Pastor or Filmmaker?
I was thirteen sitting in front of a clunky, oversized keyboard, typical of ancient computers from the early 1990s. A yellow, legal sized pad lay next to me. An almost ornamental handwriting filled 90 pages. It was the first feature length screenplay my eyes had ever observed.
A high score in my junior high typing class, a knack for computers, and a $0 per hour charge made me the obvious candidate to convert my dad’s business partner’s handwritten screenplays into correctly formatted, typed versions for the independent film company they were toying around with creating.
It was tedious, but the art form of what I was converting mesmerized me. I typed script after script, and my young mind was being trained, even nurtured, to think cinematically: to consider the story’s arc, to visualize scenes and to watch characters step out of shadows, become familiar and take residence in my mind.
And so, still thirteen years old, I set about to emulate the craft I was translating from analog to digital. I wrote what is certainly one of the worst screenplays of all time, properly given the worst title, Love With a Teardrop. Not my proudest work, and one I hope never resurfaces in an age where anything can go viral, but the accomplishment of finishing a script was satisfying.
I would write four other screenplays over the next four years, as well as a proposed television script for the final episode of The Wonder Years (one I am certain the creatives at ABC never read).
In college, I began to focus in on a marketing degree at Baylor University, but as an elective I took Feature Film Writing taught by Brian Elliot. For the first time, the craft behind the art form I loved was revealed. Structure, plot devices, pinch points, character development, and other techniques I had witnessed only as nameless players in earlier writings suddenly had an identity as their disguises melted away.
But then something unexpected happened – I began to drift away from the art form that had so captivated me. Within a year, screenwriting became like an old middle school friend you pass in the larger hallways of high school, a connection full of memories and nostalgia but with no active relationship. For about a decade, I set aside my screenwriting pen to pick up another pen of communication.
My first and second senior years at Baylor, I began to attend a church led by Waco native Jay Mathis. It was there where I began to have an unction toward something that many were abandoning, the local church. And so, my attention began to shift from screenplays to sermons, from the cinema to the church.
For the next four years, I attended seminary in St. Louis, captivated by my new, interesting “high school friends” of theology and ministry. After seminary, I was offered a pastoral position at a church in Louisiana.
It was at this precise moment in my own history, I felt an unexpected, painful decision thrust upon me. It is perhaps not unlike a decision many Christians face at the most emotional and critical junctures of their lives, a proposed decision between the sacred and the secular. In screenwriting, we call these decisions the pivot points of the character, setting up the trajectory for the story ahead.
I saw in front of me a path diverging, on one side was a creative art form that helped frame so much of life, but on the other, a calling that was core to my being. It seemed this may be the character I was meant to play, the role of the creative martyr.
I chose the path of the pastor and yet it was here, in the midst of the “sacred”, that a new story began to tease me, refusing to leave me alone. The tale of a man who was in an accident, whose perception of reality got turned upside down. I pushed against the idea, and yet the cast and stagehands of the story continued holding dress rehearsals in my imagination, determined there would be an opening night for this performance.
This is the beginning of the journey to write The Author. But it took a hero to save this story that was almost never written; a hero who had been dead for nearly 20 years, film director Frank Capra.
As I tore open the brown envelope, the fragile nature of the paperback book inside was deceptive to the powerful principle it brought to bear on my life.
I had always been a fan of the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. I had heard of an out-of-print autobiography that gave insight into the genius behind the film, director Frank Capra. It was hard to come by, but I tracked it down, and a week later, this used paperback copy with pages colored with time and a failing spine arrived on my front doorstep.
Inside was a story that shaped the trajectory of my life.
The Name Above The Title by Frank Capra
In 1934, Capra directed a film, It Happened One Night, that swept the Oscars that year in impressive fashion.
This success frightened Capra more than it encouraged him. How could he outdo what he had already done? The thought sent him into a spiral of depression and ultimately led to a mysterious illness that Capra himself confesses was likely psychosomatic.
Capra was confined to his bed, getting worse and worse, with no medicine that could help. At this point, Capra’s assistant, Max, let a strange man into the house. He was described as short and bald, with thick, wiry glasses. Capra had not seen him before, nor would he see him again.
Here is what Capra wrote:
The little man sat opposite and quietly said: “Mr. Capra, you’re a coward.”
“A coward, sir. But infinitely sadder—you are an offense to God. You hear that man in there?” Max had turned on the radio in my room. Hitler’s raspy voice came shrieking out of it. “That evil man is desperately trying to poison the world with hate. How many can he talk to? Fifteen million—twenty million? And for how long—twenty minutes? You, sir, you can talk to hundreds of millions, for two hours—and in the dark. The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don’t use the gifts God blessed you with—you are an offense to God—and to humanity. Good day, sir.”
Capra goes on to write:
What had just happened? Who was this faceless little man who told me I was a coward and an offense to God? I didn’t know, never would know, never wanted to know.
The very next day Capra would force himself out of bed, and travel to Palm Springs, where he would begin writing a film about an angel coming to the aid of a man who thought the world would have been better if he had never been born.
Frank Capra writes of his revelation that stemmed from his short interaction with that mysterious man: “No saint, no pope, no general, no sultan, has ever had the power that a filmmaker has; the power to talk to hundreds of millions of people for two hours in the dark.”
For decades, I had questioned my interest in writing screenplays, as if this creative outlet was an interruption to the ministry I felt called to as a pastor. But now, for the first time, through Capra’s story, the conflict between the creative craft and pastoral ministry transitioned to harmony.
I had a burden to communicate truth, not only to the church, but to a culture who had questions and were hurting, and now I saw a medium with a reach to accomplish that task. The cinema constructs a fictitious reality that has the power to transport the most stoic of viewers to a place that will challenge and impact them forever. Indeed, there’s a lot you can accomplish in “two hours… in the dark”.
With Capra’s story, the groundwork was set for The Author.
Shortly after I finished Capra’s book, the leaders of the church in Louisiana learned of my past creative endeavors as well as my dad’s involvement in the motion picture world. A plan was devised for me to teach a film class to the juniors and seniors of the church’s private school.
The diverging roads of the sacred and the secular began to converge again.
Past parts of me were being provoked; ideas for screenplays began to flood my mind. But this time, the screenplays were informed by a worldview. The sermon and the screenplay held the same promise, to communicate truth to those with questions and hurts.
I was able to test this philosophy, when the film class I was teaching entered a contest put on by Sony, creating an original short film called Intersect (a video that lives on to this day in the YouTube world). I challenged the students to focus on story, to portray and communicate a truth that struck at the human condition. What arose from that amateur short film was a quality that still surprises me to this day.
With these things in place, for the first time in a decade I completed the first draft of a screenplay. It was titled The Author and was my first screenplay whose story had a purpose beyond entertainment.
But then, something unexpected happened; after initial plans to produce the film, the screenplay, its characters, and its world retreated and took up residence for ten years in a hard drive sitting in my closet.
A fair question at this point is, “Ritchey, you completed the screenplay 10 years ago, why are you just now trying to make it?” I could simply say, “The demands of ministry got in the way, and I didn’t have time.” But such a reply reconstructs the lines of “sacred” and “secular” and, in all honesty, is disingenuous, creating a virtuous excuse when the truth to that question is much less noble. The reality is that I lacked the courage needed for such an endeavor. In other words, I was afraid.
You see, when an artist chooses to share his or her art with the world, they do so often with a quivering hand. It requires vulnerability as you share one of the most private pieces of yourself, creating an opportunity for people to praise you or reject you. This is why artists are more at ease with sharing their creations with other artists who understand this vulnerability. But to share it with people who may laugh at the idea of writing screenplays, people who might ask such probing and frightening questions as, “Why are you dabbling in screenwriting with real ministry in front of you?”, or “Isn’t this all a waste of time, just child’s play?”, or the most terrifying question of all, “Shouldn’t you have moved on from that ‘middle school friend’ of yours by now?”
And yet, as I often do, I found encouragement from the life of CS Lewis. You see, if you ask most seminarians who Lewis is, they will begin their reply with, “He is a theologian…”. And yet if you ask many high school students, they will begin their reply with “He is a storyteller…”.
Lewis understood that both endeavors were, for him, the same thing. Whether he was lecturing the brilliant scholars of Oxford or telling stories of lions and witches and wardrobes to a niece and nephew, he was participating in an exercise to communicate truth to the hearer in a form that resonates with them.
Lewis captured this well through Aslan’s statement in Narnia’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treaders:
“This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better (in your world)”.
At a very basic level, Lewis was a communicator of truth to those experiencing questions and hurt, and he did so in a variety of ways.
Lewis taught me that an individual can simultaneously teach spiritual truth as well as portray spiritual truth creatively. Screenplays and film are not an escape from my ministry life, but an expansion of it.
This April I’m attempting to take this ten-year-old vision and bring it to life. Watching the project get closer daily, I await to see how this story turns out, hopeful the fruit of it might be a film for others to watch for two hours in the dark.
A while back a man approached me after church. I had just completed preaching one of the most difficult passages in Romans, when he said to me, “You helped me understand the Bible in an important way today. The way you preach is unique, it’s like you think cinematically.” I was touched. The image of a 13-year-old boy, sitting at a clunky keyboard typing out screenplays came to mind. A young boy nourished at an influential age by the Author of life. An Author who thinks creatively, communicating to this world truth that is unhindered by the boundaries and restraints of the labels “sacred” and “secular”.