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Christians in Cinema: Dallas Jenkins
Christians in Cinema: Dallas Jenkins

Christians in Cinema: Dallas Jenkins

Dallas Jenkins isn’t dreaming of a “White Christmas.” In fact, the Christmas he dreamed up is desolate, lonely and dark. It’s set in the Southwest, without any skiers swooping down pristine slopes or sleigh rides over the drifting snow. Dallas directed “Midnight Clear” (originally released as a short, now in post-production as a feature-length film), based on the book by his father, author Jerry B. Jenkins (‘Twas the Night Before).
Like Us on Facebook Dallas, thanks for visiting with us today. Tell us about Midnight Clear. Most Christmas movies are centered around snow, fireplaces and hot chocolate. This film doesn’t have any of those elements, yet it has really struck a chord with audiences.

Dallas: I believe Midnight Clear appealed to the market because of the message and characters. I’m glad it’s successful, and hope the feature-length has the same kind of success. This film is based on a book written by my dad, and it’s the kind of story I want to tell.

I’ve been developing another project for several years – one that I really want to do. It was taking along time to get the script together, and I needed to get busy, get more experience and tell a story.

I’m fortunate that since the book was written by my dad, I could get the movie rights free, and could make a neat little film without too much financial risk. Once the script was written, I thought this could be a very interesting story and have the potential to sell well enough to get the investment back.

At the same time I was becoming friends with Stephen Baldwin and asked if he wanted to get involved. He was very interested and wanted this opportunity, so it really came together very quickly. I believe this film really represents my style and interest.

The story in the book is very powerful in such a quiet way. That’s what I tried to create in the movie, so there is very little dialogue and the story is told visually. The two main characters aren’t with each other through most of the film, yet their stories are intertwined. It’s a good exercise in filmmaking.

Right now, we’re in post-production on the feature-length version of Midnight Clear. The 5 main characters are the same, but now they will have complete stories. It has a longer time frame: it begins the morning of the day before Christmas and ends the night of Christmas Eve.

When people suggested expanding it, we didn’t have development funds to do it. At the same time, a college friend called and said he wanted to get into screenwriting. I told him he could take a shot at writing a feature version of Midnight Clear.

It was a risk for him because we said we’d only pay him if it was a good treatment and we made a movie of it. He was glad to take the risk, and less than a year later we were shooting. I would characterize this as a dark film, with an edge that’s unusual among Christian films right now.

Dallas: Precisely. I think that’s an untapped segment of Christian filmmaking right now. Some movies have been made in that vein, but not very many. The Christian movies that are available are really good. I’m thrilled by the success of Facing the Giants, but it’s a different genre than what I want to do.

I’m interested in dark stories with redemption; stories that are challenging, dark and raw. Ones that are realistic but that ultimately have some redemption. It won’t be the big, on the nose, Disney-esque type of redemption, but it will be very real.

Right now, what’s coming out in the Christian market are mostly family films. They are clean, safe, and good for the whole family. The desire is so strong to have “clean films” that it limits the scope of stories we’re allowed to tell. It limits storylines, language, and things become sterilized.

The Gospel is powerful because it redeems the sinner and brings victory. Many times the problems we are portraying in “clean, family-friendly” Christian films have to be smaller problems, or at least clean versions of problems.

That keeps the victory from being as significant and as powerful as it could be. The most significant victories come over the most challenging, most powerful problems, and they are usually not “clean” or family-friendly. Is there an audience for that type of story, either in or out of the Christian market?

Dallas: I believe so. There is another segment of the Christian audience that isn’t being addressed. It’s the segment that doesn’t necessarily shop at Christian bookstores or watch the movies that the church is talking about. Christians shopping at Christian bookstores and watching Christian movies are doing so to be entertained. They want to get away from reality in entertainment (which is true of most Americans, not just Christians).

What I want to say is not necessarily fun and entertaining, and that puts me in a weird place in the Christian and non-Christian industry. Midnight Clear won the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival and opened the San Diego Film Festival.

That night, there were more than 500 people in the room, and 3 Christians: myself, my dad and my wife. After the movie showed, I talked with the audience and explained that I believe there is a place for this type of film in the mainstream market. Even though it’s a dark movie, it contains a powerful message of hope and redemption – something that is unusual in most film festivals.

The audience agreed with me, so I know I can make films that have a place in both markets. I’m very interested in the type of film shown at the Sundance Festival – the independent, more intellectually-driven feature.

There is a massive hole for a voice with a Christian perspective and background. Most movies say that nearly all of life is meaningless, dark and has very little hope. I know there is a way to acknowledge that side of life, but also present a hopeful and redemptive worldview. I do want Christian characters in my films, and I do want God to be an active part of my stories. Hopefully Christians will see and respond to that. I realize that puts me rather at a disadvantage right now, but that’s OK.

My goal is to work on movies that are the kind I want to make, or are stories that I really like. I worked on Though None Go With Me (another Jerry Jenkins book) because I honestly love the book. That fits what the industry is interested in right now; films based on a successful book with a family-friendly message. So I would assume that your influences in filmmaking would probably be along the lines of the movies you want to make. What were they?

Dallas: Probably the most influential was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I saw that in high school and decided that I wanted to be able to arouse the kind of emotion that was aroused in me. It made me want to do movies. Some of my favorite directors are Alexander Payne (Sideways), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), and Marc Forster (Stranger than Fiction, Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland).

These are my favorite films stylistically, and the stories being told are great. I want to do films like those but from a Christian worldview. Some of these stories are vulgar and too challenging for Christians, so I don’t recommend them to everyone. But it’s the approach to filmmaking and life I’m trying to take.

It’s a very character-driven way of telling stories. It will put me somewhat in the middle, because my films won’t be strictly geared toward the Christian market, but also not necessarily geared toward the commercial mainstream market. So my movies will have to be extremely good to have an appeal to an audience. Midnight Clear was based on one of your father’s books. Has he written any other books you’d like to capture in a film format?

Dallas: Dad is a great storyteller – that’s one of the things that we both love – and he’s an extremely successful writer. His biggest successes have been futuristic thrillers, and that’s not really my taste. He has also written lots of kids’ books.

Lots of times we were able to read things as he was printing them off the computer, and I was always rooting for him to succeed. He became pretty well-known and successful when I was in high school, then when I was in college the “Left Behind” series took off. It was so much fun watching him achieve success. I’m really proud of him.

I didn’t want to be a writer myself. I was more interested in sports broadcasting. Then, when I was in college, I began to see the possibilities inherent in filmmaking. There is so much room for creativity and artistry at all levels.

So after I finished college, I went to work for Namesake Entertainment and stayed there a little over thee years. After that, Dad and I started Jenkins Entertainment, which is really a family-based business. It’s a vehicle for me to make the kind of movies that I want to.

The goal is for me to direct one project at a time, not get involved in multiple, full-scale productions. Our first production was Hometown Legend, which gained a good measure of success, so that was a great start. How does the pressure of working for and with your father different than working for investors?

Dallas: Well, I don’t have to be around investors at the holidays! We don’t work together every day – he lives in Colorado and I live in Los Angeles. It is great fun working with Dad, but there’s also a lot of pressure because it’s his company and I’m working with his money.

When I go to an investor to back a movie and it doesn’t make their money back, I can feel sorry and bad, but don’t necessarily have to work with them again. When I work with him, I feel a lot of pressure to justify the financial and emotional investment he’s made.

We’re hoping to raise the funds to do our next project in 2007. It’s based on the book “The Man Who Moved a Mountain”. It’s a phenomenal story about a man in the mountains of Virginia who was one of the biggest fighters in the area before he became a preacher.

It’s a very dark, rough, violent and vulgar story because life in the Blue Ridge Mountains at that time (early 1900’s) was rough and violent. But it’s a great story, and I’m passionate about telling it. The script is already written and we’ve been developing it for a couple of years.

I don’t read a lot of fiction; I’m interested in true stories about real people, so this is my first shot at that type of story. Someone reading this might think that you’re a pretty serious guy all the time. But we’ve laughed a lot during our conversation, so I want you to tell us a little about yourself on a personal note. It’s not all doom and gloom, is it?

Dallas: No way! Not with 3 kids 5 and under! My wife Amanda and I met during college in Minnesota and married in 1998. Our son Sam is 5, daughter Maya is 3, and Elle, our baby girl, is 21 months. Like I said, we live in Los Angeles, and my dad is in Colorado.

Our extended family is a little scattered geographically, so my favorite vacation is to get together with all of them. I know that’s a little cheesy, but I love it! It’s less about the location than it is the people I’m with. I have 2 other brothers and I’m the oldest.

We’re all pretty sports-obsessed. We ski, and all of us played a sport through college. I played basketball; my brothers and dad played baseball.

We’re pretty much about our faith, our sports, and our movies. I know it’s not too creative, but there it is. Are your other brothers in the movie business also?

Dallas: Nope – just Dad and myself. What about food? Do you have a favorite?

Dallas: No – because I’m food-obsessed. My entire family is. On any of my movies, the cast quickly learns that the day on the set is planned around what meals we’re having and what we’re eating. It’s very important! That’s what I loved about shooting the Midnight Clear feature in Texas – the BEEF! You have another talent besides filmmaking. You’re a musician.

Dallas: Not really; not in a long-term sense. I’ve written a little – I wrote the song for the closing credits of “Cliché” – my first movie. I usually sing a song that’s somewhere in the background of the movie; it’s my little “thing”.

In Midnight Clear, I’m the voice singing “Jingle Bells” from the jukebox at the gas station. It won’t ever be my main career. Dallas, thank you for your time. We’re excited to see Midnight Clear when it’s complete, and hope for a long career filled with great films that push the edge.


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