My Interview With Film Maker Todd Shaffer--Glorious Films. I'd like to introduce my readers to Todd Shaffer; though a man of many talents, the scope of this interview is about his role as the Creative Director of Glorious Films (he's asked me to be on the GF advisory board). One of the first-rate films produced by GF is The Promise, a remarkably well-done animated musical based on Luke's account of the Advent of our Lord. In this interview you will learn the history of film, a Christian apologetic for the arts, and the passion of an amazingly gifted artist theologian who is bringing film making to new heights for the glory of Christ.
It seems to me that there are more Christian films being made today than ever before. In the midst of the array of film makers out there (all no doubt zealous but some clearly better than others), what is unique about what you are doing with Glorious Films?
The challenge with any “Christian” filmmaking effort is to find filmmakers who are not only skilled in film craft, but also skilled at rightly handling the Word of God. A zealous spirit married with skill in filmmaking is good, but these will never overcome an immature handling of the story content, whether that content is a police procedural, military action, or Christian/biblical theme. For example, if I set out to make a police procedural I better have a command of police procedure, or the film, no matter how big a budget or how well made, will fall flat. In such cases it’s good, and often necessary to have qualified advisor's, and at Glorious we have assembled a strong group of advisor's, but this doesn’t guarantee our problem is solved. So much depends on the maturity of the filmmaker to be able to act on the counsel given.
My scriptwriting process is always preceded by and bathed in the careful expositional study of Scripture. I see myself as a pastor whose pulpit is a camera, and I have to master the material because I’m the one choosing and implementing and shaping it into a visual story. There are many crossovers between a sermon and a narrative film, and my preparation reflects that. I lived in Luke 1 & 2 for almost a year while I was writing the script for The Promise. That study resulted in a 14-week sermon series that I was able to preach at my church. A strong board of mature advisors who have a far greater command of biblical truth, of church history, decades of ministry experience, and have lived life longer than I, can only make me a better filmmaker.
What is your theological/ministry background?
I was raised in a theologically nominal, yet active, Southern Baptist Church in the Mid-Atlantic. At eighteen I had a crisis of faith when I realized I was unable to intelligently articulate my faith beyond empty clichés. My family moved to the Rocky Mountains where we joined a Bible church that taught the Bible more than my previous church, but it was involved in Dominion theology, praying down demons over cities, binding Satan who always managed to get loose because we would have to bind him again the following week. I was acutely aware of being theologically adrift on the sea, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.
After graduating from University I moved to Los Angeles, and I got involved in John MacArthur’s church. I didn’t know a whole lot about MacArthur, but for the first time in my life I sat under the preaching of a man who trusted God’s Word and taught it to me so that I felt my feet standing on solid ground. And it wasn’t just about MacArthur, there were many other leaders and teachers at that church who had a command of Scripture. I took seminary level courses through the Logos program in theology and hermeneutics, and I devoured books from their theologically rich bookstore. These years at Grace Community Church revolutionized my spiritual life.
When we moved to Montreal we had no idea what we were getting into spiritually. Less than half of one percent of people in Quebec identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Finding a healthy church was near impossible. We ended up serving a recovering seeker-friendly Baptist church called Renaissance. We spent nine years there ministering alongside a bi-vocational pastor who was one of the few Protestant preachers who would simply open the Bible and teach it. There were plenty of opportunities to minister, so I led Bible studies, men’s groups, biblically-based marriage classes and started to preach. As I met more pastors I was invited by other churches to fill their pulpits as they needed.
It takes me a good ten to twenty hours to prepare for forty-five minute exposition, and it was tough given that I had a full-time job and four children at home, but I’m grateful for every minute I spent studying God’s Word in preparation for preaching.
What is your creative and film making background?
I grew up drawing comics, making movies, and knowing I would one day work in movie making in some creative capacity. I studied filmmaking at Montana State University — graduated — moved to Los Angeles with my senior film under my arm and immediately landed a job at a small, yet very busy, commercial animation studio in West Hollywood. This is where my real training began — making animated commercials, which are really 30 second short films. We hired a lot of Disney and Dreamworks animators to moonlight on our productions, and this gave me the luxury of working directly with top talent, without being swallowed up by the big animation studio machine. LA was seeing an animation Renaissance in the 90’s and there was a lot of very talented people teaching drawing, painting and animation, and being a young man I availed myself to these golden opportunities.
Our company specialized in marrying animation to live-action, so I was on set quite a bit working with directors, cameramen and actors. One of my first directing assignments was a terribly conceived commercial with an insane schedule. The client had already bought air time for the Super Bowl, which cost about a million dollars, and there was almost nothing left for the production budget. We managed to get it done, and I can say I directed a Super Bowl commercial — just don’t ask me what it was.
After nine years I wanted out of advertising, so I got a job as a character animator on a feature film which ended up being such a bad production none of the animators will admit to working on it. I left LA and moved to the East Coast to start a career in oil painting, but I kept getting sidetracked by old clients sending me good paying animation assignments, and I never got my painting career off the ground.
Then I got a call from an old acquaintance who was working in Montreal at Studio Pascal Blais. They needed a director, and at that point in my life I realized that while I loved painting pictures, my heart was captive to the moving image. My first day on the job was 9/11. I spent six years directing commercials, and then met Ron Mezey who hired me to help him develop a character animation studio. A few years later we financed The Promise and Glorious Films was born.
Some Christians believe that while books and Christian literature are good film and movies are either outright evil (there are far fewer of these today) or just not very helpful or important; we can do just fine without the genre of film (probably more of these). How would you reply to a well-intentioned Christian who doesn't think the church really needs Christian films and film makers?
The short answer is that we don’t need Christian film or filmmakers. Film has only been around for one hundred years, but the church has been around for 2000. We can lead healthy, flourishing spiritual lives, church ministries and outreach efforts without film.
The long answer is more involved. The first thing I would say is that we have to distinguish between the raw art form of film from how it’s being used by Christian filmmakers, and even how it’s being used by Hollywood. We have to be honest and say that, in spite of good intentions, most Christian films are generally poorly crafted, theologically flawed, and an embarrassment to the church. The “Christian Film” genre is the only film genre that has a highly skeptical target audience, and filmmakers are responsible for breeding this well-earned skepticism.
Once we can strip away all the preconceptions of how film has been used in the past by Christian filmmakers, now we can begin talking about whether the church needs Christian film. Since it’s a very young art form, let’s consider similar art forms that have preceded it, and ask the same question. Did the church need artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Rembrandt? Did the church need composers like Bach or Handel? Did the church need authors of fictional literature like John Bunyan or C. S. Lewis? The answer is, of course we can live without them, but their work enriches and challenges our lives.
The question we should ask is not whether the church needs Christian films, but is it possible for Christian films to enrich our lives, enlarge our faith and challenge our walk? Can Christian films help us fulfill Deuteronomy 6:6-9 “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Can Christian film play a role in what we’re called to in Psalm 146:4-7?
4 One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6 They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
7 They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
Can Christian film help us with our great commission to go into all the world and make disciples? In a media rich world, I think we need to think more deeply about how we use, or don’t use, media in our missions efforts. You may not be able to smuggle Bibles into Iran very easily, but media often doesn’t know borders. We need to heed what Carl F. H. Henry said, “To neglect mass media…for evangelizing the earth is a sin for which twentieth-century Christians might well be held specially responsible….Christians dare not try to work and witness for God as if they still lived in a ‘pre-radio, pre-television, pre-electronic era,” (Evangelicals at the Brink of Crisis, 1967, page 43-44.)
Have Christian filmmakers done a good job with these things? Do we need Christian film? No. Can we use Christian film to help us in life and ministry? Yes. And the most exciting thing is that I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.
You just said, “I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible?” I'm hearing significant foreshadowing in that statement. Can you expand on that?
In the history of the arts, film is the youngest of all art forms. The first major talkie was The Jazz Singer, released a mere 87 years ago. If we compare film history to the history of classical music (broadly speaking,) and we say that Monteverdi in 1590 was the Darryl Zanuck who produced The Jazz Singer in 1927, 87 years later would be 1677, the middle of the Baroque era. Vivaldi would be born a year later. Bach and Handel wouldn’t be born for another 8 years. There aren’t any stand out composers between Monteverdi and Vivaldi other than Pachelbel. If you can grant that comparison, that’s where we are in film today.
Cinema has been largely defined by variations of the cumbersome Hollywood studio system. There have been other defining movements, such as the French New Wave, the Italian Neo-Realists, the American Independents, the Post-Star-Wars-Boy-Wunderkinds, but they’ve all stayed very close to home — the Hollywood studio style. Then along comes someone like Terence Malick who turns conventional movie production on it’s head, but begins to stretch our understanding of what film can be with a brilliant, visionary film like The Tree of Life.
Film is one of the most unique, complex, multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary art forms that we have. Paintings are storied images frozen in a moment of time. Music is an emotional movement of sound and melodies. Fictional literature is story that plays on the stage of our minds-eye. Theater is live human performance of story limited to time and place. Poetry evokes the beauty of thoughts, word associations, and evocative mental images that sing on the wavelength of our language and emotions. Every single one of these artistic medium are powerful in their own right. Film assembles and layers all these together in a time-based succession of images and sounds that can do anything we can imagine. It is the super art, and I don’t believe we’ve yet seen the Bach’s, Beethoven's, or Mozart's of film.
What I find incredibly exciting is that the Jericho Walls of Hollywood’s dominance are falling down. With new affordable technologies, digital distribution channels, and social media, we are about to enter a completely new era of filmmaking that is unshackled. All we need now are visionary filmmakers with talent, conviction, and a small support machine behind them to take film into a new era.
What surprises me is that the church has all but ignored, and even villified, this art form. We sit around debating the usefulness of film, bemoaning the latest Hollywood faith-based effort, madly citing Marshall McLuhan with the worst of proof-texting, wondering why we don’t see the likes of Bach, Handel, John Bunyan or C. S. Lewis making powerful, intelligent films. Maybe in the next ten to twenty years a Christian filmmaker will come along and show us what powerful Christian film can be.
What is your vision and goal for Glorious Films?
My immediate goal is to see Glorious become a trusted and innovative brand in the “faith-based” genre. My producing partner, Ron Mezey, and I have a slate of films in various stages of development that could keep us busy for awhile. In terms of vision, I hope Glorious will redefine the “faith-based” genre by producing cinematic films of quality and depth that will strongly crossover into the main stream market without emptying our convictions. I would also love to see Glorious become a company that can develop a new generation of talent who share my cinematic and theological convictions, and who can spawn a new wave of “faith-based” cinema.
I am honored that you have asked me to be on the advisory board for Glorious Films. Could you share with my readers what the role of the advisory board is, who is on it, and why you wanted me to be a part of it?
Our advisory board is made up of men who I hold myself accountable to spiritually, theologically and personally. Most members are 1.) theologically evangelical who hold a high view of Scripture, and 2.) are creators of some fashion, or who have an affinity for the arts or media. The board has three purposes. First, to keep my work theologically sound. Second, to provide feedback and ideas on the creative/theological application of our films. And third, to lend a degree of credibility to Glorious as an unknown company to a Christian world that has a healthy skepticism toward Christian media. And, there is an unspoken fourth purpose, which is that I have a tremendous amount of respect for these men, some who have been my heroes for many years, and knowing that they are on my board encourages me to weather the storms of production and do better work.
The development of the board has been led by Dr. Mark Coppenger, who has become a close confidant, a tremendous source of encouragement, and friend. Our board consists of yourself, Dr. Derek Thomas, Dr. Michael Haykin, Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, Trevin Wax and four men in my personal circle, Pastor Brad Melette, Pastor Rici Be, Hal Hays and the voice of Gabriel, Lon Vining.
What are some ways that my readers can help and support the mission of Glorious Films?
We need an audience who is truly motivated to be our champions in our community and circles. We call them “brand evangelists.” We have very little budget for marketing, yet in this day of social media, every post, tweet, share, like, follow, review, and comment is part of the new distribution network that we’re trying to build.
Where can readers go who want to find out more about The Promise and The Prodigal, who want to place an order, or who want to find out more about future film projects in the pre-production stages?
Our website (www.gloriousfilms.com) has more information on our films, and you can follow us on our company blog or Facebook. I will be posting more frequently there as we approach Christmas to talk about The Promise and the theological motivation behind it to recover the full nativity story.
I also have a blog on my website (toddshaffer.com) where I post articles related to Christian film and filmmaking.
The Promise can be purchased at most Christian Bookstores such as Lifeway and Family Christian. We are online at Amazon, CBD, and site licenses can be purchased through Lifeway Films. Many ask us about iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, and it will be there, but not until 2015. Prodigal is scheduled for release next Summer.