Festival of Faith and Writing brings Hollywood to Calvin

While Calvin College’s biennial writer’s conference is typically comprised of speakers from all over the literary world, this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing took a detour to Hollywood.

Randy Testa, the vice president of education at Walden Media, and Luke Schelhaas, a writer and co-executive producer of the CBS series “The Good Wife,” were among the 120 presenters who came to speak at this year’s festival. Documentary filmmaker Raymond Singer, whose screenwriting credits include Disney’s “Mulan,” and National Book Award winner James McBride, who announced earlier this week that he is set to produce an adaptation of his novel “The Good Lord Bird,” also spoke at the conference.

Testa, whose studio was responsible for such book-to-film adaptations as “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies and “Holes,” presented a talk on the power of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed young adult novel “The Giver,” which is being made into a film that will be released this August. Festival goers were given an inside look into the making of the film, including a brief clip featuring behind-the-scenes footage and commentary from Lowry herself.

In his presentation, Testa talked at length about the themes of “The Giver,” such as the importance of wisdom and memory and “the revelation of community as spectacle.” Testa also addressed the controversial nature of the novel, referring to “The Giver” as “one of the most frequently banned books in the world.” The novel’s Christian themes were additionally discussed, with Testa arguing that the book “explicates the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” and that it addresses “conversion and grace.”

Schelhaas also looked at the role of Christianity in storytelling, focusing instead on what it is like for a Christian to be a TV writer in Hollywood. Schelhaas, who joined the staff of “The Good Wife” in its current season and has written for shows like “Smallville,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Law and Order” in the past, sees Hollywood as a “great place to live” and somewhere that is not “a hostile place to Christians.”

Schelhaas additionally addressed the topic of whether it is okay for Christian screenwriters to write something that they don’t believe in. According to Schelhaas, even though he has struggled with writing heavily violent and sexual scenes in the past, he believes that he “can depict evil as long as it shows to be evil.” Schelhaas also stressed that “it isn’t just Christians who are trying to be responsible TV makers.”

Schelhaas, who stated that an off-campus semester program in Los Angeles during his time at Dordt College was what convinced him of staying in Hollywood, additionally went into great detail about the process of making a single episode of television. According to Schelhaas, a typical episode of “The Good Wife” is hashed out by a team of writers over a period of two to three weeks. From there, the episode undergoes roughly 10 different drafts, with notes incorporated by the producers, the studio and CBS. In all, Schelhaas stated that an episode takes up to “six to 10 weeks of work.”

Schelhaas, who currently has a pilot for the USA Network and a feature film called “Lockport” being considered for development, argues that “anyone with an interest in film and television should move to Los Angeles.”