An Interview with filmmaker Dallas Jenkins
In his new movie, Midnight Clear (starring Stephen Baldwin, who plays a depressed, homeless man on Christmas Eve), Dallas Jenkins tells the story of several strangers all searching for something of depth and purpose. Though the film tackles subjects like suicide and depression, it also explores hope and faith. But as Jenkins discusses, making faith-based films with darker themes is truly a groundbreaking endeavor.
Tell me a little about how the idea for the film came about.
My dad wrote the short story over a decade ago, and I always loved it because while it was ultimately hopeful, the story was very raw and non-sugarcoated. It was about two people attempting suicide on Christmas Eve, which isn’t something you normally see in a faith-based story. I made it as a short film a couple years ago, and we added a couple minor characters to give perspective to the main characters. When we decided to do the feature, I thought it’d be interesting for the film to be a meditation on loneliness and depression and how oftentimes, broken people are the best equipped to help broken people—so we expanded the minor characters.
The movie has gotten a lot of really positive reviews. Stylistically, it’s been compared to films like Crash and Magnolia. What were some of your inspirations from a filmmaking standpoint?
Certainly Magnolia was a huge influence. My favorite and most influential filmmakers, particularly for Midnight Clear, include P.T. Anderson, Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) and Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt), and films like The Station Agent and Fargo. I love films that are about people more than situations, and I’m influenced by films that are very raw and natural.
The movie is darker than a lot of other projects made by Christian filmmakers (or even mainstream Christmas films, for that matter). Was it a challenge making a darker movie, with themes like suicide, for Christian as well as mainstream audiences?
It wasn’t a challenge making it, although it is a challenge marketing it! The thing is, I’m trying to make films that bring a little bit of hope and faith to the mainstream indie world, and a little bit of darkness and grit to the faith-based film market. But it’s really not about having an agenda; it’s about telling the kinds of stories that appeal to me and that I think people haven’t seen before.
I think I succeeded in some ways, because I’ve seen reviews and audience responses that said they loved the first 80 percent of the movie because it was dark and gritty, but they hated the ending for being too sentimental. I’ve seen many others say that they thought the movie was too depressing, and I’ve seen others say they hated the first chunk but were blown away by the ending. I think we’re in the middle, and the good reviews we’ve gotten have said as much—that the film is dark but ultimately presents a hope and uplift in a subtle and moving way.
The movie was picked up by Lionsgate (a mainstream distributor), so it obviously has a mass-market appeal. But how have Christian audiences reacted to a darker film like Midnight Clear?
If people stick with it, even the strong Christian crowd, they are usually moved. But the film isn’t a thrill ride, and it has a slower, gentler pace. Not everyone likes that kind of thing; they want something a bit more exciting or funny. We have a lot of moments of humor, but it usually precedes or follows pain! Honestly, the responses are all over the map—I’ve never done anything that got such random reactions. I’ve had cynics who loved it; I’ve had optimists who thought it was too dark, and vice versa. There doesn’t seem to be any difference in terms of the range of reactions between Christian and mainstream audiences.
Do you think there is sometimes not enough distinction between “family-friendly” and “Christian” when it comes to movies (and really, all entertainment)?
One hundred percent. Midnight Clear is definitely not family-friendly. Kids under the age of 10 wouldn’t enjoy it anyway, but I think it’s too dark for most of them. I think that’s what makes me somewhat of a man without a home. Most of the hard-core Christian-market crowd assumes that if they can buy a film in a Christian bookstore, it must be family-friendly. I think a film like Passion of the Christ altered that perception, but not totally.
I think there’s a place for faith-based family films; it’s just not my interest. I’m passionate about making films for adults, Christian and non, that challenge them to think and feel about characters and perspectives they might not always see in films.
The movie does a good job of representing values and faith without ever becoming preachy. What was your goal in terms of wanting the viewers to walk away with something, when you set out to make the movie?
I wanted the viewer to consider that small and seemingly random acts of kindness can have a profound impact, even if we don’t know it or even care, and that hope can come even in the darkest places. That said, that hope doesn’t always come from a Christian! We have Christian characters in this movie who have something to learn, and we have non-Christian characters who are qualified, through their pain or their experience, to help. And vice versa. I think that’s why the film doesn’t feel preachy, as we don’t try to force in any kind of statement. The themes are pretty organic to the story and come from a real place, and we don’t pretend that everything is rosy, even for Christians.
With the films like Midnight Clear, Bella and even Mel Gibson’s The Passion becoming embraced by faith-based audiences, do you think it’s becoming easier for Christian filmmakers to tackle edgier topics?
I think so, but we’ve still got a long way to go. There’s good news and bad news with the newfound passion for the Christian market from the studios. The good news is, we have opportunities that we’ve never had before, and our films will be marketed on a larger and more professional scale than ever. The bad news is, the studios see us as a marketing opportunity solely to the Christian consumer. We need more films that cross the lines, that can be taken seriously by critics and mainstream audiences while also appealing to chunks of the Christian market. Midnight Clear comes close, and of course Bella has had some great success, but we can do better. I still haven’t made a great film yet, but if I do, I think we can break down some barriers.
What’s next for you?
I’ve had a story for several years that I’ve actually written about for RELEVANT, a true story from the book The Man Who Moved a Mountain. It’s basically The Apostle set in the 1920s Virginia mountains. I think it has a chance to be very special, and it looks like we’ve actually put the funding together and might be in pre-production in early 2008. I’ll let you know!
As always, people can contact Dallas directly through his website, www.jenkins-entertainment.com. He does his best to respond to every email and loves discussing issues about culture and film.