Zack Lawrence has a passion for almost every aspect of filmmaking. He’s the founder of Standing Sun Productions, producer of “Indy Christian Review”, and creator of www.IchthusNetwork.com, a hub for Christian web series.
What led to your interest in filmmaking?
When I was a kid, a friend of a friend showed us a video he had made with his brother. I was inspired to start playing with my family’s VHS camera. That was the start of it. Things moved beyond me running around by myself in the backyard when a coworker of my dad’s gave me a CD full of Star Wars fan films, knowing I was (and still am!) a huge Star Wars geek. As I learned more semi-professional means of filmmaking while making some of my own Star Wars movies with friends, I realized I absolutely loved the movie making process. In 2005, I attended the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival and Academy, where I caught the vision for Christian filmmaking.
What was the first project you worked on?
The first project I worked on that had some semblance of professionalism was called “The Pastor’s House”. It was a half-hour children’s show created by my dad, Ken Lawrence, designed to be a sort of Christian “Mr. Rogers.” I was a little bit of everything on that, since it was pretty much just me and my dad making the whole thing!
For my last couple years in high school, I was fortunate enough to intern with a local production company as a grip on commercials and event videos. That was my first real professional experience.
And finally, the first movie I directed, that wasn’t a fan film, was a five minute short titled “Gaelic Knights”. It’s about a young swordsman looking to avenge his father’s death, and the battle that ensues when he finds a man who claims the name of the killer… all in Scottish Gaelic! It was a high school project for my foreign language studies (I was homeschooled). I wrote, storyboarded, directed, and acted in it, along with a friend who took a fencing class with me. I’ve since put it up on YouTube, and it’s had over 10,000 views.
Tell us about “Ragged Edge”.
Ragged Edge is a 10-minute short, and is the first film project produced under my company Standing Sun Productions. It’s based on characters from the classic novel “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon. It tells the story of Jack Manning, how he loses everything, and his search for the hope to keep on living. As he recounts his story, Jack asks some very direct, hard hitting questions to Christians regarding how well we do at practicing what we preach.
I wrote, produced, and directed the movie, which leads directly in to the beginning of “In His Steps.” The story is set in modern day, and draws from a combination of Jack’s backstory presented in the book, and some of my own life experiences with homeless people. We filmed for three days in October 2010, and released the movie in February 2011. It’s been in a few festivals, Christian and secular, and was nominated for best cinematography at the 2011 Experience Studios Short Film Contest.
As I said, it presents some pretty hard-hitting questions designed to make the viewer seriously consider how good of a job they’re doing at showing Christ’s love in a practical way to those around us. I’ve received a lot of great feedback from the film, and have been very happy with the impact it’s had.
You’ve done “In His Steps” as a web series and are now working on turning the second half of the book into a feature movie. What are the pros and cons of doing web series vs. feature films?
Actually, we’ll be taking the web series and using it as the first half of a full feature adaptation of In His Steps. We’ll be filming the second half of the movie from May 20-June 8, 2013.
I’m a very firm believer that traditional TV is dying, and that serialized web content is taking its place. Unfortunately, the quality of most web series is seldom better than amateurish. That’s why I wanted to do In His Steps as a web series. I wanted to create a high-quality web drama for the Christian market, something I have yet to see.
Thanks to avenues like Blip and YouTube, it’s possible to reach a potential audience of millions, plus generate revenue from ads to make a show sustainable. And since people are used to low- quality content online, a show with professional production values and storytelling will really stand out.
The downside to web series for the Christian market is, unfortunately, in the demographics. The people who consume Christian media tend to be in an older, less tech-savy demographic, which results in Christian consumers generally being late adopters of new technology. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but that’s the reality I’ve observed. Basically, if the show doesn’t appeal to a younger crowd, it’s going to be difficult to make a web series successful in the Christian market. That’s the main reason we switched gears from web series to feature film after Season 1 of “In His Steps” was released last Fall. I feel the message of “In His Steps” is as relevant, and desperately needed, as it was 116 years ago. It’s a story designed to rouse the church out of her apathy. So if that story is to be heard by the church, it needs to be packaged in the most effective way.
That said, I haven’t given up on Christian web series. If Christian storytellers want to have any hope in reaching the next generation of the lost with the Gospel, and in discipling the next generation of Christians, then it’s critical that we embrace new media.
What led to your “Indy Christian Review” series?
In late 2010, I came to realize that there was an appalling lack of Christian movie review websites that gave any notice to the works of the indie Christian filmmaker. Oh sure, there were plenty of sites that reviewed the latest Hollywood schlockbuster from a Christian perspective, but no one was fighting for the little guy.
As one such “little guy” (i.e. a maker of indie faith-based films), I felt that someone needed to finally stand up and shout to the internet, “HEY! While you’re over there whining about how immoral Hollywood is (while standing in line for the matinee), there are Christians making good movies over here! LISTEN UP!” In January of 2011, I took it upon myself to be that person.
It started out as just a blog, but then after discovering that there were people online who made movie review web series (and made a living at it!), I decided to start my foray into the web series world. Two years and over 50 episodes later, it’s still going strong!
How do you determine which movies to review?
The main thing I look at is whether it’s independently made, and if the story reflects Biblical values. Basically, just about anything you’d find on ChristianCinema is up for grabs. I started off just drawing from my own DVD library, but I’ve now had numerous films submitted to me by filmmakers.
What criteria do you look for when reviewing movies?
I open every episode with the question, “Is it worth watching?” The quality of the storytelling, the acting, and the overall production values (cinematography, editing, etc) need to be high enough that I would feel comfortable recommending the film to others.
Here’s the way I see it. There are hundreds of indie Christian films out there. By default, every one of them is doomed to obscurity, unless the producer manages to win the battle to scrape together an audience that’s larger than their immediate friends and family. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so if I think a movie is horrible and should never see the light of day (and I’ve seen plenty of those), then why would I want to bring it any attention?
So in the interest of being an edifier, I’ve decided to focus my energies on talking about the movies that I think are worth all the attention they can get. That said, I won’t pull punches on any problems I see with the story, or the acting, or the editing, or whatever. After all, if Christian films are going to overcome all the negative stereotypes stacked against them, we have to know what and how to improve, right?
Of the many filmmaking hats that you wear – writer, actor, director, producer, editor, cinematographer – which is your favorite?
Directing and acting. Though honestly, as long as I’m on a set, I could be a grip and I’d be happy!
What do you try to accomplish as a filmmaker?
I consider myself a storyteller whose chosen medium is a movie camera. I want to tell stories that inspire the viewer to greater things than they’re currently experiencing, ultimately all for God’s glory.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
Well, the main things on my plate right now are finishing In His Steps and continuing Indy Christian Review. Beyond that, I do have some other projects that I’m developing, including a “Hitchcock-esque” sci-fi feature and a fantasy epic. But that’s all I can say at this point. 😉
I also run www.IchthusNetwork.com, a hub for Christian web series. This project grew out of my desire to see Christian web series grow and flourish. The site’s been in operation since August 2011. We’ve got over a dozen shows as part of the Network now, with new episodes posted almost daily. I’m really excited to see how it grows in the days ahead.
In January 2013, I started teaching at the Rocky Mountain Christian Filmmakers Camp (www.christianfilmmakerscamp.com). Each annual camp offers an intensive hands-on, small group learning environment for aspiring Christian filmmakers. The camp started in 2007 and is held here in Western Colorado. This year’s students will be interning on the set of “In His Steps”, and this fall, Lord willing, we’ll be teaching a camp in the U.K.!