Chicago-based screenwriter Erin Dalian has taken the leap. A leap of faith, in a sense, but also a leap as a filmmaker. She decided rather than just write her new film, “Broken & Beautiful,” she would make it herself. A year and a half later, it has finally started making festival rounds and premieres in the Chicago are tomorrow, Sep. 8, at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Glendale Heights (1555 Glen Ellyn Road) at 7 p.m.
“Broken & Beautiful” is a feature-length musical from D.A.S.H. Entertainment that includes 24 songs, most of which are contemporary Christian hits. Dalian labored to secure the rights to use the songs and in the process two original songs were written for the film. The songs are the centerpiece of the films, with the story connecting them.
Here’s the official synopsis:
“Broken & Beautiful weaves together stories of members of All Saints Church. Through the music of contemporary Christian artists, the characters’ dark secrets are exposed, despite their best efforts to cover their imperfections. It is only when the characters are brought down to their knees that they find healing. They realize that though we are all sinners, we are all called to be saints. With themes of judgment and hypocrisy, forgiveness and unconditional love, Broken & Beautiful deals head-on with struggles in today’s world.”
Dalian spoke to me about making a film with not just a religious, but a divine inspiration and the positives and challenges of making her first feature film.
Movie Muse: Tell us about yourself as a filmmaker.
Erin Dalian: I have a degree in marketing so I didn’t got to school for filmmaking, but i started writing about eight years ago and just haven’t stopped since. Ideally, I wanted to sell my scripts, but I felt for this one, “Broken & Beautiful,” I needed to do this one myself and see it all the way through so I just learned everything I could and met everyone in the Chicago film scene I could and made it happen. I’d like to continue doing some of my own, but my first passion is writing.
MM: In your words, what is “Broken & Beautiful” about?
ED: It’s an ensemble piece, there’s five different story lines that interweave featuring members of the same church. They all deal with different struggles form infidelity to addiction, and how they deal with those struggles whether they accuse others or themselves. It’s a look at how we deal with struggles as people of faith and how we can tear each other down or build each other up, and that idea that we’re all sinners in different ways. Everybody’s facing their own struggles. My struggle looks different than your struggle, but we’re both struggling, but why don’t we help each other out and call each other to the greatness we’re meant to be.
MM: Is this the first time you’ve used faith and religion as part of what you’re exploring in your script?
ED: This one is probably the most overt, like it’s definitely that’s what it’s about. But I was out at a festival in California two weeks ago and an atheist came up to me and said he really liked it and — though I think he probably disagrees with me on every subject — that he thought it was well done and would probably be a good conversation starter. So I don’t want it to be something that is polarizing per se, I want it to open up dialogue, but it is the most overt. Everything I write of course comes from my world view, and my faith is a big part of my life, so it’s hard for me to separate it.
MM: Can you explain more about how you consider the film an inspiration from God?
ED: The basic idea is one that I had was the first thing I ever wrote was a faith-based musical. I kind of forgot that because it was so long ago. Then years passed and I forgot about that and I started having that idea again. It was more like a challenge of saying “oh, this could never happen,” and then I started getting flooded with ideas. People might not believe it, but I really felt like when I went for a run after I wrote it that I physically heard and felt God’s presence. So for me, I can’t fluff that off. It was a pretty big deal.
Subsequent to that, time after time when I would need something for the film, it would happen the very next day. One day we were going to be filming outside the whole day. I basically had no back-up plan. It was supposed to storm all day, so I prayed the rosary all the way into Chicago and got sunburned that day because it was so bright and sunny. I basically relied on Him guiding me to the right people. I guess because it is so a part of me it’s hard to take that step back and say why I did that. I guess you write what you know and for me that element of it is as important so that people can look in their own lives and say well, maybe God is calling me to do something.
People might not think a movie can change somebody’s life, but it can. I’m not trying to assert myself like some high importance, but I know that I’ve been impacted by movies so God can use whatever he wants to use. So to have other people look at their own life and say how can God use them I think is an important message beyond just the message of the movie for me, so to just give voice to that when I would never have thought that I would’ve done this, but here I am two years after I had this idea and it’s finally getting out there and people are responding to that element as well.
MM: Knowing that this film was something more personal and aligned intimately with what you believe in, did that change the way you approached working on it every day?
ED: If you think of the person that you most admire that you don’t want to disappoint at all, and for me that’s God. I felt if God’s really calling me to make this movie then I better make a pretty darn good movie. I read a lot of Christian filmmaking blogs and one guy was saying “all these people think God is calling them to make a movie, well is he calling you to make a bad movie? No. If he wants you to make a movie he wants you to make a good movie to have as big of an audience as possible.” That stuck with me, that as much as I didn’t have a big budget, that I needed to do the best as I could because he’s the reason I was doing it. There was that real sense of he’s the one person that I would want to make sure I did it right for.
That might be different for when I write some other things. I’m writing my next project, and to have such a strong calling for “Broken & Beautiful” to say I know that this is what was supposed to happen and to not feel that that strongly for this one makes me kind of second guess: is this the next project I’m supposed to be working on? Should I be waiting for the heavens to open up every time I try to write something now? [laughing] … So I guess there’s more that sense of responsibility to God and to so many people. The screening this Saturday is at my church and that’s going to be a pretty big deal for me. At least half the people that are going to be in attendance gave money for the film, so for me to say this is what I did with your money, hope you like it! That will be interesting to see.
MM: How did the musical elements take shape in this film?
ED: The music definitely came first. One of the songs that’s at the end of the film, (“Lead Me” by Sanctus Real) is the basis, that was the first song I heard and was like this artist isn’t just all “God is good, if you believe in God you’re going to have a perfect life,” that it really was talking about this is how I’m struggling and this is how you can deal and that was what I was looking for. Once I heard that song that wheels started turning. It was really going to be about one story, but when I started doing research and building out some more characters I really wanted to come at some of these issues from different viewpoints so it became this ensemble, so I listened to more music than I ever have in my life. I had as many as 40 songs that were at one point in the movie. There’s 24 now … so yeah, it’s definitely centered around the music; I wrote the scenes to bridge the gap between the different songs.
MM: Why was it important for you to have the music be sung by the characters instead of just having a greatest hits soundtrack full of songs connected to the story?
ED: I’ve grown up liking musicals, so that was a style that I knew I wanted to do some time. I don’t know if you want to call it a bucket list thing, but it was something I knew I wanted to do once. You get a little more leeway with the writing because when people sing you get a bit more introspection into their soul. I really wanted to get into the characters in a different way than you could with a straight narrative.
MM: What has the reaction been to the film? How has it felt to achieve some of the festival success you’ve had so far?
ED: It’s been pretty good. The festivals and audiences have been on the smaller side, but to have that atheist come up to me and as soon as I hear “I’m an atheist” I think oh man, I’m gonna get it, he totally hates it — but that was a huge compliment. That was my intention the whole time, to have something that can resonate with people and maybe you wouldn’t invite somebody to church but maybe you’d invite them to a movie and then you can talk about it afterwards. There have been some people that don’t agree because every controversial topic that is probably out there is addressed, but it’s not preachy and doesn’t lambast people for disagreeing, it just says this is what these characters believe and how they’re going to react to these struggles in their life. So some people haven’t liked that, but you get that with every film. If you’re going to touch a topic, you know you’re going to get both sides’ reactions. I’ve just been trying to prepare myself so that even if they disagree I can have an open dialogue, because that’s where the conversation is. If everybody agrees with you, it’s not really a conversation.
MM: After the festival phase, what are you hoping this film will become in the future?
ED: I hope to get some theatrical distribution to push some of the other types of distribution channels, but that’s a whole other ball game I’m trying to get into now, having the right people to see it. That’s definitely the next phase of the journey. Also, a youth group is actually bringing their youth group to this Saturday. I randomly Googled the film name and I found a permission slip to come see my movie. I was like, “What? They didn’t tell me” … not that they have to, but it was a nice little surprise. That’s what I’ve been encouraging, for people to bring friends as a conversation starter as I’ve said. So we’ll see. I can’t know if this was meant as an exercise in my own obedience or if there are huge plans, so I’m just taking each step as it comes.
Other opportunities to see “Broken & Beautiful” in the area include the Oak Park Film Festival at the Oak Park Library (834 Lake Street) on Sep. 15 at 1 p.m. as well as three screenings at the Sycamore Film Festival in Sycamore, Ill. at the Sycamore State Theater (420 W. State Street): Sep. 14 at 7:30 p.m., Sep. 15 at 7:45 p.m. and Sep. 16 at 11 a.m.