Faith, Media & Culture

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

The Lancaster County saga continues with Beverly Lewis’ The Confession. Hallmark’s world-premiere sequel to The Shunning debuts this Saturday night at 9:00 PM ET. The film continues the story of Katie Lapp (now played by Katie LeClerc (of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth), a young Amish woman who, after learning she was adopted, embarks on a search to find Laura Mayfield-Bennett (ER’s Sherry Stringfield), the wealthy businesswoman who is her natural birth mother and is now terminally ill. What transpires is a compelling story of deception involving Laura’s debt-ridden parasite of a husband (Adrian Paul) worthy of the classic prime-time TV soaps of the eighties. Think Dallas with Amish people. After having seen The Shunning and previewing The Confession, I must say the story of Katie (and the other residents of Lancaster County) is easy to get hooked on. It’s also easy to see how their story could go on for years should, say, a weekly series result.

The movie is from Believe Pictures, the production shingle of Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel) and Michael Landon, Jr. (Love Comes Softly) in association with Lightworks Pictures. I recently spoke with Brian about the film, how his own personal faith guides him in choosing the projects he takes on, and what he hopes to be remembered for.

JWK: What attracted you and Michael to the Lancaster County series?

BRIAN BIRD: I got a couple of answers for that. One is that in making films sort of in the faith and family-friendly genre, we know that studios, networks — people that have the money — really like to have a safety net in terms of kind of a built-in audience and there’s no better built-in audience than some of the great authors in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) category which includes Beverly Lewis. We had actually made another film out of one of Beverly’s books several years ago for Fox called Saving Sarah Cain and it was based on the book The Redemption of Sarah Cain. That was also an Amish-themed story. So, it was part of just the great relationship that we established with Beverly. We were able to option more of her books, including the Heritage of Lancaster County series of which The Confession is the second of three books. We did The Shunning a couple of years ago for Hallmark Channel and then this is the sequel…That’s one answer, that we love working with Beverly. We think she’s a brilliant writer…There’s a simplicity and family values about the world of the Amish that I think a lot of people long for.  That is all certainly represented well in Beverly’s many novels about Lancaster County.

So, anyway, when we read The Heritage of Lancaster CountyThe Shunning, The Confession and then The Reckoning which is the third book — we sort of fell in love with the storytelling. I think those books — because they were Beverly’s first series of books — really had a lot of her own story in them and her family’s story. And so we also liked sort of the authenticity of that, as well.

JWK: She comes from an Amish community, correct?

BB: Mennonite — who are sort of kissing cousins to the Amish…Her grandmother was a Mennonite and a lot of what was in The Shunning comes from Bev’s grandmother’s story.

JWK: I assume you already plan on doing the third movie.

BB: We sure hope so. Part of this is the audience has to vote by tuning in and showing to Hallmark that they love this and want more. We had a great rating for The Shunning. So, we’re hoping to continue that with The Confession. We don’t have any doubt that we’ll be doing The Reckoning. Hallmark’s been a great partner for us.

JWK: Hallmark appears to getting into the series business with Cedar Cove in July. Is there any chance Lancaster County could become a series?

BB: We’ve had a discussion amongst ourselves about that. Michael and I are actually doing another series for them. When Calls the Heart is ours. That’s their second series. The pilot for When Calls the Heart is complete now and that’s premiering in October. It’s a two-hour backdoor pilot…and they’ve just ordered the first six episodes of that. So, we’re already starting to work on those.

JWK: What’s that about?

BB: It’s based on another bestselling novelist — Janette Oke‘s work. Michael and Hallmark had done a number of the Love Comes Softly series as movies and actually ended up doing about ten of them on The Hallmark Channel. They were highly rated…and there’s been a big love affair with Janette Oke on The Hallmark Channel.  And so, because we have this great relationship with her — as well as Bev Lewis — we were able to option her next series of novels, the first of which is called When Calls the Heart. That’s the two-hour premiere (on) October 5th of that pilot for a series and then the episodes will start premiering in early January of ’14.

Essentially, the storyline on that is — (a) young teacher (from the East Coast) moves west to teach school in a small town on the prairie. She comes from money and she comes from sort of having everything done for her, Now, she has to overcome her own fears and learn to deal with hardship as she teaches school in a small coal-mining town.

JWK: Is this a western or modern-day story?

BB: It’s a western. It’s set in 1910, so technology is starting to emerge — cars and so forth….There’s a love story. She falls in love with a Mountie.

JWK: Both projects seem to be the kind of things you would have found on CBS in the nineties when they were doing shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and your own show Touched by an Angel.  You don’t find this sort of product on the broadcast networks anymore. It all seems to be going to cable.

BB: I think what’s happened is that, as the broadcast spectrum has fragmented, you’re now seeing cable channels that are actually competing with the Big Four networks and, whereas, the Big Four kind of had a lock on everything way back when…When we did Touched by an Angel, I think, at our peak, we were reaching 20 million homes on a Sunday night…Unfortunately, the big networks have abdicated the family hour. They’ve abdicated family programming. I’m not gonna say they don’t have any — but it’s not much. What you had happen — this is not just my analysis, you could talk to most people in the business — (is) you have HBO, Showtime, (and other) premium cable sort of subscriber cable networks, who have pushed the boundaries of programming (to) become more edgy. A lot of it is incredible programming. It’s really well done and the storytelling is amazing but they don’t have the advertiser restrictions and they, consequently, (they) rack up all the Emmys. The big networks have envy of those Emmys. That’s pure peer credibility for those producers and for their networks and what’s happened now is that they are attempting to mimic (those networks) as much as they can without alienating their advertisers.

In the meantime, you have The Hallmark Channel which says “Time out! Last time we checked most of America was red! That’s not a niche. That’s a giant audience that still wants family-oriented programming.  We’ll do it!” Hallmark is very unique in that respect. If you look at ABC Family — which is owned by Disney — the programming…is nice but it’s edgier. Even their advertising slogan is…”A New Kind of Family.”  They’re redefining what the word “family” means whereas Hallmark is hearth and home and traditional values. I actually think that they’re counter programming all the big networks. They have an opportunity here to get tremendous leverage because there’s a ton of people who want not to be ambushed when they sit down to watch television with their children.

JWK: The success of The Bible miniseries on The History Channel demonstrates that faith and traditional values still have wide appeal.

BB: Huge.

JWK: You would think that that would give rise to imitation among the networks but, so far, I don’t see that happening.

BB: It will. There’s no conspiracy against the family in Hollywood. It’s that people want to make money and they want to get the highest rating they can and they want to get the most eyeballs they can.

JWK: How did your association with Michael Landon, Jr. begin?

BB: When I finished Touched by an Angel back in 2003, I had been doing ten years of television writing . I was a staff writer/producer for ten straight seasons. I loved it and am not complaining for a second (but) you get your life rented from you when you do that 24/7/365 — (or) at least until hiatus comes. (When you’re) doing it, you don’t own your life. (The show) owns you. So, I was ready to slow down and try to spend more time with my family at that point. Michael and I had been friends for years. We always threatened to try and work together. He, at that point, had had some success with the Janette Oke films that I mentioned, the Love Comes Softly films at The Hallmark Channel. He had an opportunity with 20th Century Fox to do more of them. He said “Look, I write, produce and direct, you write and produce, why don’t we put our heads together and do these together.” Because it’s, frankly, too much work for one person. And, so it was a perfect opportunity for us to form Believe Pictures in 2005…Our first film was The Last Sin Eater, then we did Saving Sarah Cain. It sort of just continued from there.

Back in, I guess, 2009 is when we started working on The Shunning…We shot it in late 2010, I believe, and then it was on the air in May of 2011. That opened an even broader door for us with The Hallmark Channel. Michael and I…are very much friends but also we think we work really well together. We each have strengths that we bring to the partnership that allow us to sort of build a brand here with Believe Pictures.  Now, that we’re gonna be doing one of Hallmark’s first series, it’s an opportunity for us that we’re just honored by and couldn’t be more thrilled to do for them.

I did 250 episodes of television during my TV staff days. Michael grew up with his father doing television. So, I think the time is right for us now to have our own show.

JWK: You’re part of Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. How important is your faith to your work?

BB: I’ve been at Saddleback for about 17 years now. I had been a Christian my whole life. I grew up in the church. My grandfather was a pastor. My dad was a pastor for a while and then was a hospital chaplain (for) the last couple of decades of his life. So, I grew up in church and it’s always been important to me. I’ve always had a sense of calling to do life and faith-affirming media. I was a writer since I was a little kid. It just always sort of fit for me…I read Half Time (by Bob Buford) back in, maybe, ’96 (or) ’97…He has this little exercise in Half Time…which is (to) kind of picture your gravestone and what are the words you want on there. I remember reading that book and kind of having an epiphany about that. My little phrase is “His words moved people closer to God.”

JWK: That would be a nice epitaph.

BB: Yeah…I’d be happy if that’s what people said about me at the end of the day. It’s always been my calling. I’ve always felt very convicted that I didn’t want to work in the — I don’t know what better term to use — kind of the Christian film-making ghetto. My calling was always to show myself approved and worthy to work at the highest level possible in terms of craft and working with very gifted people and trying to be excellent in everything. I’m not Michelangelo but I would like to be that. I’ll never be him but I’m trying to strive to do that in my work.

JWK: You do very good work. I’m a fan.

BB: Well, thanks. It’s never perfect. It always can be better but I just believe that we need to achieve a really high level of excellence. I don’t believe in the “Good Enough” principle as a Christian.

JWK: What I like about your work is how you let the message shine through a story naturally. You’re not straining to quote Bible verses whether they belong or not.  I’m not against quoting the Bible in movies but they should flow naturally from the story and characters and not seem artificially crammed in there.

BB: Yeah. There are legitimate ways to do sermons in cinema. You, obviously, have seen that with the Sherwood guys. They have a big following and I bow in their general direction for their craft but that’s just never been my calling. My calling is to try and stir up cravings in people. To me, the best way to do, if you will, evangelism in media is to do pre-evangelism. I just don’t think the medium works very well to actually get people all the way to the Foot of the Cross and on their knees…Rick Warren told me years ago — and it was very encouraging to both Michael and me and several us in the Christian tribe circles working in Hollywood — “If all you do is ask great questions, that’s huge.” He said “If you drive people to the door of my tent, I’ll take them the rest of the way but just getting them to the door is massive.”  So, that’s always been our M.O. We want faith and spirituality to be organic to the storytelling just as it has always been down through history (with) all the great myths. That’s why C.S. Lewis said (Christianity) was “the myth that became true.”  All the great epic legends, stories and myths of history were all (about) deeply spiritual quests.

JWK: You and Michael are also planning a film about the life of Jesus.

BB: Yes, we are.

JWK: Can you tell me about that?

BB: Well,  for about the last nine months or so, even before The Bible hit and went  triple gold, we had been toying with the idea of kind of a reboot of a Jesus of Nazareth miniseries but to tell it in a different way than had ever been done before. We wanted to tell it more for skeptics than (for) people in the choir. We wanted to introduce skeptics to Jesus in a way that they’ve never known Him or seen Him before. That was our goal and then, when The Bible was so successful  and reached so many people, we felt like it was time to announce our plans…It kind of emanates from that. We now have several studios that are (talking with us).

JWK: Will this be for theatrical release?

BB: Actually, no. We’re (planning) an eight-hour TV miniseries (with the working title The Nazarene). We want to do it justice. It’s pretty hard to top The Passion of the Christ (with a theatrical release) but we believe if we have six to eight hours to do the story of Jesus we can do it justice.

JWK: Do you see this on Hallmark or, perhaps, on a broadcast network?

BB: Well, there are several options right now. Some high-level people have stepped up (and said) that they want to back that.  It’s very exciting.

JWK: What else is coming up for you and Believe Pictures?

BB: I have another project that seems to be getting closer — actually not one that (I’m doing) with Michael. I’m doing it with Ralph Winter and Ken Wales. Ralph is the producer of the X-Men movies. Ken did the Amazing Grace movie and many others (as well as) the Christy TV series…It’s the true story of the Atlanta hostage crisis of 2000,  (the story of) Ashley Smith.

JWK: I’ve always thought that would make a great film.

BB: It’s an amazing story.  So, I’ve written it and will produce it with those guys…That one’s called Captive.

JWK: Is that for TV or theaters?

BB: That’s for theatrical (release).

JWK: You, being a member of Saddleback Church, must relate to the story in a special way since Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life played such an important role in Ashley’s story.

BB: Rick Warren is a big supporter and a big cheerleader. He’s given us permission to use the book. He’s also agreed to be a big fan out there in the marketplace for the project.

Tomorrow: Author Beverly Lewis talks about what it’s like for a novelist to see the characters of Lancaster County brought to life via the Hallmark TV movies.

Note: Hallmark Channel is giving fans a chance to win one of two author-signed scripts of The Confession (signed by Beverly Lewis) of one of five complete collections of Lancaster County books (also autographed by Beverly Lewis and with a DVD of The Confession).  To enter click here, or (if you’re using a mobile device) here.

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

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