Grace Productions, a ministry of Grace Community Church, is premiering its feature-length documentary, “The Essential Church,” in select theaters tomorrow, July 28. Many students and alumni of The Master’s University worked on the project, which examines governmental persecution of the church through history.
Nate Bonsell (’18, communication) is one such alum. For the last two years, he has served as the director of video production at Grace Community Church, and he worked as the director of photography on “The Essential Church.” He flew around the world to locations like England, Scotland, and Canada to film the project.
“I didn’t start working at Grace Community Church thinking I was going to make a movie,” Bonsell says. “The Lord provided such an amazing opportunity with an amazing story, which will hopefully be a blessing to a lot of people. It’s been a life-changing experience, really.”
We recently sat down to talk with Bonsell about his experience working on the film.
I was the director of photography, working alongside Shannon Halliday (director). He was the story master and I was the visual master, and we were working hand-in-hand. He had a way that he wanted to shoot something, and I would find a way to make his vision a reality.
It was a really neat experience, and it’s cool to be able to say that we made a movie. And it’s also neat to have experience in these roles that we can carry on to more projects.
Every decision needs to have a why. For instance, why are we using this camera? Why are we using this lens? Why are we shooting from this angle? And how does that confer a greater purpose to the story? Because pretty visuals are great, but if they’re not coherent, and they don’t serve to tell the final story, then we’re not doing our job as a cinematographer properly. That’s something I really want to get better at in the future — having every decision serve the final product from the very beginning.
It’s very surreal. With the smaller productions I’ve done, I’m usually involved every step of the way — I edit it, color it, and do the sound. It’s just me and my vision. But seeing a movie like this, and seeing so many people who are so talented working on it, and seeing all the pieces come together, has been the best part about it for me. It’s been neat to see all of those little pieces come together.
We went to Scotland, Canada, and even to London to film. We were on the road for almost five weeks last fall, and we also did some smaller trips in the United States to get certain interviews.
I think if you had told me years ago that I would get to travel like this, I would have been stoked. But I would have also been naive, thinking that it would be an amazing, beautiful vacation. It certainly was a dream come true, but it came with the highest highs and lowest lows of the project, because it’s hard work. There are a lot of parts of traveling to film that are not glamorous. But I loved the experience of getting to travel to so many parts of the world and see so much history come alive. I think it’s something that I’ll cherish all my life.
There were a couple moments in Scotland that were extremely challenging, but there was something about those really hard days that makes them the most memorable and fun days. For example, we went on this hike to find the grave of someone named John Brown. We wanted to get a shot of it, because he was important to the story.
There was no trail to the grave, and there wasn’t much known about the location, so we hiked for hours with our camera gear, trying to find it. When we finally did, we had the most beautiful sunset you could possibly imagine to film in. There was just something about getting to experience nature like that.
It was the same when we went to film the mountains — it was pouring rain on us, but we were getting beautiful shots. The more adversity we faced, the more we enjoyed it, and the more we look back on those as our favorite parts of the experience. And thankfully, a lot of those shots made it into the final film.
I got to work with people like Ruth Hanthorn, Lucas Cardoso, and Ryan Miller. All three of them had a hand in creating the visual look of the film, and the teamwork that they had built working together at TMU made for such a great group working for me. They gave me such great suggestions and worked so hard to make this thing possible.
Seth Bowling (producer) obviously played a huge role in the production of the film. He’s a very close friend of mine, and we met at TMU and started our film career together. So it’s very cool to look back on our time at TMU, including one of the first times we ever held a camera and had no idea what we were doing. But we kept working at it, practicing, and honing our craft. So to be able to say that we were in Scotland together shooting a documentary is surreal.
I think James Coates and the elders at GraceLife Church of Edmonton were some of my favorites. We interviewed a few of them, and most of them didn’t make the final film — which is just the nature of documentaries. But the way that they spoke about the situation with James, the jail time, and their love for the church was just so impactful.
I hope that viewers come away with a love for the church. And I hope that they understand how important it is not just in American society, but in the life of each individual Christian. I hope that seeing people fighting for the truth and for God’s people will inspire them to take church more seriously, and to understand what a calling it is to gather as God’s people every Sunday.
I think doing things with excellence is of the utmost importance for any believer. That’s what the Lord requires, and that’s what would honor Him the most in any environment. Be someone who will go the extra mile to make things great, whether or not people notice.
There are a lot of details that go into film that no one ever notices. You will watch hundreds and hundreds of movies and never know all the work that goes into it. But it’s these details that make film what it is. If you don’t have a desire for excellence in everything you do, a lot of those details will slip under the radar, and then you’ll have subpar work.
The Lord wants our best work. And I think that that’s true for any job, in any profession, in any environment — that the Lord will be glorified if you are doing excellent work.
I think studying on your own is very important. Study what you like. Study what makes great filmmakers great, and go and try and do that yourself. And then fail, because the more you fail, the more you understand what it takes to get to a level that you are happy with, and the more you grow. You can’t grow unless you go out and just do it.
You shouldn’t be waiting for somebody to ask you to make a movie for them. You need to be making things on your own so you can learn the process, and so you can grow your knowledge and your skills. There are so many filmmaking tools and resources available — so many cameras available nowadays for cheap that look amazing. The the only things really holding you back are your own desire and imagination.
We don’t have anything concrete on the books, but I know that our desire is to keep producing feature films. The Lord gives us stories, and we need to tell them. We would love to keep doing these.
Learn more about the film and find screening locations at essentialchurchmovie.com.
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