Frontlines EXTRA! The Filmmaker

Across all kinds of trades, professions and sectors of industry, Christians are at work. At Solas, we’ve been speaking to people who say that rather than leaving their faith in Jesus at the door when they sign-in, it is very much part of their working life. It has been inspiring to see the way in which this has affected the work people do, and led to great conversations with colleagues about Jesus. For this edition, Gavin Matthews spoke to filmmaker Phil Todd.  

GJM: Hi Phil, thanks for speaking to me today about your work and your faith. So tell us first of all something about your job, your roles and responsibilities.

Phil Todd: Hi Gavin – good to meet you! Well, I would describe myself as a filmmaker, but that word means different things to different people. My work is really divided into three categories. The first is that I am a film-editor. People hire me to come and help them shape what they have already filmed in the post-production side of things. Then the other side is that I have helped to set up a film production company called “Fellowship Film” and through that company we are developing and producing feature films and offering production services. We formed Fellowship Film in 2017 and have made two feature films so far, “The Gaelic King” a fantasy action-adventure set in Scotland in AD 800 and then more recently “Jessie and the Elf Boy”, a family comedy set in modern-day Edinburgh. Then we have also started doing some smaller stuff, like filming music videos for independent music artists; and offering post-production services to people who have maybe made a short film and need help to get it finished and packaged for festivals or whatever. I also do some consulting, giving advice to people making independent films. Then we’ve run workshops for young people to prepare them for acting on screen…. So I do a whole mixture of stuff, including a bit of acting, which I was trained in!

Producing feature films is what really excites me, but that takes a long time when you are an independent film company without the resources to do things quickly.

GJM: So producing, editing, directing and running a business as well! And of all those things, what do you enjoy the most? What’s the bit you look forward to and which gives you the most satisfaction when it’s complete?

Phil Todd: Well actually it’s editing! It was Robert Bresson who said, “You make a film three times. Once when you write it, once when you shoot it, and then once when you edit it.”  So to me that’s the most exciting time, because that’s the film that people will actually see. No one sees the script, or what was actually shot – but they will see the film that you put together in the end. So, there’s something quite exciting at that moment when you have everything filmed and you sit down to finally put it all together and create order out of chaos!

GJM: So what kind of challenges to do you face in your work? One of the things keeps coming up in this Frontlines series is the variety of different challenges people face. For one person it might be the relentless workload being placed upon them by an employer, but for a self-employed person it could be chasing the next contract and keeping the work coming in. So, what are the challenges in your work, and how does your Christian faith affect how you respond to them?

Phil Todd: Yeah, there are a number of challenges I face. One is actually just maintaining the motivation to keep going! Firstly from a business perspective it is quite hard to make a film company actually work. That’s especially the case at the moment as the whole industry is in flux. The so-called “streaming wars” between the big platforms are dominating everything, as they each seek to gain and keep subscribers. It makes it a hard environment for independent filmmakers to thrive in. So I (like a lot of artists) often come back to the basic question: ‘why am I doing this?’ This is in a context where much of society does not value creativity. It is often seen as a luxury, rather than as essential and so is the first thing to be cut in a funding crisis. So the challenge is having to be very entrepreneurial as well as creative to make the company viable. In terms of how my faith impacts that, when I look at the person of Jesus – he was amongst other things,  a great storyteller. And I find that really encouraging because as bearers of the image of God we are creative and we tell stories and make works of art. I think it is inherent in who we are. So my faith encourages me to keep going because this is part of what we have been made to do.

I also think that film has the potential to impact people in quite a powerful way and that it is important that Christians are working in this field. I think it perhaps gives us the opportunity to do something for God there, which wouldn’t otherwise happen., Traditionally the church has not engaged with the arts as it could have done and the arts have suffered as a result because they have been left without that voice of truth. So, there is a certain amount of ground to be reclaimed there. It’s important for Christians to keep going even though it is challenging at times.

GJM; So how does being a Christian affect you as a filmmaker and the choices you make? How would you be different as a filmmaker if you weren’t a Christian!?  How does your faith affect the kind of stories you tell and the way that you go about the work?

Phil Todd: Well at Fellowship Film one of our top values is “people over product”. That’s because often in the film industry the ‘product’ is seen as the ultimate thing and people are used simply as a means to an end. So it’s considered normal to step on other people to get where you want to get to, or to very quickly fire and replace anyone who isn’t getting the job exactly right. But we wanted to be a film company that wasn’t so cutthroat, where people feel valued and encouraged to do their best work. So for us it is as much about the people as it is about the film we are making. That is deliberately counter-cultural and rooted in my belief in the sanctity of human life and that everyone is worthy of respect.

In terms of the type of films I’d want to be involved in, I want to tell stories that are full of hope, light and truth. That doesn’t mean that all the films we make will be like Jessie and the Elf Boy, which was our family film. It’s colourful, bright and light-hearted – and films don’t always have to be that. Films can also be dark, but the way we’d approach that would be to face the darkness in order to bring out hope. I was inspired to want to become a filmmaker by The Lord of the Rings, and one of the things that I love about those films is that even though you have a world which is almost completely consumed by darkness, the heroes strive to bring the light and to overcome against incredible odds. I think that’s a powerful narrative – and the narrative of the Bible and indeed of the world.

GJM: You are working in a predominantly secular industry, but are known as a Christian. How do people react to that?

Phil Todd: Well it’s funny because at Fellowship Film we have decided to try and make films for the mainstream market rather than for a specifically Christian market. Ironically there is a thriving faith-based market in North America so from a business perspective we might be better off making faith-based films! Our distributor for Jessie and the Elf boy is Jewish, and he told us to put more faith-based material into our films because it will make it more attractive to that faith-based market! I’m slightly wary of that because we are making fantasy films, and there is already a supernatural element to our stories. I really don’t want to muddy the waters. In that film we have “Elf”, and to put a praying-Christian in a film alongside a fantasy character like an elf would be confusing to some people.

Generally, people aren’t surprised to find Christians working in the film industry, but they are surprised to find us working in the mainstream, not just for niche Christian markets. I have done a couple of documentary films about notable Christian figures in history, which were very much aimed at a Christian audience; so I think there is definitely a space for that. However, I am trying to be a Christian and a filmmaker rather than a “Christian-filmaker” if that makes sense!?

GJM: And that relates to what you said earlier about not surrendering the field of the arts to secular worldviews. It’s interesting that in the world of fantasy, writers like Philip Pullman bring their worldview overtly into their stories! It’s a narrative polemic that he wants to bring to bear on his audience.

Phil Todd: And I think that’s what you have to do as a creative – to be honest about who you are and what you are bringing to your art and to the viewer so they can make their own mind up. In fact having stories of both perspectives actually enables the viewer to do that. So we do need Christians bringing good stories with that perspective on the world. I think God used people like Tolkien and CS Lewis in ways that they might never have anticipated when they wrote their stories. But they have in fact opened the door for a whole range of people to engage with the Christian narrative.

GJM: And have those general worldview perspectives ever led to you having conversations about your faith more specifically? Have good stories, hope and redemptive narratives ever led on to conversations about your faith in Christ more specifically?

Phil Todd: It’s always good to meet people who love the fantasy genre and to have those kinds of discussions, there are a lot of opportunities there. The way that we have worked has definitely had an impact on people too. In fact the actress who played the lead role in our film The Gaelic King, was going through quite a lot in her life at the time we were making that film. She really appreciated the community that we formed as we created that film. She was also one of my neighbours in Edinburgh and our church was running an Alpha Course there. I invited her to that and she ended up becoming a Christian and then married my cousin – so she is part of the family now!!  It was an incredible story about how God really worked – and it wasn’t even something we set out to do in the making of the film – but He used the work as a way of reaching that person! I love it when God does something that I’m not expecting and which has eternal significance!

GJM: And have you ever had any pushback or opposition, people saying you should keep your faith totally private’?

Phil Todd:  I haven’t really encountered too much of that. I think in the arts people are quite open generally. A common assumption is that artists must be true to themselves and express who they are, so there is an openness there. Sometimes projects have stalled because we have been let down by people who didn’t share our values though – that was certainly the case with our second film.

GJM: So what motivates you to want to do things like invite people to Alpha and that kind of thing? What inspires you to speak openly about your faith in Christ?

Phil Todd: Experience – I’ve seen the difference that it has made in people’s lives when they encounter God. But I think I’m much less formulaic in the way I share my faith than I was when I was young. I used to try and move people along a conveyor belt that went Alpha-Conversion-Church Membership, whereas now I more often look to see what God is already doing and to partner with Him in drawing them to Himself – rather than trying to force a particular model on them. So, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to encourage people to meet God for themselves.

GJM: So finally  – what advice would you give to a young Christian entering the film industry?

Phil Todd: Don’t go alone, find fellowship! That has been key for me. We are called Fellowship Film after The Fellowship of the Ring, but community, and comradeship is just so important. It’s important in achieving anything in life, and its important in being a Christian too. You can’t really flourish as a Christian in isolation. We are part of the body of Christ which means that we need the other members. The Christian life is a collaborative endeavour, just like filmmaking.

GJM: Thankyou Phil – there’s lots in there! Thanks so much for talking to us.

You can find out more about Phil and Fellowship Film by clicking here.

The Gaelic King can be found here.

Click here to see Jessie and the Elf Boy