Ralph Winter is a Hollywood film producer who has helped to produce blockbuster movies such as the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Star Trek series as well as “The Giver” and the first remake of “Planet of the Apes.”
Nathan Scoggins is an award-winning writer and director who lives in L.A. He’s written projects for Lionsgate, Jenkins Entertainment, Sodium Entertainment, and Five Stone Media. Several of his award-winning short films are available on DVD.
His latest film, THE LEAST OF THESEhas just been released by Vivendi Universal through Code Black Entertainment.
Hurry Up and Wait: Reflections on the Release of THE LEAST OF THESE
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” ~ Proverbs 13:12a
We were three days into a tight 20-day shoot when my lead actor got fired.
Not from our movie, no. We’d only just started filming on Tuesday, June 4th, 2007, and Isaiah Washington had already proved himself to be everything I knew he would be — passionate, dedicated, and absolutely the right choice for the lead role of Father Andre James in my first feature film, THE LEAST OF THESE.
The hiring of Isaiah had not come without controversy, due to comments he’d made on the set of his hit TV show, “Grey’s Anatomy,” and subsequently at the Golden Globes. Nonetheless, I had fought for Isaiah through the casting process, even when there was concern about whether his alleged behavior would be a “problem”. Whenever I doubted my decision, I remembered what my wife had told me a year before. It was a Thursday night in the fall of 2006, I was already worried about casting our lead, and Katie pointed to Isaiah on “Grey’s” and said definitively, “That’s him.”
Now here we were, almost a year later, in the midst of an intense 20-day shoot. Isaiah had already proven himself to be a consummate professional; often needing only 1 or 2 takes to nail what I was looking for. He had also proven to be a gracious star, flowing with a schedule that would occasionally turn upside down, and being generally fantastic with the younger members of the cast. (For those who haven’t yet seen the film, Isaiah plays Father James, a priest who returns to his old Catholic high school under a cloud of mystery.)
We’d had a fairly smooth first three days, wrapping early or on time, and I was starting to get my sea legs. The subject matter would provide us with certain challenges as shooting went on — the film deals with the Catholic sexual abuse scandal — but we hadn’t dealt with the deep stuff yet; so far things had been loose and light.
Changed in an Moment
And then at 6:07 on Thursday June 7th, in the middle of setting up a shot, my phone buzzed with a text: “Just to let you know, I’ve been let go by ABC. Get ready, because everyone will be coming.” It was Isaiah, direct as usual.
I hate to admit it, but the scene we shot next didn’t get the attention it should have from me. (It was ultimately cut from the final version of the film.) I had to sit and gather my thoughts.
Until that moment, THE LEAST OF THESE had been a relatively smooth production. Hiring Isaiah had gotten us some publicity, first from The Hollywood Reporter, then others. We had Ralph Winter as our Executive Producer (making time for us between X-Men and Fantastic Four), Mateo Messina (fresh off Juno) as our Composer, a fantastic cast (the legendary Robert Loggia, Bob Gunton from Shawshank Redemption, John Billingsley from Star Trek), and a budget of $1.2M that I had personally spent a year raising from generous and trusting investors. Not to mention we had Isaiah, a high-profile lead on a show that was routinely drawing 20M viewers a week. The path ahead seemed smooth, not just for production, but for distribution as well, with several companies having already expressed interest.
But in that moment, I knew that everything had changed. Now we would not only be trying to finish a film — itself a herculean task already, given our budget and schedule — but we’d be doing so under heightened scrutiny, coping with the increased eyes of the paparazzi while trying to make sure that no one snuck onto the set to catch Isaiah in a stressful moment (of which there are frequently many when filming). Further, the question of distribution immediately flashed into my mind.
I’d always assumed a topical script, with strong talent both in front of and behind the camera, would be a solid bet. Sure, we had an African-American lead, which I had been told was a challenge, but I was convinced that a talented actor from TV’s hottest show would trump all doubters. But would anyone want us now?
The irony was also not lost on me that Isaiah had just finished filming a scene where his character is fired after a series of false accusations. Isaiah’s final shot of the day had literally involved him gathering his things and walking out the back door into darkness. Would a similar fate be waiting for him, and for us?
Grace Under Fire… and Paparazzi!
Thankfully, our crew pulled together. The next morning my producing partner, Jimmy Duke, let it be known that no one would be speaking to the press apart from the producers, and everyone honored that. Paparazzi were generally left to shoot from across the street, and Isaiah was rather laid-back about the whole thing. Despite the pressure he was undoubtedly feeling, he continued to be cool, calm and collected. I wish I could say the same for me.
Anyone unfamiliar with the vagaries of production probably thinks it’s a lot more fun than it is, imagining directors peering through rectangled fingers or yelling “action!” and “cut!” That happens, but life on the set is both more mundane and more frantic than that. There’s a lot of looking at watches, grumbling, crossing out storyboards, and waiting, waiting, waiting… The phrase “hurry up and wait” is familiar to anyone who works in the movie business, because at all levels there are moments of intense preparation, and then others where all you can do is wait — for a jet, for a light, for a prop.
Sometimes there are sublime moments of joy — one of my favorite memories from the set is improvising a melody at a piano in one of our locations, while Robert Loggia (veteran actor of Big, Independence Day, and pretty much every movie you’ve ever seen) hummed along. But I must confess that I never really settled into what one could call a relaxed pace.
There was never enough time and always too much to do, and we were doing it while the cameras of PEOPLE magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Entertainment Tonight were hovering in my peripheral vision. Plus, having personally raised the budget, I felt obligated to my investors to deliver not only a film that I was proud of, but also a film that would earn a return on their investment. The challenge of our lead actor’s new situation only heightened that concern in my mind.
I had tough days as the shoot went on. This is probably true of any director, particularly starting out, and I was young too — 29 at the time. There are so many disparate personalities that come together in the making of a movie, so many different challenges, and so much to do in a short time, that anxiety inevitably takes over or tempers get frayed. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I’m sorry” so many times in such a short period of time. I remember telling Jimmy early on, “Jimmy, I won’t always do the right thing, but I promise I’ll do the right thing after I do the wrong thing.”
I learned very quickly that directing isn’t just about capturing a performance or nailing a shot — it’s about leadership, about learning to corral people in the service of a vision greater than one person. There were moments where I failed on the set — sometimes artistically, sometimes relationally — but I hope that I caught those moments and made restitution for them appropriately as the shoot went on.
From Post-Production to Post-Traumatic
But even as I struggled to learn and we wrapped filming and went into post-production, there was no changing the fact that the road was still going to be longer than any of us expected. It takes time to finish a film — we spent almost a year editing, scoring, and mixing, as well as finding our sales company, and it was just enough time for the independent film world to collapse.
Thanks to the worldwide economic slowdown of 2008, the smaller distributors who had expressed interest all shut their doors, leaving us in a barren landscape of uncertain distribution opportunities. The collapse of the economy left a cloud of despondency murkier than the fabled California marine layer hanging over the 2008 American Film Market in Santa Monica.
Additionally, the fallout from Isaiah’s dismissal meant that any hope we had of riding “Grey’s” coattails would probably not be possible, and Isaiah’s next show, “Bionic Woman,” was quickly cancelled. Still we soldiered on, trying to find the right sales company, and were fortunate to find North By Northwest, who believed in us and the film.
When we emerged from a busy week of AFM screenings, there was precious little to show for it. Even a distributor screening in L.A. the following April didn’t bring any potential buyers. We wondered if it was the film, if it was our controversial lead, if it was the subject matter. It was a period fraught with uncertainty, as the ongoing worldwide recession not only diminished any distribution offers we did receive, but also made us wonder if we would find distribution at all.
Fortunately, after a couple of years, we finally did — first landing a TV/streaming deal with Starz and Netflix in the fall of 2009, and then finally signing a DVD/VOD deal this last spring with Code Black Entertainment, which has a distribution agreement with Vivendi Universal. When the deal was done, I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude — the film would finally find an audience! For most independent filmmakers, this story ultimately has a happy ending (apart from the minor detail of recouping our investors’ money). But for me there remains this vexing question of the nature and purpose of the wait.
The Wisdom of Waiting
When things were at their quietest — and, for a filmmaker, there is nothing worse than a long quiet — I took my pastor, Erwin McManus, out to lunch. We talked about the film and how things were going. I was discouraged; he was sanguine. At one point he said, “Sometimes the best art is out of its time.” I am only starting to understand now what he was saying then.
The challenge for anyone — artist or not — is to trust that the right purposes will emerge at the right time, and to wait patiently. We live in an age of the blessing and the curse of instant gratification. Never is that more true than in Hollywood, where the work of hundreds or thousands of artisans over a period of years can be ruled irrelevant by a bad three-day box-office.
When I got Isaiah’s fateful text four years ago, I felt as if I was told that our film would have to take its time. I was angry in that moment, frustrated and sad, and I can’t pretend that those feelings dissipated quickly or easily, or at all. (There’s nothing I love more than sending emails to investors saying, “Maybe next year.”)
Four years later, however, the reasons I set out to make the film in the first place have not changed. Every week it seems like there are new allegations of priests who have fallen from grace, as well as stories of priests who serve quietly with great nobility of character. The film has not been ruled irrelevant — if anything, it feels more relevant. More than ever, we need stories like THE LEAST OF THESE — of a darkness that is great, but of a light that is greater.
In the Scriptures, prophets were frequently out of their own time — frustrated and troubled by the present, leaning into the future, women and men less concerned with the world as it was than as it could (or otherwise would) be. In this, I have come to find that artists and prophets have a great deal in common. I can’t confess to having made THE LEAST OF THESE out of some grandiose ambition to serve as a prophetic voice — I’m always dubious of the self-proclaimed prophet, since they’re usually stoned (in both uses of the word).
At the same time, I can’t deny that THE LEAST OF THESE seems more of its time now than it did four years ago. As a result, even though it’s taken longer than any of us expected for the film to get its chance to find its audience, I’m grateful for the opportunity that we have now, thankful that the waiting has ended, and hopeful that our time has indeed come.
“…but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” ~ Proverbs 13:12b
The Least of These Information:
DVD Release Date: 8/2/2011
Synopsis: After a priest at his former Catholic school vanishes mysteriously, Father Andre begins working there. When he hears rumors that there may have been foul play involved with the holy man’s disappearance, he begins an investigation. But when Andre learns shocking secrets about the school and confronts experiences from his dark past, his faith is put to the test. Powerful drama stars Isaiah Washington, Robert Loggia, Andrew Lawrence star.
‘Christian Filmmaking’ Captures Hollywood’s Attention as Never Before, but are Christian Filmmakers Up for the Challenge?
As Soul Surfer roars past Fireproof‘s $33M payday, (eventually reaching $45M at the box office) Hollywood’s rush to cash in on adapting Christian stories–such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ($279), and stories about Christians–such as The Blind Side ($256M) continues to gain momentum.
Whether or not this trend proves to be good or bad for the future of Christians in the entertainment industry remains to be seen.
Suddenly, Christians who have spent their lives establishing themselves as world-class filmmakers–such as producer Ralph Winter (XMen), and director Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still)–find themselves in the same conversation as unproven “Christian filmmakers” who have clawed their way to the market only by virtue of uniquely Christian product. .
Two current projects may make or break Hollywood’s interest in ‘Christian’ projects. Ralph Winter’s The Screwtape Letters, and newcomer Steve Taylor’s adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-selling Blue Like Jazz are being closely watched by industry insiders.
It could be an uphill battle. The trend toward “Christian filmmaking” is already drawing mixed reviews in Hollywood, largely due to the less-than-stellar quality of many so-called “Christian Movies.”
I’ve chosen two takes on the movement in recent publications for your consideration (below). Cathleen Falsani’s post in the Huffington Post offers some positive press on the movement, and even suggests some possible future adaptation projects. Andrew O’Herir’s post in Salon offers a more sobering critique based on Hollywood’s memories of truly atrocious “Christian Films.” It’s painful to read and often overstated, but O’Hehir’s commentary is worth considering and striving for a higher standard.
This fall a film based on Donald Miller’s bestselling spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is expected to hit theaters nationwide. In many ways, Miller’s book is an unlikely subject for a feature film.
Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-autobiographical short essays based in part on Miller’s experience auditing classes at Reed College in Oregon that explore the author’s wrestling with questions of faith.
But the film project is part of a growing trend of adapting well-known “Christian” or Christian-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) as feature films. Recent movies based on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Two more film adaptations of Lewis’ works — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce — are in development.
Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media (Note: Ralph Winter contacted me this AM (4/30) to tell me that Cathleen’s report is mistaken –Walden Media is NOT connected to the project at this time), the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.
Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”
Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”
As “Soul Surfer” demonstrates, “faith-based” movies are a boom industry. Do they have to be so lame?
by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon
When a star teenage surfer named Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack, and then got back on her surfboard just three weeks later, you could hear another species of shark – the ones from Hollywood, who turn dramatic real-life events into movies — swimming to the scene.
Not only did Hamilton’s story have an attractive and charismatic central character, it also came with a moral message attached and (to think more cynically) a much-desired target demographic. Hamilton’s family were evangelical Christians who understood what had happened to Bethany as a personal and providential test of faith, and also saw it as an opportunity to testify to the wider world.
The resulting film, “Soul Surfer,” which stars AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, took some interesting twists and turns on its way to the big screen. There was evidently disagreement between the Hamiltons and the film’s producers along the way, over the question of how explicit to make the references to faith and the quotations from Scripture. (They’re plenty explicit, if you ask me.) But success has a way of resolving all such disputes, and “Soul Surfer” opened last weekend on 2,214 screens with a $10.6 million gross, and the third-highest per-screen average of any film in wide release (after “Hop” and “Hanna”).
You could call “Soul Surfer” a Christian film that got picked up by a mainstream distributor (Sony) or an inspirational mainstream film that was concocted with the “faith-based” audience partly or largely in view, after the fashion of“The Blind Side,”“Secretariat,” the “Chronicles of Narnia” series and so on. (For whatever it’s worth, the universe of Christian movie sites and bloggers seem to view it as the former.) While the Hamilton family’s religion runs through the story as an undercurrent, the movie’s only mouthpiece for official Christian theology is a youth counselor played (very clumsily) by country star Carrie Underwood. As Carolyn Arends, the film critic for the evangelical site Christianity Today, has noted, director Sean McNamara and his team of writers aren’t trying to preach the gospel to outsiders but to create a recognizable self-portrait for their target audience, “a reasonable approximation of daily American Christianity.”
However you want to categorize “Soul Surfer,” it’s going to make plenty of money, and should serve to remind those of us in the secular moviegoing public that the evangelical audience that emerged with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and the out-of-nowhere 2008 hit “Fireproof” hasn’t gone anywhere.
Christian-identified viewers remain voraciously hungry for content, and even though the major studios all have marketing arms devoted to courting them, they still feel poorly served by the mainstream film industry and its addiction to violent, sexual and otherwise profane subject matter. (Dozens of Christian-oriented movies are made every year, but only a small fraction of them will reach general release.)
But do Christian-themed movies really have to be so bad?
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:
The 168 Film Festival has become one of the nation’s premier faith-based film festivals with its unique aim to “illuminate the Word of God through short film.” Their unusual competition format challenges creativity by forcing teams to film and edit an 11-minute movie WITHIN 168 HOURS (1 week.)
Nine Years of Filmmaking with a Purpose
As if creating a film in 168 hours wasn’t hard enough, each film must be based upon a Bible verse… a randomly assigned Bible verse. The result is not only great experience in filmmaking and team-building for the participants, but an uplifting experience for audiences as well.
Ralph Winter, Producer of WOLVERINE, and COOL IT, explains, “I love what you guys are doing. 168 is an incredible opportunity. This festival is an inspiration.”
Yesterday, 168 founder John David Ware, told me he believes that he the 2011 festival will be “our finest year yet. Our filmmakers have outdone themselves and attracted some excellent talent too, like Erik Estrada and Denise Grayson from THE SOCIAL NETWORK.”