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Christians in Cinema: Matt Mitchell
Christians in Cinema: Matt Mitchell

Christians in Cinema: Matt Mitchell

Matt Mitchell’s career in the arts progressed from lead singer in a metal music band to worship and arts pastor, and most recently to independent filmmaker. In partnership with the lead tech from his church, Tiaan Kruger, and their wives, they lead the group in writing, producing, financing, directing, editing and scoring their first film Pray.

After it was picked up by Bridgestone Media for distribution, they were asked to create a sequel (Pray 2), which releases on DVD next week. Having finished two films, Matt believes their team is at the beginning of the learning process, and they’re enjoying every minute of it.

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Share your background with us. You started as a music and youth pastor, right?

Matt:  My entertainment career started when I was the lead singer for a metal band named “Profile” in Alabama. We did a lot of “light metal” and “glam rock” covers. I was 16 going on 17 at the time, and a lot of artists were signing the younger groups to contracts. We were the next big metal thing to come out, and were looking at a couple of contracts.

To make a long story short, God delivered me from that. It was all about self and me, and it was a totally secular thing. He was working on me already, and late one night, I left the band. The next day, I went down the aisle at a church in Huntsville, Alabama, and talked to the pastor.

I told him, “I can sing a little. I don’t know what talents I’ve got, but whatever I’ve got, can you use me? Is there anything you can plug me into?”

He said, “You know what? You’re good with the arts, so why don’t you be a worship pastor, a creative arts pastor?”

I said, “What is that?” He put me under his wing and watched me for about a year. They licensed me in ministry, then I went to a Southern Baptist school, Sanford, down in Birmingham, and became an ordained minister.

When I finally got in a church large enough to support me, I was able to decide if I wanted to do youth ministry or worship and arts. I was able to finally be just worship and arts. That was in 1994.

Since then, I’ve lead big productions and musicals, lead worship, and all that. I’ve been doing it about 14 years.

In February of 2003, I started a church with my senior pastor, Dr. Steve Rumley. We said, “You know what? We should really start looking at some of these new ways to reach people.”

My chief techie at my church, Tiaan, said, “You know, we love movies at our church. Why don’t we make a movie that’s something like what we’d like to see? Something that’s not real preachy like a Billy Graham-type film, but not something that’s secular or crossover either. Just something different.”

So we started talking about and looking at different genres. The one we liked was kind of thriller/suspense. We couldn’t find too many, maybe three that had come out. So we thought, “Wow, what if we could think of a really cool Christian horror story?”
Then I remembered one from when I was a teenager back in Alabama. So the first scene in the first film we did, Pray, was drawn directly from my experience as a teenager in a house up on the mountain. We were telling true-life eerie events that had happened. They weren’t ghost stories; we don’t really believe in that. We also don’t want to get into demonic things and all the evil.

The story I remembered ended up becoming the basis of the movie Pray, about a girl trapped in a mall who finally got out. But a guy who had been following her had messed with her engine, and she wasn’t able by human reason to get out.

We souped it up a bit for video, but kept the true elements. As we looked at that, we thought, “It’s a great story, but only about seven minutes long. What do we do?” So then we had to fill in the backstory, and we built some characters into it and put some heart into it.

Every movie we do, we want it to have some heart to it, and not just be an entertaining story that’s clean. So we have a scene in a restaurant where they’re talking about struggles, and we start working in why the girl has the values she does, and they start talking about the Lord.

That’s how we got started. We said, “Let’s write it out,” and we did.

About 3 months later, we said, “We need a camera. How much is one of those?”

Tiaan is great. He’s very gifted in anything technical, so he researched on the internet and found out that a lot of people were using a certain camera. He found one that cost several thousand dollars, and we thought, “Wow. That was a nice ride. We don’t have the money for that!”

We had a Christian businessman in our church come up to us and say, “Hey, we heard you guys are thinking about doing a movie,” and we looked at each other and said, “Yes, we are. How’d you know?”

He said, “It doesn’t matter. Here’s the deal. I’d love to write you a check for however much you need to do it.” We looked at each other with our jaws on the floor and asked him, “Are you serious?” he said, “Yeah, how much do you need?”

We told him the cost of the camera and the equipment and he wrote us a check the very next week and gave it to us. Two weeks later we had all the equipment, and three weeks later we decided to put an ad on Craigslist for actors, and we had over 100 people turn out for the auditions.

That’s how we met the star and a few other people. Bonnie Johnson, for one. She's a resident of Charlotte and has been in movies like The List. She somehow found out we were here in Raleigh, and said, “I don’t know if you know me, but I’ve been in several films and I love what you’re doing. The idea of something clean for younger people to counter-program all the junk that’s coming out is great. That’s awesome! Right now, I’m on the set filming Great Debaters with Denzel Washington, but I’ll fly up on my own dime, and if you can work me in, please use me.”

That was amazing! She had just finished Evan Almighty with Steve Carell, and also “The Punisher” with Travolta. I had to ask her, “Are you sure? Are you sure you want to be in our movie?” and she said, “Please let me do it.”

She and her husband flew up to Charlotte, got in their car, and drove up to Raleigh. We filmed her scene in about an hour, then she and her husband got back in their car and drove back home through the night. She never asked for a dime. She was great.

God made several things happen like that for us. When we got to the ending of the first movie sequence, we realized it had to happen in a big mall. So we approached a local mall here in Cary, in the outskirts of Raleigh. The manager said we could do it, but we had to take out a $500 million policy in case something happened while we were filming.

We started praying about that, and one day while Tiaan was researching online, he found this mall. We went and talked to the guy, who wasn’t a Christian, and told him what we wanted to do.

He said, “Sure, you can film here. When would you like to start?” We asked, “How much would you charge?” and he said, “Nothing. Do you need a key? Have a key. Take it, and lock up when you’re done. I’ll have security close up after you.” God provided a mall.

We gave him $500 to help with the air conditioning bill we ran up because we filmed during the summer, but he didn’t ask for anything else.

We filmed it as a one-camera shoot and edited it ourselves. We didn’t really expect the film to see the light of day; it was really just for us to cut our teeth on. I submitted it to Dove on a whim, just to see how they would rate it.

This is really kind of a new genre, and it’s not really that built up yet. Candace, who reviewed it, gave us a really favorable review and posted it on their website. I didn’t think much of it, but about a month later, Dave Austin of Bridgestone Media called me on my cell.

I was in the car on my way to Atlanta to see my in-laws, and he asked if we had a distributor. I said, “No,” and he said, “Well, you do now. This reminds me of ‘Hangman’s Curse,’ and that’s what we’re looking for. We want some new films.”

I said, “That’s fantastic,” but in my mind, I was wondering what it would cost.

He said, “We’ll get you a check in the mail as an advance,” and I thought, “Wow! This is crazy! You can get paid for this!”

We were floored. He said they’d release it in March, and it was great to see God work all these things out when we didn’t have a clue how the whole thing worked. Apparently, this is an underserved niche, and a lot of teenagers love to have a great clean movie they can go to, and youth pastors like having something they can show.

We wrote a Bible study for it, and it began taking on a life of its own. You guys were kind enough to put it on, and sales kept going up and up. Bridgestone told us it was great, to keep up the good work, and we said, “We aren’t doing anything! We don’t know what we’re doing.”

It’s been a fantastic ride. Not too long after that, Dave asked us when we could get them a sequel. So we asked when they wanted it. “Before Halloween.”

We got together, Tiaan and his wife April, me and my wife Amy, and formed Cross Shadow, which is the production company. We wrote the sequel, then cast it, filmed it, and edited it in something like 5 months. We turned it in mid-August, and they’re working to have it on the shelves on September 22nd.

It looks like you have several films in development. Where do your ideas come from? Are you working on ideas from your original brainstorming session where you tossed around eerie stories?

Matt:  Most of them come from when I was still a music and youth pastor. I’d go on summer revival tours to put myself through college. A lot of really cool and bizarre spiritual warfare stuff started happening as I was staying in different people’s homes. I’d write my ideas down and tuck them away.

I didn’t think about them until about 10 years later when I started remembering these things. So I brought them up, the four of us started discussing ideas and creativity was flowing from that. That’s how “Paranormal” is taking shape.

That’s something that America has a fascination, bordering on the unhealthy, with. It’s the hottest thing out there right now. I didn’t want to make just another scary movie. If it doesn’t point people to the Lord, I don’t want to make it.

There are enough good movies being made out there that are good quality with no message. People can go see those if they want.

We asked ourselves, “How can we do this and make it a good paranormal story?” We started sharing ideas and different stories we’d heard, talked about different places people find themselves in.

We decided our starting point of view would be similar to a normal movie or TV show like “Ghost Hunters” that’s about the paranormal. But as the story develops, we’ll ratchet up the spiritual warfare element of it and reveal the darkness for what it really is. Behind all these things, it’s not really something to play with, the ouija board all the way through the occult. We wanted to unmask it and show that there is something there that’s really not to be played with, and if you’re not a Christian, you’re in danger if you dabble with it.

We’re in the process of writing that now. That’s the one that everyone seems to want us to start next. We’re looking at starting in December, and hopefully having it out by next October.

“Dive” is a story that my wife and I wrote. Amy is a fantastic writer, and she’s been writing dramas for churches for years. She’s great with all the dialogue, and any time the dialogue is real emotional and heartfelt between people, most likely it came from Amy and not me!

Tiaan, April and I are more about the action, so the heart comes from Amy.

So each of you brings a unique set of skills to the table.

Matt:  Absolutely. Tiaan is a technical genius and he’s manned the camera and is the editor. April handles all the CrossShadow office-related things and is a producer as well. My wife is a fantastic writer, and also was the co-star in Pray 2. You see her in the opening sequence.

Everybody brings something to it, and God has blessed us in a fantastic way.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from people who’ve seen the film?

Matt:  Most of the feedback has been very positive. Tiaan and I both look at different [discussion] threads, or we’ll search and find we’re on some message board on the Internet. He’ll send me the link and I’ll follow along. They won’t know that I’m the director and I’m monitoring what they’re talking about. That way, people are brutally honest. Sometimes I’ll read things I wish I hadn’t, but they are honest.

It’s a relatively new genre, and if it’s a teen website or forum, I’ll read things like, “Wow, this wasn’t a horror movie at all.” And it’s not. It’s a suspense-thriller.

After reading it for a while, I’ll pop up on the thread and say, “Hey guys, I’m sorry you didn’t like my movie,” and they’ll respond, “What? What are you doing here?”

I’ll say, “Please keep in mind that I just wanted to provide an alternative that’s fun, clean, has a good uplifting message, but also has several scares in it to make you jump. I also want it to have a lot of humor and some heart. We’ll slow it down and have a really tender moment in every movie that we do, something to point people to the Lord. Not an over-the-top, plan-of-salvation type thing, but something to give redeeming value.”

Then they’ll say, “Oh, we get it. That makes sense!”

People have one of two assumptions: One is that it’s going to be another Billy Graham-type thing where it’s totally preachy and have the plan of salvation and an altar call at the end. Or that it’s going to be another “Halloween.” If they go in with those expectations, they end up hating it.

I’m trying to get the word out there that these aren’t horror movies, but also aren’t evangelistic movies. We’re hoping to provide a good clean alternative that when teenagers see it, they look at the back of the DVD and say, “That sounds cool.”

And we hope the parents are looking over heir kids’ shoulders and grinning, going “Yeah. Go for it! Watch that!”

We won’t have any bad language, sexuality or nudity, no blood and gore. But they will have enough action elements and suspense that, if we do our job right, it will make people jump. We also want them to laugh and have a good time, and get an overall positive Christian worldview. We film through that prism, and hopefully they get it.

It won’t win any Oscars. We have no delusions, and we don’t think we’re anything awesome. It’s just good, fun clean entertainment with a redeeming undercurrent.

Hopefully Pray 2 is a step up from the first.

What have you seen in the finished Pray 2 that you think is a step up from the first one?

Matt:  Because the second one isn’t based on a true story, we have so much more freedom to write the story the way we want to. Right off, the story is deeper. It’s a prequel and a sequel, so it picks up the same night as the first one. But it also goes back and deals with why the bad guy is the way he is. We see what’s gone wrong in his world, and the story has a much deeper line to it.

It also has some of the same characters: Madison, who was trapped in the mall in the first movie, is in this one. We meet some others who are at a youth camping trip with their church, and the stories cross. The bad guy, who abducted the lady in the van in the first few seconds of the first film, is seen again. We shot the same sequence from the same angle a year later, but it looks like it’s the same night.

So the story’s much deeper, and there are 3 or 4 stories going all at once, and they all intersect at the end. It’s a much bigger scope.

Since it’s our second film, we’re now only mildly ignorant. And we have a higher comfort level, which I’m sure will grow with the third and fourth. With the first one, everything was brand-new, and we were just finding out stuff and hoping we weren’t totally screwing it up.

The cast is bigger, and we had a bigger budget, which we wound up not having to spend because God was so awesome to us. One great illustration is we were going to have an action sequence with maybe a police car or two, and we were going to have to find a way to get that and a set.

God gave me the idea to go talk with the local police department, and I thought, “Man, this is going to be ridiculous. I’m going to walk in there and ask, and they’re going to laugh.”

I did it anyway, and when I walked in, the chief of police just happened to be getting off of lunch. He walked by and asked, “Can I help you?”

I said, “Yeah.” I had the first DVD in my hand and told him that we lived in this town and were shooting a movie not far from the station. I said, “You’re our local police department, and would you mind helping us? Could we maybe rent a couple of off-duty cops?”

He said, “I’ll do you one better than that. How many do you need?”

He ended up giving us five patrol cars, two fully-outfitted SUVs that were 4 x 4s, and then he said, “You know what else we have? A canine unit and an ambulance that we’ve outfitted to look like a SWAT unit that we use for our tactical training. We just had it painted. I’ll tell Sergeant Gilbert here, who just got promoted to Captain, that whatever you need, he’s to make it happen.”

I asked him how much we needed to reimburse them, and he said, “Nothing. They’ll do it on their off time. We’re here to protect and to serve, so just let us know what you need.”

Things like that happened. We got an ATV for a chase sequence in the night. There’s a state trooper that owns a training course who goes to our church. He gave us his ATV for the shoot. We have a helicopter chase scene. So overall, the movie feels bigger.

There’s more action, more humor, more suspense. There’s some really funny stuff in the middle of the film with some rent-a-cops who want to be real cops, but they’re just not there. We have a sequence where they’re parked out front and doing what they think is a stake-out, in a minivan.

Did you use more cameras? It sounds much more complicated.

Matt:  It’s still just a one-camera shoot. Hopefully, you won’t be able to tell it. North Carolina Rotor and Wing was going to loan us a helicopter, and as we started working with the scheduling, it just never came together.

So we went online and found some incredible stock footage of a night police chase sequence with a searchlight. That was exactly what we were going to film. So we started looking at the prices, and to get HD quality, which is what we’re using, it would be thousands of dollars. So Tiaan searched one more place and found exactly the footage we needed for just $25.

We thought, “Great, that scene’s in the can. We’re not going to have to get a camera up in the air, or have to pay for the fuel or a pilot or anything.”

So God did little things like that all over the place and made it look much bigger than it was. It ended up looking better than we had any right for it to. We’re still so green. We’re looking up at everybody at this point and trying to figure out how they do it, whether it’s Rich Christiano or Alex Kendrick or Andre van Heerden, or David White. All these are guys I want to meet one day. I grew up watching movies that David White and Kevin Downes made, so many of the early Christian youth films.

As a kid, I wanted to have something clean I could go see. I wanted to be able to jump in my seat and know there wasn’t going to be any offensive stuff or something I was going to be embarrassed to watch. After I became a Christian, I’d wonder, “Gosh, can I watch this?”

When I started dating, I wondered what we could go see. There was nothing! Even now there are still so few good movies out there. Hopefully our films will fill that niche for the age of about 12 to 17 where they’re not watching with a critical eye, but are just watching for enjoyment. They’re looking for a good hour and a half of diverting fun. I want to give them something with some redeeming value, but they jump a little bit and laugh a little bit. I admit it’s not Shakespeare.

So how does filmmaking mesh with your day jobs?

Matt:  It works out great! Right now, for example (on a Monday), I’m at the church working out the music for the weekend. When I get off work on Thursday, my mind will start turning toward the next project. I spend Sunday through Thursday focused on church ministry, then when I get off work, I grab my camera and go film! Since we just finished Pray 2, we’ve started writing the next film.

Hopefully we’ll finish around Thanksgiving, then do the casting. Every weekend, we work on the films. We don’t have a lot of time, but because Tiaan and myself and our wives are so well-supported on the weekends, we can get a lot done really quickly.

The editing just flew, mostly because we did the writing and the camera work and the production, so it streamlined the whole process. I think that’s why we’re able to crank these out a little more quickly, hopefully without them looking rushed.

Did you do your own scoring?

Matt:  For the upbeat songs with vocals I put out feelers to the people I’ve met through being in the music ministry. We also put some ads out. We said something like, “If you’re interested in being in an action movie and have some great songs, send them to us.”

Through that, we got just what we needed. We got some incredible stuff, and a lot of it was from unsigned talent that is just on the brink of being discovered. We think they’ll be huge. They didn’t charge us anything, said they would do it free. In turn, we can hopefully give them some good national exposure.

For the scary stuff and the orchestration stuff, Tiaan again went online and found some royalty-free places. We were able to generate the length we needed, the mood, full orchestra if we needed. It automatically did the strings for us – it was amazing.

We found a series we could buy for film orchestration. We told them what genre we wanted and they sent CDs and DVDs, as well as gave access to some more online material.

You’ve found great ways to incorporate other people’s work and not having the entire burden rest on your shoulders.

Matt:  Again, it had to be a God-thing, because we didn’t expect it to be so smooth and easy and fun, especially as ignorant as we were of the process. Stuff keeps dropping in our laps, and we’ll go, “Hey, that’s great! Let’s use it.”

People seem to like it. The soundtrack is phenomenal, and we think if someone would pick it up and sell it as a CD, it would do really well, because there’s some great music in there. Steve Garrett was on the first Pray soundtrack, and he’s now leading for Promise Keepers. One of his songs showed up on the new national PK CDs that came out. That’s pretty cool.

What kind of advice would you give to someone else wanting to do the same thing?

Matt:  I’m still in the place of receiving advice! If I had to give some, I guess I’d tell them to write your idea down and not forget it like I did. If you really want to do it, technology is so inexpensive, you can literally get one camera and start like we did.

Utilize your church people that might have a vision, and like the book “Experiencing God” says, look for where God is already at work and join Him at work. Don’t try to do your own thing. If He’s working in that area, go for it.

Get a camera and start. Don’t wait for the training. A lot of people wait 10 or 15 years and the moment passes. We’re proof that you can succeed in spite of yourself if God’s in it.

Get some actors from your church and don’t worry about the lighting, just make it the best you can. The quickest way for us to learn was just to do it. Get in there and work hands-on. When you feel like you have a little bit of feet under you, start filming, then look at it and start editing. See if the story takes life.

If it does, great! God will find a way. For us, it dropped in our laps with Bridgestone. We’re humbled and loving it!


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