We usually start our shoots with a prayer. It’s amazing… even those not inclined to pray find themselves comfortably huddled in the group, enjoying the warm send off before the battle begins. Battle, that’s right. Making movies isn’t easy, never. I don’t care who you ask or who says it is, it just isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it can be fun, educational, uplifting and almost always rewarding, but it’s a long climb up a mountain with never enough equipment. So to pray before you head uphill, a good idea, whether you believe or not.
Our executive producer, a great friend and family man named Matt Swanson, invited me up to his hometown, Turlock in central California, early on in the process. I fell in love with the place and immediately knew this is where we had to shoot Christian Mingle even if that hadn’t been his wish.
While the film takes place in a hip area of an urban city, I wanted there to be a “fairytale” quality to the film and my first instinct when writing would be to shoot on the back lot of a movie studio, one of their “Main Street” sets to accomplish this. No disrespect, but those streets always look a little fake to me, no matter how big your movie or how well you dress them. They just look somewhat “Disneyland.” And believe it or not, that’s exactly what I wanted for the movie as a look. So when I went to Turlock, not only did I get a great Main Street with a back lot feel, but I also got a bonus, it was real! Bingo! Perfection.
And that’s where we started, right in the heart of Turlock with our blessing led by Matt, and then the first scene at the Coffee Shop. We met a wonderful woman named Lisa who gave us carte blanche in shooting there – not to mention the most delicious cookies to eat throughout shooting – thus my 10 pound weight gain during filming! Lisa’s Cookies became a central location for us, not only as a gathering place for cast and crew, but also a critical element to the story.
By mid day we had our first scene in the can, the one where our main character Gwyneth meets her date, Paul, from the Christian Mingle website. And with the scene, the tone was set, the humor firmly in place with Gwyneth’s “lie” about being Christian to get her man. I knew we had a movie!
For the most part, the entire shoot was smooth. The town was unbelievably cooperative, giving us so much access, love, and support along the way. Almost every set you see in the film was created via donations by wonderful businesses in Turlock. I especially love Gwyneth’s apartment, which was actually a house several miles from our central locations downtown and the exterior of her building. Pretty good fake out if I say so myself! But everything in her place was donated! You can see all then names of the great businesses that helped out in the credits of the film. Add to that, all the restaurant scenes are great “landmarks” in town.
I have a special place in my heart for Footers, probably one of the best chili cheese dogs I’ve ever eaten. You start to get the picture; Lisa’s cookies and Footer’s hotdogs. I can only say thank goodness my wife stayed in LA while I was fattening up in Turlock. She wouldn’t have been happy with my eating habits.
And then there are the extras…
Wow! We had an “open call” for extras – anyone in town who wanted to be in the movie in a background role. This is perhaps one of the more exciting elements to shooting in a small town; inviting locals to participate and give them fifteen minutes of what it feels like to make a movie. I personally love watching the interaction, the excitement to do something they would normally never have a chance to do in their lifetime. I expected, as with past experience of shooting in small towns, about a hundred people, maybe two hundred tops to show up. Which is great because I try to say hello to each one, take my time and really give them attention and see who will be right for what scenes.
Well… much to my surprise, almost twelve hundred people showed up! The “meet and greet” process I thought might take a couple of hours took six and change! The worst part was that I couldn’t use everyone. Impossible. In the end, we used quite a few however and they all have a credit in the film. Again, the support in town was enormous all around! Folks even came from neighboring towns like Modesto and some as far away as Fresno. Just magnificent!
As we progressed with the three-week shoot, the weather held but started to get a little colder. Not terrible but we ended the film with night shoots and by then it was freezing. Lacey and Jonathan did some amazing work in light clothing as the movie was supposed to start on the first of the year and move into the Spring.
Huddled together, we made it through the cold nights and then finally finished with the exterior scenes of Gwyneth’s building during the lightning and thunderstorm where she has her lowest moment and asks God to come into her life. The scene went off without a hitch and by then, God had not only come into Gwyneth’s life, but all our lives, proving once again that He’s a master story teller and works in magnificent, not always predictable, ways to bring us closer to his love and light.
As I think back, one of the most incredible parts about making this movie was the sense of community…all the actors, crew, and the town coming together for a common purpose. Which in reflection, is all I think I really try to accomplish when making a film. I like to say I make movies and stories with community for community.
I’ve come to realize that making movies is God working through me, creating a path for me to come closer to Him. I see it in the miracles, the ability to overcome obstacles in that uphill climb to make a film. Like I said, there are always problems, it’s not an easy climb, but once you traverse the mountain, get past the boulders that would have you turn back, and finally reach the summit, there is no experience like it.
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