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Meet the Artist: Dallas Jenkins Print Email
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Tuesday, 22 February 2011 01:14 PM America/New_York

What if..., starring Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) as a successful businessmen who awakens to an alternative life as a pastor, released on DVD last month from PureFlix Entertainment. We asked Producer and Director Dallas Jenkins:

How did the theatrical run go?

The theatrical did well. Our plan was to focus on a conservative budget, so weunderstood the reality of numbers againstblockbuster releases, but surprisinglythere were some markets where the film played for over two months because of good word-of-mouth.What if… hasbeen moving around markets for five months now. And that's the deal—theaters will keep a movie as long as it sells tickets, stores will keep a DVD as long as it sells copies.

How do you bring something fresh to a theme as familiar as It's a Wonderful Life and The Family Man?

Well, the first and most obvious difference is the element of faith; in this story, God the Creator is the cause of and center of the storyline, and we have a lot of What if...scenes that take place in a church and in the home of a pastor, which is something you don't often see in films. But more than that, the "living in an alternate reality" set-up of this story is really just a backdrop; yes, it's a familiar set-up, but the characters and situations that develop are unique and are the primary focus. Ultimately, it's a story of a man finding his true calling.

How did you draw well-known actors John Ratzenberger (Cars) and Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) into the project?

I met John at a party after I'd already thought of him as my first choice for the part of Mike the Angel. I really wanted this movie to be witty and to have an angel character who was tough and smart. The amazing thing is that when I told John I had a role for him, and that it was the part of an angel, he froze and said, "I was just thinking two days ago about how I'd love to play the part of Michael the Archangel in a film." I said, "The character's name is Mike." He then asked, "Does he get to fight?" because he thinks of angels as tough guys, and I said, "He gets to punch out the main character," and he said, "Now I have to read the script." Five days later he called and told me the script was something that came along only once in awhile, and he had to do it.

Kristy came from a mutual friend, and a similar thing happened. She loved the script so much she e-mailed me 30 pages in and said, "I don't even need to read the rest, I'm in." Kevin Sorbo was a friend of mine, as was Debby Ryan, and of course, Debby has become a bigger and bigger star on the Disney Channel every week that goes by.

Tell us about the locations you used.

We shot the film in Manistee, a small town in Michigan. It really felt like Anytown, USA—it was perfect. And we weren't far from Grand Rapids, where we shot the city scenes. Manistee rolled out the red carpet for us. For the Walker family home, we used the house of an older couple who let us do whatever we wanted for free, which included chopping two huge trees down in their front yard and repainting their entire downstairs. We also turned an old warehouse into a cool bus station, which you'll see in the beginning and end of the film.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the movie?

The schedule was insane because of our modest budget; we only had 15 days to shoot the film, which is less than a third of the average Hollywood film. But it really forced a family atmosphere on set, which translated to the film. It also forced me to creatively problem-solve, which keeps the juices flowing.

What second chance would you like to have?

Besides missing a key free throw at the end of a big game in high school, I'd do a few things different in my career. Namely, What if... is the first film where I totally embraced the explicitly Christian elements of a story. In the past I've tried to get cute in that regard, but I just went for it in this film, not worrying about how it'd come across to the mainstream market. And I ended up not only making my best film, but a film that was more embraced by the mainstream than any film I've done, even though it's by far the most "Christian market"-friendly film I've done.

Your father (author Jerry Jenkins) was executive producer. How involved was he in the project?

He always speaks into the storytelling a bit because he's obviously so successful in that area, and of course, it's our company that financed the film, but on a day-to-day level, he lets us do our thing.

What's your next project?

I'm going to be making films at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, similar to what Sherwood Baptist has done with Fireproof, Facing the Giants. Pastor James MacDonald and I have actually come up with an idea that we'll be fleshing out over the next couple months before we hire a writer, and we're hoping to shoot by the end of the year. I'm really excited about it. We'll be announcing something soon.

What makes a “Christian” movie?

It's really a marketing term. I think for all intents and purposes, for the sake of coming up with a simple definition for something that's complex, a Christian film is one that is marketed primarily to the church market, where the evangelical faith is the primary backdrop of the story. That said, there are several films in the last few years that were mainstream but contained strong Christian elements, and I hope that someday the definition will blur.

How can Christian retailers help the inspirational film category?

My hope is that Christian retailers embrace just how impactful films can be in culture. It's difficult to get a friend to go to church or to read a book, but it's a lot easier to get them to see a film. With What if..., we made a film that not only a church could watch, but that nonbelievers could be impacted by, and the response has been overwhelming in that area. We had a premiere in Chicago for over 4,000 people, and at least 30% of them were unchurched; they were there because of Debby Ryan, John Ratzenberger. And the passionate standing ovation at the end of the film, along with many of the comments we received, confirmed that this film has something for everyone. If Christian retailers can get behind that, there will be more movies like this coming.

Which of your father's books would you most like to make into a film and why?

Riven is his best book and would make a very powerful film. We'll make that film someday, probably in the next few years.