|Early Artwork Mock-Up|
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.
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|
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....
Now it was time to cast and shoot the movie.
To be continued....
"The Encounter," Part 1, Proof God's Not Dead
Read about the making of my previous features:
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.