Christians in Cinema: Michael Landon, Jr.
The son of television icon Michael Landon, Michael Landon, Jr., is forging his own path as a filmmaker. Michael and his wife Sharee (on December 19, they’ll have been married for 20 years), have three children: Ashley (15), Brittany (13) and Austin (8).
After living in California for several years, Michael moved his family to Utah to be close to Sharee’s family. Her parents often helped her with the kids while Michael was away filming. Recently, the family fell in love with Austin, Texas, and just moved there. There’s a burgeoning film community, they’ve found a great Christian school for the kids, and the next film Michael is hoping to direct is a true story that takes place in Texas.
CC.com: Prior to the Love Comes Softly films, what were you doing professionally?
Michael: I spent 8 years in camera. I started off as a film-loader, then I became a 1st assistant, then 2nd assistant cameraman. I was a steadi-cam operator, a production assistant, then an apprentice editor. I was a directing fellow at American Film Institute (AFI), and I also studied acting with various coaches.
When I couldn’t get a directing break, I started writing. I sold my first script to CBS as a School Break Special. I knew writers could get breaks, so I sold about 5 screenplays to various studios. I also pursued either life rights or rights to books.
I had a great film called “Send in the Clowns,” that had Robin Williams attached to play the lead. It was based on the life of Michael Christianson. He started the Clown Care Unit in New York and the Big Apple Circus. That was set up at a studio, and when Robin left the project to go do another clown movie (Patch Adams), that put a halt to the production.
It definitely didn’t happen overnight.
CC.com: When interviewed, the actors from The Last Sin Eater said they felt your acting experience really informed your directing. When you transitioned into leading a production creatively, what challenges did you feel?
Michael: Most of my work was done behind the camera. I studied acting for directing purposes. The few jobs I did in front of the camera, I did because I wanted to know what it was like to be in front of the camera and be an actor.
The challenges of my first film were that it was a personal story. It was my testimony. The one thing CBS did, which was quite painful, was change the title. It was called “The Father’s Son,” and they changed it to “Michael Landon: The Father I Knew,” which is cheesy and exploitative.
The thing about this business is it’s a business of exploitation. That can have a positive connotation and perhaps a negative one, which is what most people feel when they hear the word “exploit.” But anybody who writes an autobiography or anything to do with history is exploiting certain elements of either the past or personal lives. If you’re writing a movie that has violence, you’re exploiting that element of the human heart. If there’s sex or whatever in the movie, you’re exploiting that part of human nature as well.
Before you judge content, you have to judge the intent of the filmmaker or the artist.
CC.com: How does that happen from the outside? What do you do as an artist to make yourself available for people to know your intentions?
Michael: Part of that can happen through conversation and interviews. That opens up a window into what the intention of a person is. It’s very hard to judge art at face value. That’s why something like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became such a source of controversy. People looked just at the art and came up with all kinds of reasons for his work.
But if you hear the heart of the man as to why he felt compelled to make that film, then you can get a true perspective of why he made the choices he did.
CC.com: What do you to show your heart or intent in your films?
Michael: The soul of the picture is what reflects the heart and intent of the director. It’s the story, characters and the relationships. But beyond that, it’s how you feel at the end of the film. You can’t really put a finger on it, because it’s not the aesthetics or tangible parts of the film. I think that says the most about the filmmaker.
CC.com: You joined forces with Brian Bird to product The Last Sin Eater and Saving Sarah Cain. How did the two of you become partners?
Michael: Brian and I had known each other about 12 years, and each worked on our own projects. When Fox said that they wanted to be directly in business with me, I called up Brian and said I felt like this would be a good opportunity for us to be together.
We formed a partnership and a production company: Believe Pictures. We tend to balance out our strengths and weaknesses. If Brian is in the middle of writing a screenplay, and I’m not directing, I’ll work on development or raising finances. If I’m in the middle of post-production or directing on a film, then Brian will take the wheel on development.
CC.com: Fox came to you before they went public with the Fox Faith brand. Were there any reservations in your mind about partnering with that studio?
Michael: I’m not sure, in the big picture, what the “Fox Faith” label means. I don’t know if people will go see a movie or not go see a movie when it says “Fox Faith.” I think the label will mean something maybe further down the road. It then depends upon the library that’s created through the Fox Faith and whether or not people feel like it represents something specific. It would be like any other label.
When Disney started, there were no theme parks or anything like that. Disney was just a name. Then they started putting a library of films together, and you began to see what they were about.
So once Fox has a library of films, there will be a better understanding of what it is. Even then, “faith” is such a general word for many people that I don’t know what it will mean to them, and I’m not sure what it means to Fox.
CC.com: Why did you decide to film in Utah, rather than California? (where Love Comes Softly was filmed)
Michael: Part of it was logistics. We found an area that felt like we were in the Appalachia Mountains. Robert Gros, who knew the crew base here, was the head of production for CBS for over 10 years, and came on board with us. I lived here, which obviously made it very convenient.
There’s a good tax incentive and the state is very film-friendly. There’s easy access in and out of Los Angeles to Salt Lake. Of course, the beauty of filming here is that I got to go home and see my children and my wife, because that part can be extremely difficult on families when you have to leave for a couple of months.
CC.com: What do you do to stay connected with your family when you’re on the set for a couple of months at a time?
Michael: It’s definitely difficult. The phones and email are very important. We are constantly talking at the end of the day. It’s important to hear what’s going on in my family’s life and to let them know how much I love them.
CC.com: How did you meet your wife?
Michael: I met her through my father’s show, Highway to Heaven. I was an assistant cameraman and her sister, who was a child actress, was a guest star on the show. She came to the set to visit her sister, and we fell in love.
CC.com: What are some of the strengths you saw in your dad that you hope to carry forward?
Michael: Through the growing years, he was devoted to his family. The divorce took place when I was 15, but prior to that, he was devoted to his family. He came home at night and had dinner with us. He was respectful and very loving to my mom. He had a great sense of humor, and was very physical in terms of how he loved on us. He hugged us frequently, and was a really amazing man.
The other thing I respected about my father was the way he treated his crew and the people he worked with. There was no hierarchy. He treated everybody respectfully and never yelled. He was very generous and cared about these people. He was very loyal. As long as you worked hard, he was committed to you.
CC.com: Was it difficult for you to work for him after your parents divorced?
Michael: No, especially when it was essential to work to eat, to survive. He had one of the best film sets in the business; he was known for that. Unless some particular moment was happening, you wouldn’t know we were related. He was busy doing his job, and I was busy doing mine.
CC.com: What do you hope your children will say about you 40 years from now?
Michael: You always want to end up finishing the race, so I hope they say that I love them dearly, and that I love their mom.
CC.com: Do you see any of your children carrying on the Landon genes?
Michael: My daughter Brittany has a small part in Saving Sarah Cain, and enjoys acting and dancing. My oldest daughter Ashley is an amazing writer. She definitely has that going if she decides to pursue it.
CC.com: When did you realize you wanted to be in entertainment?
Michael: It’s a pretty exciting business to be in. The whole world of creating make-believe can be a lot of fun and challenging. I’m sure my dad being in the business had a lot to do with it. When I was 14, I got a Super-8 camera for my birthday, and I knew then that I wanted to be a director. I had already been on the set and seen all the disciplines; I knew directing was for me.
CC.com: What is it about directing that made you say, “That’s it!”?
Michael: It’s really a director’s medium. You get the blueprint, the screenplay, and then it’s yours to execute. You become the storyteller from that blueprint. I like the technical and the creative sides. I like the element of working with actors, who I respect greatly.
CC.com: There has been some criticism of Christian filmmakers for using actors that are on the downside of their careers vs. up and coming actors. You had a real mix in The Last Sin Eater.
Michael: We had an unknown for a lead (Liana Liberato), and really I think all of the actors are on their way up the food chain. The exception might be Louise Fletcher, who is a classic actress. I don’t think any of these people are has-beens. We didn’t grab a TV name from the past and put them in a role.
CC.com: How was the casting process like for this film? Were most of the cast your first choices?
Michael: Yes, pretty much every one of them was. We didn’t go after names that were not possible or tangible. We went after the ones who came in through the door and were excited about the material. We gave the casting agency a sense of who it was we were looking for; an arch-type or a feeling that we wanted.
We used Victoria Burrows and Scott Boland, who cast The Lord of the Rings and “King Kong.” They’re very good at what they do.
CC.com: Is there a type of story that you feel really fits your sensibility, or are you still discovering that for yourself?
Michael: I feel most comfortable in drama. I would love to do some films outside of that. I’ve written a romantic comedy that’s been optioned twice that I’d love to do. I’ve also written a fantasy piece for children that I really want to do as well.
I’m really interested in action/adventure, but not the horror genre. I don’t really want to go there. I probably wouldn’t do straight comedy, because there are so many people who could do a much better job than me. And, really, any of the big films aren’t within my reach right now. They are reserved for the elite.
I aspire to larger budgets, because it opens up all kinds of things: casting, equipment, schedule, etc. I wouldn’t want to be indulgent in it, because the screenplay tells you what you need to do most of the time. With the films I’ve done, I’ve constantly been fighting the clock.
There’s never any let-down, never really any time to really work through a particular scene. You have to keep making your pages, keep making your day. I feel very thankful and blessed to be doing it. It’s a very competitive business, and there are a lot of talented people working in it. I’m thankful for what I get to do, but the idea of having more time and tools at one’s disposal is very lovely.
CC.com: Do you find your budgets growing?
Michael: They’re growing, not by huge amounts, but they’re growing. Hopefully they’ll grow a few times larger than that for a project I’m hoping to do next year. It’s called “One More Sunrise,” which is based upon a book that I’m writing for Bethany House Publishing.
CC.com: Can you tell us anything about the story?
Michael: No, because then I’d have to kill you. I can say it’s one of those stories that has a bit of a high concept to it, so I want to be secretive about it until it comes out. I sent a book proposal to Bethany House Publishing and they were very excited about it. They connected me with Tracie Peterson, who’s co-authoring it with me.
CC.com: Where do you find the time to do it?
Michael: I don’t know. You’re interviewing me on 2 ½ hours of sleep right now. I’m in the middle of moving my family from one state to another, and other things are going on as well. So you just do what you have to. You create more time by not sleeping as much.
Some days I do well without much sleep and others I don’t. I just try to sit down and do the work. My goal is to produce 5 pages a day.
CC.com: You have a lot of experience in various disciplines, and with several films now as a director. What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to become a filmmaker?
Michael: Part of it really depends on what part of the process you’re really interested in. There’s not one way to do it. It’s not like becoming a doctor; go to college, go to med school, then if you want to specialize, go to another. You do the best you can, get the best grades you can and try to get into the best schools.
For the film industry, it’s much more loosey-goosey, and really depends on your interest. If you’re interested in being an actor, I’d say start studying. Find a great class and acting coach and go to multiple ones until you find one you understand, can connect with and grow. Then I would say get in and audition for everything: local theater, plays, whatever you can. Then the next step is to get an agent. That particular area of filmmaking is the most competitive part. You have to be passionate, extremely passionate for that part of the business.
Whatever your goal is, you have to do whatever it is that’s needed to get there. If it’s film and you want to direct, do whatever it takes to get onto a set and start there. Be a production assistant. Go to film school if there’s a really strong one available. Study the great ones and try to get into anything and everything you can. Don’t pass up on the possibilities.
This is a business in which you have to be very disciplined and persevere. There are actors out there who are extremely lazy and they don’t ever get very good at their craft. They are ambitious at the outset, and think it’s what they want to do. But when it comes time to get down and work really hard and get their hands dirty, they don’t do it.
It’s definitely one of the most difficult professions to get into. You don’t have an instrument to work with. It’s not like playing the piano. You sit down, work the chords, figure out finger movements, tempo, all these things. Everything takes place in your mind, in your imagination.
Most people who pursue that part of the business don’t work enough at their craft. You have to do it every day. Some are gifted in it, and some are not. As a child, it’s different; it’s make-believe and pretend. As an adult, it’s a discipline. You have to take every job you can and just keep working at it.