Before you read this post, I would ask that you watch my new short film The Forest (above) that premiered today. The following is about the creation of this film and involves a bit of cross-pollination between Restorative Faith and my pastoral job at my church. Normally, I try to keep these two worlds separate. Although they both involve Christianity, these two areas of my life are focused on two completely different demographics. My work in Restorative Faith leans towards those on the outskirts of Christianity, while my church work leans towards those already established within the Christian faith. This film involves a mix of these two worlds.
Those who know me well are aware of my background in film. For most of my 20s, I was an aspiring filmmaker. I was hoping to make it big in Hollywood. I wrote scripts and even got one of them in front of a big-name agent. He let me know, as gently as possible, my ideas were too complex for most studios. His motto was “Simple Sells”. My scripts were not simple. When I told him I wanted to be the next Christopher Nolan (writer/director of some of most complex films in Hollywood), he laughed and said, “Nolan is an aberration. My suggestion would be to write and direct your own film. If you’re as good as you think you are, people will notice.”
I took him seriously. I wrote a script I could afford to make on my own, found a cast, investing $45,000 of my own money into creating the film. I entered a number of smaller film festivals and even won Best in Show (the top honor at most film festivals) at one. I figured I was on my way, but then a company called Netflix upended the entire distribution game. I was hoping that Netflix might pick up my movie for streaming on their platform. In fact, there was a small window of time when Netflix was working with independent filmmakers, but by the time I was contacting Netflix, that window had closed. They were only accepting films from major studios.
By 2010, I had given up on my dream of being a filmmaker and focused all of my creative efforts on being a pastor. At my first church, where I was an associate pastor, I would use my editing skills for my youth group, creating videos to enhance my weekly lessons and documenting youth mission trips. Four years later, I moved to a new church in Chicago where I am currently the head of staff. This church has considerable resources and I decided to utilize my filmmaking skills to enhance my sermons. The powers-that-be were kind enough to invest in a high-end camera so I could execute some of my creative visions.
Although I utilize video content fairly frequently in my sermons, once a year I aim to create an art piece—a short film that requires a higher level of execution than a simple video. Usually, I enlist the help of my sons to bring a poem to life. Unfortunately, as they have aged, my sons have tired of the filming process and are less willing to comply with my direction. My older son, Elijah, informed me last year that he is no longer willing to act in my productions. Hearing this, my younger son, Lucas, followed suit. He told me through his agent (my wife) that 2021 would be his last year. Sadly, we have come to the end of an era.
For my last film with Lucas, I wanted to do something special, but I was feeling uninspired. Then in February, my family watched the Pixar film Soul, which absolutely took my breath away. The beauty of that film gave me a nugget of an idea—I wanted to tell a story that captures the beauty of life in the small moments we often ignore and overlook. This began the process of creating a story in my mind. When I do this, I almost always begin with music.
One of my favorite composers is the Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi. For whatever reason, his work resonates deep inside my soul. From his solo piano pieces to his orchestral work, Einaudi is one of the great modern composers. A lot of what he creates has a cinematic feel, so when I hear one of his pieces that grabs me, I will often go into a trance-like state where images start flooding my mind.
I found a piece by Einaudi called Experience, which is such a remarkable orchestral arrangement that it took me into the world I was trying to create. What kept coming to mind when I listened to it was a boy playing in the forest who is taken on a journey. I wanted him to be able to see his future and grapple with the knowledge of how death was going to impact his life. Having witnessed all of the hardship awaiting him, would he choose a different path? As the narrative formed in my mind, I realized that the story itself was more of a fairytale and I wanted the film to involve my son’s character reading a children’s book and imagining the story happening to him.
The sermon this film accompanies revolves around the theme of death. Specifically, I am talking about the death we have endured as a result of the pandemic. This is a really heavy topic, so I wanted to create something that could counterbalance the gravity of the material by capturing the essence of my message in a unique and beautiful manner. I wrote the story over a period of two weeks and recorded the narrative over top of Einaudi’s music.
I sent it to a few of my friends in the church who are actors and asked them if they wanted to participate. I didn’t hear anything for a few days and thought perhaps my vision wasn’t as compelling as I believed it to be. However, slowly the actors listened to the narrative and, one-by-one, they agreed to join the project with excitement. With them on board, I had the green light!
There were three main items I needed in place before we began shooting the film. The first was a script so the actors could imagine how the scenes would be cut together. Technically, the entire film is done in voiceover narration with me reading the book. Therefore, they don’t have any lines of dialogue, which means their acting is all expressed through the emotions of their face and body language.
The second element of preproduction was creating the physical children’s book that I would be reading to my son during the film. The story of the book is the same as the narration to the film. What I lacked were illustrations. I reached out to an artist friend of mine and asked if she could draw some simple pictures for the book. I explained that, since the book would only be shown sporadically throughout the film, they didn’t need to be anything intricate.
A few months later, she brings over a folder with a stack of illustrations. Rather than drawing the illustrations, she decided to use a mixed-media approach. Each individual illustration was developed from pieces of pictures in magazines, like a collage. When I looked at the main illustration for the opening page, I was blown away. These weren’t just simple drawings of the ideas on the page. These were actual works of art.
As anyone who has ever read a children’s book knows, 90 percent of the book is the illustrations. When the illustrations came back with such a stunning allure, I made the decision that I wasn’t only going to create the book for the movie. The children’s book itself deserved to be published as an independent item. I worked with my book designer, Laurie Ruhlin, and we created a beautifully crafted children’s book that is available in softcover on Amazon and hardcover at Barnes and Noble.
The final element of preproduction was getting everyone’s wardrobe together. Usually, clothing is the last thing I think of when doing my productions because I have so many other things to consider. However, this time, one of my actors, Ellen Anderson, asked me if she could help with the costuming. As you will see in the film, we wanted to create a bit of a timeless feel. We tried to choose clothing that could not be pinned to any particular era. Ellen spent hours researching different types of clothes, hair and make-up to get the look I was trying to create. In the end, part of the reason the film looks so good is because of her attention to detail.
We shot the film over a period of four days on different weekends throughout the summer. If you’ve never been on a film set, it may come as a surprise that everything is shot out of order. You cluster the shots by locations, scenes and camera setups. Our first day of filming involved all the scenes with Jack Carroll and Ellen Anderson. We shot in the backyard of a church member with a stunning garden. Ellen also happens to be a professional dancer, which is something that I envisioned as an important aspect of the flashforward scenes in Lucas’ life. This particular day of shooting took about six hours.
The second day of shooting involved doing all the shots with Lucas and myself. My assistant director of photography, Sheeba Mays, was working with me over the summer as an intern and helped me to create the shots when I couldn’t be behind the camera. Although these shots only represent about 45 seconds of the whole film, it took us about four hours to get them exact. I’m a perfectionist and Sheeba had to work hard to get my vision just right. Lucas eventually became so frustrated that he told me, “Just so you know, this is your Father’s Day present and I’m never doing this again!”
The third day of shooting was the wedding sequence. For this, I wanted an actual audience to make the church look like it was full, so I asked my congregation to stay after Sunday morning worship. We did the shot where everyone claps and stands up about 20 times to get the timing right. Jack didn’t mind that too much because every time he got to kiss Ellen—a professional hazard!
The final day of shooting was all of the scenes out in the forest. There is a forest preserve near our house and, the night before shooting, Ellen and a few friends went out at sundown to build Lucas’ fort. Sometimes the park rangers will come through and dismantle any structures people have built, so we figured the night before would give us the best chance of not having that happen. Unfortunately, we hadn’t anticipated how, at sundown, the mosquitos would attack en masse. I am not exaggerating when I say I was bit more than 150 times on my back through my shirt. Ellen got bit a lot as well, but my friend Sunil, who is allergic to mosquito bites, looked like he had been in a prize fight. His eye was swelling shut. On the plus side, the fort looked amazing!
In spite of being eaten alive, we returned the next day and shot the sequences over a period of four hours in 92 degree heat. In case you are interested in the technical specs, I used a Canon C300 Mark III with a 50mm 1.2f lens for the majority of the shots. The color of the Canon combined with a shallow depth of field creates a very dreamy feel. The shots where we see inside of Lucas’ mind were filmed at 60/23.976p, while the shots of Lucas reading the book were done at 23.976p. All of the shots were filmed in 4k resolution.
Perhaps my greatest skill when it comes to the creation of a film is video editing. I have spent well over 10,000 hours of my life editing video. If you speak to any actor in Hollywood, they will tell you that their performance often lives and dies based on the editor who cut the movie together. An editor can take a mediocre acting performance and turn it into something remarkable. Vice-versa, an editor can destroy an outstanding acting performance by cutting the soul out of the scene. I like to think that I am in the former category of using my editing to enhance the performances of my actors.
Thankfully, all the actors did a remarkable job so editing was simply a matter of choosing our best shot within each sequence. For me, editing is like painting a picture. You are creating an experience by the way you connect all the pieces together. Through editing you often discover that your original vision requires revision or works better in a different order. Also, editing is like painting because you have the capacity to choose the color composition of every shot. You will notice that in every scene of this film, I adopted various color palettes to forward the narrative. I chose bright, vibrant colors for the happy sequences and blue, or desaturated colors, for the sad sequences.
Once I had the rough cut put together, I started inserting visual effects (like the sparrows in the trees) and sound effects. If you look at the beginning where I start reading the book to Lucas, my original audio narration did not match with what I was saying in the shot. I had to rerecord elements of the beginning to get it all to match up. Finally, we had to come back on a rainy day to redo a few of the shots in the death sequence because, on the original day of filming, the sun came out from behind the clouds, making the blue hue much harder to match.
In all, I was able to achieve 99% of my original vision and many of the shots came out better than what I had originally imagined. The total time for creating this five-minute short film was more than 80 hours of work on my end.
Encountering God through Beauty
Today (10/31/21) is the first time The Forest was screened to a public audience. It came as the capstone to my sermon for the day. In fact, the content of the film mirrors the content of my sermon of how investing in love is worth the risk of potential pain. At the end of the sermon, before showing the film, I took a moment to explain why I create these films every year. While some might assume I make these films as a means to parade my sons before the congregation or elicit praise for my skills as a filmmaker, neither of these are the reasons why I create these stories.
In my opinion, one of the most important ways we encounter God is through beauty. When you encounter something so beautiful that it touches your very being and moves through your soul, you have a unique opportunity to encounter God. Sometimes this type of beauty presents itself in nature. Other times this type of beauty presents itself in our interactions with other people. And still others experience this type of beauty through art.
If you’ve ever sat in front of a remarkable painting like The Floor Scrappers by Gustave Caillebotte or a sculpture like Michael Angelo’s The Pieta, then you can have an experience of beauty that makes you feel close to God. However, visual artistic mediums are not the only way you can experience the beauty of God. Exquisite literature like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov or haunting poetry like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet can transport you into another dimension.
My preferred medium is film. The benefit of film is that it has the potential to be a fully immersive experience that can very literally transport you into another world. The best films combine visuals with music and sound to provide you with an opportunity to lose yourself. You forget for a moment who you are and become one with the story on screen. Of course, there are myriads of different stories you can tell through film and the vast majority of movies in theaters are not intended to be beautiful. They are designed to entertain.
However, there are a handful of films where the director is not only telling a story, but is also attempting to create something beautiful. Terrance Malik’s Tree of Life, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade or Christopher Nolan’s Memento are great examples of this type of combination. I model my filmmaking primarily off of Malik’s style. I love the transcendent nature of his cinematography and how he captures the beauty of the human experience. Every time I watch one of his films, I feel like I’ve briefly touched the divine.
I’m obviously not able to match Malik’s level of artistry, but I’m hoping that with five minutes of storytelling, I can transport you into a different world where you are able to identify with the desire for love and the pain of loss. I also hope you would ask yourself the same question as the character: If I could catch a glimpse of the love and sorrow of my future, would I allow that knowledge to change the course of my life?
In this question is something fundamental to our existence as humans and our understanding of God. By wrapping this question in majestic imagery and elegant music, my hope is that you will lose yourself for a moment and feel as though you have briefly transcended this realm and experienced something truly beautiful. More importantly, through this beauty, I hope that you will have an experience of God, however brief, that will allow you to feel more connected to yourself, your fellow humans and the world at large. Thank you for watching!
Again, if you are interested in purchasing the children's book, the links are below:
Hardcover from Barnes and Noble and Softcover from Amazon