By Michael Miller
For most people, making a movie sounds like great fun. For director Darren Doane, it’s grueling.
Not the preparation or the finalization of a film. Just the making of it.
“Films will beat you up,” the Samaritan Ministries member says.
Yet he keeps going back for more and does it to bring the life-changing Christian message to new audiences.
Darren is the director of several feature-length films, including collaborations with actor Kirk Cameron (Unstoppable, Mercy Rule, and Saving Christmas), and has produced and directed documentaries, including Collision, about a series of debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson, and The Free Speech Apocalypse, about Wilson’s controversial 2012 visit to Indiana University to speak about traditional marriage and family. He does it all through his production company, XPX2.
However, he says his latest movie was a joy to make: watching (and filming) his children as they grew up. They Grow Up Fast is a narrated selection of family videos Darren has taken over the past decade documenting the growth of his four children. (Look for more details about the release in the June newsletter.)
“Darren Doane is a huge asset to the filmmaking community,” Colin says. “He’s never afraid to shy away from important topics for the Church and our nation.”
Darren honed his cinematic skills on years of shooting music videos (he stopped counting at 400) and commercials for such companies as Nike and Toyota. Before that, he had hoped to be a comic book artist. A plethora of rejection letters snuffed that plan. Then Darren, whose father handled “old-school” special effects in Hollywood, decided to think about something else to do.
“I always had a camera in my hand,” he says. “I grew up shooting Super 8 cameras and cutting film and splicing it together and painting things on the frames of the film. And I loved music.”
He decided to combine that love of music and film, and started a production company in 1990 at age 18.
At first he had to film weddings and christenings to make ends meet—“any filming job you can get.” But living in Southern California helped him to meet grunge and alternative bands when that movement was just getting started.
“I’d beg for a chance to make a music video for them,” he says. “If they had a hundred or two hundred bucks, I’d make a video for them.”
That taught him every aspect of filmmaking, from production and direction to editing.
“I was the kid making videos over at those indie labels,” he says.
His work with bands like Blink-182 and Snapcase eventually drew the attention of label Tooth & Nail, which released Christian alternative bands’ music. They hired him, and it saved his soul.
“Since I was the guy doing all the ‘cool bands,’ Christian labels were like, ‘We should get the guy who’s doing all the cool videos and see if he’ll work with our Christian acts,’” Darren says.
“Next thing you know, I’m spending all my time around Christians. Nobody shared the Gospel with me. Nobody told me that Jesus had a plan for my life. I was just immersed in Christian culture. I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this people.’ That’s how I became a Christian.”
Despite his status as a new Christian, Darren chose not to turn his back on his secular work up to that point. Instead, he used the credibility he had built in the secular music industry to guide non-Christian bands and labels away from “immoral or cheesy or lame” ideas.
“I had more of a voice to tell people, ‘No, you don’t want a video with a bunch of girls doing X, Y, and Z. We should do this instead.’
“That was nice, because then trying to be good at your craft can all of a sudden have the kind of influence on hopefully shaping a particular culture,” he says.
At Tooth & Nail, he made videos for bands like MxPx and the Orange County Supertones, but the idea of feature films, “which was always the goal,” led him to save resources toward that end. In the late 1990s, he made Godmoney, a film released in 1999 about a streetwise young man whose past returns to haunt him.
“By the end of that movie, I’d become a Christian,” Darren says.
That didn’t make it any easier to make movies, though.
“Every year or two, I would try to find the resources to make a long-form feature, and every time I’d make one, it’d be a very difficult experience,” Darren says. “I would learn a lot, but kind of realize where my shortcomings were and where my skill set wasn’t up to par.”
Making a feature film “consumes” a person, Darren says. It became a bit easier when filmmaking went digital around 2002, though.
“I really began to find my niche in regards to what kind of filmmaker I was,” Darren says. “All of a sudden making a feature film wasn’t as hard. I could be my own cinematographer. The cameras were lighter. Filmmaking became more do-able for me. I found a home.”
He also was a lot busier, learning about distribution and trying to sell a film.
“It’s a crazy industry,” he says. “You learn a lot about business. You learn a lot about the free market. You learn a lot about capitalism. You learn a lot about how the world really works, because films will beat you up. I would do a movie and say, ‘I’m never doing another movie again, I’m done with that.’ Two years later … ‘I’m never doing this again.’”
It was at one of those “never again” moments that Kirk Cameron asked him for help finishing a movie about the Christian foundations of the United States called Monumental. The two men enjoyed working together, so Unstoppable and Mercy Rule followed, then they made Saving Christmas.
Darren acted in that last movie thanks to casting trouble. Cameron was supposed to play the role of the guy who hates Christmas and equates it with paganism, materialism, and greed, but they were having trouble finding someone for the character who would explain why it was OK to celebrate Christmas. In rehearsals, Darren would take Kirk’s part as the anti-Christmas guy sometimes, and finally, according to Darren, Kirk said, “You know what? Why don’t you play that part and I’ll play the other guy? You should play the jerk. I shouldn’t play the jerk. You’re a way better jerk than me.”
“I think we made that decision with about a week to go,” Darren says.
The part of Christian White came easy to Darren, he says.
“I think I’m amazing (in the movie) because I’m just being a jerk,” Darren says. “It’s a very lighthearted film, but the seriousness of it was that I was that guy. I was Christian White. I was the uber-Christian. ‘I don’t see Christmas in the Bible. It’s paganism.’ I was that guy convincing my family why we weren’t going to do Christmas. It’s almost embarrassing to say, but I was down that road. I was no fun. And I was doing it all in the name of being Biblical.”
After an initially positive reception of Saving Christmas, the harsh disapproval of other Christians took Darren by surprise.
“I thought Christians were going to be like, ‘Woo-hoo! Amen! Hallelujah!’ It was like, ‘You are a pagan devil worshipper.’ I was not prepared for it,” he says.
A major Christian bookstore chain even refused to carry Saving Christmas, although, Darren says, the film ended up as the No. 1-selling DVD at a non-Christian chain store.
Similar pushback happened with Collision, about the Wilson-Hitchens debates. It was the only movie in Darren’s career that he has watched and thought, “I like this.” However, it was also the first controversial movie that Darren had made since the dawn of amateur Internet reviews on such sites as Amazon.
“Everyone (posting on Amazon) said what a piece of junk they thought it was,” Darren says.
But a few years later, he started meeting people who told him that Collision had changed their lives, or that it had changed Christian filmmaking.
Or, more importantly, that it had started bringing people to Christ. One man who formerly worked in a rehab center run by Christians said he had screened the movie for hundreds of men and that it had led many to Christ.
“I was almost in tears, because from the moment I became a Christian, I’ve wanted to bring someone to Christ,” Darren says. “And then all of a sudden, looking at this guy, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, Lord. You let me be a part of Your Kingdom in such a way as to bring people into Your Kingdom.’ I was just blown away.”
For now, Darren is working on the release of They Grow Up Fast and the DVD release of Free Speech Apocalypse.
He’s also helping a startup called FindYourCalling.com with its marketing strategy. The site guides young people and their families in choosing careers, finding suitable colleges, and making a realistic plan to pay for it all. It fits Christians well, he says, because it’s a way to search for truth and practice good stewardship.
“This website is going to truly change lives,” Darren says. “This is the kind of truth we want to be bringing into the world.”