Christopher Shawn Shaw
“Looking back, now that I’m getting ready to shoot Youth Group with Thor Ramsey and Stephen Baldwin, it’s funny because it all really started with a decent camera and my goldfish, Goldy,” Christopher Shawn Shaw chuckles over the phone as he reminisces about how he began being noticed for his work.
Shaw is making his feature film directorial debut shooting Youth Group, a comedy about America’s favorite youth pastor, Guy Sides, who is stuck in the mega-church marketing machine, and wants to find his passion again. Surrounded by sincere –but zany—church leadership, it could be that everything he needs to renew his faith is right in front of him.
It’s clear Shaw didn’t despise his small beginnings as he candidly discusses his journey to directing his first major feature film, how being resourceful was instrumental in where he’s at today, and what it takes to realize and accomplish a long sought after dream.
Jamie Hope (JH): Did you always want to be a director? Is that something you thought of as a child that you wanted to do when you grew up?
Christopher Shawn Shaw (CSS): I wanted to be an actor, a movie star! Movies fascinated me from a very early age. It was either that or an illusionist, even a marine biologist so I could work at Sea World. There were a lot of things rolling around in there.
JH: When did you decide to actively pursue your dream of stardom?
After high school, I decided to go to college for acting and theater performance. I started doing my own scenes and learned editing on a cut-to-cut system on VHS. I remember thinking man, I wish I could be in front of, and behind the camera at the same time.
JH: Was there a defining moment when you realized you liked being behind the camera more than acting in front of it?
CSS: Shortly after college, I moved to California to pursue my career and did background acting. But I wasn’t fully pursuing it like I should’ve been. I noticed my heart and passions were changing—and I felt like I wanted to direct and create content. I realized acting was no longer a driving force. It must’ve been noticeable because when I was doing different TV and acting work, people would tell me out of the blue, “I could see you as a director.”
JH: How long has it taken you to get this far, to directing a feature film with seasoned entertainers like Thor Ramsey and Stephen Baldwin? Is it typically a lengthy journey?
CSS: There are a lot of things that need to come together for that to happen. I mean, no, there’s no ‘How to Make it as a Director in 90 Days.’ It’s taken me years to get to this point.
JH: Did you ever almost throw in the towel?
CSS: Yes and no. I don’t think I was serious about hanging up the dream entirely. I had my share of day jobs, you could say. But, I always had something else going on, on the side in film.
JH: During those times what motivated you to keep going? A lot of people quit for the comfort of a steady job and pay.
CSS: I’m not exactly sure how to put it in words, but I’ll try. Sharing compelling stories seems to be something that’s just a part of me. In a nutshell, the big dreams and imagination of accomplishing storytelling in the face of directing and creative producing is what drives me. I love creating, and executing them.
JH: What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on so far?
CSS: One that comes to mind is a short film I did with comedian/actor Thor Ramsey, called Skip Listening. It was part of the speed film making competition, 168, where you have a week to shoot, edit, and turn in a finished short film around ten minutes long. So, that was really fun. A handful of short films I’ve done with Thor, really.
JH: What’s the draw to doing short films versus full length features?
CSS: For me, I love telling a succinct story in a limited amount of time—and in this day and age they are incredibly feasible to do. You may not have all the equipment you need, but you might know somebody who does, or you can rent it for way cheaper than someone would have to do twenty or thirty years ago. I’ve heard stories of filmmakers back in the day, before digital, where they’re running around to different film shoots asking for the ends of their film strips, then they would piece them together and shoot their film on it. Then they had developing the film costs.
Now, with the digital filmmaking, doing shorts is more feasible than going on 100 auditions and trying to land something that’s going to maybe, possibly, land on TV or in theaters. I mean, doing shorts is a way to get your work out there and seen, whether it’s acting, writing, directing, producing or whatever your niche, to build your reel to give visual representation of what you can do.
JH: You’ve told me you’re still learning to navigate the waters in this industry, so what advice would you give to those coming up behind you, endeavoring to do the same thing?
CSS: Like I said, do short films to build your reel. It’s doing those proactive small steps that help you get nowadays to where you can work with real budgets and pay people for their time and talents.
I have a funny story that would sum up that question. Back in 2008, I had recently come out of an unhealthy situation, and I found myself just, needing to laugh. So I got a subscription to a Christian cinema rental and went through the comedy section. And one comedy was called Bananas. It was a cable TV show and highlighted Christian comedy, and the host of that show was Thor Ramsey. I had heard of him before and he kept me laughing. It actually changed my perspective of how I tell stories. It doesn’t always have to be this meaty project. I can produce a hilarious comedy with a great message. So I decided to try and connect with Thor in 2009 through Facebook.
I was also connecting with these other Christian comedians. I started doing these quirky clips with my goldfish, Goldy, just short and goofy, and I sent ‘Goldy the Goldfish’ films to people like Thor. So I’m doing these and what I find out later when Thor and I are filming Skip Listening, is that Thor noticed these little things in the videos I sent him that he liked. He didn’t really care for the writing, but he liked the look of how I had shot them.
JH: That’s hilarious. You sent short films of your goldfish to a seasoned comedian? That takes guts.
CSS: I know. But I was willing to take a risk. I get this message from Thor asking, “Tell me about your film background?” And it compelled me to ask him to be on my 168 team for 2010, which was huge. I just felt that was okay to ask, and he agreed to it. And little did I know Thor was sitting on a script he had written called, Youth Group.
JH: So, by doing these short films for the 168, and taking what little resources you had, which at the time was Goldy the Goldfish, you are where you are today?
CSS: In a nutshell. Obviously, there are a lot of little steps in-between the bigger steps, but yeah.
JH: What has been the biggest challenge for you trying to make it in entertainment?
CSS: The biggest challenge in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry is the waiting and the emotional roller coaster that waiting ride can be. And if you have a family, that compounds it even more. Which by the way, shot out to my amazing wife Shelly who is so supportive. That’s crucial to making it, to have that support. Sometimes it’s been unpleasant for her too.
Also, the things you don’t expect. You have a half page you think is going to take a half-hour, three or four hours later and you’re still working on that scene because it didn’t work the way it originally intended. That’s par for the course though.
There’s this glamorous mythical perception out there that it’s all fun and games and it’s not. It’s a passion, but at times frustrating.
JH: It sounds kind of like having a child. As a parent, we envision this awesome family life of smiles and laughter and there are days you want to rip your hair out and run away. But you wouldn’t have it any other way, either.
CSS: Yes, exactly! It isn’t always awesome, but at the same time it is!
JH: Tell me about Youth Group. How did it come to be?
CSS: Thor had written the script and was planning to direct and star in it. After doing the 168 project together, he said, “I don’t want to direct Youth Group anymore.” I originally was just going to be a producer and possibly have a small acting roll. So I asked him who he wanted to direct it? Hoping of course it would be me. He’s like, “You can direct it.”
JH: How did you attract Stephen Baldwin to the project?
CSS: We made a pitch trailer for the movie, based on the script Thor wrote. Just like Goldy the Goldfish, I started sending the pitch trailer to people on Twitter and Facebook and it caught the attention of Stephen. He and his people came together and got funding for the project. We worked with Thor and screenwriter Bob Saenz to shore up the script. Of course, this whole process took several years, which goes back to my point of the waiting game.
JH: Why does it take so long for movies to move into production?
CSS: There’s just so much that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. You have funding sources, producers and their ideas and visions for your project. We had script revisions, negotiations, legal paperwork etc.
Even after all that, we had scouting locations and pre-production. From the time we made the pitch trailer, it’s been a six year process. But, that’s not really a long time in this industry, even though for those waiting it seems like it. For some, the opportunity never comes, so we are blessed.
JH: You mentioned funding. What have you done to fund your projects for your short films?
CSS: I’ve done various things but mostly crowd funding. I also just started a fundraiser I’m excited to see get off the ground. It’s called a Night of Comedy. Churches can host a Night of Comedy and there are different price levels for different talent, like Scott Wood, Thor Ramsey and even Stephen Baldwin. The church hosts the event, and then they get a percentage, and the rest goes toward funding our high quality redeeming films. So it helps raise money for the church, supports faith based films, and gives people a fun night of clean entertainment. Then, when the church brings us back the next year, we can show them what we did with the money from their previous fundraiser.
JH: That’s a great idea, especially now that Hollywood is taking notice that people are showing up for faith-based films.
JH: Youth Group is your feature film directorial debut. You said you like to tell compelling stories. What compelling story are you telling with this comedy?
CSS: It’s a romantic redemptive comedy/satire. Even though it’s called Youth Group, the story isn’t really about the youth. It’s about Thor’s character, the youth pastor Guy Sides’ journey. The title Youth Group, I love titles that have more than one meaning. It comes up in the script that a lot of mega churches tend to be these giant marketing machines and it’s all about branding and stuff like that. Not so much about the gospel as it is about image. So Youth Group is partly an analogy that the mega church in the story has basically become a youth group because it’s all about fun and excitement and over the top shenanigans. It’s all about the presentation of the gospel as opposed to the gospel.
JH: That I think, will strike a chord with many people and it might hit a nerve or give a gut check to some engaging in these things. What do you hope to achieve from this movie?
CSS: Poignant hilarity is the short answer. The long answer is, I want it to glorify God, point to the gospel in a non-cheesy stereotypical Christian kind of way. None of us want to make the same ole “Christianese” film. This is a unique story and is satirical, so it does expose some of the actual shenanigans that have gone on in mega church-dom. This kind of mentality is out there and it exposes that with a very redemptive climax at the end.
To be clear, we are not mocking the church. We are exposing and showing when churches do these things, how they come across to the rest of the world and saying, look what you’re doing. Shape up.
As far as future projects for Christopher Shawn Shaw, he has a list that keeps growing. He has stories to tell, compelling convictions, and the perfect platform to convey those messages. You can keep up on what Shaw is up to by visiting his website www.christophershawnshaw.com, where he has project information and a blog to subscribe. Youth Group is scheduled to be released later this year or early 2017.