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Dallas Jenkins Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Solving problems is really what filmmaking is all about, and the bigger the problem you solve, the more rewarding and educational it is."
-- Dallas Jenkins

Dallas Jenkins produced the $2 million independent "Hometown Legend" at the age of 25, ultimately guiding it to Warner Brothers for distribution. Dallas made his directing debut with the short film "Cliché," which "FilmThreat.com" called "Fast and funny...ingenious," and his next short film, "Midnight Clear", starring Stephen Baldwin, won a Crystal Heart Award from the Heartland Film Festival and was the opening night selection of the San Diego Film Festival.

In 2006, he was the Co-Executive Producer of "Though None Go With Me," a movie based on his father's book that aired on The Hallmark Channel. His feature directing debut, also called "Midnight Clear," was based on his short film and was featured in over a dozen film festivals, including winning the Cinequest Film Festival award for "Best First Feature" and the "Audience Choice" award at the Kansas Int'l Film Festival. It's currently available on DVD from Lionsgate.

In 2009, Dallas directed his 2nd feature film, entitled "What If...," starring Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson, John Ratzenberger, and Debby Ryan. The film is scheduled to hit theaters in Fall 2010. He recently accepted a position as Director of Visual Media at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, where he'll produce and direct multiple films starting in 2011.

Could you share with us how you ended up working with PureFlix? Were you assigned What If . . . or did you bring the idea to them?

I talked with the guys at Pure Flix about working together on something, because we felt they bring some skills and interests to the table that we didn’t have, and vice versa. They brought “What If…” to the table as a project we could do, and I loved the idea, so we developed and produced it together.

You’re the primary casting director, correct? I’d love to hear how you ended up choosing and obtaining your primary actors.

Well, a Casting Director is someone you hire to find actors to audition and to close the deals with the actors you choose. Yes, I have the final say, but the Casting Director provides the options. That said, on this film, most of the lead actors came from relationships I had—I was friends with Kevin Sorbo, I met John Ratzenberger at a party and discussed the role with him, I was friends with Debby Ryan, and I had a mutual friend of Kristy Swanson. It just worked out that way on this film, which was definitely divine intervention because all the actors were ideal for the roles. I didn’t seek them out because they were my friends; in fact, I didn’t think of Kevin or Kristy until late in the process, after we’d already considered some other people. Thank God (literally) they came to the table, because they were better than I could have ever hoped.

What If Movie PosterA real star in the movie is little Taylor Groothuis. How did you end up working with her?

Wow, it’s funny how many comments we get about Taylor. People go nuts for her. I have to say she’s the performance I’m most proud of, because she’d never acted before. She was a local in Michigan whose audition I saw online, and something about her stuck out to me even though she wasn’t necessarily as good an “actress” as some of the other candidates. I told the casting director I wanted to meet her and asked if her Mom would be willing to drive to meet us (we were two hours away). Turns out her Mom is a huge Jerry Jenkins fan and was beside herself for the opportunity. Taylor and I worked hard to get her comfortable and natural on camera, but once she did, everything was magic. She’s simply a special and unique talent, and since this film has been cast in several films and TV shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became a star.

What surprised you the most in working with these talented actors?

How good they were! I knew that Kevin would be comfortable on camera, but I didn’t know he was an ACTOR. And while I liked Kristy, she’d never played a role like this before. And Debby is a Disney actress, and Disney Channel shows are a totally different style than a movie. All three of them blew me away from day one, and we’ve gotten countless responses saying, “I didn’t know Kevin and Kristy were this good!” God really had his hand on us in this one.

How much input did you have on the What If... script?

As the director, I have the final say on the script, and like any director, I did some tweaking to make it my own vision, along with giving notes throughout the process. But I’m not a screenwriter; I don’t think I could ever write a script from scratch. The writers on this project, Cary and Chuck, are fantastic pros who made my job pretty easy!What If Production Still

Once you had a final script, I’m curious how much changes during the actual shooting process. Was there a lot of tweaking and changing as the filming progressed?

Not a lot.

There are always tweaks based on having to change locations, or having to cut something because of the schedule, or in most cases, the actor feeling like certain lines need tweaking to sound more natural or whatever. But really, Cary and Chuck did an incredible job on this one. On all my movies, I have a friend who’s amazing with dialogue who works with me to sharpen some things up a bit as we get closer to shooting, but that’s normal. And we had less to do on this one than any other movie I’ve made.

You’ve spent the last couple years really studying your craft through books, watching movies and talking with other industry professionals. What aspect of your moviemaking skills do you think most improved in What If ...?

Definitely the visuals. I’ve always felt comfortable with actors because of my background in theatre and acting, and I’m pretty good with managing a set and keeping a level head during the shoot day. Obviously, I’ve grown and will still grow in those areas, but with the look and style of my films, I was a total amateur before What If…. I think I actually kept my crew from being as good as they otherwise were in that department! In the year and a half or so leading up to making What If…, I worked and researched tirelessly on the craft of visual storytelling, and while I still have light years to go, I think What If… shows strong growth in that area.

What If Production StillWhat was your favorite (or humorous) ad lib moment on set that ended up in the film?

This wasn’t a humorous moment, but it was a key moment. There’s a scene in the film where Wendy (played by Kristy Swanson) tells Ben (Sorbo) to read a passage of Scripture to her. The script called for Wendy to actually read it to him to try to teach him a lesson, but Kristy told me that felt wrong. And she was so right. The scene is ten times better because of her idea. And we didn’t tell Kevin she was going to do it, so he didn’t prepare for it or anything. He gets emotional while reading in the scene, and I believe that happened because of the spontaneity and naturalness of the moment.

Is it intentional on your part to add humor to your movies? I love some of the subtle quips this film has.

Very much so. After my last film I resolved to make sure my films had plenty of humor, because audiences really love to laugh and be audibly engaged with a film, even if it’s not an outright comedy. Cary and Chuck wrote some good stuff, my friend and I added some one-liners, and then of course John Ratzenberger is hilarious, and Kevin Sorbo has terrific comic timing as well.

Back when we talked a couple years ago I remember you saying you hoped to someday make a movie like Jerry Maguire or It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m thinking you might’ve done that in What If ..., but what do you think?

Well, I can’t put this in their category in terms of level of greatness, but perhaps in the storyline and meaning. This movie definitely felt natural to me; I’ve never been more comfortable with a story.

What has been your most memorable moment in film making, whether it be working on What If... or some of your other movies?

There was a day on What If…, day six I believe, and I talk about this in my video blog from the set at http://whatifmovie.wordpress.com/, where we had no chance of getting everything done we had to get done. Halfway through the day I thought we were completely sunk. How we managed to end up getting what we needed was definitely one of the toughest yet most rewarding days of filmmaking I’ve experienced. Solving problems is really what filmmaking is all about, and the bigger the problem you solve, the more rewarding and educational it is.What If Production Still

It was cool to hear a Jars of Clay song featured in the movie. They’re a personal favorite of yours, aren’t they? How did it come about that they recorded a song for the movie?

It’s actually not a Jars of Clay song, it’s a song written and performed by their lead singer Dan Haseltine, something he did on the side. Dan’s a close friend of mine and has had music in all of my films. And yes, Jars of Clay is probably my favorite band of all time, which was true even before I met Dan. This song in our film, “Can’t Save You,” is simply beautiful, and should be available on itunes very soon.

Speaking of music, it’s a tradition of yours to sing something on each of your films. I think I heard you at the end of What If.... Am I right? If so, how did you choose this song?

No, the last song was sung by Steve Azar, a terrific artist, who wrote a beautiful song called Prelude. I sing on two songs played earlier in the film through Mike the Angel’s radio—two hymns we did country style, “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus” and “Rock of Ages.”

You’ve recently taken a new direction in your film-making---becoming media director at a large church. Could you share with us what’s on the horizon for you in this capacity? Does this mean we won’t see another Jenkins Entertainment movie for awhile?

Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago wants to make movies, as well as increase their level of production and media across the board, including weekend services. They’ve brought me on as Media Director, so it’s a full-time job managing church media and production. But every year and a half or so, I’ll take a sort of “movie sabbatical,” and I’ll direct or produce a feature film with them. It’s an incredible opportunity—they’re really serious about this. I never thought I’d be working for a church, but God works in mysterious and wonderful ways, and I feel like I’m home.

Jenkins Entertainment will still exist, albeit in a very different capacity. We’ll bring our experience, resources, and relationships to the table, and will essentially be partnering with Harvest on these films, but I’m first and foremost a Harvest guy now.

Parting words?

As always, people can email me anytime at djenkins@harvestbiblechapel.org to talk about film and pop culture and the church. Keep supporting films you believe in and like, we need them to be successful if we want more.

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C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.