By Jonathan Decker (family therapist, film critic)
Note: This interview originally ran inMeridian Magazinein 2011 and is written from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
President Spencer W. Kimball famously predicted that Mormon artists, including filmmakers, would tell the story of the Savior, the Restoration, and the Latter-day Saints with vigor, talent, and inspiration of theHoly Ghost. Though the Mormon Cinema genre has been hit and miss, there have been enough solid artistic and spiritual successes for that prophesy to begin, in small part, to come true. With that in mind, I thought it time that Meridian‘s readers be introduced to the trailblazers who are bringing President Kimball’s sentiments to fruition. It is my hope to feature, from time to time, interviews with the directors, actors, and other artists who have brought the story of our faith, our people, and our culture to the screen.
My inaugural interview is with Michael Flynn, director and co-writer/producer of the touching film Midway to Heaven (see my review here) which is to be released for purchase on DVD April 5. Michael is well known to fans of LDS cinema for his portrayal of the mission president in The Best Two Years (which he also produced) and as Pontius Pilate in To This End Was I Born (also known as The Lamb of God). Michael has an extensive background on stage and screen, and it was my privilege to have him answer a few questions about Midway to Heaven, The Best Two Years, and playing the man who gave up Christ to be crucified.
I must publicly apologize to and thank Michael. I had this idea fairly close to my deadline and asked him to be interviewed with little time to spare; he graciously agreed. Though I’m sure he would’ve liked more time to think about and answer the questions more thoroughly, his insights here are nonetheless fascinating.
JONATHAN DECKER: First of all Michael, congratulations on Midway to Heaven. It’s such a moving and charming film. My wife and I had a great time with it; we found it to be a great date movie (though I’m certain it would be enjoyed in any context). What attracted you to this particular project?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I contacted Dean Hughes, the author of the novel, in the summer of 2008. I had read some of his work and liked his style. He and my partner, Shelley Bingham Husk, sat down with Dean and expressed an interest in making a movie of one of his books. He was a fan of the film The Best TwoYears, and so decided to give us a shot. I found out later that he never really believed that we would actually make the film. So, that’s where it started. Shelley and I worked on the script, raised money, found others to jump on board with the project and we went into production in September, 2010.
JD: Many films stumble when they try to do too many things at once. Midway to Heaven is a family drama, a romantic comedy, and a tale of loss and healing, yet it strikes a nice balance in tone. Did that come naturally, or was it something you struggled with?
MF: The film is based on the novel which pretty much had the balance of which you speak. The struggle we had was how to transform Dean’s story into a screenplay. Film, being a different medium than a novel, requires a different story structure. That was the challenge. We loved the characters Dean had created but we had to change them around a bit to make it work.
JD: What have been some of the responses from moviegoers about the film that have meant most to you? Do you feel that it affected people the way you’d hoped?
MF: We have had very nice feedback. People have talked of coping with loss and how the film helped them reflect on loss in their life and deal with it, perhaps, a little more appropriately. There are many kinds of loss in life. I think the film deals with several. Each main character, with the possible exception of David, deals with significant loss. And gain. Lacing that with humor and sensitivity was a challenge, but it was also very rewarding.
JD It seems that you shied away from being explicit with Gospel themes, allowing instead that the values and goodness of these Latter-day Saint characters speak for themselves. Was that a conscious decision? Any regrets about not making the faith more front and center?
MF: That was definitely a conscious decision. I liked the idea that the Gospel came through in the actions and decisions of the characters. In that regard it is a different kind of film for the LDS clientele. There are a lot of films that contain prayers, baptisms, and the like. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not at all. But this story didn’t really call for that and we made a decision to not put that into the story. Regrets? Perhaps. We have had some feedback that some patrons wanted more of a Gospel presence in the film. I suppose we could have added some of that. Personally, I like the way it stands. I like that the characters are Mormons, but we focus more on their day to day lives, which are a reflection of their faith.
JD: What is your favorite aspect of the film? As director, is there anything you’d do differently now that all is said and done?
MF: I thought that Greg Kiefer did a wonderful job as the Director of Photography. I very much like the look of the film. I was very pleased with the cast. Really like the performances. Would I do anything differently? Absolutely. There are several scenes that, for one reason or another, I would love to reshoot. I would love to have a Director’s Cut of the film. Overall, I’m pleased, but there are moments that, for a variety of reasons, don’t work as well as they could.
JD: What can you say about working with that cast? One thing that stood out to me about the film was the chemistry between the characters. Every dynamic felt natural: father-daughter, husband-deceased wife, and the dating couples. How did you all achieve that chemistry?
MF: A lot of that comes with careful casting. We read so many actors for the various roles. I agree that the chemistry was there between the lead actors. One thing that helped quite a bit was that we rehearsed prior to rolling camera. Rehearsal is often overlooked in a film project. I am very particular about rehearsal. Can never get enough of it. With each rehearsal I find more angles to a scene. To a relationship. Creating layers in the relationships and finding the depth of the characters is rewarding and comes through in the performances.
JD: One role that our readers will likely recognize you from is that of the mission president in The Best Two Years. There’s a great scene where you walk in on the Elders at the worst possible moment. All the stress and pettiness they’ve maturely dealt with the whole film comes to a head and they revert to deacon-level behavior. I think every returned missionary watches that scene and cringes while they laugh. You reminded me of my own president: stern and intimidating, but if you looked underneath, it’s motivated by love for the Lord and for the missionaries.
What are your reflections on the film, and that scene, as an actor and a producer?
M: I will [refer you to] a piece I wrote when the film came out that gives the history of how B2Y came to pass (click here). The role of the mission president was originally slated for my long-time acting friend Gordon Jump. He would have been perfect for the role. His doctor did not give permission, however, for him to go to Holland. I had no idea that he was not well. We shot B2Y in April/May of 2003 and Gordon passed away in September of that year. I always felt bad that he didn’t play the role of the mission president. It would have been a lovely role for a wonderful actor. And probably the last film of his accomplished career. It would be great for LDS audiences to remember Gordon in B2Y.
That being said, I enjoyed the role very much. The scene you mention was fun. Working with the four missionaries, KC, Kirby, Cameron and David, was a blast. Such a talented group. And I didn’t want the MP to come across as some of the other MP’s I’ve seen in LDS films. I hope people sense, as you did, that he took his position as MP seriously, yet he loved the elders.
JD: Let’s talk about your work as Pontius Pilate in To This End Was I Born (also known as The Lamb of God). It’s a wonderful performance in what is, in my opinion, the finest film the Church has ever produced. You added so many layers to that: your Pilate, in the opening minutes, is clearly a man who hates his job. But that surliness, in part, melts away when you meet the Savior. There’s conflict in your eyes, and a real humanity comes out. Tell us how you prepared for that role.
MF: I read about Pilate. There’s not much there. The Bible account is interesting. It started when the director, Russ Holt, called me into the Church Office Building and talked to me about the role. I, of course, accepted. As an actor you never know what a film will turn out to be. As we were shooting it, I thought that it might be a nice film. Lots of production value. Mark Deakins, who played Jesus, was a good friend and a wonderful actor. I really enjoyed working with Mark. The first time I saw the film was an interesting experience. It was a couple years after I had shot the film. I had prettymuch forgotten about it. I wondered occasionally what the Church would do with the film.
I was sitting in sacrament meeting on Easter Sunday. The bishop announced that we were going to do something a little different for that meeting. He then started a film. The Lamb of God. I think it was titled Unto This End Was I Born at the time. I was quite surprised. We then took the sacrament after the film. The film has been reedited since its original iteration; I think the current version, which is much shorter, is significantly more effective. A production note. There is a scene in the Bible that I thought would have made a nice scene in the film. Here are the verses from John that describe the scene:
“And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate: Write not The King of the Jews, but that he said I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written.” (John 19:19-22)
I think that would have beena great scene. But who listens to actors? Overall, playing the role of Pilate was an amazing experience. Hardly a day goes by, all these years later, that someone doesn’t talk to me about that film and my role in it. I’m very grateful to have done it.
JD: The sets for that film are very impressive. Did they film that entirely in Utah? Because there’s never one second that it doesn’t look like the Holy Land.
MF: All of my scenes were shot on the back lot at the BYU Motion Picture Studio in Provo. They did a great job with the art direction in the film. I haven’t seen the film in many years, but they may have used some stock footage of the Holy Land. Not sure about that.
JD: As an actor, are there any moments of verisimilitude where you almost believe that you are actually at the place and time portrayed and not playing a role? I ask because I recently went to the Bloch exhibit at BYU’s Museum of Art and stood before the painting called The Doubting Thomas. The resurrected Savior in that is nearly life-size, and I was able to block out the rest of the museum and its patrons to the point that I almost felt that I was standing before Him. It was a transcendent moment for me. So naturally, I think of you: you’re dressed as Pilate, you’re standing in this large Praetorium set, and you’re facing Mark Deakins who is made up to look very much like Jesus Christ. Did you have a moment where it felt almost real?
MF: Many. The crowd shouting “Crucify Him”. The washing of the hands. Shouting to the crowd “I find no fault in this man.” It was interesting to me to be saying lines that were taken directly from the Bible. I have often felt like I was “in the moment.” Not just in The Lamb of God but in other films and plays as well.
JD: Is there any advice you’d give to members of the Church looking to have a career in film?
MF: A lot. That is perhaps a topic for another time. It is a rough environment. Tough to make a living. Can be difficult on family life. A lot can be said. Overall, I don’t encourage people to pursue it [as a full-time career]. It is just too difficult. I’ve been very blessed in many ways. But it has been a long and, at times, difficult road.
JD: Are there any of your works that you feel never got the audience they deserved that you’d like to call attention to here? Do you have anything on the horizon that we should be on the watch for?
MF: There are a few things I’d like to do over! The Dance is a film that never really turned out the way it could have. I’d like another shot at that. Lots of projects on the horizon. Shelley and I are working with Bill Bennett on a film based on a novel that Bill wrote. The Christmas Gift. Love the story. Always enjoy working with my good friend Shelley. We are in the process of writing the script, raising money, etc.
JD- What are some of your favorite films or what films have influenced you the most as a person and/or an artist?
MF: Lots of favorite films. I tend to like films that are character driven.
Where the main character is changed throughout the experience of the film. I havelittle or no patience for action films. Every once in a while one comes along that entertains me. But not very often.
JD: Last but not least, aside from the Lord, what person from the scriptures has most impacted your life and why?
M: There are many examples of men in the scriptures that inspire me. Nephi. Peter. Moroni. Abinadi. Moses. The list goes on. I love examples of people who have overcome challenges. Alma the Younger. Sons of Mosiah. So many stories just begging to be told. Budgets and the taste of the movie going clientele get in the way. Someday. Perhaps. We’ll see. The best is yet to come.
Once again, our thanks at Meridian to Michael for his time. We look forward to The Christmas Gift and whatever else awaits him on the horizon.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.