October 10, 2011

New Testament Video Project

For the last four plus months I've been involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints New Testament Video Project. Below is the timeline of events surrounding this amazing, once in a lifetime experience. This is a very long post and you certainly don't have to read every part. You can just scroll down to the areas you're interested in.

The Project
Simply stated, the purpose of this project was to create a New Testament Scripture Library - a series of vignettes portraying important scenes from the life of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. John Uibel, the Project Executive Producer said "Ultimately, the goal is to create a body of work that we can draw from that absolutely speaks to every aspect of Jesus’s life.”  These vignettes are going to be used for a variety of purposes including Church Education, the Sunday School Program, Missionary Teaching Initiatives, Church Visitors Centers, and online Mormon Messages.

The Set
Built to last for 20 plus years, the set is the size of a football field and took nearly a year to build. It is in Goshen, which is about 20 minutes south of Provo and then 15 minutes west of Santaquin. It took 9 months for Church leaders to find this location and the set will also be used for other Church productions outside these vignettes. The set it is virtually invisible from any of the surrounding roads. You have to enter through a special dusty road and go past the guard gate before you can see any of the actual set. Once there though, it really is amazing. I don't know how exactly to describe it, especially since I've never been to Jerusalem but it looked so realistic. Click the link below to read more about the set construction and to see a video from the Project Executive Producer.

Information and Video about the Set

Here are some screen shots taken from the Church's recent World Report. Click below for the full Report.

October 2011 World Report

Sample Vignette
The first full vignette the Church shot was The Good Samaritan and it is beautifully done. It really gives you a good feel for the Director's vision of the project as well as the scenery. Here's the video.

The Casting Video
To help garner interest in the production, the Church's casting department created their first ever Public Service Announcement (PSA) video in October 2010, encouraging members of the Church from all over the world to apply for a role in the production. One of our friends, Becky Swasey, who does a lot of work for the Church as a wardrobe designer, suggested I apply for a spot in the announcement. I was hesitant, especially given that all the acting talent in the family belongs to Jeni and the kids. If this had been a Church version of Chopped or Top Chef, I might have been more willing. I finally gave in, confident that there was no way I would be cast for anything. To my surprise I got an e-mail inviting me down to the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo to take part in the PSA.

The link below takes you to the PSA announcement and the video. As you watch, you'll see me a few seconds at the very beginning (see also the screenshot below). I was and still am completely embarrassed about this. These thoughts still go through my mind - Is that really what I look like? Where did the double chin come from? Didn't I shave that day? Do I always slouch like that? And can I really call that a smile? Oh, the horror of this all. Where was the photoshop editor? So much for the miracles of modern technology! I hope nobody leaves the Church over this.

PSA Announcement and Video

The Audition
About a month later, in November 2010, an audition workshop was held at Utah Valley University in Orem for anyone interested in being in the actual New Testament production in a speaking role. Maddy and I attended and it was very helpful. I wasn't planning on auditioning for a speaking role as I just wanted to be an extra so I was going mainly for Maddy whose life is theater and singing. We really enjoyed the session which was attended by several hundred people and my favorite part was them showing the video below with Sir Ian McKellen and Ricky Gervais doing a spoof about acting.

By attending, we got first pick of auditioning slots which were starting the following month. On December 14, 2010, Maddy convinced me to come with her to audition . We were given sample scripts to memorize and I prepared using some text from Corinthians. This was my first ever audition and it took place at a Stake Center in Provo. After Maddy and I turned in some initial paperwork and a headshot, we were called into a small room one at a time to go through our audition. We had to "slate" to the camera and then get into character and go. I did well... for about the first 10 seconds. Then I got very nervous with the camera rolling and someone watching my every move. I forgot my lines and completely choked. My face got red and I stammered over my lines, completely botching them in the process.

I have no problems admitting that this was one of the worst experiences of my life. I actually wanted to cry I was so embarrassed. Maddy of course sailed through her audition and felt great about it. I couldn't get my face to turn back to it's natural color. I was disappointed and wondered why in the world I had auditioned. All I wanted to be was any kind of extra and the auditions for speaking parts weren't mandatory. I felt like maybe I had done so badly that I had ruined any chance to even do that. It took me several weeks to get over the horror of it all, although if I think about it long enough the embarrassment kicks back in.

The Notification
2010 turned into 2011 and we had heard that filming would take place sometime in July or August. As June rolled around and we hadn't heard anything from anyone, I really believed we hadn't made it into the production, even as extras. You can imagine my surprise when somehow, despite my botched audition, Maddy and I got the e-mail below on June 10, 2011.

New Testament Applicant,

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your patience throughout this casting process! We appreciate your diligence in growing out your hair and beard (if male). We realize that for many of you it has been a sacrifice and rather uncomfortable to boot! 

If you are receiving this email it means you made it past nearly 11,000 applicants to get through the first cut, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. However, as we near shooting time (estimated for early August), it is time to make second cuts. Thank you to those of you who have already submitted your availability dates. This will be very helpful as we make final  decisions. If you did not receive an email concerning availability please call or email me as soon as possible. 

To further assist us in these casting decisions please submit a RECENT (within the last 2-3 days) headshot and profile shot. Your pictures should be in a jpeg format and labeled with your first and last name (ex: “Jane Doe Headshot.jpg” and “Jane Doe Profile.jpg”).  As our online database is still under construction please EMAIL your pictures with New Testament UPDATE as the subject line. Pictures need to be submitted no later than Friday June 17th, 2011 at 5:00 p.m. 

Following this email I have included some of the most common questions we have received and the answers for your perusal. Thank you again for your cooperation and continued support of LDS Media Services productions! We look forward to receiving your photos. 

The Permission
After getting over the initial shock of having made it through the first cut as an extra, I realized I was probably way behind everyone else in the beard growing category. I knew that if I wanted a chance to participate, I'd have to grow the beard, however that would require me to get permission from two groups. First, my employer, Wendy's. Second, the Church.

Wendy's was great to grant me a religious accomodation and allow me to grow the beard. The only caveat was that anytime I went behind the line at any of our stores I needed to wear a beard guard.

At Church, I am serving as a counselor in the bishopric so having a beard is normally not permitted. My bishop, David Ahrens, was wonderful to grant me permission and so was my Stake President, Ron Dunn. Both felt like since it was a Church production they were ok with my participation. Frankly, I was surprised at how quickly the permissions were granted. So, I decided to take the plunge and start the beard. It was June 12, 2011.

On June 19, 2011 I submitted my first picture back to the casting folks with only a 7 day growth (see picture below). On June 23, 2011 I received another e-mailing asking us to input our availability for the next 3 months. We were told there was still no guarantee we would be asked to participate but that they would let us know closer to the time the shooting would start.

The Beard and Hair
The longest I had grown a beard before this project had been about 2 weeks. I knew I could grow a beard but had no idea how long it could actually get. The whole beard growing process has been very awkward. I've received more than my fair share of strange looks while sitting on the stand at Church, attending the Temple, going through security at the airport (where I was pat down for the first time ever), and at work related meetings. I did not find the beard experience to be itchy or hot. Instead I just found it incredibly inconvenient, with hair falling into my food or food falling into my hair. The long hair was fun to grow especially as the curls continued to increase, at least Jeni liked them. I actually enjoyed growing the beard, and though it was uncomfortable at times, I really had a hard time shaving it off. The closest feeling I can compare it to was how I felt after serving a mission when my badge was removed. That badge was a part of my identity and represented the work I had been doing, just as the beard represented who I was and the filming project as a whole. Below you can see pictures of the growth at various intervals of time including the picture we sent in of Maddy. If you really want a treat, click on my Day 114 picture for a closeup and you can see just how out of control the beard got. Just ignore the gray hairs please. I am so grateful to Kara Callan, Jeni's cousin, who is a professional photographer and took all these pictures for me. 


Day 7

Day 14

Day 21

Day 37

Day 63

Day 114

The Filming
I was so fortunate to have been able to participate in 11 different scenes. Below is the chronicle of each day on set. I'll try my best to share what I was feeling, the emotions of the day, etc. This will be difficult though to put into words the feelings, especially from some of the more intimate shoots. I apologize in advance for as many details as there are, but I wanted to be thorough.

Day 1 - Scene at Golgotha, Crucifixion
Matthew 28, Mark 15, John 19
I arrived at the set early in the morning and had no idea what to expect. I filled out the required paperwork, got signed in, and then eventually my name was called to "go to wardrobe." That meant I was to head over to the wardrobe trailer to receive my outfit for the day. It was there that I found out I was to play the part of one of the Sanhedrin, the wicked ruling body in both legal and ecclesiastical matters, and we were going to be shooting the crucifixion. Not bad for the first day! After changing into my clothes, I went to "Hair and Makeup" where my hair was spruced up, my hat pinned on and my hands, arms, legs, feet and face were "painted" with some sort of liquid that made our skin several shades darker. When that was done and I could lace up my authentic sandals, I headed back over to wardrobe to get "dirtied," meaning powder and oil was added to my outfit to make it look dusty and more realistic for the time period. The wardrobe designers actually did laundry every night so this process had to be repeated each day. When I was all ready, we waited in a large tent with all the other extras. The main actors and crew had trailers. The tent was very hot so many of us would sit outside on chairs, despite the heat there. On this day it was over 100 degrees and with all the layers of clothing it was very uncomfortable. Several individuals needed medical attention during the day and went home. We were asked to continually drink water which they provided. Eventually it was time to go down to the set. We walked as a large group to a hill area used for Golgotha and were placed in our positions. As one of the Sanhedrin, we stood on the edge of a cliff-like area and watched the procession of the crowd, Jesus, some disciples and the man carrying Jesus' cross coming up the hill. That scene, filmed from very far away from where we were standing took several hours to shoot. It wasn't uncommon during all of the shooting that we'd rehearse our parts and actions several times, only to then have to wait for some length to film. Then once we were "rolling" and the scene was completed and the "gate checked," we'd have to wait again while the camera changed positions. It also wasn't uncommon for a 13-14 hour day to produce maybe 2-3 minutes of footage. After we filmed that procession scene, Jesus and the two thieves were raised up onto their crosses which were incredibly high. We were placed in the crowd and they shot Jesus speaking with the angle coming from high up behind him. After that was completed, it was a "wrap" and most of us were dismissed. Going into the day I had expectations that this was going to be an amazing spiritual experience and so I walked away a bit confused as to why I was feeling like that didn't happen. Upon further reflection I realized that first, I was so hot that it was hard to feel anything but the sun; second, this was my first time ever on a set and I was distracted over and over again by all the crew, the sound people, the lighting people, the cameras, the equipment, etc.; third, I was so worried about playing my part that it was hard to focus on the actual scene. I will say that there was a wonderful feeling of deep reverence on the set and that was very enjoyable. The spiritual experiences I was hoping for would come, just not on this day.

Day 2 - The Night in Gethsemane
John 13-17, Matthew 25-26, Mark 14
This was a night shoot from about 6pm until 6am and I was again a Sanhedrin. In this shoot, the Sanhedrin led a mob made up of about 50 of us down a hill to just outside the Garden of Gethsemane. I stood to the left of the main Priest that said he was looking for Jesus of Nazareth. This was the scene where Peter cuts the ear off the servant and then Jesus heals him in front of all of us then submits himself to be taken. It was clear that He had the power and that He allowed Himself to be taken, though He didn't have to. At one part when He spoke, the Sanhedrin at the front of the mob fell backwards because of His power. After He was bound, we walked back up the hill and I helped the servant whose ear was now healed to gather his strength and make the walk. This was a really great scene. The props were amazing as we had real torches, the soldiers were decked out in authentic looking gear and all the disciples were there including Judas who appeared out of the crowd to betray Christ. As the Savior knelt to heal the servant's ear, it was wonderful how the Director had Him also pause to help the man up back to His feet. I really felt His power and divinity as He spoke. 

Day 3 - Wise Men Enter the City
Matthew 2
This was my first time playing a normal villager and Maddy was able to join me at this shoot. We lined the streets of Bethlehem as the wise men entered the city on real camels and then offered gifts to Jesus. Joseph met the wise men and ran to his home where out of the doorway appeared Mary and the now toddler Jesus. As they appeared, we all gasped as Mary looked so authentic, just how you would picture her, and the toddler Jesus had long black hair and penetrating blue eyes. He was adorable and His look was penetrating. It felt so real and I was grateful to be a part of that scene. We also shot Mary riding into the city while still pregnant with Joseph leading the donkey. Maddy walked up the street as the donkey passed and I was on the side of the street grinding wheat. This day I really felt the majesty of the Christ child and the sacred role Mary played in His birth and His raising. Even from His youth, He must have loved Mary so much. To watch Him cling to her and then look up at all of us who had come to worship or observe was a very tender moment which has stayed with me and Maddy to this day.

Day 4 - Cleansing of the Temple
John 2:13-21
I was a Priest for this shoot and this was a fun one. There were nearly 200 of us there all acting as though the Savior was right behind us, driving us out of the temple. There were money changers, people selling animals and the like. For my part I had to run along the back wall and jump over a table that was overturned. It was very chaotic and realistic as we were all rushing to get away. There were a lot of animals on the set too with sheep and doves. They shot this scene from many different angles and had us run all different directions. I think they're going to use some movie magic to blend it all together to make it look like there were even more people there. Maddy was there on this day too and had fun being a part of it. She was in a different section of people than me. Reflecting on this scene, I wonder if I treat the Temple too casually like all these people did. I may not be selling doves or exchanging money there but do I treat the Temple as the sacred place it is by attending regularly and by keeping appropriate reverence while there?

Day 5 - Baby Jesus Presented / 12 Year Old Jesus in the Temple
Luke 2: 22-38, 41-51
This was a much lighter day for me as I was again a Priest but my main part consisted of just walking back and forth over and over to make it look like there were more people in the Temple courtyard than there really were, even though there were probably over 100 of us there again. In the first scene, the baby Jesus was brought by Joseph and Mary to the Temple to present Him to Simeon. Later we filmed the 12 year old Jesus teaching the Doctors, Scribes and Pharisees on the steps of the Temple. For that part I was in  the background looking over at Him and then walking with one of my associates away from the group. Not a lot of acting on this day, just mostly walking.

Day 6 - Mock Trial with Caiaphas
Matthew 26, John 18
This was by far the most difficult and moving shoot of them all, possibly because there were so few of us there. The scene was a continuation of the mob arrest. There were about 7 of us Sanhedrin, a few Sanhedrin guards, a few soldiers, and then Jesus, now bound with a rope. The scene started with Jesus being led into a small room by two guards, where Caiaphas was waiting. The rest of us followed Him into the room and surrounding Caiaphas. I was on his immediate left, just a foot or two from where the Savior was standing. The confrontation ensued between Him and Caiaphas including the false witness coming forward and then the rending of Caiaphas' garments and all of us saying Jesus was guilty of death for his blasphemy. When Jesus testified that the "Son of Man would sit on the right hand of God in glory" He looked right in my eyes and there was such a powerful feeling there and the Spirit bore witness to me in a very powerful way that what He was saying was true. The scene was so majestic, even in such a horrible setting. Here was the Lord, accused, bound, yet testifying of the truth in such a powerful way. The reverence of that moment didn't last long as four of us (not me thankfully) then proceeded to actually spit on Him and then others pounced, slapping Him. The contrast between the powerful testimony and the shameful brutality was pretty overwhelming and I left the scene very humbled, amazed that people could have been so cruel to one who was so good. As I drove home I asked myself whether or not I've been willing to stand up for truth, even amidst persecution and I also thought of Hebrews 6:6 where we learn that sons of perdition "crucify Christ afresh" and how I want to stay as far away from that line as possible. I don't want to cause the Savior any additional pain or suffering after witnessing such abuse.

Day 7 - Caiaphas Continued
Matthew 26, John 18
This was a night shoot but was easily the shortest for me. It was a continuation of the previous shoot and our only part to film was us escorting Jesus out of the room we were in, down a flight of stairs in the rain and then past Peter who was in the Courtyard. At first, all of us from the night before followed Caiaphas down the stairs. It must have taken too long because the Director cut the number of us down by a few for the next take. Even that must have taken too long because our group was cut again to just 3 or 4 and I wasn't included in that mix. Soon afterwards it was a wrap. Everyone else that stayed well into the night filmed Peter denying Christ and the cock crowing.

Day 8 - Widows Mite
Mark 12:41-44
On this day I was a "Rich Man," one of about 7 that were dropping loads of money from our large purses into the treasury (large collection looking boxes) and boasting about how much we were dropping. The Savior was on a "porch," on top of a neighboring roof looking down at us. Through the crowd walked a 94 year old woman and she dropped a very tiny coin called a "mite." The Savior taught His apostles that her offering was greater than all of ours because she gave everything she had. The lady that played the widow was amazing. She was very frail yet handled the scene so well. I was on her left as she dropped the coins and I looked her up and down with contempt for her tiny donation. Reflecting on this scene I wondered if my offerings to God have been enough. Am I like the rich men, giving a small portion back to God or am I really committed to giving Him my all like the widow, even as meager and unimpressive as my offerings might be?

Day 9 - Triumphal Entry
Mark 11, Matthew 21, Luke 19, John 12
Before the shooting started this day, I had a special surprise as I saw my mission president, James Hamula, and his wife Joyce and their youngest two boys on set. Elder Hamula is now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, assigned to the Pacific Area and he and his family were in town for General Conference and were taking a tour of the production. This was a pretty short day as it consisted of Jesus coming into town on the donkey with his apostles for His triumphal entry. I was a normal villager again and at first was in one of the side doorways walking to the crowd to see Him come by. There were over 100 of us this day. People were shouting in excitement and waving palm fronds and then laying them down at his feet. This was shot from a few different angles and then for the last part I was moved to the very back and watched as the Savior walked right by me, touching people's hands. I tried to imagine what this really would have felt like. In the back of my mind I couldn't help but think back to the mistreatment in Caiaphas' chamber which tempered some of the excitement of this scene, knowing what He would soon be subject to. Then I thought about this being such a joyous time to see Christ happy and excited and all the people giving Him a royal welcome. I was glad in my heart to know that the Savior was treated so well, even if it was for a short time.

Day 10 - Adulterous Woman
John 8: 2-11
This scene was intense! I was cast as one of the "Angry Men" that brought the adulterous woman before the Lord. The scene started with Jesus teaching a group of followers on one side of the courtyard and then a group of about 5 of us entered from the opposite side, bursting through a door dragging the adulterous woman. She was hysterical as she tried grabbing on to posts to prevent us from moving her forward. At one point in the struggle she fell to the ground on her back and was dragged about two feet when I reached down and picked her back up by the arm and threw her forward. As we were walking over, Jesus walked over to meet us in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by his followers as well as some of the Priests. The exchange between Jesus and the leader of our group and then between Jesus and the woman was a very tender moment. Several of His followers were really in tears as He forgave the woman and bid her to sin no more. The woman walked out of the scene and then Jesus, walking through the courtyard, continued His teachings. The scene was difficult for me because it was hard for me to act so angry at this lady (who by the way was an amazing actress) and to be so physically rough with her, all the while keeping an angry demeanor. As I walked away from the crowd with the other "accusers" after Jesus' instruction to let "he that is without sin among you cast the first stone," I really felt ashamed that I do have my own sins and weaknesses, that the Lord knows exactly what they are, and that in my own imperfect state who am I to judge another? I walked away from the set this day feeling two things - first, complete adoration for the Savior who time and time again has forgiven me for my inadequacies, even when I deserve that forgiveness the least, and second, an increased desire to be kind and helpful to others that are struggling and to try to extend to them the same mercy that the Lord has so readily extended to me.

Day 11 - Jesus Carrying His Cross 
Matthew 28, Mark 15, John 19
On my last day, we filmed the scene where Jesus walked up the streets of the city heading towards Golgotha, carrying His cross. The cross itself was enormous and very heavy. It took 3 people just to carry it back and forth. Unlike other Church movies where Jesus carries only the cross beam, in this portrayal He carried the whole thing with His shoulders under the part where the beams meet, and the bottom of the cross dragging on the ground. Halfway through the procession, the guards pulled a man out of the crowd and he then carried it the rest of the way. In this scene Jesus is already bloodied from the scourging, He was wearing the crown of thorns and a purple robe (which one of the guards rips off Him as He's walking) and His face had blood dripping down it. Initially I was placed up near the front where the cross exchange takes place, but the Director asked that I be moved back to a more anonymous place in the crowd because I was one of the Sanhedrin at the crucifixion. It was difficult to watch the Savior, physically at the end of His strength, trying to carry the cross. He was stumbling and going so slowly which is why the other man was asked to carry the cross for Him. It was interesting for me personally that this was the last shoot for me. As I watched Him walking up the road I couldn't help but think of His triumphal entry, all His teachings I witnessed, His sacrifice in Gethsemane and all the other scenes I'd been a part of. The one image in my mind that comes back more frequently now than the rest is the Savior with His head bowed, under the weight of the cross, beaten and bruised, heading towards his mortal death. It struck in me a deep feeling of gratitude but also a commitment to be submissive to God's will, no matter the personal cost to me, just like the Savior did.

The People
I have many pictures of me and the other actors and can show them to you in person, however I can't post them here, on Facebook or anywhere online as that was one of the agreement we all made to be a part of the production. Perhaps I can share them when the vignettes are actually published. I was amazed at how many extras came from all over the world and country just to participate in the filming. I met people from Australia, England, Alaska, Florida, New York, etc. Despite the considerable expense many of them incurred to come, they felt it was worth it to be a part of this monumental project, even if they were only there for a few days. I felt very fortunate that I lived only 25 minutes from the set.

The Vignettes
I have heard that the result of our filming will be about 30 vignettes that will be added to the Church's Scripture Library. I have also heard that some of the segments might be available as early as this Christmas, though they won't be published en masse until probably some time in late 2012 or early 2013.

The Summary
Overall throughout all the scenes I noticed how the Savior's compassionate and human side were portrayed and I just loved it. Of all those individuals that have played Christ in church movies, this one was by far my favorite. Now that this experience is over, I walk away with a greater appreciation for Jesus Christ. Though my testimony of His divine role in our Father in Heaven's plan was strong prior to the filming, certain aspects of His life and teachings are now more real to me than before and I will never look at the scriptures, especially these scenes, in the same way again.

October 02, 2011

Priesthood Session

Joey and I headed to Salt Lake City last night with friends to attend the Priesthood Session of October General Conference. We first stopped at Wendy's for their new Dave's Hot & Juicy burgers (delicious) and then we headed to the Conference Center. Every time I go there I am overwhelmed at how many people the Center holds. I felt very strange being there with such a crazy beard but I was glad to see 3 others from the film shooting that were there as well, beards and all. On the way back to the car, Joey had me take some pictures of him "planking:" which is a new funny activity where you lay horizontally on any object you can find to support you. I had a hard time containing my laughter.