October 2013 – Chad Gundersen, head of Gundersen Entertainment, has produced a dozen feature films over the past decade. Some of his best known movies are Secrets of Jonathan Sperry and Like Dandelion Dust. He is a veteran in the Christian film genre.
Jeff Chamblee says he’s just getting his feet wet, having recently produced his first feature film, I Am Potential, for American Family Studios here at AFA. Previously he had worked on numerous documentary projects for AFA. AFA Journal recently interviewed the two Christian filmmakers for their insights into the state of the art.
AFA Journal: When did you know that making movies would be your life work?
Jeff Chamblee: I came to AFA in 1998 as a radio producer, then moved to production director. Later assignments included director of AFR Talk network, director of The Homeschool Channel and video producer. Then, last spring, I came to work one morning to discover that we had a sudden vacancy at American Family Studios. The boss invited me to lunch and said, “Guess what, Jeff? Congratulations. We’d like you to be the new director of AFS.”
Chad Gundersen: I was a biology major and was planning to go into sports medicine. In college I was in California, playing sports, and I was an extra in a couple of Hollywood movies. I ended up coming back to the University of North Texas and got involved in their film department there. My last year of college, I ended up switching and got my degree in film. While in college, a buddy and I started our own company on a whim – started doing commercials and music videos for local bands, and corporate stuff, little short films – anything we could point a camera at. God just continued opening doors, and so here we are, a dozen films and 10 years later, and things are continuing to go strong.
AFAJ: Why is film a valid avenue for sharing the gospel?
CG: It gives us the opportunity to shoot for great quality and excellence in the filmmaking world and at the same time reflect who we are in Christ. I don’t even label myself a “Christian filmmaker.” I just like to say what I am is a Christian. That’s what I am, that’s who I am through and through. I’m a Christian, I’m a believer in Christ, I follow Christ in everything I do. But what I do is make movies, and who I am is going to be reflected in what I do.
JC: Film is an amazing medium. You have the convergence of a lot of different disciplines – literature, music, visual arts, drama, choreography – into one medium, and they’re all working hand in hand. They’re like one big orchestra. Our goal for a faith-based film is to illustrate how a believer responds to the difficulties of the world based on the reality of Christ’s lordship in his life. The world desperately needs to know what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.
AFAJ: What are some of the challenges – thematically and practically – for Christian film?
JC: Film does have its limitations. We cannot impose upon that medium something that it just can’t deliver. For example, while you can develop a concept in great detail in a sermon, you simply can’t fully explore many of the critical truths about God or the process of conversion in a quick and handy way.
CG: Practically, financing is a big thing, and finding the right resources. That’s probably a little too broad and too stereotypical to say, but money helps move the machine.
Sadly, ego is another. There’s a lot of disagreement among filmmakers in the sense of, “My way’s right, and your way’s wrong. You gotta make movies like this, or you shouldn’t do them at all.” For example, there are filmmakers who say, “I’m only going to use Christian crew and cast on my set!” Now if God called you to do that, I would never question it.
AFAJ: So, do you require cast and crew to be Christians?
CG: No. My Bible says do all things in excellence. When God had Solomon build the Temple, he used the best of the best – wood from here, gold from there, jewels from there, from all over the ancient world. And I assure you the workers who were bringing all those things were not all believers.
Obviously, if there is a believer at the top of his craft, I’m going to hire him. But at the end of the day, I want the best crew member, the best actor available. However, your top creative people – writers, producers – do need to be Christians because they are your decision makers.
JC: One of the great blessings of making a faith-based film is working with non-Christians. These cast and crew members are in an industry where they are treated as a commodity. A lot of times they’re used, overworked, disregarded and verbally abused as a matter of routine.
On set there’s a wonderful opportunity to love them. Not to preach to them. They expect that. What they don’t expect is to be treated fairly and reasonably. You can love them and show them what it means to be a Christian. I recall three or four people who have worked with us and said, “I love working here. Call me back. I want to work with you again.”
CG: My wife and I have our own little ministry that we do – we witness to people on set all the time. I can’t tell you how many crew members – non-believers – have come to me and said, “Chad, there’s something about working on your set, something about you as a producer. Why are you different from other producers? I will work for you any time, anywhere. Call me.”
AFAJ: What are your current projects you’re most excited about?
CG: I’m very proud of Unlimited (See below for review.) and The Redemption of Henry Myers. Unlimited is going to start small and hopefully get a little grassroots effort going. We don’t have money to market it well. The Redemption of Henry Myers is a western that I believe will do well in the general market. Echo Light will be distributing it, and they’re planning a pretty big release – not sure just how soon.
On both of those, I’ve done my part. So I’m excited about a new one titled The Delusion. Its target demographic will be teens and young adults, and it’s a story of spiritual warfare. Hopefully this will be an answer to the Twilight-type movies that are out there right now.
JC: Our first two feature films at AFS are very different. Both are scheduled for release next spring. Summer Snow is the story of a family whose mother has died. The movie follows the dad’s challenges as he struggles to raise their three children. In the end, he realizes that he can do that only in the strength of the Lord. The message of the film is that you have to die to yourself to have real life and that real living means loving.
I Am Potential, on the other hand, is a true story that is highly inspirational and more mainstream. It’s about Patrick Henry Hughes who was born without eyes or the ability to walk. The story follows the sacrificial love of a father who learns to let go of his own dreams for his son. It’s a very moving and challenging film.
AFAJ: How do you assess the change in Christian films over the last decade?
JC: I think the changes have been good in terms of story development and production quality. You can look at a Christian film today and know that it is on a par with an independent film that’s come out of Hollywood.
CG: Filmmakers are becoming serious. They are learning their craft. That’s the big thing – quality is catching up. We should hold our standards as high if not higher than Hollywood. Do all things in excellence.
AFA’s Chamblee: Christian films must avoid an incomplete gospel
We cannot expect a film to accomplish the spiritual work that a sermon or a book can accomplish. A movie is extremely limited by time. The real danger becomes the possibility of taking God and adjusting Him to make Him less offensive and more culturally acceptable. Secular companies are beginning to offer lots of money for this content, and we’re falling all over ourselves giving people what they want and not really thinking about what we’re doing.
It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve heard a lot of people say the best films are good stories that are thought-provoking, that cause you to think. That seems to be the height of the art form – if it is to be a true work of art and nothing else. You can be provoked to thought by it. That’s pretty much what you can expect a film to do.
But I reiterate, there’s a danger of giving a truncated view of God’s character by reducing the gospel message to a few lines. Paul spent up to three years in Ephesus talking about something big. For three years with those people, he walked them through the Old Testament. A great deal of teaching had to be done. God’s intent is that teaching be done in the church by a pastor who is well acquainted with the Scriptures.
It is a very serious thing to put things in a movie script that misrepresent God, for example, God is all about forgiveness, or God is all about love, or all about meeting your perceived needs. And the problem is we fail to portray a full view of God, His character or salvation.
– Jeff Chamblee
Unlimited in selected theaters October 11
Simon is a brilliant student whose life has taken a series of wrong turns. At the point of giving up on his dreams, he gets a call from an old professor who has discovered a breakthrough in a device that would create unlimited energy, and he needs Simon’s help. Once he crosses the border into Mexico, nothing goes as planned. The professor is dead, and Simon is assaulted by members of a powerful drug cartel. He takes refuge in the only place that will take him in – a local orphanage.
Unlimited stars Fred Thompson and Robert Amaya (the popular “Snake King” character from Courageous). The film has roots in the real life of Missouri octogenarian and Renaissance man Harold Finch (played by Thompson).
Scheduled for release October 11, Unlimited is a fast-paced, family-friendly story. For more information on theaters, visit unlimitedthemovie.com.