Monday, March 30, 2015

"The Encounter," Part 4, Aftermath

Yours Truly at the Premiere of The Encounter
When I finished editing "The Encounter," I sent the drives back to PureFlix where they edited in the final flashback scenes and did the sound mix and color correction.  Co-writer Tim Ratajczak and I were too busy writing to worry about those aspects of the production.   We didn't get any checking copies.  We would first see the film at the world premiere at the Boston Christian Film Festival.  Or I should say I would.  Tim, my lovely wife and I had attended the premiere of "Sarah's Choice" at the same film festival the previous year.  This year, however, Tim was still too sick to go and my wife had to work.  I would have travel to Boston alone.

The Boston Christian Film Festival was an evangelical enterprise organized by Tom Saab, who also happened to be an investor on "The Encounter."  The festival would rent a number of theaters in a multiplex for a weekend and show a wide variety of Christian films free of charge, and then give an altar call for anyone who felt inclined to accept Christ after the films.   The festivals seemed to be very successful.  The screenings were often very crowded.

A large PureFlix contingent flew out from Los Angeles for the film festival which was also serving as the premiere venue of their more highly-touted film "Jerusalem Countdown."  David A.R. White, the ultimate hyphenate, attended.  So did Steve "Sting" Borden, Jaci Valezquez, Jamie Nieto and practically the whole zany Gibney clan.  So did Carey Scott, the director of "Hidden Secrets" who also appeared as an actor in "Jerusalem Countdown," and Anna Zielinski, another star of "Jerusalem Countdown," who would loom large in the upcoming "Marriage Retreat."  Sadly, Bruce Marchiano didn't attend.  I still haven't had the chance to meet him yet.

David, Madison, Jamie, Sean, Anna, Carey
Not having attended the shoot, the festival finally gave me a chance to meet the actors that I had been editing for so long on my little computer in the corner of my dining room.  Sting hadn't seen the film yet.  Knowing that I was both the writer and editor, he pulled me aside and asked me what I had thought of his performance.  I told him that I liked his performance and that I only questioned his reading of one line in particular.  He asked what line and I told him -- adding that I knew David specifically directed him to say it that way.  Some people might question the wisdom of making a comment like that to the star of the film.  However, I have always appreciated honesty in regards to my work, and I felt he deserved the same respect.

The big moment came.  We went into the theater and sat near the front.  The theater was packed.  I sat next to Jaci and a few seats away from Sting.  The movie played and the audience immediately accepted it.  When the line I mentioned to Sting came up, he gave me a curious look.  I nodded with approval.  (He later asked what I thought about the line in the final film.  I said, honestly, that, with the music, it worked.)  When Jaci's character's flashback came up, she asked in a whisper which of the two girls was supposed to be her.  I answered, honestly, that I had no idea.  I had never seen the footage before.

After the film, the lights came up a bit.  Producer/Festival Organizer/Evangelist Tom Saab came forward and gave an altar call.  I was not prepared for the response.  Over two hundred people came forward to accept the Lord.  It was very humbling.

After seeing the response of that audience, I was anticipating big things upon the release of the film.  I was wrong.  It dropped into the market with zero marketing.  (I believe PureFlix was still pouring all of its money into "Jerusalem Countdown.")  I saw no ads.  No reviews.  Nothing.  I was crushed.  I felt we had made a film that would truly touch people, but it looked like no one would ever see it.

Then the film hit NetFlix.  I have previously written a blog about my belief that Netflix would destroy the independent film business, but it saved "The Encounter" from oblivion.  People saw the film on the website and word of mouth quickly spread.  It became a sleeper hit.  It soon rose to the Top 10 in it's category in Amazon and remained there for over two years.  Prior to the release of "God's Not Dead," PureFlix proclaimed it was the most profitable film they made.

But more important than the money were the testimonies I heard.  Non-believers have turned to the Lord after seeing the film, and believers have found their faith restored and their questions answered.  This film has only been seen by a fraction of people who have seen "Titanic," but I doubt "Titanic" changed as many lives.  There truly seems to be a special anointing on this film, and I am grateful to have been a part of it.

In retrospect, I wish this had been my last film with PureFlix.  There was a certain purity of purpose to "The Encounter."  We just wanted to make a little evangelical Jesus film that we felt would touch people and answer some of the modern objections to Christianity, and that's exactly what we did.  None of the major decisions involving the production were marred by ego, compromise, a desire for career enhancement or an unseemly grasping for money.

Sadly, that would not be the case on all of the films that followed.

Previous segments:
"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead
"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing
"The Encounter," Part 3, The Making Thereof

Read about the making of my previous features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Black Rider: Revelation Road nominated

My film "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road" has been nominated for Best Screenplay, Feature Film Category, at the International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, Florida.  The film, which was co-written by director/editor Gabriel Sabloff and starring James Denton, Kevin Sorbo and  David A. R. White, will be opening night feature at the film festival.

I am also delighted to announce that another film that Tim Ratajczak and I wrote "Open My Eyes," directed by Gabriel Alonzo and starring Dominick LaBanca and Jeanne Garcia, is also an official selection at the festival.   This is particularly satisfying because "Open My Eyes" was shot on a fraction of the budget of "Black Rider" and had none of its star power.  Good job!

Congratulations to the cast and crew of both films!

Here's the trailer for "The Black Rider:  Revelation Road":

Here's the trailer for "Open My Eyes":

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Heartbeat Magazine : The Promise Or, The Pros and Cons of Talking with ...

Heartbeat Magazine : The Promise Or, The Pros and Cons of Talking with ...: Interview with Sean Paul Murphy by Nicole Flothe: It was so nice to connect with Sean Paul via email after he read my review of S...

"The Encounter," Part 3, The Making Thereof

When we were finishing up the script, David A.R. White called with exciting news.  Sting wanted to be in our movie.  That was amazing.  We were both fans of The Police and we knew he could act, but appearing in this film seemed out of character for him.

"Really?" we asked, not quite believing it.

"Yeah," David replied, "and you know what:  He's a Christian."

Wow.  All the better.  David said, depending on Sting's schedule, he would play either the State Trooper or Nick, the former athlete turned businessman.  The more David talked about Sting, the more confused we got.  Finally, we asked, "Are we talking about Sting from the Police?"

"No," David said.  "Sting the wrestler."

Ah, at least now we understood why David wanted to change Nick from a businessman to an athlete....

Sting or Sting
Easy to mistake the two of them.
It's just as well.  Personally, I think Sting the wrestler did better with the role than Sting the singer would have.  If we had gotten Sting the singer, every time the word football got mentioned, people would have thought soccer, and we wouldn't want that!

One important role down.  The next one was the most important.  We all knew the success of the film would ultimately rested on Jesus -- both figuratively and literally.   We had little control over what the literal Jesus would do, so we had to concentrate on the figurative one.  Our fictional Jesus needed to hit the perfect tone.  He couldn't be too glib with the jokes, or too judgmental in the more serious moments.  Mostly, we wanted him to exude knowing compassion.  We needed a Jesus with his heart on a sleeve.  The kind of Jesus who would stubbornly love and reach out to people he knows will reject him.  Personally, my favorite depiction of Jesus was by Robert Powell in Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth."  That said, Tim and I also didn't necessarily want a WASPy Jesus.  We wanted some ethnic color.

David generally consulted Tim Ratajczak and I during casting, but we rarely pushed choices on him.  This time, however, we really pushed for the Latin heartthrob Eduardo Verastegui.  He had just appeared in the pro-life film "Bella" so we thought he would be sympathetic to our subject matter.   We also thought his presence would help us in foreign markets.  David nixed the idea because "Bella" didn't make any money.   David's first choice for Jesus was Alex Kendrick.

Alex Kendrick was a writer/director/producer/star at Sherwood Pictures, the makers of the faith-based hits "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof."  In a sense, they were PureFlix's principal rivals in the Christian marketplace.  The biggest difference was that the Sherwood Pictures were released theatrically to much fanfare and box office success.  Whether he was right for the role of Jesus or not, it made sense to try to get him because he was a popular known entity in the market.  But there was more to it than that.  Although David wears many hats in the business -- producer, director, writer, star, executive -- his identity is defined as an actor and he wanted a role in the upcoming Sherwood production "Courageous."  He was hoping that if Alex appeared in "The Encounter," there might be a quid pro quo and he would have a leg up over the competition.

Alex read the script and apparently complimented it, but he said he was too busy with the pre-production of "Courageous" to appear in the movie.  Sadly, David did not get a role in that film.  However, his friend and sometime partner Kevin Downes got a role in.

Next up for the role of Jesus was Bruce Marchiano, who had previously worn those sandals in "The Gospel According to Matthew."   I have to give David his due.  Bruce was an inspired choice.  Bruce captured exactly the right tone we intended.  He would later appear in five more films written by either Tim or myself.

Eduardo - Alex - Bruce
Pick Your Jesus
Next on board was faith-based singer Jaci Valesquez.  I thought she was excellent as the love lost Melissa.  I also thought she made marketing sense.   We had a great experience working with Rebecca St. James on "Sarah's Choice."  When I look back on the press the film received, it was easy to see that most of the publicity was generated by her people.  I am glad we got Jaci, and hoped she would generate similar publicity.

Yours truly with Jaci Valesquez
Next came Jamie Nieto as Hank, the husband of divorce minded Catherine.  I believe David might have met him in an acting class.  He also appeared in "Jerusalem Countdown."  Although Jamie was a relative newcomer to acting, he was an Olympian and track and field athlete.  Jamie placed 4th in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens in the high jump.  He could definitely jump over me height-wise, but I am not so sure about girth-wise (at the time.)  He gave a very thoughtful and earnest performance.

Jamie and yours truly
Which one is the professional athlete?
I am not sure how we got Danah Davis got into the mix as Jamie's dissatisfied wife Catherine, but I am glad we got her.  The role of the runaway Kayla was played by Madison Gibney, who was a student in an acting class David taught in San Diego.  This was her first role and she did a wonderful job.   She would appear in two more films I wrote.  Her brother Sean Gibney would also become a fixture on Pureflix sets -- both before and behind the camera.  So would their mother Debi Gibney -- who would be the ever helpful "set mom" on many films to come.

Yours truly and Madison
Kass Connors rounded off the principals as Officer DeVille.   Kass had already given us an amusing little turn as the befuddled criminal in "Holyman Undercover."  He also appeared in the film I edited, and nearly wrote, "In The Blink of an Eye."  He brought the perfect amount of menace as the devil.  (Deville/Devil -- get it?  Yeah, I thought so.)  We also wrote a nice little cameo for David at the end.

The film was scheduled to be shot in California over the course of a week -- mainly at night.  David decided to direct it.  We were fine with that.  Actors tend to good job directing other actors in actory pieces like this one.  Personally, I thought this would have been a good project for Tim to direct, but his health prohibited it -- even if he had been interested.  The film would be shot by the great Darren Rydstrom, who would tragically die before long in a helicopter working on another project for the Discovery Channel.  There was zero possibility of Tim and I going to the shoot.  Tim was still battling cancer, and, collectively we still had too much writing to do.  The day after we typed Fade Out on this script, we were hard at work on "Proof," "Marriage Retreat" and "Brother White."  David did, however, offer me the opportunity to edit "The Encounter."  It would be a labor of love.  I certainly wasn't doing it for the money.  Although I worked as a writer, my primary income came as an editor at the time, and independent feature films paid very poorly compared to commercials.  I probably lost money on every feature I edited, but I couldn't resist.

Darren Rydstrom on the set of Holyman
Undercover with David A.R. White
We followed the shoot on Facebook.  Then a hard drive showed up at my door with the footage.  Overall, I was happy with the footage and the edit went smoothly.  I must, however, confess some disappointment with the flashbacks.  I never liked the idea of Madison pointing the gun at her abusive stepfather, but that was a small point.  I hated the flashback of Sting's character as a young boy with his grandmother.  We make a huge point in the script about how he was raised by poor immigrants with thick accents and how he turned his back on them in embarrassment.  So what do they do?  They cast a kid and a grandma who sound like they're straight of out Kansas.  Oy vey.  It's like they didn't even read the script!  Don't get me wrong:  I have no problem with either actor.  They were just wrong for these roles.

I did not edit the flashback for Jaci's character responding to an altar call in a movie theater given by Tom Saab, one of the producers of the film.  I wouldn't even see that footage until the premiere, where I would find myself in a theater where Tom Saab gave an actual altar call.  Talk about surreal.

Before long the film was completed and we were ready for the premiere.

"The Encounter," Part 4, Aftermath

Previous segments:
"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead
"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing

Read about the making of my previous features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing

Early Artwork Mock-Up
"The Encounter" began on the Firday,  November 5, 2009.

I received a phone call from producer/director/star and all around hyphenate David A.R. White.  He wanted Tim and I to read a treatment.  He said it was about some people having an appointment to talk with Jesus in person --just like the film "The Perfect Stranger."  Yikes.

"The Perfect Stranger" was based on the book "Dinner with the Perfect Stranger" by David Gregory.  I had never seen the movie or read the book, but I was familiar with the basic plot.  Jesus sends a person an invitation to dinner at restaurant and then they talk.  I initially found this project somewhat unappealing.   At the time, PureFlix specialized in making "Christian" versions of successful "secular" films.  Essentially, David would see a movie he wished he could have starred in and then made his own version of it dressed up with some Christianity.  Timothy Ratajczak and I didn't like that.  We preferred working on original ideas rather than reworking other people's ideas.  And we certainly didn't want to get into the business of writing "Christian" versions of "Christian" films.  I remember reading something in the Bible along the lines of Thou Shall Not Steal.

Still, I read the treatment by Steve Taylor (not the singer), Jason Cusick and producer Michael Scott.  Michael Scott is, along with David, one of the owners of PureFlix Entertainment.  He apparently developed the concept with Steve and Jason.  I never met Steve or Jason.  However, if I remember correctly, Steve was involved somehow with the episode of the John Hagee show I wrote involving the PureFlix film "In the Blink of an Eye."

I skimmed the highly-detailed sixteen-page treatment.  I don't believe Tim ever did.  It was oddly structured.  It was like an outline with all of the characters, their backstories, symbolic items and actions for each of the people involved, and Bible quotes to be used to solve their problems.  But, strangely, it wasn't told like a story.  The intended film went like this:  Person A receives an mysterious invitation.  He/She goes to the address.  He/She meets Jesus.  They talk.  Jesus answers his/her questions and solves his/her problems.  Person leaves.  Next Person B gets an invitation.  Then Person C.  Then Person D.

I immediately called David and said the premise was unworkable structurally.  Films, generally, work on a three act structure.  It was impossible to give these characters an emotional arc over the course of the entire film when they all only appear in their own segments.  In fact, we would have to throw out the traditional three act structure entirely.  David knew we were right.  He asked us what we would do.  We said we would have Jesus interact with all of the characters at once.  We would structure it more like a "Twilight Zone" episode.  A bunch of strangers end up stranded at a mysterious diner only to be confronted by a man claiming to be Jesus.

David liked the new concept and the original treatment was completely discarded.  The main question was whether Tim was up to the challenge.  Tim had recently been diagnosed with leukemia and was battling for his life.  His fate was uncertain, but not his determination.  He wanted to write the movie, so we took the assignment.  We submitted the original treatment to David A.R. White a few days later on Sunday, November 7, 2009.  Wanna read it?  Here it is:



This film takes place on a dark stormy night.  Torrential rain is pouring.  Four cars are moving down an obscure side road far from the interstate.  Matthew Padden, 53, a high-powered real estate tycoon, needs to get across the desert to close an important deal.  His entire empire hangs on the result of the deal.  Hank and Catherine Miller, an unhappily-married couple, are driving home after dropping their son off at college.  Hank wants to save their marriage, but Catherine wants to end it now that their son is gone.  Melissa Lewald, 34, a single woman obsessed with getting a husband, drives with a hitchhiker she found on the road, Kayla Huettner, 17, who is fleeing an abusive home environment.  While they are driving through the wasteland, Melissa spots an inviting diner on the side of the road, but she continues driving.

All four of the cars soon find themselves stopped at an unmanned roadblock.  The bridge around the bend up ahead has been flooded out.   Everyone is frustrated, particularly Matthew.  He needs to go forward.  The only other way around is a two hundred mile detour.  Melissa recommends that they go back to the diner she passed.  Everyone is surprised by her suggestion because none of them saw the diner.  Still, they follow her.  What else are they going to do?

The folks arrive at the small diner.  The staff consists of a single man with the name Jesus on his nameplate, who welcomes them and makes them feel comfortable.  The diner phone is out, which frustrates everyone since they are all out of cell phone range.  Jesus takes their orders and starts cooking them their food.  There is something odd about Jesus.  He lets out little comments about the people that he could not possibly know.  Matthew is the most suspicious.  He wants to know how Jesus knows all these things.  Jesus explains that it is because he is The Jesus.


The people react to Jesus' revelation with varying degrees of suspicion and amusement.  Throughout the second act, Jesus and the customers talk.  They are trying to disprove his claims, but in the process, the customers reveal more and more about themselves and Jesus presents solutions.  It eventually becomes clear that Hank and Melissa are Christians.  They begin to respond to his words.  Matthew grows increasingly hostile to Jesus, and he seems to find an ally in Catherine.  Kayla find herself drawn to his message despite her hurts.  She comes to the Lord.


Matthew has had enough.  He rejects Jesus.  He wants to leave and take a chance on the bridge.  He's willing to take anybody with him.  Now it comes down to Catherine.  Will she stay with Jesus and her husband or leave with Matthew.  In the end, she decides to stay and accept Jesus.  Matthew leaves in disgust alone.

Morning.  Hank, Catherine, Melissa and Kayla wake up to find Jesus gone.  The rain has stopped.  The sky is sunny.  They're not completely sure that everything that had happened was real.  They get into their cars and leave.  They reach the road block.  It is still up, but now there are some state troopers on the scene.  The troopers tell them that the bridge was no longer flooded, but they had to clean up the wreck of a car that tried to get through it last night.  The driver was dead.  It was Matthew. 

The others are happy they spent the night at the diner.  "What diner?" The trooper asks.  The one about three miles back. The Trooper says there's no diner back there.  The customers go back to see that the trooper was correct.  They find their tire tracks where they left the road, but there is no diner.  Just a few items that Jesus had associated with them.

The End

David's response to the treatment was a single word, followed by a few exclamation points:  "Awesome!!!"  Tim and I started working immediately -- even before we had a signed contract.  That was not uncommon.  Tim and I trusted PureFlix completely.  Why wouldn't we?  After all, we were all Christians with a common goal, and we considered David to be a personal friend.   What could possibly go wrong?  (Nothing on this film.)

Still, writing "The Encounter" would  prove to be a daunting task on two levels.  First, we were essentially writing a one location film which places great limitations on the action.  The film would more resemble a stage play than a traditional movie.  This was unavoidable considering both the storyline and the budget.  This film would be the lowest budget feature film Tim and I had written, both individually and collectively.  David told me the shooting budget was sixty-thousand dollars, and the post couldn't have possibly cost half that amount, even if you included the cost of the trailer in the production budget rather than the marketing budget.  (Strangely, however, when we got our first profit participation statement, it reported that the budget of film was now $200,000.)

Our main location

The other, much more daunting, task was putting words in Jesus' mouth.  There was one thing for certain, we weren't going to have him quoting the Bible all the time.  Somehow, I can't imagine meeting Jesus walking the streets of gold in Heaven and him starting each sentence with "As I once said in Matthew Eighteen, verse six....."  Jesus doesn't need to quote the Bible to give his words authority.  He is the authority.  We wanted a conversational Jesus dealing with people and their problems where they lived.  Just like he did in Biblical times.  We didn't want a marble Jesus, we wanted a flesh-and-blood Jesus with heart and a sense of humor.

Tim and I dug quickly into the script.  Once we started writing, it flowed very easily.  Tim and I are both students of apologetics and the work was spiritually and intellectually fulfilling.   Normally, I would hammer out the structure of the scenes during the week and we would get together and work out the dialogue during the weekends.  We usually worked at my house, where my wife would always prepare us a nice dinner.  This time, she provided one of my favorite jokes in the movie, too.  Jesus' line when someone compliments him on the water served in the diner:  "It's my own recipe.  Two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen."   However, I remember us doing some of the later revisions at Tim's house for his convenience as a result of his health situation.

Annoyed by the deliberate actions of some of the investors to remove any subtle references to Catholicism in "Sarah's Choice," Tim tried again.  We referred to the minister who helped our runaway as "Father," but his title was changed by the producers to "Pastor."  However, catching the small reference, they missed a much bigger one.  Tim worked to make the meal Jesus prepared for the guests highly symbolic of communion.  That managed to slip through.  I was happy.  The us versus them of Protestants versus Catholics, as well as between different Protestant denominations and traditions make a mockery of God's grace.  I'm sick of it.

We finished the first draft of the script on December 19, 2009.  Forty-two days after the submission of the treatment.  That was twenty-eight days more than it took us to finish the first draft of "Sarah's Choice."  But please don't think we were slacking.  During that same time we were finishing up David's new one man show "Prodigal," honing the treatment for "Marriage Retreat," and working on the original concept for "Brother White."  All while Tim was still battling cancer.

Hyphenate David A.R. White on the set
When we finished the first draft, David asked us to change our arrogant businessman to an athlete, preferably a football player.  I wasn't happy about that change.  I had a (step)-son-in-law who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and I didn't want anyone in the family to think I was making a comment about him.  Still, we made the changes and the script was done.


We were also instructed to beef up the role of the State Trooper.  We added him to the beginning and turned him into the devil.  However, there is one thing we didn't do:  We didn't name him Officer Deville in our draft.  That was way too obvious for us.  I cringe when I hear it in the film, especially when Kayla spells it out at the end.  Please.  That's just insulting the intelligence of the audience. It's saying they couldn't figure it out themselves....

Oh well.

Now it was time to cast and shoot the movie.

"The Encounter," Part 3, The Making Thereof

Previous segments:
"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead

Read about the making of my previous features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.