A Talk With Derrick Warfel
Putting God in “God Knows What”
Director Derrick Warfel, with his debut feature Midnight Reckoning, is unapologetic about aiming for an old-fashioned Twilight Zone-ish morality tale. He is also unapologetic about the heavy amounts of Christian spirituality with which his tale imbued. What’s remarkable is that Warfel is the rare indie filmmaker who has formally studied both theology and cinema… and it shows.
What also shows is that Reckoning was filmed on a shoestring—another thing for which Warfel doesn’t apologize… and doesn’t need to. As I remarked in my review of the film, what it lacks in budget it more than makes up for in chutzpah and intelligence.
On the heels of the typical indie-film festival circuit run, and on the eve of the film’s release on DVD, I had the chance to talk with Warfel over the phone about the business, the film, and faith.
The release of Midnight Reckoning has been a long time coming. The film made its debut in Toronto in 2007, and then hit the festival circuit in 2008. What was the path that led you to your current distribution decision?
Derrick Warfel: Well, basically, we had a number of distributors that were interested in it. But two things. One is, they look at a film like this with a lot of spiritual content, and they throw up their hands and say, “We don’t know how to distribute this. And we don’t think there’s a market for it.” And then there are other distributors who do see a possibility, but they didn’t offer much money. So it was kind of an economic decision, to bring it out myself—and use the theatrical [release] as a means of garnering some interest and attention for the DVD release. That, and other ancillary sales, are where you really make the money. Even Hollywood studios rarely make their money back on a theatrical release. They usually count on the other sales to make [the investment] back. Sorry, that’s kind of a business-y answer, but that’s kind of how it was.
No, no—that’s the line of questioning I like to pursue. When audiences see films in the theater or on DVD, it helps them to have a better understanding of how they’re getting what they’re getting, and why.
DW: Sure. It was pretty much a business decision. We knocked on a lot of doors. And to get into international markets, they want blood and they want sex—and if they don’t get it, they’re just not interested. Either that, or they want big stars’ names. That was beyond our budget range, so that was another downside. Number two, or three, was that we had kind of lower production values. It looks pretty good, but compared to a $20 million film, it doesn’t quite hold up. It’s more like Gas Food Lodging, or some of the other smaller independent films. It’s not a big Hollywood film. Those are kind of the downsides.
I understand that you’ve done something pretty creative on the theatrical end—that you essentially gave away the film rights to people associated with the project in order to generate buzz for the DVD release.
DW: Yes. The bottom line is: why wouldn’t I just go right to selling on DVD? That seems to make a lot of sense; the problem is that neither the press nor the public tends to respect things that go straight to DVD.
DW: So you have to garner some attention or interest by having some kind of theatrical [release]—even if it’s limited. There are a lot of films, if you’ve noticed, listed in your paper that have a “limited release,” that say New York or Los Angeles. And the reason that is, is that the theatrical release sets the tone for all the other prices that you get along the way. That may be changing [soon], but that’s still pretty much the thing: the more interest you get in the theatrical, the more sales you’re going to get down the line. So there’s a huge benefit to doing a theatrical if you can afford it—even a very limited theatrical. And the idea of giving it away was that, normally, at a bare minimum, it takes about $200,000—and usually it’s about $500,000—to do a theatrical release. Even if it’s five to ten cities. I’ve talked to representatives from the major studios, and they say that to even turn the key, for them, at a bare minimum, it costs $1 million. And usually even for their independent releases, another $2 or $3 million more. Needless to say, that’s way out of my budget range. So I had to get really creative. And I thought, “You know, if I’m not going to make any money off of theatrical, why don’t I just give it away?” And that’s what we’re doing. We’re giving it away to a charity in Texas, and they came up with the theaters. And that allows us to get into quite a few cities that I could never have gotten in otherwise. I could never have gotten into all those theaters myself. It turned into a win-win: win for them, because they can use it as a fundraiser; win for me, because I can get attention; and a win for the theaters, I guess, because they can get noticed that they’re making a donation to a charity.
I’ve also seen that model work with a couple of other films recently. Another one out of Australia, Broken Hill, did essentially the same thing—holding on to its theatrical distribution until it could get the right deal with some charities to help its roll-out as well. I think that’s a very inventive and interesting new model for indies. As to the film itself—I’m not going to ask a lot of specific questions, because if audiences read the interview it would give a lot of the film away, since it’s a kind of suspense-thriller with a twist. But in your screenwriting seminar that you’ve done, you talk about how the main character’s central motivation could be something you draw from your own personal experience. Was that the case with Midnight Reckoning, or was there something else that you were drawing on for the protagonist’s struggle against faith?
DW: I just wanted to tell a story about an average Joe—which is why the guy’s name is Joe.
DW: It’s a person who believes he’s living a decent life. He’s just struggling to get by. “What’s the problem?” I used to be in Campus Crusade for Christ for a lot of years, and I ran into a lot of people like that, who said, “I’m not a bad guy. I’m not hurting anybody, and I live a good life. My good deeds outweigh my bad deeds.” So I just wanted to tell [a story about] a person like that, who had fallen a little bit but wasn’t, at least by the world’s standards, a totally bad person. But I’d read a verse in the Bible a couple years ago in Matthew 12 that said for every idle word a man shall speak, he will give account on the day of judgment. That’s a very scary thought. Every single word, every single action, every single thing that you’ve done—you will one day give an account. There was a little comic book once that illustrated this verse by having a guy sit there, kind of at the doors of heaven, watching a movie of his life play out.
Oh, that was the little “This Was Your Life” tract.
DW: The Chick cartoon tract, yes. That is… That is—talk about a horror movie! That’s got to be one of the most frightening things. And I think A Christmas Carol is sort of like that. It’s kind of a Christmas Carol structure, where Scooge is taking a look backward at his life and what he’s done—and that’s why that story resonates with so many people. So I wanted to take that story—not a Christmas version of it, but a story where a guy is told he only has one night left to live. And he’s got to justify what he’s done with his life, or he’ll be dead by dawn. And he tries to escape justifying his life, but he can’t.
I thought the scene in the film where Joe is essentially asked to fess up to everything he’s done—and the character issuing the challenge, Atlas, knows he’s not really telling the truth—was very effective. I think where most of us are, like you said, is wanting to think we live pretty decent lives. And if we’re asked to tell the truth, we tell the half-truths that we’re used to telling ourselves.
DW: The other conceit was—There are a lot of opinions about prophets and whether we have them at all today, but I decided: suppose we had a prophet exactly like Isaiah today, and God had given him knowledge about who you were, without him possibly knowing it any other way. That would be a very frightening thing—someone standing in front of you and saying, “No, that’s not what really happened.” It’d be like standing there in front of him naked, stripped clean of all of your excuses. Somebody could see into your soul. That would be a very scary thing. It’s like Joe says in the film, “I think he can read my thoughts. I think he even has.” It would be representative of God, not just that he could predict the future but knew things about you that you did not tell him. I think that would be a very disconcerting thing. And I think that’s the whole concept. You know, it’s funny. You can drive down the street and pass a cop car, and though you might not be doing anything wrong, you suddenly start checking your speed, and everything else that you’re doing. You know what I mean? That kind of analysis of who you are makes you realize just how sinful you really are.
Definitely. Now, I’ve seen that one of the ways that the film is being promoted, and is described even in some of the reviews, as “profoundly spiritual” and “profoundly Christian.” The way that it struck me was that there were decided ground rules to the story that were specifically metaphysical, and that some of those metaphysical assumptions were specifically Christian, but the story to me didn’t seem to be pitching the idea that Jesus is the only way, so you’d better get on board. It was more of a generic spiritual reckoning that was being advocated. Did I miss something? Or were you after something more broadly spiritual than specifically Christian?
DW: Francis Schaeffer used to say that the best value of the arts is as pre-evangelism. Now, Billy Graham films make a point of giving all of the details of the Gospel and not missing a step.
DW: But I think by and large that with films like The Blind Side and others, the goal is to get people thinking about the broader issues of life. Number one, that you’re a sinner; number two, that you can’t save yourself—which is part of this story, that Joe tries to save himself; and number three, that there are some people who have found an answer in Jesus Christ. So in Midnight Reckoning, there is one character who shares her personal testimony—and says, “This is the answer that I’ve found, and maybe you need to consider it as well.” It’s not meant to be a theological treatise as much as it is—You know, without going into all the details of the story, I think it does present the Gospel story, but it’s pretty subtle. The only explicit part comes in this woman’s testimony, where she says, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s pretty much the Gospel invitation. Where many Christian films are more explicit and go into a lot more detail, this film might nudge somebody along the way toward considering the claims of Christ. I don’t want to give away any more than that. There’s a difference between a film as entertainment and a sermon. My background is Dallas Theological Seminary, so I’m used to preaching sermons and leading Bible studies. But with the film, as Schaeffer said, the goal is more pre-evangelism, to move people that direction. The other thing is that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” And that [doesn’t just apply to] John 3:16. If you’re teaching any part of the Bible, it’s going to have an effect on people’s lives. It may not lead them to salvation, but it will lead them closer to God and closer to Christ. So that’s my broader goal as a filmmaker—to try to teach the Word of God. Ultimately, someone will to have to share the Gospel to lead a person to Christ, but my goal is to plant seeds.
Well, I think you really hit your mark with the film, then. That’s the way I read it. I would not agree with assessments that it pitches the specifically Christian message. The characters in the film behave true to who they are, and who they are is what drives the plot. So it’s all integral, it’s all essential—and the specifics of the plot are as believable as they would be if they were written from a Muslim or Buddhist point of view, and just as compelling.
DW: Really? I wouldn’t say that. But that’s just difference of opinion.
Well, I’m not saying—
DW: I strongly present Christ as the answer. Not Buddha or something.
No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the presentation of Christ is consistent with the way that you’ve written the story and the characters that are there. It’s not something that’s ladled on as an afterthought or as something that doesn’t fit. It’s integral.
DW: Right. That’s what I tried to do. But my goal was to try to tell a story that would be entertaining.
DW: But at the same time, push the envelope as far as I could in terms of getting what I believe about the Gospel out. Without causing a non-Christian to walk out of the theater. And I think that I probably pushed it too far. Most non-believers who see the film, if they don’t have animosity toward Christianity, tend to enjoy it while those who do don’t like it as much. But I think a lot of Christians misunderstand what they call “the film industry.” It’s not really the film industry. It’s the entertainment industry. It’s not just shooting a film and putting anything on it. This industry is selling entertainment. People don’t go to the movies to be preached at; they go to Sunday morning services [for that]. If you go to a dentist and he’s great at sharing the Gospel but no good at fixing your teeth, you wouldn’t go back. So most people, when they go out to the movies or turn on the TV, there going out to relax, to be entertained. Now, obviously, in all entertainment there’s a message. But our commodity, our stock in trade, is entertainment. But if we fail to entertain, then we’re not part of the entertainment industry—we’re [delivering] a sermon. Which has its place. But if you want to reach out to unbelievers, I think you’re going to have to go a little further. When I was in Campus Crusade for Christ, I went door-knocking in North Philadelphia one time, with a survey and the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. And normally we get to talk to a few people when we go out. I knocked on twenty doors that day, and not one of those people was interested in talking to us. And I walked away thinking, “I know God used that; we did the right thing.” But it occurred to me that in every one of those homes, there was a television set. Like a Trojan horse, right in there. And if we as believers could have a story that we could tell that would entertain them, and at the same time communicate values, we could do a lot.
My final question for you, Derrick, has to do with the entertainment value of the film. What would you say the impact was of your budgetary limitations, and perhaps of the fact that this was your first feature film that you’ve written and directed? What would you say was the greatest challenge that you had in keeping your film entertaining?
DW: There’s a lot of theology in the film, if you look at it closely. My goal initially was to have a road-trip conversation between a believer and a non-believer. When you have that much dialogue, and your budget doesn’t allow effects and helicopter shots, you’re dependent very heavily on the script. So you have to write good drama. You can’t get away with gimmicks and tricks. It’s difficult to keep a dramatic situation alive just based on character and needs and wants. I went to The Twilight Zone [for inspiration] because Rod Serling was one of the best writers around. He did Playhouse 90 before he did Twilight Zone, and people don’t realize that those Twilight Zone episodes are little morality plays. A lot of those, aside from the little twists that make them interesting, are just good dramatic writing. And those were done on a budget, a prayer and a song, basically, in terms of getting them made—and yet they stick with us today. So basically, that was my goal—to have some mind-bending twists in the story to keep people’s attention, but to also have good writing. Both of those are difficult to do. You can come up with a twist, and it may not be any good. You can come with dramatic writing, and it may still be heavy-handed and boring. So the writing was one of the most difficult parts.
I’ve mentioned this in my review, so it’s no spoiler—I find your twist to be a hoot. I absolutely loved the way the last third of the film played out. When it came to the dialogue up to that point, obviously your biggest problem was figuring out how to get Joe and Dawn and Atlas in and out of the RV often enough to break that dialogue up. That perhaps didn’t work so well. But in terms of setup and payoff, you really got it there. I really enjoyed it.
DW: Yeah, the RV was pretty much our major set. I just pulled it up outside my home here, tented the thing, and we shot a good third of the film sitting in my driveway rather than out in the high desert at night. We had a limited number of sets that we could get, a limited number of locations. A stranded stage play is essentially what it is.
Yeah, yeah. Very much.
DW: And at some point people get tired of that. Can I add one other thing?
DW: Just one thing in general—and this is kind of a shout-out to Christians. We need to be more involved in the arts. I think there’s a calling for that. Being a theology major myself, I look at the attributes of God in Scripture and find that—the first attribute being, of course, existence—the second attribute of God, I think you would have to say, is creativity. In the beginning, God created. And we tend to lack that as Christians. And I think the reason more unbelievers aren’t attracted to the faith is because we don’t see creativity as being God-like—not being immorally creative, you know, but morally creative. But culture is communicated through stories—and if you look at the Bible (though a lot of it, like Paul’s teaching, is didactic), a lot of it is stories that God told to communicate truth. We should be the best storytellers out there, and that’s where we’ve kind of failed. That’s in part why the culture is the way it is, and why movies are the way they are. George Lucas, in 1983, said, “For better or worse, the influence of the Church, which used to be all-powerful, has been usurped by films. Films and television tell us how to conduct our lives, what is right and wrong.” People like Lucas and Coppola, all these filmmakers—make no mistake about it. They’re not making movies just to make money and have fun and walk the red carpet. They have things they want to say. And they’re not the things we want to say. And they recognize that they have to do that in entertaining stories. But they want to say things. And as Christians, we’re losing the cultural battle—because we’re not a part of it. We’re standing back and cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle. And my last word is that, as Christians, as teenagers, as college students—it’s never been cheaper to grab a camera and communicate your point. Put it up on YouTube. Put it up on Vimeo. Get involved. Learn the craft. Do something. Make a difference.