Dan Millican is a Triple Threat. A writer-Director-editor who has just completed his fourth independent film, The Imposter. Averaging one film every two years, he originally wanted to be a Hollywood Insider. Now, though his budgets have reached over $1M, he struggles with staying on with this extremely challenging, but rewarding career choice, or becoming a busboy at a local restaurant…
WIRED4FILM: Dan, thanks for giving Wired4Film.com the chance to peek inside that head of yours. Before we talk about your latest film, I’d like to start the conversation about the Christian Film Industry in general.
What can you tell us about the state of the Christian Film Industry today – maybe in terms of places we’ve missed the mark, maybe in terms of opportunities we still have?
DAN MILLICAN: I think we have to imitate Jesus. He told stories for a purpose. I think if we walk in our Flesh (Ego), it doesn’t matter if it’s going to the mission field or making a Christian movie, it’s still Flesh. So we miss the mark when we indulge our own Ego. Do I think it was God’s purpose for me to make Imposter? Yes. Did I allow some Ego in? Yes. Do I need to die to that? Yes.
So how that ties in to the original question-what we *don’t* need is more ego driven Christian films and filmmaking. We don’t need ego films dressed up in religiosity (“yeah, but it’s for evangelism!”). You can look at quality and compare Christian Filmmaking to the music industry. Twenty years ago, Christian music had a reputation for being pretty poorly done. That has changed in music. But is quality the be-all and end-all? I’ve been to a church that hires professional orchestra for its Sunday morning worship. I’ve been to a small country church where the guy with the guitar has little rhythm. But he worships. I’d pick that service over the big church one every time. It’s genuine (truth). That’s far more important than quality.
You can look at the “Hokey” factor. This is more relevant, because I define “Hokey” as being “on the nose (OTN)” and not genuine (not truth). Face it, Christian movies have a huge “Hokey” reputation. Dialog is written to say what you really mean. When does that really happen? Rarely. People talk in subtext. If I tell someone “yeah let’s get together sometime for lunch” but I really mean, “I hope I never see you again” that’s subtext and it’s where most real dialog exists. But amateur writers actually write the line “I hope I never see you again” and the movie just doesn’t ring true.
Christian movies are extremely challenging in this area because so much of the conflict is internal and how do you reveal that to the audience? The easy solution is to resort to throwing in exposition and OTN comments so that the viewer won’t be confused as to what the character is going through. Or you can work hard at the character showing the internal conflict, not just telling. It’s the old Hitchcock quote “I only resort to dialog when all else fails.”
I’ve made four feature films, but only the last one is a “Christian” film. Many aspiring filmmakers tell me “I want to make movies that reach both the secular and Christian audience.” My answer is that usually you will fail to hit either with that goal. You’ll wind up with a movie too churchy for the world and to worldly for the church. So I think that strategy is inherently prone to failure.
Another strategy (the Emergent church is doing this strategy) is to go undercover. Make worldly movies with a (very) subtle message. Even though I don’t prescribe to Emergent theology, this is what I did with the previous films. But when I started Imposter, with the clear objective it would be for the church, to be played in the church and for churched people, I got turned down from some Christians because they didn’t want to be associated with a blatantly Christian project–they were undercover working to fix this cultures’ moral bankruptcy.
I was even told by one that they were following the Gay/Lesbian model… thirty years ago G/L was totally socially unaccepted, now with the pervasion of the G/L agenda in the media, they’ve made it acceptable (“not that there’s anything wrong with that” repeated over and over in Seinfeld). I made it clear to all involved, from the very beginning of the script stage, that this movie was to be as real and edgy as possible, but it would need to be showable in the church. I did not make Imposter to be evangelical. It’s a message for those who are churched and well versed in masquerading inside the stained glass environs.
W4F: There doesn’t seem to be a real cohesion among Christian Filmmakers…even geographically it’s kind of spread out all over the place…is that a pipe dream to want some sort of unity or like-mindedness in a group this big? Perhaps a “Hollywood” of our own?
DAN MILLICAN: I think that Christian filmmakers have as much chance of unity as the church. Oops, how many denominations do we have? For instance, just take one issue: swearing. Christian filmmakers get into vehement arguments over that. One saying you’re not really a Christian if you have swearing in your movie and the other saying it’s not taking the Lord’s name in vain, just common vernacular, keeping it real.
W4F: As I read over you IMDB Bio, something struck me very personally. The factoid jumped off the page that you began your career in Corporate Video land. Dan, that’s where I am! How does one make the huge jump (and I’ve measured it, believe me, it’s HUGE) from Corporate Video land to Feature Filmmaker?
DAN MILLICAN: When I was working at a corporate video facility, I set a goal for getting into feature filmmaking (just about like every other corporate video guy). I talked my clients into shooting their training video in film and wrote spoofs of big movies. This gave me the opportunity to shoot dramatic and learn the process of film instead of just video. I had some clients willing to invest in the first movie, so I left the day job and started making movies. It has gone a lot slower than I expected (averaging one movie every two years). And a lot harder. The costs are enormous.
W4F: Yes they are much bigger than most people realize going in. It’s also come to my attention that you actually have budgets for your films. You’re not out there like Jack Black in “Be Kind, Rewind” making RoboCop with bubblewrap and cardboard. Talk to us about using your own money, raising investors or donations…what’s your process? And as a followup, has the process gotten easier after 4 films?
DAN MILLICAN: You would think it’s gotten easier. With the downturn in the economy, it’s really hard right now to raise money. My biggest budget was $1.3 million but the budgets have been shrinking. I have used my own money, but I don’t have any of that anymore. <grin> I don’t take donations because I’m not “non-profit” so the money raised is all from investors. Raising money for a film is the second hardest part of filmmaking. The process is to get the entity created legally, get your paperwork, then go pitch people to invest. Sounds easy, right?
W4F: Riiiiiight. By the way, “legal” and “paperwork” are two of those obscene words that Christian Filmmakers have argued vehemently over that you were talking about earlier. <laughing> You are a seasoned filmmaker. You’ve got the scars to prove it, physical and emotional, right? Do you find yourself swearing off filmmaking at some point during each film…or shortly thereafter?
DAN MILLICAN: I don’t find myself swearing (then I wouldn’t be a Christian, right?) off filmmaking, but I have been asking God if that’s what He wants me to do. If he wants me to take a busboy job at a restaurant, I’d be fine with that. Walking in unity with His purpose brings peace, no matter what the job is.
W4F: The good news is, you keep coming back to filmmaking. What is it that draws you back every time?
DAN MILLICAN: I could get all spiritual and pharisaical and say that it’s my gifting, my passion, it’s what He wants me to do. But making movies is fun. It’s a blast. It’s incredibly rewarding to see an idea in my brain take life and jump up on the screen. However, with that said, I’ve got to kill the Flesh, the Ego or risk stagnating in my walk with Him.
W4F: Okay so start at the beginning of the process. How do you decide that you’ve got a singular idea that’s worth a couple years of your life building it? Talk about your scripting process, your own creative process, how do you build these characters and scenes and flesh out the world you create? Do you write with particular actors and locations in mind? Or does all that come later?
DAN MILLICAN: I break filmmaking into six phases: the Idea, Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post Production and finally Distribution. I find most people weak on the two “D’s”, Development — which includes the fundraising — and Distribution.
So ideas come from a variety of places. For instance, I had an idea for a Christian comedy that I merged with another idea about a fallen rock star. I tried for more “Scrubs-like” comedy in the early stages of Imposter, but had to cut all that. I usually do put faces on my characters when writing, and visualize locations, and I’m an outliner. Once a script is outlined, a first draft can come in a week or two. But the real writing is in the re-writing.
W4F: At what point are you assembling your crew? Do you now have the same trusted faces for each shoot or are you mixing it up per story?
DAN MILLICAN: I do tend to use the same crew, when they’re available. The first step is picking your UPM (unit production manager). The UPM will then assemble most of the crew during pre-production. As director, you pick the department heads.
W4F: After 4 films, are there still butterflies in your stomache on the first day of shooting or is it just pretty routine?
DAN MILLICAN: The excitement of the first day on the set never changes. But sometimes, if pre-production hasn’t gone well, there is a feeling of starting down a big hill on a shopping cart.
W4F: Do you usually start out with a preferred number of shooting days in mind or is that completely driven by the scope of each script? Do you give yourself more time with a larger budget?
DAN MILLICAN: I actually gave myself more time with this lower budgeted Imposter. Shoot schedules are done the standard film industry way. We use budget and scheduling software that’s the industry standard. Day out of Days and One Liners are prepared well in advance and changed as needed. I knew since I would be shooting HD with a largely volunteer crew, that I could go with more shooting days. So I did four 6 day weeks, but ended up taking two of the sixth days off. So 22 shooting days. My previous film, Striking Range with Lou Diamond Phillips was three 6 day weeks and we went over by a costly day (so 19 shooting days).
W4F: Do you feel like you’re making your films inside the system – have you been invited into the Hollywood system – or do you still feel like an outsider? Does that offer you more or less freedom do you think?
DAN MILLICAN: Feeling more and more like an outsider. Wanted to be an insider early on. But Hollywood is evil. Yes I have more freedom to make the movie I want as an independent.
W4F: Evil like “Sodom and Gomorrah” evil or evil like “Ninevah” evil? Cause there’s a huge difference. Or just evil because they didn’t immediately recognize you’re the next Steven Sodderberg and usher you into their inner circle and let you direct “Spiderman, part 7” and an episode of “Desperate Housewives”?
DAN MILLICAN: <LOL> I never viewed myself as trying to be ushered in. I did hope that I could have a break-out and that they’d let me do my own thing. But I’m seeing my main motive there to be flesh (Ego). I’m a servant. Doesn’t matter where the Master tells me to work or how hard or rewarding (or lack thereof) it is.
I define “evil” as apart or away from God. So I believe in various degrees of evil. Evil is a road away from God. You can get so far down it that God turns you over to it (conscience seared as with hot iron). Back to Rom 7:19 “I practice the evil I do not want to do.” That’s Paul talking in present tense. So comparing Sodom & Gomorrah (S&G) evil to Ninevah evil? One was further down the road with no intention of turning back. So where does H’Wood fit? I think they live for themselves, turned over to the depravity of the Flesh… Lions seeking who they may devour. Pretty close to S&G.
W4F: Thank you for clarifying. Now, what would you say is your favorite part of the whole process? Do you have one?
DAN MILLICAN: I get asked this a lot. Hard to say. I actually love writing. I love directing. I love editing.
W4F: A Triple Threat. That’s what they call that. That, and “crazy”…but Triple Threat sounds better. Also could be the title of your next film. But I digress. How did you approach the shooting of “The Imposter”? Stylistically speaking, did you have a reference in mind….like on your blog you talked about the influence of Ice Hotels on Meredith’s Music video.
DAN MILLICAN: I knew it would be music driven. I probably had “Rock Star” with Mark Wahlberg in my brain as I approached the shooting of the movie.
W4F: From all of your independent filmmaking experience, has that economy trained you to be a 2 or 3 take wonder? Or do you still give yourself 10 or 15 takes of a thing?
DAN MILLICAN: I’m usually a three take director. But that’s with seasoned Hollywood actors. When you work with less experienced actors, it’s not uncommon to go to ten or twelve takes. The first three films were all 35mm and I had to be economical (and I had mostly seasoned veteran actors on those). I remember on The Keyman (the only one I haven’t gotten domestic distribution, so you have to go to www.s-films.com to buy), the opening crane shot of the movie was a pretty difficult shot and it was really long. Each take was a thousand dollars in film and processing. So yes, that limited how picky I could get. The Imposter was HD, so I didn’t have to worry about that. The pressure is just in making the day (shooting all the scenes scheduled).
W4F: How do you approach a scene with your actors? Are you a preproduction rehearsal kind of guy or are you rehearsing on film? How does working with bigger names like Kevin Max and Kerry Livgren play into the scheduling? Are you giving a lot of direction or are you a “just let it flow” kind of hands-off director?
DAN MILLICAN: I’ve never had the luxury of having rehearsal days. The best I get is a table read the day before principle photography starts. Then we rehearse in the blocking of that particular scene. Then the actors go away and I might work with them a little bit more while the crew lights. Kevin and Kerry are both what’s called “stunt casting” which is where you cast someone who is big in a different industry, but is not an actor. My approach with them is to give them a lot of backstory and reasons why the character is saying/doing what he is in this scene.
As a director, I probably veer more to the Spielberg side of things with minimal acting coaching, especially with the Hollywood actors. There are some actors I definitely “let it flow” like Tom Wright, who reprises his role of Popeye in Imposter (first seen in The Keyman). Tom has a very long resume and is one of the best actors I have ever worked with. I trust him. And he makes me do my homework. Before shooting a scene, he wants to know why his character is doing what he’s doing.
W4F: Is there a scene in “Imposter” that you’re especially effected by now? Maybe one that came off so much better than you had planned when you wrote it? Or one of those “happy accidents” we’ve seen happen that was unintentional, but left in the final cut because it worked so well?
DAN MILLICAN: Hmmm. My favorite scenes are the Foyer Scene where Tara complains to Proff during the concert and then the Chance to Choose music video towards the end of the movie. The Foyer scene begins with Proff, our wise archetype character, sweeping up (he’s the church janitor) being joined by an angry Tara, whose husband is singing in the concert and making eyes at another woman.
The first half of the scene, she is agitated and Proff mostly listens. Then Proff asks her questions she wasn’t expecting, turning the spotlight on herself and not just her wayward husband. This scene was originally scheduled to be shot outside the church in the parking lot (so it wasn’t called the “Foyer Scene”). However, that day, we had a bizarre windstorm (you can see it in a few clips of the Believe music video–I left a shot in of foam core flying behind Jeff Deyo) and I moved all the scenes that day to interiors. And it was the last scene to shoot.
When we started to block, I realized it would be cool to leave Proff static and have Tara rotate around him, all in a tizzy. Then, when the beat happens and it turns inwards towards Tara, she’s frozen and Proff moves around her. Tara’s motivation to orbit is easy–she’s upset. For Proff, he’s got a job to do–clean up the floor, so he goes around her with his broom and dust bin cleaning. And the lighting was awesome.
W4F: What do you still hope to develop within yourself to make you a better filmmaker for the next movie?
DAN MILLICAN: After each movie, I usually make a document of good choices and things to improve. That list spends much more time on behind the scenes things that don’t show up on screen. Like why did I hire a certain person I knew would be trouble? What’s inside me that made that dysfunctional choice?
W4F: Is your goal one day to attain wide theatrical release for your projects or are you happy with all the alternative outlets available (DVD, Cable, Internet, etc.)?
DAN MILLICAN: I have wanted the wide theatrical. I have flown into LA looking out the window saying to God, we can take this city. Which is arrogant. I have gone from telling God if He would only bless this movie with a breakout, we could reach thousands, even millions(!) to realizing the definition of success is faithfulness. Heck, He can make a sunset that will touch men’s hearts. He doesn’t need my movie. So I’m done making *my* movies. I truly just want to be a faithful servant.
W4F: Is it too early to talk about what’s next? I don’t want to be the guy asking the Young Mother who’s just had her first baby, “So when are you gonna have another one,” right after 18 hours of hard labor. But seriously, Dan, when are you gonna make another one?
DAN MILLICAN: I don’t know. I’ve been approached by a company to write a Disney-ish secular movie with the feel and scope of Imposter. We’ll see if they can get the money together. Also, I have a secular apocalyptic movie (I call it my Matthew 24 movie) that I wrote several years ago and have been trying to get funding for. Or I might end up bussing tables.
W4F: You’re operating on a whole different level than those of us still dreaming about a first feature. There was a short note on your blog about all the legal paper work involved in filmmaking that I don’t think I want to hear about…but feel like I should. Talk about the planning and paperwork and all that stuff. Can’t you just run out and shoot a movie with a few friends and have fun and live the dream? Why you gotta bring up lawyers and spoil the fun?
DAN MILLICAN: (BTW, just started the blog at KillingHimself, pretty much inspired by your cousin’s StuffChristiansLike blog). Yes you can run out with your friends and a camera and make a movie, have fun, live the dream. But if money happens, friends become enemies, dreams can become nightmares and fun ceases.
First, if you raise money, you have to have legal things in place. Then, if you plan on any kind of distribution, you do need contracts with everyone involved. Even if they’re volunteers. But it’s common that these “deal memos” are simple, easy, one or two page documents. You’d be surprised what you’d find if you google some of these. But for entity setup and such, I recommend a lawyer help or advise you.
W4F: Well congratulations on your new film, Dan, I look forward to seeing it. And thank you for spending some time with Wired4Film. Cheers.
And here is a trailer for “The Imposter”…
“The Imposter” website: The Imposter Movie
Dan Millican’s Production Company: Serendipitous Films
Dan Millican’s blog: killinghimself.blogspot.com