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Michael Landon Jr. Interview

by Tracy & C.J. Darlington

"Entertainment and art have power. Our culture is molded more so by entertainment than any other influence." -- Michael Landon Jr.

Michael Landon, Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 20 years. Educated at USC and a directing fellow graduate of the American Film Institute, he has worked in just about every capacity of the moviemaking process including film loader, 1st and 2nd assistant cameraman, stedicam operator, Director of Photography, apprentice film editor, production assistant, and actor.

He has developed and/or produced, directed and written screenplays for Fox, CBS, NBC, Disney, TriStar, Cinar, and Hallmark.

His movie, Love Comes Softly, has won numerous awards including the Camie (Character and Morality in Entertainment) Award, the Movie Guide Award, and the Gabriel Award. In 2005, Mr. Landon, along with his partner, Brian Bird, formed their production company, Believe Pictures which has a mulit-picture deal with FoxFaith. Mr. Landon has 3 feature films being released in 2007. They are The Last Sin Eater which is based upon the novel by Francine Rivers. Followed by The Redemption of Sarah Cain inspired by Beverly Lewis’ novel due in theaters in August. And finishing the year with The Velveteen Rabbit, which is based upon the Margery Williams children’s classic to be released around Christmas.

Michael is currently working on his next two features Jake’s Run and Deep in the Heart which are scheduled to film in Spring and Summer of this year. His best productions to date, however, are his three children with his wife of 19 years, Sharee. Michael and his family currently attend Creekside Community Church in Park City, UT.

TitleTrakk.com caught up with Michael to talk about The Last Sin Eater, his thoughts on Christian filmaking, his upcoming novel One More Sunrise (coming in 2008 from Bethany House publishers), and of course his favorite Starbucks drink!

C.J. & Tracy: How's the weather out there in Utah?

Michael: It’s very cold! I need to come to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to film second units, and you guys don’t have any snow! It’s bizarre! You’re ridiculously over the top in terms of temperature, and we’re way below. It’s been like zero and the single digits. Usually Utah will get a few days’ worth of that, but it’s just been constant.

Why did you choose to make a movie out of The Last Sin Eater novel by Francine Rivers?

The first thing that drew my partner Brian Bird and I to this novel was the historical backdrop, this very bizarre truth that emerged from certain parts of Wales and Scotland in the early 1800's. A male was chosen among the community to become the sin eater. This ritual was then brought to America in the mid-1850's by a group of Welsh immigrants who then settled in the Appalachian mountains. Now once the sin eater was chosen, he would literally have to live apart from everyone in isolation. And upon the passing of someone in the community, the sin eater would come out of hiding and perform this figurative ritual of eating and drinking the sins of the deceased so they could be absolved of their sins and go into the afterlife. Just the idea that someone would live their entire life where no one could look upon them, touch them, or even talk to them. And if anybody did, they believed that the sins would then be transferred onto that person and they’d be corrupted forever.

This amazing ritual that actually happened for many, many years was one of the main reasons why we were drawn to the material. And then of course the characters were so rich, and I really believe Francine Rivers is one of the best, if not the best, novelists in Christian fiction. I can’t say enough about Francine and her style, her prose, and everything she does. She really brings you into her world. And then the twists and turns of the story, not seeing where you’re headed, and the beauty of the theme of redemption.

Last Sin Eater movieYou stayed very true to the book. Were there any difficulties you encountered in keeping it that way?

Not really. We scratched and clawed to get this film made because of its content. We never had any intention of not staying with the core ideas of the book. There’s always going to be alterations due to the fact that books and movies are two completely different mediums. But no, we were going to stay true to the book and go out and find investors who believed in the material.

Did you play a big part in choosing the actors?

Oh, yes. Everybody in the cast I chose. We had great casting directors, too. Victoria Burrows, and Scot Boland—they’re just fantastic. Liana Liberato who plays Cadi was an absolute find. She had done very little work. I’ve always been very blessed with great kids in my films.

Do you have any interesting stories from the actual filming?

Filming is very similar to going to battle. It is really a very arduous, difficult process. You have weather issues (we were filming in mountains), and the capriciousness of the weather---one second it’s hot, boiling and thousands of mosquitos are attacking you. The next second you’re having a lightening storm, and you’re taking cover. The next second you have 40-50 mph wind gusts. The next second you’re being hailed upon, and it’s busting up your sets. You have continuity issues that shut you down, too.

We experienced all of those weather conditions in 22 days of filming. And when working with children there are very strict rules in terms of Love Comes Softlyhow many hours they’re allowed to work. In this particular story we have minors in probably over 90% of the story, so you have many, many challenges.

Where was it filmed?

In Utah. We found areas where you’d have to really analyze the vegetation in order to see that we’re not in the Appalachian mountains. The similarity of the area that we found is uncanny. We actually scouted in the Appalachians, but we had issues of accessibility and crew base. Actually the beauty of Utah (I’ve done my last two films here) is first its accessability. We’re an hour and 30 minutes away from L.A. Most of your cast, regardless of where you film in the States, is going to come out of Los Angeles. Second, they have a very strong crew base here in Utah. And thirdly, the variations of looks. There’s red mountains, there’s city, there are lakes, rivers, desert, so it’s a great place to film.

What was your favorite part of the movie?

I have many favorite parts. You know, there are certain parts that go to the core of my being. Without giving away too much, I think it’s probably the confession scene, when Cadi confesses to the man of God. Both of the actors did a beautiful job. Also, the flashback scene toward the end is heart wrenching. And then the beauty of reconciliation of mother and daughter. I could go on; I’m just so pleased with how the actors brought their characters to life.

What was the hardest part of making the movie?Love's Abiding Joy

There were challenges all along the way. There were challenges in doing justice when writing the screenplay, doing justice to the original material. There is the challenge of actually getting a film mounted, getting the funds raised privately, because we didn’t want a studio or an entity to come in and say, “Oh, we love everything about this, but this Jesus thing just doesn’t work for us.” So, raising the money, the challenges of actually bringing the cast together, the physical challenges of the weather, and hoping that your score will fit the story that you’ve told is another hurdle. Mark McKenzie, our composer, did an amazing job. It’s a perfect score.

And then there’s the challenge of the ticking clock. 22 days is a very short period of time. Features can often take up to 4-6 months for filming. To tell a story in 22 days with minors, where your hours are restricted, is a major challenge.

Making a movie is a team effort.

Why have you chosen all your movies thus far to be adaptations of books?

I haven’t chosen just adaptations, but these are the ones that have gotten made. The beauty of an adaptation is if the author is well known there is already a base of people who know the material. So it’s appealing in that respect.

What is the vision of your and Brian Bird’s film company Believe Pictures?

We want to develop films that move people, that speak to issues of forgiveness, redemption, and love. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it will be strictly for family including children. In fact, I would caution parents to see The Last Sin Eater first before little ones view it. It did get a PG-13 rating.

But we really want to speak to issues of the heart, and we come at it with a particular world view. You don’t really ever judge a piece of work or art at its origination, or the actual art itself. You need to judge it by the artist and where his world view is coming from. Where is the artist’s heart? What is their world view? Is it a world view that I can trust? Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I don’t care who writes its laws.”

Entertainment and art have power. Our culture is molded more so by entertainment than any other influence.

How do you share the Christian message in your films without being preachy?

By offering up the truth and making it real. I really hope we’ve succeeded in that. Obviously, in this particular film The Last Sin Eater it points to only one thing. But in that journey it is real. I think sometimes it’s when the art or the entertainment feels forced or not real that people shut down. Whether they be Christian or not Christian, there are certain films where I don’t believe any of it. So when they come to something that has to do with Christ’s redemption, it falls flat as well because everything else I haven’t believed.

Love's Enduring PromiseShould there be a distinction between Christian and non-Christian films?

I believe that in a free society all viewpoints need to be able to be expressed. You allow people to have the freedom to choose. Christ never forced anyone to believe. So I think it would be awful to have just one point of view in the marketplace of ideas. I would hate that. Because then you’d be politicizing. You would be manipulating people, and that’s no good. But I’ll tell you, in the world of film making it’s only been recently, in the last ten years, that ideas expressing truth in Christ have been available to film makers – what I would consider the ghetto of film making.

I would say one of the biggest turning points was the Passion of Christ. Before that, you’d have to go back to the 50's where the studio was spending big dollars on films that had stories from the Bible. Like Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments. They used to be in the business of making those films, and then they left it. Christian film makers have not been able to have a voice. Let the marketplace have all sorts of ideas.

Now you still have to be wary and very choosy in what you see because I think there’s an element in Hollywood that doesn’t entertain the senses---they assault them. Since the movie goer demographics are very low in terms of age, what Hollywood is doing in certain films is assaulting the imagination of our children. That’s where parents really need to be proactive. I am amazed at what films my children’s friends are allowed to see. And your children don’t live in a vacuum. None of us live in a vacuum. So those ideas from those films are then spoken and acted out by these friends. Going back to that Andrew Fletcher quote . . . they’re being influenced by entertainment more so than their churches, or their parents. This is one tough world to protect our children’s hearts. I experience this daily with my kids.

You’ve said before your dad was a great prankster . . .

He had a salty sense of humor. He loved to scare us. He just loved scaring us. He would go outside and rattle screens and jump out of places. He would walk up to you and open his mouth, and anything from a frog to a crab would come hopping or falling out. Constantly! When there was a scene with a bear he’d put a bear costume on and just scare the crud out of my little sister. He just would not stop. And he was a great, great story teller. Not only on television, but he would have a group of people around him instantly. He’d hold their attention and tell a great story.

Sheryl Root asks, “Because your father was so well known, has being Michael Landon, Jr. made your path difficult or easier?”

When you’re behind the camera I don’t know what the actual ramifications are. When you’re in front of the camera there’s a name value. But once you go behind the camera your works are going to have to speak. People aren’t going to go see a film because it was directed by me. Now, it there’s a certain track record going, and they believe in what I’m doing, then there might be something, like a certain quality, people come to expect. Yes, it can open doors. But the answer is no in other ways. For example, it took me over 10 years to get Love Comes Softly made. This is a movie I started pursuing in the early 90's. Everybody thought it was too soft, too this, too that. They said no one would watch, no one would tune it. But then when it aired it became the highest rated movie in the history of the Hallmark channel. As of 2006 it is still the number 1 selling DVD in the CBA market, even over Narnia. In fact, the Love Comes Softly movies in 2006 made up 16.7 % of all sales in the CBA market.

Are you planning on doing the rest of the Love Comes Softly series?

There are two more installments coming out that have been filmed. I co-wrote the screenplay of one of them with my writing partner, Cindy Kelly. But I did not direct either one. They have great casts, and I think the tone was set by the previous four films. They’ll be very nice additions to the series.

One More Sunrise by Michael Landon Jr. & Tracie PetersonCan you tell us about your first novel coming out next year, One More Sunrise?

We’re working feverishly! (Laughs.) I think it will remind you a little bit of It’s A Wonderful Life, which happened to be my favorite film growing up, outside of my father’s work, of course. I think Frank Cappra had this amazing quality of telling a story, and Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast made this beautiful story of what kind of an impact our lives can have on others. So, the basic premise of One More Sunrise is this---do I want to tell it yet? Oh, gosh. No, I think I better wait. I’m sorry! But I think it’s gonna be really good! We’re still too far away to say what it is because I have been beaten to the punch before . . .

I wrote an original screenplay called “Literary Chaos”. I wrote this years ago, and I’d been trying to get a studio because it would cost like a hundred million to make. But basically the premise was about a museum filled with classical wax features from all the great children’s classics coming to life and running amuck in modern day Boston. So, needless to say, there was this lovely film that came out recently that beat me to the punch!

You’re co-writing the novel with Tracie Peterson. Did you know her before?

I did not. I’ve been involved with Bethany House Publishing for some time now because of Janette Oak and Beverly Lewis’ Redemption of Sarah Cain, which we just finished filming. So I wrote a treatment for the novel, and they flipped over it. I had never written a novel before. It’s a completely different thing than a screenplay. Carol Johnson thought Tracie Peterson would be the right person to write the material. So Tracie read the material and flipped over it, and that created our collaboration.

Who influenced you most to become a Christian, and how did they do it?

There are two parts to my growing up years. There is the part where my family was intact, and then the part where my family became broken. I was 15 years old when my parents separated and divorced. I mean, divorce, no matter what age, is extremely difficult and very painful.

I had not attended church, except for a few times going to Sunday School with my grandparents. I wasn’t raised Christian. When my family fell apart and the foundation was pulled out from underneath me, I had the typical teenage rebellious story. Absolutely typical. Nothing original or fresh. But what was really beautiful about it is my mother had a manicurist named Lois. My mother would pretend to be asleep while she got her nails done so she wouldn’t have to talk to Lois. Not very nice, I will agree. But when things all the sudden fell apart and Lois started chatting with my mother, my mother began to listen and she heard the truth. She started applying some of the things that Lois suggested, and they were very helpful. So my mother wanted to know where this wisdom was coming from, and Lois told her Christ. She brought her to church, and a few months later my mom gave her life to Christ.

My mom wanted to impart this wisdom to me, and I had absolutely no interest. Whatsoever. Do not bug me. Finally, because she was relentless, I appeased her by going to church. I couldn’t tell you what the pastor said that day, but he spoke to my heart. And I still resisted for many months by going, not going, going, not going. But finally I surrendered.

Over the years Lois has been a dear, dear friend who has helped me in my walk for many, many years. A beautiful person. I believe it’s very rare these days where someone does not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. You’d have to go to some far reaching jungle, and even there the Word is being brought.

Michael Landon Jr.What would be most surprised to know about you?

I am a complete introvert. I do not do well with crowds and lots of people. For an introvert that’s very taxing. Extroverts are energized by people. The more people, the more energized they get. It’s a long day for me if I’m around a lot of people.

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

I am ordering a sugar-free vanilla latte. And if I’m gonna go for straight coffee, the Americana. Wait! If it’s warm out, then I’m going with a mocha frapp. No whip. I’m not a whipped cream kind of guy. I have to always remind myself to say, “No whip”.

What’s left unchecked on your goals for life list?

It’s not so much unchecked as it is continuing to strive to do all sorts of things. Get closer to God. Get closer to my family. Learn my craft. Work harder at my craft and grow in it. I feel like I’m at a point in my life now where the foundation is set, so now it’s my goal to do things in a more loving, intimate, better way.

April Gardner would like to know, “What has been your most memorable moment in film making?”

It may sound mundane, but it wasn’t to me. My father was filming a pilot, I believe it was “Us”, and I was an assistant camera man. (I started off working eight years in camera.) I remember him looking over at me for the first time after a certain performance he gave. He looked over, and he wanted my affirmation, whether I thought he’d nailed the scene or not. Having worked with him for 5 years on “Highway to Heaven” and some other work, just having that first moment where he entrusted me with the creative process was very powerful.

WATCH THE TRAILER for The Last Sin Eater:


Tracy DarlingtonTracy Darlington is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in Brio, Breakaway, YS, CCM Magazine, Insight, Susie Magazine, and other publications. She has interviewed countless Christian musicians including Rebecca St. James, Delirious, Newsboys, Leigh Nash, Barlowgirl, Krystal Meyers, Joy Williams, Pillar, Michelle Tumes, and many others. In her spare time she can be found riding horses or listening to music and sipping a Venti 3-shot sugar-free vanilla latte. Visit her online at her blog where she talks about Music, God, dogs and coffee. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.

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.