Michael Landon Jr., son of the late television legend, Michael Landon, has been in the film business for over 25 years. Educated at USC and a Directing Fellow graduate of the American Film Institute, he has worked in just about every capacity of the movie making process including film loader, 1st and 2nd assistant cameraman, stedicam operator, Director of Photography, apprentice film editor, production assistant, and actor.
Our buyer of DVDs had a candid conversation with Michael on his upbringing, his work in the past and what he working on now.
Alex: So we'll kind of start out with a general question about your background. How have you seen changes in Hollywood from your days in Little House on the Prairie to your dad's involvement in Highway to Heaven, and to where Hollywood is today? How have you seen it change during that time?
Michael: Well, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place since the Little House days. So there are different aspects and components to the business, right? For example, when Little House was around, you had three major networks, and they controlled most of the content on television, maybe four networks. Now there are literally hundreds and hundreds of channels to choose from. So the idea of families sitting down together and experiencing storytelling, whatever that might be, is no longer around. Everybody has a TV in a different room. And since there's specific, narrower targeting of the audience--stuff for teens, little ones, grownups, etc.--no one's sitting down and experiencing storytelling anymore together. That's definitely one thing I've seen.
The other side is all of the different avenues in which media is being fed to us. It's not just TVs. It's the Internet, streaming, iPhones and iPads. And so it's coming in every sort of way, and there's the emergence of these social media things like YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, and other ways that media is coming and pretty much bombarding our homes.
Then there's the content issue. Programming content has radically changed, which to me is extremely unfortunate. Family programming is almost completely extinct. There are a few reality shows that I feel like are probably fine, the singing shows and the dancing shows and things like that, where the content is suitable for the entire family for the most part. But gone are the days of the Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven and Touched By An Angel, and TV series like that. Now, fortunately, I do have the opportunity to create a new TV series for Hallmark based on a very popular Janette Oke book, When Calls the Heart. That is actually Hallmark's second foray into TV series work. So at least now there's an opportunity for families to have an alternative to the very sexualized sitcoms or the gritty cop forensic shows that currently permeate the airwaves.
Alex: So what do you think that the lack of family type of entertainment has done to the family unit, you know, the idea of sitting down and all watching stuff together on a regular basis? What do you think that that causes in a family dynamic?
Michael: It's hard to probably calculate exactly what the repercussions are. I can't imagine it not having some detrimental effect to the family. I mean, technology is amazing, the way we use it, the way we can quickly disseminate information back and forth between each other. But at the same time, obviously, there is this fragmented aspect of being together, where everybody is in the same room and yet not really present with each other. They're on their phone and tweeting, or emailing or texting their friends. It's definitely breaking down the family unit in a way. It doesn't allow for intimacy to really grab hold of families. And also, I can't imagine that the increased and different content isn't breaking down the family unit as well. It clearly is. The messaging that's coming out of a lot of these shows sometimes is sexually promiscuous or shows a lack of respect for authority whether it be for parents or teachers or whoever. I mean, these are messages that our children are being bombarded with constantly--no holds barred. It seems nothing is really off limits. If you advocate limits, then you're against freedom of speech. It's always spun off in a very kind of negative tone.
Alex: Michael, what do you think? Is life imitating art? Or is art imitating life in television and entertainment right now?
Michael: Well, I definitely think they're pushing both, right? I think they're feeding off of each other. And I think we see that. I don't know the statistics, but I can just imagine in terms of the age of sexual contact between young people is getting lower and lower. The sexually transmitted diseases are out of control, from my understanding. Again, the respect issue for parents and teachers is completely falling apart in many areas. So, I think the media is feeding off society, and society is feeding off the media, and it's not good.
Alex: So, let me ask you this, kind of along those same lines. You went to USC film school, right? One of the most prestigious film schools in the country, to kind of learn your craft. And obviously you grew up in the Hollywood business to some extent. What would you say, as a believer, what would you tell Christian parents whose kids want to grow up and be in the entertainment business in some way? How would you guide and direct them to be a part of the business?
Michael: Right. Just a clarification, though. I did go to USC, but I was not in their film program.
Alex: I guess I just assumed that.
Michael: That was the game plan, but I ended up going to AFI for film studies.
Alex: Got it.
Michael: American Film Institute. I was a directing fellow there. It's a great question, because I think that many Christian parents see the business and they're terrified of what it will do to their children, and how it will affect them and the people that they'll come in contact with. It's a tough business. The film business is really, really tough. It's extremely competitive. If you're in front of the camera, your ability to make a living is very difficult, especially if you're going to keep your integrity in terms of the projects that you'll pick and choose. Because you'll see that it's a limited amount of family fare. A lot of it, especially in the younger category, is due to the fact that there are a lot of horror films out there, and teen party kinds of films. It's basically adults who run the business, and they know what teenagers want to see. So it's not an easy decision. I would say, however, at the same time, that the business is craving talented storytellers who want to tell stories that will be uplifting to families; ones that deal with issues of faith, forgiveness and love. So, I would probably still encourage a Christian family whose son or daughter is passionate about it—and they have to be passionate because this business is really tough. It's very competitive. If they're really passionate, you see signs of greatness when it comes to acting or writing, and I would encourage them to allow their children to become involved in that case.
Alex: And so as a producer, or generator, I should say, both on the production and the directing end of Christian content, you're one of the most prolific people in our industry who generate content. How do you personally choose the projects that you get involved with?
Michael: Well, a lot of it is generated by certain properties that I've purchased the rights to, for example, such as the works of Jeanette Oke, Beverly Lewis and Francine Rivers. The content is coming directly from like-minded storytellers, so that's definitely one avenue. Then there are other projects I'm generating, either through novels or I'm being hired to direct, for example, The Ultimate Life. So I, you know, it's a story that just needs to resonate, and then I'm going to try to either get the job or develop it. But the first thing that has to happen is that the story has to resonate with me deeply. I don't see myself as a Christian filmmaker. I see myself as a filmmaker who happens to be Christian. And I think there is a difference there.
Alex: Talk about that difference.
Michael: I think one main example of the difference would be that I see myself as someone who doesn't try to work outside the system, but work with the system. I don't try just to hire Christian actors and actresses. I try to hire the best actors and actresses to play the roles. That goes along with anybody else on my crew. I try to hire the best DP (Director of Photography). So I think that's probably one of the main differences. Not everything that I do has to be Christian, per se.
Alex: Yeah, and I think from our perspective in the entertainment business, in any line of work that's what we're called to do as believers, right? Is to use our gifts and talents and apply them to being the best at that particular trade. So it's a good analogy, and I apologize for stating it the way I did. I should have stated that better. You don't find a Christian plumber and a Christian car repairman. You find a car repair guy who happens to be a Christian.
Michael: That's right.
Alex: For various reasons. You touched on Janette Oke. Obviously you had a lot of success working with the Hallmark Channel, starting with the Love Comes Softly series and that piece. And it's been several years now since that series started, and it had a very, very successful run. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Jeanette and that book series, and what that's meant to you in your career.
Michael: Oh, Love Comes Softly was huge for me. The interesting thing about that particular property was that it took me 10 years to get made. Most people don't know that fact. But it was something that I championed for 10 years. When I started pitching it and shopping it around Hollywood, everybody just didn't get it from the title on down. They just thought it was too soft. You know, no one would be interested in this type of storytelling anymore. The Little House days are over. And then, so I knew that the next step was going to be, I needed to write the script. So I worked on it and co-wrote it with Cindy Kelly, who was a writer that I co-wrote The Velveteen Rabbit with, and had a certain amount of success with that. We wrote the screenplay and it still took a few years to finally land a home. Hallmark finally stepped up to the plate. Even they were a bit skeptical at the time, but when it aired, it ended up being the highest rated movie in the history of that channel by 40%.
Michael: And then the sequel, Love’s Enduring Promise, then became its highest rated movie in the history of the channel. Since then, Hallmark uses that particular franchise. They play that franchise more than anything they’ve produced, by far, and they've produced hundreds and hundreds of movies for that channel. So it proved the skeptics wrong, and obviously there is a powerful hunger and need for this type of family programming. To top it off, I formed a relationship with Jeanette Oke, who is really the pioneer of Christian romance fiction. She started that genre, and I have to say, she is one of the most beautiful, wonderful human beings I have ever met. Everything about her is so genuine and real. I'm honored that she has allowed me to use--and trusted me with--more of her material. I just think the world of her.
Alex: Yeah, I've had the chance to meet her on a couple of occasions--certainly not on an in-depth level--but I would definitely agree with you that that's exactly how she comes across. So you're partnering with her again on this next project, When Calls the Heart. Tell us what that's about, the TV series idea and the movie piece.
Michael: Yes, so the When Calls the Heart series has been a labor of love for us as well, my partner Brian Bird and myself. It is an offshoot from the original source material. The way the books are laid out, it wasn't conducive for a TV series. The setup is the same, which is that we start off with this very young, educated woman who has the desire to become a teacher. She's done all of her schooling, and she comes from this very wealthy family living in the city. She is challenged to take a job out West in kind of this unlawful coal mining town, where underprivileged children live. And she forsakes the comforts of home and goes on this daring adventure to teach these children. And so the pilot veers away from the book a bit, but thank goodness Jeanette Oke is completely in agreement with our take. The actual storytelling is in line with When Calls the Heart. But in order to keep a series going and create a world where we're not moving through the other books that we want to preserve of Jeanette's, the coal mining town that we've created, Coal Valley, is a piece of fiction that is separate from her novel. But the essence and the characters and everything are very much from Jeanette's imagination.
Alex: Excellent. It sounds like both your fans and her fans will greatly enjoy that as well.
Michael: I believe so.
Alex: So you've had the chance to work with Jeanette Oke and then Beverly Lewis, which are kind of two very strong pillars in the Christian fiction community. You made movies so far out of Beverly Lewis' The Shunning and The Confession. So what attracted you to her writing, and what was different in portraying kind of that Amish lifestyle versus the more pioneer days in Jeanette Oke's books?
Michael: Right. Well, you know, it's the fascination with the Amish. And obviously, Beverly Lewis has made an entire career out of that. I believe that the non-Amish all just have a certain sense of nostalgia for life without technology. It kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier. In our culture, technology is integrated into nearly every part of our lives, whereas the Amish pretty much avoid all modern technology, including the car, the Internet and, in many cases, even having an in-home phone. And it's all to preserve that social cohesion within their community. And I just think that when you have the modern world spinning around them at this lightning fast speed and pace, these people in like a time-stopping universe becomes just fascinating. Totally fascinating. Beverly Lewis has captured the hearts and minds of readers, and has created compelling characters that push her stories forward.
Alex: Excellent. So we talked briefly about The Ultimate Life, the sequel to The Ultimate Gift. Share a little bit about that project and why you took it on. What is it about the story of Red that attracted you to it, and what do you hope that somebody who sees the film gleans from it?
Michael: The Ultimate Life. The producer, Rick Eldridge, came to me last year in November and asked me if I'd be interested in directing The Ultimate Life. He gave me the script, which centered on Jason, the heir to the estate. And it got into all the machinations and crazy scheming of the dysfunctional family, and the story took place in a courtroom for about 80% of the storytelling. And I just felt like this wasn't where the story needed to go. I think what people were going to be fascinated by was the character that influenced Jason so much, which was the Red character. So in November of last year I pitched to Rick that this be a prequel, and not a sequel, that the story actually revolves around how Red became who he was, what his early upbringing was like and how he ended up becoming a billionaire and how he had a change of heart. And thankfully, he agreed, and we quickly brought on a few writers and built the story.
I usually don't like telling what the audience will get out of it, because I feel like there are different messages that will resonate with different people depending on where they are in life. I do, however, believe that there is something for everyone in the storytelling, the innocence of young love, of commitment. You know, something that was really joyful and one of my favorite parts of this movie is Red’s young love story. I just love the innocence. I'm not saying that the 40s and 50s were perfect. But it sure was really joyful to be in that time period. That's all I can say. Just the music, and kind of innocence of romance and everything. I'm wandering a bit right now.
Alex: Oh, no, that's okay. Yeah, the brief time that I had on set, and the interactions that I've had with Rick and the scenes I've seen of it, definitely resonate the differences in time periods. Also the timeless things—the lessons or gifts--that no matter what time you interact with, it's still a very appropriate message.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, one of the big themes is gratitude. The one conclusion I've definitely come to is that if you don't have a grateful heart, you can't be a happy person. And listen, I completely understand that there is a lot of struggling going on for a lot of people in this country. But when you look at other countries and what their struggles are, as a whole, we should be pretty grateful. I know we had worked together on getting the film Jamah out, you know, you look at worlds like that, and you see the spirit of those people, and their gratefulness for basically having nothing. It's just so important to try to have a grateful heart no matter what the circumstances are that you're going through.
Alex: That is very true. Very true. In fact, I was talking to my kids the other day, and we were talking about the scene in Jamah of the little boy and the girl having to haul the coffin halfway around the country, and thinking, my kids are about that age. Boy, you know, I'm eternally grateful that they don't ever have to live that sort of thing. So you're right. Gratitude is such a very important thing.
Michael: Yeah. And I just want to make sure I'm clear that I'm definitely speaking to myself when I talk about gratitude. Something that I constantly need to remind myself. If I'm acting spoiled or feeling down because something didn't happen right, I try to remind myself that it's ridiculous.
Alex: Yeah, I got frustrated last night because my WIFI was down for 15 minutes at home--it was a meltdown—so, I know the feeling.
Michael: Right? And then you just take a step back. You go, oh, my gosh, this is ridiculous. In reality I'm so blessed.
Alex: Absolutely. So let me ask you one more question as our time winds down. We usually like to find one crazy, off-the-wall question to ask folks. So, if you were sitting down with an 18-year-old Michael, what would you tell yourself all those years ago?
Michael: Oh, if I was sitting down with an 18-year-old Michael.
Alex: Like with yourself, not just a random 18-year-old kid named Michael.
Michael: With my actual self?
Alex: Yes. What would you have told yourself when you were 18? What wisdom would you have imparted?
Michael: I would have told him… Just trust in Jesus. Trust Him. Trust that He's going to bring you through to the other side, and don't try to do it on your own strength. And I mean that sincerely. This is not just to tell an audience of Christians. When I was 18 years old, I was a wreck. I was a wreck. My parents had divorced, and I was completely lost in the world. And I fought. I fought The Message. I fought it all the way, all the way. I didn't want to have anything to do with Jesus, nothing. Yeah.
Alex: Excellent. Well, that sounds like very timeless advice. Michael, thank you so much for this time; we appreciate it. We very much look forward to partnering on these upcoming projects, and I definitely look forward to our paths crossing again.
Michael: Appreciate that, Alex.