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Dallas Jenkins Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I want to bring more faith-based themes to the mainstream film world, and I want to bring more darkness and reality to the Christian film world."
-- Dallas Jenkins

Dallas Jenkins produced the $2 million independent Hometown Legend at the age of 25 and supervised every aspect of the production, from the completion of the script to the distribution. Dallas made his directing debut with the short film Cliché, which FilmThreat.com called "Fast and funny...ingenious," and his latest 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 Jerry Jenkins’ book that aired on The Hallmark Channel. His feature directing debut, also called Midnight Clear, is based on the short film and recently won the Cinequest Film Festival award for "Best First Feature."

C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to make movies?

Dallas: When I was in high school and saw One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I thought, “I want to make movies with that kind of emotional impact.”

What films had the most impact on you as a child?

Ironically, I didn’t watch many movies when I was a kid, as we weren’t a big TV-watching family, and my parents were pretty protective of what I saw. It was when I got into Junior High and High School that my Dad introduced me to the classics, such as The Godfather, Bonnie & Clyde, Kramer vs. Kramer, etc. In high school, we would see a couple movies a week, nearly every movie the theater was showing.

When and how did Jenkins Entertainment come to be?

I was working for Namesake Entertainment, the company that was developing the Left Behind movie. During that process, I came across the script for Hometown Legend. My Dad had acquired the means to finance a company, and I had acquired a lot of knowledge and experience in the business, so we decided to do our own thing.

What is your vision for the company?

We simply want to make great movies, with a focus on telling stories from our worldview. I want to bring more faith-based themes to the mainstream film world, and I want to bring more darkness and reality to the Christian film world.

Recently on your blog you said, “I think that faith-based films have a tendency to be so sugar coated and sanitized that the ultimate redemption they try to portray is tempered.” Could you expound on that statement?

What makes the gospel so powerful and relevant isn’t that it saves people who have moderate-level struggles and “family friendly” problems. The reason the gospel is awe-inspiring is that it saves the prostitute, the liar, the murderer. In trying to make our films “clean,” family-safe, and easy on the eyes and ears, we are leaving out the most important part of the salvation and redemption story, which is the “wretch like me” part. I want to portray characters on screen that an unbelieving audience member can recognize, so that hopefully he’ll say, “Hope or redemption were possible for that person, maybe hope and redemption aren’t impossible or bizarre ideas.”

This brings up the issue of relevance—being relevant as a film maker and yet honoring your convictions as a Christian. How do you keep the “edge” in your films without going too far?

I think that as a Christian, I go too far if I have elements in my film that cause an audience member to have impure or immoral thoughts, or to believe that immoral behavior is beneficial or attractive. I would avoid showing violence or vulgarity in a glorifying way, and I would try not to show sexual behavior in a titillating way that would cause someone to lust. That said, I don’t believe that portraying sinful behavior (yes, including the sin of saying a bad word!) is always wrong. I think it’s safe to say that the Bible would be Rated R if it were made into a film. The key is to show sinful behavior as having destructive consequences.

Midnight ClearLet’s talk about your latest movie, Midnight Clear. Tell us about the story and where the film stands in the production process.

Midnight Clear tells the story of five strangers in various levels of loneliness and depression on Christmas Eve, supposedly the most joyous night of the year. Two of the characters are actually planning suicide, and all of the characters feel completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the rest of the world. But as the night progresses, they randomly cross paths, and through small and subtle ways, alter each other’s lives forever. The story is basically about how hope and redemption are possible, even in small ways, even in the darkest of circumstances. We have basically finished the film and are currently showing it at different film festivals around the country.

How did you come to cast Stephen Baldwin in the lead role?

I met Stephen a couple years ago because of some mutual contacts, and we became friends and mutual admirers. He agreed to star in the short film that we did for this story in 2005. When we expanded it to a feature, we used the same cast, including him, of course.

What was it like working with him?

He’s quite a unique guy; very scattered and seemingly distracted when he’s working. But he’s actually quite brilliant, and at the end of the day, he delivers. His performances in both the short and the feature are terrific. Once I figured out that part of his process includes not trying to “over-prepare,” I had a blast working with him. Most actors can’t work that way, but he’s a master at it.

I hear you and your dad are working on turning the screenplay into a novel? How’s that coming along?Hometown Legend

We’re almost done---I’m working on the rewrite right now. It’s actually been surprising how well it seems to be coming along. The publisher is thrilled with it, and it feels like we might have something special.

As a father and son team, what do you do if one of you thinks a project should go a certain direction, but the other wants to take it down a different path?

That rarely happens—we’re very much alike and have similar paths. Ultimately, he trusts me as a filmmaker, and when it comes to a film decision, he lets me make the final choice. But I’d be an idiot not to strongly consider any story advice he has.

Going back a few years . . . When you produced Hometown Legend, based on your dad’s novel, what challenges did you face in adapting the book into a screenplay?

The two biggest challenges are one, condensing a long story into 100 minutes, and two, communicating visually and verbally what we only know from characters’ thoughts in a book. You have to create characters and lines that condense the story while moving it forward, always keeping in mind the overall intentions of the book.

Tell us about Jenkins Entertainment’s upcoming projects.

A few of my Dad’s books are always being looked at, including his Soon trilogy (a futuristic thriller) and his book Twas the Night Before, a Christmas gem. But our passion project is based on the book The Man Who Moved a Mountain, which tells the true story of Bob Childress, a man who went from being the biggest fighter and the hardest drinker in the 1920’s mountains of Virginia to a preacher who transformed the entire region. It’s an incredible story that I want to film by the end of this year.

Though None Go With MeWhat is your favorite part of the movie making process?

Casting and working with the actors is exhilarating for me. Finding the people who understand the text the best, and then working with them to communicate it, is absolutely my favorite part of filmmaking.

The hardest?

The hardest part is knowing the difference between what I think is interesting and what the audience will understand or appreciate. I call it the “balance of art and commerce.” If you think too much about your own art and what you like with zero regard for your audience, you’ll make something that no one will watch or like. But if you make something solely for the widest audience possible and the lowest common denominator, you’ll make kool-aid. Striking that balance is my eternal struggle—how do I make something that’s artistic AND audience-friendly?

In the editing room, you need to always challenge yourself and always pay attention to the comments and critiques you’re getting from those who are analyzing your work. If there’s a common thread to their criticisms, then you need to re-think a choice.

What would you love to write/direct/produce someday but haven’t yet?

What a great question. On a general level, I want to make a film like Jerry Maguire or It’s a Wonderful Life. On a personal level, I’ve been developing a story in my head for over five years that will make a movie that, if successful, could really shake some things up. The story is very involved and complex, but here’s part of the backdrop—what if there was a hugely popular song from a famous hip-hop artist in which the lyrics literally told the listeners to shoot someone on a specific date and time? And that on that date and time, the artist would do it, too?

At the end of the first film you directed, Cliché, you sing a song during the closing credits. So, do you think you missed your calling? :)

In every film I’ve directed, you’ll hear me sing at least one song. In the Midnight Clear feature, I sing at least two songs that are playing on a radio or TV, and I also do some voices for TV and radio shows playing in the background. This is done partially because I like doing voices and singing clichéd songs, but it’s also done because it saves time and money in the post production studio! I’m actually not that great of a singer, but I can usually imitate something enough to make it sound real.

Okay, I gotta ask: What’s your most embarrassing moment as a film maker?Dallas Jenkins

Well, I haven’t had any moments that were embarrassing in a funny way—I tend to not get too embarrassed like that. But I’ve definitely had a few vulnerable moments, and those come when I don’t have an immediate solution for a problem and the whole crew is waiting for the next step. Or when I’ve given a direction to an actor, and the actor disagrees with me or points out the flaw in my argument, and I don’t have a backup plan. It makes me look unprepared, which always makes an actor or crew member very nervous. In these moments, I usually try to say, “I’m sorry, I need some time to think about this.” And then I feel extreme pressure, which is embarrassing, in a way.

On a surface level, I remember that the sound was really bad at the premiere screening of Cliché. That was humiliating, because it kept people from enjoying my work.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started in the movie making business?

I wish I’d been a little more knowledgeable of the technical side of things. I’m still lacking in that department (knowledge of equipment, mainly), but I’m learning enough to not waste as much time as I used to by asking obvious questions or making requests that were impossible due to technical limits. I also have certain regrets about decisions I’ve made on a few of my films, either story-wise or business-wise, but unfortunately, I probably had to make those mistakes to learn the lessons I did. I just hope and pray that I can make up for them on future films and justify my Dad’s investment in me.

What actor or actress would you love to work with someday and why?

Man, I love these questions! Best interview I’ve ever done, by far.

Anyway—Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep are the two I’d most like to work with. Cruise because he’s so passionate, dedicated, and hard-working, and every director who’s worked with him says he’s a dream. And Meryl Streep because she’s the best actor, male or female, of all time. Period.

If you could change one thing about the film industry, what would it be?

The monumentally slow pace of getting deals made. It takes forever to get contracts done and to get phone calls returned. It drives my wife absolutely insane.

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

If you did an online search for my name and the word “poker,” you’d see some interesting and reasonably successful tournament results.

I once scored 45 points in a basketball game in high school. I guess I should say something negative, too, huh? Okay, I have a deep fear of the ocean.

When you’re not making movies, what do you enjoy doing?

Spending time with my family, reading, playing poker, ministering to friends and my church, and following sports.

You’re at the checkout counter in Barnes & Noble and are purchasing one item each from the books, music & movie sections. What are you buying?

The book I’m buying is either about filmmaking or poker (yes, I play poker, I’m sorry!), the music I’m buying is Jars of Clay, and the movie I’m buying is It’s a Wonderful Life.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

I eat Special K With Red Berries two meals a day, and I have for over a year. I’m not kidding. It’s relatively healthy and was created on the clouds of heaven.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Milk, Ketchup (my son’s obsessed), and apple juice for my kids.

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

Bottled water. I only ever drink water or milk.

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

Win an academy award, bungee jump, start an adoption ministry (although we’re working on that one!)

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

Jars of Clay is always around somewhere. So brilliant, so underrated.

When was the last time you cried?

I cry at least every other day. Seriously. I cry at everything. The last time I cried was this afternoon when I was thinking of what would happen if it became the norm for Christian families in America to adopt at least one orphan. Could you imagine how incredible that would be?

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

I’m very passionate about the Christian community being more involved in the entertainment business, whether it’s by encouraging people to pursue it as a career, or whether it’s as an audience member, shaping what is created by Hollywood by “voting with your dollar.” Because of that, I respond to every email I receive and love dialoguing about all these issues. If you’re passionate about this important field as an artist or consumer, please email me directly through www.jenkins-entertainment.com. I want to stay in touch.

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.