There is a saying that shares “Better late than never” and it holds true for OneFilmFan.com’s newest interview. Back in February, a film came out over the same weekend as “Fifty Shades of Grey” that contained a decidedly different approach to the concept of romantic love and the struggles we as humans beings can have when it comes to matters of the heart. That film is the faith-based effort “Old Fashioned”, and after a much deserved break post production and release, the film’s director Rik Swartzwelder reached out and offered to share his thoughts on career, the film, and his notions about both the independent and inspirational film world. So it is with grateful sentiments that OneFilmFan.com presents this interview.
OneFilmFan: The story so far, how were you first drawn to the film industry? When did it become evident that this was going to be your career choice?
Rik Swartzwelder: Like so many other filmmakers, I naturally gravitated toward telling stories and making films as a kid. Things really opened up when I was given a hand-me-down Super 8mm home movie camera and started experimenting. My life growing up was fairly chaotic and I really think I was drawn to the way you could create some sense in order through a story that wasn’t always as easy to do in real life. It wasn’t until after I graduated film school at Florida State University and actually sold a screenplay that I started to look at this as a genuine career possibility.
O.F.F.: You’re a very well-rounded talent! How did you further learn the various facets of film production you’ve been involved in to date (ie: mentors, influences, and schooling)?
R.S.: Going to film school at Florida State helped expose me to all facets of hands-on, practical filmmaking. By working on a wide variety of projects and serving in various crew positions, I learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of it all. In terms of writing, my greatest education came from my years of writing and performing sketch comedy. There is nothing like the immediate reaction (or silence) of an audience to teach you what is working, or not. Most of my mentors have been fellow filmmakers in the trenches beside me. You learn a lot about yourself and others in the pressure cooker of making a film, that’s for sure.
As far as influences, way too many to mention. Frank Capra stands out in my mind. Barry Levinson and Mike Nichols as well. In terms of films, right now, off the top of my head, a few films that I thought a lot about while prepping for “Old Fashioned” were “The Graduate”, “Once”, and “Rocky”.
O.F.F.: Your films have made it to 145 film festivals worldwide, much less garnering over 50 major awards! Tell us a little about that.
R.S.: Above all, you get to see your films play in front of a wide variety of audiences… again, just like with sketch comedy, that can teach you a great deal (if you let it). It’s also a chance to meet and form relationships with other filmmakers that you might want to collaborate with down the road. The awards and affirmation help keep you moving forward with a measure of confidence, but the biggest thing, for me, has been the chance to see such a unique spectrum of films from all over the world.
O.F.F.: So, onto your recent project, “Old Fashioned”, which had its theatrical run and is coming to DVD on June 16th! What drew you to make this film?
R.S.: First, I need to clarify—since there has been some confusion on this point because of how we marketed the film—I didn’t make “Old Fashioned” as some kind of answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey”. I began working on the screenplay over ten years ago and long before the first novel in that series was even written. Now, we were deliberate in releasing our film at the same time, but that idea developed well after our film was completed.
In reality, the thing that first sparked in me with “Old Fashioned” was the absence of a romantic film that reflected the lives of the singles I knew at the time. Men and women mostly in their early 20s to early 30s that were dating and looking to fall in love, but also with hearts for God and wanting more than just another hook up. This group of folks also loved movies and on night we were all talking about how none of us had ever seen a film that told our story, how God is pretty much absent from all modern romance films. So, I thought I’d take a shot.
O.F.F.: As the writer, producer, AND director of the project, and, oh yeah, co-starring in it, too, how was it wearing ALL those “hats”?
R.S.: I don’t recommend it, honestly. I didn’t initially intend to play the role of “Clay” in the film and it was a unique set of circumstances that led to that decision. Fortunately, I had an amazing creative team around me and we were able to do a lot of advance planning to make it all work, but it wasn’t easy.
O.F.F.: How was the process to assemble the cast you brought together, including Elizabeth Roberts, LeJon Woods, Tyler Hollinger, Dorothy Silver, and the others?
R.S.: Casting is one of my favorite aspects of the whole filmmaking process. From the beginning, we wanted to cast as many actors from the Midwest as possible. We wanted the film to feel authentic to the area in which we were shooting (northeast Ohio) and we also wanted to give opportunities to local talent. We ended up looking at over 1,000 actors in the area and a few got big roles in the film. Elizabeth (“Amber”) was from L.A., and Tyler (“Brad”) and Anne Marie (“Kelly”) were from New York, but most everyone else was local.
O.F.F.: The film carries a very strong, Christian-based format in its messages about love and what it should ideally look like. How did it impact you personally to explore the subject in this way for the film?
R.S.: Having worked on the script off-and-on for several years, it is something that definitely goes down pretty deep with me, personally. And while not completely autobiographical, it does explore a lot of things that I, or those close to me, have experienced in the dating world. The more interesting thing, to me, has been watching how the film has impacted others and also the debates it has inspired. The whole issue of what “God-honoring” romance does or doesn’t mean is definitely one that has many, many sides to it.
O.F.F.: To continue along that line, you effectively illustrate as well that sometimes we, as human beings, can also guard ourselves maybe a little too much, which can open us up to being hurt or not being willing to love ourselves or another. Did you feel it was equally important to show that very realistic, and frankly, non-perfect side of the themes in the film?
R.S.: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I actually see “Old Fashioned” as primarily a story of an emotionally numb legalist learning to embrace the full and complete grace of God in a way he never had before. This plays out in a traditional romance story, but it’s not just about Clay and Amber. It’s about Clay and God, and Amber and God, and how interconnected all those relationships are. The most broken and damaged character in the film is Clay, I think. At least that was my intention with the character. He isn’t the perfect example… in many ways, he’s a cautionary tale. And, if he had never met Amber, he may have very well ended up dying alone.
We very much wanted to deal with the imperfect side of life and relationships; we didn’t want be Pollyanna or pretend that trying to make God a part of our dating lives was easy or without complications. It’s always a fine line, though. You want to show the dark and uneasy side of things… but you also want to honor and protect the integrity and spiritual experience of your actors.
O.F.F.: Ok, gotta ask….any funny anecdotes from the time on set?
R.S.: Probably the funniest was one day on set, the crew all showed up dressed like the character of “Clay”, in black and white! Some even wore moppy blonde wigs. I was so focused and lost in the work that it took me a moment to even realize what was going on. Pretty funny!
O.F.F.: So what is next on the slate for you?
R.S.: Vacation. Maybe hike the Appalachian Trail or something. When you’re making a film, that film kind of becomes your whole world—even through the marketing phase of things. It’s all very myopic and you kind of lose touch with the real world a bit. So, for the immediate future, I’d like to reconnect with that “real” world and see what new things God might whisper into my heart, mind, and soul. After that, we’ll see.
O.F.F.: The world of independent film is one that this reviewer has come to greatly appreciate, with the depth of character and story-driven aspects of it that come through. Do you ever feel like wanting that huge, massive Hollywood hit, or are you very much willing to enjoy the benefits of the smaller, but often more meaningful, indie films genre?
R.S.: I love some of the big popcorn movies: The original “Iron Man”, the entire “Dark Knight” trilogy, and “Aliens”. But those aren’t the kinds of stories that I find swimming around inside of me; I lean to the smaller, character-driven, slice of life kind of stories. I also like the opportunity to discover new and unknown talent and take risks. Those things are harder to do when there’s so much money on the line. That said, I’d still love to have a few million in a budget someday, but I don’t think I’d ever need $100 million.
O.F.F.: Inspirational films are becoming more and more plentiful it seems as these recent years have come around. How important do you feel it is that positive messages have a bigger chance to come to light in view of so many of the more darker-themed films?
R.S.: The most encouraging thing I see happening in the “faith-based” genre right now is that the audience is maturing and diversifying. There is increasingly more and more room for a variety of different kinds of “faith-based” films, and that’s a good thing. Also, I think the films are getting better and that is helping as well. The truth is, trying to make a faith-based film that competes in terms of entertainment and production value with bigger-budgeted mainstream films is no easy thing. I recently read an article that talked about how one of the biggest challenges with any film that is “faith-based” or “Christian” is that it (by nature) is unable to indulge the fantasies of the viewer as easily or freely as films unbridled by any kind of spiritual restraint.
Ever since reading that article, I’ve been thinking about that idea a great deal. At the end of the day, the only question for a Christian can’t simply be, “Is it entertaining?” alone. There are other factors and priorities at play, and those are challenging. Even so, we have to try and create stories that are indeed positive and can shine a light… and yet are also honest and real in terms of what it means to be broken and human.
O.F.F.: The classic ending question! What is YOUR favorite film of all time? Why?
R.S.: This is such a tough question. I have so many favorites for so many different reasons: “Groundhog Day”, “Casablanca”, “The Mission”.
I’ll go with my sentimental favorite: “Leap Of Faith”. It’s a somewhat underappreciated film from 1992 starring Steve Martin, Debra Winger, and a pre-“Schindler’s List” Liam Neeson. In it, Steve Martin plays a shady traveling evangelist and faith healer of dubious character. For the first two-thirds of the film, it plays like a behind-the-curtain mockery of Christianity, revivals, and the rubes who buy into such foolishness. In fact, it’s so much so that way that a lot of Christians I recommended the film to stopped watching the film for that very reason.
Big mistake; they should have watched all the way through to the end. I don’t want to play spoiler and give away anything for those that haven’t seen the film, but suffice it to say that the film—from my perspective—is one of the most profoundly and powerfully Christian efforts that I have ever seen. It also has a killer soundtrack full of some remarkable gospel music provided by The Angels of Mercy.
And there you have it, straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth! A special “Thank you!!” again to Rik Swartzwelder for taking the time to answer these questions and provide the insights he has regarding his ongoing career in film. While he enjoys a break currently, we will be waiting to see what comes next film-wise!
Until then, please “Like” the film’s Facebook Page here and also check out the official website here. The DVD release is coming June 16th, and you can pre-order that from multiple online stores listed here. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed the interview. Until next time, take care!