Director Barrett Burgin and producer John Newton reflect on the role their beliefs played in the development and production of university-funded capstone film "Father of Man"
As directing student Barrett Burgin contemplated story ideas he could pitch as a potential media arts fiction capstone, he found himself being pulled in a direction he didn't expect. Burgin had long been interested in directing thrillers and telling stories with a dark psychological element — especially narratives which pull from local culture and lore — but this time around he felt inspiration coming from an even more personal influence in his life: his own faith.
"Father of Man" follows Boyd, a man who passes into the next life following a heart attack, leaving behind a complicated relationship with his estranged son, Emmett. Upon arriving on the other side, Boyd is recruited by an angel assigned to watch over Emmett, who is facing an urgent situation: Emmett is contemplating leaving his wife and unborn child as he questions his role as a future father. Boyd must confront his own unresolved feelings toward his son as he tries to guide Emmett away from making the worst decision of his life.
"I thought it would be interesting to explore strained family relationships in an authentic way, without any fluff," said Burgin, who both wrote and directed the film. "I also wanted to incorporate a kind of spirituality. It's a family drama set in a world with Latter-day Saint aesthetics and imagery, but it's not a religious film — this is a universal human story set within a context that is personal to me."
Both Burgin and producer John Newton were interested in telling a story where elements of faith and doctrine are a part of the world the characters inhabit, but are not thematically overt or central to the enjoyment of the film. There are no specific references to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or even to God, but the student filmmakers also didn't shy away from the undeniable influence their beliefs have on their art and their lives.
"Even if you don't share our faith, Latter-day Saint doctrine provides cool explanations for how the world works," said Newton. "We didn't want to ignore that. We as film students sometimes get scared of making 'cheesy church films,'and we go in the opposite direction. We tried to instead embrace our faith and beliefs, and I think we were blessed for it."
Looking back, Burgin and Newton can identify blessings every step of the way in the production of the ambitious film — which ultimately clocked in at a 28-minute runtime, 10-16 minutes longer than a typical capstone.
One of the most notable challenges the "Father of Man" crew tackled was in creating their vision for the afterlife, an undertaking that called for practical effects, cooperating weather and — for Burgin and Newton — a leap of faith.
"We were interested in the scriptural idea of the Earth becoming 'like a sea of glass'for our own depiction of the spirit world," said Newton. "One of our crew members mentioned the salt flats; during the winter, the salt keeps the snow from sticking, but the flats can get about a quarter inch of water over the entire thing with no ripples or waves — just this perfect glass mirror surface."
As the crew researched the location, they learned that this phenomenon only occurs a few times in a year with no foolproof method for predicting ideal conditions. They decided to schedule a shooting day and hope — and pray — for the best. When the crew arrived for their call time, they were greeted by the welcome reflection of a shallow layer of water.
"I do believe if we pray about our art or our projects or even just our passions, the Lord will bless us in them," said Burgin. "I believe He cares about what we care about. There were some pretty distinct miracles on set that helped confirm that for me."
In addition to the presence of water on the flats, there were two other conditions vital for a full and successful shooting day: cloud cover and no wind whatsoever. When the crew began preparations for the day, however, there were no clouds and enough wind to potentially disrupt — or even entirely remove — the elusive water.
"I went off by myself to pray and ask for conditions to change," said Burgin. "I don't know if that was a rational or humble thing to ask for, but I knew I had to try. When we got back to the flats, there were clouds and the wind was completely still. Say what you will, but I like to attribute that kind of thing to the divine; it gives me a sense of confidence that one, it's not all up to me, and two, it's not all because of me. I felt like there was a guiding hand on this project."
While Burgin remained confident about what he wanted to accomplish with the film throughout production, he felt intimidated to move forward with a project that was not only out of his comfort zone in terms of genre, but potentially off-putting in subject matter to both religious and nonreligious audiences if handled carelessly.
"Your best story is going to be the story that scares you," said Burgin. "I was scared of this story, so I knew I had to make it. I hope I will never make a choice based on fear of what other people are going to think about me. I took a personal risk and tried something, and I think people ultimately responded well because of that."
"They were in our corner since the beginning," said Burgin. "They understood that this was a real stretching experience for us, and they helped us achieve our production goals and tell the story we wanted to tell. The background we get in all our classes in the program — not just the production classes — gives us a broader understanding and makes our work more sophisticated. If I'm doing anything right, it's because of the education I'm getting here."
Newton recently stepped into the role of director on his own capstone film and carries with him the lessons he learned on "Father of Man."
"Be open to making your original idea better," Newton advised prospective producers and directors. "Let your faculty mentors push you to try different things with your story, even if it doesn't feel like the movie you wanted to make at times. They will push you headfirst into your insecurities, those ideas you were too scared to approach on your own. If you're serious about making movies and being good at it, take on the capstone process in a humble, teachable way. Otherwise your films are going to come out weak in the same ways over and over again."
Every risk and leap of faith that Burgin, Newton and their cast and crew took paid off when "Father of Man" premiered with the other 2018-2019 fiction capstones at the Vineyard Megaplex on Sept. 25. Audience members of all faiths and walks of life resonated with the characters and responded positively to the film, creating the universal, communal experience that Burgin hoped for when he initially pitched the project to the media arts faculty.
The film will continue to reach diverse audiences across the country as it makes the rounds at competitions and festivals — including BYU's own Final Cut Film Festival Oct. 17-19. Burgin hopes to encourage and support more Latter-day Saint and other faith-based cinema that can touch, inspire or simply entertain audiences of all beliefs without preaching, but also without ignoring the identity and background of the filmmaker.
"I think all people are endeared to a story that shows true conflict, true problems and true mistakes," said Burgin. "I don't want to overlook the interesting aspects of our faith tradition and the ways they inspire me. It's a good time to be authentic."