Stills from “Like a Country Song”
Johnny Remo had no way of knowing a heartbreaking personal experience would be the catalyst to his first professional success as a filmmaker. In 1993, Remo, who began his career as an actor, was approached by his friend, Dan Donovan, and asked to take a 38-page letter Donovan had written to his estranged father and turn it into a movie script. Working together, the two men had their script within six weeks. Things moved quickly and the following year the movie, “A Letter to Dad,” was released in several foreign markets, although it was not distributed in the U.S.
After making the movie, Donovan sent the letter to his father, but never received a response. Shortly after “A Letter to Dad” was released, Donovan committed suicide. It was his friend Remo who found him. Devastated, Remo put thoughts of a U.S. release aside and, as the years passed, came to believe it was too late to revive the movie. Fast forward to 2006, when his friend, Phil Botana, found out the film was languishing undistributed, and suggested he send it to the Dove Foundation.
Some 15 years after Remo sat down with his friend, Donovan, and cranked out the script, the movie was released in the U.S. at what Remo believes was “the perfect time.” Since then, he has written, produced, and directed “Cutback” (2010) and “Hardflip” (2012), and the DVD release of his latest film, “Like A Country Song,” starring Billy Ray Cyrus and Joel Smallbone, from the band for King & Country, is scheduled for Sept. 9, 2014.
I recently caught up with Remo, who discussed the challenges of making faith-based movies in Hollywood and why he keeps doing it.
What challenges do you face as an independent filmmaker of family- and faith-based films?
It’s a huge struggle from a number of different points, one of them being actors. There are actors out there who won’t do nudity or movies that use the F-bomb or exploit children, but it’s a very small database. It’s tough to find them. When we do find actors we like, we have to do background on them, Google them like crazy, do everything we can to find out if they have been involved with maybe demonic movies or movies that are offensive, even in the general market. You don’t have to be a Christian, you can be any denomination, any religion, and still be offended by certain things.
Many times we’ll lose an actor or actress because they’re associated with something that a 15-year-old kid can go online and Google and find out the [actor or actress] was in a sexually-explicit movie. Now, you can’t get a pastor to recommend this movie. They don’t want their youth group going online and finding out this [actor or actress] has been in compromising situations in movies.
We lost a screening of a movie we did way back because someone was in a movie like that, although they were no longer doing that type of thing. It happens. [Actors and actresses] come to Hollywood and take explicit photos to pay the rent and, even though they change – and that’s one of the hard things with Christians – Christians are supposed to be forgiving, and sometimes they’re not. One of the Scriptures we used in our last movie says in order for God the Father to forgive you of your trespasses, you must forgive others for their trespasses.
The other tough part, as a writer, is to write certain scenarios – say a scene where two people are screaming at each other or very angry with each other – and not use expletives. It’s very, very, difficult. “Darn it, why did you do that?”
I want to preface this by saying I love the Dove Foundation. They’ve given our last three movies five Doves, which is a rarity. There’s a scene at the end of “Cutback” where this kid’s going to surf in a contest and you see him in a full wetsuit that’s zipped up all the way. I had every surfer – Christian and non-Christian – come up to me afterwards and say, “Surfers don’t do that, dude.” They wear the top part down – it’s too hot – walk down, wax their boards, then they put on the top part, zip it up, and go into the water.” I know that, but, you can’t show a male without a shirt; it’s called “male topless nudity.”
These are just some of the things as a Christian filmmaker – or a filmmaker of Christian films – that have to be dealt with. It’s hard to write because you really have to be careful what you say and how you say it and what you’re presenting – and still make it entertaining. Even my daughter, who is a very strong Christian, doesn’t go see Christian movies because she says they’re corny and the acting’s bad.
What’s the feedback from your audiences?
It’s funny, we lose the audience on the Christian side, not the secular side. Obviously, we don’t have any nudity or any sex, but we do deal with real life situations that kids deal with today – drugs, alcoholism, and suicide. The next movie, “Home,” deals with teen pregnancy and runaways. We still lose a handful of people, who say, “Did you have to have drugs in your last movie, or teen drinking?” And, I say, “Yes, I did.” I want to show you what happens to the American family, the moral fiber, how it breaks down when there’s no, not only Christian guidance, but no theological guidance – again, whatever your religion is – in the family. In order to show the redemption, you have to show how bad it was before the redemption. A “goodie two shoes” guy is not going to know what someone is feeling or how to deal with it.
What are you working on now?
“Like a Country Song” had a limited run in the theaters and comes out on DVD September 9th. It stars Billy Ray Cyrus, who some people may not know is Christian. The guy who’s playing the lead is named Joel Smallbone. He’s in a Christian band called “For King and Country.” Jennifer Taylor from the TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” did a great job. Booboo Stewart, who played Seth Clearwater, a member of Jacob Black’s renegade shape-shifter pack in the “Twilight” movies, is in the movie, too. He’s also in “Hansel & Gretel” and plays Warpath in the new “X-Men.” He’s also a Christian. He normally works for 20 times what he’s getting. Same thing with Billy Ray. Billy’s doing us a huge, huge favor because he loves the script. And the legendary Larry Gatlin, from the Music Hall of Fame band, “Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers,” is in the movie, as well.
As a filmmaker, I do get the other side of the spectrum, where there are people who are at a point in their lives and careers, and have made so much money that they don’t care about coming out of the Christian closet, so to speak, and are not going to be ostracized for it.
As I mentioned, the movie that deals with teen pregnancy is called “Home.” It’s about a girl that is belittled by her dad. The wife and husband are having a lot of problems, which you don’t know at the beginning. The daughter’s not that attractive, a little bit overweight; her dad’s always picking on her about that. She becomes bulimic at that point. She’s been talking to this guy online and she has a big fight with her dad and runs away, which kids tend to do, and she gets pregnant. She’s living on the streets with this guy.
It’s a pretty insanely intense movie, but all real-life stuff. We’re even going to deal with her getting approached to become involved in prostitution. Again, we’re going to get hit hard in some places from the really strong, conservative Christians. Someone said to me when we were screening “Cutback,” and I’ll never forget it, “If you offended 10,000 people, but you saved one person, would that be worth it to you?” I stopped for a minute and I said, “You know what? It absolutely would be.”
We get a lot of emails, and I got one [in 2013] that made me cry. The kid emailed me and said, “I want to thank you very much for your movie. It literally saved my life.” Those kinds of people I write back and thank, but I said, “Can you tell me a little bit about what happened?” He said he had lost his girlfriend, his mother was dying, and he had lost his job. He was smoking weed and getting drunk every night. He was at a point in his life where wanted to kill himself. He was done with life, he said.
He woke up that morning and was walking down the street and he said to him, “The next car that comes along, I’m going to throw myself in front of and kill myself.” This car comes barreling down the street and it gets closer and closer – and it’s his sister driving. She stops and picks him up and he goes home, still really depressed and wanting to kill himself. He was down to his last two dollars and he went to Redbox and was going to watch a movie before he killed himself. He saw “Hardflip,” and said he knew nothing about it, didn’t know why he was drawn to it, but he rented it. He went home, watched the movie, and turned his whole life around, stopped doing drugs.
I said, “Can I share this on Facebook?” And he said, “Absolutely.” You would not believe the response I got. Just insane (he draws out the word for emphasis). When I hear things like that, I don’t care who I offend, Christian or no Christian. This person’s life was saved. He turned to Christ; in the Christian world, his soul was saved, but in the secular world, his being, his body was saved. When I hear stories like that, I now know why I make these movies. Sometimes, you forget, and you need a slap in the face like this. When people say there is no God, you go, “Yeah, I guess all that was coincidence? She was just driving down the street at that moment? He just happened to click on the ‘Hardflip’ movie, when he could have clicked on any other movie? And it just so happened that that movie was in Redbox at that point in time?” So, those are the things that make me go, “Wow!” It just has to be divine intervention, whether you want to accept it or not.
You always hear Christians say, “God has a plan.” And you always hear the other person say, “Yeah, what plan is that?” Because it might not be today, might not be tomorrow, might be ten years from now. [This boy] now talks to people who are feeling what he was feeling and tries to help them. Because of his life being spared, he may spare the lives of ten other people. It’s the domino effect, the trickledown effect, that we’ll never see – and we don’t need to see – that is where the work actually happens.
Again, if I offend some people, so be it. If it’s going to change people’s lives in a positive way, then I have to keep doing it. You can’t care what people say.
How difficult is it for you to raise the money to get the movies made, get them distributed? Is that a real struggle for you? Do you ever get frustrated and just think…
I do get frustrated, yes. A lot. The companies – especially Lionsgate — are starting to jump on the bandwagon now. There are a couple of movies – one called “Fireproof” that had Kurt Cameron in it. It was made for $500,000, was shot by these guys known as the Kendrick Brothers. They’re media pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia. The movie was picked up by Provident, which is owned by Sony, and did $40 million in the box office and another $40 million in DVD sales. They just did their other movie called “Courageous” – they spent $2 million making it – and that did about $38 million in the box office and another $30 million in DVD sales so far. “Heaven is for Real,” “Son of God,” and “God’s Not Dead,” were all big successes in the box office. That tells you the market is there.
You don’t make $80 million on a movie that cost $500,000 to make unless people want to see it. It’s tough, very tough, because of the stigma that goes along with Christian movies – they’re cheesy, probably not going to make your money back, who really wants to see them? The reality is, they need to start being bigger budget movies. It’s the only way that you’re going to compete in Hollywood. I can’t compete if George Clooney or Nicholas Cage did a Christian movie. I can’t compete with those sets or special effects. I make my movies for under $500,000, which is tough, really tough.
There are people out there – they’re hard to find – but Christian philanthropists. I get a lot of offers from distributors, from investors, that aren’t doing it for the cause; they’re doing it because, “Oh, I want to jump on the bandwagon and make some money.” And it’s hard for me to go, “Okay, let me make you a lot of money, even though you have no belief whatsoever.”
I try to find that guy under a rock that’s got the money and is willing to do it, and I find them. The last guy was great. He made a lot of money in his lifetime, and he donates a lot of money. He feels blessed from being so successful, so he put up the money. I have another guy, who is very similar, who is putting up the money for this one. If I had a studio behind me or I could make two or three a year instead of one every year and a half or two, it would be a world of difference for me.
How do you push through the frustration and disappointment?
[With exaggerated weariness] It’s called praying. It’s tough because it’s frustrating when you’re ready and you might lose some things now, actors, locations, because you don’t have the money. It’s tough, it’s really hard. I lost an actress – Janine Turner – who was supposed to be in “Like A Country Song” because I didn’t have the money in place to make her an official offer. She’s great, she’s a Christian, she’s a Second (“I Am Second“), but just before we got the money, Clear Channel made a final offer to her for a radio show that she does five days a week from Texas.
Those are the frustrations. Janine loved the script and – it’s sad – her story, when she got pregnant and had the child, her husband abandoned them, which is the same exact story in “Country Song.” She said, “I’m reading my story here.” I thought who could have played it better than her? But I got lucky and found Jennifer Taylor, also a Christian, from the TV series, “Two and a Half Men.”
The same thing with John Ashton in “Letter to Dad.” He turned it down. I’ll never forget, he was sitting on an ottoman in my living room, and I said, “I understand you don’t want to play this role. As a filmmaker, it’ll help me a lot if you would tell me why, so that I can avoid that in the future.” And he said, “You can’t.” [Laughs.] Okay. I said, “What’s the reason you don’t want to play it?” And he said, “I’d be playing my dad.” His eyes welled up, my eyes welled up, and we’re sitting there – two grown men – trying not to cry, and I said to him, “Who better to play it? Who knew him the best?” And he was great in it.
So what’s the impetus? All this frustration; you’re up against all these brick walls. Why do you keep doing it?
I keep doing it for one reason. The reason, as I’ve mentioned, is that letter from the kid who decided not to kill himself. I feel that once you become aware of a situation – whatever the situation is – you now become obligated to do whatever you can do to help that situation. It would be like if you knew that some woman was getting beat up every night by her husband. If you don’t ever know, then it’s one thing, but if you know, you now have to call the authorities. Or if a child’s being abused or bullied and you become aware of it. Now that I know there are people out there like that that I can help, I now become obligated and responsible, happily so, to help as much as I can in any way that I can.