Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
Chip off the old Chuck. As the real-life son of TV’s Walker, Texas Ranger (aka Chuck Norris) 2nd Fiddle Entertainment founder Mike Norris will be the first to tell you that he’s the grateful recipient of a leg (or, perhaps, a roundhouse kick) up in the entertainment industry. It’s a boost he’s used to produce and direct (as well as write and appear in) faith-based films.
His latest direct-to-video release, I Am…Gabriel, tells the story tells a story about the affect a young boy with a mysterious past and, perhaps, miraculous powers have on a struggling Texas town reeling from a decade of misfortune. The film stars TV veterans John Schneider and Dean Cain who share rather interesting casting connection. Can you guess what it is? I couldn’t but Mike Norris revealed it to me when I chatted with him about his movie. Here are some highlights from our conversation: .
JWK: Where’d the idea for I Am Gabriel come from?
MIKE NORRIS: The genesis of the idea was from a story that the executive producers had. It was called The Prayer Messenger. Basically, our company, 2nd Fiddle Entertainment, was hired to take a small story and convert it into a screenplay. So, they came up with the overall theme of the film and then I just created the screenplay. What I was thinking about it (was that) it maybe it dealt a little bit with what our country is going through a little bit right now. There’s a lot of places that people have lost hope (but) you’re never hopeless. You may lose hope but you’re never hopeless with Jesus Christ.
JWK: You kind of did everything in this movie. You acted in one of the roles, you directed and produced and you’re one of the writers.
MN: Yes, sir! It saves money!
JWK: Which of those roles do you enjoy the most?
MN: Directing, by far. Without sounding really corny but it’s really the truth…and, this is the first time I ever said this but it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked this, it’s really like a spiritual thing to me. I’m really not in control when I’m directing. I’m just praying that everything goes right. I’ve got the ability to put all the pieces into place (and) try to make everything work but, as much as you think you’re in control, I’m not sure you ever are truly in control. And that’s where my faith plays a huge part in me directing. I go into every morning prayerfully and I just say “God, this is your day. Let me be a vessel for you and let everything go good today.” And, if we get our thing done and shot and the acting’s good, it gives me something to take to editing to try to piece together as a film.
JWK: Have you always felt your Christian faith so intently?
MN: I became a believer as a child through my grandma who led me to Christ. She always says “My Michael’s gonna be our pastor!” That never came to fruition but I was very aware early on of my faith. Now, did I stray? Absolutely. My late teens, my early twenties, I was a Christian (but) I was out there in the world not living as I should have. Now, nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect now but I’m very well aware — more so now than I’ve ever been — of how my faith plays a part in my daily life.
JWK: Do you think it’s important that you bring that faith into the stories that you tell?
MN: Absolutely, 100 percent. After I was done working on Walker, Texas Ranger with my dad, it was the only thing I wanted to do — to do faith-based films. So, that’s all I’ve done. You know, I think everybody has a voice and I think everybody wants their voice to be heard in some way. No matter what it is. And this is my voice, telling these stories. In every one of these stories there’s a little piece of me in it.
JWK: How did your company, 2nd Fiddle Entertainment, come to be?
MN: We go to a camp every year. It’s called Pine Cove out in Tyler, Texas. I was just kind of in an awkward spot in my life and my wife goes we’re gonna go to this camp. I go “I don’t wanna go. I can’t do this thing for a week. I got this, I got that, I don’t wanna go.”
JWK: What kind of camp is it?
MN: It’s a family Christian camp. I just didn’t want to go. I went in there just ugly and I on my way there I said “Alright, God, if you’re real, prove it.” And that’s kinda like where I was mentally…(But) God manifested himself in such a tangible way that week. And than at the very end, our speaker for that week was talking about a quote from Leonard Bernstein and he says “It’s easy to find somebody to play violin but to find somebody to play second fiddle — and play it with enthusiasm — that’s the hard part. Without that we have no harmony.” And it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought that’s it! That’s how I want to approach making films. I’m just second fiddle. I may direct it, I may produce it, I may write it but God is in control.
JWK: Do you have brothers and sisters?
MN: I have a brother, Eric, who is a stuntman out in California — a very, very successful stuntman.
JWK: What was it like growing up as the son of Chuck Norris?
MN: It was awesome! I gotta be honest with you. It was awesome! I had a front-row seat to see what I believe is our modern-day John Wayne coming to fruition. My father started as a karate instructor. Every weekend we would pile into the station wagon. Him and I would go demonstrations demonstrations at malls, schools, everywhere. It was great! And, then to see him transform into Chuck Norris, the movie star — like right there before my eyes — to reflect back on it, it’s such an amazing blessing to see this whole thing come to fruition. So, it was great! I gotta be honest with you. There were a lot of perks in being the son of Chuck Norris.
JWK: What did you so on the set of Walker, Texas Ranger?
MN: I was a director. I kind of worked my way up. You know, I was directing second units, some of the action stuff. My father said “We’re gonna give you a chance to direct an episode.” He said “But, if you mess up, you’re gonna be gone so fast your head’s gonna spin.” And, fortunately, I hung around.
JWK: That was a long-running show.
MN: It was great! The great thing about it (was), you know, in the beginning the series was trying to figure out what it was. We knew (that in) every show there’s gonna be bad guys, there’s gonna be Walker, Walker’s gonna beat the bad guys and that’s the end of the show. Towards the end, we started putting a very overt Christian element into the show and I was lucky enough to direct all those episodes. They’d go “Here’s one with a Christian theme. That one goes to Mike , obviously,” because I was kinda known as that “Christian” guy on the set.
JWK: Television has changed a lot over the past decade or so. Never mind series episodes with Christian themes, it seems to me that these days you don’t even find many shows that clearly depict traditional concepts of good and evil.
MN: No, you don’t. I really believe it has to do with the Hollywood system. I think they’re doing everything they can to push the Christian community down. And it’s only the Christians that are gonna lift us up. The studios aren’t — not unless there’s money to be made. Then they will – as an authentic ministry –but, also as a business, it’s gotta come from authentic believers. And I try to surround myself with as many Christians as I can. You know, on a film, everybody’s not gonna be a Christian but they know the movie we’re making and we go in every morning before breakfast and have a prayer session. I invite anybody who wants to come…If they don’t, no harm at all. We go do our day. Maybe somebody can see something that can pique their interest.
JWK: John Schneider and Dean Cain star in I Am Gabriel. Are they as into the Christian faith as you are?
MN: Well, I never had an in-depth conversation with either of them about it. (I know) Dean loved the script and he loved his part when he took the role.
JWK: Were they pleasant to work with?
MN: I’m telling you, Dean Cain is a gem. He is such a pro. He’s done so much but he came to the set on time, prepared, he knew his part and I learned a lot from him. John Schneider — an absolute pro, both I really am honored to have worked with them. I learned so much as a director from them.
JWK: I interviewed John Schneider one time. He seems like a very nice guy and Dean Cain is actually my favorite Superman.
MN: Is he really? I never… I don’t watch a lot of TV but I found out later that John Schneider is Superman’s dad in (Smallville) and Dean Cain (is Superman).
JWK: That’s right. I didn’t think of that. There is a connection between them.
MN: I didn’t know anything about it and everybody brought it to my attention.
JWK: Gavin Casalegno plays the mysterious boy at the center of the story. How did you find him?
MN: Gavin was the first person to come in an audition. He did a great job…but his face was just so magical. And then we (auditioned) a couple hundred more boys. We (had) back for callbacks Gavin and twenty other kids. Gavin was right in there and there were two or three kids that we thought “Man, they could really do this part and do it well” but it was those eyes of Gavin that sealed the deal.
JWK: I can see that. How long did it take to make this film?
MN: We shot the film in three weeks…I like to prepare twice and shoot once. I go in very prepared. I know exactly what I need to get and (I) just shoot it. So, we shot the whole film in three weeks…We prepped– finding locations and all that stuff — for seven weeks, we shot for three weeks and then in three months it was edited and done.
JWK: What role did you play in the film.
MN: I played the drunk guy that got hit by the car. It was just a small part. It’s funny, my stunt double David Timmes, I was like “Hey, listen, you’re gonna have to take this hit” and he was like “Okay.” So, I did the shot were I jump up on the hood of the car and it’s moving real slow. The stunt coordinator Bryon Weiss is there and I’ve got everything down and (after it’s done) I step away and into a hole and I break my ankle.
JWK: That’s pretty funny — but I hope you’re okay.
MN: Well, I’m pretty good now but it was pretty ironic. And then David came in and, boy, that car hit him good.
JWK: I would think you’d have your brother do your stunt work.
MN: I can’t afford my brother.
JWK: What’s next for 2nd Fiddle Entertainment?
MN: I’m real excited. We start our next project in November. It’s called The Commitment. It’s not a true story but it’s an authentic story about young love — young believers in love — and how this young man is so committed in his faith that he’s willing to marry a girl and stick with her through anything. And, all I can say is, it’s a little bit Brian’s Song meets Love Story.
JWK: So, it’s about marital commitment.
MN: Yeah. Once he commits to God, he commits to everything that’s good. I’m real excited about it.
JWK: Did you write it as well?
MN: No, actually this time I…kinda got a team of writers doing that…because I’m out trying to sell I Am Gabriel.
JWK: At what pace do you turn out your films?
MN: We’re doing (about) one a year right now. We’ve self-funded most of our films and, luckily, we’re making a living and we’re doing well and we’re blessed but we’re gonna kinda branch out, maybe look for investors to kinda ramp up. We’ve got the capability to do three a year.
JWK: Do you have your own studio?
MN: No. I have a studio we work through here in Dallas but we’ve got great distribution now through EchoLight. So, all the pieces are in place. We’re just going to kinda see what God’s got planned. I don’t know.
JWK: It sounds like good things are in your future. How can folks see I Am Gabriel?
MN: Anywhere you buy a Christian movie, any Christian bookstore and on Amazon, iTunes and all those.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11