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Christians in Cinema: Thomas Purifoy, Jr.
Christians in Cinema: Thomas Purifoy, Jr.

Christians in Cinema: Thomas Purifoy, Jr.

Theologian, Naval officer, missionary, school director, marketer, screenwriter and producer are hats that Thomas Purifoy, Jr., has worn at some time in his adult life. In a process he calls “horribly painful,” he is close to finishing individual DVD releases of the Modern Parables film set.

Like many other, Thomas’ path to independent filmmaking was not at all linear, but rather organic and, on the surface at least, a little disjointed. Eventually it lead him to found Compass Cinema with a partner, and their first production of “Cinematic Theology:” Modern Parables, Living in the Kingdom of God.

Today we talked with Thomas about his journey, his study of the parables, and his ideas for the future.

Like Us on Facebook Why do you describe the process you’re in as painful?

There are so many little digital details that can go wrong when you’re working with something that has so many pieces. We’re trying to keep it clean from beginning to end, and make sure there are no errors. To provide a quality piece, we work in layers, so if we find an encryption error, it means going back through all the layers to find the problem.

We’re really excited about what it looks like. It’s a nice package, but it takes a lot of time to get it to that quality.
When you catch an error, how do you know what layer it’s in?

Thomas: We do everything in-house, other than the replication. So that allows us to keep more control over the quality. It’s also less expensive, but we get better quality when we do it ourselves. We’re more satisfied with the quality, but it means more responsibility on our shoulders. It also helps when we’re looking for production problems.

In this case, the problem was with a chapter marker in one of our stories. It could have been in many places, and that would require time going back through each layer, checking each carefully, to isolate the error. Then files would have to be re-created. We were fortunate it was a chapter marker, because that was easier to find. That’s a huge amount of detail. In your production company, who excels at catching those details?

We all contribute well, but probably my partner. And the guy who does the DVD authoring. He’s extremely detail-oriented and has a great eye for it. We all look, but once you’ve seen it 10 times, it gets old.

The nice thing is that a lot of equipment is less expensive now, so more is accessible to the independent filmmaker to really make things look good. A lot of it goes back to how you work with it. Today you’re working on finalizing a DVD. How did you get to this point?

Thomas: I’ve been interested in film since I was in high school. My university wasn’t a large school, but I took all the filmmaking classes they had. I was a creative writing major, so I learned how to write. From there I went into the Navy and continued to write screenplays.

After the Navy I took some time off to study and write some more in Los Angeles. I was involved in the first class of “Act One” (Writing for Hollywood), then from there went overseas to be a missionary in France. Then I came back here to Nashville and did some marketing work for another company. Eventually I started my own company with a friend and our first project was “Modern Parables.”

The first film we shot was “Samaritan,” and once we saw we could do it, we got some investment dollars. With the Lord’s grace, we were able to shoot these other 5 films and put together all the other parts and pieces of it. How long were you in the Navy?

Thomas: 4 years as an officer. I was an ROTC graduate and they paid for my education, so I had a 4-year commitment to pay my time back. I think it was a good experience. I was stationed out of Virginia Beach and spent most of my time in the Mediterranean, in Europe and Africa.

I think that “real life” is the biggest thing that helps a writer. The average age of new members of the Writers’ Guild is 35. There are geniuses that emerge early, like Stephen Crane, who wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” but for the rest of us, life experience helps.

I don’t remember how I found out about the Act One program. It was very small; there were about 30 of us, and we got to work with Barbara (Nicolosi) and Janet and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever). It was an entirely new program, and was very educational. Why did you go to France after that?

Thomas: The Act One program ended in August of 1999, and I was in France by September of 1999. I had already signed up to be part of this mission. The denomination I attended had an unusual connection to a new school that was starting in France. It was supported by the French government and the city, and the pastor of my church encouraged me to go be involved for a year.

I had saved up a bunch of money while I was in the Navy so I didn’t have to work at that point, so I thought, “why not give it a shot?” The one year turned into two and we actually turned it into a classical school, which works better in France. I found myself the school director and we jumped from 6 grades to 11 in one year. I really enjoyed the experience and worked with some great folks. A lot of teachers came over and helped us out in the school.

After that, I came back to Nashville and took a job with a marketing company. About halfway through that job I shot some marketing videos for them. They were 25-minute high-end videos that turned out really well. So he gave me more money to create some internal television programming that was shown around the company.

As you can see from my story, the filmmaking path is a very weird one. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way people find their way to it. Not like medicine or law. How big is the core of your company? How many people are you working with?

Thomas: I’d say really 2 and a half right now. We’re a really small company.

My main role is really organization. Spending so much time in the Navy, I learned a lot about organization and execution. I’d say the producing side. That’s really a fun part for me. I hit kind of on both the right-brain and the left-brain sides. The technical and organizational side of putting a production together is really enjoyable.

On the other hand, I enjoy bringing a story to life. Many of these stories started out from scratch with the parables, and I like seeing it all the way through to the end.

Producing, directing and writing it, I am involved in these from start to finish. So I can’t really say, “Well, the writing wasn’t any good,” because I’d be blaming myself. How did you decide on your approach to the parables?

Thomas: Well, we’re not the first to do them, and we certainly won’t be the last. But a lot of people use the story as the starting point, and I think they left what I feel like is the textual structure, the narrative structure of the story. We started by doing a theological study of the parable so we could understand all of the historical, grammatical, linguistic and cultural detail.

There’s tons of scholarship on the individual parables, some more so than others, obviously. Like Matthew 13:44 (The Hidden Treasure); there’s not a whole lot on it, but someone did write a complete book about that one verse. We felt like it was important to start with how the parables fit into the larger theology of Jesus’ teaching.

Then I also spent some time looking at what He was teaching about Kingdom theology. Was it money, or love, the way we work, or the way we deal with the people nearest us? That’s really their job; to teach these things in a very clear way.

This is where the layering process begins. You start with the basis of what the original text says, then figure out what I call the “correspondences” with the original culture. This is what the text says, what was its meaning or response in that culture? Then once you know that, you move it back into the story.

A great example of that is the Samaritan. In Palestine during Jesus’ time, they were a hated group. They had intermarried and intermixed their religion and fought against the Jews for years, to the point that the Jews hated them. Today, that’s meaningless in our culture. Unless you’ve done a lot of Bible study, you’re not going to know that “Samaritan” was really a curse word; like us calling someone a racial epithet today.

With that in mind, that Jesus would take two of the most highly-respected leaders of their time, priests and Levites, and make them the bad guys with the Samaritan as a hero was highly iconoclastic. We think now it’s derogatory to call someone a Pharisee, but in that time, Pharisees were highly regarded.

There are all these cultural nuances throughout the parables that we don’t understand today, but Jesus’ listeners would have immediately recognized them.

In this case, a Muslim seemed to be the closest referent to a Samaritan. There was good reason not to like Muslims because of recent events. That’s the crux of how we approached the Parables. We tried to maintain a very intricate accuracy.

It’s much harder, but in the end it makes it much easier for a teacher or pastor to then say, “How do you feel when a widow has no recourse? How powerless is a widowed black lady in a southern town today?” Again, the process was to really integrate current cultural applications.
So much of the response to your films seems to come from the care you took to make them culturally relevant and applicable to today.

Thomas: I’ve been a Sunday School teacher for 15 years, for both youth groups and adults, and the goal was to create a universal study using the aspects of film that everyone, whether or not they realize it, would understand. We took a lot more time in the writing than people would expect to make it extremely accurate and develop that type of symbiosis.

The result has been that they are immediately very effective and do what they’re supposed to, which is help people pre-process the words of Jesus. How much time was spent writing these?

Thomas: Usually about a month or so to get it right. Some of the stories came to me very quickly, but I spent a lot of time studying beforehand. I had a co-writer and kind of advisor I worked with. We had these big charts up on the walls and we’d work out referral by referral to show exactly how they worked. We had notebooks for each story, and in them, we’d lay out exactly how these two stories line up and exactly what they meant. You could probably write a whole set of commentaries on the parables.

Thomas: The films are video commentaries wrapped up in 15 minutes. I found that, in listening to preachers, they’d need 4 or 5 minutes to explain what a Samaritan was. They’d have to go back in history and say they did this or that. Or you can show someone and touch them at a psycho-emotional and they say, “I know how that feels.”

These films don’t stand alone really; they should be watched with the context of the scripture in mind.
What’s the most surprising response you’ve received?

Thomas: I’m surprised how young people respond to it; I mean really young. I’ve got a 4- and 6-year-old, and I’d never show it to them. I’ve shown them to 6th-graders, but I don’t expect them to get all of it; they’re geared toward an older audience.

A lot of our folks who reviewed them were bloggers and they showed them to their kids. The kids loved them and would say, “show us another one. Another one!” A lot of the response was like that, which surprised us, because we really envisioned it as a church product.

That response is the reason we’re creating individual DVDs. People think they’re great tools for family worship time. We see very young kids responding well. It’s clean stuff, but thought it would really appeal to an older audience. That was surprising. Maybe you’ve tapped into what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you become like a child, you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Thomas: Children are picking up on tone and body language. We understand more by inflection than we do words themselves. I think that’s true even of small children. They naturally understand what’s going on at a motive level, even if they don’t understand rationally.

That’s one of the dangers of the medium, is that children understand at a motive level, good and bad.
Yet a lot of what’s done for children is at a very elementary level.

Thomas: I’ve taught kids for years, and I’ve never “dumbed things down” for them. I teach them at the same level as I teach adults in my class. They can normally get it. I think in general we under-expect what people can do, especially children.
You’ve done 6 parables, will do you more?

Thomas: If they’re successful, yes. We were funded privately, so long term, it needs to be something that’s successful. I think we could do at least 3 more sets, but there are other projects we want to do as well.

We’d like to do other projects using the curriculum model of doing a narrative film in a way that it teaches the Bible. I think there are lots of ways to use the model if we can understand it and execute it well. It’s a complex model if you dig into the way we’re laying it out, but in other ways, it’s very simple.

Some of the parables would be difficult to develop because of the lack of narrative. “Hidden Treasures” came from just one verse, but there was a complete story arc in that one verse. We added some color to it, but we didn’t add to the structure.
That was the first one I saw, and I enjoyed it, but I thought the lead character was kind of a goofy guy. What inspired that character?

Thomas: There are a couple of reasons behind it. One theologian had the same response, but then he said he realized that’s how Christians appear to the world a lot of times. If you look at Frank Capra films, his heroes are kind of goofy everymen. They almost seem a little naïve, but the ones who had faith and hope were the ones that things worked out for. In his films like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” it’s the hard-boiled ones that end up cracking, so to speak.

I wanted to play up the idea that to those on the outside, the kingdom seems very worthless. And the people who adopt the kingdom seem very, very foolish to those outside. It absolutely makes no sense. Even people “on the inside,” family and friends, Jesus said we’d be rejected by them, they’re going to think you’re fools. And Paul talks about the seeming intelligence of the wise and the foolishness of the cross.

I felt it was importance to use those two frames of reference there. There’s a kingdom that sees Christ as its pivot point, and the world sees itself as the pivot point. As a result, I wanted the outsider to look at the Christian and think, “Gosh, that person is goofy,” until you realize that he actually won in the end. What he thought was right all along, really was.

I’m trying to pull the audience along so they look down on him during part of the film and feel it from the perspective of those looking down on Christians. Then you realized that is how the world views us. And that’s the point of the parable. The goal is that in the form and content of the film, you get the form and content of the ideas of the original parable.
As complex as these are, how long did it take to complete the project (which includes a student book, a leader guide, 6 parable films, 6 application videos, and a resource CD)?

Thomas: “Samaritan” took a few months to film, and we did that first to see what we could accomplish. Once the funds were raised, we started in February of 2007 and had a finished product by the end of September. Some of the scripts were written and already in place. The last one, “The Sower,” was unscripted and became a documentary. That was the last one to get cut. I stayed up late on my MAC cutting that one. That’s a pretty aggressive schedule. Did you get any sleep?

Thomas: Oh yeah, that was fun. Truthfully, the hard part was trying to get distribution and selling it. We’re seeing more and more happen, but it’s like walking through snow. What’s the future for Compass Cinema? Do you want to focus on the curriculum model, or are there other things on the horizon?

Thomas: These were really like film school. They’re based on the work of different directors that I like. I look at their work, look at the parables, and wonder how they’d do this. We have lots and lots of ideas of wildly different films than this – it’s just a start.

These are fun. They’re easy to do, don’t require a lot of pre-work, and you can really focus on the technical aspects and hone your skills. They’re kind of like showcases for different techniques.

They’re kind of like Chopin’s etudes. He wrote those for pianists to warm up their fingers, so these are warm-up pieces for us as filmmakers. They’re very functional and usable, but no one’s ever going to watch them and say, “that’s the best film I ever saw!” Inside the context of a Sunday School class, they might watch them and say, “that’s the best film I ever saw that teaches the Bible.”
What would you consider a wild success for this project?

It would be selling 10,000 units of these, and maybe 50,000 of the individual titles. That would be a great success in anybody’s book. What lessons have you learned so far in this experience that you want to carry forward?

You’re only as good as the people you hire, so hire the best people you can afford. There are many things I still have to learn, really an enormous amount. I think this is just a start for me.

The great epic director David Lean said when he was 80 or so, “I’m just about to figure out how this works.” I feel like that. Filmmaking is extremely complex and very difficult. That’s what I enjoy about it.

Making a movie has so many places you can fail, and an individual failure could mean total failure. You can’t recover from certain individual failures. You may have a film come out, but you’ll be plagued by that failure, whether it’s bad writing, bad casting choice, a bad DP, bad editing or sound, any number of things. That’s the challenge and the fun of it – it’s about the details.


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