A Talk with Tracy Trost
Christian Filmmaking, Not Just Films for Christians
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. 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.
Trost is in a unique position as a filmmaker. It’s not everyone who picks “film director” as a second career title at age 45. But after having successfully established a company offering marketing consultation services, including corporate films, Trost decided to take the advice he gives all his employees: follow your dreams.
Trost finances his own films—and firmly believes that there’s no point spending more on a film than is necessary. For A Christmas Snow, his sophomore feature due for release direct to DVD October 8, he actually turned down additional financing.
What follows is a portion of my talk with Trost on the set of A Christmas Snow, starring Catherine Mary Stewart as an uptight middle-aged control freak, Muse Watson as the stranger she encounters on the eve of a Christmas snowstorm, and Cameron ten Napel as the young daughter of her prospective husband.
When I was talking with [producer] Chad Gundersen yesterday, I heard you describe A Christmas Snow as a Hallmark Channel film.
Tracy Trost: It’s one of those feel-good films. One of my goals as a filmmaker or storyteller is this: I understand that I have somebody’s attention for an hour and a half. I can either entertain them, or I can leave them something. So when I’m writing something or getting involved in a project, the purpose for me is to leave them better off than when they walked through the door. So when I was working on A Christmas Snow, I wanted to do a Christmas movie because I like Christmas movies, number one—and I think there’s a really good market for them. But I wanted something that had a twist at the end—and of course had a high entertainment value—so that when it’s all said and done, you go, “I can learn from that. I can take something from that. I can be a little bit different because of that.” And even with Find Me, I’d get e-mails saying, “I’ve never seen Christianity like that before,” or “I’ve never seen the strength of convictions like that.”
The trick is getting people to watch it in the first place.
TT: Yeah. And that’s why you’re here. That’s why we’re doing all the publicity.
I’m here because I’m intrigued with you as a filmmaker. And because of what I saw in Find Me. I get I don’t know how many inquiries a week from small filmmakers who say, “I’ve got this project… check it out.” It’s so hard with the “attention economy” being what it is to crack that opening.
TT: What inspired you to watch Find Me?
It was the hook. It was the whole geocaching thing. Because I know people who do geocaching, but I’ve never experienced it myself—never investigated it. And then I went to the site—and it was a great website!
TT: That was Joe Jestus who did that.
Oh, I thought that was fantastic. So I said, “I’m hooked. I’ll take a look.” And then the product backed it up. It was a good solid story that felt—that felt—like mainstream moviemaking. Obviously on a low budget—but it had that feel to it. This was real storytelling, with good sensibilities to it.
TT: Did you feel like you walked away with something when it was all said and done?
I don’t think I did, no.
TT: Because it was too close to home? Like when Paul was talking to Jess about his faith?
I guess there were other aspects to it that were more memorable to me. Like I came away impressed by the performances you got. “These are some great young actors you’ve got.”
TT: We rehearsed for about eight weeks beforehand, and then a nine day shooting schedule. I knew we could not be waiting on set—it was a real dialogue-heavy film. Tyler, Fiawna, and Ahmad just worked their butts off. We rehearsed, we rehearsed, we rehearsed every night, every weekend for eight weeks up until we shot. And we went to the actual locations and blocked out our movements. So when we got there, everyone knew what was going on, and we plopped our actors in there and set the lights and away we went. Tyler won Best Actor at one film festival and was nominated for Best Actor at another. We’ve won two Best Features and took second at another. So I’m real happy with it.
It was very well done—and demonstrates the skill in your craft that you’ve acquired—
TT: I can’t take all the credit. My crew is great. I’ve found that it’s best just to let them do their thing. Like right now. They’re out there setting up a scene while we’re talking; and when I come back I’ll tweak a little bit. But I just get out of the way and let them do their thing. And the same thing with the actors in A Christmas Snow. Muse and I, Cathy and I do have extensive conversations about the characters. One thing I do like about Cathy is that she’s very much into the craft of acting. She wants to get inside the head of this character. We spent many hours talking on the phone; and when she came to the office on the first day, we sat down and she had pages and pages of notes—and we went through them and actually rewrote a couple of scenes based on her notes. She’s just such a consummate actor—she’s totally into it. She should be directing. She understands the process. She gets it. And she’s helped me with my directing ability. Muse is the kind of guy, he walks in—and he’s a one-take wonder. He knows who Sam is—and I’m just going to get out of his way and let him do his thing. I give him very little direction. We discuss it, we talk about the emotions. Cameron is amazing. That little girl—when I met her in Dallas when she was trying out for the part, they were doing the dinner scene. And I just asked her to give it to me. And I had Chad, the producer, and the casting director read with her—and I had her go through the whole thing as she interpreted it. And then, to try to confuse her [as a test], I threw like fifteen different directions at her: “At this point, I want you to do this, or do that.” You know—do these different things just to see how she’d handle direction. And when I said, “Action!” she went through and hit every point I was looking for. So then we did it again and I’d say, “Stop! Do this; okay, go. Now stop! Do this.” Just to see if I could fluster her. And she’d pop up, “Uh huh!” and smile. She’s amazing. We’re going to see a lot of that little girl in the future.
So how do you think of yourself as a director?
TT: As a director?
Yeah. From what I’ve seen of the way that your operation works, and from what Joe says about the projects you’ve go going next, it doesn’t seem like you fit the mold of the director with a strong artistic vision and a message that you want to get out there. So what kind of future do you see for yourself? What do you hope will be your legacy?
TT: My legacy— Well, hopefully stories that change people’s lives, and entertain them as well. Quality has got to be there. I’m looking for the highest quality and the best performance possible. I think a lot of things can be forgiven if the performance is good. Cathy and I were talking earlier, and she said, “You know, you’re an actor’s director.” Because I get more of a charge out of seeing my actors do well than out of anything else. I get so happy because we went to a place together, and when we see it on the screen I know that they’ll be proud of it as well. But as a director? I just want to be known as a good storyteller.
What directors do you admire?
TT: I’m a big Ron Howard fan.
TT: Oh, yeah. Just because of the way that he tells a story, again. I love the Scott brothers—Ridley and Tony—with the way they handle the action. And another director right now, who I’ve followed a lot, is J.J. Abrams. I didn’t see any of his television shows, and my first exposure was Mission Impossible 3. I saw the other two—but with M.I. 3, I was engrossed by the characters. And then to see Star Trek.
That was masterful.
TT: It really was. And I actually bought the DVD—which I never do. When I’ve seen a story I like, I usually just don’t want to see it again. But I’ve watched that two or three times now. And seeing how he treats his crew, on the behind-the-scenes stuff on the DVD—that’s how I want to be. To me, they are human beings first—and then they are crew. I want to treat them the way I would want to be treated. I worked my way up through the ranks—I’ve done practically every job that those guys out there are doing, some not as well as others. But I’ve worked with some real jerks. And you know what? If I’m not enjoying it, I don’t want to do it.