Sept. 05--Several critics and film experts recently attending a private screening of a rough cut of "My Son," a feature-length film produced and financed by Burleson's Retta Baptist Church. The purpose, Retta Baptist Church Senior Pastor Chuck Kitchens said, was to give filmmakers tips on editing and improving the final cut. The audience members had no vested interest in the film either way nor any association with the church. Many are not church goers, Kitchens said.
"I thought it was a remarkable thing," Kitchens said. "They all gave the movie a thumbs up. Many of them were crying by the end."
Kitchens and others involved with the film took the audience response as an indication their film was on track to break barriers.
The group subsequently screened the finished film for an audience of area pastors and church affiliated members. They loved the film, too, Kitchens said. That is until Kitchens announced, after the screening, that the film received an R rating. Several pastors and clergy members are now reticent to recommend the movie, Kitchens said, which makes it difficult to build the word of mouth necessary to promote a small budget Christian film starring an unknown cast.
"Many of them were shocked when we announced the R rating," Kitchens said. "They didn't see it as an R rated-type film until they learned of the rating and now many are refusing to endorse it. We were blown away too when we got the rating, which we don't think is deserved. Our film is obviously a Christian film, but not one presented in your face or in a corny way."
Director Jarod O'Flaherty, also a member of Retta Baptist Church, admits that it's "eyebrow raising" to say the least that a film produced by a Christian Baptist church received an R but also said that may not be a bad thing.
"We wanted to create a film that portrayed real life and the real world," O'Flaherty said. "Not one of pie in the sky and happy butterflies. Christian films have historically presented an image of a G or PG world. Unfortunately, we live in an R rated world. So we wanted to create something realistic but with the limitations of no graphic sex or violence or anything glorifying evil, sin or gratuitous sensationalism."
The film's R rating label cites drug use and some violence both of which, Kitchens said, play an integral role in setting up the plot and could not be removed without sacrificing the movie's message of hope and redemption. Kitchens stressed that neither scene is overly graphic and that the movie contains no nudity or foul language other than the use of the word hell twice.
The hope, Kitchens and O'Flaherty said, is to not just preach to the choir of Christian film or message enthusiasts.
"There are plenty of great family friendly faith-based films for Christian audiences, and that's a good thing," O'Flaherty said. "What we're hoping to do is to also reach beyond the church walls to the audience who watches two or three R rated movies a week, the kind of people who, hearing a movie is a Christian film, wouldn't usually have any interest in seeing it. To do that, we decided to step out of the box a little."
Love has no limits
More than 40 volunteers, including several Retta Baptist Church members, joined together to create the film shot in and around Johnson County between July 2012 to March.
"My Son" focuses on Caden (Burleson resident Restin Burk), a man drifting through life before meeting Jess (California resident Kate Randall), a single mother. The two fall in love and life is good until Jess loses custody of her son under "questionable circumstances." That situation, without giving too much of the story away, culminates in a hostage crisis at a church and life changing outcomes for the protagonists.
"I'd say get ready," Burk said. "You'll never see the ending coming and it's going to blow you away. Even if you've seen the trailer, which was really well done, it's not one of those where they put the whole movie in the trailer. We've left the best parts out."
A film is born
The making of a feature film was both a natural progression and an opportunity that fell into his lap, O'Flaherty said.
Retta Baptist Church officials often employ technology and social media in outreach efforts to spread their message, Kitchens said. O'Flaherty filmed several events and music videos for the church and, in 2011, directed and produced "We Were There," a World War II documentary.
"I thought, this guy's got talent," Kitchens said. "I thought we could make a movie. Jarod said, "You have no idea what it takes to make a movie,' And I didn't, but maybe that was a good thing, our naivete going in."
O'Flaherty demurred at first arguing that he couldn't get the time off from work and that the church would never manage to round up the talent needed for a project of that scale.
Even though the work situation worked itself out, O'Flaherty received enough time off with pay to swing the time needed, he still tried to convince Kitchens against the project.
"He was coming in to talk to me and argue against the film and I figured if I bowed to his arguments that would be God's way of saying no," Kitchens said. "But if I was unmovable I figured that would be God's sign to move ahead. I was unmovable."
Kitchens, O'Flaherty and Co-Producer Michael Dennis sorted through some 20 script ideas submitted, several penned by church members. The idea for "My Son" failed to place in the top three candidates initially and received scant attention, Kitchens said.
"But, it came up again a few days later, we got to talking about it and it just took on a life of its own," Kitchens said. "At that point, we decided to go home and pray on it and, well, the idea was born from there."
Problems ensued. The writers working to flesh the script out found themselves deadlocked, at which point Kitchens said O'Flaherty considered the project dead in the water.
"I gathered all the writers and executive team in a room and said we're going to pray on this and not leave until it's fixed," Kitchens said. "The problem seemed impossible but, about eight hours later, we were in complete unity, not only had the script bullet points but also all the characters' names and from there one idea just led to another."
The other fear involved making a film dealing with a church hostage situation.
"The week before we began shooting the movie theater shooting occurred in Aurora, Colo., which had us thinking, what have we done?" Kitchens said. "And in the middle of post production was the shooting in Sandy Hook. About that time Obama asked the [Motion Picture Association of America] to rate movies with gun violence harsher, which they balked at publicly, but I think it had an effects on our film and others."
A group that specializes in security needs and training for churches expressed concern after seeing the film's trailer, which at one point shows a gun in a church, O'Flaherty said.
That group was invited to screen the film, O'Flaherty said, though he's unsure whether they accepted the invitation.
"Their concern I think was that this could incite or promote violence or copycat behavior," O'Flaherty said. "The flip side is that their seminars or video games and other media could also incite the same behavior. But I think our film can also raise awareness among churches and their focus on their security needs and precautions to prevent situations like this."
The MPAA, Kitchens said, doesn't rate films according to a prescribed set of objective standards. Instead of a regular board, the group brings in groups of parents, sort of like a jury, to screen films, which makes the process subjective and unpredictable, he said.
"Forrest Gump," for example, which contains far more drug use, violence and sexual content, received a PG-13 rating, Kitchens said.
Cutting scenes would possibly render the movie nonsensical, Kitchens said, on top of the absurdity that the MPAA won't or can't even tell them which scenes would need to be chopped to receive a PG-13 or below rating.
To that end, Kitchens sent emails and word out to explain the situation to area clergy in hopes they will give the film a chance.
"The R rating hangs a scarlett letter around our necks," Kitchens said. "Which we think is a false label that hinders our progress in promoting the film. The drug use and violence scenes are there because of the nature of the film and setting the story of redemption up, but they're certainly not values promoted by the film."
Kitchens said he believes, but cannot prove, that a bias exists against Christian-based films and entertainment.
"I'll say I believe anyone not a born-again Christian is going to have a bias against evangelical, strongly proclaimed faith that basically says accept Jesus or you're going to hell," Kitchens said. "And I understand that, but I also believe that or I wouldn't be here.
"You are what you believe and this movie doesn't shy away from that. But it's also not a typical Christian movie. We walked the thin line of appealing to Christians and those who don't go to church. Our movie's like the Bible in that our characters are flawed, just like everyone in the Bible except God, and the Bible doesn't hesitate to show that."
The film contains subplots of prejudice within the Christian faith, a teen story line, Christian apathy and other story lines, O'Flaherty said.
Redemption through film
Burk, who never acted before, said "My Son" added a new chapter to his road to redemption. Burk spent six years in prison getting out in March 2012. Placed on probation in 2002 for attempted assault, Burk was later sentenced to jail after drinking and rear-ending a police car.
"Everybody's been somewhere," Burk said. "But what's important is where you're going."
While in jail Burk earned a degree in theology. Returning to the church upon release, who welcomed him with open arms, Burk auditioned for and won a role in the movie a month later.
"[Kitchens] wanted me to be an advisor on the role of one of the characters in the film, but I said I also wanted to audition for a small role," Burk said. "Later they called and said they wanted me for the lead role. I was excited and a little bit in disbelief."
Burk called the film a great experience and said he might consider acting again.
"If the right thing were to come along," Burk said. "I wouldn't just do anything. It would have to be something like this that I could stand behind and be proud of."
Burk said he and his wife, who divorced, are now back together as a family with their three children. All of whom also appeared in the movie.
"My Son" will play Sept. 20-26 at Burleson Premiere Cinemas. For times, trailers and information on the movie visit www.mysonmovie.com.
(c)2013 the Cleburne Times-Review (Cleburne, Texas)
Visit the Cleburne Times-Review (Cleburne, Texas) at www.cleburnetimesreview.com
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