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"It’s like when I worked on a church staff. You have to get it done."
During his more than a decade of work between two churches in southern Texas, it in many ways crafted the direction of the completion of this film, The Challenger Disaster, even if the initial work on this project began a number of years ago.
For the former Worship and Creative Arts Pastor at Grace Point Church in San Antonio, that prior experience added up to where, he noted, “I learned a ton when working in ministry … how to treat people, how to not treat people; manage people, budgets.”
There were other notable similarities to that prior work and his current project.
“When you are working on an independent film, you don’t have a ton of money and time, to make videos happen, (so having those skills were) very helpful in the process,” he added.
The film recounts the disaster, that dates back 33 years ago today - on Jan. 28, 1986. The tragedy occurred shortly after the tenth launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, as it shockingly broke apart after only 73 seconds into that flight, killing the five astronauts and two other crew members onboard.
What followed was the shelving of the shuttle program for more than 2½ years, as this film looks at how an engineer had sought to stop that day’s launch, and the ensuing coverup in the following weeks and months.
Even though VonMinden was only three-years-old at the time of the disaster, his interest in what transpired grew out of a case study he completed years ago, where he, “learned how the priorities were backward (in authorities seemingly more interested in avoiding a cancellation of that day’s flight), and it haunted me.”
Following that case study, he continued to dig, researching for an additional eight years, when the idea of telling this story through film was born.
That, though, was just the beginning.
For VonMinden, who worked at Grace Point through 2017, then proceeded to work on multiple drafts of the film script over six months, followed by spending three months to fundraise for the film.
That aspect of the project also had a dose of familiarity to his prior work in ministry.
“How many giving campaigns had I been a part of, during my 15-year career? I had been a part of nine substantial campaigns and raised millions of dollars in those giving campaigns,” noted VonMinden. In one of those campaigns, for instance, he added that he was “the creative process behind it and raised more than $20 million.”
Despite having been part of such successful past campaigns, the challenge in collecting the needed funds for this film was anything but easy, he acknowledged.
“(Fundraising) the first $5,000 was the hardest thing,” he said. At first, he thought of going “door to door to studios, to see if they’ll do it for you, but I had to go to private investors.” Upon getting commitments to that first $5,000, things began to pick up, he noted, adding, “Once we rounded that corner, then people started to come to me, asking me how they could invest (in the film).”
Following the stage of fundraising, “we spent about a month of preproduction getting everyone on board,” he said, followed with about a month of production and then seven to eight months in postproduction.
That time also included the film shoot, which he noted “was very fast, just 17 days.”
The film editing process then ran for two months, to which he noted, “With no sound design, it was awful. When you are going through production, the first draft sucks and you have to make it work, until it works.”
For this film, which ended being completed with an operating budget of $170,000, his approach was to find “investors who dug the vision of the film.”
With a budget of that limited size, it meant that VonMinden had to wear multiple hats to finish this project. That included working as one of the film’s three editors, an executive producer, coordinating the screenplay, and serving as the film’s director.
“It’s like when I worked on a church staff,” he said, “You have to get it done.” Fortunately for VonMinden, he added, “And I worked with a lot of people who also had to wear a lot of hats on this film.”
Among those that first came to mind, included Erika Waldorf, who he said helped with the creative process and editing for the film, along with necessary (but often forgotten) things like catering, to go with serving as one of the main actresses in the film.
In addition to Waldorf, he touted the work of lead actor Eric Hanson. “He was such a great lead actor … a man of responsibility and integrity,” VonMinden said, adding that Hanson “led the actors into preparation, along with excellence in relationships on set.” Off screen, he credited the work by his wife, Meleice, who was a producer on the film as integral, in that she “made sure everything happened, took care of people, helped write with me, and was my sounding board.”
Thinking how each individual was crucial to the success of the completion of this project, he added, “Those are the people that you want to spend your life with, as they are timely about it, and respectful about it.”
In addition to those three, the film has a few familiar faces gracing the screen, including Dean Cain, best known for his role in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman or Glenn Morshower, for his work on the TV show, 24. There were some other well known faces on the set, but not from work in film or television, most notably, Les Miles, who recently was hired as head football coach for Kansas State.
Upon sending out notice in needing to fill certain roles for the film, Miles stepped forward, to which VonMinden said, “We wanted to make sure he could act and put him through the ringer.” Once taking those steps, he noted, “I know he is a man of high intellect, and (those that signed on) dug the story, they dug what we were doing.”
Having such experience with tight budgets during his time in ministry, he explained, it has helped in being proactive in “managing expectations, since (there is the frequent expectation that) you will do extra things and will do them for free,” if one isn’t upfront in discouraging many of those last-minute add-ons.
To keep one’s workload in check, he explained it couldn’t be done by simply saying “no” at every turn. The preferred approach, he noted, is to research the cost behind any additional request, after which one “tells them that (by taking on that extra work) I can’t work on this or that.” As a result, the impact of that extra work on one’s time and output are made clear.
The juggling of time and tasks is nothing new for VonMinden, particularly dating back to his time working with churches, as he noted how for a “typical weekend, I would be managing multiple services on multiple campuses.” During a service, “you are crafting a moment, like the scene we are shooting today, or the one that we did two weeks ago. To develop that vision in your mind’s eye, it’s like service elements together. (Having that experience working in churches), that was hugely helpful into connecting things that are not connected.”
Even with those many similarities to working on a church staff compared to working on a film, one of the most notable differences, he explained, was how with a church “you are producing something new week after week after week, while on a film you are focused on one thing for many months.”
He elaborated in noting how “in the church world, it’s a marathon, as you’re constantly grinding week after week, with a rhythm. In the film world, it’s more of a sprint, where it’s more of a go, go, go atmosphere,” following long times of waiting.
In keeping everyone involved in the film project organized throughout, similar to needing to do so while working for a church, software similar to Planning Center was needed. For this project, though, the program chosen was for, “keeping everyone accounted for and up to date.” During this project, a primary goal was to have a well-functioning set, which was so well achieved, that he noted a number of those he worked with citing “being on the best functioning set, and that they want to work with you in the future.” To achieve that goal, “We employed the same principle (that I did while working in church) … start on time, end on time and feed people. When you are not paying people millions of dollars, and it won’t make people rich, we have to make it an enjoyable experience,” VonMinden explained.
When first looking for people to work on the film, but who could also speak for the project, once filming was ready to begin, he turned to a friend from his ministry days, Glenn Gordon of Austin Ridge Bible Church in Texas.
“Glenn is someone I knew I could trust, and he had the time to work with me on it.” With him on board, VonMinden explained how he and Gordon would during filmling “talk with crew members and actors together, so that if there was someone who was misbehaving, he would deal with it like a pastor, handling issues in a graceful way.”
Despite being away from working for a church staff for about a year, VonMinden described still having a desire to one day return to working for a church staff. “I am missing the stability that comes with being part of a larger staff,” he said, and added, “I want to continue to serve, and I will continue serving on a church staff soon.”
In addition, The Challenger Disaster will have a small theatrical release across the nation, which began with this screening in Houston below on Jan. 22, 2019.
To VonMinden, he emphasized that the project grew largely out of his belief that “I have been inspired by people who will do the right thing, where it cost them.” The people who looked to delay or stop the launch that fateful January morning, he said looked past whether “will I lose my job, will people like me,” in the interest of doing what was best for the program.
Looking back to when the idea of the film first came about, he admitted a lot has changed from what he initially envisioned. “The final project is much different in a good way, as the film wants to be what it wants to be, so you have to follow that. You have to stop trying to fight where you want it to be, and let the project let it touch people’s hearts and minds.”
Among the most significant differences to those initial ideas for the film, he noted, was that he considered “shooting it myself with a DSLR and with my own lights. Back then, I was going to make the movie on $0. It grew with momentum, though, bringing new people on and more funds, to where the film wanted to be released the way it has been.”