Behind the movie camera

Last year, Southern Adventist University students and faculty released a feature film based on an Arthur S. Maxwell book. The Secret of the Cave follows the story of Roy, a young American boy spending the summer in a tiny fishing village in the west of Ireland. While there, unexplainable events happen and the locals mention ghosts. But Roy, together with his new friends, looks for clues to solve the mystery and discover the secret of the cave.

It’s a family-friendly story – a spiritual journey of discovery – and so far it’s been rented 225,000 times. It has been screened at four different film festivals, and it won a Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.

More than 25 Southern students helped to shoot the film, and some of them have landed good jobs in the movie industry as a result of the experience.

Southern’s School of Art and Visual Design didn’t skimp on the film. They went to Ireland to shoot it in the summer of 2005, and they hired professional actors, including Patrick Bergin, of Sleeping with the Enemy fame.

Spectrum talked to David George, assistant professor of film at Southern as well as one of the film’s producers and its director of photography, to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the action that has made the movie an extremely successful project.

Spectrum: Where did the idea to make The Secret of the Cave come from?

David George: We really wanted to develop a project that could demonstrate the vision that we have for the potential of filmmaking within the church, as well as have an in-house large-scale production that students could participate in and learn from. We considered a number of projects, but Secret of the Cave consistently came to the top of the list because of its message, the adventure/appeal of the story, and the fact that we knew we might be able to secure the rights. Once we found that the rights were available it was a no-brainer.

Q: You chose to film overseas. Didn't that make the whole project much more complicated?

A: Filming overseas was a real challenge, but it came with as many blessings as it did struggles. Locations and production design elements that were readily at hand just couldn't have been recreated in the states. While we were far away from much of the infrastructure that we're used to in the states (we had the first landline phone installed in the village) it helped keep the production easy to manage since there was not a lot of hustle and bustle to distract us.

Q: How long did the whole project take, from start to finish?

A: It took three-and-a-half years to make from start to finish: spring 2004 to fall 2007.

Q: How many people worked on the film?

A: I would say that overall approximately 100 people worked on the film, more when you include the marketing team at the studio and others.

Q: Is there anything you are disappointed with, or wish you had done differently?

A: There isn't much that I regret about the film, but there are always things that you wish could have come out differently. The whole process of shooting a film is a painful alignment and stretching of an artistic vision – trying to align reality with that vision. A whole lot of elements, many of which are out of your control, all have to come together just so. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it does not. Every once in a while something special happens that you don't plan or intend. That's the fun part of it.

Q: Were there any tense moments, where you thought you might not pull it off?

A: Unless you've been in a situation like this, it's difficult to describe. I would say that the whole thing is more or less one really long tense moment during which you fear the whole thing may crash and burn. Sure, there are moments that are closer than others, but it's a wild ride.

Q: What was the best moment in the whole process?

A: There were many good experiences, but I think my favorite was being given the
Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival. We didn't do it for the recognition, but it was great to stand on that huge stage with many of the students who worked on the project and accept the award, presented by Jon Voight. Heartland is an amazing festival and anyone who has a chance to go should take it.

Q: What kinds of contributions did the students make?

A: We did have some professionals in key areas as mentors and as insurance, but students played important roles all the way from the development process to producing, locations management, camera department, lighting and grip department, production design, sound, editing, sound design and artwork. Students made a large and significant contribution. They really held their own in a demanding professional environment.

Q: What were the actors like to work with?

A: All of the actors in the film are professionals. Carmel O'Connor, a casting director in Dublin, was the casting director for the project and she did a great job of helping us fund the right people for the roles. I think we were extremely fortunate to have such a talented and dedicated cast. The principle, Roy, was cast out of Los Angeles with the help of one of the film program's graduates, Nathan Huber, who was working with a talent agency at the time.

Q: What lessons did you learn from making the film?

A: I learned a lot from the experience. Perhaps this is circular reasoning, but I feel like by the time I finish every project, that's when I'm actually prepared to start it. I guess if I boiled it down I would say that you've got to have a contingency plan for everything, and that for all those things you can't control you've got to trust God that He had something in mind for you other than abject failure!

Q: Has the film been screened in Ireland?

A: As far as I know the film has not yet screened in Ireland, but I know negotiations or going on right now for worldwide distribution.

Q: What was your budget for the film, and where did you get the money?

A: The budget was very small for the scale of what we were trying to accomplish, but still a pretty large amount relative to Southern Adventist University. The film was made possible by generous donations and by the university itself.

Q: How many copies of the movie have you sold? Has the project been successful financially?

A: It is too early to get a full picture of the financial outcome, but it has returned a sizable portion of the initial cost. It has rented about 225,000 times to date and is widely available within the United States.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the film?

A: There has been a lot of feedback. Kids like the film a lot, although some find it a bit suspenseful. Seeing the rental numbers we've gotten is probably some of the most mind-blowing feedback I've seen. A lot of people have watched it.

Q: Have you made a film before?

A: I've worked on projects for a long time [short films, music videos], but this is the first feature film.

Q: Do you have another film in the works?

A: We are developing another project right now. No details yet.

Q: What do you do when you're not making movies?

A: Most of my productive energy goes into teaching, but I have a family too.
We enjoy cycling and traveling. A lot of what I do has a connection to film, though. Whether I'm watching movies, talking about them, talking about how to make them or actually making them ... it's part of what I do.

Q: What are your three top favorite movies of all time?

A: Hard to narrow it down. Three that I admire a lot are Chariots of Fire, October Sky, and Crash (the Paul Haggis one).

For more about the movie, visit www.secretofthecave.com.

David George graduated from Mount Pisgah Academy in 1994, and attended Newbold College in Bracknell, England for the 1994-95 school year. He finished a degree in broadcast journalism from Southern Adventist University in 1998. He worked in the Chattanooga area in video production until accepting an invitation to teach full time in Southern’s School of Visual Art and Design in 2000.

Since then, George has worked to develop Southern’s film program and has produced a number of films.

He completed a master of fine arts in film/video from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia in 2003.

Read Spectrum's review of the movie here.

You can purchase Secret of the Cave from Amazon and support Spectrum at the same time.

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