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7 Film, 3 Not: Dallas Jenkins

…….At the age of 25, Dallas Jenkins started Jenkins Entertainment with his father, author Jerry B. Jenkins. Within a year they had developed, financed, and produced the feature Hometown Legend. Dallas then directed two short films: Cliché, which FilmThreat.com called “Fast and funny…ingenious,” and the award-winning Midnight Clear (starring Stephen Baldwin) which was picked up for distribution by Warner Brothers, won a Crystal Heart Award from the Heartland Film Festival, and was the opening-night selection of the San Diego Film Festival.
…….Jenkins is the co-executive producer of Though None Go With Me, a feature that aired on The Hallmark Channel in April 2006, and he directed a feature based on the Midnight Clear short, also entitled Midnight Clear
, which was released by Lionsgate. He has acting cameos and performs a song in all of his films.

What is it that draws your attention to a project? How does that change or grow as the production progresses?

I think what I’m most drawn to in a film is motivated change, meaning someone goes from death to life in some way (big or small) and the story actually justifies it.

Nearly every movie includes change of some kind, but in most films the change isn’t motivated properly. I spend most of my films making sure that the changes in the characters happened for a reason, so nearly every scene I shoot is with that in mind. For example, in What If…, I really wanted the audience to buy the fact that this guy goes from having no interest in faith or family to actually liking it based on his experience in the alternate reality [wife and two kids]. The film isn’t Shakespeare or Terrence Malick, but I think we did a decent job of showing why a guy like that would appreciate the craziness of family life. My inspiration was It’s a Wonderful Life, which for my money is the greatest execution of motivated change in film history.

What role does your faith play in choosing which productions to work on? How has that changed over the years?

My faith motivates my contribution to, or appreciation of, the big themes of the film. Good over evil, hope in the midst of darkness, God has a role in man’s affairs, that kind of stuff. And any good filmmaker is a personal filmmaker, so I’m going to steer towards stories that I know, that reflect my experience or worldview.

In terms of the surface level stuff, such as the actions of the characters, the storyline itself, I don’t think my faith steers me to any particular settings or genres. However, my films have gotten more explicitly faith-based and, for better or worse, that’s as much a result of my need to be a smart businessman as it is my desire to be a good artist. That sounds crass, I know, but that’s the market, so I’ve chosen to look for stuff that’s more marketable, and right now that’s faith-based stuff. Then I just try to make it as artistic as I can within the genre. I’ve come to appreciate genre filmmaking more than I used to.

How do you navigate the actors’ individual talents or preferences during the first days of working together?

Great question, and it’s tough, especially because low-budget films don’t have much rehearsal time. I have to learn the actors’ personalities quickly, and they’re all different. The best book on the subject, and it’s not even close, is I’ll Be In My Trailer by John Badham. Read it, believe me.

To me, the biggest thing is trust. If I can earn the actor’s trust, everything else is easy. I earn that by being prepared and having a strong and clearly communicated vision while also being willing to listen and let the best idea win, whether it comes from me or not. The rest is just about relationships and communication, and the tricks of the trade in directing actors aren’t much different than navigating through any social or workplace situation.

Do you have a specific way you approach scenes before shooting them? If so, how do you map them out? If not, how do you work them out?

The number one job of a director is to find the balance between the technical and the storytelling.  Of course they’re intertwined, but no one department on a crew can have their ideal situation, including actors. If the actor walked wherever they wanted with no regard for sound, it would look and sound horrible, but if the sound guys and cinematographer restrict the actor for the sake of technical purity, the scene has no life. So what I do is set the technical boundaries first—How much room do we have to move around in? What are the sound considerations? Where are the best and worst spots for the camera?

Once those boundaries are set—and I set them wider than the technicians themselves would—and it’s something I do the night before so I can come to set with a shot list, but once those boundaries are set, I’m obsessed with the actors and making sure they’re comfortable and they understand the scene and that we’re all on the same page.

I’m much more technically conscious than I used to be, but my primary passion and skill is still with the actors.  We get them on the set, show them the boundaries, and I work with them to figure out how to get the most freedom within that space.

How has making movies impacted your faith in Christ, and vice versa?

My last film, What If…, changed my life because it taught me that I’m not as smart as I think I am.  Even the choice to do an explicitly Christian film was something I went into kicking and screaming. From casting to locations to script decisions, so many times I chose what I was convinced was the best idea, only to see it not work out. It was frustrating. But then to see God provide something at the last minute that ended up ten times better than I would have done it, it taught me so much about surrender—which, ironically enough, is the theme of the film.

And as I alluded to before, any good filmmaker is personal, so whenever I’m re-writing or tweaking a script, I’m always injecting some of my own thoughts or experiences or lessons learned.

How have non-Christians reacted to your work? Have you been surprised by their reactions?

That’s what’s so funny about What If…. It’s by far my most explicitly Christian film, but also the film that has gotten the best response from non-Christians. I’ve been mildly surprised by the discovery that it’s not [the display of] explicit faith on screen that bothers people, it’s the quality of the delivery, whether or not the faith element is crowbarred into the film where it doesn’t belong naturally.

Of course there are the message board folks and the artsy bloggers who hate anything sentimental (although I admit there are a few moments in the film that could’ve been pulled back a little), but overwhelmingly the response has been, “didn’t feel preachy, felt organic, was witty,” etc. Even though it’s about a preacher.

But I’ve still got a long way to go. I want to make a great film someday, not just a good film, not just a film that’s great for the Christian market. I’ve got a lot to learn and a long way to go before I can make a film that’s loved both by my church and Roger Ebert—or the Academy!

When you get to the end of your career, what is it you want to have built? What would you like your body of work to look like?

All I know is that the main theme of my films is likely going to be hope in the midst of darkness, the struggle from death to life.  What that looks like artistically is still in progress, but I’d really love to make films that challenge the culture on a spiritual level and make an impact on the pop culture dialogue. And I love humor as well as emotion, so filmmakers whose bodies of work included both are guys like Frank Capra, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, among others. I’d love to end up with a few films that resemble something Capra or Reiner could have admired, with maybe a little Steven Soderbergh and Jason Reitman thrown in.

If you could recommend five non-film–related websites, what would they be and why?

Oh goodness. I don’t do a ton of reading on the web. It’s mostly books and magazines. The web is more for news and social networking, but I’ll give this a shot.  Any site where you can find John Stossel’s blogs or columns is great. He’s my economic-political hero. Realclearpolitics.com has the widest range of great political articles every day. Rotoworld.com is where I get all my fantasy sports information.  JamesMacdonald.com is the site for my pastor’s sermons, blog, etc., and one of the main reasons I came to work for him was that I think he’s one of the best communicators in the country.  And there’s this small but growing upstart called Facebook where you can really stay connected with people. I hate giving that away because I don’t want it to get crowded, but I consider it a nice little gem on the web.

What books have you always wanted to read but haven’t gotten around to yet?

I’ve got a stack of books that I’m working through. The one that I probably won’t get to for a while is Ronald Reagan’s My life in Letters because it’s so long. I also think that someday I should read Mein Kampf, not for enjoyment purposes, of course, but to understand evil better and how to learn from history.

What has been your greatest challenge, thus far, and how have you seen God working in it?

I think my current job (Director of Media at Harvest Bible Chapel) is my greatest challenge. Trying to make movies at a church while also trying to raise their bar for production and media. I’ve never worked at a church before. I’ve never made videos before. I’ve never done live event production before. Now I’m responsible for all that. Plus, I’d been working for myself and my dad for ten years but now I’m essentially in a corporate environment.

The lessons I’ve had to learn about myself and my need to learn submission have been massive. I’ve been molded more in one year than in the ten years prior. But God has been so good. He’s taught me patience, submission, surrender.  He’s taught me how to communicate better, how to love better, and I’ve learned a ton about storytelling and editing.

Thank you, Dallas!

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Jenkins’ latest feature, What If… (Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson, John Ratzenberger, and Debby Ryan) was released in 2010.  The DVD for What If… can be purchased from the Good News Film Reviews online store.