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Life as a TV Writer

La Sierra English professor Robert Dunn interviews his former student, Don Davenport, who wrote the screenplay for Hallmark Channel feature “Expecting a Miracle.”
Question: Don, you were my student a number of years ago at what is now La Sierra University. Your success gladdens my heart. So far as I am aware, you were the first to write a novel in lieu of a thesis for a Master’s degree in English.
Then you began writing in earnest with Faith for Today. Later you went independent. A few years ago you produced a novel in cooperation with singer Kenny Rogers. I am delighted that you are willing to sit down for an interview with me on your present work as a writer for television.
On Saturday night, January 10, the Hallmark Channel screened a premier of “Expecting a Miracle,” based on the novel The Miracle of Dommatina by Ira Avery. You wrote the screenplay for it. What did you see as the novel’s intent and to what extent did you seek to bring that out in your television adaptation?

The book was really about how easy it is for couples to become worn down by the demands of modern life – almost to the point where they become emotionally anesthetized.
Sometimes the best way to re-discover what you love about someone is to be forced to strip away all non-essentials. For Pete and Donna Stanhope, getting stranded in a primitive – albeit charming – Mexican town was the beginning of that re-discovery.

Question: The Mexican priest who presides over the annual fiesta depicted fascinates me. Did you do any research on clergy or religious festivals in Mexico?

Answer: To tell you the truth, the book was set in Tuscany in the early 1970s.
When the Executive Producer told me that Hallmark wanted to move the setting to Mexico, I was initially concerned that the story might not translate.
But then almost immediately got a picture of Chimayo, a very small New Mexico village about a 45-minute drive north of Santa Fe. Called the Lourdes of the West, it has a small church whose dirt is claimed to have miraculous healing powers. There is an anteroom filled with crutches from the people who have been healed. This was a place where the possibility of a miracle was very real and very palpable. So Chimayo became the new inspiration for the setting in the film.

Much of the film is set in a small Mexican village and involves the desire of a young boy to walk normally and the desire of an American couple to have a child of their own. The problem of the couple is solved when they eventually agree to adopt. But the crippled Mexican child gains the ability to walk in an accident. Do you know whether anyone has regained the ability to walk in such a way?

Answer: No, not personally. But that’s a little of the question we’re left with, and one that our characters – in their attempt to be rational – try to resolve.
If the boy was simply suffering from a spinal injury — a compressed disc or slipped vertebra or similar — it certainly is possible that his condition could be “cured” by a similar trauma that set things right. A good chiropractor does that on a lesser scale dozens of times every day. Then, again, maybe it really was a miracle.
Question: You told me that Hallmark or the director made a number of changes to your script. To what extent do you regard these changes as contributing to the success of the film?
Answer: The script was pretty well shot as written.
The director, Steve Gomer, did a really wonderful job and, when I saw the original cut of the film (the one he supervised), I was very pleased.
The emotional beats hit in all the right places, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better directorial interpretation of the script. It was obvious he got the material, understood the relationships and had a genuine feeling for the story.
Unfortunately, it’s not the writer or the director who has the final decision. Hallmark made additional changes and that was the version that aired.
Now Hallmark is very successful at what it does. The channel is very clear on who its audience is and what ground its productions need to cover to serve that audience.
So Hallmark cut several scenes, including scenes where we see Donna and Pete begin to build their emotional walls, virtually brick by brick. There were scenes where the growing trouble at home begins to affect work performance, and a scene where it becomes painfully obvious that the relationship has stalled.
I truly felt we needed to go there in order to sense the hopeless feeling that comes from being stuck.
But Hallmark clearly did not agree.
My guess is that somehow it all got a little too dark for Hallmark and the channel opted to connect the emotional dots in a more linear way. That is certainly the company’s prerogative – although it produced a somewhat less nuanced film, in my opinion.
I take great solace in the fact that I am doubtless the first and only film writer who has ever felt that some of the best stuff was left on the editing room floor.
Question: How did you get the assignment to do this project?
Answer: A producer friend who felt this would make a great Hallmark movie gave me the book. The production company agreed, but when it came to trying to acquire the rights, things became complicated. The author had died, and it became very difficult sorting out various legal and financial issues with his widow.
That was why it took a little over eight years to get this film made, and several times I truly believed it would never be made at all. But one does get points for tenacity in this business.
Question: What other significant television projects have you worked on before, including what you did for the Adventist Media Center?
Answer:I kind of cut my teeth writing Faith for Today “Westbrook Hospital” episodes and also had the opportunity to do some directing there as well.
During that time we also produced a TV movie-esque project called “Lesson in Loving,” which I also wrote. It was an ambitious project, and in retrospect one not particularly well thought out. We were operating a little in the “if we build it, they will come” mode. The whole experience was kind of sweetly naive, although extremely well intentioned. It was a great learning experience for me.
Question: I understand you are scheduled to do another script for Hallmark called “Love Finds A Home,” based on the book by Janette Oke. This will air on May 10. How are you preparing for this assignment?
Answer: The film has been shot and edited, although I haven’t seen it. It was actually quite an honor to be asked to work on a Janette Oke project. She is a well-loved, best-selling author, and films based on her books have done extremely well.
In fact, “Love Comes Softly” is still the most successful film the Hallmark Channel has ever produced and has sold thousands and thousands — if not millions — of DVDs.
It was also a personal thrill for me to have Patty Duke in the cast. Any time you have an Oscar-willing actress spouting lines you’ve written, it’s a great feeling.
Question: Are you planning other projects you care to mention?
Answer: Christmas in Canaan, the novel I co-wrote with singer Kenny Rogers, is scheduled to go into production this spring for Christmas 2009. I have already done the screenplay version and we have a wonderful director, David Paymer, attached (another Oscar-nominee).
Then, there is a little feature film project titled “Calliope’s Spell” that involves some of my experiences working with the members of the Cousteau Society. It has gotten some very good reads, and I’m hoping to nudge it along.

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