Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 11/16/20

Creating a pathway to true beauty and real love based on God’s Truth.With The Farmer and the Belle, are Jenn Gotzon and Jim E. Chandler launching a faith and family friendly Desilu? If you’re a television nerd like me, you may recognize Desilu as the production company formed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in the fifties to produce the classic CBS sitcom I Love Lucy which was (very) loosely based on the married life. The show, of course was an enormous success that, basically, became the template for every multi-camera situation comedy that followed. The Desilu company became an independent production powerhouse that went on to give us a bunch of other series classics, including The Untouchables, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Mannix. The great Desilu assets are now owned and controlled by ViacomCBS, the global media giant that includes Paramount Pictures, CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, Showtime, Pluto TV and the publishing house Simon & Schuster. It’s a conglomerate the, IMHO, has pretty much wrecked the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises.

In short, I like indie producers like Jenn and Jim whose new film The Farmer and the Belle drops tomorrow on VOD and DVD and which I reviewed here last Friday. Since viewing the lighthearted film, I had the opportunity to chat with the married couple about their film which tells the story of Belle Winters (Gotzon), a world-famous model who, after being basically aged-out of the fashion model business, returns to the small town where she first met Josh Carpenter (Chandler), her boyhood crush who she lost touch with and who is now a widowed farmer and a pastor raising a young daughter. She returns to the town as it faces a proverbial financial crisis that threatens to end its beloved Santaland festival. But the movie has more on its mind (and heart) than the future of Santaland.

JWK: How did this movie come about?

JIM E. CHANDLER: A lot of it came from portions of our life while me and Jenn were dating. She actually visited the farm that my family has in Georgia.  So, a lot of the locations that you see in the film are actually owned by my family. Many of those types of scenarios she found herself in and she was a fish out of water in real life during part of our dating. At the time, we didn’t know that this was gonna turn into a movie or (become the basis of) a movie. It was only after we went through a fasting period from each other where Jenn was focusing on God and it was revealed to her the story (that became) The Farmer and the Belle.

It started from pulling from portions of our own experience. Jenn actually worked as a model in China. Those images that you saw in the film were all real and from a campaign that she did while we were dating. They were utilized in advertisements and billboards in China. There are also some other elements from the story. I actually courted her with little pen pal letters. So, the kids being pen pals is something that we kinda pulled from our own dating experience.

JENN GOTZON: We got married and we decided to shoot our actual wedding for the…The Farmer and the Belle….So, what you saw in the end credits was our actual wedding footage. We had eight cameras and a drone.

The core message actually stems from a soul wound that I struggled with since I was a teenager where I didn’t feel pretty enough. I felt ugly, fat and worthless.  As an adult, it destroyed a big relationship and I (sought) healing. So, I spoke with psychologists and pastors and I realized that ninety percent of women struggle with their physical appearance. When you look in the mirror, or you look at social media or when you look at a billboard, you see these images and you think I need to look like that to be loved.

So (I worked on my soul wound) with Greg and Erin Smalley from Focus on the Family. Erin explained to me that you need to hold that lie captive and (then) you bring it to the light and you replace it with God’s truth.  We worked with test groups — with teen girls and mature women – and we put together a biblical pathway that’s actually applicable to be transformed under the renewal of your mind. We inscribed that pathway onto the bracelet that you see in the movie.

We have five charms on the bracelet. One charm focuses on your physical appearance. The second charm focuses on your mind. The third on your heart. The fourth is on your purpose. And the fifth is on the love of Jesus. And if a woman or a girl is able to take these Scripture verses that we’ve tested and seen healing from, (she) will truly be able to overcome those lies that I struggled with. We took that theme and we worked with very skilled writers and they wrote into the through line of our film The Farmer and the Belle.

JWK: Are you one of the writers of the film?

JG: No. We’re the concept developers. The story is by us but we’re not skilled writers so we hired a group of five writers – James M. De Vince, Reuben Evans, Betty Sullivan, Billy Falcon – and then, three months before going into production, Bob Sáenz who writes for Hallmark and Lifetime took our script retooled it into a commercially marketable narrative script…So, that was our team of writers (who) were absolutely phenomenal.

JWK: When was this movie filmed and how did the COVID situation affect everything?

JEC: This has been a labor of love for coming up on four years. The opening sequence where you see Jenn in the Flatiron District (of NYC), that was actually shot in December of 2016 and then the rest of the principal photography that you see at the barn and all that stuff, that was all shot last year in April and May of 2019. Then this spring we had to do a COVID-safe shoot in May were it was just basically a camera, a director and we bought Robert Amaya (October Baby) down to a makeshift studio in Thomasville, Georgia. They shot the scenes with Robert (on the phone as) her agent there. So, we shot in three different years in order to get this film complete.

JG: (Ahem) And on our wedding on March 17th, 2017.

JEC: (Laughs) Oh, that’s right! We filmed in all of those years – 2016, 17, 19 and 20. That land – and all the stuff you saw in Georgia – that was property that was either owned by us or owned by friends of ours in North Georgia, just south of Chattanooga in Walker County which is a beautiful county to come and visit. They have a program called Walker Rocks  that encourages people to come visit the county and explore and go through all the different mountain areas, caves and trails and all that kind of stuff.

JWK: So, this was a family and community project.

JG: It was such a community project in (the city of) Chickamauga and Walker County…(Various) groups and the actual town Chickamauga donated their Christmas decorations that they would (use) for their Christmas parade. They brought them over in bush wagons. Everything you see in Santaland was from those decorations and from local resorts.  And then a neighbor (who’s) a craftsman literally built the sets of Santaland (including) the stage we see John Schneider and Beckah Shae sing on. And then all of the wardrobe was actually donated by a community led by Cindy Montgomery out of New York City where we worked with designers up here who all volunteered their services to create the clothing for Belle Winters.

All the food and catering was led by Jim’s mom. She orchestrated churches and local restaurants to come on out and feed the crew. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone – making sure everyone was properly loved on and nurtured. We even had days where pizza (teams) were coming on out and making pizza right out on set and (also) giving out ice cream. We wanted to keep the morale up for out cast and crew and let them know that they are loved. It was so neat seeing the entire community come together to make this movie.

Postscript: If you would like to support Jenn and Jim’s work while also offering encouragement to the girl or woman in your life (or, perhaps, yourself), you can buy the inspirational bracelet featured in the movie (etched with Bible-inspired phrases Open My Heart, Obedient to My Calling, Joyful Giver, Overcomer and Magnificent Masterpiece) here.

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A higher reality. On the heels of the very well-received holiday film Jingle Jangle, Netflix continues its push to provide quality fare for the faith and family audience with Voices of Fire. The six-episode reality competition show drops this Friday (11/20) and counts singer Pharrell Williams as an executive producer. My review follows the trailer and synopsis below.

Synopsis: Voices of Fire follows Pharrell Williams’ hometown community as it builds one of the world’s most inspiring gospel choirs. Pharrell’s uncle and a well-respected musical genius in the area, Bishop Ezekiel Williams and his core team of influential gospel leaders will venture out into the Hampton Roads, VA area to find undiscovered talent. With the belief that diverse backstories can give their collective voice a greater meaning, the Bishop and his team will be searching for people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

IMHO: The show is basically The Voice with a more spiritual theme – and, if that sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. I’m not generally a fan of the reality competition genre (with the early seasons of The Amazing Race being an exception). I find that the so-called reality of many of them (especially those hyper-emotional moments) come off as staged, phony and, often, unintentionally comical.  I don’t know why – maybe I just like the subject matter – but I didn’t find that to be the case with this show. I actually believe the sincerity of the would-be choir members as they share their stories of overcoming handicaps and traumas and their desire to use their talent as an instrument of praise of God and inspiration to others.

I also believe in the sincerity of Bishop Williams as he endeavors to put together a world-class choir comprised of diverse members of the local communities of Hampton Roads and its environs. These are people who usually aren’t represented on television and I say “Bravo” for giving them their opportunity to shine. The judges, including music director Larry George, vocal coach Peggy Britt and choir master Patrick Riddick are also refreshingly free of snark and seem to be genuinely rooting for the participants. All in all, everyone’s heart appears to be in the right place which makes for a pleasant viewing experience.

If you like inspirational reality shows, this one is well produced and actually inspirational. Recommended.

****

The God Couple is back. My thanks to all those who listened to Fr. Alonzo Cox and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield in their first special that aired on SiriusXM’s Catholic Channel/129 in September and shared their positive feedback with me. FYI, the devout duo are back again tomorrow (11/17) at 3:00 PM (ET) to humorously share their diverse perspectives on the news of the day. Their guest will be Dr. Michael Guillen, insightful host of the wildly popular Science + God podcast. Dr. Guillen is a Christian who has won three Emmys, written international bestsellers, taught physics at Harvard, hosted on The History Channel, and for fourteen years was the Science Editor for ABC News (appearing regularly on Good Morning America, 20/20, Nightline, and World News Tonight). He will talk about the eternal connection between the human body, brain, mind and spirit to the cosmos and, ultimately, to God.

About Father Alonzo Cox
Father Alonzo Cox is the Diocese of Brooklyn’s coordinator of the African-American Apostolate and Ministry to African-American Catholics.  He also serves as pastor of St. Martin DePorres Parish, consisting of Our Lady of Victory, Holy Rosary and St. Peter Claver churches in Bedford-Stuyvesant. While The Bible is his favorite book, he is also a huge fan of all things Star Trek.

About Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), a training institute, think tank and resource center nurturing religious pluralism within the Jewish community and beyond. His numerous books include You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (Crown Publishing, 2008). He has been recognized by Newsweek as one of America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis and as one the nation’s most significant Preachers and Teachers by Beliefnet.

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

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