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Three Things I Learned About Making Movies…

The surprising thing is they have nothing to do with movies

It started with a speech seven years ago where one producer asked me for the right to turn the story she heard into a movie.

Several months later, she brought in a couple of her producer friends who agreed to propel the project forward. They brought in a screenwriter who delivered a brilliant screenplay. And a genius film director who agreed to lead the project.

Countless rejections followed from prospective investors who felt the timing was wrong, the risk too high, the likelihood of success too low. And yet, 47 financial investors stepped forward, determined that despite the odds, the story was simply too important to not tell right.

So, into St. Louis came more than 200 outstanding crew members working tirelessly to support the work of 52 principal actors and more than a thousand background actors, all to get to the point last Friday that Director Sean McNamara excitedly proclaimed, “And that’s a wrap!”

My friends, two decades into a professional speaking career, the past several months have by far been the hardest I’ve worked. Early mornings, long days, late nights, tons of stress, lots of risk, a few tears…and yet, it was by far the most fun I’ve ever had working in my entire life.

It was also a crash course in learning about an industry I knew nothing about before this journey began. Today, I want to share with you three things I learned about making movies that have nothing to do with movies … and explain what they mean for you:

  1. Being a beginner is scary AND fun. Key grip. Best boy. 2nd 2nd assistant to the director. Apple up. Dolly left. Roll sound. My first day on set, I didn’t understand what these job titles did or what these expressions meant. In fact, I didn’t know anything about what was taking place around me.  I could have embraced a “fake-it-til-you-make-it” mindset- and was tempted- but instead, embraced being a beginner. Rather than feeling inferior that every single person on the set knew more about the work than I did, I strived to gain an appreciation for the craft and those who have committed their careers to perfecting it. It became a joy to learn from them. Being a beginner isn’t a liability or threat to our worthiness, but instead can ignite a growth mindset, develop new interests, and connect us with others as new friends.
  2. There are no dead ends, only pivots. I’ve had to roll with a few punches in my day as a professional speaker—flight delays, faulty mics, even occasionally unruly audiences. But never have I witnessed such ingenuity in the face of obstacles than during the On Fire movie shoot. Raining for an outdoor shoot? Key props held up in customs? Sick actors? Behind on schedule?  Not a single obstacle—and there were many—was met with resignation or defeat, but rather they were embraced as an opportunity to try something else, different, better.  Life rarely turns out how we imagine. Jobs end. Diagnoses descend. Relationships change. Resignation can represent the end of something or the beginning of something better—the choice is ours.
  3. Every job matters. Everyday our team was sent a call sheet that outlined the day’s shooting. And while that document (and the dizzying amount of details it contained) was a logistical feat, what was even more amazing was the work it represented.  On any given day, more than 100 individuals, each with a specific role to play, were needed to make the magic of movie making happen. Actors transported safely. Crew needing meals. Microphones working. Artwork created. Lights wired perfectly. Props distributed. Tents quickly erected to protect cast and crew from the elements. All this before the actors ever walked on set. Literally thousands of tasks were required to be executed each day by an army of individual contributors to pull this thing off. Each one critical in contributing to the success of the overall effort. It can be easy to feel insignificant when we fail to see ourselves as part of something bigger than us. Often success, though, hinges on the tiniest detail and the individuals attending to those details with care.

My friends, months of post-production work is required for On Fire to move forward into theaters. Countless hours of selecting music and slicing film and adding visual effects and editing flow in order to create this film. And yet, the lessons learned on set are applicable to each of us long before the movie hits theaters.

Starting something new is scary, but a beginners mindset ensures it will also be a joy.

When dead ends appear in life, and they will, pivot and keep moving forward.

And know that everything you do matters. Let’s just make sure today, and each day, we act like it. 

Today is your day. Live Inspired.


14 replies on “Three Things I Learned About Making Movies…”

Dear John, I am so extremely proud to have actually had the privilege to hear your story, face to face during a mtg at Innsbrook several years ago. Your message was summarized in my mind as despite the odds you are facing in life, never ever give up. It is as clear to me today as it was years ago, YOU never give up and neither should we. Thanks for sharing this wonderful news about the movie. I’m certain I will cry, but hopefully end with happy tears for you knowing your story is impacting so many lives in a positive way. Congratulations!

Steve, I 2 had the pleasure 2 meet John in my home town, Toledo, Ohio. Meeting John is one of the most memorable moments in my life! I said to John that I was standing in the presence of the Most High talking 2 him. Meaning I know that presence of God is within John. I am so honored and pleased to have met John as 1 of the Greatest Souls ❤️ of which I have stood in the presence of. I referenced 2 John as him being a miniature God. John is God’s child. I felt the Spirit of God within John. God is so good to all of us in every way. We have been given so much from the Most High since the beginning of time; & 2 this moment. ~ The Eternity we have been given that we know about is elating to think of. The motivational card I gave John indicated that “Only greatness lies before me.” “Me,” meaning me, u & all God’s children. That greatness is available for us all and comes from the Most High. The Eternity we thank God 4 is the greatness that lies before. The greatness that profoundly immenates from John. What 💯 joy God gives 2 all of us! 😊 All of the time! 😇🥰

John, I’ve head you speak a number of times, but when you spoke at St. Claire of Assisi Advent service I witnessed another side of you. Your knowledge and memory of scripture inspired me to study more deeply. In particular when you referred to some of the miracles that Jesus did you reminded all of us the instruction He gave – Go tell the priest – Go and wash – Pick up your matt. So important to remember that we are to take action not just witness the event.

Thanks, John.

Dear John,
A dear friend told me about your story, as she and her husband were leaving for a shoot in your movie as “extras”! Admittedly, even though I’m a native St. Louisan, I had never heard of you or your tremendous courage, candor, and compassion. Your can-do spirit is absolutely contagious, and you are inspiring people with a vitality and hope that I have rarely witnessed. As a Christian author and speaker, I believe that the words we speak and write are of profound significance, especially in a world of vitriol, desperation, and hopelessness. Your message rings with hope and victory. I myself have felt some self-pity over a vertiginous condition which struck unexpectedly three years and a half ago. To be constantly dizzy and imbalanced every minute of every day is, needless to say, life-changing. But in reading your story, you have given me courage not to be so inwardly focused and self-pitying, but to keep positive, and pray that God will indeed work even this “together for my good” and for those whom He permits my words to touch and encourage. May God give you the grace and energy to continue sharing your inspiring message so that you can light the fire of His warmth and hope under us all. I pray you will light a bonfire of beneficence around the globe! Onward!
Lynn D. Morrissey

John, I can’t wait to see this movie in the theaters! It’s so encouraging to hear that this movie dream is becoming a reality. Like you, I wrote a book about a pivotal time in my childhood (the novel Anything But Groovy) and recently signed a Development Agreement with a Christian production company. My husband and I have discovered that finding investors is the most daunting task. This won’t take 47 investors, but praying that the one person we need to bring this lower-budget film to life will step forward soon. Hope your movie is a roaring success when it comes out!

What a great reminder. Pivoting through life has its ups and downs, and can be humbling. We’re never too old to have that beginners mindset. Thanks for modeling it. It’s a golden nugget I want to take into the new year.

I was blessed enough to be picked as an extra for this movie, and I must say this is one story that will amaze you and inspire you. Thank you so much for everything you do John, can’t wait to see the final production of On Fire!

I was one of the crew on the film On Fire. I was key/Make Up Artist. This means I was assistant to the head Make Up Artist, and at times we were out in the field, making sure all the extras looked like the period/time that they were playing. My favorite thing about this particular movie was we brought union members from three different states together and we all knew our positions, and what to do . We all worked so well together. Being part of this make up team was an amazing experience. Along with a really great Director it felt like it went pretty darn smoothly.Looking forward to the Final Cut!

❤️ I was at a low point in my life when I first heard your story from a CD I picked up in the back of a church. My decision to pick up that CD — Even though I did not have enough money for the suggested donation! — set off a chain of inner “events” that have brought me to a better place today. On the outside I am still struggling, but it is my mindset that has changed. Your story gave me hope. And hope changes everything. Thank you for being exactly who you are! ❤️ And now that I remembered, I will be sure to donate some extra money the next time I attend Mass at that church… 😄

Lesson #2 reminds me of your chat with Colton Dixon when he talked about thinking of unexpected hurdles as a “setup” rather than a “setback”. I really loved that little nugget of wisdom and I love your lessons. I can hardly wait for the movie!!

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