Navigating Hollywood: Episode 14 Transcript: Brian Bird, Writer & Producer: Hallmark’s When Calls The Heart, Bopha!, Captive, The Case for Christ
The original post for this episode can be found here.
ALLEN WOLF 00:04 Welcome to the Navigating Hollywood Podcast. My name is Allen Wolf, and I’m a filmmaker, author, and game creator. Navigating Hollywood encourages and equips entertainment professionals to live relationally and spiritually holistic lives. If you work in entertainment, visit navigatinghollywood.org to discover how you can get involved. Today, we are joined by Brian Bird, who’s a film and television writer and producer. He is the co-creator and executive producer of the top-rated Hallmark Channel original series When Calls the Heart, which is prepping its 10th season. He is the writer and/or producer of over two dozen films and TV movies such as The Heart of Man, Bopha!, Call Me Claus, Not Easily Broken, Captive, and The Case for Christ. And Brian has written and/or produced nearly 350 episodes of television, including Evening Shade, Step by Step, and Touched by an Angel. Welcome, Brian.
BRIAN BIRD 01:07 Hi, Allen. Good to see you. Thank you for having me.
ALLEN WOLF 01:10 Absolutely. Thanks for being here. You’ve had an incredible entertainment career for nearly 40 years. As you look back, what would you have done differently?
BRIAN BIRD 01:21 I don’t know that I would do anything differently except maybe in the early part of my career, being a bit more fearless. We work in a business that sort of requires you to sort of be about something bigger than yourself and to have that mission statement in your life and then just get out on the end of the limb where the good fruit is. But it’s scary out there, and you sort of have to be fearless because the limb is very shaky and it’s easy to fall off trying to pluck that good fruit. But it’s an important way to live. I think you sort of have to also be what I call a yes person. And sometimes that can be used in sort of a negative way. The issue for me was being afraid of the process because I was trained as a journalist. I went to journalism school. I was a newspaper and magazine writer and reporter before I sort of morphed into doing film and television. And so I didn’t go to film school. I had no knowledge of the process, of the business aspect of it. I was a writer, and that part of it I wasn’t afraid of at all. But you’re thrown in the deep end of the pool when you get into sort of the film and TV business and there’s a lot of sharks in there, right? You’re thrown into a pool full of sharks because everybody’s trying to get the same opportunity, and people will climb over you to get the opportunity that you almost get to. So it can be kind of a fearful process.
BRIAN BIRD 03:11 But when you have a sense of call about it, a sense that perhaps providence is putting you in that chair and in that role, you have to start being a yes person. And what I mean by that is say yes to opportunities, even if you don’t know exactly how you’re going to pull it off. If you let your inhibitions and your fears and your apprehensions block you from saying yes to opportunity, you won’t get that opportunity again, right? It will come and go, and then you’ll have to sort of wait around for the next person to call or the next meeting that you have. And the first television staff job that I got was way back in 1990, and I had written a feature script, a feature film script that got a lot of attention and got me an agent. But it was not a TV script, and it was not a TV comedy script. And I got an opportunity to get in front of some very gifted and high-profile TV comedy producers. They read my feature script and they said, “This is really good. We don’t do this. Do you have anything in sort of the comedy arena? And can you write comedy?” And in that moment, the person that I was prior to that would have said, “No, I’ve never done it before.” My answer to the question in that moment was, absolutely, absolutely I can do it. And then as you’re walking out of the room, you’re questioning yourself saying, what did I just commit to? What did I just say?
BRIAN BIRD 04:54 But I literally went, and for the next month, figured out and wrote a spec half-hour comedy script for a show that was very big at that time, Murphy Brown, and I submitted that spec half-hour comedy script to these producers, and they say, “This is great. We’re going to bring you on our next show as a story editor.” Now, that sounds like a very, like, wow, how did that happen? Who can fall into an opportunity like that? Well, there had been several years of me butting my head against the wall up to that point, trying to get a staff job and trying to get more secure. I had written one episode of television prior to that, but I had never written half-hour comedy. I wasn’t a stand-up comic. I didn’t know from any of it. But good writers should be able to do anything, in my opinion. And the business will try to box you in. They’ll try to say, this is the one-hour schmaltzy drama writer, or this is the half-hour comedy guy. They’ll try to put you in those corners and in those boxes because that’s how they figure out how to categorize talent. But writers should be able to do anything. And I was trained as a journalist. I was trained in serious journalism. Who would have made that leap, right, that I could write half-hour comedy? That job turned into 10 seasons of sitcom for me. I said yes to that opportunity. I didn’t run from that opportunity. I didn’t run from my own apprehensions. I said yes.
BRIAN BIRD 06:42 And I think, for me, that was a big lesson, to be fearless, to say yes, and then go figure it out, right? Because every project you do is a new project to you. It’s a new world you’re building. That requires figuring it out. We shouldn’t run from the homework that we have to do. We shouldn’t run away from putting in the due diligence that we need to do to figure out how to do something. So, I always tell young people that I talk to– and I do mentor and talk to young people frequently because I really feel strongly about that process, is that be a yes person? And the way that I quantify that is I have three boxes that I have to check for myself. The boxes are, first of all, does it have some greater, bigger picture than me value to the world? Am I going to be able to say something to improve, to uplift life and faith and people’s lives? That’s the first box. The second box is, does the story opportunity light my jets personally? Do I dig the story? Right? And the third box is, do my talents match up with that opportunity? Do I have some skill in that particular area? By this point, I’ve done so many different things that I’m not intimidated really by anything that somebody puts in front of me. But you check those boxes off for yourself and then you say yes. Now, how it all comes together, who knows, right? There’s a whole lot of other questions that have to be figured out before you can take advantage of that opportunity. But I sort of put that in God’s hands. I’m a person of faith, and so I say, “Okay, God, I’ve checked these three boxes. Here you go. If you want this to happen, figure out the rest.”
BRIAN BIRD 08:40 Writers are usually introverts, right? Writers have to sit in their cave and crank out material, whether it’s books or novels or screenplays or radio dramas or whatever they’re working on, presidential speeches, whatever. Writers can have a very isolated existence, and that’s not this business. That’s not film and TV. I’m not saying you can’t be an introvert, but what I am saying is that you have to get way outside your comfort zone in a lot of ways. And if you’re a person who is very conservative about that and you keep yourself sort of isolated, you keep yourself in your safe zone, it’s really hard to make an opportunity for yourself. In any other business, like if you’re manufacturing some widget, right, there’s usually several people engaged in trying to put that widget into stores, right? On one side, you have the salesman who’s going out there and saying it’s the greatest widget in the world, and that’s all they have to do. They just have to be good at selling people and upselling people and being charismatic and charming. Then they go away and whatever they promise, then these other people have to deliver on in the manufacturing side. Well, in film and TV, a writer has to also be the salesman. He has to be the manufacturer of the product, but he also has to be the salesman. You have to wear all those hats.
BRIAN BIRD 10:26 And so going into a meeting and pitching your project to try to get an opportunity, right, requires being bigger than life, requires you to take off the inhibitions and pitch that story and become characters in that story and almost become an actor in the moment, right, when you’re pitching something. That’s kind of a rare thing to be able to have both the skill to sell and to make, right, but it’s required. Our business requires all of us to do all those things. If you’re a wilting flower, right, in your personal life and you’re very shy and all of that, it’s kind of hard to continue to be shy. You have to get out there and you have to go and put on that dog and pony show to try to convince people that you’re the right person to do this. And sometimes that’s smoke and mirrors. Sometimes that’s playing pretend, right? And there is a lot of imposter syndrome that happens in that process. But the more you do it, the more you work those muscles, the better you’ll get at it and the easier it becomes. And I guess early in my career, I was sort of timid about that process, right? I was not that aggressive. I was not that bold. And I had to learn that level of confidence that you need to go and do what we’re doing. Those are few of the wrinkles that I had to overcome early on. And nobody trained you for this, right?
BRIAN BIRD 12:19 I don’t even think people in film school get the fact that you have to wear all these hats when you’re starting because, honestly, film school is great, but it’s a lot of theory and you don’t get a lot of practical experience in the business aspects of what we do. I think you can learn your craft there or you can at least get a start on that, but I think the business side of it is very unpredictable and capricious and you have to kind of learn how to roll with the punches and think on your feet. And that’s something that not everybody is born with and I think it’s something– but I do think it’s something that can be learned. It can be a muscle that you work and get better at.
ALLEN WOLF 13:10 So after you got your first writing assignment, was that on Fantasy Island?
BRIAN BIRD 13:15 So the first thing that I did was Fantasy Island way back in 1984. I think I’m 25 years old and this happened through– you’ve heard the phrase, it’s who you know, right, and this idea of nepotism that exists. My wife, her great uncle was a TV writer, producer long time, all the way back to the golden age of TV and had done lots of very big shows. And my wife at that point was my best agent. And we were at a family gathering, and she said, “Hey, uncle Don–” his name was Don Ingalls. And if you look him up, he did all the big shows as a writer or producer. And at the time, he was working on Fantasy Island, the show on ABC. So my wife pushes me up into a conversation with uncle Don, and she says, “Uncle Don, you should read my husband’s journalism because he’s a writer, he’s a newspaper reporter.” And uncle Don, whether he was guilted into it from family connections or just a good guy, and it was probably a little bit of both, he said, “Sure. I started out as a journalist. I’d be happy to read your stuff.” So I sent him a bunch of clips, my clippings, and he read it, and he said, “You’re really a good writer. Have you ever considered film or TV writing?” And at that time, I said, “I’m just a big consumer,” right? I love story. Stories always electrified me from the time– all the time I can remember. And I said, “No. I don’t even know how to do that or what it entails.”
BRIAN BIRD 15:05 So he sent me some scripts to read. He gave me a couple of great books that are sort of tried and true books on every writer’s shelf that I’ve ever met now in the business and said, “Read these books, do some homework, read these scripts, look at the format and see what you can do.” And so I wrote a spec episode of Fantasy Island. I’m working as a journalist. We just had our first baby. I’m putting in two or three hours really late at night to try to squeeze this whole idea into my life. And I wrote a spec episode of Fantasy Island. I handed it into him. He read it. He said, “This is really good. We can’t use this because–” and most shows are like this. They have a firewall up around the show so they can’t take things over the transom for their show. But he said, “We can’t use this one, but if we get picked up next year for an eighth season, I’ll get you in here to pitch some ideas to the writing staff.” And he was good to his word. They got picked up. I brought four ideas in, half a page on each idea, and came in and basically read the ideas because I never really know what I was doing. And they picked one. They said, “We love that. That’s not like anything we’ve done before. Who’s your agent?” It’s like my wife, I don’t know.
BRIAN BIRD 16:47 And so Uncle Don got his agent to represent me on that freelance opportunity. And at the age of 25, I got my first cup of coffee in the big leagues and my episode of Fantasy Island was produced. I got to go to set, my wife and I got to go to set and experience that at Warner Brothers. And it was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t believe was happening. It was like getting to the big leagues. And he said that if we get picked up for a night season, I’m going to try to get you in here and get you a gig as a story editor. And then my episode was the third to last that season before it ended the season, and then the show did not get renewed. And so I had one freelance episode which honestly paid me more than I made all year as a journalist, right? And after that experience, I just said, okay, well, this was really fun.
BRIAN BIRD 18:00 In journalism, you have to get inside a box and you have to try to be creative within those rules, but in this case, I was playing God. I was able to play God in this fictional writing, and it was so much fun. And I guess I had a knack for dialogue and for character and all of that. The show ended and he sort of went into semi-retirement at that point, but he said, “Keep writing.” And so, I did, and I wrote this feature script that in the next few years, I tried to take some meetings, I tried to get some opportunity, but it just sort of wasn’t happening until I said yes to a comedy script. From that point, from season of ’89, ’90, I’ve been working steadily. I’ve never looked back from there. And everything that came after that, honestly, was just me saying yes and tripping my way into opportunity and then figuring it out.
ALLEN WOLF 19:06 You wrote Bopha!, which was the first and last movie directed by Morgan Freeman. Do you know why he never directed another film?
BRIAN BIRD 19:14 I don’t know the answer to that. I have maintained a relationship. The coproducer of Bopha! Lori McCreary went on to be Morgan’s partner in a company called Revelation Entertainment. And so, he’s been a producer of a lot of content that he hasn’t been on camera for, right, through Revelations Entertainment. When you take on a feature film directing gig, it’s a year of your life, right? Because it’s not just about the four or five weeks of production that you’re doing, actually filming the movie, then you go into post-production and finishing the film. And even if you’re not working full time on it, you have to be available for all those pieces and all those steps, as you know, in your own film. And pretty hard for him to take, like, say, a six-month gig on another film when he has to deliver Bopha!. So, I just think part of that is actors who choose to direct, they are basically having to bypass acting opportunities in order to fulfill that. I don’t know that’s the case in his case, but if I had my best guess, that’s what it would be. That first series that I got hired to was called The Family Man, and it was only on for one season on CBS. And so that ended, but that feature script that I had written prior to that show really got a lot of attention and got me an agent.
BRIAN BIRD 21:04 Actually, had written it with my writing partner at the time John Wierick, and we were coming up in this business together and both contributing our gifts to the process. So, we wrote that feature script together, and then we got that comedy gig together as story editors. But that feature script continued to percolate, and the producer of Bopha! got that script and loved it and said, “I think you guys would be perfect to write this South African anti-apartheid movie.” Who would have thunk it at the time, right? But I think because of our journalism backgrounds, we were able to dive in. And that script for Bopha! went on to get greenlit at Paramount and the producer, approached Morgan Freeman to play one of the roles, but Morgan said, “I would rather direct it. And I’ve never directed. And would you support that?” And so, you don’t say no to that opportunity. So, we got Morgan directing Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard and Malcolm McDowell, and we went to Zimbabwe and we made this movie, shot at 1991, and it was released in early 1993. It was a very heady experience being in Zimbabwe with Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard. But I’m an unlikely-looking person to write an anti-apartheid movie, right, in South Africa. However, when you do your homework and you say yes and you’re a human being, you dive into opportunity that comes to you.
BRIAN BIRD 22:53 Morgan Freeman has remained a friend after that movie. He and I sold a TV series to Showtime and wrote a couple of scripts for that show, never went forward as a series. But Morgan said about me at the time that we sold that show to Showtime, he said, “You’re asking yourself, what’s the whitest guy in the world doing in a room pitching a series about a housing project in Washington, DC.” And said, “You’re asking yourself, what’s he doing here? I want to tell you he wrote an anti-apartheid movie for me by going and writing it from the inside out.” And he gave me the biggest boost of confidence I could ever ask for. And they said, “Yes, let’s do it.” So, I think that the politics of all of that have gotten even more pronounced now. But my attitude is I’m not going to ever play any card that people might use against me. I’m not going to play it in that hand. I’m not going to play the game, right? I’m just going to be who I am. Where my heart on my sleeve. I’m a people person. I love people. I’m all about relationship. And if people have a problem with that, God bless. I guess it’s not for me. But I’m never going to have a chip on my shoulder or have an axe to grind about with anybody with regard to any issues that are political or related to my age or the color of my skin or the fact that I’m a husband of 41 years with five kids. That’s just who I am and sort of take it or leave it.
BRIAN BIRD 24:47 That was an amazing experience. And it was night and day from the family comedy that we had written a season of. And there’s that heavy anti-apartheid drama in a township in South Africa. So, who would think, but my take on this, and I’ve yet to be proven wrong on this, good writers should be able to do anything. Good writers should be able to do anything. And they should be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, no matter what the storyline is. And that’s theory until it’s not. But I’ve been able to figure out most every project people put in front of me somehow, someway. It’s just a way of looking at the world I think, too. That we need to look at the world as a human being made in the image of the author of the universe. I’m just supposed to reflect that back. Doesn’t matter what I look like. I’m just supposed to reflect back God’s revelation to people and to the world because I’m made in the image of the creator, and I want to give back to everybody whatever the maker puts in me.
ALLEN WOLF 26:17 That’s great. Explain to me, what is a heartie?
BRIAN BIRD 26:24 In our show When Calls the Heart, when we were first rolling out with this show in 2014, Michael Landon Jr. and myself, we created the show together and we’re partners on the show, and we were just trying to make the best show we could. We believed in this kind of content, life and faith-affirming kind of content, and we were just trying to make the best show we could. And when Hallmark first ordered the show, they ordered six episodes to start with, but then it became clear that they wanted more. And so, it was like we were just on this train that just have to fill it up with coal to keep it going for 12 episodes that first season. So, the show started airing in January of that year, but we had not finished all 12 episodes at that point. So, we were up in Vancouver filming while the show was airing, and we started to see people talking back to us, right, or talking to us on social media. And people were loving what they’re seeing so far on Twitter and Facebook. And then we began to see this #heartie, H-E-A-R-T-I-E, #hearties. And a heartie is a When Calls the Heart fan, right? They named themselves. And we saw this chatter on social media. And I talked to Michael, and I talked to our other producers, and I said, “Guys, this is organic because nobody’s building this. There’s not a big marketing campaign on this. I think we have to talk back.”
BRIAN BIRD 28:24 And nobody really knew what to do. And so, I just sort of took it upon myself to begin to talk back to these folks. And I talked to our actors on the show, and I said, “Everybody, let’s respond, even if it’s just liking something or retweeting something or whatever, if you don’t want to have a conversation.” And our actors were great about that, and it just began to grow and mushroom. And then Hallmark had the brilliant idea to actually put #hearties onscreen in the lower thirds of the screen to try to reinforce this idea. And by the end of the first season, I think there were 10,000 people who had joined a closed group on Facebook, a private official When Calls the Heart Hearties Facebook group. When you’re first starting out with a show, you have no idea whether you’re going to get picked up or not, right? The ratings seemed to be pretty good, but you don’t know what the network is going to do at that point. And so, the hearties took it upon themselves. They got together, a group of them, kind of made sort of a committee, I guess, and they took it upon themselves to do the most inventive letter-writing campaign I’ve ever seen or heard about. They weren’t letters, they were little hearts. They collected over 2,500 handmade hearts with messages from the individual hearties who had made those hearts, leaving their name and where they’re from, and a message to the channel saying, “Thank you, thank you for this show. We love this show. Please give us season two.”
BRIAN BIRD 30:19 Again, we didn’t instigate this. This was all organic and grassroots. And they got together, they collected all the hearts, they strung them together with a ribbon in one massive heart string, and they sent this big box of 2,500 handmade hearts all strung together to Hallmark Channel in Studio City. And the network was going, wow, this is kind of impressive, right? And they took pictures of the hearts on all the cubicles and the offices in Studio City there at Hallmark Channel, and then the actors got some of them and began to take pictures holding up these strings of hearts. And it just fueled the grassroots fan movement. We tried to count the hearties– now, that we’re really deep into the show– I think after the seventh season, we counted the hearties. We had a company go on all the social media platforms and tried to identify who would call themselves a heartie, right? Not us calling them hearties but calling themselves a heartie. And their best estimate scouring all the social media platforms and all the fan pages, because there are thousands of individual fan pages in addition to sort of the more official pages, over two million people would self-identify as hearties. And I’ve often said this that– and they are lovely people. They don’t always agree with every storyline. Sometimes we’ll get some disappointment from them, but they care so deeply about it even when they’re not happy.
BRIAN BIRD 32:17 That’s a very positive thing because it means they care so deeply; they’re pouring their hearts out to the show. And we begin to do every year. We haven’t been able to do it since COVID, but we did five of these during five of the seasons. We invited hearties to come to Vancouver, and we did our own little mini–Comic Con around When Calls the Heart. 500 would make their way to Vancouver and we’d put them in a ballroom, and we’d let them have meet and greets with the actors, and we do panel discussions with the actors on a Saturday. And then the next day, we bust them out to Hope Valley and let them wander the sets to their heart’s content and take selfies. And every year, that opportunity resulted in millions of social media impressions because people were posting their photos and they feel like they’re part of something. And we’ve very much leaned into– with the hearties, basically saying to them, you are an army who is voting with your eyeballs and your hearts for more content like this. And it’s not just about When Calls the Heart. You’re making a statement to the media and the entertainment business, give us more, please, because you have left us out. And I’ve often said that long after When Calls the Heart is over– and we hope that’s still many seasons from now. But the best legacy of When Calls the Heart is not the show, it’s the hearties because these people have become friends now, right? They have a network of people that are like-minded and like-hearted, and they meet up together for watch parties.
BRIAN BIRD 34:17 And even in the off-season, they continue to get together on a weekly basis, and they bring food, and they have fellowship and they pray for each other and they help each other when they’re sick. And it’s kind of like church in a weird way, right? But they will be the best legacy, and we could have never invented them. It’s a wave that came ashore for us at the right time, but it’s not because we’re geniuses. It’s because the film and TV business forgot these people. It’s a giant underserved. And it’s not a small part of the country, right? It’s a really massive part of the country that has felt like they’ve been left unserved by mainstream media. When everywhere you turn in film and TV, all you see are zombies and vampires and crystal meth dealers and cynicism, which, honestly, you have to take a shower– I watch almost everything that comes on because I want to see what other people are doing. But I sometimes feel like, man, I got to watch the cynicism off me after watching this. And those hearties were stranded on an island, and we were just smart enough to bring them food. And when you bring food to starving people, they will love you back. It’s no more complicated than that. It’s very easy math. And the fact that the show continues to be watched by upwards of three million people every week after nine seasons, and now, in the last few years, has been the top-rated show on Sunday nights during its run. We even beat the zombies the last couple of years.
ALLEN WOLF 36:09 The Walking Dead. But why don’t you hear about this in the media? Because you hear about how amazing Walking Dead has done. And I’ve seen you post the numbers where you show how much better your show is doing than the other shows, but you’re not hearing about in the media.
BRIAN BIRD 36:27 We’re getting some more love from the media at this point. It’s kind of hard to ignore when it keeps firing on all cylinders, and our actors are getting more face time in the press and so forth. But I don’t disagree with you. And I think it’s because it’s not hip to like this show. It’s not edgy. We’re never going to be nominated for the aren’t-we-amazing club in Hollywood. We’re never going to get– we’re never going to get the hardware from those big awards contests, but I could care less. My Emmys come from the hearties, right, because they love what we do, and they are taking the meta narratives out of our show, and they’re taking them to their friends. And they are our best marketing department, the hearties themselves. I coined this phrase years ago back in the day when they sort of first started to show up. I call it efangelism because they are efangelizing their friends and their family about the show. They would use the theme song, the opening theme song of the show as their ringtone on their phone so that people would ask them about it in stores and so forth. I mean, it’s just like you can’t– they are amazing. They’re amazing and we love them. And they are the wind beneath our wings for sure on this show. And so, the actors, the producers, the writers, we all love them, we all support them, we all talk back to them. We give back because they are the straw that is stirring the drink, to be sure, on this show.
ALLEN WOLF 38:19 Can you explain the title? Because When Calls the Heart feels like something’s happening grammatically there. I know it’s based on the book, but what is the meaning of that?
BRIAN BIRD 38:30 I suppose that Janette Oke, who wrote the book, the original book, could have called it When the Heart Calls, but that’s the title of the book. That’s the branding. She sold 30 million books over her career. We’re not going to debate the branding. I think there’s a poetic aspect to it. Sounds like something you might see in Shakespeare, a grammatic structure that is very poetic. But we’re not messing with success at this point. And it seems to have caught on, and it is unique enough. It’s a prairie romance. And it’s about a young female teacher from a wealthy family in a big city who goes out west to teach school in a hard, scrabble coal mining town and falls in love with a mounty. That’s the basic premise of the show. And it very much is in the vein tonally of Little House on the Prairie, which Michael Landon Jr.’s dad starred and made for nine seasons. So, the people that loved Little House on the Prairie showed up for us, right, and found our show. And those are the values of the show. And I think they weren’t seeing those values anywhere else on television. I don’t think they were. Maybe there were other shows in the ballpark of this, but I don’t think so. You could count them on one hand, if anything. When you bring what we call Hope Valley values– the name of the town is Hope Valley. When you bring these Hope Valley values to people, they actually, even though it’s 1920, were depicting at this point. We hear all the time, I get this message all the time, I wish I could live there, right?
BRIAN BIRD 40:23 People saying they wish they could move there and live because it represents great, beautiful themes in people’s lives. And Ted Lasso is a great show. I love the show. I’ve watched it on Apple TV. It gets all this press for its radical kindness, right, as if that’s some revolutionary thing. I’ve been doing that my whole career, right? And this show, since 2014, has been all about radical kindness. That’s how the show rolls. Doesn’t mean everybody’s perfect and people learn lessons, for sure, and they make mistakes, but at the end of the day, they do the right thing. I think an audience, especially now, after COVID and after how we’ve been so polarized the last four or five years, I think it’s absolutely medicine, soul food and medicine for people’s lives. And when they watch it, they just fall in love with it because they want those values in their lives, and they’re so tired of all the cynical politics everywhere you turn. We blundered into the timing on this. We’re just trying to make a good show. We had no idea that the audience was so starved to death for what we had to offer. It’s a big blessing, and we’re more grateful than you could ever know for that success.
ALLEN WOLF 41:56 Lori Loughlin was the mayor of Hope Valley in When Calls the Heart until Hallmark fired her for her involvement with the college admissions bribery scandal of 2019, and later, she was hired back to appear on a spin-off show When Hope Calls. Why was she given another chance?
BRIAN BIRD 42:14 I’ve always been a big believer that justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is called grace. If Hope Valley and When Calls the Heart and then the spin-off show are about anything, grace is like the gasoline and the engine, right? People show grace to one another despite their mistakes. And we love Lori. It was not our choice to remove her from the show. That was a network choice, and I understand. She got into the middle of something that was hurtful to people. It was alienating to people. I think, obviously, you could interview her, and she could tell you her whole story, which I have heard. There’s a lot of nuance in it that makes it more easy to understand all the aspects of it and also understand that the redemption story in her own life that happened as a result of this crucible that she and her husband and her family went through. If anything, Hope Valley is about second chances. And our first choice would have been to bring her back to Hope Valley and to When Calls the Heart. We had those conversations with the network. In their judgment, it just wasn’t the right time. They didn’t feel comfortable with it. But Lori had done her time. She had paid her penalty for that crime that she was convicted of. And we felt because the spin-off show When Hope Calls is a derivative show from When Calls the Heart– it was basically a planted spin-off.
BRIAN BIRD 44:06 We planted the When Hope Calls storyline in When Calls the Heart in some episodes of When Calls the Heart, and then it’s a neighboring town a day’s ride away from Hope Valley in TV land. So, it’s happening at the same time. We said, okay, well, we believe it’s time to offer Lori her second chance here. And so, we decided to bring her there to Brookfield, to the other town of Brookfield. We will pick right up where we left off. And she has indicated she would love to continue on that show if we’re able to do it. So, I personally think we’re better together and we need to embrace redemption and forgiveness. It’s one of the core themes of our shows. And I believe in that in the real world, and I believe in it when we’re playing the real world on TV.
ALLEN WOLF 45:09 Well, you’ve mentioned incorporating faith into much of your work. What has your own spiritual journey looked like?
BRIAN BIRD 45:16 I’m a Christian. I was raised as a Christian. I was raised in the church. My grandfather was a career pastor. My dad was a pastor for a time. I’ve been in those pews as a consumer all my life. Doesn’t mean I didn’t go through some deep questions as I had to figure out how to embrace faith for myself as opposed to just trying to inherit it. Because you can’t inherit your faith from anybody. You have to make a serious investigation into it for yourself in order to be able to embrace it. So, through college and through journalism school, I went through that sort of questioning period. But at the end of the day, I realized that in the marketplace of ideas, that truth will always emerge. It will always rise in the marketplace of ideas. So, people of faith don’t have to be afraid of the marketplace. And as a journalist first and now as a film and TV writer, producer, I’m not afraid of questions ever, and I’m not afraid of doubts, people’s doubts. The way I look at it is that we’re not polarized on two sides, people of faith and people who may not embrace a faith or may not believe. Those are not two sides that are very far apart. They’re literally across a small stream from each other on either side of the stream. And as a person of faith, I believe I’m just a beggar like everybody else who happened to find some food, and I want those people on the other side of the river to have some food too. That’s honestly how I see it. I don’t see this giant gap between all of us.
ALLEN WOLF 47:14 And what does it mean for them to find that food? What does that look like?
BRIAN BIRD 47:19 People who want to share their food with somebody have to invite them, right? And honestly, food needs to be hand delivered between people. In my work, I don’t want to preach at people in my film and TV work. I don’t want to preach anything to people. I want to just stir up questions, ask great questions, and stir up cravings to want to go deeper, right? That’s the best use of media to me because a picture on a wall can’t deliver eternity with God. You can’t deliver that on a picture on a wall or on a TV screen. That has to be hand delivered between people who love each other, right? And by people who have earned the right to offer the food into those other people’s lives. And sometimes that’s a process and that’s a friendship and that’s a lifelong process. I believe we’re supposed to continue offering food even if they reject it to their dying days. It doesn’t matter. It’s not like, okay, well, you didn’t want it, so, “see you!” That’s not how we’re supposed to live. In the Bible, Jesus lived with those disciples for three years, 24/7, 365, and at the end of those three years, all those disciples still didn’t get it. And it was Jesus, and they still didn’t get it. So if the disciples didn’t get it after three years of actually being in Jesus’s presence, then I got to think that our process with our friends, with our family, with people we meet, it’s a journey together.
BRIAN BIRD 49:12 From a personal standpoint, I just love on people. It’s not my job to clean them up or to fix them. That’s not my job. My job is just to love people. If God wants to fix them, that’s between them, right? I’m happy to introduce them to God and what God has meant to me, but God has to do the cleanup job if they need it, if they need cleaning up, right? But that’s not my job. My job is just to love on them and to be unconditional with them. So in a personal sense, that’s how I’ve tried to live my life relationally with people in the business and just people in my neighborhood or whatever. Onscreen, I’m a big fan of the heroes journey, which goes back 5,000 years, right, and the monomyth which Joseph Campbell sort of explored and quantified for us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all the great storytelling of all time. And in the hero’s journey, there’s 12 stages. Guess what one of those stages are called? The resurrection, okay? That predates Jesus. The resurrection stage of the hero’s journey predates Jesus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, 1,000 years before Jesus or 1,500 years before Jesus in ancient Samaria, Gilgamesh dies and is resurrected. Well, clearly, resurrection’s in our DNA. Resurrection’s one of the themes that are like violin strings in all human beings.
BRIAN BIRD 51:03 So in my mind, as long as a movie has some semblance of the hero’s journey in it, it’s a faith-based movie. And one of my heroes is CS Lewis, right, who wrote Narnia and just so many amazing books. And he was an atheist who actually found faith later in his exploration of faith. Well, CS Lewis said Jesus was the true myth. Jesus was the myth that became true because mankind was wired for resurrection, mankind was wired for forgiveness, for redemption. And in every great movie, there is a resurrection of some kind, either literal or figurative. The resurrection of a dream, the resurrection of a love, the resurrection of a job. All is lost at the end of act two. It always is at the dark night of the soul. But in act three, a resurrection of some kind comes. How come? You can travel the world and the same stories are told over and over again. How come? Right? It’s because we’re wired for that by our Maker. He’s put resurrection in our hearts. Even if we reject it, even if we don’t want anything to do with it, it still is there and there’s a hunger for it no matter what we watch. When Walter White saves Jesse at the end of Breaking Bad, there’s a redemption story that happens even for that guy at the end of his life, right? So to me, it’s more clear than ever before that everybody tells faith-based stories even if they don’t know they are.
ALLEN WOLF 52:50 Right. Yeah. That’s brilliant. And it’s interesting, knowing your journalism background, that you tackled the story behind the bestselling book The Case for Christ. And that’s a story about a journalist who discovers faith. Were you attracted to that because it mirrored some of your own journey?
BRIAN BIRD 53:11 Yeah. Absolutely. I was called to that, honestly. I had gotten to know Lee Strobel, who is the New York Times bestselling author of that book. And he was an atheist journalist at the Chicago Tribune. A very gifted journalist nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife had sort of this cathartic experience where they almost lost their beloved five-year-old daughter Allison. It was very life and death for them, for Leslie, his wife. And they were just this happy atheist couple, totally happy with where they are at in their life back in 1980. And Leslie had this deep existential crisis when they almost lost their daughter, like, “We were within minutes of not having her and not having her with us. There has to be more to life.” And so she started going to church, and Lee was not happy about that because she was sort of disrupting their life. And his whole journey in The Case for Christ is trying to debunk Christianity, to debunk the claims of faith so that he could help her to get out of the cult. That’s the premise of the movie. And 95% of the movie is about him trying to debunk Christianity. So the hero of the story is an atheist trying to debunk Christianity. That’s what was so fascinating to me about the story as a faith-based story.
BRIAN BIRD 54:45 He is now obviously a man of faith. He’s a deep believer. He’s written, I don’t know, how many case for books in his career now since he discovered that there was too much evidence, in fact, so much evidence for faith that it would take more faith to stay an atheist than to embrace this evidence and faith. So that’s when he finally decided, I give, right? And since then, he’s gone on to become a world-famous speaker, apologist, someone who can answer any question anybody has about faith and about the veracity of our faith. In the movie, it was so fantastic for me as a former journalist because I could relate to what he was going through just to tell a story where the protagonist is like kind of a villain for a big portion of the movie, but he loved his family so much, and that was clear. That’s why the audience cared for him, because he wanted desperately to rescue his family, even if it was with the intent of taking them out of the faith. But his wife continued to love him through it.
BRIAN BIRD 56:01 He saw the reproduction of The Shroud of Turin, and he asked the priest who had this reproduction, he said, why would he do it? Right? Why would he sacrifice himself for us? Why would he go through all that agony and that pain if he was the King of the Jews, if he was God’s son? Why would he do that? And the priest just said, I don’t know, love. And for Lee, that giant love story from Heaven to Earth clicked for him because of the love story on this plane, right? Because his wife loved him through thick and thin, despite his obstinance, right? And despite him trying to sabotage her faith, she loved him anyway. And that horizontal love became real as a vertical love story from Heaven to Earth right at that point. And so all the data, all the science, all the history and the veracity of the history, there was a boatload of that that he discovered, but that wasn’t the trump card. The trump card was love.
ALLEN WOLF 57:16 That’s great. Well, it’s a powerful film, so congrats on that.
BRIAN BIRD 57:19 Thank you. Thank you so much.
ALLEN WOLF 57:22 How do you personally stay spiritually healthy while working in entertainment?
BRIAN BIRD 57:27 I would say that the business is a very spiritual place, but it’s like a spiritual salad bar. Everybody wants to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and fill your plate up with all kinds of really interesting, good things. I have not experienced hostility to my faith. I can’t say that that’s the same for everybody. Politics in our polarized culture actually can contribute to that now maybe more than ever. But I personally have never felt hostility toward my faith. And maybe that’s because of this approach that I’ve taken of I just want to be friends. I don’t have any kind of agenda here with you other than I care about you and I want you to thrive in your life, and how can I help you do that? And that’s just how I’ve always rolled. From a personal perspective, I need to be reading, I need to be having some time with God, just praying, seeking wisdom, seeking guidance. What opportunities do you want me to say yes to? Which should I avoid? It’s an imperfect system because I’m imperfect and my own ego gets in the way sometimes. But if you like a certain food, you got to go to that restaurant for it. So I spend time reading good books and good devotionals in the Bible and spend time praying. But I also feel like I have to be in a community of people who believe the same way, so we can encourage each other and help each other, like what the hearties do for each other. They have the same goal. The same catalyst brought them together, right?
BRIAN BIRD 59:11 Well, in a church, it’s that, right? The same catalyst brings us into community. Doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. But if you could just have the main goal of being more like Jesus, that’s a pretty strong way to live your life. It’s a healthier way to live. Our business is not family-friendly, for sure. It’s long hours and people have to spend a lot of time apart from each other, and that’s not that healthy all the time. I’ve tried my best to moderate the time that I have to be away from my family. Doesn’t mean I’m here as much as I probably should be, but I try my best. I’m deeply motivated to care for my marriage and to care for my kids in any way I can. When my wife married me, she had mercy on me, and I’m thankful for that mercy every day. And without her, I would be wandering around mumbling to myself. I’m pretty sure of that. So we’ve been married 41 years, and now it’s like, okay, how can we get to 80 years? Healthy marriage is an important thing in our culture. Healthy relationships are an important thing in our culture. Alienation is not. Disenfranchisement is not. People having big divisions, that’s not a good thing. We’re better together in marriage, in relationship, in work, all of those things. I’m very aware of all the ways in which I could go off the rails. And so I’m just very guarded about how I live my life and make my choices, because at the end of the day, my family is not going to care about all my credits. They’re going to care about our family and about how much time we spend together.
ALLEN WOLF 01:01:03 At the end of your life, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind?
BRIAN BIRD 01:01:08 Years ago, I read a book called halftime by Bob Buford. It’s essentially a book for people in business but if your life is like four quarters of a football game. This book is like you’re in the locker room at half time. You’ve already lived the first half of your life. How do you want to finish, right? And he asked a great question in there. What’s the one line you want on your tombstone? I don’t think many people think about that, but across my years, I listen for the sole impressions. I don’t hear voices, but I get sole impressions when I’m open, when I just get quiet and I say, okay, God, tell me what you have to say to me. And the words that I got that answered that question were my words, Brian’s words, moved men closer to heaven. I think that’s what I hope people will remember me for years from now. And if they remember me 100 years from now, I still hope that resonates across all that time.
ALLEN WOLF 01:02:26 Well, thank you so much for being my guest, Brian, for talking about your incredible career, and for all the people that you’re moving closer to heaven through your work.
BRIAN BIRD 01:02:36 Thank you for having me, Allen.
ALLEN WOLF 01:02:37 If you work in entertainment, check out the complimentary courses and other resources available at navigatinghollywood.org. Please follow us and leave us a review so others can discover this podcast. You can find our other shows, transcripts, links, and more at navigatinghollywood.org. I look forward to being with you next time.