve made it clear to Elora over and over again that the cell phone is just not happening, but still she has continued to protest. Her pleas consistently fail to move me. I mean, at this point, I take a perverse joy in refusing her. And she knows it.

Which is why a cell phone was the perfect gift for her 12th birthday today.

Erin put the phone in a box-within-a-box-within-a-box. When Elora got down to the last box, the phone started ringing. She opened it, pulled the phone out, and then immediately put it back in. There was no scream, no excitement, just pure disbelief.

Here, I’ll show you:

So, two questions:

1. Why did I allow this? Besides all the safety advantages, Erin finally convinced me that it would be a good idea for Elora to learn about cell phones now and how to properly use them while we still have some influence and control over Elora’s life. So, there are rules like turning the phone in to us at night and “Be where you are.” Stuff like that. The fact is, she will get a cell phone eventually because the only people who don’t are weirdos like me. We can teach her proper use.

2. How do unemployed parents afford to give their child a cell phone for her birthday? Well, first of all, just because we’re unemployed doesn’t mean we’re broke. Not yet. Second of all, that’s what’s great about a grandparent with a family plan. We paid just about nothing.

* * *

We cleaned the house today instead of doing just about anything else. Was fun to take short breaks to watch the strong reactions to my blog “Day 32 – Why It’s Important to Write Like No One Cares” roll in. I learned that wa what was a very clear headline in my head meant something entirely different in the minds of others, as demonstrated by this rebuttal blog (rebuttal blog! milestone!). So, yeah, had some disagreement. The good kind.

I still maintain that if you put your writing out there to be consumed by the public then no matter what you say you’re not just writing for yourself. Acknowledging that fact can make you a better writer. Write like no one cares, then change their minds.

* * *

Scheduled a phone interview with a company in Utah. This would be completely different from the company there I was looking at before. It’s a reassuring thing just to have an interview. When you send out so many resumes and you don’t hear back for a while, you start to think maybe what you have to offer just isn’t desired. That you’re not employable. That’s a deeply stupid attitude, as my 17 constant years of employment will attest, but that’s the emotional part of this game.

I acknowledge that emotion, I embrace it, I move forward.