Moving from the financial industry into the film-making world may sound like a big leap, until you hear Jason Atkins talk about it. And suddenly it makes perfect sense. Why? Because when the Holy Spirit directs something, He makes all the difference. And the way He pulled together the story, the script, the actors and the message of Unconditional (arriving in theaters this month) is something that only He could do…
Family Christian: We always like to start out our interviews with some background. Tell us a little about Jason Atkins and what brought you to the idea of creating the film Unconditional…
Jason Atkins: Sure, my background is originally in the finance world. I had worked for about 12 years in the hedge fund community and prior to that was working for a Global 100 accounting firm. But one morning in 2006 while I was praying I felt the Lord start to speak to me about media. Out of that time of prayer He referenced [me] back to Hebrews 11:3, [where] the things of the seen came from that which cannot be seen. He began relating that to me [by] cross referencing back into the Old Testament where the prophets were bringing His messages to the people into a visual context, essentially, things that could not be seen into realms that could be. So back in 2007 our foundation decided there was more love, hope and truth that we could offer the world through our foundation and supporting media than just making money for institutions and wealthy individuals which is who our clientele was. So within our investment firm we started the Doorpost Film Project whose purpose was to identify the next generation of filmmakers and instill love into those individuals so that they could move up in their craft; becoming the leading filmmakers of the next generation... that the nature of their content would reflect the values of the Kingdom of heaven. So we started that project and in the first year it was named [among the] top 25 film projects in the US. We had a few thousand enter into a film contest that we held. We had 3,000 artists and creatives sign up to participate in our social platform, somewhat of a “MySpace for filmmakers” that we developed and those 3,000 filmmakers produced short content out of which we selected the best and most promising to remake content on the topic of hope. My current business partner and a producer on the film Unconditional, felt like the Lord was saying, we shouldn’t necessarily preach to these individuals because we needed to meet them where they were and show God’s love to them, but what we could do was set a platform for them to discover truth. And so we used the biblical principles (like redemption or forgiveness or love) that the submissions for this contest had to be attached to one of these concepts. Then, those that we selected participated in a final round that we provided some funding for and told them they had to make their film on [the subject of] hope. They had to explore hope in order to try and to be true to that concept. It was their own discovery process and it was the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to bring them to a place of what truth might be within that concept that is His. And so through that, it opened our eyes to the nature and impact of media, and we saw several people come to know Christ through that experience, for others it reshaped the way they were thinking about the contest and even a couple that has said they were [previously] thinking about giving up on making movies all together had this contest not come along. If they hadn’t made it into finals they were going to quit what they were doing and go back to their previous day job. One of those filmmakers is Brent McCorkle who ended up directing Unconditional. About half of the finalists in 2008 and 2009 (the two years that J. Wesley Legg and I led that project as a side bar to our hedge fund investment firm) were believers and about half of them were not. They were all exploring “how can I make my own impression on this world” some for good and some not. Hopefully over the 2 years that we led and the 3rd that an independent board led the Doorpost Film Project, the future of film-making was impacted for future generations. We’re excited that since that project, we’ve had multiple filmmakers go on to make feature films, some go on to write large budget Hollywood films and their careers are on a fast track in many ways to become the influencers of this generation. But in 2008 I was continuing to pray and I felt like the Lord was telling us the time to shut the hedge fund down and move into media full-time was something He had a real interest in. The more we pushed into it, the more that became evident. In the middle of 2008 we opened the second office for our investment firm in Nashville, and by the end of the year we came to the conclusion that even though we were growing, the Lord had different plans for us and it was time to shut down. So we let our employees know, it was a 6 month process in that transition phase, but by middle of 2009 we had shut the firm down and had started the process of making our first feature film with the idea that we would continue to sow into future generations, but the need for truth in the world today, and the need for inspiration and hope was a present problem, not just a future issue. So that’s when we began to [ask] what should our first feature film be? Shortly after arriving in Nashville, we had begun to participate in an inner city ministry working with at-risk children and youth called Elijah’s Heart. They provided food, after-school mentoring and their biggest ministry is a youth choir that’s multi-race and works across 7 different projects in Nashville. So through that ministry we got to know an individual named Joe Bradford who was just one of the most humble, gentle, meek, kind individuals we had ever had a chance to get to know.
The Heart Behind Unconditional
Through the process of seeking what our first film should be about, I felt like the Lord said I should talk to Joe about his story. Now, at the time my perspective of his story was not film-worthy, I knew he had kidney disease, had a transplant and I knew that he worked with at-risk children, but in and of itself in that did not make for a theatrical experience, at least in my mind’s eye. But I asked Joe to lunch one day and I brought the topic up and he started to weep in the middle of the Five Guys Burger. I was kind of looking at him stunned and he said I knew this day was coming and I didn’t know when or how, but I knew I was supposed to share my story with you, and what I’m about to tell you no one other than my wife knows, and I’ve been scared to share it with others because I didn’t know if you would still be my friend. So I shared with him “Look Joe, I love you, nothing you can share with me would change my opinion of who you are, or the friend that you are.” So he goes on them to share his story, of growing up in a small, rural town being the only African American growing up in an all-white town. He was dirt poor to the point they did not have indoor plumbing nor did they have their own outhouse – He had to use the neighbors’ outhouse in his childhood years. He taught himself how to play the saxophone and then took some karate classes. Through the whole process of him laying out the components I began to see (laughs) well maybe there are some theatrical elements to this. So then he goes into his adult life, becoming one of the world’s first hackers and almost definitively one of the world’s first African American computer hackers. The events that led up to his ultimate “fall” from a place of growing prominence within the University of Tennessee and a job at IBM to a place of incarceration. Then he carried it further and talked about what happened in prison, and how it happened and the nature of how God started to transform his life and where He showed him new value and new hope – what love really was about. And shared more about his views of “the highway of love” how scripture lays that out and ultimately to the point of working with children through “walks of love” that he does with these inner city communities. It all just began to really sink in that Jesus knows more than we do. (laughs) My preconceived notion of what makes a theatrical story was not just wrong, but was dead wrong. And the thing that He was really just pushing into me at the moment was that we don’t always have to make up stories to glorify God, he’s already written truth before the foundation of time and the story that He’s written for each one of us truly is a theatrical experience that we can all marvel at, wherever He’s involved. And so the nature of Joe’s story having true elements that people will see on screen became more and more profound as I learned more and more and the realization that truth has so much more power than fiction. So that led to us beginning to develop the script and write the story, and incorporate as many of the true elements of his life that we could. Our first version was about 3 hours long, and we tried to whittle it down and in the process broaden the character base. We took some artistic liberties with a few characters and changed some names and basic profiles but left everything around Joe’s story as true to form as we possibly could. In some places we dumbed it down because we didn’t believe that audiences would actually walk away believing [it was] true because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. The elements that people scoff at most when they watch the movie and say that couldn’t have really happened were much more bizarre and unusual than what we even put on camera. So the entire process was God, we want our life to matter and we love what we’re doing as investors and You’ve blessed us in the business that You’ve given us, but our lives feel like they’re isolated and buffeted and we want every component to be of value. So in that process of seeking He began to unveil the Doorpost which led to Harbinger Media Partners. So the thing we delighted in doing and what was a blessing, He chose to shut down for a new path and Lord willing this will be one of many stories to come.
Unconditional Movie Trailer
FC: What an incredible story. So does that mean the Doorpost Film Project is officially shut down or is that still sort of running behind the scenes?
Jason: I wish that it were. We turned it over in 2009 to an independent board and we gave them the funding and operating budget for the following year with the understanding that they’d become self-sufficient and it did not work out.... it unfortunately closed its doors (at least from an outside perspective). The database and all of the underlying work is still there, but on a day-to-day basis it does not have an active presence anymore.
FC: Unconditional is just the sort of film that grapples with your heart. What’s the process of going from script to recruiting actors, and how did these big names react to the message of Joe’s story?
Jason: The process is one of writing the scripts (we wrote 7 major iterations, 13 total drafts of the script) and getting to the 13th draft and having it pass through the muster of scrutiny from multiple demographics and geographic parts of the country to make sure there was some measure of poetic flow to it. We went out to actors and used a casting agency in LA. They were fantastic, they gave us recommendations of who they thought would fit well to play the characters because they read the script as well. We had our own wish list of actors that we thought would be right to play various characters and so we went out and made offers to a handful of people. The process was one of offer and either acceptance or rejection – when you get to that level of talent they can select which projects they want to participate in. The interesting thing about it is not knowing the full background of all of these actors and actresses that we were making offers to. It’s a scary proposition because you never know what you’re going to discover after the fact and in some cases we were just very thankful that God saw fit to provide us cover and work it out the way He did.
Michael Ealy was one of the very first people that we went to. We didn’t know he was a believer but he is. He’s an amazing man with great wisdom – he helped to cover us in a lot of areas of production. Being first-time producers and directors we could have made mistakes that would have been hard to come back from, but he really helped us to avoid them. He helped to lead and guide elements from a talent, acting and production flow perspective. He was just amazing. He spent a lot of time with the real Joe Bradford to make certain that he was embodying as well he could the personality and the love of the Holy Spirit in Joe. Michael has been a delight from the beginning.
Lynn Collins was another really cool situation in that she grew up in a home of faith in Texas and had been in Hollywood for awhile. Upon talking to her about the story, she shared that she was really pleased because this is the type of content her mother was really excited about. She had been talking with several [people] recently who’d recognized that it felt like the world needed more hope and more positive pieces of content. She was thrilled to be a part of something like this that she had not had the luxury of doing for awhile. She had just come off John Carter which was a $250 million movie that she was the lead in. Michael had just come off of finishing Takers which was a blockbuster that he was a lead in. So they really kind of just identified with the story at different levels. Michael because of a heart for children and the challenge of playing a real guy that was a positive role model within the African American community as a male figure who was being the father to the fatherless; embodying the essence of true religion according to James. Lynn grew up in Texas and had horses. She said that she would share secrets with the horses that she wouldn’t share with anyone else and went through periods of her life where she had battled elements of depression, so the character played out in a way that just mimicked her real life as a child and adult. She was able to embrace and realize that others could take the story and find a real place of hope.
FC: So you guys are doing something unique because you’re literally calling people to action after viewing the movie. Can you tell us a little about that?
Jason: Sure. When we went down the path of making the movie, the question that kept coming back to me, when I was praying about the situation [was], God is this the movie we are to make? And what kept coming back to me was “Are you going to remember my forgotten ones?” That question really didn’t haunt me, but it felt really important. (laughs) The heart of God is for the fatherless for the widow for the broken and what are we going to do as the church? As believers? As His children, to remember those that society in many ways has forgotten, that we often turn our back to, or we feel like they might have gotten themselves into bad situations. The one thing about children is that they don’t choose which home they’ll be born into. They didn’t decide where they would be born geographically or to the gene pool they came out of. They’re innocent in the form of their circumstance. In part, their conditions were never ones of their own choosing. And yet God was asking the question – are you going to love them? That in part sprang up the genesis of the title of the movie, Unconditional.
So what we wanted was not just to entertain but hopefully inspire believers that come out of the theater – that their lives can be of greater value. That they can be a hero. It doesn’t take much to be a hero for someone else other than to just share a life of love. And so we’ve begun to partner with organizations all over the country in just about every city that we’re opening in – we will have at least one and in most cases more than one that we’re calling ACT partners. These are organizations that serve the broken, the needy and the hurting. Whether it’s helping children with after-school mentoring programs, feeding programs, adoption situations and in some cases job training… we’re raising [people] up as the hands and feet of Christ, to let them know that they are loved by the Father in heaven, that their life matters and they can become more than what they see around them. Their lives are precious and treasured. Our hope is that people will leave the movie and get activated in such a way that they become the hands and feet of Christ to someone else. And whether they see themselves this way or not, they become a “Papa Joe-like” character where they’re the hero of their own story for someone else just by sharing one life at a time. Right now we’re thrilled because not only do we have great partners, but we’re already hearing the magnitude of the great impact of these partnerships. Even people coming out of the first private screenings, general audiences of pastors and business leaders were saying – I’ve got to do something else, I’ve got to either start a ministry or I’ve got to plug into a new one. I’m not doing enough – my life can be worth more to someone else than to myself. And that’s really encouraging and exciting. At the end of day I think it’s touching the heartbeat of God and ultimately the purpose of why He’s called us into making this content to begin with.
FC: We think it’s just great that you not only display this story to be enjoyed, but then encourage people to go make a difference themselves. Will there be a soundtrack to go along with the film?
Jason: We talked about doing an “inspired by” CD, because there are only five songs in the entire movie – the rest of it is score-based, so we don’t have enough songs to make a full-blown soundtrack. We potentially could if there was demand, we could add to that list another 7 tracks that we kind of drew upon ourselves while writing the movie to cobble on to it. We released a new single on gospel and some contemporary stations called “Hope” and it was written initially by Grammy award-winning songwriter Aaron Lindsey. We just re-recorded the vocals recently with Brian Courtney Wilson. The other songs were sung by a husband and wife duo who go by the name of Johnnyswim. They’re good friends of ours, the female voice is the daughter of Donna Summers, Amanda Ramirez is her current married name and Johnnyswim is absolutely phenomenal. One of their songs is in the main body of the movie, and the other is at the beginning of the credits. The one in the credits is called “You’re Not Going to Leave Me Here” which is a really cool song basically about love getting us where we are and that it won’t leave us in the place of brokenness and the other one is called “Good News.” They are a wonderful group, but also amazing people.
FC: Ok, one last question for you. What would you say to a young filmmaker who is a follower of Jesus and feels like they have talent for film-making that they want to pursue?
Jason: Good question. Pray… and don’t rush it. Not in the sense of don’t push into it quickly – but don’t rush a product. We have a lot to learn and as believers we have a duty and responsibility to excellence and honoring our King with something that is capable of standing on its own as an artistic piece. That is glorifying not just in its content but in its production. And we are nowhere near that ourselves, so that’s not coming from a place of pride – I recognize on the front end at Harbinger that we have a long way to go to meet the threshold that we ultimately want to be at. I think the danger and the trap is for believers who are so eager to bless the name of Jesus that we sometimes diminish the value of the art itself to where it can’t be received by the audience it was originally intended to be received by. It’s more of a challenge than advice because we all have to find our own path and I would not be presumptuous enough to say that I know the best way, but my heart is this: that others who God is calling (and He is calling quite a few), will take the challenge seriously. That [the church will] reemerge as the leaders of art and culture and no longer sit back and say a tithe or a partial tithe is good enough in the form of our art. It needs to truly be an offering, in the sense of giving everything. For hundreds (if not thousands) of years the church led in the nature of content, art and shaping culture through the arts, and because of our willingness to accept lower production value and quality, we’ve really lost our voice in many places. I’m just excited to see that God is raising up those that are extraordinarily gifted and I believe that’s an area of society that He’s going to leverage to lead in again. However, we [at Harbinger] can serve those that He’s calling and we want to do that. He’s bringing them to the marketplace but if they can [they should] be as patient as possible to bring as beautiful an offering to the table as they can. And not rush quality, because I don’t think that quality can be rushed, it is something that has to be developed and nurtured.
FC: Excellent words, Jason.
To learn more about Harbinger Media Partners and their upcoming projects, click here.