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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a man named Jerry Zandstra who just may be the definition of the modern-day Renaissance man. As the president of his JLZ Group, the married father of three sons offers clients his expertise as a political and business consultant and can often be seen on cable news programs offering his insights on the events of our times. As the CEO of American Epic Entertainment he’s impacting the culture by producing family and faith-based films that package positive moral themes within captivating stories (to put it another way, parables).  The endeavor is an unusual but logical outgrowth of his calling as an ordained of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He also plays the part of the female lead’s dad (who happens to be a minister), adding the job description “Actor” to his already eclectic resume.

Here’s a look at the trailer for the film (now a big hit on DVD). My interview with Mr. Zandstra follows.

JWK: What was the genesis of The Genesis Code come to be?

JERRY ZANDSTRA: My business partner (Michael Leighton)…had a long career in Hollywood. He had written a number of things. I came to work for him four or five years ago, first of all as sort of help to the screenwriters…just on history and ethics and so on. I eventually became vice president of the company (American Epic Entertainment). So, Michael and I became friends and partners. He, kind of, at one point had walked away from his faith, primarily because of science. He was just a crazy smart guy. I mean a super-high I.Q., into quantum physics and quantum mechanics and all these things.  I’m a pastor. This movie sort of started with our conversation – me coming from the theological side, him coming from the scientific side.  This was really kind of the story of him coming back to (faith) which was fascinating to be part of.

JWK: Was this conversation prior to your joining the company with him or after?

JLZ: It was after.  What he had in mind was making kind of wholesome, family-friendly movies. I don’t think he intended to make faith-based movies.  One kind of led to the other, so we ended up really making this story.

JWK: So it grew out of a conversation between you too.

JLZ: Yep.

JWK: Almost like My Dinner with Andre where these two guys had a dinner conversation about all the mysteries of life.

JLZ: Yeah.  So, you want a movie to be entertaining and all the rest of it. We really set the movie between college students. One is a young woman (played by Kelsey Sanders) who is actually the daughter of the character I play in the movie.  She’s a committed Christian and a paleontology student. She works for the school newspaper and is sent to do a story on a university hockey star (Logan Bartholomew).  He’s what you’d figure, kind of full of bravado. Just like you’d figure a 21-year-old kid would be who was the star of his team .  She discovers, sort of tangentially, that he is really struggling. The problem is his mother is dying. She’s terminally ill.  She (Sanders’ character) suggests faith and he…rejects that totally.  He is an engineering student and he says “Look, The Bible has been proved wrong over, over and over again – especially the opening chapters.”

This is, again, Michael, my partner’s story. (He felt) “You gotta reject the whole book. If the first couple of chapters are wrong than why would be believe anything else.”

It’s (also) sort of the budding love story between these two and, in the meantime, this young  woman is basically told by her professors that she’s far too open about her faith in her science classes.  She’s told “Look, if you want to go to grad school, here’s the deal. It’s time to put that behind you. You know, it’s great. Religion is great but it has absolutely no place (at) a university – specifically in science.  So, if you want a letter of recommendation from me and you want to go to grad school you need to rethink your position here.” Which is somewhat reflective of my own experience in  school. When I did my PhD…one of my prof’s told me “You’ll never teach here. Your research will never be taken seriously here.”

JWK: You were studying science?

JZ:  No it was public policy and public administration.

JWK: And they thought that your religion would conflict with that? That seems a stretch.

JZ:  The prof said to me “You are a public Christian. You’re an ordained pastor. Everyone here knows that. And so your research won’t be taken seriously and you’ll not be offered a university position at a secular university because (you’re) a pastor.”  So, that kind of shows up in the movie.  She faces that challenge while he faces the struggle of figuring out his faith.  It’s a neat story. It’s got some great actors.

JWK: Yeah, the cast is quite strong.  The two students are newcomers though, right?

JZ:  Logan Bartholomew has been in a number of made-for-TV movies (including three of Hallmark’s Love Comes Softly films).

JWK: You also have Ernest Borgnine, Louise Fletcher, Fred Thompson and Rance Howard. That’s Ron Howard’s father, right?

JZ:  Yeah. Rance is a great guy.

JWK: You also have Ben Murphy from one of my favorite old TV shows, Alias Smith and Jones.

JZ:  Yeah, exactly.  A lot of people recognize him. A lot of people recognize  Catherine Hicks too. She played the mom on 7th Heaven...She was just a gem. She’s just a fantastic person.

JWK: So the cast gelled?

JZ:  Yeah, I mean it’s always a challenge because some of the folks, like (Ernest) Borgnine and so on, are in a limited number of scenes. They’re not there for the full five weeks (of filming) like the principal cast members are.  But, yeah, I was really impressed with the kids in particular.  Adam Chambers…plays my son. My goodness (he was good).

JWK: This is your acting debut, isn’t it?

JZ:  Yeah, (laughing) this was a terrible idea.

JWK: How did that come about?

JZ:  Well, there’s a scene that takes place in a church…The pastor happens to be preaching on Genesis 1…It’s actually a sermon that I preached, I don’t know, 15 years ago. And so my partner Michael said “Well, why should we hire an actor? I mean who’s gonna be better at this than you? You’ve been doing this for 20 years.” (I said) “Yeah, well, this is a little different.” He said “No, no, no….Let’s just give you a try and if you don’t (work out) we’ll have (someone) on standby.”  So, I agreed to probably a 60-second cameo. And then the script changed. We got a little closer to shooting  and he said “You know, I think I’m gonna make the pastor the father of the female lead.”

JWK: To consolidate the characters.

JZ:  Yeah…I said “Aaah, my acting career ended in the seventh grade in a rendition of The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  He said “You’ll be fine.”  The director did a good job. He said “No voice lessons, no acting. Just be yourself and ignore the cameras.” By the time it was all done, I was the third lead which I never would have agreed to.

JWK: Any plans to continue the acting career?

JZ:  I don’t know.  I was basically playing myself. (I watched) Catherine Hicks – she plays the university prof who is really nasty to my daughter.  We’re talking before (a scene) about her kids and her faith…She’s just a wonderful woman but she plays a really nasty college prof and, all of a sudden, the director yells “Action! and she just changes – so much so that we had to stop. I said “Wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry. I was not expecting that.” So, I can’t do what they do.  What they do is really incredible. I have a really profound appreciation for what an actor can do.

JWK: Did Michael Leighton (who also wrote the script) come to faith while creating this story?

JZ:  He did. He actually passed away unexpectedly last August 13th.  I was out in LA for something and got a call early in the morning. He died unexpectedly in his sleep.

JWK: How sad. How old was he?

JZ:  He was 63. Not that old.

JWK: So, that must have been a shock.

JZ:  That was a shock…I’m now the president and the CEO which, again, is not what I intended for my life — but here we go.

JWK: So, the movie’s available on DVD now.

JZ:  It came out into the Christian market in March. We gave it a two month introductory thing and then we opened it up to US and Canadian retailers on May 8th.  It’s been phenomenal. Our distributor told us “If you can get your Amazon ranking…below 10,000 that would be awesome.  So, we did some marketing campaigns that are sort of unique – not through the distribution company but on our own.

JWK: Using churches?

JZ:  No, more political techniques. I’m still pretty heavily involved with politics. So, the first weekend we unleashed this whole marketing blast. It was on a Saturday I think. On Sunday, the distributor called me and he said “Look, I know it’s a Sunday. I know you’re a pastor and you preach today and I know I’m not suppose to call you today but what the heck are you guys doing?!”  We shot up to Number 1 in Faith and Spirituality and Number 1 in Kids and Family which is a huge category. We ended up for the first week, almost two weeks, being between Number 6 and Number 20  of the top DVDs on Amazon which was phenomenal.  We were just shocked.  Now, our big push is to support the retailers. So, we’re in Walmart and Target across the country.  We’re in a number of LifeWay Family Christian Stores and a bunch of grocery stores. I don’t even know all the retail outlets (we’re available in).

JWK: Can you tell me about your marketing techniques? Or is that confidential?

JZ:  They’re not new to the world of politics. They are definitely new to the world of filmmaking and film marketing. We caught everybody so much off guard that on our opening day at nine o’clock Amazon ran out of DVDs.

JWK: That’s an amazing story.

JWK: I noticed…the Butterfly Nebula…in the background (of some of the film’s marketing).  Does that have any significance?

JZ:  One in the sense that there’s a lengthy scene that takes place in a science museum where these science students…put together this presentation about the relationship between faith and science. They’re taking a look at some of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and time dilations and saying “Well, this is what Einstein was saying  and this is what Genesis is saying.  Where does this take us? Are there some connections?”

…I’m not saying that the scientists and the theologians can put their pens down because we solved this ourselves.  It’s much more of a way of saying “Well, this is interesting the way these two things (science and the Bible) connect.”  The reaction to the film has been fascinating. I talked to so many parents who said “You know, (we’ve) spent 18 years raising our child to be a believer and, wow, two semesters at the state university wiped that out. The kid came home and tossed off everything.”  It’s really been a neat experience to see parents watching this with high school kids and college kids and thinking through it.

It’s been interesting because the reaction from both extremes has been fascinating.  The Young Earth folks – the 6,000-Year Earth folks – have been extremely critical – as have many in the scientific community. They think “Look, theology doesn’t even get a seat at the table in scientific discussion anymore.  And I think “Well, that’s kind of unfair. You know, you guys are supposed to be so open minded. It’s weird that you’re gonna close off an entire group from this discussion.”

JWK: What do you hope the film accomplishes with the audience?

JZ:  First and foremost, I hope it entertains. I hope they like the story…It’s sweet. There are some very emotional parts…and if we can (get them to) think a little bit or discuss or talk…that’s all just icing on the cake. And that’s kind of what’s happened.

Tomorrow: My review of The Genesis Code.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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