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|Christians in Cinema: Brian Bird |
Posted: Monday, May 7, 2007 |
Christians in Cinema: Brian Bird
Brian Bird was writer and producer for I Believe Pictures' film "The Last Sin Eater". Brian is shown at right with production partner Michael Landon, Jr., and Liana Liberato, star of The Last Sin Eater, on the set of the film.
Brian and Patty Bird have been married 26 years, and are proving that it’s possible to have a strong family and do the work they do. Their 5 children are the delight of their lives. Ben, 24, is a Biola graduate who works for the Chicago Fire, a major league soccer team owned by Phil Anschutz, the owner of Walden Media. Cameron is a 22-year-old senior in the USC journalism program, and Taylor is a senior in high school and will be attending Pepperdine in the fall.
After having 3 boys, Brian and Patty prayed for a daughter and didn’t think they’d have one until they began the adoption process. Meredith (now 13) was 3 months old when Brian and Patty brought her home from South Korea. When she was 7, Meredith asked her parents “How come I’m the only one in our family that looks like me?” and started praying for a baby sister. Her prayers were answered when the Birds adopted Mackenzie, who is now 6. “I can’t imagine life without our 2 girls, and I recommend adoption very highly to anyone. It’s a great thing to do.”
Family vacations range from Hawaii to DisneyWorld and usually include at least one good solid week away as a family. The day after we talked Brian was leaving to go to Tempe, AZ, for a weekend at the Angels’ spring training camp. It’s an annual tradition he’s established with his boys. As much as their school schedule will allow, his kids join him on the set of his movies, and the whole family enjoys their ministry and membership at Saddleback Church in South Orange County, California.
In the midst of post-production on The Redemption of Sarah Cain to be released later this year, Brian made time to talk with me about his passion for writing and his career in entertainment.
CC.com: Brian, when did you realize you had a gift for writing?
Brian: I think other people recognized it before I did. A series of people in my life affirmed and encouraged me in my writing ability. And I think I was too passive to say no to them. I thought writing was fun and it came pretty easy for me. I didn’t have to work hard so it wasn’t a bummer for me to do.
When I was in high school, my sophomore English teacher held me after class. She had one of my essays in her hand and I thought I was busted for sure! She looked me right in the eye and said “Brian, you could do this for a living if you wanted to.” I never really thought about it that way. I submitted the essay to a contest covering all of Southern California and it won 3rd place. That was a great win for a nerdy guy.
As a senior in high school, I was editor of the school newspaper and had my own column. People were reading and commenting positively on my work and I got a certain “buzz” out of that. My journalism teacher challenged me to pursue journalism, so I attended Cal State Fullerton, which has one of the top 3 or 4 journalism schools on the West Coast. My Uncle Dan Bird was a very gifted musician and church worship leader. He pulled me aside when I was getting out of high school and said, “This skill you have is a gift from God. You have to look at it as though it were a musical instrument. Work at it. Practice. Don’t just get good enough to be in a garage band, get good enough to be in the symphony.”
CC.com: Did you get into journalism after college?
Brian: I went to work for a daily newspaper (the San Gabriel Valley Tribune). After working several years there, I received a job offer from World Vision to write for their magazine. It was every journalist’s dream; to travel the world and write articles about culture, issues, and tragedies. Before I knew it, I wound up in their PR department and eventually rose up through the ranks to be the PR director. I spent a total of 6 years on staff with World Vision.
One day I realized I wasn’t writing any more, but just managing other writers. I was very restless in my spirit and wanted to do something about that. Since I was a kid, I’ve felt a strong sense of call from God to be a writer. It’s the only thing I really know how to do. It’s the one thing I feel I’m supposed to do.
In 1983 my wife’s great-uncle was a TV producer (Don Ingalls) for Fantasy Island. He had read some of the stuff I’d done for the newspaper and for World Vision and asked if I ever thought about writing scripts. I hadn’t. I love film and TV – I’ve always been a fan of story-telling in that way – so I decided to give it a shot. He gave me some scripts so I could learn the format and told me what the best books would be to read... the “scriptwriting Bibles” everyone in Hollywood reads.
I did my homework, came up with an idea and wrote a spec script in the wee hours of my evenings. When I was finished, I sent it to Don and he loved it as a spec script. He told me if the show was renewed the next year they’d bring me in and give me a shot at a story they would assign to me. Well, it did get renewed, and they brought me in, gave me a story nugget and I took a week of vacation to write the script. When I turned it in, they loved it. They asked for a couple of changes and some rewriting and the script went into production.
What Don hadn’t told me was that he had 3 or 4 other back-up plans just in case I blew it. He told me to just do my best and we’d see where it went, so I didn’t feel the pressure of immediate success. In 1984, I had my first produced credit at the age of 26. At that time, they offered to bring me on as story editor if the show was renewed the next year. It sounded great to me; I thanked them, and said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.
I got my whole family together to watch my first credit on TV and unfortunately the show did not get renewed the next season. I kept working for World Vision and celebrated the fact that I’d had my “one cup of coffee in the big leagues.” Who knows where it would go from there?
In 1988, I was working on a World Vision TV special about the Ethiopian famine. In the years since my episode of Fantasy Island had aired, I had gotten a little perspective on it. In the scope of a whole world full of disasters, one TV episode was pretty small. But one night in my hotel room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I saw my episode of Fantasy Island on television. It was a crystal moment for me. I thought if something that trivial could be exported around the world, what kind of possibilities existed for life- and faith-affirming film and TV? So I asked the Lord, “If you want me to be doing this, put me back in that game.”
A year later, I met with Michael Warren, a fine Christian man who had written and produced “Laverne & Shirley,” “Happy Days,” and “Perfect Strangers.” He read a drama script my former writing partner, John Wierick, and I had written and asked if we could do comedy. We said absolutely! So we wrote a spec script of “Murphy Brown” and submitted it. Michael loved it, thought it was funny and very good, and offered to bring us onto a new show he had sold to CBS.
That was was 1990 and I had my first job as a story editor. The show was “The Family Man,” about a recently widowed fireman who lived with his 4 kids and his wife’s uncle. It starred Al Molinaro and Gregory Harrison and was on CBS for one season, 22 episodes. After that, we landed on “Step by Step” for 5 seasons, and in between wrote a few episodes of “Evening Shade” with Burt Reynolds.
In between TV seasons, I kept involved by writing film scripts. I’d take assignments on hiatus and wrote about 12 TV movie scripts, 3 of which were produced. The third one “Call Me Claus,” was a $7 million cable movie that starred Whoopi Goldberg as the new Santa Claus. Garth Brooks executive-produced it and it was the highest-rated cable film of 2003.
John and I also wrote a feature film called “Bopha,” which was directed by Morgan Freeman and starred Danny Glover and Malcolm McDowell. Morgan and I enjoyed our working relationship and later developed a pilot together for Showtime called “Simple City.” It didn’t get past the pilot stage but we were very proud of our work. I also collaborated with Martin Sheen on a pilot for NBC called “Peter, Paul and Lena.” It was a great experience, and we had a great rapport, but it also didn’t make it past the pilot stage. . Getting a network series “green-lit” in Hollywood is like playing a roulette wheel in Las Vegas.
CC.com: You did experience good success with Touched by An Angel. How did that come about?
Brian: I had worked with Martha Williamson on “Family Man” and she went on to create and Executive Produce Touched by An Angel. After I finished “Step by Step,” she asked me to join her on her show, and I did the last 5 seasons of “Touched by An Angel” as co-executive producer and writer. By 2003, when “Angel” ended, I had 10 seasons of writing and producing for television, which put me in a great position for my next adventure; working with Michael Landon, Jr.
CC.com: How did the two of you get connected?
Brian: I had known Michael for about 12 years through mutual friends, and we always tried to figure how to work together. Somehow, things never fell into place until after his success with the Janette Oke series Love Comes Softly. He had been trying to set them up for a few years, but not really getting anywhere. As the Passion of the Christ was starting to build some buzz, suddenly, faith-based films were getting a lot of notice. The Hallmark Channel made a deal with the Faith & Values network in New York to add some programming and they took Michael’s script for Love Comes Softly to Hallmark with a recommendation to do a made-for-TV movie. Hallmark agreed and the movie aired Christmas of 2003. It had 40% higher ratings than any other program aired on the network. They immediately ordered the sequel, Love’s Enduring Promise.
The series has 8 books, and Michael literally began to pick them off one by one for film adaptation. After the Passion had done $600 million worldwide and was released on DVD, Fox Home Entertainment recognized that the faith-based market was a sleeping giant and picked up the DVD rights for Love Comes Softly. They flew off the shelves.
Four of the film adaptations have been released on DVD, so there are 4 left. Michael isn’t taking a real active role in the last 4; he’ll be a producer, but probably won’t write or direct them. Fox came to Michael about the series and asked him why he was doing these as TV movies instead of theatrical launches. They asked him to do some films for them. At that point, he called me and invited me into the fray because of my experience. We formed “Believe Pictures” and started working; we’d write, direct and produce together.
I hadn’t read much Christian fiction; I was honestly unimpressed by it. We asked around to find out the authors who are having a strong impact on Christians. We kept coming up with the name, Francine Rivers. The rights to her most popular book had already been taken and several others we liked but found too ambitious for our budget. Then we read The Last Sin Eater and were very intrigued. It involved a small community and therefore a small location. It seemed very doable and not overly ambitious. We secured the movie rights, made a deal and went to Fox with it. They told us to go for it! We raised 2/3 of the funding through private equity and they brought in the other third. After seeing the rough cut, Fox announced their theatrical program and asked how quickly we could get into production on another film. The door was wide open for us and we got 2 more pictures green-lit with them.
CC.com: How challenging is it to adapt a book to film? Do you find the author sometimes wants to go a different direction than you?
Brian: In Francine Rivers’ case she’d never had a film made from one of her books, so she was naturally wary of it. We had a good track record and shared the same heart about her story, so we told her if she didn’t like it, she could take her name off of it. So that put the pressure on us to please her and her publishers or we’d lose their endorsement.
I’ve adapted 7 books to film in my career so I’m somewhat confident in the process. You can’t put 350 pages onscreen, so the challenge is what to leave out? It’s a bigger challenge than what to keep in. Every time you make a cut you have to consider what you’re doing creatively to make the story gel. It might be easier to write an original screenplay based on your own ideas. When you’re adapting, you’re trying to pay homage to the original book material and keep the author pleased with the process.
It’s really a dance and balancing act, but you have to do it. Writing a book and making a movie are very different beasts, and authors who can understand that do very well with the process. They have to detach themselves from their baby and realize a new product that’s very different from the original is under creation. The Redemption of Sarah Cain (currently in post-production, due in theaters in August of 2007) was adapted from a Beverly Lewis book. We departed quite a bit from the book, but she’s been very happy with the whole process.
The premise of her novel was something we hadn’t seen before. It’s set in contemporary time but has very traditional values. Sarah is a big-city woman living in Portland, Oregon. She’s the epitome of a modern feminist: highly ambitious, self-absorbed, unable to make a relationship work. Her estranged sister married into the Amish world and lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
After her sister’s death, Sarah inherits her 5 Amish nieces and nephews because their father also recently died. In the book, Sarah goes to Pennsylvania and stays there until she can decide what is best for the children. The big change we made from the book for the movie is that we had Sarah decide to bring her family back to Portland to live with her. It’s a “fish-out-of-water” story for the kids. They’re wandering around trying to understand how to conform their lifestyle to our modern world and we see things in a new way through their eyes.
CC.com: I understand that’s not the only project you having going right now.
Brian: It’s a little crazy right now. I’m in the midst of trying to finish a book for InterVarsity Press – I’m 8 months behind. We have multiple film projects going and my schedule is all over the map. A few of the thousand things we’re doing are closing deals with actors, raising funds for our next film, working on the music score for Sarah, and trying to get our next film going,”Jake’s Run.” It’s the true story of a mentally challenged boy who got on his high school football team in Southern Ohio and scored a touchdown in his last game.
My time is gobbled up by the myriad of things I have to do. I’m probably losing brain cells because I’ll have a big jam session and get a bunch of work done on pure adrenaline. It’s a pattern I developed working in newspaper and television. I was always under deadlines then and I’d work 18- hour days until I got things done. It’s my pattern to percolate on something for a long time and then just jam to get it done.
I’m also teaching in the “Act One” program, and speak from time to time at Biola University and Pepperdine University, as well as at Saddleback Church. I’m doing a lot of talking about the creative/artistic process. You really have to find your own flow. The way I look at it is I have to hit a Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds homerun every time I’m up to bat. A double off the back wall isn’t good enough. I can’t turn in a half-baked performance because it’s not acceptable. In this business, the question is what have you done for me TODAY?
In the newspaper business I was always spitting out a story with 2 minutes to spare every day. Same thing in television; there is no such thing as a writer’s block because you can’t hold up production. You have to feed the beast because every 8 days is a brand-new script. The old one you just finished is tossed in the trash. And you have to do it 24 times a year. It has to be good. That’s not to say that you don’t have an occasional clunker, but you have to provide a consistently good entertainment experience for people. That gives a bit of false confidence because you start thinking you nailed it yourself and can do it again. Really when I was doing TV, I’d have to cry “God, bail me out!”
CC.com: What are your views on creating films specifically for Christians?
Brian: From the beginning Hollywood has had storytellers whose job it is to make the movies and and marketing people whose job it is to sell the movies. There have been all kinds of variations on this theme from the beginning of the industry. Studios have specialized in horror, World War II, film noir, etc., and have purposely chosen to market to certain groups of people. This current attempt to reach the faith-based audience is not dissimilar. I saw “Pursuit of Happyness” and the pre-show had five trailers for African-American films. There’s niche marketing going on all over the place. And this faith-based film-making endeavor is no different.
In truth it’s almost impossible to get a film made anyway. We’re just trying to get on the board and make good films. The studios are pre-dispositioned to say “no” – it’s easier to say that than take a risk. They don’t want to lose jobs by betting on the wrong pony. Fox Faith wants to brand films through that division, so we’re trying to find movies that resonate with a Christian audience, but will have a broader reach.
It’s not terribly different from Christianity Today (magazine) taking advertising from Christian colleges, publishers and businesses. They magazine and its advertising is really targeted at Christians, but they also probably hope they’re going to get broader exposure with their publication. Non-Christians may pick it up, but it is specifically branded as a Christian publication.
At the end of the day, we want Fox Faith to succeed so we’re doing our best to give them good movies to sell and hope it’s a good experience for them. I think they’re also attracting a brand-new audience of people who normally doesn’t go to movies because they don’t find acceptable content. Fox believes in us and is incredibly supportive of what we’re trying to do. The jury isn’t in yet on if this will prove to be a good idea. It’s certainly stirred a lot of controversy on the Internet and in various Christian publications.
CC.com: With all of the Hollywood experience you have, is it a little hard to swallow the criticism you’ve received?
Brian: When I worked on secular projects in Hollywood, I used to be skeptical about people trying to do specifically Christian films because usually the films were not very well done. There’s been a lot of debate in the blog world about this idea of a “Christian filmmaking ghetto.” Now that the shoe is on my foot, I’m hoping we will make films that are accepted by the secular world as well as Christian audiences. I want to see people telling good stories that can have Christian content without being overly preachy. When I compare Francine’s book to the finished film, I believe we handled The Last Sin Eater in a very understated way. But some people have called it too preachy. Others have said it’s not preachy enough. It is what it is. There are a lot of people debating it. My attitude is that those who can, do. Those who can’t, blog about it. And meanwhile, we are getting films made in an impossible business.
It seems that the Christian press is putting Christian filmmaking under more scrutiny than it might put secular films, perhaps because we’re all self-conscious about poor quality films that have been made in the past. It’s true, that if our films are put into the marketplace, we have to stand on our own two feet – and that usually means competing with $100 million films. When you make a small film you have to be very creative about how you accomplish it, and it’s probably more difficult to do than a big film because you can just throw money at a big film. But I fear that some in the Christian press are looking at this new explosion in faith-based films as the glass half-empty because they haven’t seen a lot of good films made by Christians; the tradition has been weak films in the marketplace.
I think some reviewers seemed pre-disposed against The Last Sin Eater. I could be wrong, but I learned a lot about how reviews feed off of each other. In some of the reviews, it seemed that the reviewers picked up their cues from one another because I saw similar turns of phrases. I also think several of the reviewers either didn’t watch the entire film or were playing Solitaire at the same time because they got story points completely confused. I don’t think most reviewers have a clue how hard it is to make a movie, let alone a good movie, and they dismiss years’ worth of work and a hundred people’s blood, sweat and tears in two sentences.We were grateful by several really good reviews, especially by the New York Times. It was very positive. The truth is somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
I heard a director speak recently. He used to be a reviewer for a big paper in Los Angeles. He apologized for very negative reviews he had written because he realized once he got into filmmaking how difficult it is to make a movie. He believes that every film should be considered within its own context. That is, realize what the producers had to work with: budget, cast, locations, etc.
CC.com: At times there seems to be a disconnect between what critics are saying about movies and what audiences are going to see. Can you comment on that?
Brian: In some ways, reviewers act as culture-watchers for the public. At times it seems they are pleased with the sound of their own voices and clever twists of phrases. That’s a temptation for any human doing that work, or for any human who writes, for that matter. But I think they should give marks to people for the things they do well in a film and legitimately take their shots at things that don’t work. But the weird thing is the disconnect between what the reviewers say, and the ticket-buying “reviewers” sitting in the theaters. We were amazed at the public response to The Last Sin Eater. Our audience exit polls done by Fox were off the charts – A’s and A+’s in all age groups. So clearly the audience that came loved the film.
I certainly don’t want to see reviewers just giving an “A” for effort. That could cause us to become delusional. We’re working so hard and want it to work and want it to be good. We could really be pulled into propping each other up and cheerleading the process while it’s falling apart. Rather I think the reviewers should get out and see how the process works, what goes into the making of a film.
We sat in several theaters to be a fly on the wall and see the public viewers’ reactions. Some people were weeping; others sat and watched through the credits in silence. Most didn’t get up and leave as soon as the movie was over, so we have to assume we’re doing something right there. And I hope that bodes well for DVD sales of the film. We would love for as many people as possible to see this wonderful life-and-faith affirming story.
CC.com: Let’s talk about something a little less controversial. The film had a very interesting look to it. The later part of the film had a much brighter look. Was that deliberate?
Brian: I think you’re the first person I’ve talked with who has noticed that. We filmed in high-definition, but tried to achieve a film look as much as possible. After the conversion sequence, where Cadi is told about the original Sin Eater and asks for forgiveness, we brightened the film up about 5%. We wanted to give a sense of release visually, to demonstrate that the blinders had come off for her. Before that event we wanted the look to be moody and somber, but afterward she is seeing the world through new eyes. We made that creative choice deliberately.
CC.com: It was very effective. With all the experience and insight you've gained through your work, what advice and encouragement do you offer others who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Brian: No matter what part of the business you’re in, you’ve been given a gift to do that work. Keep going for it and know that it will be hard. One way to improve your work is to copy the masters. Study the genre you want to write and learn from the best, and then bring yourself to the page in order to get better than the masters. Before starting any script, you should read 5 great scripts and figure out how they nailed their stories. Break them down and draw inspiration from what they did. Then apply it to your own work.
I use Michelangelo as an example. He was a student in the Medici school, and copied the work of his master. He copied his teacher, but brought himself to the canvass and surpassed his teacher. That is the way that art has been passed down through the generations. But even Michelangelo had negative self-talk tapes playing sometimes. He got frustrated and thought some of his stuff was mediocre, but in the big picture of history, we see him for the genius he was. He may not have ever gotten there in his own mind, and you may not either; that’s OK. Keep striving and let God bless the process. Do your work for his Glory first and he will help you to shine at what you’re good at.
I had an epiphany when I was working on a story one night. I had written myself into a spot and couldn’t see the way out. I got a strong impression on my soul that I believe was from God. He was saying “I was a writer, now you be one.” Verses about God as the author flooded my memory: he’s the author and perfecter of our faith; the author of the universe; in the beginning was the word. How did God choose to leave his revelation to us? Through the word. The Bible is like a big novel, and it occurred to me that he is writing this great big narrative through space and time. It’s his story and we’re all characters in it. Any of us who have any kind of skill in the writing arena are part of that legacy – we just have to do it!
It left a very deep impression on me. I stopped questioning myself and my instincts and just went for it. I finished the script. I realized that if we’re made in the image of the author of the universe, we have a tiny spiritual strand of his creative DNA in us. And if that’s true, we’re supposed to be the Michelangelos of our craft. Every human being is supposed to pursue the thing God has given them. If we don’t, we’re selling him short, the world short, and ourselves short.
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