Talent in the pews made filmmaking an option for Retta Baptist Church

BURLESON—Movie making may not technically be a spiritual gift, but Pastor Chuck Kitchens believes that God places individuals in specific churches for his purposes. The Lord brought Jarod O’Flaherty to Retta Baptist Church in Burleson and the rest is film history.

The movie “My Son,” a RettaVision production, was screened for 400 guests in Burleson on Aug. 16. The movie will premiere Sept. 20 at Burleson Premiere Cinema. An agreement with the Web platform company Tugg for distribution in theaters nationwide has been reached.

So how does a church of 300 produce a full-length feature film?

It starts with talent.

When Kitchens became pastor of Retta Baptist nearly three years ago, he noticed that the church had produced several Christian music videos directed and filmed by Jarod O’Flaherty. O’Flaherty had also produced a documentary on World War II in honor of his grandfather, a World War II veteran.

Kitchens thought, “This guy has got what it takes.” Kitchens became convinced that God wanted Retta to do a feature film. He mentioned his idea to O’Flaherty, who was skeptical. The two scheduled a meeting to discuss the idea. O’Flaherty intended to decline.

“I had planned to go tell Pastor Chuck that it would be a great idea to do the film, but I would not be involved because my work schedule would not permit it,” O’Flaherty said.

That same day, O’Flaherty’s employer, an IT hosting company, announced a program allowing tenured employees to take two-month paid sabbaticals to “do something they were passionate about” and would otherwise be unable to do, O’Flaherty said. He no longer had an excuse.

The 31-year-old O’Flaherty’s proficiency with videography began 10 years ago when he started filming church youth events and editing the footage for church presentations. He filmed weddings, sporting events and, eventually, music videos.

O’Flaherty’s personal equipment was used in the production of “My Son.” What O’Flaherty couldn’t supply was provided by the church.

“A good portion of our film production budget that the church raised was used to purchase equipment for the film,” O’Flaherty said.

The budget for “My Son” was miniscule by Hollywood standards, a mere $25,000. However, this amount is sizable for a church of 300. No lengthy fundraising campaign was necessary.

“We announced the project one evening and all the funds came in almost immediately,” O’Flaherty said. “The members of our church were excited to hear about the film.”

Even before the formal announcement at church, the movie’s plot had been scripted.

 “We had developed a writer team from our church and asked them to come up with multiple script proposals,” Kitchens explained. Then a three-member executive team of O’Flaherty, Kitchens and associate producer Michael Dennis met to rate the script ideas.

“Nobody [initially] picked the idea that ended up becoming the movie,” Kitchens recalled. Yet as the team talked, the idea “came to life” in the meeting. The three men decided to go home and pray about the matter.

“When we got back together, we were all chomping at the bit to tell one another what had happened. As we talked, more and more of the conflict that would become the script came to life,” Kitchens said.

The movie’s plot involves the story of a young couple, Jess and Cadon, who lose custody of Jess’s young son under “questionable circumstances,” according to the film’s official website, mysonmovie.com. Cadon approaches a friend to help regain the child. Tensions escalate; a hostage crisis in a church ensues; the main characters face life-changing decisions.

The movie is Christian in theme, the gospel integrated into the story line. The film also deals with issues of race and racism.

“In so many Christian films, it almost seems like they stop acting and the characters … start witnessing to the camera,” Kitchens said.  “We wanted [the gospel] to be part of an ongoing story so that it looked natural.”

“We decided we are going to have a movie that is not your typical church movie,” said Kitchens, who expressed hope that the film would reach the unchurched.

The scriptwriters were inexperienced. Differences of vision between director and writers were resolved in an eight-hour meeting and prayer session. By the end of the meeting, the writers and production team were in “complete unity,” Kitchens said. The entire script was blocked out on a white board.

Funding quickly followed the completion of the script.

Casting the movie came next.

A volunteer casting committee advertised for actors. Auditions were held at Retta Baptist. In some instances, people just knew folks who fit the part. No one was paid or a professional performer. Some were members of Retta; two came from First Baptist Burleson.

Joseph Madlock, who plays Andrew, actually worked at O’Flaherty’s company. Though the two had never previously spoken, O’Flaherty asked Madlock to audition and the novice actor won the role.

Kitchens initially approached Restin Burk, who plays Cadon, to serve as a technical advisor to Madlock, whose character has been recently released from prison. Burk had actually been in prison himself. Burk surprised Kitchens by asking to audition for a role in the movie.

“Restin has an incredible testimony that we have incorporated into the gospel tract we put together to accompany the film,” said Kitchens, who called Burk’s casting “one of those miracles that God just worked out.”

“Restin’s life could be a movie itself,” Kitchens said.

O’Flaherty remembered Kate Randall from a music video he had worked on in 2009 with a youth pastor in Ohio.

“I kept telling our casting team that we needed someone like Kate for the female lead. By this time she had married a soldier and was living in California. I sent her a message asking her to consider coming to Texas for three weeks to shoot a movie. It worked with her schedule, and she flew out from California and stayed with a member of our church during the filming,” O’Flaherty said.

“We are not a church that is just bursting with acting talent,” O’Flaherty added. “God obviously knew what he was doing. He had this girl 1,000 miles away he was going to bring to fill that role. Kate was better than we ever could have expected.”

Kitchens was chosen to play the father of Kate Randall’s character.

The bulk of the filming took place in July and August of 2012. Unexpected blessings abounded.

“We filmed every day, pretty much morning till night,” Kitchens said. Locations were offered free of charge: a courthouse, two restaurants, convenience stores, churches. An ambulance company donated vehicles and services one day for free. The Johnson County sheriff’s department donated time, people and the use of their vehicles.

Sometimes, he noted, it even seemed God was providing special effects.

“During filming, sometimes light would be shining on walls at different times that worked out better than we could have ever imagined. We would just stop and say, ‘Look at that! Look at what God has done for us.’ Everything seemed miraculous.”

Work continued after filming was completed. O’Flaherty, director and main cinematographer, also became the film’s editor, sound mixer and color expert.

College student Connor Watkins composed an original movie score.

“No one in the credits could be considered a professional, or experienced, or even trained in acting, lighting, recording and sound. That the story is coherent is miraculous,” O’Flaherty marveled.

Thus far, response to screenings has been positive. An independent focus group of 10 critics offered suggestions at an early screening. “When asked if they enjoyed the film, all 10 said yes,” said O’Flaherty, who added, “We urged them to give honest opinions and even pushed them to say no.”

“Our goal in making this film was not so much to entertain a Christian audience but to reach an audience that would not show up in church and would not watch traditional Christian films,” O’Flaherty explained. “Ten or 20 years from now we will still be able to watch this film. Hopefully it will still be relevant, an act of ministry that won’t go away.”

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