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Michael Landon Jr.

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The Advocate



Michael Landon Jr. Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I, along with a large audience, am fascinated with the Amish. Their ability to literally stop time, as everything around them is racing a mile a second is fascinating." -- Michael Landon Jr.


Michael Landon, Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 20 years.
He has developed and/or produced, directed and written screenplays for Fox, CBS, NBC, Disney, TriStar, Cinar, and Hallmark.

In 2005, Landon formed Believe Pictures, with partner Brian Bird. The production company’s first film was the theatrically released The Last Sin Eater, based upon the best-selling novel by Francine Rivers. Their second film, Saving Sarah Cain, inspired by New York Times best-selling author Beverly Lewis, aired on Lifetime with record numbers. Landon had his first foray into animation with his film The Velveteen Rabbit, based upon the Margery Williams children’s classic. “Jamaa,” a film inspired by a true story, was shot in Unganda last year. Landon and his partner made the film for the relief organization, World Vision. Landon’s latest film to be released, “The Shunning,” which is also based upon a Beverly Lewis novel, recently released on DVD.

You've worked in all different aspects of filmmaking before you became a Director. What was it about directing films that drew you?

When I was 13 years old I received a super 8 camera for my birthday. A lot of your younger readers won't know what a super 8 is. It's a small film. Between that and visiting the set of my father, especially during the Little House years, observing what everybody did and their jobs, I just found myself very drawn to directing. It's kind of the center of everything, both in pre-, post-, and during filming. You work with everyone. It felt creatively where I was inspired to go. I tried acting, but it was actually for directing purposes; I never saw myself as a director. I started taking acting lessons from various coaches, and I was basically given Bonanza, because of my relationship. I ended up doing a couple other things, too, but never with the thought that I would pursue it, always with the thought that I wanted to see what it's like to be an actor. There are some great directors out there who were actors first – Robert Redford is one of them. You at least have a sense of what the process is like. If they are method actors, they never come out of the role until they're done. Others take a child's approach, where they just get lost in make believe.

What movies would you say influenced you the most growing up?

There are a lot. Capra had a huge impact on me. Spielberg had a huge impact on me. I was mesmerized by ET. I was terrified by Jaws. Then there are more personal films. There was a movie called Men Don't Leave, which is about a family who loses their patriarch, their father. It's one of Chris O'Donnell's first roles. I so related to that character. It had a huge impact on me, the power of story.

How did you come to work on The Shunning movie and what drew you to the story?

This is my second Beverly Lewis project. We did a previous one from her book The Redemption of Sarah Cain, which was retitled Saving Sarah Cain. I've had a relationship with Beverly, and thankfully we were able to tackle her best selling novel, The Shunning. I, along with a large audience, am fascinated with the Amish. Their ability to literally stop time, as everything around them is racing a mile a second is fascinating.

Did you work on both of these books at the same time?

No, it was Saving Sarah Cain first, and that film aired on Lifetime and then was distributed by Fox. It did very well for Lifetime, and they were actually extremely surprised. They weren't anticipating any decent ratings. It was an acquisition, so it did extremely well for them. I believe that's why they picked up Amish Grace shortly thereafter. Then Hallmark, seeing the success of that, came to us and asked if we had any more Amish stories.

The ShunningI talked to Beverly Lewis about this not too long ago, and she told me she was absolutely thrilled with the movie and that it stayed so true to her book. What was the biggest challenge you faced in adapting this novel into a movie?

It's always trying to stay true to the author's original source of material and knowing that in a 90 page script you're not going to be able to include everything. Sometimes you're combining thoughts and scenes and just staying with the through line. A lot of a novel is internal, so finding ways to externalize the internal is a challenge. Chris Easterly adapted the novel, and I think he did a very nice job. This one we were able to stay closer to than Redemption of Sarah Cain. Right now my partner Brian Bird and I are in the process of writing The Confession sequel script. So we'll be in production in the spring of next year on that. Again, thankfully, there are enough twists and turns and interesting plotting in the novel that we're going to stay very true to the source material. We always hope we're going to be able to use the same actors. We're hoping that Sherry Stringfield will come back and play Laura Mayfield-Bennett and Danielle Panabaker will come back and play Katie Lapp, and Sandra W. Van Natta for Rebecca Lapp, and Bill Oberst Jr. as Samuel Lapp. Those are the key people we're hoping will come back.

You kind of did leave us hanging a little bit!

(Laughs...) Yeah, that has been the main criticism. It was definitely one of those things where we knew there were three books in the series, and we obviously needed a hook, but we didn't want to encroach on the next novel.

What was the most memorable moment you guys experienced while filming?

I can't think of one specifically. There are always moments that in your storytelling you feel very strongly about. It's always a great feeling when you feel like your actor has captured that moment for you. There were a couple that Danielle did. She's just a wonderful actress and a great human being. She's young, and she's beautiful, and a lot of times in that age group they're not always as considerate as Danielle Panabaker. She's professional and very bright. She graduated from UCLA at eighteen or nineteen. She was just a pleasure to work with. She's very talented. So I don't have anything specifically, I mean making a film is always tough. Small budget, big budget, there are so many things that can go wrong and do go wrong. On these smaller budgets you're very pressed for time. You're really racing against the clock, and we had a very short prep schedule. Everybody pulled together, and it was really nice. You hope a bond takes place on the set, because everybody's thrown together. You work really long hours. There's a certain amount of stress. Everybody, both cast and crew really came together on this project. I've been very blessed that it hasn't happened where you have actors that just don't get along together. Michael Landon Jr. & Chris Easterly

Was it filmed in Lancaster?

We did second unit filming in Lancaster, and then the rest was in Winston Salem, North Carolina. We did quite a bit of second unit, and then we really had to scour Winston Salem to try to find the proper set pieces to match up. The wide exterior establishings were filmed in Lancaster, and then the tighter stuff was Winston Salem. I think it worked.

Did you have any interesting experiences working with the horses and buggies?

We had a great wrangler. It went very smoothly. Danielle was a fast learner. I have had experiences where it's gone bad, not terribly bad, but I've seen wranglers go flying into the air from getting kicked by a horse. I myself had an experience on a horse during the filming of Bonanza, and they can be unpredictable. I had a great horse; it wasn't the horse's fault. It was just a bad rider's problem. It was such a good horse. There were cattle involved, and this horse was a working horse. It wasn't really a picture horse. At one point the horse kinda went nutsy, and people had to scatter and shiny boards were getting kicked over and equipment was almost trampled on. That was that take, and I had another take where it just literally took off with me. If you don't know what you're doing, pulling back on the reins doesn't mean anything on a good horse. So thankfully I knew at least when I got to the open field to reach up front to bring its head around slowly so I didn't fall off the horse. I've even seen where horses had to be put down. During a scene when I was a steady cam operator, there was a scene where a guy thought he could do steady cam from a horse. It was not good. You definitely have to respect the animals. You have people and equipment, so you have to be very respectful of their power, and even though they're trained and used to being on sets, they can get spooked and things can happen. A lot of precautions are taken.

Michael Landon JrWhat draws you personally to the Amish and these stories?

It kind of goes back to the idea that they are so committed to their ways that they'll do anything and everything to preserve them. That resolve is amazing to me. We're constantly changing everything about us – the way we see things and the way we do things is constantly changing. Technology changes us and how we do things, but even our morals and the way we deal with each other – everything is so fluid and changing constantly. There is no constant. And for them, everything is about the constant. That and there are some very remarkable qualities about them – their mastering of frugalness, making the most of their resources, counting their blessings. Those kinds of qualities I admire. Everyone was completely moved by their forgiveness that took place after that shooting. Doctrinally speaking, obviously there are things that I personally disagree with or don't understand, or I just find overbearing or stifling, but I am most respectful of them and their culture.

Have you had any feedback from the Amish?

They do not watch movies. Now they could see a movie during the rumspringa if it's the Old Order, which is what we focus on. But they're not allowed to look at movies, pictures, or anything, no graven images.

What about from non-Christians? I loved how the movie portrayed faith but was never preachy.

We're trying not to be. Yeah, there are universal themes that we always try to work with that are inherent in the story. For me, it's about the idea that you raise your child with your belief system, whatever that is, and then that child has to decide whether they own it themselves or they find another one. Because everyone has a world view, everyone has a way of how they look at things. And that letting go, that process for parents is very strong and difficult at times. Especially when you're passionate in what you believe.

I remember you telling me in another interview we had a while back that one of the visions for Believe Pictures is to speak to the heart. How do you feel that The Shunning does that?

The central part of the story is this mother/daughter relationship. And mother/daughter relationships are always complicated (Laughs), and yet quite beautiful. There is power in the story regarding healing and reconciliation. I think all mothers can relate to the mama bear protector of her children aspect. It's a very strong part of them. Within that protection there needs to be the point where you let go. It's tough and very difficult on fathers, but I just think it's in some respects more difficult for mothers. I was very pleased with both Sandra and Bill [for their portrayals of Katie's parents].

Are you also working on the adaptations of the Canadian West novels by Janette Oke?

Yeah, we are! When Calls the Heart. We believe that it'll be the next series of movies for Hallmark. Janette is the real deal, the salt of the earth. She's just an amazing woman. She's so great. She's so genuine. I've spoken to a lot of people in different parts of the profession, but she really stands out. She's a wonderful woman.

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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.