Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Hidden Secrets" Revealed, Part 3, The Writing

Tim and I with our first checks for "Hidden Secrets"

Now that Tim and I had the assignment, we had to write the movie.

Being our first commissioned project with a new client, a great deal of effort was expended on our character descriptions and a very detailed beat sheet that covered the entire film.  Then, once the actual writing began, we would send over every fifteen or so pages to make sure we were on the right track.  This would prove to be a marked contrast to our later scripts for PureFlix.  Once we had gained their trust, the process became easier.  They would call us and discuss what kind of film they wanted to make -- usually a variation on some successful "secular" film.  We would send them a short treatment which would often only be a paragraph or two long.  They would send us a contract.  We would rewrite the contract and sign it.  They would sign it.  Then we would get started.  We would usually write an entire draft of the script before letting them read anything.  That process worked quite well up until our last, or should I say, most recent, project with PureFlix.  (I'll blog about that later.)

Once again, the film was structured like The Big Chill.  A number of friends of the deceased Christopher Hayden, would gather for the weekend and solve all their problems in the process.  (Hey, it's a movie.)  The film was envisioned as an ensemble piece with each character having a separate story and an arc.  Ultimately, it didn't work out that way, but that was the plan.

The main character would Jeremy Evans, the best friend of the unseen deceased.  We knew he would ultimately be the main character because he was being played by actor/producer David A.R. White.  He didn't hire us to write him a supporting role!  The other principal characters included Sherry Hayden, the sister of the deceased and the former love of Jeremy's life; Rachel Wilson, Jeremy's current near fiancee; Harold Mirfin, a high school friend of Jeremy and Christopher; Rhonda DeMeo Mirfin, Harold's judgmental wife; Anthony DeMeo, high school friend of Jeremy, Christopher & Harold as well as the brother of Rhonda; Sally Hemmings, Anthony's girlfriend; Michael Stover, one of Christopher's college friends; and Gary Zimmerman, Christopher's employer.  Those characters remained consistent throughout the process.  One character was lost.  In the original script, Christopher's high school sweetheart was also present.  She was a counterweight to Michael's character, but she was soon eliminated as his role lessened.

Tracy Melchoir as Sherry Hayden and
David A.R. White as Jeremy Evans.

Being a Christian film with a point of view, aside from being an individual each character also had to represent a problem.  After Sherry had broken up with him in college, Jeremy had given up his true calling as a minister and had fallen into sexual promiscuity and advertising.  I'll let you decide which one was worse.  Sherry was dealing with the guilt of a secret abortion after she got pregnant in college while cheating on Jeremy.  Anthony had given up on life after a knee injury ended his college football career and his dreams of being a pro.  Rhonda's sin is that she is too legalistic and judgmental.  Gary is an atheist.  And Michael is gay!

That's a lot of sin for a Christian movie.

Too much, we soon discovered.

Remember, the purpose of the film was to press all of the hot buttons, but it turns out that some people didn't want those buttons pressed.

Here's one of the problems with Christian films.  The gatekeepers -- the pastors of mega-churchs, the heads of radio and television ministries, and organizations that help decide whether little indies like this film get picked up by Christian Book stores -- want everyone to be saved, but they don't want anyone to sin or even talk about it too much!  Of course, if there's no sin there's no need for salvation.  And, speaking as a dramatist, very little conflict.  That's why practically all white Protestant faith-based films are so Pollyannish.  Why do I say white and Protestant.  Easy.  There is a very viable African American faith based market entirely separate from the white market.  In the African-American faith based film, people actually behave like human beings and even sin before coming to repentance.  Heaven forbid!  I have also seen a few, mainly Italian, Catholic lives of saints films.  Those films tend to reflect the spirit of Cecil B. DeMille in which all sorts of decadence and debauchery are depicted before the inevitable wrath of God and repentance.

Take for example Jeremy's problem:  Sexual promiscuity.  In the final movie, it has been toned down to essentially two statements:  "I've given into the flesh," and "I've done things I'm ashamed of."  Duh!  I could say the same thing about myself after eating a whole container of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.  If the purpose of the character was to illustrate the spiritual and emotional dangers of sexual promiscuity and the healing grace of God in response than we have failed.  If you can't honestly deal with the problem, than the solution will feel just as fake.  In my opinion.

But dealing with Jeremy was no problem compared to Michael.  Michael was perhaps the first person in a faith-based film personally dealing with the issue of homosexuality.  In the final film, Michael is a dour, morose, suicidal guy.  Not only that, to further placate the gatekeepers, we had the add a bit about him being molested as a child by a family member so that the audience would know it wasn't his fault.  He wasn't always that way.  Originally, he was a cheerful, colorful character.  Think Christian Oscar Wilde.  We made the mistake of giving him many of the best jokes.  Tim and I have subsequently learned to play it safe and always give the star the best jokes.  Nothing remains of his back story.  Originally, Michael was physically attracted to Christopher when he met him in college.  But, instead of getting sex from Christopher, Michael got Jesus.  Since then, Michael had wrestled with his feelings and impulses, but was moving forward in his Christian walk.

Corin Nemec as Michael.
Gay?  Or just an unfortunate clothing choice?

But that was not to be.  Jeremy and Sherry were both able to overcome the guilt of their sexual sin, which in one case even led to a death via abortion, and live happily ever after.  However, someone, I don't know whether it was at the production company or one of the executive producers, didn't feel that Michael deserved the same happy ending.   They felt that Michael, unlike Jeremy and Sherry, deserved ongoing, continual punishment for his sexual sin.   Hence, he had to be dour and suicidal.  The irony is that in the film, Michael tells Rhonda, "Are you saying God's grace is sufficient for your sins but not mine!"  I think he could have said that to someone on the production too.

(Man, I must not care if I am burning bridges!)

No one actually had much complaint with our resident atheist.  Originally, he was Jewish.  However, the powers-to-be decided to make him half-Jewish.  Tim found that ridiculous because you are either Jewish or you are not Jewish.  If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.  If your mother isn't Jewish, you are not Jewish.  You are never officially half Jewish.  The identity of your father is irrelevant.    Still, other than that, Gary managed to stay reasonably intact despite his stem cell research.  Probably because practically everything he says is immediately challenged by the judgmental and overly-zealous Rhonda.

John Schneider as Gary
"Christians?  Where are the lions when you need them?"

Ah, Rhonda.

Rhonda is always the most talked about person in the movie, and the character who consistently gets the biggest laughs.  (At her expense.)  A secular viewer once said of "Hidden Secrets" that "it has the nerve to make one of its most appealing characters, a stem-cell researcher played by John Schneider, an atheist, and the least appealing a scripture spouting hypocrite."  The hilarious thing that some Christian reviewers have gone as far as to say that there aren't really people like Rhonda.  Yeah, right.  Come on, if you claim to be a Christian, you are supposed to be honest.  The Christian audience responds so well to her because they have seen her in their own lives, and they want to see her get her comeuppance.

Autumn Paul as Rhonda
Remind you of anyone?

I remember seeing the film in a theater during its limited theatrical run.  We got talking to one of the other moviegoers and exchanged emails.  He later said that on the way home his wife asked him if she was like Rhonda.  He said he answered honestly and that led to a six hour conversation.  People know Rhonda, but I'm not going to say here, on this blog, that she's based on a real person.  Because, if I said that, that person would kill me.  (And Tim.)

(I've have to do a later blog about how much of their own lives, and the lives of the people around them, shows up in an author's work.  Complicated issue.)

Back to Rhonda.

The truth be told, I was Rhonda.

Over a period of time, I developed a position of trust with a friend who seemed to be searching to the point that we were discussing spiritual matters.  Then one day the subject of abortion came up and I laid into her about it.  Really laid into her.  I was sooooo right.  And, you know what, I probably was.  But was the Lord served?  A wall came up between me and that woman.  The openness was gone forever.  In retrospect, I think it's easy to see that I should have made sure my friend knew the Lord and then let the Lord deal with her heart.  And her politics.

Rhonda, to me, is a symbol of those people in the church who think that there is a political solution to the moral problems of the country.  There isn't.  Think about it.  What would happen if we quote/unquote succeeded?  What would happen if we codified every Christian belief into law, and, more importantly, everyone obeyed the law?  Would that save anyone?  No, of course not.  Christianity is built on faith not works.  No amount of political action will ever save anyone!  No matter who you vote in.  No matter who sits on the Supreme Court.  Historically, the Church has its greatest growth in times of persecution, not when Christians wield political power.  We have religious freedom in America.  In China, the church is still persecuted.  Where's the growth?  (I'll give you a hint:  Not America.)

Early Christians conquered the Roman world spiritually.  By the second century, the pagan temples in the East were empty.  The lives and hearts of people were changed.  It wasn't done through political protests.  It was accomplished through love, compassion, charity and grace.  And the willingness of Christians to die for their beliefs.  Widespread corruption didn't enter the Church until it became the official state religion of Rome.  Do we honestly want to repeat that mistake?

I may say that I love the sinner but hate the sin, but the sinner probably isn't going to see it that way when I'm hitting him on the head with a placard.  And who am I serving by hitting him on the head?  Jesus?   I don't think so.  Jesus said he came to call sinner to repentance not the righteous.  Everyone talks about how all Jesus talked about was love.  Not so.  He got pretty angry at times, and that anger was always directed at the religious authorities and the self-righteous.

Am I saying not to vote?  No, of course not.  Vote your conscience!  Am I saying not to try to right political wrongs?  No, of course not.  Make the world a better and more just place.  I'm just saying that, if you claim to be a Christian, but your zeal for an issue brings you to a point where you come to hate your opponents, you should probably reexamine your priorities.

Hey, there I go again being judgmental.

It's so easy to be Rhonda!

Let's get back to the subject at hand:  screenwriting.

The question many of you are probably asking is: Why, if the changes were so bad in your opinion, did you make them?

Because screenwriting is not just an art.  It is also a job.  Neither Tim or I woke up one morning with the dream to write a Christian version of "The Big Chill."  It was David A.R. White's dream.  Did Tim and I infuse it with our thoughts and personalities?  Yes, of course.   But it was ultimately David's film.  He was the one who willed it into being.

And, if you choose screenwriting as a profession, you have a professional obligation to give the person who hired you the script they want.  Even if it worse than your script!  This is where the rubber meets the road.  It's easy to write a spec script when you get to make all the decisions.  The difficulty comes in maintaining your voice and your integrity within the confines of someone else's vision.  That's what it means to be a professional writer.  In my humble opinion.

And what of the changes?

Some of them were a result of philosophical or theological differences.  However, the bulk of the changes were made to make the film more palatable to the audience of the genre.  Tim and I would later learn what happened when you didn't take the concerns of the "gatekeepers" into account:  Your access to the market is blocked.  As a result your investor doesn't get his money back.  Therefore, he doesn't give you the money to make another movie.

You want your investor to get his money back.  Whether you a making an action film, a horror film or a Christian film.  Perhaps especially if it is a Christian film.  After all, there's that pesky commandment that "Thou Shall Not Steal."

Therefore, although I sometimes chafe at the notes, I understand why they want the changes.  And perhaps they understand the market better than me.  Plus, not all the changes were horrible.  I do have to give Mr. David A.R. White some credit.  He actually contributed some entertaining moments to the film.

I believe Tim and I actually began writing the script itself in November 2005.  We didn't have much time.  It had to be done quickly.  They wanted to shoot in January 2006.  They needed to be casting by mid-December, before the Christmas holidays.

We had it finished with days to spare.

We were going into production.

Yeah, baby.

Hidden Secrets, Revealed, Part 4, Production


Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

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.

2 comments:

  1. One of my favorite movies! Rhonda's character is VERY convicting!! It is very easy to fall into legalism, and I had to take the time to re-examine my own attitude toward some people. I just happen to like movies that make me think about whether or not I am following Jesus....or my own image of Him!
    Seeing flawed Christians is very refreshing. I have fallen and been forgiven so many times myself.
    Thanks!
    Cindy Navarro

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the movie, Cindy. As I said, it is very easy to become Rhonda. She's only a judgment away!

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