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Josh Russell, Filmmaker

February 18, 2010

From left: Josh and Megan's son, Asher; Josh; and Josh


“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” –Augustine of Hippo, City of God

While trying to find out some information about Josh Russell from the scant amount available online before the interview, I learned that he apprenticed with Edward T. McDougal—a screenwriter, director, and Emmy-winning producer whose films have been distributed in over 30 countries—for ten years, beginning when he was 16. In my opinion, the idea of apprenticeship is genius and should be more common. How many hours of stressful schoolwork would you trade to have some practical knowledge of how to perform a skill you actually care about?

This apprenticeship was the first thing I wanted to ask Josh about. Though I love the idea, how does it ever happen, especially in this age, where we are forced to treadmill our way straight—as quickly and successfully as possible—through preschool and kindergarten, twelve years of grade school, four of college, and preferably, at least a couple in grad school? What makes this question compelling in Josh’s case was that: 1) he was living in Rock Falls, a tiny, rural Illinois town; 2) that the mentor was an actual, real-life, award-winning filmmaker; and 3); that the vocation in question was filmmaking. Artificial cattle insemination would have been a more predictable choice.

But Josh’s life has an inexplicable pattern of supernatural destiny that trumped all the more foreseeable outcomes. One of the first in this series of unexpected gifts was a stable, loving grandfather who believed that it was supremely important for kids to have the opportunity to discover what they love and then be able to do and enjoy whatever that activity might be. While this may seem natural, I know of grandparents and parents alike who are either not personally invested in their children or are determined to have their offspring follow a specific, chosen path. But Josh discovered that he loved making videos, and his grandfather, full of unknowing wisdom, let him borrow and play with their family’s expensive 1980s camcorders, freely. And so, at the ripe age of eight, Josh decided that he wanted to be a moviemaker and began his training with dizzying films of his brothers wrestling on the floor.

After about four years of this cultivation, a chance meeting took place when Josh was twelve. He was going to summer camp and was excited about rooming in the cabin of the cool, older son of some family friends. But Josh was blindsided when his mom requested that instead he be assigned to the cabin of a forty-something-year-old man, a filmmaker who had made a movie at the camp the year before and was serving as a counselor as a one-time favor. Josh’s mom assumed that in spite of her son’s frustration and disappointment, it would be good for him to get to know someone in the field if he was serious about it. Of course, the counselor was Edward T. McDougal, the man who would become Josh’s mentor—the man whom Josh claims “has given me everything I have.” And so it began.

McDougal had been praying for an opportunity to invest his experiences and knowledge into someone during the period before they met, and after that summer, McDougal and Josh spent the next few years in irregular but continuing correspondence. Josh explains, “I asked him, how old do you have to be to work legally?” When McDougal said he thought you could work part-time at 14, Josh replied, “Then when I am 14, I am coming to work for you.”

Beginning at the age of sixteen, Josh spent ten years in an apprenticeship, visiting and staying with McDougal and his wife for months at a time. Josh describes McDougal as an old-money Winnetka aristocrat who wears Velcro shoes, shorts, and button-up shirts. But he is the sort of person who is, “less concerned with other’s expectations, and more concerned with his ideals… He has such a commitment to his ideals, unlike I have ever witnessed in my life.”

Josh’s respect for McDougal, even as a teenager, is striking. When I asked if it was awkward to be hanging out at this man’s house, with his wife and family, night and day for weeks, Josh said no. In fact, he explains, “He could have told me to sleep on the roof, and I would have gladly done it. I would have believed he had a reason for it.”

Josh ended up as a producer for McDougal’s yet-to-be-released movie, Dog Jack, in the summer of 2006. Of course, in keeping with the theme of unpredictable coincidences, Vanessa, the editor of the movie, was from the film program at Columbia College in Chicago. She recognized that Josh was “charismatic enough to lead a class” and offered him a job as an instructor for a course on production, though he had no prior teaching experience or equivalent degree. So, Josh taught at Columbia for a year until, again, another door opened. “Then Vanessa’s husband recommended me to teach at DePaul,” which is where Josh currently works.

According to Josh, “One of the big turning points was when I got my father’s blessing.” After reading Wild at Heart, a book which explained that if you did not have an earthly father to bless your life, and in Josh’s case his art, God could be that father, Josh was moved. But when he asked God to ‘be that father,’ he felt God telling him, with absolute clarity, “I can’t give you this blessing, because your father is going to be the one to do it.” A couple months later, while Josh was home with his father for Easter, without his four siblings, that moment occurred, exactly as Josh had known it would.

Yet another fortuitous occurrence was when Josh thought of a new form of teaching screenwriting—a technique that has never been used before. It was based on a literary theory class he took in college. The professor taught him about “unpacking what happens when we read a sentence.” Josh learned about the way we interpret a sentence’s subject, project our own life experiences on it, and finally reconcile our interpretation of a sentence with the author’s version. Josh is now using this method to “unpack” the way we read stories and watch plays or movies.

The concept, which came to him—out of the blue—while he was lecturing a class, has dramatically improved his ability to teach screenwriting and write plays himself. Strangely enough, months ago, a visitor at our church who knew nothing about Josh nor his identity as a filmmaker spoke over his life, telling him, “You bring order to chaos. You have invented something people have been searching for for decades.” Josh explained that film is often described as “organized chaos,” and he described a number of other experiences during which people have given him apparently prophetic words about what God is going to do with him. “I’ve had that happen in the last few years with a frequency that’s blown me out of my socks.”

I asked Josh about his thoughts on these sorts of ‘prophetic words’ and the gold tooth phenomenon at our church, knowing he has been involved in the church leadership and assuming he would have rational perspectives. He replied that he has a “fantastic bull#$%@ detector” due to questionable past church experiences. Nevertheless, he shared, “I am making the active choice to believe that God does that…Why not err on faith? It is something to be unpacked and wrestled with like a good film.” He went on to explain, “I think the core of Christianity is to seek truth and not to seek to fool ourselves. I want the truth no matter who it is. And you know what? God is not afraid of that.”


Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible. –Gabriel Axel/Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast

Not surprisingly, the same mysterious hint of supernatural destiny that pervades Josh’s life story shows up in his writing. In the screenplays I read and watched, the main characters are ostensible losers at living. One is an out-of-shape wrestler whose popularity has spiraled to such a degree that he has only one naïve child fan left, another an overweight singer who wets himself during his life’s most important moments, and another a nerdy, clingy, genius kid so undesired that his parents have both rejected him, leaving him in the custody of a boarding school. But each of these fools has a providential gift that shapes their fate in spite of their own gross shortcomings.

One character, Francis Topeka—the fat singer, whose looks do not match his voice—spends his existence fantasizing about a gorgeous girl who writes him an adoring fan letter during his brief period of childhood fame. When he meets the girl decades later, numerous fluky signs lead him to believe that she too carries a torch for him, even though she does not recognize the disheveled, abrasive man he has become. This fantasy is devastated when he confronts her about the “signs” he has observed. However, their futures ultimately harmonize in spite of the lack of any authentic original feelings on her part. It is as though they are “meant to be together” even though they weren’t really fated to be together, as he had deluded himself into believing for so many years. Or were they?

In The Spectacular Brink of Life, the egotistical but clueless child genius named Wilbert is building a rocket to heaven for a middle school thesis project. A string of stressful and humorous mishaps lead to his new best friend, Florentine—who happens to also be his competitor in love, being sent on a one-way trip to space. The journey to heaven is all but abandoned due to the countless disasters, and Florentine, suffocating and alone in space, discovers an equation that disproves God. After waffling back and forth about whether to try to save Florentine or not, since the benefits of winning over the love-interest in question are great, Wilbert puts his own life and romantic relationship on the line to attempt a rescue. In doing so, they end up on a very heavenly planet. Then, in a beautiful forest on that planet, Wilbert runs into the father who disdained him. Is it a chance encounter? Maybe, maybe not.

Question Deemed Irrelevant

God needs no witness.  Neither to Himself nor against.  –Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

The uncertain line between what is meant to be and what we make happen in our lives seems to be a question intertwined with Josh’s profession, his stories, and his faith. Is his life as a filmmaker destiny or was it a course of random events that happened to allow him to do what he loves? Is God making miracles happen, is it all able to be logically explained, or is it some mystical combination of the two? Both Wilbert and Francis Topeka have encounters with shooting stars in their respective tales, and both seem to interpret them to be some sort of sign. But millions of shooting stars, or meteors, fly through the earth’s atmosphere every day. What constitutes a sign?

Josh believes things. He believes he is doing what he is meant to be doing, and he has believed in himself as a filmmaker since he was a child. I have not met many people with such a sense of certainty about who they are. In his own words, he tried to explain what he believes God is doing. “I’m living my father’s dream. He’s doing something crazy, and he’s using me to do it, and I’m the luckiest bastard in the world.” Wow. I find myself wondering if he is just optimistic. At the same time, I find myself desiring that same sense of absolute purpose. It is inspiring.

At last, Josh’s faith is necessary not just as he creates his art, but as he seeks to share it. Producing independent movies does not sound like the easiest task. Fancypants, a movie about a wrestler who has passed his prime and his lone fan, will be Josh’s directorial debut. The movie has been filmed and edited, but has yet to be released because it needs up-front funding to be shown in theaters. Though this will likely happen in the very near future, the process of convincing people to personally and financially support his dream has been part of the entire process of making the movie, and will be part of his future movies. He describes the demand for others’ trust that is required to do this: “It’s ridiculous that you’d write me a check for $5 million, but why don’t you write me a check for $5 million?” And though it is ridiculous, it is hard to imagine many people easier to put your money on—Josh’s faith makes you want to support him, his vision, and his art. Yes, we will be waiting to see how this next chapter unfolds. Anything is possible.

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