Filmmaker Kyle Portbury directed a new full-length feature film about the history of the early Adventist church, with almost 100 actors, shot on location in an operating pioneer village in Ottawa, Canada. Tell the World was sponsored by the Australian Union Conference, and was designed to be translated into multiple languages and distributed globally. In this exclusive interview, Portbury tells Spectrum what it was like to make the movie and what he learned about our early church pioneers.
Question: Tell the World is a new feature film that tells the story of the early Adventist church, produced under the auspices of the Australian Union Conference. How did you come to direct the film?
Answer: Back in 2011 in my role as Creative Director of Film and Television at the Adventist Media Network in Australia I had just finished post production on Beyond the Search, a multi-million dollar series and had started filming the CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program) re-make for Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing.
And that was when the Australian Union Conference approached Adventist Media Network with a proposal to develop Tell the World; I was the right director in the right place with the right skill set at the right time.
I had a very strong vision for the film, and being a lifelong Adventist it was a good fit. I am grateful to the executive producers from the Australian Union Conference who trusted me to be able to get the performances they needed to tell their story. They had seen my previous work and liked what they saw — that always helps to get you the job.
The film features William Miller, Ellen Harmon, Joseph Bates, James White and other pioneers of our church. Did professional actors play these characters? What did you do to try to bring these 19th century characters to life? What did the actors know about the characters they were playing?
Yes, all actors in the film are professional actors from the Ottawa area, or grew up in Ottawa and work out of Toronto.
The actors were amazing, committed people who all embraced the challenge of portraying real people who actually lived.
We are lucky that as a church we have curated a treasure trove of primary resources on all these pioneers; the actors were able to read their letters and research their lives extensively. Tommie for example, who plays Ellen, immersed herself in research and reading White’s books, letters and other writings, along with talking to our church historians. In addition she attended an Adventist church over a couple of Sabbaths in Toronto and told me it was one of the most welcoming experiences she has had anywhere. (Well done, members of that church in Toronto — way to represent your faith and leave an impression.)
It was such a privilege to be able to see how non-Adventists responded to our pioneers. They didn’t see the baggage we have placed around Ellen, Joseph Bates, James White, etc — they saw a real person within the personal writings and it was refreshing to have someone remind you that these were real people who struggled with the same things we wrestle with today. When you discover that you can relate to them as people, what they said and wrote about gains some context.
Historical dramas have the potential to just look like actors dressed up in old-fashioned clothing, speaking stilted lines. It can be hard to immerse the audience in the action, and make it believable. Did you find this to be a challenge?
Bringing to life a 19th century character is largely the same as bringing to life a modern day character: we have to believe them. By this I don’t mean we have to believe that is actually Ellen White on screen but we do need to believe that the emotions and intent we are seeing from her are real. If Ellen White’s goal is to inspire James White to continue printing, then she has to inspire him — you can’t pretend to inspire someone. You the actor either inspire the other actor or you don’t. If you don’t, we shoot another take. If you do we might still shoot another take. That’s acting; it isn’t voodoo or magic, it’s just being truthful on camera. If the emotions are true we’ll buy that it’s 1844 because we believe the people we are seeing are experiencing a real emotion and that will distract anyone from seeing the fake walls and the odd watch an actor forgot to take off.
Again, the challenge is truthful performances. You can play simple tricks like un-contracting words; for example in the 19th century you would say “I will” as opposed to “I’ll”. But as I said, we’ll suspend our disbelief if we see a real emotion: joy, elation, heartbreak, sorrow. We’ve all experienced those emotions so we know what they look and feel like. If it looks and feels right I’m in 1850s New England; if it doesn’t I’m watching some people in 2013/14 dressed up in period costume pretending to be people we’ve heard of. When it's released, you can be the judge on how well we did.
Is the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, the major focus of the movie's narrative arc? What cinematic techniques did you use to highlight the night's impact on those who believed it was the end of the world?
It’s a big plot point for sure. Essentially Tell the World is a story about trust. The pioneers trusted God was coming back — the evidence was clear. Bam! October 22, 1844 comes and… he doesn’t show up. From that point on it’s a story of the journey to restore trust.
We utilized very simple techniques, mainly focused on character development. We built up the moment and the expectation over a period of time by getting to know and like the people, then we crushed our heroes. All the pioneers recount weeping bitterly all morning. I stay in very close shots on the main characters before and after the hour comes and goes so you feel what they feel. It’s simple but effective.
We also choose a color treatment in the build up to 1844 using warm tones in our scenes. This visually suggests positivity, excitement and expectation. Immediately after the hour passes we cooled the color tones creating a sense of sterility, unwelcoming and harsh. As the pioneers deal with the fallout and regain their trust and begin to focus on the mission we re-introduce the warm tones.
What did you find to be the greatest challenge or difficulty in making Tell the World? What was the most fun?
The greatest challenge by far was not having editorial control of the final film. As essentially a director for hire I worked closely with the client, the Australian Union Conference and the Adventist Media Network, and delivered what I believe is an excellent 110-minute film.
The film that will be released later this year is different from what I envisioned for the story, which is a shame, but it was not my film and not my money. While I worked hard to deliver a powerful experience for the church with a strong story structure and clear plot progression (something that’s important to a film director), I had to be adult enough to recognize that when you make a film for an organization like our church (which is culturally very cerebral and not very emotional), a film aimed at the heart is never going to win out against a film aimed at the intellect. That’s the risk I took and yes, it’s disappointing (pun intended) that the film aimed at the intellect won out. That’s the way it goes. Plenty of directors have films in their back catalogue that aren’t the film they envisioned. What they show are the films the producers made, so I join very illustrious company.
I was extremely blessed to be given the opportunity to direct a film of this size and scope at all, and despite my comments above, I’d do it again even if I knew the outcome would be the same. As filmmakers we want to tell stories, and those stories become our passion. I had a wonderful experience directing during production with a great cast and crew. God blessed us incredibly in every way possible.
We were the biggest film to shoot in Ottawa (Canada’s capital) in the last five years. So we were big news and it was amazing to see the awareness of Adventism grow from almost zero to “Hey, you’re the lovely people who respect everyone and give us Friday at sundown to Saturday evening at sundown to recover from the work week.” There is a whole film community in Ottawa who are used to working 18 hours a day, seven days a week for eight weeks in a row while a movie is shot — they want us to come back so they can enjoy Sabbath again!
So how is the finished film different from the film you delivered to the Australian Union Conference?
I am not able to answer that question at this time.
You had 97 actors, as well as 1,000 extras, and 157 crew. Was it difficult to manage such a large cast and crew? What directing experience do you have?
I had a great team around me. The cast and crew in Ottawa were hard-working professionals and that made the shoot run very smoothly.
I trained as a professional actor and director at The Drama Centre London and have spent the last 10 years directing productions big and small all over the world both for the church and independently. I’ve been blessed that a few have been recognized for awards and film festival selections around the world. A couple have had limited cinema releases and a few have gotten TV deals.
I’ve been particularly blessed to direct a couple of big Adventist series like Beyond the Search and CHIP. Its one thing to have someone like your work and enjoy your storytelling, it’s another to find out that someone came to know God and his character through watching one of your films and then more importantly as a result they connected with some Adventist whose life was reflective enough of that character that the person gave their own life to God. That’s the best review you’ll ever get and one where the credit goes to God and not you.
How was such a large production paid for?
The Australian Union Conference stepped out in faith and funded the majority of the budget with additional funds coming from the South Pacific Division, the General Conference and the Canadian Governments film tax credit program.
What did you learn about our church's beginnings while working on this project? Did you do lots of your own research?
Oh yes, I think I’ve read about all of Ellen White’s letters and a good number of her books. I read writings by James White, Joseph Bates, biographies on William Miller and his personal writings, and I also researched the various Protestant movements that influenced the pioneers before they became Adventist. I spent a lot of time looking at the culture in New England at the time outside of church circles to get a sense of life for the average person. It’s a rich time historically.
I spent two years prepping for the shoot, working closely with retired church historian Alan Lindsay who, in turn, fact checked with George Knight and Jim Nix. We also had historians in Ottawa working with the props, wardrobe and construction departments to stay period accurate with our locations, set builds and everyday items that appear in the film.
Our church beginnings were youthful and open to being led by the spirit — I learned a new appreciation of what present truth is all about. They are an inspiring group of people who had flaws and failings like all of us and that’s why I like them. I can relate to real people and it’s been eye-opening to see the people themselves, through their own writings and correspondence, dispel the myths 175 years of Adventism have created. I love for example that James and Ellen White had a feisty relationship that was imperfect. Hey, if the saints struggle with looking after the kids and doing the chores, there’s hope for all of us.
It will also be interesting for many people to see a pregnant Ellen White. So she understands parenthood, I like her more already. Now when I read her writings I see a person behind them who was a mother, wife, sister, daughter, aunty, cousin, niece — who also happened to have visions and insights from God which focused us as a movement on the Bible and helped us see God’s character more clearly. Thank you, Ellen. After spending two years researching her life, I feel like I know her pretty well, and actually quite like her.
What impact do you hope that this film will have on its viewers?
That the characters/the pioneers will resonate with people and keep them watching. It’s a great story that will change the way you see this group of people who never lost faith that God was true to his word. Despite setbacks and disappointments they held fast to the God they met in the Bible who said I will come again.
They went back to the Bible after 1844 and found the error was theirs and not God’s, but more importantly they affirmed that the God they knew before 1844 was the same God after. He kept his word, he can be trusted. That’s his character, trustworthy, and that’s the gospel right there. The three angels’ message is a call to action to get out there and spread the good news that he can be trusted — something we’ve struggled with as humanity ever since the snake asked Eve, “Did God really say…?” We’ve had trust issues with God from that moment on.
I hope that’s the impact the film will have on Adventism. That’s our identity: we trust God, everything else is background noise (and yes, unfortunately that means our love of conspiracy theories isn’t going to save humanity, fellow Adventists, turns out that’s God’s gig through Christ? Who knew – well, apparently our pioneers did.
You have accepted a new job in the communication department at Southwestern Adventist University? Does this mean you are leaving filmmaking? Do you have any future projects in mind?
No, I won’t be leaving filmmaking anytime soon. I felt strongly that God was asking me, and our family, to spend some time collaborating with the next generation of storytellers as I continue my journey as a storyteller. We desperately need Adventist storytellers who are bold in their choices and are passionate about making films that reveal God’s character to us.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of contacts in the film industry — wonderful people who want to help nurture talent as well. Already we have placed one of our students on an eight-week internship on a big budget faith-based film shooting in the Dallas/Fort Worth area this September and October. It’s important to encourage and create opportunities for these new voices to flourish. (I’ll probably be going cap in hand to some of them 10 years down the track when they are big filmmakers asking them for work.)
Currently I’m attached to direct an independent feature film back in Australia slated for late next year and I’m also developing a number of films and TV series with production companies here in the US. Again, the goal is to give our communication majors here at Southwestern Adventist University the opportunity to intern on their professor’s films.
If I stop telling stories how do I pass on the drive and passion for storytelling?
Kyle Portbury. Top image: Kyle Portbury on set.
For more information about the film, see www.telltheworldfilm.org.
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