Dallas Jenkins is the executive director of vertical church media at Harvest Bible Chapel. He’s an award-winning film director with movies like ‘Hometown Legend’, the short film ‘Cliche’ and ‘Midnight Clear’ to name a few. His much-anticipated new film ‘The Resurrection of Gavin Stone‘ releases in theaters January 20, 2017.
In this interview we talk with Dallas about the making of Gavin Stone, overcoming obstacles in the creative process, why the church should strive for excellence in storytelling —with a few important tips for every aspiring filmmaker in the church today—and the future of faith-based film.
Brian Orme: What role did the local church play in your pursuit and passion for filmmaking?
Dallas Jenkins: Before coming to work at Harvest Bible Chapel, I had been in Los Angels for ten years making movies. I had given up on the hope that the church and popular culture could be married together—that the church could do storytelling and do media in popular culture permanently. I thought the church didn’t want to engage with movies, so the two would always be separate.
When I was called back to Harvest by James MacDonald, the first three or four years I was here, I didn’t get to make a movie. I got stuck in production and video world. So for three or four years I wasn’t a movie maker, I was a videographer, which I hadn’t done before. I was doing what we call “God at Work” testimony videos—I probably did 60 videos of stories of people’s changed lives.
Here’s the interesting thing: Not only did I enjoy it, but it made me a better filmmaker. The act of storytelling, the act of condensing someone’s life story into 6 minutes, figuring out how to more effectively communicate God’s radical transformation in someone’s life, made me a better filmmaker.
So I think it’s very important for the videographer at the local church—or even the pastor—to realize that we are all storytellers. We are all filmmakers in a way, even when we’re doing films that are 5 minutes long or films that aren’t narratives—they’re non-fiction. We can apply classic storytelling techniques, which is what Jesus did.
I would love for readers to know that the fact that I made a full-length feature film is not all that different from what local churches are doing on a regular basis—it’s just on a larger scale. The creative obstacles of solving a storytelling problem and figuring out how to communicate the main character’s emotional and spiritual journey is no different than a baptism video or a testimonial video.
BO: What are a few tips you would give aspiring filmmakers in the church today?
DJ: The number one thing that many young, particularly Christian, aspiring filmmakers aren’t doing enough of is simply watching movies. Right now we are in a golden era of cinematic storytelling on TV, and there’s a lot of really great stuff out there. Steven Spielberg says you should steal from all the best filmmakers. Find out who or what your favorite filmmaker learned from.
I tell the guys at my church who are working in the videographer department that they should study cinematography, storytelling, all of those elements—not just how to do Final Cut on your computer. Just start telling yourself right now, “I am a storyteller, and that influences everything I do.”
Combine that with your quiet time and studying the word, that obviously makes you a better storyteller, because God and his Son in the gospels are telling a beautiful story as well.
BO: That’s great. I love it. So, circling back around, what were some of the creative obstacles you faced with The Resurrection of Gavin Stone?
DJ: In the script-writing stage, it was very important to me that I tell the story of Gavin getting away with pretending to be a Christian. So how do you make that work without making the church people—particularly the pastor—look stupid? Any good pastor is going to know when someone is faking it. Finding a way to make sure that the other characters weren’t stupid was important. So we set it up to allow the cast to accept him, even though they knew he was a little off, because they wanted him to be a part of the church. They knew it could impact him.
The pastor recognizes that Gavin being a part of this church production is going to impact him a lot more than cleaning toilets, and so he’s willing to accept the fact that some of his faith is remedial, maybe he’s missing something, but being at this church is going to make a difference in his life.
From a pure storytelling perspective, the biggest obstacles should be faced and tackled and overcome at the script stage. Because, if you’re not solving the problems at that stage, you’re going to have a major problem later. On the other hand, if you do solve them in the script stage, everything after that becomes more about logistics.
Someone asked me, “Who was your favorite actor to work with and who was your least favorite actor to work with?” Obviously, I’m not going to answer who was my least favorite, but Sean Michaels could be the answer to both those questions in this way: It was his first movie ever. He’s been a famous wrestler for the last 25 years. That was a challenge and a gift. It was a gift in the sense that he was completely open; he had no bad habits. He was completely deferential and willing to listen to whatever I or the other actors had to say. That was great.
As a challenge, though, it was his first time. So part of the process of acting some of these scenes was him knowing how to face the camera, how to hit his mark. He was learning on the fly. That was an obstacle, but I believe that obstacles are opportunities. Every creative obstacle is an opportunity to solve a problem, and solving problems is what makes stories come alive.
BO: How do you decide how much sin and grit to portray in your storytelling?
DJ: I believe this is the biggest problem faith-based movies are facing right now. As a filmmaker and a storyteller, who’s been called by God to tell stories of impact in the church and outside the church, this is what I believe: The power of the gospel is that it redeems the least of these. It redeems the prostitute; it redeems the murderer; it redeems the characters in the Old Testament stories, which, if turned into movies, would be rated R. How do you address that accurately and fully while recognizing that the vast majority of the Christian audience wants PG-rated or family-friendly films? I ultimately believe that where we are headed is a variety of films.
We’re going to have to recognize that there is a certain segment of the Christian market that is not going to appreciate, or want to watch, a darker, edgier, faith-based film because they simply don’t want to see or hear some of the ugly things that happen in people’s lives, portrayed on film. Maybe they’re willing to hear about them in church, but they’re not willing to watch them on film—and that’s ok.
That’s ok for two reasons: One it’s ok if they don’t want to go to the movie theater to see some of the things that they’ve maybe already overcome themselves or some of the things they’ve heard before, and that’s just not why they watch movies. It’s also ok because not every movie needs to be that way. Sometimes movies are just for entertainment; sometimes movies are just to get a bit of escape. But there does need to be room—in the industry and in the Christian market place—for genuine films that tell the truth about the ugly sides of sin, even the worst sins.
That doesn’t mean that we can titillate, but it does mean that we need to get real and raw and show just how far someone can sometimes have to go to find grace—and that gets ugly.
We’re not there yet because as of right now the only market within the Christian market is the one that likes movies like “War Room” and “God’s Not Dead.” And that’s great, but we’ve got to figure out how to communicate better and how to market better to that segment who wants something different. And so far, that segment of the market hasn’t shown up in large enough numbers to justify the sum of money that needs to be spent.
Now, part of the reason is we haven’t made good enough films for that market. Some of the times we’ve made attempts to be raw and real the films just weren’t good enough. I’m trying, with Gavin Stone, to move the needle a little bit.