Theo Brown is the director of Smoky Mountain Rescue, a short web series made for kids that premiered at the Oshkosh Pathfinder Camporee last summer. Brown is a full-time film and TV professional living in Los Angeles, but he graduated from Southern Adventist University and enjoyed being back in Tennessee for this project, funded by the North American Division.
Question: You are the director of a new mini-series for kids called Smoky Mountain Rescue. Can you tell us a little bit about what the eight-part series is about?
Answer: Smoky Mountain Rescue is a web series that shares the story of Emily, a teenager who’s stuck reluctantly visiting her grandpa’s farm for the summer. While reconnecting with her younger cousins there, she meets Jack, a lost dog that Grandpa and the kids rescued on the side of the road. Throughout the series, the family looks to solve the mystery of Jack’s missing owners, and learn about different values of stewardship and acceptance along the way.
The web series was adapted from a book by John and Jan Mathews. How did you get the idea to turn this book into a short film for kids?
The idea of turning SMR into a web series was something that had actually happened before I was deeply involved — my incredible producer Nathan DeWild had been contacted by John Mathews about the concept, and Nathan was really interested.
Nathan and I met in the film program at Southern Adventist University in 2007, and we always had a love for stories that are creatively unique and that connect with the kid in all of us. He reached out to me in December 2018 about helping to do the project, and I jumped on board immediately — anything Nathan’s a part of, I’m in.
The series was funded by the Stewardship Department of the North American Division. Is that correct? How did they come to fund it?
This is correct. But it’s not something that I’m really qualified to talk about, since the funding was already fully locked in before I got on board.
I will say this though: it’s so rare to find people who not only believe in this kind of creative content, but are willing to actually put in the funds to make a project like this.
When Mr. Mathews first told me the project was being funded by the church’s Stewardship Department, I couldn’t believe it. But after talking to Mr. Mathews more, I saw how his vision was able to use all mediums to share the message.
He previously made the film The Mysterious Note, so I saw that he really had a passion for using storytelling to share these values. These kinds of stories don’t usually get the platform we got, and I’m extremely grateful to have been able to experience it.
How does Smoky Mountain Rescue promote stewardship?
When it came to the ideas of stewardship, early in the conversations with Mr. Mathews and Nathan we wanted to show that the stewardship concept doesn’t always involve money, although traditionally, this is the first thing people think of. (My dad worked as a conference treasurer for over 20 years and now teaches business — I’ve heard way more than my fair share of stewardship seminars.)
With this story, we wanted to show how being a steward also means taking care of things that are your responsibility: your time, your cousins, and even the animals that may cross paths with you.
Since the story was based on a book Mr. Mathews had written, I got to chat with him and hear his ideas about stewardship principles and discuss how we could adapt them into the live action form.
The main character Emily not only sees how to watch over her younger cousins and be a steward of them (especially when they are in danger), but also create a protective bond with Jack the dog. Jack becomes a bit of a steward over the kids as well, slowly growing out of his shell to accept and protect his new family.
One of my favorite things was the fact that the character Drew is usually invested in some deep reading of his stewardship books — a kid that age is pretty much soaking up professional tips. Cade Tropeano (the actor) fit the role perfectly.
How much did the series cost to make? I believe it is available free on the web. Is it earning any income, or was it a fully funded project?
The series had significant backing, though compared to its higher-funded cinematic peers, we were able to really accomplish a lot in the space we were in.
Working with animals, as we did, requires several professionals that ensure the safety of both the crew and the animals, and we wanted to make sure that was the most important thing. We were also able to secure the main town square in Covington, Georgia, to film for one of our locations. Even though this is a web series, it was really important to all of us that it look like it would fit on any theater screen. Once permits, food, gear, and other things add up, this project could have gotten out of hand. Thankfully, Nathan was able to balance and budget for every detail, so we stayed pretty on track. Financially, I’ll say this: we were well below the Screen Actors Guild’s definition of an Ultra Low Budget Agreement!
The series is online, free to view! We even have some behind-the-scenes episodes that we created, so audiences can take a peek behind the curtain to see what the cast and crew experienced while shooting. Mr. Mathews and the stewardship team wanted this story to be available for anyone and everyone to watch, and we supported that 100%! I would have loved to have these kinds of videos to watch when I was growing up, so I hope that the younger ones now enjoy it and have a blast. There may be opportunities to package it with more content in the future, but it’ll always have a free online experience, I believe.
Smoky Mountain Rescue was premiered at the 2019 Pathfinder Camporee in Oshkosh — is that right? How many Pathfinders watched it there? What response did you get? Was it shown small-scale or at the mass meetings?
It did play at Oshkosh — that was so dope hearing that! I was a Pathfinder (Faith Temple Conquerors, let’s goooo!) and got to experience Faith on Fire years ago. I still remember shirking every duty I had to just hang with other countries and do archery for hours.
Knowing that it played at the Camporee is a surreal feeling — to have a tiny part in something that is so iconic will always be a highlight for me. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I believe the trailer was played at the mass meeting and the first one or two episodes were shown at the booth. The stewardship team had these awesome enamel pins that they were handing out. The team there said the responses were great, and the Pathfinders who watched it said they couldn’t wait to see the rest of the series!
I’ve met some students and other friends who were there and mentioned watching the project and liking it. They didn’t know I was a part of it, so I’m assuming they had no bias. (And if they did, that’s okay, too!)
Who wrote the script?
The screenwriting process was an intense one, in a great way. Nathan and I, along with another close friend of mine, had to not only break down the book to see what we could and couldn’t do (the mountain lion in the book was impossible from a producibility standpoint, for instance. That would have used up to 1/3 of the budget!), but to also find a way to adapt the story from the written medium to a visual one.
Once we had found a tone that we were all okay with, we broke down each episode and the values that it would highlight. This allowed us to create an overarching story line, as opposed to a more procedural series. Then, it was off to writing, rewriting, getting notes, rewriting… I think we were roughly locked in with all eight scripts about one or two months before filming.
While we were writing, we were locking in crew and locations. With all films, we’re just spinning plates and making sure each one gets the right attention needed. Thankfully, Nathan has such a great background with this, so we stayed right on schedule.
How large was the cast and crew?
The cast had eight, including Clayton as Jack, Kiara Friedlander (Emily), Alpha Trivette (Grandpa), Samuel Goergen (Tony), Cade Tropeano (Drew), Jonathan Horne (Jason), and Ava Monger (Katie). Getting this amazing group of actors together was a miracle in itself, and all that thanks goes to Cheryl Kubin, our amazing casting director. Since we had several child actors, there are certain rules and guidelines that have to be followed. And of course, they are just kids! But they were all so professional and fun to work with — they were the heart and soul of what’s on screen, so my main thing was to just get out of their way and let them work.
I had never worked with animals before in this capacity, but our main animal trainer, Nicole Kanoy, was so kind in explaining the do’s and do nots on set. There were things that had to be adjusted on the fly many times, because an animal may not be performing the way we hoped. When you want to go left, but the bear wants to go right, you change your plan to go right. I’m not jumping in there to tell a bear what to do.
The crew overall was comprised of about 25 people, including the trainers team. It was a pretty small and intimate group.
How many minutes of viewing are there in total in the finished series? How many minutes of footage did you shoot?
There are eight episodes in all, averaging about six to eight minutes per episode. So, roughly 45-50 minutes of content. That’s a TV show with no commercial breaks. We definitely filled up some terabytes of footage though!
How many Southern Adventist University students worked on the series? How many professionals?
The crew was actually a mix of working industry professionals and students. I’m eternally grateful to all the pros we had there — they really took the students under their guidance and showed them things that could only be learned after experiencing a real-world film environment. A film set can best be described as a pressure cooker — chasing the daylight, challenges with an animal’s performances, or any other multitude of things. So the fact that those professionals accepted this along with working with more inexperienced crew is just a testament to their character.
I have to give a huge shout out to my director of photography, Tim Banks. He and I met when we were students (we often worked with Nathan back then too). He’s phenomenal, and is based out here in Los Angeles where I also am. This proximity let us talk for months about the visual language of the series, and explore different possibilities. There’s a quote that says a film is made in pre-production, and getting to just learn from and work with Tim leading up to the shoot was a huge part of its success.
Having actual students on set was a big part of why I was excited about the project. One of the main reasons I went to Southern is because I saw an advertisement of someone (who’s now my great friend, Leslie Foster) holding a film camera and saying they shot a movie there. Being able to be a part of giving that experience back to current students was so inspiring. They accepted the challenge and you could see them just growing in leaps and bounds.
I was able to work on Belly of the Whale (director Nick Livanos, a film professor at Southern Adventist University) in 2017 with some of the students. Being able to team up with them as seniors for this project was amazing. And then there were the ones that had just graduated a few months before filming — being able to work with them as peers just shows how unparalleled Southern is when it comes to its film department. What David George, Nick Livanos, and the rest of the School of Visual Arts and Design (SVAD) department has done is a testament to their dedication. It was amazing to work with all of them. I got a chance to go back for The Roundtable (a once-a-year event where SVAD and Journalism alumni go back to connect with the current students — it’s an amazing thing now in its fourth year) and hang out with the students who worked on Smoky Mountain Rescue. They told me that the summer shoot pushed them in ways they weren’t prepared for, but coming back to school has shown them how much they can push themselves to tell their stories. This is what makes it worthwhile for me, personally.
How long did it take to make the series? How long for shooting and how long for editing?
We shot for about 12 days of principle photography, so it was a lot to accomplish in that tight schedule. Two weeks (shooting Monday through Friday) were out by Atlanta, and then we had a few more days back in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There was no margin for error, since our budget was pretty locked in. But we got it! We were able to shoot on the Red Dragon (camera).
You mentioned a bear? Was it a real bear? How did you get a bear to act in the series? Was it scary?
There is a bear! I’m not going to spoil what episode she’s in — you have to watch it for yourself! She was definitely a real bear though. Our first assistant director Jennifer worked extremely closely with Nicole the animal trainer and the special bear handlers to make sure that the set was safe for her. It was a closed set, so we sent the crew away while we shot our footage. There was a challenging shot where Emily is having a stare down in the same frame with the bear, so we had to do some VFX work to make the two “meet.” In real life, none of the kids ever got to really hang with the bear, which they would bring up pretty often to me. Probably the biggest complaint from shooting!
We had the scenes with the bear storyboarded out, so we knew what we wanted to capture from her. Once the handlers were there, we would walk though every beat of the scene and show what we wanted the bear to do. Then I got behind a camera in the safe zone as they brought her in, where she would… do her own thing. I found that bears behave like any actor does, and their handlers were able to get the performances that we needed.
The best thing I’ve learned is just to enjoy the spontaneous nature of filmmaking, because what you get may be way better than what you imagined.
I also learned that bears don’t actually roar on set, so when you see her opening her mouth, know there’s a hand with some snacks right outside the frame. It’s terrifying, frankly.
What are the plans for Smoky Mountain Rescue? How do you hope that it will be used and who do you intend will watch it? How is it being marketed?
As of right now, I know the plans are for the series to be viewed primarily online. The Stewardship Department has created a lesson plan for teachers that can be downloaded right on the site. While I’m personally excited that anyone will be able to watch it, I think it’s a pretty genius idea to approach it from the educational side as well. When I was in academy, there was nothing more exciting than when the TV was wheeled into the classroom. Hopefully some students will get that same feeling from this!
We’re also gearing up for a festival run — since it’s a web series, it’s going to be in a unique situation that many creative outlets have embraced. As long as people will want to see it, I’ll be happy to screen it for them.
Have you directed previously? Tell us a little bit about your background in film.
I’ve been directing for about 10 years now in both the corporate and narrative space. I graduated from Southern Adventist University in December 2010, and started working for the Manchester Memorial Hospital in Manchester, Kentucky doing videography. I then transitioned out to a Loma Linda University hospital campus, where I did the same, but was able to begin PAing (Production Assistant) on commercials and films with my days off.
I moved to Los Angeles about six years ago now, and began working as a first assistant director and producing more, as well as directing my own projects. It was incredibly inspiring to meet new creatives and also keep collaborating with friends I already had. We just try to support each other and push ourselves to keep growing, telling stories, and putting one foot ahead of the other. It’s been an incredible, incredible journey. Apart from Smoky Mountain Rescue, I’m also in post on my first feature film, An Electric Sleep. It’s a bit of a psychological thriller with a sci-fi element, so maybe a bit different...
And what goals do you have for your career?
As far as goals go, I just feel so blessed to be able to tell stories for a living. I am just trying to learn as much as I can about this industry as possible, and remember that my friends and I are in it for the long haul — there’s no timeline or “success” that we’re chasing. We just want to make something better and better with each project. Hopefully I’ll be able to start the next one soon.
What did you most enjoy about making Smoky Mountain Rescue? What would you do differently if you were doing it again?
There’s no feeling like wrapping a project with a close friend. I’ve known Nathan and Tim for a third of my life, and getting to talk about Smoky Mountain Rescue in the same classrooms where we first met was pretty special for me. There’s nothing I would do differently, except, maybe, research a bit more about how to direct a bear.
There was a moment, when we had our table read — this is when we bring all the actors together for the first time to read the script out loud. I’d never met them in person before, and we would only have this moment together before we started filming in two days.
After we finished, several parents and the casting director came up to me and said how glad they were that they could tell stories like this. That... that was pretty special.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Main Photo: Theo Brown with Kiara Friedlander who played the starring role of Emily in the series. Second photo: Theo Brown with Ava Monger, who played Katie. Photos courtesy of Theo Brown.
"Bear Necessities: Smoky Mountain Rescue Mixes Education and Fun," series review by Tompaul Wheeler for Spectrum, January 29, 2020
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