Friday, June 17, 2011

Wages of Walking Worthy

Last night, I took a break from writing... or rather wishing I were writing... my new screenplay, and drove a couple hours to attend my brother's retirement party. It's a surprising sensation of being run over by life to realize that those old men who had attended my father's retirement party years before are now my age. I haven't aged any, but that gnarly guy looking back from the mirror is hardly recognizable. And my brother (much older brother) is now the honored retiree as he steps down from the pulpit of the church where he served the past 9 years. Those years were the capstone on decades of ministry which began with a teaching and administration gig as headmaster of the Rhusitu Bible Institute in Zimbabwe, and circled through the New York City Rescue Mission where he was on duty the day the trade towers fell. Several churches, Bible Colleges, and other odd jobs later, he landed at the little church in Siloam Springs whose crowded parking lot I turned into last night. I sat for a second after the motor stopped. This was where his oldest daughter attended church while in college. He had to leave her behind when he left for Africa. He spoke of going to church with her one Sunday and saying to himself, "I would love to be the pastor of a church just like this." His wife Judy dreamt of being a pastor's wife as Dave finished that last year at seminary. She could already image the ladies ministries, teas, prayer luncheons, and living room Bible studies. Instead, her husband responded to God's call to remote, rural, tribal Africa. So, she went to Africa. Quietly. Even joyfully. And was a tremendous asset to that fledgling ministry which is today training pastors nationwide and operating all by itself with African leadership and support. But tonight, she was to be thanked for those very teas, prayer luncheons, women's ministries, home Bible studies, and so much more by these Siloam Springs sisters. And Dave is retiring from the exact job he had dreamed about all those years before. "Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart."

The praise and accolades washed over my brother and his bride all night. It was a stunning thing to witness the love, admiration, and gratitude these wonderful folks felt toward my big brother. Of the things most appreciated, the most often repeated was his faithfulness to "preach the Word" as Paul's admonition to Timothy behind his desk had declared all these years. As I sat there full of pot luck roast beef and countless other delicasies, I thought back to my Dad's retirement party. I remembered hearing the same words: "honesty, humility, transparency, example, sincerity, faithful friend, godly, quick to admit mistakes - even if they were not his - and seek forgiveness," themes repeated by speaker after speaker. Then a lady not listed on the program stood in the back of the room and spoke through choking tears. She had come expecting a roast - a review of most embarrassing moments, misstatements, and bad choices - but had heard nothing of the sort. Furthermore, as she thought back over the years of her own experience with her pastor and his wife, she too remembered nothing negative. Amazing. Especially since that exact thing happened at my dad's retirement 52 years earlier at the Sun Oil Refinery in Toledo, Ohio.

What I witnessed last night was more than the eternal fruit grown from a life of putting God before self, but also the legacy of a godly man being passed down to his children. I drove away from that little church very full. I was full of lovingly prepared and delicious food, full of joyful gratitude for God's blessings in my brother's life, and full of a sense of responsibility to spend what tomorrows I have left following my brother's example, who followed my dad, who followed Christ. Thanks, Dave.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Remember to Act Blind

The first time we assembled the cast of Treasure Blind to read through the script and talk things over, I asked Daniel to open the meeting with prayer. For most of the 52 different characters in the feature, that was the first time they had heard him speak, let alone pray. And if you've never heard Daniel pray, you don't yet know Daniel. He was ten at the time. I vaguely remember being ten. Mrs. Habegger taught my 5th grade class. She disapproved of the girls I had begun to chase around at recess. I disapproved of her. The point is, I was no where near mature enough to offer a prayer beyond some rote nonsense I had memorized for emergencies - like when grown ups would ask you to pray in public so they could congratulate themselves on how well they've trained you. But my asking Daniel wasn't anything to do with me. I wanted everyone else to learn what I had: that this ten year old who had faced some of life's most self-focusing circumstances, was incredibly others-focused and knew how to talk to God from his heart. It has always been a sobering, inspiring, and humbling thing for me to witness, and I was eager for the whole cast to see and hear. After the "amen", no one around our 35 foot circle commented, but all eyes were searching for the owner of that squeaky voice.

During long shooting days, all of the crew and most of the cast got to spend a little more time with him. They learned that Daniel talks... alot. He knows knock-knock jokes. Far too many. He might even make up one or two. He's always hungry. His favorite things to eat include powdered sugar donuts, Mexican food, and if he has cereal - no milk. He prefers bananas to apples and potato chips to hamburgers. He has a collapsing red and white cane which he demonstrates to all who will take note, and even some who won't. He uses the cane to avoid bumping into objects or obstacles which of course he can't see. But his memory is so keen, that after a couple times across the room, he's got the position of everything memorized. This brought up the need for an unusual direction that became a sort of standard reminder added on to any other direction, "Remember to act blind." Honestly, after the first couple takes, Daniel would glide directly to his mark better than a sighted person because he was used to operating by memory. If his character was encountering a strange location in the scene, Daniel would have to be reminded that Henry couldn't see.
I also remember the first time I realized that he would never see this movie. It seems obvious now, but I had never taken the time to consider what he was doing. He was working just as hard, if not harder, than anyone in the cast or crew, and while we would all one day go to the theater and watch the final product, he would go and just listen. Listen to the dialogue that he had completely memorized - his lines and everyone else's. Listen to the giggles, the gasps, and sighs and the sobs of the audience, but never would he see one image. He did go that day. In a tuxedo. And he LOVED every moment of it. He never acted blind. I never reminded him to. In fact, I wished to see it all as deeply as he could.
His prayer that first pre-production meeting had one theme: that TREASURE BLIND be a tool in God's hands, and that God would use it to further his kingdom. I forget that. Often. I tend to wonder about sales, or shelf life, or reviews, or return on investment. I need to be like Daniel: to place my movie, and my life, in the hand of my forever-sighted Savior, and trust him to lead me and the movie exactly where he wants us to go. Thanks Daniel. I'll try to remember to act blind.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cutting Wounds

Most of the elements of the production of TREASURE BLIND I immensely enjoyed. Then there were things I intensely hated, like cutting scenes. Some of my favorite people aren't in this movie. Many scenes that took so long to arrange the location, coordinate cast and crew, set up the shot, shoot it multiple times from different angles, scenes that cost money, that cost time, scenes for which my friends sacrificed their time and talent and comfort and dignity... were simply cut. Discarded. Sometimes not even finished. It was painful at the time, and painful now as I relive the frustration of concluding that all that time and energy was in fact unnecessary. At the end of the editing process, seconds are critical. Like a hot air balloon sinking into the ocean, we were casting off any extra weight not absolutely needed for survival of the story.

It's not like I intentionally or in ignorance wrote a bunch of extraneous stuff either. It took me a year to write the script, most of which I spend re-writing and simplifying and cutting everything I could. Brevity is the soul of wit, I'm told, and I read and reread scenes searching for anything extraneous. Events and conversations that I felt absolutely crutial while writing, I later couldn't justify. I found myself deleting lines, paragraphs, even whole scenes. The difference was, when I deleted a scene in the script, it may have eliminated a name, but not a person. After the script was finalized and cast, eliminating characters meant eliminating a person - usually not only a fellow actor, but also one of my friends.

So to all my friends who sacrificed so much to help me as I groped blindly through my first movie, I offer my profound thanks. But more than that, I offer apologies for not being able to show your friends your scene because it was CUT. It's not you... it's me.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Remember the Smiles

It just happened on the set of A Christmas Snow. It happened on Greyscale. Actually it always happens on movie sets: a random and eclectic mix of never-seen-in-real-life individuals morph over time into a movie family. Sometimes, if you're blessed, a family that loves being together, sometimes not. Sometimes the families are the very picture of dysfunctional, but always a family. The family that congealed around the camera of Treasure Blind was one of those special, warm and wonderful examples. It's not that we had no conflict or disagreement, but even in the pressurized environment of too many locations, too little time, missed assignments, or untimely complications, the cast and crew of TB was a true source of joy for me. There were timely hugs, words of encouragement, prayers, and smiles. Always smiles. When it was over, we all missed the strength of those smiles every morning. I reflect on the delight of that shoot often, and when I do, I always think about two smiles I miss most of all. Two eternal souls that added their talent to this project enthusiastically and tirelessly, not knowing it would be their last.

Scotty was a behind the scenes guy. He had no experience making movies, but he was a true friend who sincerely wanted to lend a hand in any way he could. He was an extra for us at the church service and spent his day sitting on a boring set, singing a hymn over and over about a hundred times, and trying to act like he was enjoying the "service". He did so with never a complaint. Scotty was also instrumental in getting two brand new Crown Victoria taxis to the set for the last scene. But mostly, we all remember Scotty for his great hamburgers. For a special treat after weeks of shooting, Scotty towed a huge grill behind his car to the set and spent hours in the heat grilling his special recipe into many pounds of ground beef. Let me tell you, burgers never tasted so good. Cast and crew scarfed them down one after another and Scotty kept 'em coming. It was a much appreciated gesture of love from this part of the TB family. Scotty was found dead in his home some months later. Now I wish I could say "thank you" one more time.

The other smile I'll always miss is Bill. Bill and I go back many years. We met on an industrial film where he was my boss. I made him my boss in my movie too. It just seemed right. Over the years we've worked together many times, driven together to out of town auditions, spent evenings at one another's home, guest-taught one another's acting classes, and shared the joys and heart aches of life. I'll never forget the phone call: I was at church on a Wednesday, the week of Christmas, 2007. "They say I've got lung cancer." I prayed for my brother over the phone while pacing the church's parking lot. I watched him get worse quickly over the next few weeks. I cried with him and his dear Wanda. We prayed together many times for healing and more time, but God had ultimate healing in mind in his perfect time. Before January was over, my friend Bill was in heaven. I miss him.

These members of my "Treasure Blind" family I'll see again one day, but never on another set. I needn't bother writing a part for Bill into the next script. He won't be there. We won't hear the encouragement and enjoy the refreshment Scotty offered after a hard day of shooting the next one. But I'll never make another movie without remembering these two brothers. And I'll never make another movie without realizing that it might be the last project for any one of the cast or crew... or me. Because of that, I hope I'll take more time to appreciate each set up, each line, each scene, each burger, each smile, each hug, and each unique member of my movie family. I hope you do too.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Love Show B'dness

Last night, I was standing on the cold concrete floor of some factory closed for the week end listening to an Oklahoma sleet storm attacking the metal roof, and watching the last of the principle photography on another movie - not mine. The writer/director/lead had just dried himself off, changed shirts and donned a coat. His last scene was outside in the sleet... in a T-shirt. The opening scene for his movie. Now he was trying hard to remember what shots he absolutely had to get before he shut everything down and went into post production mode. It was midnight. And I thought... what is it I like about this movie making stuff again?

A week ago, I was in Michigan catching a Rosie Thomas show (an RT Christmas tour must become a tradition if Christmas is to continue as we know it). I stopped into a Barnes and Noble just for fun and pre-ordered a copy of "Treasure Blind". "That should be arriving on February 10th," the clerk announced knowingly. I thanked him and grinned all the way out the door. I also found it on the radar of the Lifeway Christian Bookstore, although that clerk said, "To be honest, I've never heard of 'Treasure Blind' before." I knew that, but it made me think about things. Our little movie was about to be sitting on the shelf next to real movies. I wonder if it will find any friends. Anyone to eat lunch with? I hope somebody likes it. What if no one does? What if it's a big lonely failure? What is it I like about this movie making stuff again?

So anyway, I'm working on my next script. It's agonizing, and draining, and ultimately frustrating. I love it. I just can't explain why to any rational or sane person. But I take comfort in the fact that, if you're an artist of any kind, you totally get it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Movie Making in Real Life

I'm delighted to be able to bring you up to speed on some exciting developments for Treasure Blind. It seems other people like it too. What do you know! Beginning in February of 2009, Treasure Blind will be introduced to the world with the phrase, "from the producers of Left Behind: the Movie". Yup. We have signed a deal with Cloud Ten Pictures from Ontario and they are already busy with new artwork, some dressing up of the edit, and planning the promotional campaign through Koch distributors. Isn't that amazing? "The Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes," as David said. We're very grateful, very excited, and ready to begin work on the next one. Whoa! Did I say that? It's true though. And to begin with, I'm headed off to a weekend screenwriter's seminar in two weeks to sharpen those nerves before heading into the next uncharted storyland. Can't wait.

Looking back, it was an education in so many things: film making of course, but also working with people of all types - easy to difficult - and mostly, trusting the Lord. It was a daily exercise of faith to literally give up my movie, to give it back to the Lord. "If you want it to never be made... but I can make that work if I just... if you want it to be made, it's okay with me. It's your movie, Lord. I'm giving it to you right now." That was literally a daily ritual from the first day of shooting to the day we mailed it to Canada. And what a great lesson! The truth is - as you already know - everything belongs to God anyway. Any success comes from God alone. His plan for me and my life is by far the best plan because He loves me, knows everything, and has all power. So giving Him the movie everyday was just a reminder to me of what was already true. But the result was unexplainable peace when the computer crashed to blue screen without explanation. Or when the hard drive quit working the day before it was due in Canada. Or when the worst storm of the season is forecast for your last possible day of shooting. I knew that peace because I reminded myself that it was all God's problem, not mine. It was His movie. And by the way, He worked all those problems out just fine. He's God, you know. I just hope I can apply what I've learned about movie making to real life.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Waiting: Not For The Faint-Hearted

I remember saying to Marybeth as we would pull away from the house on shoot days, "I just want to make a good movie." Although her constant reassurance did little to assuage my self doubt, I love it that she kept trying. "Just wait," she'd say. I've been waiting. I'm tired of waiting. Many times a day, I wonder if I should go on. I wonder if I can. Then...

Something worth waiting for came from the New Strand Film Festival in West Liberty Iowa where Treasure Blind won "Best Screenplay". West Liberty, Iowa is a "hip" small town about 20 minutes from Iowa City where the University of Iowa Hawkeyes live. To say these folks might be civic minded is like saying the pope might be catholic. Watching the townsfolk interact is a lot like watching a family reunion. The West Liberty family reunion. There ought to be T-shirts. The town reflects their closeness too. The old Victorian style homes are well maintained and tidy. The town center is being restored little by little. The two biggest sources of civic pride are the newly remodeled library and the New Strand Theater. Both buildings were modernized while preserving the architecture and character of 19th Century Americana. The asphalt put down on city streets in the 60's is being taken back up and cobble stones are going back down. And naturally, the Film Festival was the big event in the community, so everyone was there. Treasure Blind was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Some parents complained that the puppet show was scheduled for the same time and their kids wanted to see the treasure movie. The puppets were cancelled. The old theater was full when the high tech super strong projector began spewing our little movie all over that big screen. The room grew instantly quiet. But then... chuckles. Giggles. All in appropriate places. This audience was more engaged than any in my experience. Youngsters and adults alike. When Henry felt his way down the hallway and turned into the treasure room, someone gasped, "Oh! The gun!" When Jack slid into the back seat of the taxi and spat, "Hello, Dad", I heard someone in the middle of the room say, "Uh oh." It was wonderful. The gasps, the giggles, the sniffles were all soothing music to my critique-battered ears, and it didn't stop until the final flicker of light faded into darkness. Then the applause and whoops and cheers. I was actually feeling self-conscious. The emcee stood. His first words were, "So, tell me again why a movie like this can't get a national release and we have to watch the pap that Hollywood puts out there." A bit over the top perhaps, but I drank it down desperately. It was like anti venom to a snake bite victim. The Q & A went on and on with honest questions couched in praise until it had to be stopped to make time for the next movie. Several asked to buy their own copy of Treasure Blind. It was a welcome gift of healing for my tattered self confidence. I was renewed.

Even more good news upon arriving back home. A distribution offer. An approval from The Dove Foundation. Another award from another festival. And probably the biggest boost of all, a simple sentence from my executive producer: "We need to start thinking about the next one."

I still struggle with letting the story spill out onto the page without phantom critics leering over my shoulder tut tutting their disapproval, but maybe that will improve by act two. I'll have to wait and see.

It was Isaiah the Lord prompted to say, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." By His strength I didn't quit. I won't quit. I'll just wait.