“Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” ~ Proverbs 13:12a
We were three days into a tight 20-day shoot when my lead actor got fired.
Not from our movie, no. We’d only just started filming on Tuesday, June 4th, 2007, and Isaiah Washington had already proved himself to be everything I knew he would be — passionate, dedicated, and absolutely the right choice for the lead role of Father Andre James in my first feature film, THE LEAST OF THESE.
The hiring of Isaiah had not come without controversy, due to comments he’d made on the set of his hit TV show, “Grey’s Anatomy,” and subsequently at the Golden Globes. Nonetheless, I had fought for Isaiah through the casting process, even when there was concern about whether his alleged behavior would be a “problem”. Whenever I doubted my decision, I remembered what my wife had told me a year before. It was a Thursday night in the fall of 2006, I was already worried about casting our lead, and Katie pointed to Isaiah on “Grey’s” and said definitively, “That’s him.”
Now here we were, almost a year later, in the midst of an intense 20-day shoot. Isaiah had already proven himself to be a consummate professional; often needing only 1 or 2 takes to nail what I was looking for. He had also proven to be a gracious star, flowing with a schedule that would occasionally turn upside down, and being generally fantastic with the younger members of the cast. (For those who haven’t yet seen the film, Isaiah plays Father James, a priest who returns to his old Catholic high school under a cloud of mystery.)
We’d had a fairly smooth first three days, wrapping early or on time, and I was starting to get my sea legs. The subject matter would provide us with certain challenges as shooting went on — the film deals with the Catholic sexual abuse scandal — but we hadn’t dealt with the deep stuff yet; so far things had been loose and light.
Changed in an Moment
And then at 6:07 on Thursday June 7th, in the middle of setting up a shot, my phone buzzed with a text: “Just to let you know, I’ve been let go by ABC. Get ready, because everyone will be coming.” It was Isaiah, direct as usual.
I hate to admit it, but the scene we shot next didn’t get the attention it should have from me. (It was ultimately cut from the final version of the film.) I had to sit and gather my thoughts.
Until that moment, THE LEAST OF THESE had been a relatively smooth production. Hiring Isaiah had gotten us some publicity, first from The Hollywood Reporter, then others. We had Ralph Winter as our Executive Producer (making time for us between X-Men and Fantastic Four), Mateo Messina (fresh off Juno) as our Composer, a fantastic cast (the legendary Robert Loggia, Bob Gunton from Shawshank Redemption, John Billingsley from Star Trek), and a budget of $1.2M that I had personally spent a year raising from generous and trusting investors. Not to mention we had Isaiah, a high-profile lead on a show that was routinely drawing 20M viewers a week. The path ahead seemed smooth, not just for production, but for distribution as well, with several companies having already expressed interest.
But in that moment, I knew that everything had changed. Now we would not only be trying to finish a film — itself a herculean task already, given our budget and schedule — but we’d be doing so under heightened scrutiny, coping with the increased eyes of the paparazzi while trying to make sure that no one snuck onto the set to catch Isaiah in a stressful moment (of which there are frequently many when filming). Further, the question of distribution immediately flashed into my mind.
I’d always assumed a topical script, with strong talent both in front of and behind the camera, would be a solid bet. Sure, we had an African-American lead, which I had been told was a challenge, but I was convinced that a talented actor from TV’s hottest show would trump all doubters. But would anyone want us now?
The irony was also not lost on me that Isaiah had just finished filming a scene where his character is fired after a series of false accusations. Isaiah’s final shot of the day had literally involved him gathering his things and walking out the back door into darkness. Would a similar fate be waiting for him, and for us?
Grace Under Fire… and Paparazzi!
Thankfully, our crew pulled together. The next morning my producing partner, Jimmy Duke, let it be known that no one would be speaking to the press apart from the producers, and everyone honored that. Paparazzi were generally left to shoot from across the street, and Isaiah was rather laid-back about the whole thing. Despite the pressure he was undoubtedly feeling, he continued to be cool, calm and collected. I wish I could say the same for me.
Anyone unfamiliar with the vagaries of production probably thinks it’s a lot more fun than it is, imagining directors peering through rectangled fingers or yelling “action!” and “cut!” That happens, but life on the set is both more mundane and more frantic than that. There’s a lot of looking at watches, grumbling, crossing out storyboards, and waiting, waiting, waiting… The phrase “hurry up and wait” is familiar to anyone who works in the movie business, because at all levels there are moments of intense preparation, and then others where all you can do is wait — for a jet, for a light, for a prop.
Sometimes there are sublime moments of joy — one of my favorite memories from the set is improvising a melody at a piano in one of our locations, while Robert Loggia (veteran actor of Big, Independence Day, and pretty much every movie you’ve ever seen) hummed along. But I must confess that I never really settled into what one could call a relaxed pace.
There was never enough time and always too much to do, and we were doing it while the cameras of PEOPLE magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Entertainment Tonight were hovering in my peripheral vision. Plus, having personally raised the budget, I felt obligated to my investors to deliver not only a film that I was proud of, but also a film that would earn a return on their investment. The challenge of our lead actor’s new situation only heightened that concern in my mind.
I had tough days as the shoot went on. This is probably true of any director, particularly starting out, and I was young too — 29 at the time. There are so many disparate personalities that come together in the making of a movie, so many different challenges, and so much to do in a short time, that anxiety inevitably takes over or tempers get frayed. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I’m sorry” so many times in such a short period of time. I remember telling Jimmy early on, “Jimmy, I won’t always do the right thing, but I promise I’ll do the right thing after I do the wrong thing.”
I learned very quickly that directing isn’t just about capturing a performance or nailing a shot — it’s about leadership, about learning to corral people in the service of a vision greater than one person. There were moments where I failed on the set — sometimes artistically, sometimes relationally — but I hope that I caught those moments and made restitution for them appropriately as the shoot went on.
From Post-Production to Post-Traumatic
But even as I struggled to learn and we wrapped filming and went into post-production, there was no changing the fact that the road was still going to be longer than any of us expected. It takes time to finish a film — we spent almost a year editing, scoring, and mixing, as well as finding our sales company, and it was just enough time for the independent film world to collapse.
Thanks to the worldwide economic slowdown of 2008, the smaller distributors who had expressed interest all shut their doors, leaving us in a barren landscape of uncertain distribution opportunities. The collapse of the economy left a cloud of despondency murkier than the fabled California marine layer hanging over the 2008 American Film Market in Santa Monica.
Additionally, the fallout from Isaiah’s dismissal meant that any hope we had of riding “Grey’s” coattails would probably not be possible, and Isaiah’s next show, “Bionic Woman,” was quickly cancelled. Still we soldiered on, trying to find the right sales company, and were fortunate to find North By Northwest, who believed in us and the film.
When we emerged from a busy week of AFM screenings, there was precious little to show for it. Even a distributor screening in L.A. the following April didn’t bring any potential buyers. We wondered if it was the film, if it was our controversial lead, if it was the subject matter. It was a period fraught with uncertainty, as the ongoing worldwide recession not only diminished any distribution offers we did receive, but also made us wonder if we would find distribution at all.
Fortunately, after a couple of years, we finally did — first landing a TV/streaming deal with Starz and Netflix in the fall of 2009, and then finally signing a DVD/VOD deal this last spring with Code Black Entertainment, which has a distribution agreement with Vivendi Universal. When the deal was done, I breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude — the film would finally find an audience! For most independent filmmakers, this story ultimately has a happy ending (apart from the minor detail of recouping our investors’ money). But for me there remains this vexing question of the nature and purpose of the wait.
The Wisdom of Waiting
When things were at their quietest — and, for a filmmaker, there is nothing worse than a long quiet — I took my pastor, Erwin McManus, out to lunch. We talked about the film and how things were going. I was discouraged; he was sanguine. At one point he said, “Sometimes the best art is out of its time.” I am only starting to understand now what he was saying then.
The challenge for anyone — artist or not — is to trust that the right purposes will emerge at the right time, and to wait patiently. We live in an age of the blessing and the curse of instant gratification. Never is that more true than in Hollywood, where the work of hundreds or thousands of artisans over a period of years can be ruled irrelevant by a bad three-day box-office.
When I got Isaiah’s fateful text four years ago, I felt as if I was told that our film would have to take its time. I was angry in that moment, frustrated and sad, and I can’t pretend that those feelings dissipated quickly or easily, or at all. (There’s nothing I love more than sending emails to investors saying, “Maybe next year.”)
Four years later, however, the reasons I set out to make the film in the first place have not changed. Every week it seems like there are new allegations of priests who have fallen from grace, as well as stories of priests who serve quietly with great nobility of character. The film has not been ruled irrelevant — if anything, it feels more relevant. More than ever, we need stories like THE LEAST OF THESE — of a darkness that is great, but of a light that is greater.
In the Scriptures, prophets were frequently out of their own time — frustrated and troubled by the present, leaning into the future, women and men less concerned with the world as it was than as it could (or otherwise would) be. In this, I have come to find that artists and prophets have a great deal in common. I can’t confess to having made THE LEAST OF THESE out of some grandiose ambition to serve as a prophetic voice — I’m always dubious of the self-proclaimed prophet, since they’re usually stoned (in both uses of the word).
At the same time, I can’t deny that THE LEAST OF THESE seems more of its time now than it did four years ago. As a result, even though it’s taken longer than any of us expected for the film to get its chance to find its audience, I’m grateful for the opportunity that we have now, thankful that the waiting has ended, and hopeful that our time has indeed come.
“…but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” ~ Proverbs 13:12b