Jake Disch

Jesus House: A Pre-Christmas Miracle

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A long, long time ago, way back in June, I graduated from Northwestern University’s MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen. Bright-eyed and full of hope, I packed up all of my earthly possessions into a beige 2000 Honda Civic and moved to Los Angeles to put that degree to work. This is the story of what’s happened since.

Wait, wait, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit. Northwestern’s MFA program offers a $5000 production grant to all students that becomes available after completion of the first year of the program. Being a student with no full-time employment, I used $750 of it to pay rent for a month in the summer of 2013 when I was interning in Los Angeles. The remaining money, though, I planned to put toward a short film idea. I had read this article on Cracked that included a section on the Ypsilanti Jesus Experiment, in which a psychologist with dubious morals took three men who were all convinced they were the second coming of Jesus and made them live together for two years. It did not go well. I, naturally, thought this sounded like a fantastic reality show. Thus was born Jesus House: a project that would come in two flavors. One would be a ten to twelve minute short film, and the other would be a four-episode webseries that expanded on the short. I worked on a grant proposal and budget, and made plans to film the movie at my aunt and uncle’s house in Topanga, California in October of 2014. The problem was that I was moving in July and didn’t know a director of photography, a sound mixer, a makeup artist, or really even any actors. So I had my work cut out for me.

Pictured: work.

Pictured: work.

One of the first things I did when I arrived was start asking the few people I knew in the city if they knew any good directors of photography who might be interested in the project. I found one with a great reel, and he agreed to work with me toward getting the thing shot in October. “Awesome!” I naively thought to myself, “On to the next thing!” I had been attending a workshop in Hollywood on Tuesdays – writers bring scripts, actors perform them, notes are given, good times are had – and I saw an actor there by the name of Samba who played a character that had the demeanor I was looking for for one of my Jesuses. He’d be the one who tries as hard as he can to look and act exactly like the biblical Jesus. I asked Samba if he’d be willing to climb aboard the project, and after reading the script he agreed. Another one down! The rest of it came together pretty quickly, in large part thanks to Samba. An actress he knew, a sound mixer, and a makeup artist (and yes, there is some intense special effects makeup in this thing!) all joined the project thanks to him. I found and filled out the roster with Northwestern folks: the boyfriend of a friend, one of my cohort with improv experience, and an actor I met at a Northwestern showcase night in Hollywood. It was all coming together, with only a couple of weeks to go.

Those two are looking at some super-cool special effects makeup. But you'll have to watch the completed film to see it!

Those two are looking at some super-cool special effects makeup. But you’ll have to watch the completed film to see it!

And then it started falling apart. The director of photography I had thought was a lock emailed and told me he had booked a feature film for October and had to drop out. One of the actors got a major job and could no longer fit the shoot into his schedule. So once again I scrambled, and once again Samba came to the rescue. He put me in touch with a friend who put me in touch with Broderick Engelhard, a fantastic young director of photography who had just wrapped a feature film himself. He helped me convince an actor from our Tuesday workshop to take the place of the guy who had just dropped out. Crisis averted! Now we were ready to film. I just had to hope and pray that I had assembled as good a team as I had thought, because I had never tackled a film project of anything approaching this magnitude. Everything else I’d done had been two or three minutes with two or three people helping out. Now I had a whole team; I was captain of the Good Ship Jesus House. And I was shit-scared of messing the whole thing up at the finish line.

So naturally I decided that on the first night of filming we would be doing the grand finale, which features all of the special effects makeup, spurting blood, apocalyptic screaming, and crowd shots. Outside at night, which (I should have known) is a thing to be avoided at all costs for a small, low-budget film like mine. My roommate/assistant director Andrew and I packed up the beige Civic and drove up to Topanga in the morning, where my fantastic fellow NU alum/production designer Ellen met us to start decorating. People started showing up, and I got more and more nervous. But I had to hide it, because the captain must be steady.

It was time to start. And about ten minutes into filming it finally clicked: I didn’t have to do everything. With every other project I had ever mounted, be it on stage or on film, I hadn’t had a team of stone-cold professionals helping me. I had had friends who were dedicated and did what was needed. But this team was something else. Everybody worked incredibly well together, set everything up, kept it going, and all I had to do was make sure we were on the right track. Broderick was basically a superhero, moving all the lights himself, setting up shots, knowing exactly what he needed. It was like some kind of miracle: I had only been in Los Angeles for two months and had somehow gotten lucky enough in assembling this group that there was not a single weak link. Even my aunt, whose house we took over for four days, praised the cast and crew as ridiculously friendly, helpful, and professional.

Great people in front of the camera, great people behind it.

Great people in front of the camera, great people behind it.

So we filmed it, and the actors knocked it out of the park. All of them are funny, funny people. One of the biggest highlights of filming was the interviews. Each character has a handful of “confessional” scenes a la Big Brother, and after running through the script Andrew would start firing random questions at the actors. Their improvised responses were amazing, and in fact the trailer our editor Robbie put together is largely comprised of these improv takes. By the end of the shoot we were all exhausted, but I couldn’t have been happier with the footage we’d gotten.

This is Samba, without whom this whole thing likely would have fallen apart.

This is Samba, without whom this whole thing likely would have fallen apart.

But there’s still one last hurdle to get through. In the course of paying people for their services, buying makeup, costumes, and food for everyone, decorating the set, getting the equipment insured, and all of the other expenses (read: port-a-john) that add up when doing a project like this, I burned through the rest of my Northwestern production grant. Between moving and student loan debt, I don’t have the money to pay for post production myself. That’s why I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign for post. I’m hoping to get enough money together to pay Robbie, pay a composer for some original music, and have enough left over to promote the webseries version of the project and pay festival entry fees for the short film version.

So yes, dear reader, this whole thing has been a dirty trick. If you watch the trailer below, laugh, and want to see more, I ask only that you consider pledging a bit to help us finish this film. $10 will get your name in the credits, $25 will let you see the final cut of the short film before anyone else, and $50 will get you a poster designed by the one and only Pat Guppy. The rewards go all the way up to buying yourself an Associate Producer credit for $500. Best of all, you’ll be helping to finish a project that a dozen people put a lot of work and love into, and because of their incredible talent I can promise you that the final product will not disappoint!