I recently had the good fortune to be interviewed by Jeralynn Kawewong Kozak, The Thai Girl 4 God, about my career in faith-based films. It is a rather long interview. If you want to know anything about me, or life in the faith-based film business, this is a great place to start.
I love the Churches Making Movies Christian Film Festival. This is the third year and I have attended each of them. Organizer and Filmmaker LaVonne McIver James always puts to together a great event, I'm not saying that just because my film "Sacred Ground: The Battle For Mount Auburn Cemetery" won the Best Documentary Award last year. LaVonne truly has her finger on the pulse of the growing church-based film movement.
In addition to attending the festival, I have also been given the honor of delivering the keynote speech Friday night (which I should be working on now instead of blogging!) I will also be giving a seminar on Saturday at 2:30 called "Unlocking Your Inner Screenwriter." I look forward to meeting the attendees and answering their questions about the art of screenwriting.
Come to the festival and enjoy the movies. You won't regret it.
My award-winning documentary "Sacred Ground: The Battle for Mount Auburn Cemetery" is now streaming and available for purchase.
"Sacred Ground: The Battle for Mount Auburn Cemetery" tells the story of community activists and family members battling a Methodist Church for control of the historic African-American Cemetery. For years, Mount Auburn Cemetery was the only place African-Americans could be buried in the city of Baltimore. It is the burial place of lightweight boxing champion Joe Gans, the first African-American world champion in any sport, and numerous leaders of the early Civil Rights struggle. It is a registered historic landmark that has fallen into such shocking disrepair that human bones litter the ground. It is a tale of grave recycling and grave robbing but mostly a tale of underdogs fighting the powers-to-be so that their ancestors can rest in dignity.
This film was a definite labor of love both for us, the filmmakers, and our "stars"over our six years of filming. More importantly, I believe the pressure we applied help improve conditions at this sad landmark. Director David Butler and I are delighted that the film is now available.
You can stream the film here: PureFlix It is a subscription website, but they offer a free one month trial. Feel free to sign up, enjoy a free month, then cancel before you are charged.
Lately, I have been taking time off from the utterly insane and self-important world of independent film to work at Discovery Communications. It has been a very welcome break indeed. If you've never worked for a television network, I definitely recommend that you give it a try.
What impresses me most is the utter lack of pretension I have encountered here at the Discovery Creative and Technical Center. In the movie world, everyone is always trying to one up everyone else. People seem to feel an almost pathological desire to prove they are the most important or famous person in the room. At Discovery, I have often found myself working with people with very impressive resumes, but I never realized it until I researched them myself.
The mood is also more relaxing than the worlds of independent film and advertising. In those worlds, there always seems to be a presumption that something is going to go terribly awry. Here, there seems to be an almost supernatural presumption that everything is going to work out fine. I remember working on a promo for Animal Planet. It was around three o'clock in the afternoon. The spot was supposed to air that evening at seven. I opened up the job and discovered that the media was gone. Everything. Footage. Graphics. Audio. I called the producer into the suite, expecting her to freak out. Looking at those dreaded words, Media Offline, on the giant screen, she just sighed and said, "I guess we'll have to find it." No screaming. No shouting. No panicked calls upstairs about the possibility about missing the air date. No hurried resume updating. No. Instead, we just found the footage and put the spot on the air. It is mind-boggling how many shows we push to air on the actual day of broadcast. This is only possible because the place is a well-oiled machine populated by people who know how to do their jobs.
So what am I doing? First, I fell back on my old reliable field: advertising. I started editing promos for TLC programs. Below is my first spot. It sailed through the approval process without any changes. I was told that that would probably be the last time that happened. (They were right.)
After a while, I got tired of editing things that people fast-forward through. I wanted to edit programs instead. However, I didn't necessarily want to work on a series and edit shows from scratch. I had done that before and I didn't want to make that kind of commitment again. (Depending on the series, it can take anywhere from three weeks to three months to edit a single episode from scratch.) Fortunately, I found a happy medium on the Reloads Team.
What are Reloads?
Reloads are social versions of hit shows with bonus footage. Here's how it works. For example, "19 Kids and Counting" would premiere a brand new episode every Tuesday night at 9pm. Its legion of fans would excitedly live tweet the show. The next day, we'd take that original episode and cut four minutes of footage from it. Then we add four minutes of previously unseen bonus footage. Then, to make the loyal fans feel like they're part of the show, we would add a couple dozen of their tweets to the program plus a few fun facts. Then, viola, we have a new version of the show which generally aired just prior to the next brand new episode the following Tuesday. It's win for the fans who get to see their tweets on national television, a win for the network who gets a brand new show for a fraction of the original price, and a win for the talent, who get paid for another show. The only losers are the original editors, who probably cringe at every change we make....
It's a fun job and you really get attached to the shows you reload. The first program I worked on was "19 Kids and Counting." I reloaded their entire ninth season. I was looking forward to finally meeting them at a TLC event before the Josh Duggar scandal hit. Unbelievable. I thought I had left scandal behind when I walked away from the faith-based film world. (See the "God's Not Dead" lawsuit.) I will say that I feel very bad for the Duggar girls. As of today, their rumored spin-off series seems dead. It's so unfair. It's punishing these innocent victims of sexual assault all over again....
"The Black Rider: Revelation Road," the third film in the Revelation Road series, recently won second place in the feature film category at the International Christian Film Festival. The film was also nominated for best screenplay, which was co-written by director Gabriel Sabloff, and star David A. R. White was also nominated for best actor. Sadly, the film came up short in both of those categories.
Overall, it was a good festival for me. "Open My Eyes," another film I wrote with Tim Ratajczak and directed by Gabriel Alonzo was also an official selection at the festival.
I am a big fan of InkTip, a website where screenwriters can post their scripts to be read by industry professionals. I have received offers of commissioned work as a direct result of posting some of my older scripts on the website. A producer, and budding screenwriter, at the Discovery Channel recently asked me what I thought about The Black List. The Black List is a similar but more expensive site that allows industry professionals access to your script. However, this website gives users the opportunity to rate the scripts they read. You are also required to purchase at least one professional evaluation when you list your script. They charge $50 per evaluation. A bargain. I decided to get two of them. It seemed only fair. At the time, I was judging scripts for the Baltimore Film Office's Screenplay Competition. I could dish out the criticism, but could I take it?
I offered up my newest script entitled "Life-Like," a coming of age romp loaded -- in my opinion -- with laughs and heart. I normally wouldn't post a fresh, new script which hadn't been extensively marketed to agents and production companies yet. However, I thought, who knows.... Perhaps I will gain some insight that will help me improve the script. So I submitted it.
Here's the first evaluation: (I apologize if the evaluations are hard to understand without reading the script.)
Modern; Near Future
Various; Cemetery; Apartment; Office
Comedy, Dramatic Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Upon taking a job at a cemetery where one can interact with the deceased through artificially-intelligent holographic recreations, a post-grad finds himself entangled in a murder plot when one of the newly installed holograms admits she was killed by her elderly husband.
What the script has going for it most is its genuinely unique, high-concept premise – as opposed to most other comedies, the material does not seem the least bit derivative. Also, the material should be applauded for its quality characterization, as both the protagonist and the holographic characters (most notably, Billy Idol) prove appealing for a number of reasons: Andy for his innocence and relatability, Carlotta for her sympathetic nature, and Billy Idol for his humor. Though it seems some added description is needed to better setup the holographic technology at story’s beginning (or, at least, to better establish the more high-tech nature of the Hall of Wisdom), once the story gets underway the setting makes for truly imaginative visual. All said, the script checks many of the boxes required of quality sci-fi comedies, but some additional consideration should be given to keeping the protagonist proactive in the latter portion of the screenplay, as currently his time in prison hinders his involvement in the unfolding murder plot (more on this below).
The biggest issue with the script is that, once the protagonist makes it his mission to go about solving the murder plot, the forward-moving narrative suffers when he is eventually carted off to jail, as such takes away from his active involvement in the unfolding case. Rather than having him locked away for a portion of the screenplay, the writer should figure out a way to keep him engaged in the events that are playing out – by this point in the screenplay, he needs to remain a proactive protagonist (as opposed to a reactive one). Also, the script suffers from not really having an Act Two low point. Though the material teases that Holly is going to leave Andy, which WOULD make for the lowest point of the screenplay, Holly never really commits to the breakup. As a result, this leaves the narrative in an awkward state of flux. Instead, it seems Holly should decide to leave Andy, only to see the error of her ways by story’s end. Of course, by this point, it would be entirely left up to Andy whether or not he wants to get back together with her, which makes his decision to grab coffee with Melody an even more interesting ending.
At the end of the day, the script has a lot working in its favor: most notably; a genuinely unique hook and characters that prove engaging for a variety of reasons. Should some of the narrative wrinkles get ironed out, there is no reason to think the high-concept premise won’t appeal to at least a few studio financiers. If anything, the material should serve to help the writer generate some interest amongst industry reps.
Overall, a pretty good evaluation. I have to admit I liked it -- despite the fact that it uses the words "elderly husband" in the logline. In reality, the husband is essentially the same age as his murdered wife. However, that is a small point. Perhaps the reader was confused by the fact that the murderous husband Gabriel always carried a cane as an affectation (and weapon.)
Obviously, I have to agree with all of the strengths. Needless to say, I was less happy but not entirely surprised with the listed weaknesses. The film is first and foremost a character study. To me, what goes on inside the main character Andy Watson is much more important than the external "action." Throughout the story, Andy evolves from a likable but ineffectual slacker into a man capable of risking everything, including his life, in pursuit of justice. His journey follows the beats of the "Rites of Passage" genre, as defined by the late Blake Snyder, who, despite his death, currently remains the most popular screenwriting guru in Hollywood.
That said, the evaluator makes one excellent point. The emotional action of the story plays out against the relationship between Andy and his college sweetheart Holly. The two of them have been drifting apart since graduation. Andy's main motivation is his desire to earn back her respect. In this original draft, however, the two never actually break up. That was definitely a mistake on my part. Having Holly leave Andy when he finds himself in jail at the end of Act Two would make the obligatory Big Gloom even blacker and more hopeless. I immediately made the change and improved the script. That was a fifty dollars well spent!
Here's the second evaluation:
Dark Comedy, Dramatic Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
A slacker finds himself working at a unique mausoleum which combines embalming techniques with artificial intelligence, and finds a renewed sense of purpose when he's convinced a woman was murdered by her husband.
The relationship which develops between Andy and Carlotta is a sincere and heartfelt bond which emotionally grounds the story and offers Andy a chance to grow as a person. The whole concept of a mausoleum which uses AI and residual emotions is a creative idea that allows for a lot of sincerity. Finally, the breakdown of Andy and Holly’s relationship feels very organic and true to life, and it’s easy to see from his old video why Andy wants to salvage this doomed relationship.
While a suspension of disbelief is required and necessary for the story to work, there are elements of Andy’s character that contradict themselves, and some of these issues undermine the story’s logic. For instance, if Andy’s a relatively bright philosophy major, shouldn’t he realize that breaking into someone’s personal email (dead or alive) is both illegal and immoral? You don’t need to be a law student to realize that this will get Andy in trouble, so it weakens him as a character and this feeling of inevitability saps some of the rising tension. Instead, he should realize that the only way that Gabriel will get caught is via a confession, and there’s many comedic ways to approach this. Additionally, it’s not clear why Gabriel would put Carlotta in this mausoleum; after her death, he’s gotten what she wants, their new relationship is frosty and there’s nothing indicating that she’s there because of her will. Is there something she’s hiding that he needs? Does he still love her deep down? There’s a chance to make him a deeper antagonist if there’s a distinct reason why she’s in this unorthodox mausoleum.
This project’s prospects are rather bright. Conceptually, it has traces of HER and more often than not, the comedy works (save for a rather derivative and homophobic scene about prison rape). Some of the logic issues need to be ironed out and the characters could be more layered, but thanks to the quirky tone and the rather restrained budget, this has the feel of an indie film that could work either as a theatrical release or via VOD. Some audiences might be repelled by some of the darker elements, but this is a pretty funny and surprisingly emotional story about closure.
Once again, overall, a pretty good evaluation. Loved his/her logline. Very concise. Better than the one I was using in my initial query letters. If only for the logline, I have to say this was another fifty dollars well spent!
The second reader compliments the relationship between Andy and Holly. That's good. It means that my revisions concerning that relationship after the first review worked. That said, I disagree with some of the second reader's later conclusions.
For example, I don't see someone like Andy would be morally bothered by hacking into Carlotta's email account. The woman was murdered, and Andy will do anything to bring her killer to justice. He initially tries to do the right thing. He brings his information directly to the police only to be shot down. Now Andy and his friends know they have to act outside the law. Legal technicalities don't concern them as they seek justice. And, sure, there were other ways some clever guys could trick a paranoid killer into confessing his crime, but I didn't want to go that route. I did try. Originally, I wrote a long, complicated sequence where Andy and his friends try to convince the extremely paranoid Gabriel that he was being haunted by his wife. However, I didn't want Andy to beat Gabriel with his head. I wanted him to beat him with his heart. To make that more believable, I actually went back through the script and dumbed down Andy and his friends. (Maybe I didn't make them dumb enough!)
Thematically, Andy's desire to bring justice to Carlotta has to resolve his internal problem that manifests itself in his failing relationship with his college girlfriend Holly. Andy loves Holly and he made a sincere commitment to her. Still, she continues to drift away from him. While wrestling with that dilemma, he falls in love, albeit platonically, with the late Carlotta. He makes a commitment to her as well -- to bring her husband to justice -- and soon ends up facing a very long prison sentence. A plea bargain will win him his freedom, but compel him to abandon his commitment to Carlotta. Now he is forced to do something he never really did with Holly: Make a true sacrifice for love. His decision to reject the deal and remain in prison does briefly sideline him from the "action," but Andy is never a passive protagonist since the real struggle is internal. Plus, he's out soon enough to face down the villain.
I also reject the notion that the script is homophobic simply because Andy has a fear of prison rape. Would it be fair to label a woman who expresses a fear of rape in certain situations as being afraid of men? Nor do I think that scene would ruin the commercial prospects of the script since Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart just did a comedy almost entirely about the fear of prison rape. However, since the reader found it derivative, I will probably remove it....
Bottom line. Was it worth the money to place my script on The Black List? My answer: Yes. No one bought my script off the website, but the evaluations definitely helped me hone the material.
A couple of times a week, I drive past this sign. Sometimes it makes me chuckle. Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes it makes me angry. Lately, it has been making me angry because I believe it is symptomatic of a major failing of the American Evangelical community. Patriotism ceases to be a virtue when you place your love of country on the same level as your love of God. It is idolatry, and it is becoming rampant as the church becomes increasingly and foolishly political.
I try not to get too political or religious on this blog. Its purpose is to discuss the film business and writing in general. However, this absurd "culture war" that we find ourselves engaged in compels me to speak up because I believe the Evangelical community is doing a grave disservice to both itself and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only have we sold our souls to a partisan political agenda that does nothing to further the gospel, we sold it very cheaply at the expense of our credibility in the eyes of the people who need us most.
Christ gave the church a mission. It is called The Great Commission. It can be found in Matthew 28:16-20 and goes something like this: Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and Earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
That is an awesome task, but problems arise when we try to fulfill it. I think the major mistake comes when well-meaning people try to fulfill it by putting the cart before the horse. We are told to make disciples of all nations, baptize them and then teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded. We are leaving out the conversion and baptism part and trying to compel the people of this country to obey Jesus' commands using the legislative process. That process is ultimately counter-productive and doomed to failure.
I am not one of those people who say you can't legislate morality. That's silly. Every law passed in every country of the world is a moral judgement designed to compel its population to abstain from behavior the majority of the people or its leaders find harmful. Such laws are necessary to maintain an orderly society. Not surprisingly, most of the behavior prohibited by civil laws are also described as sins in the Bible. Sin separates human beings from God, and some people seem to believe that if they can stop people from sinning, they can reunite them with God. That, however, is an absurd assumption.
Until recently, when the term "hate crimes" entered our lexicon, laws primarily dealt with actions. Sin, however, is a matter of the heart. It is a sin to covet your neighbor's possessions whether or not you actually steal them. It is also a sin to covet your neighbor's wife, whether or not you actually sleep with her. Jesus said if you hate your brother, you are guilty of murder. God holds us to a much higher standard than the law, and only God can judge us by that standard because only He can see into our hearts. With our endless self-justifications, we cannot even see our own sin without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, too many of us feel capable of judging others when we can't even effectively judge ourselves. We see other people's sins all too clearly, and we aren't afraid to judge them. However, in doing so, we exceed the mandate given by Christ in the Great Commission.
John 3:15-17 states: "For God so loved the world, that He His only begotten Son, what whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him." Sometimes I think God didn't send Jesus to judge the world because He knew we would do a such good job on our own. Unfortunately, since we are replacing Jesus' compassion with our own condemnation, we are not doing a very good of saving the world.
It is foolish to think that non-believers would behave like believers. Why would they? Plenty of Christians don't even behave like Christians. And, even if non-believers obeyed the law, would it save them? No. We are saved by faith not works. The Apostle Paul teaches that the law itself cannot save. The law can only condemn. We are saved by the grace of the Lord. Think about it. Would anyone be saved if we managed to codify every commandment of God into the law of land and compelled everyone to obey? No.
This is the fundamental flaw behind the Religious Right's political engagement. Even if the politicians gave us everything we wanted it would not forward the Great Commission one iota. That said, what have the politicians given Evangelicals in return for their votes and hundreds of millions of dollars in donations over the last three decades?
I shouldn't say nothing. After all, a handful of religious leaders get their egos stroked when aspiring politicians come to curry favor every election cycle. That should count for something, I suppose. But let's look at the so-called hot button issues. Has abortion been banned? No. Has prayer returned to schools? No. Is Creationism being taught in the schools? Nope. Don't think so. Have drugs been stamped out? No, in fact, they are becoming increasingly legal. And we all know how the war against gay marriage turned out.
We got nothing from the politicians.
What did we sacrifice in return?
Love. And grace.
Wars are fought by enemies. When the church entered the culture war, we declared war on everyone who doesn't believe the same thing we believe. Oh wait, we only hate the sin, not the sinner. Yeah, right. It doesn't feel like love when someone's hitting you on the head with a placard. Jesus went and ate with sinners. We, on the other hand, self-righteously won't even bake them a wedding cake.
Let me tell you something. No one is going to hell because they are a homosexual. Or because they had an abortion. Or because they became addicted to drugs. Or because they drove sixty-five-miles-an-hour in a forty-mile-an-hour zone. The only people going to hell are those who refuse the Lord's free offer of grace and forgiveness.
How can I say that? Doesn't the Bible specify that homosexuals are going straight to hell. That's what the Bible says, but who else is going to join them? Revelation 21:8 says "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars -- they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."
You might pat yourself on the back for having kept away from sexual immorality. But have you ever told a lie? I bet you did. Well, guess what: If you were being judged solely on your own merits, telling one little white lie will send you to hell just as quickly as a whole lifetime of homosexuality.
Am I saying that sin doesn't matter? No. Not at all. I'm just saying that it is impossible to overcome sin without regeneration, and, even with God's grace, it is something we all still struggle with daily. Yet we still devote so much of our valuable time trying to elect politician to pass laws to force people to do things alien to their hearts. If we concentrated on changing their hearts instead, through good old-fashioned evangelism, we wouldn't even need the laws. And, may I remind you that the early church flourished under a much more evil and corrupt government than we have now. Perhaps it was because they spent more time seeking God than signing petitions.
So why do we spend so much time trying to change the laws?
Because it is easier to hate than to love.
And it easier to judge than forgive.
And because we're lazy. We want the government to do the work God has given the church.
Am I saying don't vote? No. Please vote your conscience in every election. Be politically active. (I have worked on dozens of election campaigns around the country.) Just try to remember that the gospel is more important than any election or any government or any country. After all, if you a Christian, this world is not your home. We have to keep our priorities straight. And if our angry, partisan political posts on social media are causing people who need the Lord to unfriend us, we are probably not putting the Kingdom first. (And not being political persuasive either.)
As for me, I am going to try not to pick any fights over politics anymore. Call me a sell-out if you must, but I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.