10 questions with Brian Bird

In March 2018, I had the privilege to interview Brian Bird for “10 questions.”

Bird is an influential figuwho are in Christian entertainment. He is the Executive Producer and Co-Creator of “When Calls the Heart,” and co-author of “When God Calls the Heart.”

Brian Bird, Courtesy of Broadstreet Publishing

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved in the entertainment industry?

Brian Bird: I was trained as a journalist, and after graduating from journalism school, worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper in Southern California and wrote for magazines for several years before morphing my career into film and TV writing.

My first produced script was for an episode of “Fantasy Island” back in 1984 and that was it for me.  I enjoyed that kind of writing so much that I knew that’s what I supposed to do.

By 1989, I had my first full-time job a story-editor on a CBS television show called “The Family Man.”

Kurt Manwaring: What are some of the challenges and some of the blessings of trying both to be a man of faith in entertainment — and present works of faith to audiences?

Brian Bird: To be honest, I have never felt that my faith has been an impediment in my career.

Perhaps if I had pursued “edgier” projects, I might have encountered some resistance because of my faith, but my experience has always been that if you are competitive in your craft and a professional, you could be a Martian who worships the Man in the Moon and you would be welcome.

If you’re good at what you do and willing to work everybody else under the table, there will always be a place for you.

Also, the entertainment business can be so terrifying, so fiercely competitive and alienating, that people are hungry for authentic, meaningful relationship. That’s always something a person of faith can be good at if we are committed to loving on the people around us without any strings attached.

That old saying is as true in Hollywood as it is in the church. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

 

Kurt Manwaring: You recently published “When God Calls the Heart.” Would you give readers a brief synopsis of the book and say something about the contributions of your co-author, Michelle Cox?

Brian Bird: Because the #Hearties have been so devoted to “When Calls the Heart” over the first five seasons, I have received hundreds of messages and notes from them saying they watch the episodes over and over because they love the “God moments” and wished they could do more study about those themes, and I’ve often wondered how I could take that conversation deeper.

Last year, I was on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in North Carolina and “happened” to sit across from my friend Michelle Cox, who I knew had written many best-selling devotionals in the past.

Brian Bird, Janette Oke, and Michelle Bird, Courtesy of Brian Bird

Over pizza we explored the idea of a devotional based on the series, which to her mind, had never been done before.

By the end of that conference we agreed to partner on the writing and we actually had an offer from our publisher, Broadstreet.

The key was whether they could get the book out in time for season 5, and they actually pulled that off.  From idea to a book in stores in less than 9 months.

As for the writing of the book, Michelle has been an amazing partner and we worked hand-in-hand on every choice and every word.

Each chapter uses an episode as a jumping off point, highlighting some of the God moments woven into the storytelling.

And then we expound on those moments with some deeper implications and applications for our lives today, all combined with an appropriate verse of scripture, a prayer template and questions for further reflection. 

 

Kurt Manwaring: “When God Calls the Heart” is the most beautiful book I have added to my collection in some time. From the artwork to the indented typography to the ribbon bookmark, the book is especially appealing to look at and touch. Was there a conscious decision to create such a beautiful book? Why or why not? What kind of partner has Broadstreet Publishing been in this regard?

Brian Bird: I love hearing that.  My goal in everything I put my hand to is try and do the most excellent job I can.   Not for my own glory, but to reflect any praise back on the “Author of the Universe.”

Since we are told in scripture that we are made in His image, as image-bearers who are we to strive for anything less than excellence?  We should all be trying to be the Michelangelo of the creative spark we’ve been given.

Partnering with Broadstreet has been a dream.

The quality of the book owes much to their commitment to excellence, as well, and we were privileged to get the rights to include several beautiful original paintings from a talented Heartie, Jordan Blackstone.

From the inception of this project,  our goal with every chapter is to provide the reader with a meaningful, rich spiritual experience, and I hope we have done that.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Part of the allure of shows like “When Calls the Heart” is the portrayal of faith in simpler times. However, when an episode ends the story remains fiction. Is “When God Calls the Heart” designed to help readers incorporate faith into their own lives like they envy in the fictional characters of Hope Valley?

Brian Bird: I didn’t want to write this devotional for any other reason than to take the readers into a deeper level of personal reflection about the themes in our fictional show.

I feel like we were able to take a lesson from the way Jesus used parables… telling relatable fictional stories about earthly circumstances in order to illuminate heavenly spiritual principles.

 

Kurt Manwaring: When writing scripts of a faithful nature, do you find there are varying shades of writer’s block compared to writing secular scripts?

Brian Bird: I don’t think there is any difference and writers writing anything can get blocked in their process by a sense of “imposter syndrome” and those old lack of self-esteem “tapes” that play in all of us, no matter what we’re trying to do.

My own experience with writer’s block dates back to right after the turn of the millennium.

I was working late at night on an episode of “Touched By an Angel” and the script was due the next day.  I had written myself figuratively into a tributary of the Amazon River and couldn’t find my way back to main channel, so to speak, and was feeling the heat.

There is no such thing as writer’s block in the world of episodic TV – it’s the same as a pink slip.

I got so desperate that I reached out to God in prayer – “help me… what do I do?”

I didn’t hear an audible voice back, and words didn’t start typing themselves magically on my computer screen, but I did receive a deep soul impression: “I was a writer… now you be one.”

I got chill bumps and all these scriptures from my childhood began to come to me… “God, the author of the universe… in the beginning was the word… Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”

And then it occurred to me… God left His revelation to mankind in a big, fat book… His story as a narrative through space and time.  And if my tiny strand of the creative DNA of the author of the universe is to be a writer, too, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

And I just prayed… “Okay, you dictate what you want me to say, and I’ll type.”

I was able to get that script turned in the next day and it turned out to be a pretty good episode.

I’ve never had another case of writer’s block since then because I just write what that “still small voice” inside me is saying, and I don’t second-guess myself so much anymore.

I have a Post-It note on my computer at all times:  “Be God’s typist.”

The Post-it note on Brian Bird’s computer. Photo courtesy of Brian Bird

Kurt Manwaring: You have experienced career highs and lows. What is one high moment and one low moment that remains poignant in your memory and helped shape who you have become as a writer — or even as a person?

Brian Bird: Lord, I could write a book on that topic.  I guess both high and low moment all relate to “When Calls the Heart.”

Most people don’t know that in 2008, when the global financial meltdown happened, Michael Landon Jr. and I were in Alberta, Canada, filming our movie version of Janette Oke’s book, “When Calls the Heart.”

The day Lehman Brothers went belly-up, so did our source of funding.

We had to shut down the project half-way through filming, and anybody who knows anything about movie-making knows that’s absolutely the worst thing that can happen.

A half-finished film is worthless. It has no value. 

Not only that, as producers, we were left holding the bag on $1.4 million in debts… and when you shut down a production… you are the last people to be paid.

It was a devastating time for me personally and I considered quitting the business after 25 years.

Until my pastor, Rick Warren from Saddleback Church, called me to challenge me.  He said there is no such thing as being “un-called.” When God drafts you to a position of leadership, you don’t get to un-ring that bell.

He also said, “persistence always beats resistance.”

I took that advice to heart and four years later we found a way to finish that half-finished movie with the help of the Hallmark Channel.

Had we been able to finish it in 2008, it would have been a nice little “one-off” movie.

But because we went through, and survived, that four-year crucible, by 2013 Hallmark was contemplating entering the one-hour TV series business, and “When Calls the Heart” the movie tested so well, they asked us if we would be willing to do six episodes.

We’re now in season five with 56 episodes of the show “in the can.”

As Della Reese’s character Tess on “Touched By an Angel” used to say, “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.”

Pretty hard not to top that as a high-water mark.

Kurt Manwaring: You work closely with Michael Landon, Jr. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet or work with his father, Michael Landon? If so, did he have any influence on your approach to emphasizing family values in entertainment?

Brian Bird: I can only wish I would have met Michael Landon, Sr., though along with most Americans I felt I knew him having watched him my whole childhood.

When Michael Jr. and I formed our company together, Believe Pictures, in 2003, I couldn’t help but think we were continuing the legacy of his father.

I hope we have lived up to that heritage with our films and with “When Calls the Heart.”

 

Kurt Manwaring: Mormons are fans of a great deal of your work, whether it is “Touched by an Angel,” (filmed in Utah), or “When Calls the Heart” (a family-values classic in the making). What is it about shows like these that speak so deeply to Mormons and religious believers of other faiths?

Brian Bird: Some of my best friends in the film-making business are Mormons who worked with us all those years making “Touched By an Angel” in Utah.  I find all people seeking God in their own faith expressions to be genuine human beings with all the same spiritual yearnings.

As Pascale said, we’re all trying to”fill the God-shaped hole inside us.”

But the interesting thing about good stories is I think they are all faith-based in a way.

I believe all human beings are wired for the God-story.

No matter where we come from, we all have “violin strings” running through our souls and when those strings get plucked by story they are tuned to the  transcendent themes of redemption, forgiveness, courage, sacrifice, nobility and resurrection.

Yes, resurrection.

They are all the great virtues from the holy scriptures. And last I checked, many of the great movies of all time were tuned to these themes. “ET,” ”The Matrix” and “Harry Potter,” among many other examples, all had resurrections in them. As did the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” written two thousand years before Christ.

That’s because mankind is tuned for stories of redemption and resurrection.

We are all hungry for stories of overcoming the mortal coil, so I try to approach every project in the same way. Tell stories that stir up soul cravings in people, just like Jesus did with His parables. 

 

Kurt Manwaring: On your blog, you explain someone once asked you what you would want written on your tombstone. After some thought, you felt strongly impressed to live worthy of an epitaph that would read, “His words illuminated people’s hearts and moved them closer to their creator.” If today were your last day on earth, how well do you feel you have lived up to this lofty goal?

Brian Bird: Wow, you did a deep dive on your research here.  Honestly, I will let other people judge whether or not my words have moved them closer to God.

I sure hope so, and even after more than three decades of making my living as a professional writer and communicator, I honestly feel like my best work is still ahead of me. I hope I am still stirring up soul cravings in people with my words three decades from now. 

By that time, all that will be left of me will be a brain in a cigar box, but I hope there will be technology available allowing me to continue being God’s typist even without fingers.

 

Kurt Manwaring: If a major studio approached you and asked you to make an inspirational film that appeals to believers of all faiths and gave you a budget of $300 million, what kind of story would you make? What would such a significant budget enable you to do that you cannot presently do?

Brian Bird: If there was one mega-budget film I could make it would probably be Bunyan’s classic book “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

But I would prefer to change the math.

I would rather make 10 films at $30 million or 30 at $10 million each… and I have ideas for all of them right now!

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