A new web series sponsored by the General Conference, called The Record Keeper, is about to be screened for the very first time. Spectrum interviewed two of the people behind the series. Garrett Caldwell, who holds a doctorate of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, is public relations director for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Jason Satterlund, who directed The Record Keeper, is a graduate of Walla Walla University, an independent movie producer and owner of Big Puddle Films.
Question: You are producing a web series about the politics of angels. What can viewers who tune in expect to see?
Garrett Caldwell says: We hope to provide people with a fresh perspective on stories that may be familiar to some, but in a way they may never have thought of before.
Jason Satterlund says: This series is the story of good versus evil, told from the angelic perspective. The angels are involved in the affairs of man, but their focus is always on the bigger picture. The main character, Raina, is recording these events and interviewing good and bad angels to get their viewpoints.
I think viewers will be surprised by some of the opinions and feelings angels have. You will see what it looked like the first time they witnessed death, and the post-traumatic effects it had. You will see how difficult it is for good angels to continue fighting this war, and the arguments the evil angels use to justify their actions.
Angels on both sides will be tested, and this epic war does take its toll.
Question: What inspired you to create a series on this topic? Was CS Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters an influence? Game of Thrones? Other films or shows?
Satterlund says: I’ve always been fascinated by the angelic realm. I have never seen a story told in this way with realistic angels. Usually the good angels are cardboard characters with no struggles and don’t seem to be affected by the war of rebellion. I wanted a realistic portrayal of what it must be like for these highly intelligent beings to be forced to choose sides and watch sin play itself out. I wanted to see what it must’ve been like for them to witness the mass extinction of the human race during the global flood, or how the crucifixion of Christ must’ve felt.
As we were building the series, I did get a lot of inspiration from other sources. I studied The Screwtape Letters to see how the dialogue and story was structured. The Record Keeper follows a similar style, with angels giving their reports from events. We also got quite a bit from how the other side sees God.
Probably the most interesting thing about this series is the process of how we wrote the bad angels.
We had to come up with good arguments for why they do what they do. We didn’t want them to be bad just for the sake of being bad.
Caldwell says: As long as I've thought about telling stories I've wanted to tell the story of the great conflict between good and evil as understood in The Great Controversy, through film.
Question: How big was the production? Lots of actors, locations, extras, cameras?
Satterlund says: This was a very large production. We had over 60 cast and crew involved, and the shoot lasted for six weeks. We shot in three separate states with lots of action and stunning scenery.
We built the most amazing set for Raina’s office in Portland, Oregon. It was inspired by Captain Nemo’s headquarters in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It had high walls with large windows, and a massive ten-foot gear that sat behind Raina’s desk. It was just beautiful.
Question: You describe the series as “steampunk.” Can you tell us what that is, and why you decided on that genre?
Caldwell says: Steampunk was inspired by Jules Verne. We wanted our characters in a setting that was both ancient and advanced at the same time. The story spans thousands of years so we needed a look that would not feel out of place referencing a variety of time periods.
Satterlund says: Steampunk is described as a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. You can see its influence in films such as Sherlock Holmes and Wild Wild West.
We chose this look after a long journey to find a suitable artistic style for the series. When I first began researching looks around the film, I quickly ran into several questions I didn’t have the answers to.
First, my costume designer wanted to know what the angels would wear. Since technically angels are beings of light and have no clothing, I immediately ran into a conundrum. I didn’t want to go with the typical flowing white robes because to me that was boring and overused.
Before I could answer that question, I was faced with picking a location and a direction for production design. Again, I didn’t want the typical fog filled floor and white walls that usually signifies heaven in movies. I wanted a space that was tactile and grounded.
We looked at several locations, at first seeking out futuristic spaces, but none of them fit all of our requirements. Finally, one day I stumbled onto an old, turn of the century bank vault that was absolutely beautiful. It had a massive, circular door with marble floors and walls. I fell in love immediately.
When I got home I told my wife about it and said, “Hey, what if instead of going futuristic with our look, we went Victorian with the look, but let the technology still be futuristic.”
She said, “Yes. That’s steampunk.”
I had never heard of steampunk until then, but as soon as she started showing me what it was all about, I knew we had our answer. This fit perfectly into our world and what’s better, Steampunk has a massive cult following, so a lot of people would check out the series just because of the style. In fact, I have already been invited to showcase The Record Keeper at a few steampunk festivals!
Question: You wrote the script to The Record Keeper together. How do you work together? And Garrett, how do you have time?
Satterlund says: The script was written with three people: myself, Garrett Caldwell and Rajeev Sigamoney [assistant professor of film and television production at Pacific Union College]. The three of us came up with the concept and outlined the series. The way we work is we sit in a room and outline where we want the story and the characters to go throughout the length of a season.
We then take a look at what themes we need to cover and we assign them to different episodes in the season. Once we know what each episode’s theme is, we get to work on the specific plot and dialogue of that episode. Rajeev and I do the actual writing, and we send it between the three of us for tweaks and approval.
Caldwell says: On three occasions Jason Satterlund, Rajeev Sigamoney and I got together and set aside large chunks of time to develop the characters, the story arch, cliff hanger moments and other details about each episode, including a lot of dialogue. For three scripts we did almost all of the work together, but the remaining scripts were divided between Jason and Rajeev to develop the remaining dialogue, because they had the time and were both more experienced scriptwriters.
Question: Jason, have you done a web series before? How do you make money – or just pay for it?
Satterlund says: I have never directed a web series, but I have worked on some others as crew. The web series world is a bit like the wild west, so people are still trying to figure out how to make money from it. Some of the larger studios are now getting involved in the game, and they are putting their shows on places like Hulu or Netflix. The smaller productions like ours are still trying to figure out how to monetize these shows.
You can make money on YouTube, but that’s usually by making fan films or short quirky comedic material.
The upside is the church isn’t really interested in making money; they are interested in getting views. After all, the entire reason this series is being made is to attract a larger audience to The Great Hope book. (The Great Hope is what this series is inspired from and is part of The Great Hope church initiative.)
We are hoping that the series will find a large audience, and is able to live on for multiple seasons or even for a movie. That would be amazing.
Question: Garrett, have you done a web series before? How is the series funded? It’s sponsored by the GC, right? Has the GC ever done anything like this before? Was it a challenge to get them on board?
Caldwell says: Jason and Rajeev are experienced filmmakers and between the two of them there is experience in web series, television series feature films and television commercials. My experience was mainly in television and documentary as well as corporate projects.
The project was funded by GC funds and individual contributions. The North American Division Ministerial department also contributed to the project. Getting the GC on board involved a rigorous process that took many months. The greatest concerns were that the product would be meaningful to the target audience and useful to the church.
Question: For the practically-minded: How can people watch the series? How long is each episode? And how many episodes? Will it be available to watch all together?
Satterlund says: The series will be available online. Right now the plan is to place it on YouTube unless we get picked up by a distributor. Even if that happens, it will still be viewable to everyone. It will also be available on disc and as part of a ministry kit. Right now, the best place to check for where to view and to keep up-to-date with information is on The Record Keeper Facebook page.
Each episode will be approximately 10 minutes long and there will be a total of 11 episodes. The official release date has been pushed back to February 13, 2014. We originally planned for the fall, but we are now going to simultaneously release versions in multiple languages.
There will be screenings held between now and then, with the first one planned for October 4, in Maryland.
Question: What has been your favorite thing about working on The Record Keeper?
Caldwell says: Working with the talented cast and crew and also seeing the interest outside of the confines of our church soar.
Satterlund says: That’s an extremely difficult question because this has been one of the best shoots of my career. In fact multiple people who worked on the project have emailed me and talked to me saying the same thing—that it’s been the highlight of their career so far.
So that’s been pretty amazing, but I think if I were to sum it up into one thought it would be that my favorite thing about The Record Keeper is that it combines everything I love: it takes the sci-fi and fantasy genres and places them into a religious context. It’s got truth in it; you’re telling stories that people know in a way that’s never been heard before. It’s been pretty cool. The whole idea of telling an angelic story in a brand new light gets me excited.
Most films and stories about angels are flat out incorrect. Usually when you see angels depicted they are in horror films, and generally the good angels don’t really like heaven or God that much; they often disobey His orders. These are not Biblical depictions of angels. And so The Record Keeper was an opportunity to actually take a realistic and insightful look at the challenges that they face.
Another one of the ways we are portraying heaven in a new light is through the very diverse cast and our use of numerous languages throughout the series, including English, French, Spanish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Farsi, Italian, German, Tagalog, Arabic, Korean, Vietnamese, Afrikaans, and even ASL. We aim to have the series enjoyed all over the globe, and already have some fans in Brazil. Um abraço!
Question: What has been the biggest challenge?
Satterlund says: Creating an 11-part series for less than a million dollars and trying to make it to a level so that it competes with movies that were shot for $100 million. Realistically that is who our competition is, like it or not. We stretched every dollar that we had, and shooting in three separate states, all the visual effects, all that stuff really pushed us on every creative level. That by far was the most difficult aspect.
Question: Are you trying to get a message across with this show? Is there a moral to the story?
Satterlund says: The message of the show is really a question, and the question is: “Is God fair?”
I know that’s not traditionally what a “message” is, but we wanted to create something that made the audience think. We want to paint this story in such a way that it becomes a discussion starter. For example, one episode was based on the flood and an angel says “This is genocide; God is committing genocide.”
These are tough questions to answer. Now yes, of course the underlying message is yes, God is ultimately fair and there is a purpose to all this. I think the moral here is God is truly good and working extremely hard and sacrificing an enormous amount for the good of the universe and giving everyone every possible chance to repent. That’s definitely a theme throughout the series. And not just mankind, even angels – angels are given a chance to repent as well.
Caldwell says: We want to pull back the curtain a bit and reveal something that is critically important, but that remains unseen to the naked eye. We all play a role in this story. We want people to be able to see themselves in it and to also understand how their choices can impact their destiny.
Question: Jason, you have been working in film for more than 20 years now. How does The Record Keeper compare to other projects you have worked on?
Satterlund says: It’s definitely the biggest project I’ve ever done. I’ve never had a budget this size. My entire career has been spent in the independent film world where you have no money, so you can’t throw money at your problems, you have to think around the box. Because the budget was bigger than anything I’ve had before, it made some aspects significantly easier, but at the same time, we were trying to make something that looked like $100 million for less than $1 million. So the budget was tight; there were still some challenges.
It was really amazing getting to work with department heads; I’ve gotten to work with great cinematographers before, I’ve worked with production designers before, but usually it’s more like I may get a costumer on one, but not the next. This particular project I got to have everyone I needed — a head of every department. It made the workload significantly easier.
There’s certainly a lot more pressure with a project this size; a lot more on my shoulders. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. But I also have a larger support group.
Overall, it was such a positive experience and I cannot wait for you all to see it.
See another interview with Satterlund and Caldwell, with all kinds of additional information, in the September issue of the Gleaner.
Photo: By Mariesha Richard, via ANN. Director Jason Satterlund, after The Record Keeper web series was recognized at the 1st Annual Geekie Awards in Hollywood, California. Executive Producer Garrett Caldwell, right, and actor Jelynn Sophia also accepted the award for “Best One-Shot.”