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

The Landon Legacy lives on.  With three landmark series to his name (Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven) the late Michael Landon is arguably the most successful actor/writer/producer in the history of series television.  Now, in a current TV environment not particularly noted for its family friendliness, his son is steadfastly building on  that legacy while establishing a distinctive brand of his own through Believe Pictures, the production company he established in 2005 with his good friend Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel).

Before that, however, he found success producing, direction and writing 2003’s Love Comes Softly, based on the popular Janette Oke novel. The film scored record ratings for The Hallmark Channel and went onto win numerous prizes, the Camie (Character and Morality in Entertainment) Award, the Movie Guide Award, and the Gabriel Award. The ratings of its sequel, Love’s Enduring Promise, surpassed even the original and gave Landon the top two highest-rated movies in the network’s history. Since then, he has written, directed and/or produced six successful sequels for Hallmark that take their place on a resume that commands industry respect and reflects his personal values.

This Saturday night (5/11) at 9:00 PM, The Hallmark Channel is debuting his latest collaboration with Brian Bird called The Confession. Based on the second part of Beverly Lewis‘ Amish-themed Lancaster County trilogy, Landon directed the project and co-wrote the screenplay with Bird. The pair successfully brought The Shunning, part one of the trilogy to life for Hallmark in 2011.

Ask him and he will tell you that his best productions are his three children and his enduring marriage with his wife Sharee.

I recently spoke with Michael about his new film, his personal story and his thoughts on the current state of the television industry.

JWK: What attracted you to Beverly Lewis as an author and to the Lancaster County series?

MICHAEL LANDON, JR.: Well, part of it is the general fascination with the Amish. It’s an extremely popular genre and Beverly Lewis just happens to have the market cornered. She is the bestselling author in this genre. We had actually optioned another one of her Amish books, The Redemption of Sarah Cain. We retitled it Saving Sarah Cain and it did extremely well for Lifetime so we pursued more of her novels.

JWK: The Confession, of course, is the second of your films based on her Lancaster County trilogy. What do you hope audiences take from it?

ML: I think everybody comes to the table with a different point of view and a different need…A lot of Beverly Lewis’ material revolves around secrets and bringing those secrets to light.  So, you know, there’s always that theme, that…we’re as sick as our secrets and once they’re revealed we can be set free from them. So, that’s definitely a theme that resonates.

JWK: You’ve written a couple of novels yourself.

ML: I have. I actually have my third novel being released this fall, Traces of Mercy. It’s (part of) a trilogy that Cook Publishing is releasing.

JWK: What’s that about?

ML: It’s a post Civil-War romance.

JWK: Having written a number of screenplays and three novels, what would you say is the difference in terms of how you approach them?

ML: Well, I kind of approach both of them similarly in (that) I always see it as a movie first because that’s my background. Cindy Kelley, who has been my writing partner on my novels, she works more on the prose side and the description side of the storytelling because, obviously, there’s a lot more of that in a novel than in a screenplay. You only have up to 120 pages in a screenplay.

JWK: So, you already see the book as a movie in your mind?

ML: I do. I see everything visually. It’s very visual for me. And so I think, from a plotting standpoint or what have you, there’s obviously a certain amount of internal thinking that goes on in a novel (that)  you can’t do…in a screenplay. But I think, pacing wise, my novels move quickly because (they aren’t overly) descriptive.

JWK: What do you look for in a film project?

ML: Usually it’s just material that resonates with me and I never know exactly what that’s gonna be. And there’s obviously a certain persuasion, if you will. It’s dependent upon the fact that I’m known for certain genres. So, that influences my decision making as well. I mean I’d love to, for example, do an action thriller but there are a lot of very talented people doing that and so it would be very difficult for me to switch over to that genre. So, I do look for things that I know (will resonate with) my audience.

JWK: So, perhaps, if you could find an action thriller with some of these heartfelt elements.

ML: That’s exactly it. Traces of Mercy definitely has some of that. There’s definitely some action and mystery that’s weaved into the storytelling.

JWK: Any chance you might turn that into a movie?

ML: I’d love to.

JWK: Obviously, your father must have influenced your work to some degree.

ML: Absolutely.

JWK: What did he teach you?

ML: Well, you know, sensibilities for sure. I grew up on the sets of Bonanza and most of my (childhood) memory is (on the set of) Little House. I was actually an assistant cameraman on Highway to Heaven. So, I observed my father working for many years. He was a very giving person. I really respected the way he ran his sets. He never treated anyone differently — whether you were the guest star of the show or the grip. Everybody was treated with respect. If you worked hard, you made a good living and you were treated properly. He never yelled on his sets. He was a very compassionate man, a very giving man. He had a great sense of humor. He always made sure that there was time for humor as well.

JWK: He managed to find a balance between action and heartfelt drama in his shows.

ML: He was definitely known mainly for the heartfelt drama — not too much on the action side.

JWK: I guess I’m thinking of Bonanza, earlier on in his career.

ML: Yeah, that was early (though) that’s where he did start his craft behind (the) camera — writing and directing (especially) toward the end of Bonanza. Most of his work was family oriented, obviously.

JWK: You were actually in some of the Bonanza TV movies as an actor.

ML: I was (but) I never had the passion that  you clearly need to be an actor.

JWK: Why is your passion more toward writing and directing rather than acting?

ML: You know what? I couldn’t answer that. I just gravitated toward (working behind the scenes by) growing up on the different sets and watching my father and other people in their different capacities…When I was 13 years old, I asked for a Super 8 camera.

JWK: It’s great to be living your dream


JWK: I understand that you embraced Christianity when you were 18. Is that correct?

ML: Yeah, that’s correct. My life was definitely going into a nosedive. When my parents separated (and) divorced when I was fifteen, I definitely lost my bearings and was completely out of control. My grades were plummeting. I had no direction. I was a pretty angry teenager (and) somewhat destructive. So, I broke down in a church when I was 18 and turned my life over to God, thankfully.

JWK: And, obviously, that decision is reflected in your work.

ML: Yeah. I mean these are universal themes. I try not to preach, for sure. I don’t enjoy movies that preach — so I don’t want to preach myself when I tell stories because I just feel all of these themes are built into us in terms of  redemption and mercy and love and compassion and all these things. And the negative sides, as well.

JWK: You actually co-wrote and directed a TV movie about your father.

ML: Yes.

JWK: What was that like?

ML: That was a very, very difficult project. I wanted to tell a story of divorce and ended up doing a personal story on it because it was, by far, the biggest impact that I’ve gone through. My father — the last article he did was (for) Life Magazine and he kind of laid out his feelings and thoughts (on what) he went through in terms of  how he felt about this other woman, my stepmother Cindy. All of his personal thoughts were out there in terms of his divorce and why he felt he needed to do it. So, I wanted to tell a story from the child’s point of view. That’s who I told the story for — I told that story for children of divorce.

JWK: It must have been an emotional experience to make such a personal movie.

ML: Very, very emotional…I think I was respectful to my father in that I only told the portions that he had already told. So, I never went outside of the things that he had already stated in his article because then I think it becomes unfair.

JWK: Were you happy with the job John Schneider did in portraying your father?

ML: Yeah. I thought John did a good job. I mean, you know, part of the juggling of the creative (process) is that you’re compelled to use people that have names. I mean that’s the network’s job — to get ratings. You, as the creative (person), you try to do a good job telling the story. There’s always that balancing (at work) and they (CBS) definitely felt (they needed) a name. So, it wasn’t like I could go out and find the person. But, in saying that, I thought John did a very nice job.

JWK: I understand that you and Brian Bird are working on a miniseries about the life of Jesus.

ML: Yes. It’s called The Nazarene.

JWK: How did that come about?

ML: I was actually sitting in church. This was about eight months ago and it just kinda came to me that there was an approach that I had not seen done before…I come to the table more as a skeptic. I did not grow up in a church. So, I was a huge skeptic of God, of Christ, of all of it — of religion in general. And so that’s the approach I want to take. The approach that we’re taking isn’t for the believer. It’s for the skeptic.

JWK: You father, as I recall reading, was sort of spiritual but not really an adherent to a specific faith.

ML: It was very complex for him…His mother was Catholic. His father was Jewish. His original name was Eugene Maurice Orowitz. There was a lot of tension between his mother and father. I think (that) was definitely part of his rejection — I guess, if you will — of religion in general, that he grew up in this contentious kind of atmosphere between two people of two faiths. And so he was not a practicing Jew, he didn’t go to church, nothing.

JWK: Did he believe in God?

ML: Yes, he did believe in God. He had a general sense of belief that there’s gotta be a Creator.

JWK: I can understand how, from his point of view, religion didn’t seem like a particularly good thing.

ML: Oh my, yes! I totally can understand that and empathize deeply with that.

JWK: What do you think of the state of television today — as opposed to when your father was doing it. I mean his shows, most likely, would never be picked up by a broadcast network today.

ML: You’re absolutely right. We have a TV series that we’re in pre-production on right now for Hallmark called When Calls the Heart. It’s definitely more in line with a Little House on the Prairie kind of feel to it. This is actually going to be one of the first TV series that would be in that vein — in that genre — in some time. To me, it’s unfortunate…And I don’t mean that the storytelling that’s out there shouldn’t be happening. I just feel like that there’s this huge imbalance with it all. Where are the shows that allow the entire family to sit down and enjoy something together? We’re all being segregated or sent to our different rooms to watch television that’s geared only for adults, to be honest. There’s very little fare — outside of cartoons and a few things for children (and) I guess (some reality shows like) The Voice — that can be watched by the entire family.

JWK: Something happened in the last decade. The tone of television has definitely changed. Almost everything is dark and edgy now.

ML: You know, to me, that’s going to influence the culture. They both influence each other — I know that — but, you know, there’s no two ways about it. When you’re just immersed in kind of this dark, edgy constant flow of entertainment, there’s no way it can’t affect you. There’s just no way.

JWK: Can you tell me about your new series.

ML: It’s called When Calls the Heart and it’s inspired by a Janette Oke novel. It is the story of a very wealthy young woman who leaves her privileged upbringing to teach in a poor coal-mining town. It’s about her struggles to live and survive in this harsh world. It’s gonna be filled with romance. There’s the Mountie (love) interest  and just the challenges of being a woman in this time period. It’s the turn of the century, 1910.

JWK: You’re a family man yourself. How does that influence what you produce and write about?

ML: For me, I want to tell stories that will affect my children in a positive way, that they can be proud of me for working on and doing. I want to be alight in the world. There’s enough darkness.

Note: In earlier conversations with producer/writer Brian Bird and author Beverly Lewis the time of Saturday night’s telecast was temporarily listed in error. The correct time is 9:00 PM ET.

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

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