Filmmaker Michael Lienau Survives Mount St. Helens Eruption
Michael Lienau began his professional career as a filmmaker at the tender age of 13. His experience filming news segments combined with his love of narrative storytelling developed into a unique documentary style: dramatizing stories narrated in a documentary fashion. A couple of years ago he shot second unit footage in the Dominican Republic for the major motion picture Like Dandelion Dust on the Red One camera.
It seems the Red One is becoming the camera of choice for independent filmmakers.
Michael: I ordered the Red One camera the year before it came out because I wanted to head toward doing independent Christian films, which this camera allows me to do. I have shot local independent films, some television shows, a gardening show with Graham Kerr, (the Galloping Gourmet), etc. We have a production company, so we use it whenever possible.
Where does having a Red One camera make the greatest difference in a production?
Michael: It shoots in raw format, so it gives the full latitude of film, as opposed to shooting digital or video. You have professional images and a complete professional set-up, which helps you go from a video mentality to a film mentality.
I started in film, so whenever I shot video, I tried to do it in film style. When we shot The Fire Below, we did it as a dramatization using BetaCam cameras. The Red One is a camera I've been waiting my whole career for, and it's just going to get better as technology improves.
We also just shot a music video using the Red One. We filmed it on the beach just down the street from where we live. It features a local Northwest artist and my daughter is dancing in it.
Are your children artistically inclined?
Michael: Yes, to one degree or another. Some are more technically oriented than others, some like the artistry in music, others like to create an atmosphere around the house. We're raising up the new generation of filmmakers.
I hear that phrase used a lot in different ways. Can you tell me what it means to you as a father and as a filmmaker?
Michael: I'm realizing that I've put on a few miles; I've been making films since I was nine years old. Along the way, God put different people in my path to encourage, challenge and mentor me, and I want to be available to do the same thing. I get so many kids coming to me saying they want to make movies and asking for internships, so I want to try to do that.
When you get up in years, too, you realize that's really the more important thing; to pass that along to others. They have creativity; they have things that are out of the box, things I've never thought of. They also come up with new creative ways to help us in what we're trying to do.
These 20-year-olds that are doing music and film and television are doing some good work, so I want to partner with them. I want to be open to their fresh new ideas and how they can work with my experience. I don't want to think I know it all, because I certainly don't. The older you get, the more you realize you don't know.
Who were some of your mentors and encouragers, and how did you get into filmmaking?
Michael: My mother was always making home movies of us as kids. The camera was always moving and it was often out of focus. She'd make us watch them. I wanted to make real movies, so one day I asked her if I could use her camera and make a movie.
I loved those TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, where they made people disappear and stuff like that. I figured out how to do that and made my brothers disappear. That was pretty cool.
When I told my mother I wanted to make movies, she said, "You need to pray to Jesus and see if that's what He wants you to do." So I prayed this simple prayer when I was nine and asked the Lord to open the doors for me.
I had an English teacher that let us write scripts and make movies for extra credit. She showed them to the class and that really encouraged me too.
The local NBC affiliate in Medford, Oregon, went to the high school one day to see if there were any kids that would be interested in shooting some 16 millimeter film for them, and they said no, but that there was this kid over in junior high who was making movies, and they should talk to them.
So one day I got a message that there was someone to talk with me in the principle's office. When I went down there, it was a famous newscaster who was looking for a local cameraman to lug around gear and run camera for him, and in return he would mentor them.
I saw that as an answer to my prayer. At 13 years old, they hired me to shoot the evening TV news with this veteran newscaster, and that's how I got started in a professional way. I did that through junior high and high school, and word got out because I was really the only person in our community who had a 16 mm camera and was going out and doing news like that.
The San Francisco and Portland stations found out, so I was kept pretty busy doing news stringing for all those stations through junior and high school. Right out of high school, I had several job offers to work in TV news, which is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to move to Hollywood and make movies.
But my father was a nuclear physicist and he was encouraging me to go to college and get a degree in energy because that was a better career. He thought filmmaking was a good hobby, but that I couldn't make a lifetime career out of it. So I took the job just to kind of show my dad that I could make it into a career.
I worked in TV news, but wound up hating it. It really wasn't my thing. So I started a company called Global Net News, because I knew I could keep marketing myself that way while I began working on documentaries and movies.
I probably would have ended up in Hollywood or LA when I was 20 years old, but Mount St. Helens kind of got in the way. That's what God used to draw me into a real relationship with Him. At that time, I was looking at film schools in LA, then the mountain started erupting. I thought it might help my career, so I spent all my spare time for six weeks trying to capture an eruption.
I did capture some eruptions of steam and ash and sold some footage to ABC News. Then the big eruption happened on May 18, and fortunately for me, I wasn't there, but took my camera and captured some of the devastation around the mountain.
I called a company in Seattle that I knew was making a film to see if they needed an extra cameraman, and they needed someone right at that moment to go to the airport and get in a helicopter to go film the ash cloud as it was going across the country.
None of us knew the full extent of what was happening, we just wanted to capture it on film. So, very foolishly, I jumped into that helicopter and we flew right into that black cloud. And from that day on, I worked for that Seattle production company as a cameraman.
That whole event changed my life. It humbled me. I was 20 years old, thinking I was a bigshot about to move to Hollywood, and that whole thing (being lost for 4 days and presumed dead) humbled me and got me to stop and listen to the Lord and His plan for my life, rather than mine.
By the time I was 20, I was out on my own working in TV news and headed toward a film career. But then that happened and it stopped me in my tracks. All I wanted to do was to get to know God better and grow in my faith. I sensed from the Lord at that point that I was to continue to have my own production company and remain available for what He wanted to do.
Our footage was used on news shows and TV specials and Pat Robertson even invited me to be on the 700 Club to share my story about Mount St. Helens. I had seen Pat Robertson weeks before when I was tired, hungry and cold one morning. It was around 2 AM and I was just getting home, weary of covering all the bad news. I remember wishing that I could work somewhere that we reported good news.
I turned on the television and heard Pat Robertson say that some day he wanted to start a Good News Network that would be as good as the major television networks, but it would cover the good news. I thought, "That's interesting. I'd like to work for them."
I sent them a demo reel and resume, but they were just building the network at that time. So I forgot about that until Mount St. Helens happened and I was on the 700 Club. Told that story to Pat Robertson and he said they'd been praying for a producer on the West Coast, so he hired me right then and there to be the West Coast producer for CBN's 700 Club.
For the next several years, I produced series for them. We covered the LA Olympics in 1984, we produced hundreds and hundreds of testimonies and feature stories for CBN, and I was able to stay on the West Coast, doing that and other independent projects too. I was offered jobs from other networks, but I still felt like I was doing what I was supposed to.
I met some people from Billy Graham and we started doing work with Billy Graham Worldwide Pictures. I did some documentaries and helped them develop a feature film. So over the years, I wanted to remain obedient to the calling of God. I didn't really have the same desire, like I did before Mount St. Helens, to go make it big in Hollywood. That didn't matter really to me. Whatever God had for me was success in my eyes at that point.
You know, the government made Mount St. Helens a monument, but to me, it's a monument of what God did in my life. When the Israelites were brought out of Egypt, God had them build a monument, so to me, Mount St. Helens is a monument, a testimony of what God did in my life.
I encourage my kids not to wait for a Mount St. Helens, but to make that choice now to follow Him; otherwise He might put a Mount St. Helens in their path. Sometimes God allows detours to happen so we'll listen to Him, and that's how I view Mount St. Helens; as God's detour to get my attention. For some of us it takes a volcanic eruption or near death experience to wake up.
When we get that, do we wake up and actually hear it, or do we hit the snooze alarm and go on with our lives?
How does your experience as a news producer affected your filmmaking, and how does your filmmaking affect your reporting?
Michael: I started out wanting to make narrative feature films and got into news without planning to do that, and I'm coming back around to that now. Three years ago, I just really felt like that was what the Lord was telling me to do, to get back into what I was doing at the beginning, but to also keep doing what I was doing.
Most of the films we're doing now are either true stories or real life stories that are fictionalized. Maybe Mount St. Helens changed something in me so that I want things to be real and relatable to people. So I think doing news affected me in that way, to make things more real.
Making narrative film for me is like making a documentary. So all the testimonies I did when I was working for CBN helped me when we produced The Fire Below Us. In 1990, that film took me eight years to do because I had no funding for it. I didn't just want to do a science film because that had been done over and over again.
I wanted a film people could really relate to, so I didn't just interview them, I dramatized their stories. So those are real people telling their real story underneath the dramatization, which is mixed with news footage that myself and others shot. I tried to put the viewer right in the center of that through the experience. It's difficult for people to relate to a rock or tree or mountain or volcanic eruption except through the human experience. So that's where being an experienced news producer helps me dramatize that in a narrative film.
Nobody would fund The Fire Below Us because they said there were too many films about Mount St. Helens, but no one had done one that showed it through the human experience. Once I got it done, an agent in New York had a deal on the table with the Discovery Channel, but I didn't feel good about it. I sent it to National Geographic thinking they wouldn't want it, but they outbid Discovery because they really wanted it. I asked them why and they said it was because I did something unusual and intermixed the dramatization with the news footage. So we did a deal with National Geographic television.
In that day, it was a pretty new thing to do dramatization mixed with science like that, but it was my work with CBN testimony stories and news that taught me how to do that.
You have a third film called Yokes and Chains that seems to be very different from your dramatized documentaries.
Michael: In 1977, I saw the TV series Roots and was absolutely fascinated by it. I thought, "Some day I'm going to make movies like that," and I thought it would be really cool to meet Alex Haley. Three years later I was doing some work for a Japanese television network and they assigned me to do a biography of Alex Haley (seen below).
I met him at his home in Arkansas and he told me that it was his dream to one day see healing and reconciliation, and I wondered what he meant by that. I thought he found his roots and healing when he went to Africa. He was a millionaire!
But he explained that his people needed healing and reconciliation, and I understood what he meant better when the Watts Riots broke out in Los Angeles. It reminded me of a Native American that I knew back in Oregon who wanted to hold onto his land when the government tried to buy it. I understood these issues with Native Americans and African Americans here in America. That whole story just captivated me and I wanted to do something like Roots, but that really captured people's stories.
So I was introduced to this Englishman, David Pott, who was taking an apology to descendants of slaves around the world in a very unusual way. He called me and asked if I'd be interested in filming it, and I thought, "Absolutely." My wife and I also thought this would be a great opportunity to teach our home schooled children about slavery.
We gave them assignments to do, and our daughter one day found this article with a picture showing that small children like here were taken and put into slavery along with their parents. We learned that toward the end of slavery in the United States, more than half of the slaves were children from the ages 5-15, which was the age of our children.
They asked if they could bring an apology to the people for the enslavement of children, so that was woven into Yokes and Chains: A Journey to Forgiveness and Freedom. We have over 600 hours of footage captured for stories from around the world. Most people don't realize that only 4% of slaves were brought to U.S. soil. 96% of those descendants still live in South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.
In those places, there is much more oppression and poverty than what we find here because they didn't have a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Civil Rights era. In Colombia, South America, they didn't even have voting rights as citizens until 1996. They're considered the poorest of the poor, still an oppressed people group.
We're still trying to put that story together and find an outlet for it. It's very difficult to get people to care about that and do something with it. It's controversial. It's getting interest in film festivals, but PBS won't do it because it's too Christian and too controversial.
We've captured stories from different regions of the world because each had their own journey. We're also trying to translate this into all these different languages for each of the people groups.