A Talk with Chad Gundersen
Onward, Christian Filmmakers
Early this year, I received an invitation to visit the set of A Christmas Snow, filming in Tulsa in February. I almost literally jumped at the chance. I had a briefcase full of frequent flyer miles stashed away, the room and board were free—and I had been very intrigued by director Tracy Trost’s debut feature Find Me.
When a publicist originally emailed me about Find Me in June 2009, the message was just one of dozens I get each week about indie films trying to wedge their way into a packed market… but Find Me’s hook—geocaching collegians—was compelling enough to get me to click through to the DVD’s website. I found I couldn’t say no to a screener.
What industrial filmmaker Trost had managed to do with a miniscule budget—melding War Games-like storytelling with a journey toward faith, terrific production values, and a fresh, young, quasi-urban mindset—fascinated and amazed me. I decided after the first viewing that Trost was a filmmaker to watch.
So I didn’t have to think very hard about visiting the set of A Christmas Snow, a feel-good family holiday film intent on both telling the biblical Christmas story and being a mystical tale of familial redemption.
For three days, I had the luxury of being the lone press rep on the set, spending lots of time watching the professionalism of Trost Moving Pictures—and the larger production team that Chad Gundersen assembled for the shoot.
I knew going in that I’d be spending time with Gundersen—but I’d never met him before. I was dumbfounded to discover that he was about the quietest, most calm person on what was very laid-back set… not at all the stereotype of Hollywood producers (Tony Shalhoub in Barton Fink, anyone, or Tim Robbins in The Player?). No, Gundersen has what I’ve always admired in my experience with theatre producers: the sense that here is the guy with whom every buck stops. “I’m the tone-setter,” says his body language and mien, “and the tone is going to positive and professional.”
My first evening on the set, I had the privilege of sitting down for over an hour to talk with Gundersen. What follows is roughly the first half of that conversation—which was not an interview per se. It was two film-lovers from different disciplines getting to know each other, and sharing notes on what we care about in filmmaking… and the Church.
What’s your background in film?
Chad Gundersen: Pretty much only producing. I started a little company in college, and we just did commercials and music videos—mom-and-pop stuff, some short films. That just sort of slowly grew. I met Dallas Jenkins through Jerry Jenkins. I had obviously read the books, and literally wrote—not typed, literally wrote—a letter to Jerry, while I was still in college, saying, “Hey, I’m a fan of your books, and I’m a film student. If these books ever get made into films, let me know.” And he wrote me back, like, within days, and said, “Yeah—my son is in college, and he’s working with the company…” And so the whole Left Behind thing happened—I’m sure you know the background there. Dallas left the company, and he and I just stayed in touch; we had talked a lot while he was still there. And they were in the process of making their first film, Hometown Legend, which Dallas produced; I wasn’t able to work on that because I was working on another film. But then Dallas wanted to direct his first short, and I went out to L.A. literally on whim when he said, “Come on out and help.” I started on the show as a P.A., and by the end of the show I was one of the producers. Dallas and I had a great relationship. After that, I produced Midnight Clear (the short); then Midnight Clear (the feature); after that, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, which is in theaters now and doing pretty well; and after that did Like Dandelion Dust, which will be in theaters this fall, and is based on a Karen Kingsbury book—with Mira Sorvino, Barry Pepper, Cole Hauser.
Who’s distributing those films?
CG: Midnight Clear was picked up by Lionsgate; Rich Christiano directed The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, and he’s kind of doing a self-distribution deal with that as far as the theaters go. With church tie-ins and church sponsorships, we’ve run it in about 250 theaters to date; there will probably be another 20 or 30 as that winds down. [Note: the film was released on DVD earlier this summer.] TBN was involved on that—not a whole lot, just on the financing side, and promoting it a bit on the station.
So where were you going to school when you contacted Jerry Jenkins?
CG: I went to the University of North Texas.
They have a film program there?
CG: Yes, they do. It’s a pretty big liberal arts school. Their biggest thing is jazz, music and jazz. I guess it’s between there and Julliard—big jazz department. But just a big liberal arts school—theatre, dance, and art… all those kinds of things. In reality, I was studying biology. I went to California on a football and volleyball scholarship, and let’s just say God kind of had different plans for me. When you play sports in high school, the goal is to kind of take it from there to college; once you’re in college, I think your goal had better be to go pro—regardless of your talent, that should be your mentality. And that mentality for me just kind of left; it waned, and I started to get pushed in a different direction. I always wanted to get into sports medicine—and I had done theatre and modeling while I was in high school; I liked it, but never had thought about it as a career. But obviously, when I quit football the money disappeared and I couldn’t stay in California anymore.
So you came back to Texas.
CG: Yeah. I grew up here. I was going to go down to A&M with my brother, and continue to study biology—great department there; was going to just go to North Texas or a community college for a semester and then transfer down. But it turned out that North Texas has a huge film department. My very first semester there, I got cast in, like, five of the student films—really got thrown into the film department and the theatre department there. But I continued to study biology right up until my last year of college, and then switched to film and got a minor in theatre.
What kind of films were you watching in college?
CG: You know, for the most part I’m a fan of anything good! But I’ve always known what God is calling me to do—especially now. But if God fully revealed everything to you in the beginning, your brain would probably explode.
And you’d say, “No!”`
CG: You’d freak out and run! But I can say now, looking back—and I hope he continues to reveal things to me, because I’m a young guy and consider myself very blessed and fortunate to be where I am—that one of the things I always disliked about Christian films was the lack of quality. And I think it had nothing to do with money. People can blame money, or this and that—but if you take it back further, it’s a lack of discipline. It’s a lack of knowledge about how to do well with what you’ve got. You’ve been given responsibility for whatever money it is you’ve been given, whether it’s $100 thousand or $100 million—and all too often, Christians trot out the excuse, “God called me to do this, and I’m going to do it.”
Have you seen the documentary Audience of One?
CG: Yeah, that’s it exactly.
Oh, my gosh.
CG: And I like to say, “You know what? God did not call you to make junk. I don’t care what God told you; but somebody else was talking to you when you heard that, because God told us to do all things in excellence.”
My reaction to Gazowski was, “Well, God may have called you to make the greatest film in history; but you’d better do some study first before you set out trying to make it!”
CG: Become a filmmaker—right.
Do an apprenticeship somewhere. Don’t go out and start raising $200 million to make the greatest picture ever made. You don’t start there.
CG: You start with your $20 thousand, and your $200 thousand [pictures]. And that really frustrated me.
So what were the films that you liked?
CG: Some of my favorites are things like Braveheart. I love epic films. But like most filmmakers, I just like films! Obviously, there are some projects that I try to avoid or not support—but I enjoy everything from Braveheart to Tombstone. I love strong characters, the superhero movies that are going on right now. I would love to be a part of something like that eventually. But besides that, I would even look at the films that I’ve done to this point—and they’re not like that! But there are elements to all of them that I really, really enjoy. For the longest time, I’ve just been seeking out people of like-mindedness, and then to be able to add my expertise. It’s exciting to me to talk with the people I’ve worked with and have them say, “We only had this much money to work with—and it looks like this!” Know what you have, and know what you can do with that amount of money. You can do that. So it’s disappointing to see Christians lower their standards and be so willing to embrace some of the films they do.
Well, it’s not just the Christian audience. Take the ten films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year. I don’t see anything there that stands out as Best Picture caliber. There are some that an awful lot has been put into; but they are all deeply flawed. They each have passages in them that disqualify them, in my book, as being Best Picture-caliber. Yet the attitude today seems to be—and not just with Christian films—that we are culturally embracing films that are “good enough” simply because they are not something else: because they are not something else; not because they are great films! If you go back and look at Best Picture nominees from the 1960s and 1970s—those are great films. But who is making great films these days?
CG: It’s sad, because original thought has just left Hollywood. Everything’s a sequel, everything’s a remake. There’s not a lot of thought going into it. So when a film is even remotely decent, everybody gets so excited about it—but when you go see it, you go, “Yeah… but, really?” And that applies across the board—but especially in the Christian market.
So how do we fix that? As an educator, as a critic, that’s my project: How do we talk to audiences about film in a way that teaches them what to expect out of films and stop settling for so little? Because when you start talking seriously about film, people generally don’t want to know what it is they’re really getting.
CG: People are going to take what you give them. It’s really that simple. The more you promote something—take Avatar, which has been promoted for years—the more people are going to go see it. And they put enough into it, of course it’s going to make money. So once a film is there, and you’ve got the money behind it to make it a reality… I’m very very proud of the Kendrick brothers; I love what they’re doing. But don’t tell me that Fireproof is a better film than some other Christian films out there—in the sense of quality, acting, writing. But there are very few Christian films out there that have $9 million put into promo. But no one talks about that. All they say is, “Wow! This only cost $500 thousand dollars!” But no one talks about the $9 million that Sony put into promoting that film.
It’s like the Robert Rodriguez myth about El Mariachi. Or Pandorum. No, the film you saw in the theaters did not cost only $7000 to produce. The studio put hundreds of thousands into it to clean it up, and a lot more to promote it. It makes a great story, but…
CG: Yes, that’s it. Don’t give me that story. The real story is that the Kendrick brothers know their audience; they know exactly who they’re writing for; the messages of their films are very simple, and they’re true; and they’re simple. More power to ’em. They make $33 million at the boxoffice and another $40 million on DVD.
I think the thing that sets what they do apart from the pack and taps into the emotions of the audience is the subject of Christian male identity. The struggles of their male protagonists really ring true for men in the church—men who are not living up to who they should be as husbands, as fathers. Everything else being equal, if you take that element out of their films, you don’t have Sherwood Pictures.
The key is whatever the Kendricks have done to tap into the psyche.
CG: And obviously, being part of a very large Southern Baptist church in the Southern Baptist Convention, there was very much an “in-tuneness” to that; and again, I applaud them for that. And I even talked to them briefly about being a part of their next film. So I’m excited about what they’re going to do next; they’ve opened a ton of doors for us, as filmmakers—especially Christians who are filmmakers out in the world. So you know what? I love the fact that they’ll tell you straight up, “We’re pastors first. We’re on staff at this church, and that’s what we are first. This filmmaking thing is something God has blessed us with.” And hopefully they’ll continue with it, and continue to do well. And do better. You can look at Flywheel, you can look at Facing the Giants, and you can look at Fireproof—and each one of those has continued to get better on the production side. So I would hope that they’d continue to do that as they move forward. But again, take all that away—if you take your home videos and spend $9 million promoting them, you’re going to make some money off of them. I promise you. I promise you. You can twist it, you can turn it, you can make it exciting—even with your kid playing on the floor when he’s two—because you can promote it properly. And hopefully, that’s where the future of Christian filmmaking is heading: getting the money people, whether the studios or from outside, to realize it’s not just enough to make a film. What are you going to do with it when it’s done? Who cares if you’ve made a good movie? If nobody’s seen it, it doesn’t matter. And it takes money, it takes manpower, it takes viral [Internet] and TV [promotion], and so on, to make that happen. Definitely not my expertise! I’m a filmmaker. I know how to make a film and make it look good no matter what budget you give me.
What is your strength as a producer?
CG: Distribution is my weakest point, as a producer; but then again, that’s why there are distributors. Coming from an acting background helps me on the creative side of producing. Reading the scripts, getting into the characters, knowing a good story. Wanting to keep those elements in there. But then as a businessman, I can look at the budget and I can look at the script and say, “You don’t have the money to make this element a reality. But… what can we do to the script to make it fit whatever budget you’ve got?” Or, vice versa, “Here’s the script you’ve given me. To make it good and make whatever I’m reading on the page a reality, this is what it’s going to cost.” And then, obviously, pulling a crew together, pulling cast and locations—production management is one of my strong suits. I have slowly pulled together a really really great crew: Elise Graham, who has been production manager on my last four films now—I won’t go anywhere without her now; there’s guys on the set right now that I’ve brought in who have worked on, you know, Spider-man, that have worked on The Shield—these huge huge shows—and who, one way or another, got hooked up with me on a film and now say, “Chad, we want to work with you because of the way you run a show.” I’m proud to say that my last few shows have been very seamless, the directors have gotten much more than they’ve anticipated going in—
Can you elaborate on that?
Just the quality—the acting, the production values. It doesn’t look like a half-million dollar or million dollar movie; it looks much much bigger than that. And a lot of that is bringing in top-notch people. I’ve gotten to the point where I can find A-list crew members—whether it be camera, grip, electrician, sound, costume, hair, makeup, whatever it is—just because I’ve made the contacts and gotten to the point where people trust me. Even though I’m not able to pay the huge rates, and I’m not going to be able to promise the world—they know exactly how they’re going to be treated. And that goes a long way with a crew. They’ll do a smaller show where they know they’ll be treated with respect, they know they’re going to be able to have fun and do what they do, rather than go off and do a big show and make the big money but be treated like junk.
I run in critics’ circles, and there’s a lot of disdain in those circles about Christian films—one of the touchstones there being C.S. Lewis’ comments about not needing Christian writers, but needing writers who are Christians. And I’m sympathetic to that. But at the same time, filmmaking is a business, and within filmmaking there’s niche marketing. And everybody has got niches. So if we say “Christian films” have no place, then we say “LBGT films have no place.” We say, “Arthouse films have no place.” Do we tell them, “You should be making films for the broader audience”? What are they going to do? Of course they don’t want to.
CG: It’s sad, because 85% of Americans claim to be Christians. So that in itself should tell you that there’s a market. With regard to the C.S. Lewis thing, I tell everyone, “I’m not a Christian filmmaker. I make films. What I am is a Christian. And that should be reflected in what I do.”
And that’s the key. Clearly. You walk onto this set, and there are Christians everywhere. Do you call it a “Christian film” because it’s targeted at a Christian audience? Do you call it a Christian film because it’s made by Christians? What is it that defines a “Christian film”? And to me, the question is the same as you’d ask of a person: what is it that makes you Christian? Because there are plenty of moral people who are not Christian. There’s got to be something unique about a Christian that sets that person apart. What is it?
CG: Well, you can walk on this set and probably half of the crew is not Christian. A lot of them may give you the American answer, “Well, I’m a Christian.” But you’re not going to see them in church on Sunday; you’re not going to see them reading their Bibles; you’re not going to see them doing the things that Christ did. And that’s what it is that defines a “Christian”: a “little Christ.” They are “Christ-like.” And in the end, that’s how it’s going to be defined. And I think the term “Christian film” needs to be better defined. I think The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is a Christian film because it promotes Christ. And that’s the difference between a Christian film and a faith-based film. Faith-based films may talk about God, and that type of thing—but they won’t say the name of Christ; they won’t go into specifics. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how are you defining them?
So as a producer, what is it that you hope characterizes your work—because you are a Christian? How would it be different if you were doing this same work, but you weren’t a Christian?
CG: Honestly, not a lot—because what I do is make films, and I want to make the film as good as I can, regardless of what the subject matter is. And not every film I do is going to specifically promote the name of Christ. To a certain extent, A Christmas Snow does because it’s a Christmas film! And you’re given a little more leeway to talk about “Christ”mas in that sense of the word. But there are also other films, Like Dandelion Dust, and The Trial, which I just did, where I want to work with solid believers and help them make their films be the best they can be; but that’s my goal: I want them to be good. I enjoy a well-made movie. And that’s something I see lacking in that niche Christian market.
This is the thing that gets me. In terms of expectations, the films that are labeled “Christian films” are clearly not funded on the scale of Hollywood-distributed stuff. So should they look like they are? Should we have level expectations? So a film like Dog Days of Summer: what is its counterpart, in the broader world? What should that film look like? With what films does it share most characteristics? And for the most part, that’s stuff that’s showing up on the film-festival circuit.
Same budgeting level.
CG: And it has that artsy feel, that kind of noir thing going. But I can go through a list of films and know what their budgets are, and I can compare those with mine and literally show you the differences with regard to those standards you’re talking about. And that’s definitely one of the things I want to continue to do: raise that bar. Because a lot of that comes from lack of experience; lack of study; lack of discipline to do what it takes to make a film.
This is what I’m seeing from Christian filmmakers now, which is maybe a better way of putting it. The films are being put together—directors, writers, crew—by people who have actually studied film, by people who have worked in the industry, with professional backgrounds. Recognizing that the Sherwood model is the exception to the rule. But comparing in general, going back ten or fifteen years ago, independent Christian filmmakers were basically guys who were saying, “Hey, we’ve got a message we need to get out there—”
CG: “—Let’s make a movie.”
So they were literally throwing money away because they didn’t know how to budget.
CG: The sad thing is that a lot of that money disappears because they’re claiming they want to save money—they want to avoid unions, or whatever. But I can go out there on set and point out who’s a believer and who’s not—and hopefully someday a lot of them will get there because of what I’ve done with them—but I want the best person for the job. And they will respect what we’re doing here. If there’s ever a problem, whether it be language or how they’re treating people, I will address that. You can ask anyone out there: my sets are very calm, everybody gets along. Obviously, it takes some time to gel at the beginning. But you know what? I want the best person. And those filmmakers who only want to use Christians to make their films—I think that is their problem. I want to go those people and say, “You know what? You’re about to build a $15 million complex. Here it is. Your church has expanded. You’re doing amazing. Praise God. You’re planning to build a four- to five-thousand seat auditorium with buildings on the back and youth halls and basketball courts and all these types of things… and you want to only build that building with Christians?” I assure you that they’re not going to do that. They’re going to go find the very best builders they can find—engineers, architects, right down the line. Now, why would that be any different with making a film?
As a Christian educator, I can tell you it’s the same attitude that the church has about teaching its children. Number one: you want to teach your child the Bible; and you want to teach your child arithmetic. But you expect so little of the people you’re asking to teach your children the Bible! Why is that? Is it more important, or less important, than the arithmetic? Hopefully, it’s more—but the level of expectation is simply not there. So when I teach, this is the illustration I use: taking your car in to the shop. Would you take your car to a mechanic who learned to work on cars by dropping in to an auto clinic once a week whenever he could drag himself out of bed, and over the course of fifteen or twenty years finally managed to get through the curriculum needed to be a certified mechanic? You’re going to take your car to that guy? I don’t think so. But this is the level of expectation we have with almost everything in the church. Extraordinarily low.
CG: It’s very sad to me. And that attitude slows things down—it doesn’t help. And it’s sad that they accept that. So your buddy has made his first short? Great! But you want to bring that kid in as your gaffer? That’s literally one of the most important jobs on the set! And they’re okay with some kid—and I’ll get you a gaffer who’s made Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ll give you that guy. I promise you. And they’re like, “Well, is he a believer?” Who cares? Now, a big part of that is finding people you can trust so you know exactly what to expect of them. And on the believer side, you know what? I want to be a witness to the unbelievers on the set. Why is the opportunity to be a witness on the set any different than the opportunity for the film itself to be a witness to the millions of people who see it?
Jon Gunn’s Like Dandelion Dust opens a limited theatrical run on Friday, September 24.
Tracy Trost’s A Christmas Snow comes to home video October 8.