This article was originially written for and posted on Hollywood Jesus.com.
Undaunted is a docudrama based on the childhood and early adulthood of preacher and Christian author James McDowell. Writer and director Cris Krusen tells me that McDowell had contemplated such a project for many years, as he had been told by his staff that he needed to do a film on his early life. He didn’t take the idea seriously, however, until he saw a series of docudramas directed by Cristóbal Krusen. McDowell is quoted in an article published by Campus Crusade for Christ, “I never knew you could communicate so much emotion and so much substance in so little time as you can with a docudrama.”
The film developed in various stages. After Krusen and McDowell decided to work together, Krusen sat down to write the screenplay. Unfamiliar with McDowell’s story, Krusen gathered all the notes, articles, copies of speeches, and so on he could find, where McDowell might have shared his testimony, and pored over them. As he learned more about McDowell’s life, Krusen recalls his first impression. “This is a powerful story,” he remembers thinking, “with a marked conflict and a deeply moving resolution. And it’s true!”
With a script in hand, production of the film was stalled due to shortage of funds. After many months without progress on the project, Krusen suggested that they shoot the film in stages, starting first with all the scenes involving the real-life Josh. They shot those scenes in October 2010. “It seemed,” Krusen observed, “to provide a real impetus for raising the remainder of the budget.” They would then shoot most of the dramatizations in May 2011.
Krusen enjoyed working with McDowell. “It was great,” he says. McDowell “had many endearing qualities, chief among them being that he was open and approachable; he became ‘one of the guys’.” Krusen does point out that the report by Campus Crusade that McDowell’s story influenced him in his personal conversion is just incorrect. Krusen never knew about Josh McDowell until after he had been a Christian for three or four years.
Even so, Krusen was excited about working on this project because it provided an opportunity to explore, as he says, “the fragile world of a child haunted by family dysfunction and abuse, and plumbing the depths of a troubled father-son relationship which is ultimately transformed by the power of love and forgiveness.”
The docudrama presents to the viewer the chilling reality of McDowell’s childhood, which includes some challenging scenes. McDowell is abused by a caretaker and witnesses the abuse of his mother at the hands of his father. These scenes were not only challenging for the viewer, they presented their own challenges in filming.
The actress playing McDowell’s mother got delayed in reaching the shooting location, leaving Krusen having to rely a lot on the “power of suggestion.” “The beating took place in real dairy barn,” Krusen tells me, “and called for her rolling around in cow manure.” This presented another challenge. The actress was too big a woman to handle any physical stunts. “There was no way she could fall to the ground,” Krusen says. So, they had to imply a lot. Krusen says he hopes that the audience is so engaged the story that they do not notice the non-direct shots. As a member of the audience, I say job well done. The scene is a dramatic one, and the lack of direct shots of the mother being beaten does not take away from its emotion.
The other challenge in filming was the sexual abuse scene where young McDowell is abused by his caregiver. How do you portray something so horrific and offensive without being overly graphic? Krusen was adamant about one thing. “I was to not play this scene ‘safe.’ The audience,” he said, “must know that Young Josh is being molested.” Krusen again uses the power of suggestion to communicate the drama. As he says, “there is no room for doubt about what is taking place.”
The issue of abuse, both physical and sexual, is a huge one in our society. The effects it has on children are long standing. The hope is because McDowell is so open and vulnerable about the issue it could bring it to the forefront of the Church. “Unless you’re trying to raise children in a protective bubble,” Krusen points out, “issues like domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual abuse, and so forth need to be confronted as real-life issues affecting real people every day.” Krusen goes on to say that the church and Christian media needs to not give audiences a “watered down” version of reality. “It seems,” he says, “that the highest goal for many Christian filmmakers these days is to produce ‘safe’ and ‘family-friendly’ programming. The first goal of a filmmaker should be to tell the truth and you are not telling the truth about evil by hiding the horror of sin and its aftermath.” Krusen does not advocate, however, the senseless graphic portrayal of true events. Instead, there is need for balance in storytelling, as long as the jeopardy, the trouble, the danger of something in the story is not removed. “If you’re trying to reach the lost,” he told me, “stop preaching to the choir.”
In the film, Young Josh turns away from God. As a college student he meets a group of students who are Christians. Even though he doesn’t believe in God, they do not beat him over the head with the Bible to get him to believe. They leave an open invitation to him. Over time, McDowell will have so many questions about faith and God, he travels to Europe to seek answers. I was extremely impressed with this aspect of McDowell’s life. Too many people will either accept blindly what others tell them, or they become so discouraged by the questions that they walk away from faith.
One of the hopes of the film is that people who are questioning their faith will inspire individuals and communities of faith to respond differently to doubting and questioning. Krusen hopes that young people will respond favorably to the film’s honesty. Overall, he hopes that people will catch a glimmer of God’s great love for them. As he says, “No one is beyond the pale; no one is removed from the grace of God.”
Krusen is currently developing an evangelistic film for the Balkans and is also preparing for the shooting of 33 Hope, a feature film based on the early life of the apostle Paul.