President Spencer W. Kimball famously predicted that Latter-Day Saint artists, including filmmakers, would tell the story of the Savior, the Restoration, and the Latter-Day Saints with vigor, talent, and inspiration of the Holy 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 Two YearsI, 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
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.