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The reluctant Christian filmmaker who made ‘The Chosen’

Dallas Jenkins told me in a video call that he wanted to be a sports journalist

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Dallas Jenkins, creator, producer, writer and director of “The Chosen,” talks to the media in Midlothian, Texas, on Aug. 15, 2022.

Dallas Jenkins, creator, producer, writer and director of “The Chosen,” talks to members of the media at the Salvation Army’s Camp Hoblitzelle in Midlothian, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Dallas Jenkins really didn’t want to become a Christian filmmaker.

Those aren’t words you’d expect from the creator and director of “The Chosen,” a dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ that The New York Times described as “breaking into the mainstream.”

“He really was an unusual kid from Day 1. I mean, very verbal, you know,” Dallas’ father, Jerry Jenkins, told me in a video call. “The joke is that he was directing in the labor room, the lights were too bright.”

But Dallas Jenkins didn’t spend his childhood thinking about Hollywood fame. He spent his adolescent years dreaming of becoming an athlete or sports broadcaster, like his father was before becoming a bestselling novelist.

“I would practice broadcasting games on my tape recorder,” Dallas Jenkins told me. He loved to read The Chicago Tribune’s sports section from an early age.

But then he watched “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There’s one scene where Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) denies Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) when he requests to watch the World Series. McMurphy feigns broadcasting a pretend game with a blank TV to a cadre of captivated inmates.

“I was so moved by it,” Jenkins said about the creation of this scene. “I thought, whatever that is, I want to do that: making movies, telling stories that can result in the kind of emotional response that I had to that scene.”

It was then Jenkins knew he didn’t want to become a sports broadcaster.

Jenkins bonded with his father over a shared love of movies. “We would sit down and would watch ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ the movie ‘Bullet’ and ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and some of the classic films.”

“When he got to be about 13, I took him to see some movies that I felt were really great movies: ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and things like that,” Jerry Jenkins said. “I remember him saying one time after a movie, something sort of like, ‘I’m not sure what that is, but that’s what I want to do.’”

“The Chosen” creator also has memories of watching Christian movies, too. After all, his father is a prolific Christian writer.

“I did remember thinking at the time, why is it that the Christian stuff is always so much worse than the regular stuff?” Dallas told me. “The quality level is just so much lower. And I started to think if there could be stories that came from my faith that reflected my experience and my beliefs just like these filmmakers are reflecting theirs, the mainstream filmmakers could really have an impact there.”

It was then Jenkins thought, “I’m not going to be a Christian filmmaker. I’m just going to be a filmmaker who happens to be Christian.”

“I’m not enamored with the Christian film genre,” he said. It’s not that Jenkins doesn’t like movies with strong faith elements — he does and rattled off movies like “The Case for Christ,” “The Matrix” and “Chariots of Fire” as examples of films in this genre he likes — it’s that he thinks “it tends to pigeonhole a movie.”

His plan was different. He wanted to make mainstream character-driven movies with a faith perspective — but not Christian movies.

Jenkins’ faith has always been important to him. “I’ve always believed, I’ve always had faith,” he said, as he credited his family and church growing up for his strong belief in Jesus. His father Jerry told me the family focused on doing things like praying together every night and spending quality time together.

So, with his faith so instilled in him, Dallas wanted to incorporate it into his work but avoid the pitfalls he saw in the Christian film genre.

After graduating from University of Northwestern-St. Paul studying media and the bible, Jenkins married his wife, Amanda. By age 25, Jenkins landed a job as a producer on a movie that combined his love of sports and faith: “Hometown Legend.”

“The movie didn’t make money, but it got picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution and got distributed all over the world,” he told me. “And that was my start into making movies for myself.”

To learn the art of making movies, Jenkins began to study. He picked up the American Film Institute’s 100 top films list and began watching. “All About Eve,” “Raging Bull,” “The Godfather,” “Fargo,” “Goodfellas,” “Citizen Kane,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and others. Movies became textbooks to the budding filmmaker.

After each one, Jenkins read celebrated film critic Roger Ebert’s reviews (“one of the most brilliant film analysts of all time”) and turned to his fellow filmmakers to learn from them.

“Every single great filmmaker of all time — we’re talking about the greats or even the really good ones — were film students before they were filmmakers. They were raised on films. They’ve seen more films that they can remember,” Jenkins said. A great film, he told me, was one that had a consistent “cinematic language” and earns “its pivotal moments.”

“But finally, I think that especially a film needs to tell the truth.”

As Jenkins transformed himself into a student of film, he had a moment where he said “God directly spoke to me.”

That moment came when he was mowing his lawn. Jenkins said he heard a clear voice tell him in his heart, “I want you to make movies for me and for the church.” Immediately after the experience, Jenkins remembered thinking “That’s embarrassing. And Christian films suck.” He heard God speak to him again, saying, “So, make a good one. And my people deserve good movies, too.”

After that experience, Jenkins said he “wasn’t trying to be cute anymore. I wasn’t trying to be a filmmaker who happened to be Christian. God had told me to make films for him and to not be ashamed of faith-based filmmaking.”

He went inside to tell his wife, Amanda, who “didn’t think it was cool either.” But, Jenkins said, he knew he needed to stop trying to be cool.

The first film where Jenkins answered this personal, spiritual call starred Kevin Sorbo and Debby Ryan. “What If ...” was a drama about a man who was shown the path his life would have taken if he didn’t leave his hometown to make money. He partnered with Pure Flix Entertainment — “the kingpins of Christian entertainment” — to make it.

After directing and producing this film, he said he received praise from a friend and fellow-filmmaker that gave him the confidence to keep going. It was a movie that made Jenkins feel like he may be able to make it in the business.

With a new-found moxie and a spring in his step, Jenkins felt like he could make movies in the decidedly Christian genre that still appealed to the professional world.

Then, his confidence dissipated after he made “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.”

The plot of “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” is a tad zany. A washed-up star (Brett Dalton) runs into some trouble and has to do some community service time to make up for it. Instead of sweeping the floors at a megachurch like he’s supposed to, he ends up landing the role of Jesus in an Easter pageant play at the church.

The movie received positive reviews from sought-after industry sites like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. But the film didn’t perform as well as expected at the box office.

“It was crushing,” Jenkins told me. “The Friday afternoon when the numbers came in for the box office and it was a total bomb, and the companies that I had made that movie with and had wanted to make more movies with me all said, ‘Well, we’re done,’ I went from, in just a couple hours, being a director with a bright future to a director with no future.”

It was “the lowest moment” of his career. Jenkins began to reassess his career choice, looking into advertising jobs or teaching film. In the meantime, he started making a short film with his church that he had tabled while making “The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.”

The budget was much smaller than what Jenkins had become accustomed to and by Hollywood standards, the movie was “tiny.” But the moxie Jenkins had lost returned tenfold.

“While I was doing it, I was like, man, I am never more satisfied artistically and comfortable artistically, and never am I more in my wheelhouse than when I’m doing these short films from the Bible.”

Jenkins said his motivations needed to change.

“When I would have the temptation to seek credit or to slip into a conversation something that I’d done in hopes of gaining affirmation, I started replacing it with scripture and I read books on the topic of narcissism,” he said.

As Jenkins changed as a person, he believes he hit a point where God told him he was ready to make “The Chosen.”

Actor Jonathan Roumie speaks with director Dallas Jenkins while filming Season 3 of “The Chosen.”

Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in “The Chosen,” listen to Dallas Jenkin, creator, producer, writer and director, while filming at the Salvation Army’s Camp Hoblitzelle in Midlothian, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

While on set of “The Chosen” earlier this year, Jenkins told me, “And now all I care about is that if at the end of seven seasons, I kept my integrity, I was surrendered to God in the process, I was a good husband and father, I accurately, as well as I could, portrayed the character and intentions of Jesus in the gospels, that’s success.”

With this new-found attitude in place, Jenkins felt prepared to make “The Chosen,” but also to not take himself too seriously. The awards have rolled in for the show and he is laser-focused on making a show to make God proud.

As much as he has a fan following, those who work with Jenkins praise him and describe him as a visionary.

Mark Sourian, head of production for the show, has worked in the industry for decades. He’s worked with Steven Spielberg (who described his passion as “unflagging”) and Tim Burton. He climbed his way to the top and was an executive at DreamWorks and Universal.

Sourian speaks about Jenkins with high approbation. When I spoke with Sourian on set earlier this year, he told me there were many moments where he saw something special in Jenkins while working with him. He said he remembered thinking to himself, “Wow, I feel like I’m working with Cecil B. DeMille in this moment.” It may be “a slight overstatement,” he said, but he said he was “feeling like I’m in a moment of greatness.”

“I couldn’t be more thrilled, couldn’t be more proud,” Jerry told me. “We shake our heads every day. I mean, Diana (Jerry’s wife) and I will watch something on YouTube where he’s introducing something or is in a behind the scenes thing and we’re like, ‘Where did that kid come from?’”

Now, as Dallas approaches his fifth decade of his life and “The Chosen” rapidly ascends in viewership, he told me he doesn’t care about labels.

“I don’t shy away from the fact that I’m a Christian, that I’m a Christian filmmaker, that my films all come through a lens of belief in Christ,” he said.

Jenkins has hinted at making more biblical productions, so I asked him what was next for him after “The Chosen.”

While he wouldn’t tell me specifics, he did tell me, “We do hope that someday we’ll be able to make some announcements about expanding this Chosen universe and Bible universe and telling more stories beyond just the Gospels. But there’s still plenty to do right now. I mean, I still gotta edit Season 4.

On Friday, Jenkins announced on social media that he will be making a movie of the book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” For 15 years, he had been vying to make the project and it finally came to fruition. It will come out in theaters in 2024 and serve as Lionsgate’s holiday special.

It won’t delay “The Chosen,” Jenkins said. After all, he still has three more seasons left to make.