Dallas Jenkins discusses his new movie ‘What If…’

Dallas Jenkins discusses his new movie ‘What If…’
By Michael Aaron Gallagher of StayFamous.Net

Dallas Jenkins

As an award-winning director, Dallas Jenkins is making his mark in Hollywood. In his first film since “Midnight Clear” (2006) starring Stephen Baldwin, Jenkins assembled a remarkable cast of actors that includes Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson, John Ratzenberger and Debby Ryan.

Over a 15-day period, “What If…” was filmed in Manistee and Grand Rapids, Michigan using a RED, high-definition camera. The movie tells the story of Ben Walker, a man who made a choice 15 years ago to leave his true calling and is now given the chance to see what his life could have become if he had taken a different path.

I had the chance to ask Director Dallas Jenkins about his new film and what it was like working with the cast. From his favorite movies to some of the actors he would like to work with, Jenkins shares a behind-the-scenes look at his latest project.

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What motivates you to make movies?”

Dallas Jenkins: “I want to impact culture. I want to change the cultural dialogue by offering a different worldview in the art, entertainment, and media world.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “How did you get started in the industry?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Out of college I worked for Namesake Entertainment in Kentucky for over three years. They were developing the ‘Left Behind’ movie.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What aspect of the moviemaking process do you find the most difficult? And which part do you feel comes most naturally to you?”

Dallas Jenkins: “The most difficult for me is the technical stuff. I’m not a technician. I’m more of a storyteller and people person, so I sometimes have a tough time communicating perfectly with the technicians. It’s something I’m working on. Working with actors and finding the right emotion for a scene comes naturally for me.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What’s a typical day for you like on set?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Show up, get my ‘sides’ (copies of only the scenes we’re shooting that day), then grab breakfast and review the day’s schedule while I eat. I’ll chat with the assistant director, producer, and cinematographer about anything that might be difficult, and we’ll make sure we’re on the same page for the first shot of the day so that the crew can start preparing that. Then I’ll usually go greet the actors in makeup.”

The crew works on the 17th floor landing for a scene in the movie “What If…” directed by Dallas Jenkins.
“Once we start shooting, it’s nonstop shooting and discussing and planning and adjusting and steering the cast and crew to my vision. Lunch usually involves eating while I chat with whichever cast or crew member I need to solve an issue with. At the end of the 12 hours, I walk around to thank everyone, have a quick review with the production team, approve the next day’s schedule, and go back to the hotel room to prepare for the next day. Anything more than six hours of sleep is a luxury.”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “I read that you perform at least one song in each of your films. Is there a reason you like to do that?”

Dallas Jenkins: “It started on my first short film when I sang the closing credits song, which was a cliché 80s rock ballad. I’m pretty good at satire and singing different types of genres, even though I’m only a decent singer. It just became a tradition—the songs are usually in the background, like through a radio or something. I wouldn’t make it a key song that carries a scene.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “There are a lot of Christians working in Hollywood today, and yet there aren’t a lot of wholesome family movies being made. Why do you think that is?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Well, I think I disagree with both parts of that question! There aren’t a lot of Christians working in Hollywood today, especially if you compare it to the national average. And I think that there are a lot of family movies out there, more than ever before. There could be more, but I don’t feel like my kids are suffering for a lack of family films. Plus, who says that Christians should be making ‘wholesome family movies?’ The Bible, especially the Old Testament, isn’t exactly ‘wholesome family entertainment.’”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “How has your relationship with your father, Jerry Jenkins shaped your career?”

The Family ManDallas Jenkins: “Well, we’re very close friends, so that helps our working together. Plus, he’s kept the company and our movies going financially, so I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him. Not to mention that I get my love of story and media from him. He’s shaped me more than anyone or anything.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “In your new movie ‘What If…’ there are some similarities to the classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ What was the inspiration behind the storyline?”

Dallas Jenkins: “It’s also heavily influenced by ‘The Family Man.’ The idea came to Pure Flix Entertainment before I came on board. They wanted a faith-based look at the traditional ‘What would happen if you had chosen a different path’ storyline. What if you missed your calling?”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What was it like working with the cast?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Amazing cast. Amazing. All the actors did even better than I expected, and their attitudes were terrific. It was a dream, especially because they really loved the script and are passionate about the film.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Did you play any role in casting the film?”

Dallas Jenkins: “I chose every actor, all the way down to those with one line. I take casting VERY seriously—one bad line or odd casting choice can take viewers out of the movie.”

“Kevin Sorbo and I were friends before the film and had discussed the idea of working together on something. I hadn’t thought of him for this particular role until late, when it started to make sense to me because Kevin’s a family man and has a great sense of humor. He’s also very likable on screen. Kristy [Swanson] came on one week before the film—we had a lot of trouble casting the role, and when someone mentioned Kristy to me as an option, I got ahold of her through a mutual friend. She emailed me on page 39 of the script and said, ‘I’m in!’”

“John Ratzenberger was the first person we cast. I met him at a party and mentioned the movie to him because I’d thought he’d be great for the role of the Angel who appears as a mechanic. He’s a man’s man, a blue collar guy, but also funny and natural, which is how I saw the part. He agreed to read the script and told me later it was the kind of script that only comes along once in awhile.”

“Debby Ryan was an extra on my last film, ‘Midnight Clear,’ which we shot in Texas. Her mom emailed me after the shoot, expressing thanks for how we treated the extras and asking me for advice because her daughter wanted to become an actress. We kept in touch, and next thing I know Debby’s a big star on the Disney Channel. We actually changed the role to fit Debby, and the character ended up being one of my favorites.”

From left, Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson and Debby Ryan rehearse a scene on the set of What If…”
Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Kevin Sorbo is remembered for his role in ‘Hercules,’ John Ratzenberger from ‘Cheers’ and Debby Ryan from ‘The Suite Life on Deck.’ Did you as a director make any conscious effort to guide any of the actors away from a performance that would remind audiences of their most memorable roles?”

Dallas Jenkins: “…And Kristy Swanson known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an immature valley girl. Kristy was the one I was most concerned about, just because she’d never played a role like this before—the Midwest Christian mom, which is a type of person I know very well and needs to be portrayed delicately. I mean, a good chunk of our audience will be heartland Christian moms! Her character is very strong, like many pastor’s wives, and I just told her from day one to make sure she wasn’t too demonstrative or feisty, to stay calm and physically grounded, which actually reads stronger. She nailed it!”

“Kevin and John just needed to be themselves, which is very difficult, actually, but that allowed me to just focus on the details. I thought Debby would be tricky because Disney Channel acting is so overdone and theatrical, which is fine for them but not for a movie, especially a drama. My work with Debby occurred before shooting, when I really drilled into her the need to be ‘small’ on camera. She was awesome. Once or twice we both said, ‘Less Disney!’ but she was terrific overall.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What’s the main message you want people to take away from ‘What If…?’”

Dallas Jenkins: “The small moments of connection with family are infinitely more important and impactful than anything that can occur in a successful career. Sharing cake on the couch with your family beats buying a new car any day.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “If you could direct a remake of any film, which one would you want to re-do?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Well, two movies I wish I would have directed were ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Jerry Maguire,’ although I wouldn’t want to RE-DO them because they’re good enough as it is. Ironically enough, I always thought that ‘The Family Man’ could have been better, which made “What If…” fun for me because it has a similar storyline.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What’s the most important thing to you in your life right now?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Besides my relationship with God, my family is definitely most important. Right now we’re very close to getting our adopted son from Thailand, so that’s an important focus.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “Are there any non-profit organizations that you support?”

Dallas Jenkins: “Besides our church, we support several organizations, including World Relief and Orphans First, two groups that do work for orphans and the underprivileged around the world.”

Michael Aaron Gallagher: “What’s next for you?”

Dallas Jenkins: “In addition to the release of ‘What If…,’ I’ve actually just accepted a position at Harvest Bible Chapel, a mega-church in Chicago. I’ll be heading up their entire media department, which will include feature films. I’m very excited about it because I’ll actually be making more movies than I would have otherwise, and I’m working with people who want to change the world and who take media and creativity seriously as a tool for the faith. I’ve long been passionate about improving the quality of church media and bridging the gap between the American church and pop culture, and I believe we’re going to do that here.”

More Information: What If…” is scheduled for theatrical release in the fall of 2010, and is now available on DVD (Click here to buy).

To find out more about Dallas Jenkins visit http://www.jenkins-entertainment.com/. For a behind-the-scenes look at the movie “What If…” (starring Kevin Sorbo, Kristy Swanson, John Ratzenberger and Debby Ryan) visit the official production blog at http://whatifmovie.wordpress.com/.

Dallas Jenkins discusses his new movie ‘What If…’
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Aaron Gallagher
Photographs courtesy of Dallas Jenkins

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Media Contact: Michael Aaron Gallagher
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