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Making Beyond the Mask a Family Affair

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - AUBURN HILLS, Michigan -- Aaron and Chad Burns are living proof that childhood dreams and a lot of prayer can turn into adult realities. 

Using family and friends as their cast and crew, the two cousins spent many a summer making rudimentary movies about just about anything their adolescent imaginations could conjure.

This practice was far from fortuitous.  Fast-forward 15 years into the future and we find not much has changed for Aaron and Chad.  Sure, they grew up, got married, and even earned a couple of advanced college degrees along the way.  But nothing has deterred their passion for making movies.  The only difference is their work can now be seen in movie theaters around the world. 

Directed by Chad and produced by Aaron, their labor of love, Beyond the Mask, recently released on DVD.  Starring Andrew Cheney (Seasons of Gray), Kara Killmer (Chicago Fire) and John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings), Beyond the Mask is a revolutionary new family film that brings history to life in a rollicking faith-filled adventure that celebrates redemption, grace, and liberty.

I recently sat down with Aaron and Chad to discuss their passion for making movies rooted in faith, how God prepared them for such a task, and whether a God-infused movie can make it in the action-adventure genre.

How did two homeschooled cousins from the Midwest get to a place where they are making a major motion picture?

Aaron Burns: (laughs) We have no idea.

Chad Burns: It’s a really good question and it’s a tough one to answer because there was no moment of the clouds parting and the light coming down on the cross over the Hollywood sign.  That’s not how it happened.  It was an organic process of the Lord leading and moving in both of our lives over the course of several years.

Aaron Burns: As kids growing up messing around in the back yard we would just have a good time.  One summer, we asked my dad if we could build a log cabin in the woods behind my house.  He said, “Sure.  Whatever.” It was one of these things where they figured it would keep the kids out of trouble. The next summer we wanted to film a cowboys and Indians kind of a movie where we would be shooting flaming arrows.  This type of thing went on for the next four years where we would build things and film blowing them up. We did our first feature film, Pendragon, back in 2008.  It was an all-volunteer project that wound up getting distributed all over the world in several languages.  As Chad and I moved on from that, we were both in college – I was getting my MBA and he was getting his Ph.D. in engineering.  People started asking us, “What on earth are you guys doing in film?”  Well, God was teaching us by sending mentors, and just developing a passion for a relationship with Him in our hearts during our college time.  And then this little film we made is being seen all over the world.  People were constantly asking us when we were going to make our next movie.  So, the light bulb slowly began to turn on.  We figured out that we could use the medium of film to tell stories and point other young people to the hope we found in Jesus Christ.  We graduated from college, we both got married, and then set out to make Beyond the Mask.

I’m sure you learned some valuable lessons from that earlier film.  What have you taken from that experience and incorporated into this latest movie?

Aaron Burns: The first lesson is to never make a period action-adventure film. (Laughs) But we made the same mistake twice.

Chad Burns: On Pendragon we learned from the Lord that if you cast a large vision and it is clearly bigger than what any individual or a team can accomplish there is a magnetic attraction to that.  People want to take a step of faith.  That is what both Pendragon and Beyond the Mask have been.  The Lord has laid upon our heart a really big plan that is much bigger than what we could ever accomplish.  And we have seen many of the people come around and work on that with us. 

Aaron Burns: The spiritual theme of the movie Pendragon was what God calls you to do He will give you the grace to accomplish it. And what was crazy is, at the time that was an academic lesson.  It was something we had heard growing up and we wanted to put into a film.  What is neat about Beyond the Mask is seeing God turn that from a lesson we had heard to a lesson we experienced over the last four years.  Just watching Him provide in ways we never thought or never dreamed could happen.  He just showed up over and over again.  When we were bouncing along at the bottom of the barrel He would then show up and provide in remarkable ways.

I think Beyond the Mask does a very good job of celebrating many time-tested themes including redemption, grace, liberty and freedom.  Why is it so important to emphasize these in a 2015 movie release?

Aaron Burns: On a personal level our culture puts this huge burden on people to perform, to be good enough, to be your own person and go on out there to create that.   We have a tendency to try to live up to these expectations.  I need to man up to be good enough.  When you start to grow up and to experience disappointment, hurt, and to see your own failures, you look down inside and instead of being able to man up you see brokenness.  Then there are these shackles that the culture is placing on you that get compounded by the masks you start to build to cover that.  Pretty soon you find yourself without grace, without freedom, without liberty, and without hope.  Those things in our day and age you are not going to find the answers to those problems in our culture’s message.  It’s beating an empty drum.  For Chad and I, through the mentoring we received and the Lord’s grace in our lives we found that hope through Him.  And the promise that Christ offers is that you can never be good enough on your own to fix the brokenness.  That’s the bad news.  But the good news is you don’t have to.  We can be free from the shackles of our culture’s expectations. We can take off the mask and we can fill our hearts with the life of Christ.  That’s the hope we live with today.  It’s a very faltering, step-by-step journey for us but that is what we want to communicate, especially to young people in our culture today who are experiencing all of the pressures that our society has for us.   

Chad Burns: Something else we deal with in the movie is identity and who we are.  That is also another timeless theme.  We really think that in today’s culture where young people are constantly tweaking and managing their identity through all these social and online platforms that it is a very relevant question of who am I?  What really defines me?  It’s not the masks that we wear.

Beyond the Mask is being positioned as a faith-based action-adventure movie.  I have been in the media business for quite some time and I must confess this the first such movie I have ever seen like this.  This genre is unique.  Can a faith-based action-adventure movie be successful in the long run?

Chad Burns:  That is something that only the audience can answer.  We are taking a huge chance and our hope is that audiences will show up.

Aaron Burns: The idea is and what God has called us to do.  That is to make a movie that reaches young people.  So, you ask yourself, ‘What are young people watching today?’ Stephen and Alex Kendrick, who are good friends and mentors of ours – I love their vision.  You see with their movie Courageous, it’s about fatherhood.  As the defining moment of your life, as you see young people today, the numbers that are leaving the church behind is staggering.  One of the biggest things for me is this sense of hypocrisy that you see.  You are wrestling with these questions of “who am I” and “Is my faith real?”  Based on that, our passion is to make movies that appeal to young people and answer the deepest questions of identify, meaning, and significance.  That could happen in the context of a drama but the kind of movies I want to watch are these adventure stories.  Throughout all of history, story has been used to communicate.  If you look back 400 years ago the Church was at the forefront of communicating.  Johan Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, was a music pastor.  You look at the greatest paintings, many of them adorn the walls of churches.  For centuries, churches have used dramatic plays to convey the Gospel truth to people who couldn’t read.  We are so excited at this time in our culture to be able to find truth is being put through the media.  The two-hour feature film is looked at as one of the conveyors of where our culture is going.  So, a chance to tap into that tool and use it for an action-adventure story to reach young people is awesome.  As we were dreaming up this project that is really the passion that God laid on our hearts.  Whether or not it works that is to be determined.

Beyond the Mask released on DVD this week.

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