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Michael Landon Jr. Interview

by Tracy & C.J. Darlington

"...you never judge art by the content. You always have to judge it by the intent."
-- Michael Landon Jr.


Michael Landon, Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 20 years.
He has developed and/or produced, directed and written screenplays for Fox, CBS, NBC, Disney, TriStar, Cinar, and Hallmark.

His movie, Love Comes Softly, has won numerous awards including the Camie (Character and Morality in Entertainment) Award, the Movie Guide Award, and the Gabriel Award. In 2005, Mr. Landon, along with his partner, Brian Bird, formed their production company, Believe Pictures.

His best productions to date, however, are his three children with his wife of 20 years, Sharee. Michael and his family currently attend Westlake Bible Church in Austin, TX.

What originally inspired you as a kid to make movies?

I visited my father on the set quite a bit, starting off in the Bonanza years and then into the Little House years. During the Little House years I began to pay attention to the process of making films. I was able to observe everybody’s craft. It was directing that I began to focus on. You know my father wore many hats, and I was able to observe him in many different areas - acting would obviously be one that would have been of interest - but I really felt like directing was going to be my passion. Shortly after that, when I was 13, I got my first super-8 camera and began making little short films.

How did your latest movie The Velveteen Rabbit come about?

I remember the classic Margery Williams story being read to me as a child. It was very visceral in terms of why I loved it, but it definitely stuck with me. Several years ago it was brought to my attention that this classic had never been made into a full length film. There was a short animated version made, but that was it. I found out that the property was public domain. At that point I collaborated with my writing partner, Cindy Kelly, for the first time. I didn’t want to tell a story from the rabbit’s point of view number one because Margery Williams had done it so beautifully and two, I wanted to tell a live action film. So we told it from the little boy’s point of view. In her short story the boy doesn’t even have a name, so we created a world for this little boy and used Margery Williams’ classic as the inspiration.

Did you have any challenges adapting the story into film?

It’s always a challenge, whether it’s an adaptation or an original, and this is really a combination of the two. There’s always the challenge of trying to tell a good story, but in terms of staying true to the book, we knew we were departing from the beginning.

We’d love to hear any memorable on-the-set moments you and the crew had. Care to share a story or two?

It was eight years ago, so it’s difficult to remember. Several things held up the release. For example, it was close to four years just for the animation. We shot the live action first in Montreal. We casted in Montreal and shot in Montreal. Couldn’t find the actor to play the father, so Kevin Jubenville was cast out of Toronto.

Was it a challenge to direct a movie in which several of the characters are animated and added later?

Not really, because those two worlds live separately for the most part. There are only a couple transitional scenes, and they’re not elaborate.

The Velveteen RabbitWhat message do you hope people will come away with after watching The Velveteen Rabbit?

I’d rather have the audience discover that rather than tell them what to come away with.

When the book was read to you as a child, what did you come away with?

It was too long ago to remember, but I can tell you that what attracted me to it again was the theme that love makes us real. That was the hook for me.

What has been your most embarrassing moment as a film maker so far?

(Laughs.) I’m sure that’s a fun question for you! The most embarrassing moment I had was filming one of the Love Comes Softly movies. There was supposed to be drunken shooter in the streets who made the townspeople scatter. There was one extra who didn’t look like he was doing anything, like there wasn’t any sense of fear in him. I was trying to show him, “I want you to get away from the noise, from the possibility of being shot. So do it like this.” And when I did it, I tripped over my own feet and landed flat on my face. So then I had to tell him, “No, don’t do it exactly like that.” (Laughs.)

What actor or actress would you love to work with someday and why?

One of the first ones to pop into my mind is Anthony Hopkins. Obviously he’s genius in his effortlessness. There’s an intelligence about him that I love dearly. There’s a bit of sadness behind his eyes no matter what he’s doing or saying that has an endearing quality about it.

We’d love to hear about some of your future projects.The Shunning

The Shunning is definitely one. We’re in discussions with Hallmark for it. That’s based on a Beverly Lewis novel. It’s an Amish story about the act of shunning, whereby if a member of the Amish church goes against the ordun, or the rules of the church, they are ostracized, cut off from everyone. You could be in the same room with them, but you’re not allowed to speak or look at or engage that person. It’s used to break them down so that they will repent and return to the fold.

We’re hoping to be filming The Shunning later this year. Then there is another project I’m working on called Deep in the Heart. It’s a true story about race reconciliation and forgiveness. And I’m finishing up my second novel called The Silent Gift. It takes place post Depression era about a boy who is deaf and mute and has the gift of prophecy. That idea came out of my own noodle. I’m co-writing that with Cindy Kelly, who I co-wrote Velveteen and Love Comes Softly with.

How does the process of co-writing work for you guys?

It works well for us, because I’m all story. I basically write the entire story. And that means every scene as well and all the characters. Her strength is my weakness, which is in description, and then we share dialogue. It’s a true collaboration. She has certain strengths, and I have hopefully certain strengths. Together we create a writer. (Laughs.)

One More SunriseWhat inspired you to start writing novels?

This is my second novel. My first one was One More Sunrise. The original intent was to potentially create another way of creating an adaptation for film. I was hoping to write a novel that I could then control and turn into a film. That is the plan; whether or not it actually comes to fruition is another issue.

What’s you favorite movie of all time, and why is it special to you?

Great question, but I do not have an all time favorite. I love cinema. I’ll give you one that I love dearly. It’s a small, little film. I’m not saying it’s my all time favorite, but it’s one that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s called Men Don’t Leave. It was directed by Paul Brickman. It starred Chris O’Donnell. It is one of the first movies he did. And Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange. It’s one of my favorite films.

What are you passionate about as a film maker?

Every movie you make is a challenge. Sometimes the challenge is you don’t have enough money to do what you want to do, and everything becomes an issue of having to rush. And though I’ve never been cursed with the problem, there are issues that come with having lots of money to make a movie, too. The pressures that come along with creating work that the studio is bonkers over. There is so much at stake financially. And then you’re dedicating yourself for a really long period of time. So if you’re making something that isn’t working, I’m sure it would be a lot more painful.

What is your favorite part of the movie making process?

I don’t really have a favorite part. I love pre-production in some sense, because you start to see how it’s all going to come together through casting and location scouting and working with your keys. And then I love filming. That’s where things come to life. You have your good days and your bad days like in any job, when the clock is ticking too fast and you’re having to rush, or weather is hurting you and you’re having to shut down and you know now that your schedule is going to get backed up. But then there are moments when you know the scene that the film hinged on came to life, and you know you have that moment that is your pay off.

For example, in Velveteen there are a couple scenes. One is definitely the scene between father and son where there’s a reconciliation, where they come back together. There is that moment when you know that they have personally been impacted which then I know translated to impacting the audience.Michael Landon Jr.

In The Last Sin Eater when Cadi’s with the man of God at the river, that’s exactly one of those scenes. Once that scene happened I actually knew, “Okay, I don’t know how well it’s going to do in the box office or on DVD; I don’t know how many people are going to actually see it, but I do know that scene is going to impact people.” And I also knew that the movie didn’t have a chance of impacting anybody if that scene didn’t work.

If you could change one thing about the Christian film industry what would it be?

It would be that I wouldn’t want to call it the Christian film industry. I would just want to tell it as another genre or just more story telling vs labeling it. I don’t think that when they were making movies like Ben Hur or The Robe or the Ten Commandments Hollywood was saying that this was Christian film making. They were making big movies. Now in the low budget arena, just as in the big budget arena, there are good movies and bad movies. It’s harder when a film has a Christian message or is overtly Christian, it’s harder to get bigger funding and talent to sign on. But I would rather just be part of the story telling process vs labeling it.

Why do you think it has received that label? Like you said, Ben Hur and those movies didn’t have that label. When do you think it happened?

Hollywood stopped making movies like Ben Hur. So there were no films like that. Then out of a need to have a voice a bit of a Christian ghetto formed. I mean ghetto in terms of the budget, not necessarily the quality, and having to do it completely outside of Hollywood.

What would you love to write, direct, or produce someday but haven’t yet?

Well, there’s one project I can think of, but I really can’t talk about it. It’s a story that’s set on a college campus. I would love to tell a story that impacts our teens. I think they have a really tough world to grow up in. My heart goes out to them.

The Last Sin EaterWhat do you wish Christians knew about the movie industry?

I think there is this mentality in the Christian community where they demonize Hollywood. At the end of the day, they are people with jobs, and they have families. There are those who have a moral compass and there are those who would do anything for the dollar. There are tons of craftspeople who are Christians, and there are non-Christians just like any other workplace. If Christians are supporting films at the same rate as everybody else, I don’t think you can complain about it. The viewing habits of Christians are pretty close to the same as non-Christians. It is surprising, but it shows you the power of wanting to see movies and the power of storytelling. I heard a quote by a woman years ago about how in fiction darkness and evil is interesting and provocative, while good is boring and bland. And in the real world it’s just the opposite. I think there’s a little bit of truth to that as well.

Have you ever had to turn down a project because of your faith or beliefs?

Oh, yeah. I definitely go by a world view that is my guideline. I do believe that art, whether music, film, or television can impact culture in a positive way and a negative way. I believe there are responsible boundaries. It can be different for every person. That’s why you never judge art by the content. You always have to judge it by the intent. Otherwise, you get into that thing of what’s the difference between beauty and pornography? You go to an art museum and you see a naked statue or painting, and they call it art. And then you see something on tv, and they call it pornography. How do you define the difference? I think you always have to go to the intent of the person who created the piece of work.

Have you ever had any moments in your movie making when you’ve prayed about something and seen God move in a miraculous way?

Every time I get to make a movie it’s a miracle! Because it’s so competitive, and there are only so many dollars. But yeah, I pray for inspiration. Going back to the scene with Cadi Forbes and the man of God. There are certain things that happened from a casting standpoint where you think, “Oh, gosh, that was really the person I wanted.” And they have no interest in the project. And then in comes along X, and they far exceeded what you would have got had you gotten what you wanted. It’s a God thing. Love Comes Softly

What do you think your dad would be most surprised or please with about your life so far?

In terms of proud, he had a really tough childhood. I think there was some baggage that came from that childhood that ended up being a part of the divorces that were in his life. So I think he’d be proud of the fact that I have been a faithful husband and married for 20 years to my wife.

What did you eat for breakfast this morning?

Nothing. I did not have breakfast. I did have coffee. There was my breakfast. (Laughs.)

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Milk, orange juice, and condiments - mustard, ketchup. We just got back from being away, so that’s why there was no breakfast. And then we really don’t have anything in the fridge right now.

Where can you be found on a Friday night?

Oh, at home.

When was the last time you cried?

Yesterday, saying good bye to my sister.

Love's Unending LegacyYou’re in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

If it’s cool out, a vanilla latte. If it’s warm out, a mocha frapp.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a film maker like you?

Tenacity. Perseverance. You have to just keep on fighting the good fight. Because chances are, unless you’re one of the lucky few, it’s a long, arduous road. The other thing is you don’t want to feel as if anything is beneath you. Anything you can get will give you experience. To learn any part of the film making business, you do it. Even though I had a famous successful father in the business, I started off as a film loader. I spent eight years just in camera. I was a film loader and then a first assistant camera man, which basically meant eight years of lugging equipment. Anything you can get your hands on - if you can get in any workshops, depending on what part of the business you want to be in - for instance if you want to be an actor you’ve got to get yourself in a class. You’ve got to try to get roles in local theater or school plays, or whatever you can do. If you want to be a film maker, writers get directing breaks. So writing is an avenue.

I could not get a job directing. The first thing I sold was a script to CBS for a School Break Special called The Secret. They sold it with myself attached to direct. On smaller projects like that they’ll take a chance on new directors if they like the material enough.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

I think that would be it. I am actually giving advice that was given to me, that I experienced.

Saving Sarah CaineAnything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

Not that I can think of; you guys are really thorough! We still have Believe Pictures with Brian Bird . That’s our production company. We recently did the movie Saving Sarah Cain, which was based on the novel The Redemption of Sarah Cain by Beverly Lewis. That was a fun movie to do. The kids were really sweet. I love the kids. Elliott Gould was a lot of fun and a pleasure to work with. I’ve had a lot of kids in my movies. I love working with kids. I don’t pick a project with that criteria, but when it does happen I love it. The imaginary world is something that is part of who they are. I don’t think acting is an art form like it is for an adult. I don’t think it’s fair to put children in the same category as adults when it comes to awards, because I think it becomes a reel craft when you’re an adult. At that point you become self aware. You don’t have the same kind of access to the imaginary world.

Having grown up on set, now that you see these young actors starting so early, what would you say to a young actor just starting out to help them keep on the right track?

It’s a very tough business on children. It’s really difficult. Especially for the successful ones. You’re kind of creating a world that’s very difficult to deal with at such an early age. Look at adults - they struggle with fame and success. Now imagine a child. That fame and success can go away, and then there’s a bit of identity crisis that fills the gap. It’s very difficult. You just hope and pray that they realize their value doesn’t come from the film business; it has nothing to do with it.

Do you consider your film making a ministry or your job? How do you look at it?

It’s all of the above. I do consider it a ministry. That’s definitely a Christian word that Christians can relate to. But I also consider it my job. I have an obligation and a want to provide for my family. If I’m able to do it telling stories then I feel extremely blessed.

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Tracy DarlingtonTracy Darlington is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in Brio, Breakaway, YS, CCM Magazine, Insight, Susie Magazine, and other publications. She has interviewed countless Christian musicians including Rebecca St. James, Delirious, Newsboys, Leigh Nash, Barlowgirl, Krystal Meyers, Joy Williams, Pillar, Michelle Tumes, and many others. In her spare time she can be found riding horses or listening to music and sipping a Venti 3-shot sugar-free vanilla latte. Visit her online at her blog where she talks about Music, God, dogs and coffee. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.