CC.com: How did you come across "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger?"
Jefferson: I was doing a Broadway-scale Passion Play in Louisville (Kentucky) and someone left the book "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger" in my dressing room as a gift. They signed their name, but I really had no idea who this person was. I took the book home and it stayed on my coffee table for 3 months. I never picked it up.
One time I got the flu so I was couch-ridden. I had watched ESPN and daytime TV all I could, and decided I might as well read something. I picked up that book and started reading it. About a third of the way through, I said "My goodness, this is one of the best explanations of the Gospel I have ever seen. This would make a good movie." I got right to it and fooled around with it, thinking how to make it into a screenplay.
I started trying to find the author, which was hard because the book was self-published. He was selling it out of his garage in Plano, Texas. He and his wife had sold around 2000 copies. He was hard to find; he writes under a pen name, so it wasn't like I could just find his phone number some place. It was just about a two-month search to track him down.
When I did, I told him I was interested in making a movie of it and asked him if he'd considered a screenplay. He said he hadn't, because he really wrote the book for family and friends. I asked if he'd let me try writing a screenplay of it and he was real agreeable about it. He liked the screenplay and the adaptation, so we got the movie rights. Our expectations were pretty low.
In the meanwhile, Random House (publisher) had gotten hold of the manuscript and picked it up for publication. It was the single largest release of a Christian book ever put out. Even more so than Liz Curtis Higgs or Max Lucado.
So Random House, a secular company, got behind it in a big way and it made the New York Times' bestseller list. And we had the movie rights. We were already in production on the film when all this occurred. So at the time this film released it was already on the New York Times' list. But when we got hold of it for the movie, it was just a book being sold out of this guy's garage.
CC.com: Is this the first screenplay you've written?
Jefferson: It's the first one that's been produced. I've written some others; some short films, but this is the first feature I've produced.
CC.com: You undertook the bulk of the work. You wrote it, Kelly's Filmworks (Jefferson's production company) produced it, you also had the lead role in it.
Jefferson: I've been working in front of the camera for about 15 years, and started getting interested in the behind-the-scenes part of it in a movie I was working on. I got really interested in the whole process, so we did a few things. I did a couple of short films, experimenting with that genre. We did a couple of music videos, but nothing big.
This was my first foray into independent film. You just get used to the fact that you're going to do everything, plus park the cars. Really, we flipped a coin as far as who was going to play Jesus. It wasn't originally set in stone.
My co-director, Shane Sooter, who you don't see in the movie, is similar in age and a professional actor as well. The coin flip was which one of us was going to direct, and which was going to act.
That's how it was, because he's really better than me and would have been perfect in the role. I shared the director duties, but it could have very well been him playing the main role. We went in with low expectations, just thinking "Let's do this and see what happens." We had very humble beginnings.
CC.com: How did you prepare for portraying Jesus on film? Were you portraying Jesus in the Passion Play?
Jefferson: I was playing the role of Jesus. I wish I could say that I prepared to play Jesus by going to the Middle East and staying out in the desert for a few weeks, but I didn't.
I've always seen Jesus as so much of a personal friend that there really wasn't a lot of research or studying how to play it this way. I really just portrayed him in the way I knew him as being very kind and tender. And there's a sensibility that "Hey, I really know this guy." So it was really one of the more natural things I've done; one of the easier roles I've stepped into.
You know, Mark Twain said "Write what you know," and in this case, I was playing what I know. The way Jesus dealt with the people is a reflection of the way he has always dealt with me, and evidently, that's something that people respond to.
The way I played him in the movie is very similar to the way I played him in the Passion Play. I remember some of the responses I heard the first year I ever did it. People were coming up to me and saying "You know what, I never imagined Jesus laughing or hitting someone in the arm." This is a big production with a huge budget. Probably 60,000 people from all around the world come to see it every year. That seemed strange to me, so I started looking at other portrayals of Jesus.
In "The Greatest Story Ever Told," Jesus (played by Robert Powell) rarely ever blinks. He's always kind of floating around with his hands held out. I've seen some liner notes on that, and he said made it a point to never blink. I thought "Well, gee, doesn't it make you a little scary?" It makes you wonder why an unsaved person would ever want to come up to this guy.
So when I did the portrayal, I thought, that's not it at all. When Jesus came, God wanted to show us what he is like. And he is a loving, personable person. When you see him as being that personable, the sacrifice makes sense. It doesn't hurt God to be nailed to the cross, but it hurt the man, Jesus, to be nailed to it. The personability of Jesus has always been right next to me, so that's how I wanted to portray him.
CC.com: What are some of the changes from the book?
Jefferson: In the book, the Nikki character (the female lead) is actually a man who works for an environmental company. I changed the man to a woman for cinematic reasons, and made the environmentalist a lawyer. You see even more of that in the sequel. The Jesus in "Another Perfect Stranger" doesn't look anything like the Jesus in the original movie.
CC.com: So are you playing Jesus in the sequel?
Jefferson: I don't know if I should divulge that or not. Actually, I am, but I look pretty different than what you've seen. And the movie is not a rehashing of the first one. It takes place 10 years after the first movie, so it's really a continuation.
The Perfect Stranger was so much of a case for Christ type thing. It really gave the reasons for the validity of the Christian faith. The second one really explores the question "Why would I want a relationship with God?" It takes the next step for the believer or the seeker - the relationship is there, but why would I want it? So it's the same, but it's different.
When missionaries go around the world, the first thing they do is learn the language of the culture they're in. So i thought it was neat that the first time, the seeker is a Fortune 500 lawyer, and that's the setting in which Jesus meets her. If he'd been wearing a collar and thumping a Bible, she wouldn't have listened. Instead, he's debating her; she's a lawyer. She deals in facts, so that's what he gave her.
I love the first scene (about Hinduism) where they're firing things back and forth. He's speaking her language, just like a missionary.
CC.com: One of the reviews on your website mentions how well Jesus' answers reflect the identity of the questioner. Who is asking the questions in the sequel (Another Perfect Stranger)? Can you divulge that?
Jefferson: Sure. It's the same family, but it's Nikki's daughter. She's now 19 and headed to college. She's at her own spiritual crossroads. We're addressing more of the emotional side of it, and not so much the factual side, which we did in the first movie.
It's appealing to a different demographic, with the 19-year-old college student who knows everything. That's when people's faith really starts getting rocked. Her mom had dinner with Jesus. How could her own faith be rocked?
But you look at preacher's kids and how many of them turn out the way they do sometimes. So it's the journey we all have to take alone, regardless of who our parents are or what environment we grew up in. So we think that's going to hit home with a lot of people. That environment where you think you're smarter than God. You look at Scientology and think it makes a lot of sense. We're really excited about this storyline.
CC.com: Do you think as a production company you were ready for the bigger movie?
Jefferson: We built on our nucleus from the first film; a lot of people came back from it. It's like dancing with someone. You know you've been here before, so things fall into place.
Once we got the locations, we were off and running.The locations range from Portland to Indianapolis to Chicago, Corvallis (Oregon), and of course we shot here in Louisville. We used a full-size 737 as one of our sets. As a company, we really built on our nucleus.
The first one we were dealing with 35 or 40 extras; this time we have close to 200. We were filming in airports, in airplanes and coffee shops a lot of the time. It was a challenge, but a good one. We're a family first and a production company second. It wasn't like we could say "Oh, we'll work these hours, then we can't wait to get away from these people." No, we work together then go some place else to eat, then go some place else to climb together and then go worship together.
Many of us attend Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. I met Shane there in 2000. He directed the Passion Play I was in, so we've done several projects together. We've been really blessed with that, as opposed to many production companies that are piece-mealed out.
CC.com: When you did "Perfect Stranger", did you know about the second book and did you plan to do the sequel (Another Perfect Stranger)?
Jefferson: No. When Random House picked up the first book, they signed David Gregory to a 3-book deal. The first thing they did was wrap up the film rights to all the sequels. We did not have a good relationship with Random House, and they didn't want us having anything to do with the sequels, so we left it alone and moved onto another project.
We were in pre-production on another project named "Clancy", and my wife and I took some time to go down to Florida. The phone rang, and I was fussing about getting a phone call on holiday.
It was the book author, telling me that the option on the movie rights to the second book just ran out and Random House did not want them. Did I want them? Of course!
So we flew back to Louisville where I walked into Shane's office. He had a stack of papers for pre-production of this other movie on his desk. I asked "Do you think we could do another movie first?" His head went into his hands and he said "What are you doing?" I told him we got the sequel rights to "Perfect Stranger", and thought this was good timing. We only had about a month of pre-production before we went into production in November.
CC.com: How did you get a script done so quickly? That must have been an extraordinary challenge.
Jefferson: This is the 3rd book I've adapted. I've gone from a book and written original screenplays. It's a totally different process when you're adapting a book because you kind of have a guideline already.
When I'm reading a book, I kind of watch it as a movie in my head. It's more tweaking than anything, especially if you do what we did and stay close to the book. The tough part this time was the angle.
The main character is even more of a departure because in the book it's the spouse of the character from the first book. That wasn't working because it would have made the main character a man, but the dialogue really worked better for a woman.
For time's sake, I wrote 3 different screenplays based on 3 different main characters. One was Nikki's husband, one was her sister (who has never been seen or introduced) and the other was Nikki's teenage daughter. I submitted all three, asked him to help decide which would be the best one, and we finally decided on the one with Nikki's daughter. Insomnia helps with that process!
CC.com: What do you believe are some of the key moments or concepts from Another Perfect Stranger that audiences will connect with?
Jefferson: I think the concept that God wants a relationship with me. That I have a relationship with him because he wants it is amazing to me. It's a storyline that runs through the sequel.
The fact that the Creator of the Universe wants to spend time with me is overwhelming, and a lot of people don't think that. They think that God's a judge, he's going to let me into heaven by the skin of my teeth, and I'll never hear from him again. It's not that at all.
We were designed to have a relationship with God because he wants it. I think that's going to be a revelation for many people, including a lot of Christians. It may cause them to re-think their relationship with God after looking at it from that point of view.
CC.com: Did the questions in the first movie come from your personal journey?
Jefferson: The questions that Nikki asked were ones that are pretty common to everybody, even me. I'm probably a little more Everybody than I like to think that I am. For me, the main one is explain the suffering.
The stuff about different religions is more academic to me. In that regard, my faith is more like a child. Given the situation, the first thing I would go to is explain the suffering. Why do people suffer? I have no problem believing that there is a hell, and no problem believing Jesus is the only way. But the suffering can never be explained perfectly, and I think that's the overriding one that stuck out in my mind as well. I thought "I can't wait to hear how Jesus is going to answer this."
That's the response we've heard from a lot of viewers. They're flipping around and hear an interesting question and they say "I'm just going to watch this for 5 more minutes, because I want to hear how this guy is going to answer this." I think they want to know why do babies die of cancer? Why do good people get killed and guys like Osama Bin Laden live to be 99? Why?
If there were a dinner conversation explaining physics or how to hook up a VCR, I don't think people would listen. But because these are such important questions, even non-believers are drawn in because they want to hear the answers. Whether it's a good answer or not. Some people have accused us of giving "straw man" answers, but there's only so much detail you can go into.
I find myself now watching it, even though it's me and I know the script and the actors, I want to hear the answers to the questions like everyone else.
CC.com: Will there be a theatrical release?
Jefferson: That's still up in the air. We're shopping it a little differently because it's a sequel. We're focusing on getting it out of post, and will look at that as the next step. We've done some preliminary things, but there's nothing solid yet.
We may do theatrical or straight to DVD or broadcast; there are no agreements yet. We really don't know at this point. We have a dynamic sound designer; it's the guy who did Facing the Giants and The Second Chance. He's right here in Nashville, so we can work closely with him. We're fortunate to have him on board.
CC.com: What are future projects for y'all?
Jefferson: We have another screen adaptation. It's of a book called "One Message" by an author up in Chicago who contacted me shortly after the first Perfect Stranger. It's about a woman who comes back after a bout with cancer. It's a real departure from Perfect Stranger, but is also very spiritual in nature.
The other is an original screenplay called "Clancy". It's about a 10-year-old runaway girl who hooks up with a homeless Gulf War vet. It's a pretty involved movie. We'll be at the mercy of the seasons and we'll be making decisions on that in the next month or so. They'll both get done, it's a matter of deciding which one goes into production first.
CC.com: Is there a particular aspect of the production process that really charges you?
Jefferson: I'm still looking for that. After reviewing my SAT scores in high school, my guidance counselor told me I was best suited to watch for forest fires. I have never pursued that, but it is something to fall back on!
I really love the acting. People might think it's egotistical to be in all of my own movies, but I love making a person. I'm not trained as an actor, so that's probably why I have such an appreciation for being able to do this.
CC.com: How did you get into acting?
Jefferson: Literally by the grace of God. In college, I was a bouncer at a country-western place. Like Patrick Swayze in "Roadhouse," but without good hair.
I never pursued acting. I literally fell backward into performing. My expectations were low for myself. I wasn't a drug addict or anything like that, but I just wanted a house and a nice boat. I said "that's all I really want, Lord." And he did provide those things.
You know, the title of my autobiography is going to be "I Asked God for a Tricycle and He Gave Me a Harley." It definitely happened in spite of myself. I didn't study this in college; I didn't even finish college. It's been the greatest blessing to me and my wife.
I haven't worked a "real job" since I don't know when. And it all happened by the grace of God. I can't take credit even for the least little bit. I don't say it to sound holy, but I can't take the credit. My first job came about because I was my wife's ride to an audition at a regional theater.
I was sitting in a room waiting for her, and the director of the play came back in and said "Look, the guy who's supposed to read for the lead didn't show up. Would you just read this?" I said sure, and wound up getting the lead role! (My wife didn't get the role)
I ended up doing 5 productions with that company. Some of the people I worked with started doing commercial work in Nashville and told me I should get some headshots and I could make a little extra money. Within the first 6 months of getting an agent in Nashville, I got the lead role in this music video that got heavy play time.
So in no time at all, I was on television worldwide. Everything really started happening from there. You don't work and get things like this. My director Shane went to SMU and got a degree, did professional work up in theater in Minneapolis. I have so much respect for guys who did it that way. They did the work and earned it. They're so much better than me. I tell them they did it the right way. They put in all the work; I didn't put in any work. That's why it's humbling. I can't take the credit for anything.
CC.com: Does writing come naturally for you?
Jefferson: I never wrote a word before writing the screenplay. I never wrote a poem for my wife or anything like that. When I got interested in making movies, I was so anxious to tell stories that it seemed to come natural.
Coming from an acting background helped tremendously because I knew how things would be said and I knew how the camera would see things. I think if I hadn't had that background, it would be a lot tougher for me. I see life in scenes. I see camera angles and see things as dialogue rather than conversation. It's hard to put into words. You can see bad dialogue and bad acting in a movie so easily, and I think I have a knack for knowing how something would play best. It all goes back to the acting background.
CC.com: What's on your favorite movie list?
Jefferson: I love the X-Men movies. The last film I saw in the theater was Rocky, and my all-time favorite is Rocky II. Some of my favorites are ones people don't really know: "Finnegan Begin Again", "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brynner, "The Silent Partner" with Elliot Gould. I loved "First Blood," but hated the sequels.
I like movies with real heroes. I don't think there are any heroes or real movie stars any more. Stallone is getting old, and there are no more actors like Robert Preston, John Wayne, and Cary Grant. In these movies, there is no doubt who is the hero.
I love the "Batman" and "X-Men" movies. I loved the comic books; Lou Ferrigno and the Incredible Hulk are the reason I got into body-building.
I love dialogue. I know that's usually a woman kind of thing, but good dialogue (Finnegan Begin Again is a great example of that) just can't be beat. A phrase that gets turned a certain way is good writing.
I think that's what's straining movies these days. There is no writing. We're re-writing 70's TV shows. We're inserting curse words, CGI, and naked people where there should be dialogue and saying "Good. We've made our movie."
New ideas are really suffering right now. But people will talk about well-written movies forever. Special-effects that used to be ground-breaking are now old hat. When Superman came out, they said "You're going to see a man fly." Now that's old stuff, and it's nothing to see someone fly. Everyone is so de-sensitized to special effects and they really can't go further. I think we're going to see a return to writing.
CC.com: What things influence you creatively?
Jefferson: I have a million movies in my head, and will have to live 3 lifetimes to get them all done. Right now it's explaining God, and that reflects in my movies. Why are things screwed up? It's because people don't know the truth.
It's not a holy mission, but I'll look at sports stars and actors and things like that. I'll think "What's missing? What's not motivating this person?" People just fall asleep right now.
There are plenty of action movies; I want to enlighten. I don't want to throw something on the pile about a policeman, or someone getting shot, or here's some more naked people for you.
So the challenge is to enlighten in an entertaining way. You can enlighten and be so boring that people want to kill themselves. You can entertain and use special effects, but to enlighten and entertain at the same time - very few people have done that. You can count the number on one hand.
CC.com: What advice would you give someone coming into the business?
Jefferson: Study hard. Run. Work at a gas station. Watch for forest fires. Seriously - do something different than what's already being done. You don't have to change the world every day. God gave us entertainment and enlightenment, and I don't think we have to thump the Bible every day. But do something different.
I lecture once a year at this film school and each year there's a film festival. These are kids in school who are the next movie-makers, yet every movie I judge is all cursing, shooting, and the naked thing happening. I thought kids were all about doing stuff that hasn't been done, but it's all been done.
Get out there and do something different! Be creative and do something where someone doesn't have to get shot. Try to fill a need and do something that hasn't been done yet. The pile is getting bigger all the time, don't be part of it!