Aaron Burns on Christ-Centered Filmmaking
You may not know his name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. Aaron Burns is a movie producer who has worked on some movies that I’m sure many of you have seen before. He is the producer of Beyond the Mask and Pendragon: Sword of His Father. He was also the associate producer on the Kendrick Brothers film, War Room, and he recently finished work on their next release, Overcomer, which was released on August 22nd.
Yvette Hampton: I am excited to be talking to you today Aaron, welcome!
Aaron Burns: Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.
Yvette: Yeah, thank you so much. We got to meet you back in March at the Christian Worldview Film Festival in Tennessee, and you’re a riot!
Aaron: Yes. We have a lot of fun at that event. For people who are interested in filmmaking and storytelling, we encourage any families or kids who want to get involved in that come down every March to the Nashville area, to the Christian Worldview Film Festival.
Yvette: Yes, it is one of our favorite events. We have been the last two years to that event. We are always so incredibly blown away by just the speakers, the encouragement, the training, everything that comes with that. Then at the end of the week, you guys a big award ceremony and it’s fun and flashy, and it makes everyone feel a bit like a Hollywood star. So you got to emcee that, that was a lot of fun. By the way, Schoolhouse Rocked won “Best Film Trailer” this year. So that was really exciting.
Yvette: Yeah. Thank you. It was very exciting. We were surprised to win that, and very honored to get that award. So anyway, tell us about you. Because you were Homeschooled growing up. You now have three little ones yourself. Tell us about you and your family.
Aaron: Yeah, well that’s always, an interesting question where to begin. But I was Homeschooled, and really enjoyed that journey. So my parents were both first-generation believers who wanted to just raise us in a way that would be honoring to the Lord. So back then Homeschooling was kind of a newer thing and now it’s very much more established. Because you say well, George Washington was Homeschooled. So it’s been around for a while. But it was more cutting edge, we didn’t have all the resources that we had today.
But had a lot of fun with it. My mom loved history and loved teaching us, and in literature and reading. So that’s something that we spend a lot of time reading great books and studying characters in the past and my dad is a storyteller. So he’d constantly be telling us every night, come on Dad, could you tell us more stories?
So that influence on me growing up with history and literature, and reading and storytelling, is a huge part of what shaped my passion to tell stories to reach a generation today with the medium of film. Honestly we didn’t watch that many movies or really hardly any TV shows as kids. But it was a curiosity around those things and awareness of the power of storytelling that led us to want to get involved.
When we were in high school, junior high, that age, started playing around the backyard. We started off with the giant VHS camcorder and you’d have a little mini DVD camera that our mom used to film our birthday party. We’re off in the backyard shooting superhero movies, and cowboy and Indian stories and all kinds of adventures like that. So I just had a great time with my cousins and siblings. I think that the nature of us being Homeschooled, and being thrown together all these times encouraged us to be creative and do things like that.
Aaron: Yeah, so our family made our first feature film, Pendragon, and we released that back in 2009, I think. So it’s crazy, that’s 10 years ago. But that was what was our first feature, and it was literally a probably 10, 12, 15 of us Burns working in that movie. I played the lead actor in it. It was an adventure for sure. We were making our own costumes, and we built a giant Roman hill fort in the woods behind my dad’s house. We built a real 20 foot trebuchet launching fire bombs and all of these things. Wanting to tell a story about inspiring a generation to follow God’s call on your life. What God calls you to do He gives you the grace to accomplish.
It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of challenge and a lot of learning. It was our version of film school where we had literally no idea what we were doing when we got started, and it’s trial and error. You’d shoot a scene, you’d be like, huh, that does not look good.
Yvette: Doesn’t look like it looked in your head, huh?
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Aaron: Yes, and so you try again and trial and error. We wound up shooting our movie like one and a half times over the course of three years. Then we finished that and said, okay, well let’s move on with life. I went off to college to, was working on my Masters of business. When we started distributing it, my cousin Chad was working on his PhD in engineering. All of our other cousins and siblings were heading their different directions.
A couple of things happened. One, this little movie we made, Pendragon, started to pick up some steam in distribution and Christian bookstores and TV here in the states and overseas. It’s also in 12 countries, in four or five languages. We’re getting letters back from kids all over the world said, “hey, your movie’s different.”
It’s a faith-based adventure story that exalts Christ, and we loved it. When are you going to your next movie? We’re like, kind of hit us by surprise in a way. At the same time, God had put a mentor in my life who’s discipling me and encouraging me and pushing me to really flesh out this faith, this religion, this God that you’ve grown up with. What does that really mean for you? What does it really look like?
So, I started to really grow in my personal relationship with the Lord, and then want to start sharing that with others. So all these things were happening at the same time that God just really put a burden on our hearts. I was in an entrepreneurial marketing class, and the professor put up what he called a unique space map. It would have these different quadrants and different projects and ideas. He said, “hey, if you’re going to start a business, you have to find a way to compete differently.”
I was thinking of what business I’d want to start, and then just realized we were already doing this. These Christ-centered adventure stories that wouldn’t just reach Christian women. Or wouldn’t reach just a secular audience that would be gospel centered, Christian worldview adventure stories that the whole family and particularly young people would enjoy.
So, all these things were swirling, and we felt a clear call from the Lord back into pursuing filmmaking. Beyond the Mask was birthed out of that adventure. Then from there we went on to help the Kendricks with a couple of their projects, War Room and, Overcomer. I’m shooting a project right now with some friends from Texas, you guys should check out called Washington’s Armor. It’s a new series about the life of young George Washington. Then we have our couple of other big projects that we’re developing and would love your guys’ prayers for.
Yvette: Yes, so where are you in production on those?
Aaron: We have two feature films that are in development. One we’ve been developing for a couple of years and we’re almost done. We’re kind of in the pitching to studios and potential investors, see who wants to get involved with it, frankly, those decisions. But it’s ready to shoot, we finished our location scouting and hundreds of pages of set designs and the script and all of these creative elements are all done.
So, we’re in the pitching phase for that project. Then the other one is a little bit earlier in development. So those are both feature films. Then we have, like I said helping a friend shoot Washington’s Armor. We’re In production right now, which is a tv show about George Washington.
Yvette: Okay. So cool. So this is what you do for a living. You’ve got your Master’s in business administration and I know, being a producer, really is that. You administer all the business of the filmmaking.
Aaron: In many ways, yes.
Yvette: So how has that coupled together with your education, with Homeschooling and now with filmmaking, how have you worked all of that together?
Aaron: Yeah, it’s really a fun question. Because the role that I have as a producer, you’re really very split between creative and business and logistics. So an executive producer is specifically focused on the money side and the distribution side. But with my role as producer, I get to look very much on both sides. So you kind of take an idea, this is the story we want to tell.
It’s my privilege to shepherd that story all the way through concept, and all the way through distribution to getting in front of an audience. So we have about five phases of filmmaking. So the first one is development. It’s, hey, I’ve got this idea. I want to make a movie about this theme. Okay, well who are the characters going to be? Let’s get together an outline. Let’s get together the script. Then you sit there and you go, well where in the world are you going to shoot it?
What is the budget you’re going to shoot it for? Is this going to be animated or live action? Are you going to build all the sets? Is going to be CG heavy. What kind of actors, and who’s the target audience. All those questions, creative fun questions happen in development. It’s one of my favorite phases because that’s where the most creativity occurs. You’re just throwing mud at the wall and dreaming and framing plans.
Aaron: So, once you finished development, you say this is exactly what the goal is. You have your financing and hopefully your distribution lined up. You move into the second phase, which is pre-production. That’s relatively short, just a couple of months that you’re getting the project rolling. You’re hiring the actors, you’re building the sets, you’re making the costumes. You’re getting all the gear and gathering your crew.
In the shortest phase of the project is actual production itself. Where you’re all on cameras. That might be just 30 to 60 shooting days, depending on the scale of press. A lot of projects, for instance, War Room, we shot in 30 days. Over time, it was like 32 shooting days. So you’re only on set for six weeks and then you jump. There’s a massive team, 120 depending if you pay extras. So you might have 300 people, 400 people working for you for a day of shooting. Then they all go home and you’re left with a pile of hard drives.
Aaron: Then that starts post-production, which is the editing. You spend several months editing and then you get to fix you get to picture lock and you start doing the score and the visual effects and the music. All those elements, your team kind of grows again. Then you get to distribution and that’s taking the audience or taking the movie and getting it out to your audience.
So those are kinds of phases, and it’s been neat from, definitely my Homeschool background. Being forced to collaborate with all of your different siblings in all different situations I think naturally set me up to be comfortable with all the variety of different situations that we encountered when we first started doing movies. So it never was something that was really stressful or freaked us out.
Yvette: At the beginning, we just did this, and we just started running these teams. Which were basically, or getting our siblings, our cousins and our friends to work for us, before it just transitioned back. I think also one of the values of Homeschooling for us is translated into filmmaking. Particularly with the way our parents raised us, with that critical thinking along moral and spiritual issues.
Just spent a lot of time about and exploring. Also for us, it was a passion for history and literature and those things, and then storytelling. Valuing all of those out. So there’s the practical side of interacting with teams and then getting to do bigger projects and stuff at an earlier age. Then the academic focus as well, the way it mentally, emotionally, spiritually shaped us to be storytellers. So we give my parents a lot of credit and a lot of gratitude for that.
Yeah. So cool. How many siblings do you have?
Aaron: I’m one of four. Then Chad, my other kind of set of cousins who did a lot of movies with us, they’re five. So those were our core families that we started with. Many of us are still involved in creative endeavors. But we’ll jump together to work on projects at different times. It’s really, fun.
Yvette: That is so cool. We often talk about life schooling and the advantage of Homeschooling because you get to just do real life. We have some friends, the McCoskeys, and Matthew, their son, he’s working on a film right now. Basically this whole school year, he has directed this film with a group of other friends of his and his siblings. Very much like you did with Pendragon. Where they’ve done the costumes, they’ve done the sets. I mean it’s just incredible what these kids have done.
I was talking to his mom a few weeks ago and she said, you know, sometimes I think, man, you know, we haven’t really done very much spelling or math or writing this year. I’m like the kids making a movie. I mean, it’s incredible. These kids together, they’ve written this script, they’ve acted it out. They’ve had to do all the business behind it. They’ve had to do all the funding and financing behind it. It’s just amazing.
When you think about education, whether it’s Homeschool, public school, private school, whatever. The whole goal of education is to raise up these children to become, productive, successful adults in the adult world. Well, when you get that firsthand experience, that hands on experience, you don’t need a classroom to do that. You get to actually do it in real life. What an incredible blessing. How old were you when you did Pendragon?
Aaron: So, I started writing Pendragon when I was a senior in high school. We’d been working for several years to make several big projects before that. That was the first feature.
Yvette: What an amazing opportunity you have had to do that. Our girls are very much in that same boat. We’ve been traveling and making this movie for the past two and a half years. So they’ve been able to see the business side of this and the filming side of it as well. Our 13 year old, she’s actually done some of the filming for the movie. So she’ll have a camera credit on the movie, which is really cool.
Aaron: That’s great.
Yvette: Yeah, it’s just so much fun and we get to just be a family and be together.
Aaron: It’s something that I really enjoy being a family and being able to be together. That’s a huge thing to learn together, and to learn in those real life situations and to get to see what you’re … Get to interact with your kids in a variety of different situations and talk through those life issues.
Aaron: In the context of doing something together is something that we loved. We really enjoyed it.
Yvette: Talk about your relationship with your siblings now. So now you, you grew up together, you got to do all kinds of fun projects together. You Homeschooled together. What are your relationships look like now as adults?
Aaron: Yeah, so my oldest sister, Marilyn, lives in Ireland now. She went on a missions trip several years ago to Ireland, and then married the camp director. So we lost her over there. She actually just had her first baby and so my parents are in Ireland this week visiting them. So that’s more challenging to keep in touch and work on things together long distance. But then my younger brother Mason … So when we did Beyond the Mask, she was our wardrobe designer, so she did that for us.
Of course, my younger sister Shannon is a photographer and a writer. So she also managed the doctor’s office between writing gigs. So she is working for me now on Overcomer, doing their behind the scenes book. Then she did the same thing for us. She’s our onset photographer, and did all the behind the scenes for me on Beyond the Mask. Then my youngest brother Nathan, he is an engineer. So he did all our props and all our mechanical work on Beyond the Mask. Then when he finished, he went to engineering school and that’s what he’s doing now. I definitely enjoyed working with my siblings, having a chance to work through some of those things, and have a chance to spend time together in doing it. So yeah, they all depending on the project and depending on their availability, they’ll all jump back in to help us at various times with different elements of it.
Yvette: So, it’s really a lot of fun just to have that community. We have our family WhatsApp thread, which we keep touch. Keeping us that way, sharing updates and answered prayers and prayer requests and challenges for the project and for family things. So that’s something that we’ve really tried to use even as our family is spread around the globe to still stay connected using our smart phones for some things that’s actually positive.
Yeah, they can be good sometimes. Looking back in your journey of being Homeschooled as a kid, what would you do differently if you could’ve changed something about how you were Homeschooled or something with your, I don’t know, your family life or whatever. Is there anything that you would change?
Aaron: Ouch, now you’re asking me to rat out my parents.
Yvette: No, no, no, nothing that’s going to offend your mom or your dad.
Aaron: Let’s see-
Yvette: Maybe even something like for yourself, like I don’t know, maybe-
Aaron: Something I’ve found is each kid is different. So for me, I really, so I compose the score. We did music lessons all growing up and playing orchestral stuff, which I loved. But for Pendragon, I composed a score for it with my sister. I found myself getting depressed after working on it for 12 hours a day in the basement.
I’m like, I love music. I love music theory. I love composing. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel so sad right now? I realized it’s just, I’m wired as an exhorter. I’m as a people person, so some of that for me, I just don’t do well by myself spending days and days at a time.
So, looking back, most of my siblings could go either way. You know, they’re not as much super hard drivers. Like my younger brother, he’s very comfortable to spend the whole day by himself and work on things and be productive and get stuff done, he’s fine that way.
But for me being Homeschooled, one of the things was, hey, I want to be talked to and do more things. So in the later years of Homeschooling, my parents put me on a basketball team at a local Christian school. Put me in orchestras and choirs and things so that every day I was doing outside interaction.
It’s something that I would encourage parents, and my parents were great about listening and having these conversations throughout. By saying each kid is different, and just because it works for one kid doesn’t mean it’s going to work for another. Being able to shape, and that’s one of the values of Homeschooling, you can do whatever is possible for your kid.
So that’s something that, I think whenever we ran into one of those bumps, then we’d say, okay, well what is an adjustment that you make that will help you with your learning and those kinds of things.
Aaron: I’m thinking back to some of the old curriculums that we used were pretty outdated. Some of the phonics memorization books that we had back when I was a little kid. Then you see, you’re other siblings have these fun games and songs and prizes. I would say, what’s up with that, I had to learn it the hard way. But overall we did have a good experience.
I think once we recognized the differences between different kids, that was a strength. Something else I’ll say, and this is something that we learned. With what was standard, and how do you decide, okay, as a Homeschool, you’re teaching your kids out of Homeschool. Okay, why did you decide to do that?
Well, you know, lots of different reasons, but one element is we want to keep them protected from the world. I would encourage parents to really think about the choices they make in that category. As you have high standards of what you will and won’t watch, also remember that where does evil come from?
Evil doesn’t come from without it comes from within our own heart. So we are our own greatest danger to ourselves. I think that’s something that I wouldn’t blame anyone but myself for this. But I grew up through high school and into college with more of a self-righteous bent, it’s fine. I’ve kept myself clean from these different kinds of things that other bad people do. No, that’s not how it works. Yes, God cares about our actions in terms about our holiness and those things, but first of all, He cares about our hearts. He wants us to live and walk in humility in line with Him. Have that relationship with Him, and out of our hearts flow what we do with our hands. So that’s something that I think is something that we’re talking about with my wife and I with our kids and processing through. Again, it’s a new generation, everything’s changed. You can’t even try to apply the same standards from a generation ago to today.
So, thinking through those things and making sure that as we pray through what should those decisions be like. Recognizing that no matter how we organize and structure things, it’s often the Lord that has to rule in our hearts and our lives.
Yvette: Yeah. Let’s park on that for a minute because I think that’s a really great point. Oftentimes, Homeschool parents can become kind of self-righteous in the idea of, well we Homeschool. So we’re obviously so much better parents than other people who might put their kids in school. Obviously that’s not true. Parents love their kids unconditionally with everything in them. But teaching our kids, we want our girls to grow up to love Jesus with all their hearts. As you were growing up, when did you really recognize in yourself that your faith was becoming your own and not what your parents wanted it to be because you were Homeschooled?
Because that can often happen where, I mean we’ve seen it happen a whole lot where kids are Homeschooled and so parents are like yep, box checked, kids are Homeschooled. We’ve done all the right things, we’ve checked all the right boxes. We’ve raised them up to love Jesus. Then they go out into the world and they just go off the rails. I mean they don’t know what to do with this whole world around them. At what point did your faith become your own?
Aaron: I would say it’s a gradual process. I think some people will go and put like this an exact moment where you just say, I look at Peter, and did Peter become a believer of Jesus when he left everything to follow him? Was it when he made the profession that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God? Or was it in the fish fry on the beach or where Jesus said, I forgive you and I want you to feed my sheep? Which one of those moments was it when his faith became real?
I know for me it was, it was a process over time. But I think until, as long as you live under your parents’ rule, you don’t know for sure in a way if your faith is yours or it’s their rules. So there’s this kind of transition where all of sudden you realize you’re not under their rule, and you can make whatever decisions you want.
Then you have to ask, okay, what do I really believe. My kids are little, I’m so much a learner in the parenting category and it’s something I’m eager to get advice and input from others. But something that we’ve been praying about and thinking about is, okay, what can we do to give our kids more rope, as it were, to let them fail earlier. Let them try and learn and make mistakes while they’re still, while we still have a voice that we can speak into their life.
What can we do to expose them to the world and expose them to these things in a way that there’s not just this huge curiosity mic as they’ve been held back from all those things? But that we can expose it to them in a context that we can have a discussion about it and say, you see how these decisions or words set up the world.
If you make these decisions, this is where it leads. Those kinds of questions and those kinds of things. So that they’re not “sheltered” in such a way that when they leave, the curiosity is so strong or the hatred of the way that we run things is so strong that they want to go out and explore it for themselves. But that we can experience that with them. So that’s something that I don’t know practically how to execute on that. That’s something that we’ve talked about and thought about before.
Yvette: Yeah, I think it’s constantly a learning process. You know, our oldest is 13 right now and we’re hitting those teen years. I feel like every day there’s just a new excitement about the teen years, and then new challenge that comes with it. But it’s really fun because if we’re intentional as parents and really paying attention to our kids and to their needs. Like you said, in your family you were able to talk through stuff with your parents.
I think being open with our kids and being able to really talk with them and talk, dig deep into their hearts and see how are you really feeling about this? What are your thoughts on this? Let’s walk through this together.
Yvette: It’s such a joy to be able to do that, and sometimes it’s a little bit scary, I’ll be honest. Because sometimes my girls will say something and I’m like, that’s not at all what we’ve taught you. That’s not what we believe. That’s not what God’s Word says. Where did you even get that from?
Aaron: Something that I would add to that. I was just talking with a good friend of mine who’s a pastor, a youth pastor. We were talking about standards versus God’s Word. I think that it’s easy in young people’s mind or for all of us to blur, okay, what does the Bible really say about that? There’s a huge hot button topic of what you watch, what you listen to, what you wear, what you consume.
Does the Bible really prescribe what kind of clothing we should wear? I don’t think that it does. There’s no verse that you can judge and say that clothing pleases God or not based on God’s Word. He gives us principles to apply.
Yvette: Sure, modesty.
Aaron: Yeah, exactly. Modesty, and appropriate and those are things you can have a conversation. But when it comes down to applying this, and He doesn’t give us specific standards for what kind of music to listen to or even what to consume.
So, you can say for my family, these are the principles. Be very clear about where the … now there are some things that are right and wrong, God says always tell the truth, and God says never cheat. God says that marriage is between a man and a woman. God says that, all these things that are very clear, very unequivocal. But then there’s also this moving out from there. How are you going to apply these things in your context?
That’s where wisdom and all those other things that come in. But making it a clear distinction between this is what the Bible says, and this is how to apply it. Then I think that was something that was a challenge for me in some of the church context and family context. Because then you say, so that’s a rule, that’s something that they made us do or made us avoid.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about that. So if we teach as doctrine the commandments of men as Jesus warns against. Then I think you can be in danger and say well, that’s just your opinion. I’m throwing out the whole baby with the bath water. So I mean I think people should land and have very strong standards and know exactly why they believe what they believe. Why they have certain rules in their home. I don’t think rules in your home are a bad thing at all you should actually have them.
Be careful what we communicate in them that we make sure that we discussed … The Bible actually says this, this is actually God’s World. No, this is our application of it, and this might vary. You might come to disagree with us some day. That’s okay, because while you’re in our home this is how we want to do it.
Aaron: That’s something that I think can be helpful as well.
Yvette: Yes. I agree with you wholeheartedly. We are unfortunately out of time for the Podcast. But if you have a few more minutes, I would love to continue the conversation. Because I have a few more points that I want to talk about. I want to talk about advice that you would give to any aspiring filmmakers. I know that there are a whole lot of Homeschool kids out there who really want to use the gifts that God’s given them through film. Also, I want to talk about that specific thing about using the gifts and talents that God’s given us for His kingdom. So you good to stand for a few more minutes.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s fine.
Yvette: Okay. All right. So we will continue on for Backstage Pass members. For those of you listening to the Podcast, if you are not familiar with the backstage pass membership, it is the Schoolhouse Rocked backstage pass membership gives you access to bonus material from the Podcast. It gives you all kinds of behind the scenes footage from Schoolhouse Rocked, the movie that we’re in production on right now. Lots of fun interviews and things like that. It’s a really great way to support the film right now.
We would love that. We would also love your prayers. If you guys would just continue praying for our family as we work through production on this movie. God is doing amazing things right now, and we are so grateful for those of you who have just stood by our sides and prayed for us over the last couple of years. We are so grateful for that. So please continue to do that.
If you have not yet signed up for the newsletter, please do that. It’s so funny, I talk to people all the time and they’ll ask me questions and I’ll say, well, did you get our latest update? They’ll say, well, no, I don’t think I get your updates. I’m like, well, sign up for the newsletter and you’ll know what’s going on with us. So if you just click here and fill out the form that just goes to us and you’ll get our updates. But Aaron, thank you for your time today. Where can people find out more about you and what you’re doing?
Aaron: We have a website, Burns & Co Productions.
Aaron: Then our Facebook page, I fear it’ll be on the mass Facebook page and probably post updates there.
Yvette: Okay. Okay. Sounds great. We’ll put those links in the show notes, so thank you so much for being on today and we will continue this conversation.
Find out more about Aaron Burns at BurnsandCo.productions
Films mentioned in the article:
Pendragon– Watch on ChristianCinema.com
Overcomer (In theaters August 23, 2019)