Northwestern alumni collaborate to create the film Midnight Clear
Interview by Jenny Collins ’05
The following is an excerpt from a conversation during Homecoming 2007 when Dallas Jenkins ’97 (director, producer and writer), Wes Halula ’95 (writer), Jim Cunningham ’97 (production designer) and John Cunningham ’97 (art director) showed a pre-screening of their film, Midnight Clear, to fellow Northwestern alumni.
PILOT: Tell me how the four of you became friends at Northwestern.
Dallas Jenkins: Jim, John and I were in Fiddler on the Roof together and we met Wes at the end of the year in auditions for The Importance of Being Earnest.
Wes Halula: Oh yeah, right. [laughs]
DJ: And you [Wes] didn’t get in, but Jim and I did. But you were there—you attended one of the shows. So I figured, how sweet and supportive of him [Wes]; I should give him a job someday!
How did you reconnect to work on Midnight Clear together?
WH: My counselor thought I should contact him about getting over this whole Importance of Being Earnest thing.
DJ: And his inability to ever answer a question.
WH: [laughing] Dallas and I did a variety show together and we had a lot of fun doing that. We just really kind of went nuts with it and I think we bumped it up to a new level. Part of my senior project was some of the video projects that I did for the variety show. We just had a blast and creatively got along pretty well.
DJ: We’ve kept in touch over the years almost just because of that—saying we should try to work together in some way. It never quite worked out until this project [Midnight Clear]. Jim and John and I had that bond because we were roommates. They were in my wedding.
WH: I didn’t make it into your wedding, but I did attend. It’s kind of a running theme here.
DJ: Jim was involved in my first short film that I directed, and John as well. We worked so well together in college we thought, “Why change it? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’’ I felt like I could trust them more than anyone else.
Jim Cunningham: On his first film I was actually just supposed to go help him watch how the process was. On the first day I got there, Dallas comes up to me and tells me the production designer quit. [He asked me], “Can you do it?” And I said, “Sure.” But I had no idea what a production designer was. Even the first day on tech scout everyone was telling their name and what their job was. I said, “I’m Jim Cunningham,” and then I got quiet. I didn’t know what my [title] was. And Dallas said, “Production designer.” The rest is history.
You are friends with Jars of Clay, who recorded the song “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” for this film. They too became friends when they were in college, and said their music came out of what they weren’t hearing. So they collaborated to create that sound. Would you say it’s similar for you in film?
DJ: Yes, Jars of Clay is a huge influence for me, besides my friendship with them. I remember when their first album came out I thought, this is a big moment because it’s unlike anything I’ve heard in the Christian market before—the lyrics and the music—and it also isn’t just a copy of a mainstream band, it’s something that is unique in and of itself. It is true that many of the friends I developed here at college—one of the things that connected us was the fact that we were passionate about quality and doing things right and wanting to make an impact in the entertainment world, not just to get a message across, but to be good artists.
Speaking of that integrity of message and art, there’s a poignant scene in Midnight Clear where one of the characters is sitting down to what she thinks is going to be her last meal. Without giving too much away, there are different elements that give that scene so much depth. Whose idea was that?
DJ: That was Wes.
Jim [to Wes]: You’re giving Dallas the look like, “I hope he remembers it was me.”
I loved the subtle power of that scene.
DJ: That’s the kind of stuff, those subtle moments, that you don’t need to broadcast but can still pick up on. That’s good writing. Sometimes my favorite moments in films are the ones that are very simple and quiet, where a scene can capture a real human moment. I’m not really into the big action moments. I’m just trying to tell honest stories.
Explain how your biblical worldview shapes your approach to filmmaking.
DJ: I think everybody in Hollywood, or any part of entertainment or art, is bringing their own worldview and perspective to what they do. And there’s no reason why Christians shouldn’t be able to express themselves any less than anybody else. One of the things that has held Christians back [in film] is just not doing it well. Not working hard. When I was growing up it wasn’t encouraged to get into film or television, in fact it was discouraged, because that generation thought television and film were so evil and scary. But it’s starting to shift because people are realizing how important entertainment can be. But as long as we are pursuing excellence and trying to just tell honest stories instead of just trying to preach, there’s room for us like there is anybody else.
John Cunningham: Being in the art department, you are background. It’s a huge part of the movie, but it’s not something people talk about unless you are really into that. So for me it’s working with integrity and excellence, as Dallas said, and that will always show through. I’d always think, how am I glorifying God by making things prettier? But that is glorifying God. Showing His excellence.
WH: What’s important when I’m working on stories is to say things that are true. You can’t argue with things that are true. We can see a movie that’s clearly from someone who doesn’t have the same worldview that we have, but they say something that’s true and that movie resonates with people; and it’s successful. A lot of times it’s not the whole truth, and that’s part of the problem. But also from Christians and non-Christians we’ve seen movies where they say things they wish were true. They hammer their own agenda, what they want the world to be like into a movie, but it rings hollow. It’s like saccharin; it’s disgusting.
So what’s the solution? What’s the alternative?
WH: If we can craft stories and find ways to tell those stories visually and say something that’s true, no matter what your worldview is, you’ll go, “Yeah, I can identify with that, I’ve been through that. I feel that way. I know people just like that.” I’ve had a lot of people tell me that Lefty in this movie, they’re like, “Oh you wrote that person about me.” I’m like, “I [didn’t create that] character so I didn’t write it about you.” But that says a lot about how that’s a true character. That person exists in the world and there are people that go through that.
John: One of the first times I was confronted by the whole “Christian media whatever” was in an art class with Dr. [Mark] Baden and he had us read Addicted to Mediocrity. The book addressed how the church is mediocre in everything they do in the arts. That’s been my goal: not to be mediocre. Because the world isn’t. They throw a lot of time, money and energy into it.
Since the audience for Midnight Clear isn’t exclusively Christian, what questions do you want your audience walking away from the film with?
All: Asking more!
Jim: And wanting to dig deeper themselves instead of us spoon-feeding them. Wanting to find out more. I think that’s the most important thing—leaving questions and not necessarily answering them. Like at the end of [Midnight Clear] you don’t know what happens to them after this. But it makes you think, wow, there’s hope there, there’s this little spark there.
DJ: I want Christians and non-Christians to come away from it saying that small, seemingly insignificant moments, acts of kindness and acts of service, can have a significant impact on others. And that occasionally those things are God-breathed. That God does have a place in the world, which is something you rarely ever see in films. Whenever you sit down to watch a movie you are watching a different world than the one you currently live in. In 95 percent of movies that you see, the world you are watching does not include God. And this story does. And I’m just trying to say that’s okay and that’s as real as any other films. And I hope they come away from that thinking, maybe that’s a world that’s interesting.
Dallas, you’ve received some scrutiny from folks who insist that Christian movies be prim and proper G-rated films. How do you balance the expectations, or the tension, rather, between squeaky clean and yet showing real life, knowing that the majority of Christians rarely abstain from PG-13 and R-rated movies anyway?
DJ: When we read the gospels, they aren’t stories about people who were clean and safe and family-friendly. They’re stories about prostitutes and murderers and liars. And I think that if ultimately we are trying to reach that group of people we have to make movies that group of people can relate to. But if we just sugarcoat every problem so that the Gospel is only redeeming surface-level issues, then we’re basically not only ineffective but we’re also in a way insulting the power of the Gospel. We’re saying that the Gospel doesn’t reach dirty places. Now obviously, we don’t want to be titillating or exploitive. But it is important to capture some of the sin that happens in life in order to capture the redemption.
WH: Part of saying something that is true is that if you show sinful behavior and a sinful mindset, you show the consequences of living that way. I think a lot of times movies show sin in a way how we wish it would turn out. But it’s not real, because we all know what really happens and it never works out very well. I think just showing Lefty in this movie, his life completely falls apart. Well, that’s the natural consequences of sin. It’s okay to show that. I think it’s a good thing.
Jim: Well, that’s what Jesus said, He said, “I’ve come for the sick because the sick need the healing, not the people who are well.” I think that’s the way Christians view it a lot—they want us to make these movies just for the people who are well, but then we aren’t reaching out and helping anybody. Not that we want to cut off that audience altogether, because there is a need for good entertainment…
WH: [joking] As opposed to this.
Jim: Right. [laughs]
Leaving that for the next project?
So how can Christians become better stewards and wiser consumers of entertainment?
WH: I think we sometimes confuse the medium with the message. I feel like it’s okay to go to a movie and say, “That was well-crafted, interesting; it was shot well.” But [step back and ask yourself] what were they saying about life? That’s the message. Because despite what some people say, everything has a message. Even if you try to say that life is just a bunch of random, weird stuff, that’s a message; that’s a worldview. The first step of the average Christian becoming a smart consumer of media would do a world of good. It would change Hollywood. We need to try to get both of those [the medium and the message] lined up. We’re going to be excellent at the medium and honest and truthful with the message.
DJ: I think the biggest thing is to say, “I’m going to be an artist first,” in terms of learning my craft. Obviously, our Christian worldview impacts everything we do. But if you want to become an architect, you go to architecture school and your Christianity is part of that naturally. But you are studying architecture and you are trying to become the best possible architect you can be. And if you are going to be involved in entertainment or media, you have to be thinking, “I need to work at being the best artist of all time. My goal is to be one of the greatest filmmakers, writers, actors or whatever in the world. Not just in my church.” We pursue that and realize there are no shortcuts; there are no breaks just because we’re Christians. God demands hard work of us.
WH: I think that’s an important point because we don’t have Christian accountants and accountants, and Christian dentists and dentists, but in the arts we think we are supposed to have Christian artists and “those other people.”
DJ: The reason Hollywood is currently run and operated and made up mostly of unbelievers is because they’ve worked hard; they’ve earned it. And Christians have largely stayed away and we haven’t necessarily emphasized learning our craft better.
Who at University of Northwestern had the most influence on you?
WH: Dr. Tomlinson, who taught broadcasting. He inspired me at a pretty critical time in my life—to say it’s not frivolous or goofy or a waste of time to want to do these things, because there are people out there who are deciding for our whole culture what is important, and we need to be in that conversation. Christians absolutely need to be in the secular marketplace of ideas. And we need to be salt and light to people. It’s almost like Hollywood is an unreached people group and we need to think of it that way.
DJ: Dr. Rip Smith. He is passionate about pursuing excellence. He helped facilitate the [Mel Johnson] Media Center that the college has. He was always passionate about us doing great work and being on the forefront of technology and entertainment. Also, Dr. [Doug] Huffman in the Bible department. He taught a Christian Thought class that his whole point was to be engaging with culture, to be good thinkers, to be smart, to be wise, to be prepared for the world and to take what we’re learning at Northwestern and make use of it in the world and not keep it in this incestuous relationship with the church. And so I think any college that is teaching its students as Christians to be excellent, to try to be successful and passionate in their field is a good thing, as opposed to just saying, “Hey, as long as you love the Lord, that’s enough.” We need to be good stewards, good workers, craftsmen, artists.
Jim: I would say artistically, Patsy Miller because she taught me to work really hard. She always said when we were in theatre that a lot of people can act but not everybody works hard at it. Philosophically, it would be
Dr. [Charles] Aling and Dr. [Clyde] Billington, not just because I was a history major, but they always said, “Dig for the truth.” Because everybody has their worldview and you have to look past what somebody says. You need to dig further into that; not just take people’s word at face value.
Talk about the next film you are working on. Dallas, I know it’s a dream project of yours that you’ve been working on for some time.
DJ: There is a book called The Man Who Moved a Mountain. The name of the movie is currently Mountain. It is a true story of a guy who was the hardest fighter and biggest drinker in the mountain region back in the 1920s. It was a totally lawless, uncivilized place. He ended up having a great spiritual change and ended up becoming a preacher and took that fight and spirit to his preaching and decided to transform an entire mountain region. He built roads and bridges and built six churches that are still alive today. It’s a true story that blew me away and I needed to tell this guy’s story. It’s an incredible story. So we’ve been developing it for awhile. It’s our company’s [Jenkins Entertainment] passion project.
Can I ask which actor you are looking to cast for the lead?
DJ: I can’t talk about it. Because then if I say the name and he reads it in the Northwestern Pilot…
Hey, you never know, right?
DJ: Someone in their thirties who’s got a name recognition and who can act.
WH: I think he’s talking about me!
To learn more about the film and Jenkins Entertainment’s products or to contact Dallas Jenkins directly, visit jenkins-entertainment.com