A Feature Film

I had lunch yesterday with a very successful Christian writer, producer and media professor; we want to collaborate on something, and the likely candidate is a Courage, New Hampshire feature film. At the risk of sounding like I’m stalling, I need to think this trough more keenly than I have in the past, and I invite responses to what I’m about to write, because I may have some blind spots.

Even by the admission of broadcasting professionals, my family and friends achieved something with Courage that is without parallel: we produced four hours of period television drama that had a national cable debut and distribution on PBS, and we did it for almost nothing. We spent about $75,000 per episode, when conventional production companies would have spent, at the very least, $2.1 million per hour of production. It was a very unique situation indeed, and it remains so: we own 760 acres of rural land in Southern California, the world’s film capital; we are in the living history business; we write and entertain and educate for a living; we have an extraordinary costume and prop department; we have the production equipment necessary to market our attraction; we had the goodwill of volunteers and actors who understood the problems associated with union production. The puzzle was largely assembled from the outset.

Except for the one big piece: we did not achieve an audience–or an audience large enough to employ these talented people at the rates they deserve, and this failure speaks to my dilemma this morning:  Why write at all? After all, when you dig ditches, for a living, at least you can measure your progress. I’ve actually debated spending my old age learning how to make hard, artisan cheeses–Parmesans, Romanos, Aged British Cheddar. I’ve got the place for it. I know where to buy a Jersey cow, and at the end of the day, there would be something tasty and aromatic on the shelf. Writing, on the other hand, may be worth a lot less than the paper you’ve blemished it with. Writing has to be very good to compete with Romano cheese.

I think I write because something needs to be said. There is some troubling kink in the soul that needs a name or it will swell and fester. There is a hole in the public dialogue and it’s weirdly possible I might speak for someone. With respect to fiction and screenplays, I believe there’s a kind of healing achieved when the lonely, shunned woman finds the love of her life or the sheriff guns down the desperado. If the story is acutely well observed—say, by a Flannery O’Connor or a John Cheever—it’s something like the second glass of wine, and in an age where faithless, genderless snowflakes deface George Washington monuments, we desperately need more Courage, New Hampshire, even if the snowflakes don’t know it yet.

I would write, in other words, if I didn’t get paid anything, because I enjoy it, and the end product, that much, but when you make a film, you ask people to wake up at three in the morning. You worry if your check will bounce. If “Silas Rhodes” looked like he was about to have a heart attack in that last episode of Courage, it’s because he was eating “worry” three meals a day.

Okay, I’m going to do it, in other words. I just have to be disciplined about making sure I write a story that twists your shirt into a knot right there beneath the neck line, and then I have to make sure we have a marketing department worthy of the story. It’s all in the story and the salesmen desperate to sell it.

Oh, and by the way, I need $500,000 this time.