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Moviemaking is a family affair for Michael and Christine Swanson. He produces, while she, a former student of Spike Lee's, writes and directs. This month they released their second feature film since creating their company, Faith Filmworks, in 1999.
Their first film, All About You, was produced in 2001 and toured the African-American festival circuit for a few years before finally coming out on DVD in 2004. In the interim, they tried to get theatrical distribution for their film, but in those days before the big-screen arrival of Tyler Perry, studios tended to insist that there wasn't much of a market for values-based, PG-rated films aimed at black moviegoers.
The Swansons dealt with their frustrations by making another movie, called All About Us, which concerns a husband-and-wife movie-making team who can't find distribution for a film of their own (also called All About You, coincidentally enough) and who embark on a life-changing journey to Mississippi in search of Morgan Freeman, convinced that they have a script which will win him the Oscar.
All About Us—which stars Boris Kodjoe (The Gospel) and Ryan Michelle Bathe (Boston Legal) as the movie-making couple in question, with cameos by Ruby Dee and, yes, Freeman himself—bypassed theatrical distribution altogether and came out on DVD earlier this month. The Swansons spoke to CT Movies from their home in Charlotte, North Carolina, while their children played in the background.
To what degree is this film autobiographical? Michael: I would say it's about 85 percent autobiographical, and I don't know if that's fortunately or unfortunately, but it definitely tells our personal story of going after our dreams and coping with the inevitable hurdles along the way—and then ultimately discovering, through the setbacks and disappointments you see in the film, what was most important to us.The characters in the film juggle work and family. As filmmakers yourselves, how was it juggling family with the responsibilities of making the film?Michael: Family is our first priority, and especially raising healthy children and giving them a healthy stable environment to grow. Christine and I have pledged to make our movies in the summertime when they're out of school, so they can always be with us. So they were with us when we made All About Us, and everyone—all of our cast and crew members—knew that we needed to finish this film that summer by August 20, so we could get back to Charlotte and get our kids back for the first day of school. When school starts, we are here in Charlotte as full-time parents.Was there any attempt to release the new film theatrically?Michael: After seeing how well All About You did on DVD, we altered our business model slightly for our company, and we decided to make our films with a smaller budget and then create DVD premieres. The theatrical release is very expensive, the marketing alone is very expensive, and then when it comes out on DVD, you kind of have to do those steps again.Since we do our films independently, it was a wiser decision for us to create DVD premieres, so we can get it out and people can see it, and then we just try to make the next movie. Our goal is to make a library of these values-based movies, that people can really know what to expect when they get a Faith Filmworks product. By working with smaller budgets, I think we'll be able to do movies more frequently.Christine: But that's not to say that we don't have big movies that we want to do theatrically, like that one that I wrote for Morgan Freeman. It's still on the shelf, and it's one of those projects that if you don't have the right kind of money and the right kind of venue to see the film, then it's not worth doing low-budget. So there are projects that we've planned and we'd like to do on a theatrical level, but for the time being, given a limited amount of time and resources, we know that we can do these smaller niche films that can reach our audiences in a faster, streamlined way.What role do faith and values play in the making of Faith Filmworks movies?Christine: I often joke that I'd never want to make anything that I'd be embarrassed to show my pastor. I think that speaks volumes about the kind of stuff that we'd be willing to do and not do.There's this, like, ten-second love scene in All About Us that I just debated over whether or not to include. Most of my contemporaries in filmmaking are not Christian, but they're laughing at me because they're like, "That's a G-rated love scene, you don't see anything, it's ridiculous that you're even agonizing over it." But sometimes, when you screen it for a Christian audience, I know potentially what can offend people. But I was pretty adamant that what I was trying to portray in the film was a loving married couple, and within the confines of that specific relationship, it was necessary perhaps, and okay. (Editor's note: The film is not rated, but this particular love scene would likely fall into PG-13 territory.)I don't know if I would do that again in the future, but as a Christian filmmaker, those are the debates I have within myself. I don't know that Martin Scorsese ever has any issues with nudity and sex scenes and violence or what have you, but those are the kinds of things we grapple with, based on our own beliefs and values. I think that's what differentiates us from mainstream filmmakers.>Regarding faith and values, is it simply a matter of trying not to offend people? Or do you ever find yourself putting stuff into the film because you want to put more faith and values into the film?Christine: Honestly, for me that would be very heavy-handed, too much. A lot of the things that happen in All About Us actually happened to us. We ran into the blind artist who happened to be a preacher, and on many levels he ministered to us in ways that were totally unexpected. So I don't know that I could have made that up. I don't like heavy-handed preaching at all, in films. I respect people who have a need to do that, but I don't think that is the angle that we approach this from.You talked about making films during the summertime, and it's summer right now. Have you got something filming right now?Christine: Well we have something brewing. I'm due with our fourth child in September, so since I've been pregnant for seven months, with three children, the idea of getting a film off the ground would be too far out of reach.Michael: We were aiming to shoot a film this summer until we got the news that we were expecting another baby, so that put everything on the back burner, which is fine. I think we needed a break.Christine: We have many, many projects that we would like to make, and when time permits, and when we regain sanity, we'll just get ourselves together, and then hopefully, next summer, we'll be able to do another project.Michael: Lord willing. What I've learned—and hopefully audiences will see this in my character in All About Us—but what I've learned is the significance of God's timing and being patient. As filmmakers, but even more importantly as Christians, we've matured over these last several years because of all the setbacks and frustrations, and I think it's really strengthened our Christian walk.So when you say, "What's next," if you had asked me that three years ago, I probably would have given you our whole five-year plan. But now, I just don't hold the reins as tightly. It's like, whatever God wants us to do next, he'll let us know, and if we focus on today and what that means for us—focusing on having a healthy baby in September—the movies and the business and paying the bills and all that often works itself out. I've just learned to be patient, and we've done pretty well for ourselves, so there's no need to be anxious or try to jump ahead of God and make things happen.Christine: And that's the lesson I'm still trying to learn.