Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 04/12/24

Profile in courage. The storytelling career of Dan Gordon took off forty years ago when Michael Landon chose him to be executive story editor of his new TV show Highway to Heaven. The show would go on to become a huge hit for NBC. From there he would go on to build an impressive resume of writing credits, among them 1992’s Passenger 57 (starring Wesley Snipes), 1994’s Wyatt Earp (starring Kevin Costner), 1995’s Murder in the First (starring Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon), 1999’s The Hurricane (starring Denzel Washington) and 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood (starring Sylvester Stallone).

Irena’s Vow, his latest work, doesn’t star any household names but the film (in theaters this Monday and Tuesday as a Fathom Event) is the most personal yet for the Israeli-American screenwriter and Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veteran. It’s also, unfortunately, extremely timely considering current events. The film tells the amazing true story of Irena Gut (played by Sophie Nélisse), a young Polish housekeeper of a Nazi commandant during World War II who, upon learning of the plot to eliminate Jews, decided to hide and shelter twelve of them in the safest place she could think of – namely the basement of her employer’s house.

JWK: How did you first come upon the story of Irena Gut?

Dan Gordon: Somewhere around 1995-ish I was going to a business meeting. There was a show on in LA where I used to live called Religion on the Line that Dennis Prager used to host. Usually he had three clergymen. This time he had Irene on telling her story. I was so enthralled with it that when I got home I (stayed seated) in my driveway for about the next two-and-a-half hours listening to Irene tell her story. The next day I called the radio station and said “My name’s Dan Gordon. I’m a screenwriter, not a psychopath or a stalker. I have credits. You can check me out. Please pass my phone number along to Mrs. Opdyke. About three hours later I (heard) this delightfully accented voice. She called me and said “Hello…This is Irene.” That began the great love affair between Irene and myself. She became like a second mother to me.

JWK: How long did this go on before you began writing the story?

DG: Well, I began writing it very quickly. She told me the story. She also used to speak at various high schools so I would take her to her speaking engagements. My idea for the screenplay was that I wanted it to approximate, as much as possible, the experience of Irene telling her own story.

So, I pitched it and set it up at a company called Alliance Atlantis as a feature. As (happens to) most features, that did not pan out. The only time in my 57-year career that I have ever bought back a screenplay from a studio was with Irena’s Vow. I said “I don’t want this to die sitting on a pile of scripts. I’ll pay you 100 cents on the dollar. If you want interest I’ll do that too. I want the script back.” I got the script. I came close to getting it made numbers of times, always a piece fell through or was missing.

Irene was getting towards the end of her life. Her concern was “Who will tell the children when I’m gone?” I said “You will, Irene.” So, I thought maybe I can get this done as a play. I had been working with a couple of wonderful producers…We were doing  production of mine – which was Murder in the First. I said “I’ll pitch you a story that’s the best story you ever heard in your lives.” I pitched them Irena’s story and they said “Wow! That’s the best story we ever heard in our lives! Let’s make it happen!”

I wrote it as a play and I was workshopping it at a little college in New England. Irene was at the end of her life. She was in the hospital. On the evening of the first performance ever of the play, I called her daughter who was at her bedside. I said “Jeannie, hold the phone up to you mom’s ear. As the audience was applauding, I said “That applause is for you.” She passed either the next day or the day after that. So, she lived long enough to know that there was a play and that it was being performed. I think that was of some comfort to her.

We started the play Off-Broadway. We ran a hundred and some odd performances Off-Broadway. Then we transferred to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. We were nominated for Best New Play on Broadway by the Outer Circle Critics Awards. I thought well that certainly (will open the door for a movie). No, it didn’t. That was 2009. It would be another fifteen years before it got made.

JWK: How long did it take to film the story and where did you shoot it?

DG: It was shot entirely on location in Poland – in Lublin and in Warsaw. I think the shooting schedule was maybe a month – 28 days or something like that. 

JWK: I find it noteworthy that she was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for risking her life to save Jewish people. I find that to be a very interesting – and commendable – thing about the Jewish people. So often today our culture seems so intent on pushing people to remembering only those who have done horrible things or have failed to stand up to evil. The Jews choose to make a point of bringing attention to the people who bravely choose to act correctly.

DG: That’s a very keen observation. I think there’s tremendous gratitude. No one takes (their courage) for granted – especially in Poland where the Nazis instituted a regime that if a Christian was caught hiding a Jew they and their whole family would be hung alongside the Jews they were hiding. So, people did so at their utmost peril. The Jewish people have not forgotten.

JWK: You partially grew up in Israel and actually served as a reserve duty captain in the IDF, correct?

DG: I’m retired now. I served from 1973 to 2018…I was a reservist most of the time. I grew up partially in Israel. I ran away from home when I was 16 and wound up on a kibbutz in Israel. I went to high school there. I came back for college, went back to Israel, got married, was in the Yom Kippur War and two of my three children were born in Israel.

JWK: Wow, you actually served in the Yom Kippur War? That must have been some experience.

DG: I served in the Yom Kippur War, Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Operation Cast Lead in 2009 (among others). My final day of service was May 14th, 2018.

JWK: You must have some thoughts on what’s currently going on in Gaza. What do you think Irena’s story has to tell the world about what we’re experiencing now?

DG: When I wrote the original screenplay, then wrote the play, then wrote the screenplay again and then did the book which just came out two weeks ago – if people want they can find it on Amazon – I never imagined for a second that I would ever live to see a time when Jews would be hiding again from genocidal mass murderers (marauding) their way through their towns and villages intent on massacring all of them for the crime of being Jews – but that’s exactly what happened in October 7th…I know people who had that happen to their families. Children were killed in front of their parents, parents in front of their children. There’s a scene in the movie where a Nazi officer kills a baby and then shoots the mother. I not only know that that happened. I have footage of it happening – and much crueler than that…The phenomenon of Jew hatred becoming not only acceptable but, in some circles, actually virtuous is really atrocious. It certainly makes Irena’s story more relevant than ever.

JWK: I think so too. Even in this country you’re seeing vehement and rampant antisemitism.

DG: Yes, absolutely. You know, I always knew it was there. I certainly experienced it in my own life as a child. As a child I was literally tortured by older children – and I mean tortured – because we were the only Jews in town. It certainly made an impression on my mind but I really was naive enough to believe that that Jew hatred had, if not died out, at least faded away. It is the place where the far left and far right always meet. The nexus of the far and the far right is always Jew hatred.

JWK: Why do you think that is?

DG: Truly, I think it’s demonic. I mean I can’t think of a logical explanation for that. If anybody ever wanted proof of the existence of pure evil, of something demonic, Jew hatred is it. It’s the oldest continuous ethnic hatred in the world. It never made sense then and it doesn’t really make sense now. I mean there is rampant antisemitism in China. There are no Jews there. Mein Kampf is a bestseller in Japan. There are no Jews in Japan. There’s this truly insane hatred of a people who comprise two-tenths of one percent of the population of the Earth and are responsible for 22 percent of the Nobel Prize winners, toward people who have contributed so much to society – in the arts, music, literature, medicine and science. In those countries that are capitalist, they hate Jews because we’re Bolsheviks. In those countries that are Bolshevik, they hate us because we’re capitalists. In places where we’re poor and don’t fit in, they hate us because we’re different. In places where we assimilated, they hate us because we’re trying to be like them. It’s an insane hatred. It’s really insane.

JWK: It is. You have quite a resume. How do you choose your projects? This one is obviously very personal to you.

DG: I’m a writer for hire. I would say maybe two-thirds of what I do I originate. Occasionally, I’m called to adapt something that a studio already has. I’m just in the middle of a picture for Lionsgate where I’ve adapted a book to a screenplay. So, that isn’t something that I initiated…I’m drawn to historical pieces, to true stories. I’m drawn to stories about people who try to stand for something, who have a particular moral code and take a stand where it’s not necessarily a popular one.

JWK: All that is certainly present in Irena’s Vow. One thing which is a little bit off topic but I find it interesting. I notice that you were the executive story editor for Highway to Heaven which premiered 40 years ago this year.

DG: Yes. Working for Mike Landon on Highway to Heaven was one of the happiest times of my career. Mike was like a big brother to me. I really owe him a career. I learned so much from him He was so generous. He probably knew more than anybody I’ve ever met about making quality television. Mike was very much like Frank Capra. People dismissed Frank Capra. They called his movies “Capra-corn” but people still watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. It’s been a classic for 75 years. Mike Landon’s work has stood the test of time equally.

It was just such a good-natured show that we did. The only time in Mike’s career that he ever literally ever gave up the majority of the writing to somebody else was Highway to Heaven where I became the head writer. We had a very, very close relationship. I never received more backing from anyone in my life. He said “You’ll never see a network note. Don’t worry about that. You and I will work together and we’ll make a show that we can be proud of.” Forty years later, I’m very, very proud of that show.

JWK: Anything else you’d like to say about Irena’s Vow before we wrap up?

DG: I remember there was one executive who (made up) a genre. He said “Spinach movies, they’re good for you but you don’t want to eat them.” Irena’s Vow isn’t like that. The first duty of any motion picture is to entertain. Irena’s Vow is at many times an edge-of-your-seat thriller. People leave that theater feeling uplifted. It is absolutely an engrossing and entertaining film – but it’s also a really important one. It’s one that will leave you feeling better than when you walked in and may even change your outlook on certain things. I would urge people to see the movie and I would urge them to buy the book. There are things I could do in the book that I couldn’t do in the movie because you only have two hours so you’re limited by time. Irena’s story deserves to be told and retold. I think people will find it as engrossing as I did the very first time I heard it.

Another profile in courage. I crossed paths with journalist Catherine Herridge when we both worked at Fox News in the early 2000s. She was a class act and the real deal when it came to journalistic integrity. Her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday should by heard by everyone. Needless to say, it didn’t make today’s CBS Mornings Eye Opener.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

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

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