Homeless for the Holidays, a family-friendly film championing hope in the darkest of times, has as inspiring a story behind the scenes as it does on the screen.
The story line follows the life of Jack Baker, a marketing executive cocooned in the usual trappings of an upper middle class businessman’s lifestyle: nice home, a well-paying job, a wife, two children – one boy, one girl, and a dog.
When a printing error puts his company in legal jeopardy, however, Baker is the chosen scapegoat and his perfectly planned life takes an unexpected detour.
The premise for Homeless for the Holidays resonated with audiences during its limited run in theaters across the Midwest last year. Not surprising when you learn the story comes from the heart of a man who lived many of the situations featured in the film.
Writer, producer, and director George A. Johnson has been a storyteller nearly his whole life.
“Even when I was young, I would get my action figures out and stage productions for my friends,” Johnson told me when I met the filmmaker, his wife Karen, and the star of Homeless for the Holidays, Matt Moore, in St. Louis last June.
His productions became increasingly sophisticated until, in 2004, Johnson made the film Dreamer – The Movie with nothing more than a commercially purchased video camera and a computer-editing program.
“I swore I would never make another film without professional equipment,” Johnson says.
He nearly saw that vow come true in a big way.
“I had two films in pre-production,” says Johnson. “With $45 million in financing in place.”
He also had a full-time job at a local ABC-affiliate television station, but nothing was secure.
“Within two weeks the funding fell through, and I lost my job,” Johnson says.
As bills started to pile up, Johnson, who had always been the primary breadwinner for his family, began to experience early signs of depression.
His wife Karen, who was bringing in the only income by babysitting for friends, gave her director husband, well, a bit of direction.
“I told him: ‘You have all this time on your hands, and you’ve wanted to write another screenplay – use this time to do what you’ve been wanting to do,'” says Karen, who serves as an executive producer and assistant director on Homeless for the Holidays.
Over the next three weeks, Johnson crafted the entire screenplay.
“Normally, it takes me about 10 months just to write the first draft,” Johnson says. “I knew God had His hand in this when it just flowed out of me.”
God showed up in other ways as well.
“Amazing things happened in the making of this film,” says Johnson.
People came up to the destitute couple, telling them that God had instructed them to help them financially. Johnson even managed to avoid a camcorder-filmed movie.
“A cameraman friend of mine called out of the blue one day,” says Johnson. “He told me he had just gotten a new camera, and we needed to do a project together.”
That camera was the Red One, Johnson’s dream piece of equipment. He sent his friend a copy of the Homeless for the Holidays script, and, after a quick read, Johnson had a camera crew.
Community, church, and perfect strangers began to get involved with the project.
When local abandoned restaurants were deemed unsuitable for a needed burger joint locale, the owners of the Indiana chain of Penguin Point family restaurants stepped in.
“They allowed us to film after hours and even paid their staff the overtime to facilitate our shooting schedule,” says Johnson. “When we asked if we could put Matt in a penguin costume, their response was ‘Yes, and we even have a penguin costume you can use.'”
The casting of Matt Moore as Jack Baker had a bit of divine help as well, according to the actor.
Moore, who appeared in Pearl Harbor and as Travis on two episodes of Lost, was just beginning his acting career when he felt God calling him into ministry.
“I ended up in Decatur, Indiana, as a pastor,” says Moore. “I thought my acting career was over.”
When his nephew could not convince his mother to take him and his sister to the Homeless for the Holidays open casting call, Moore signed on for the duty.
“I decided if I was going to wait there all day, I might as well audition myself,” says Moore, who walked away with the starring role.
With talent and technical issues resolved, filming began. The entire project became an act of love and a source of pride, and not just for the Johnsons.
“Our whole town (Auburn, Indiana) seemed to take the film on as a project,” says Johnson. “People who were experiencing hardships found hope as we filmed Homeless.”
It’s that hope that Johnson strove to reflect through this film.
“Our desire is to encourage others to continue to place their trust in God,” says Johnson. “Regardless of the state of the economy or other external forces, God is able to accomplish whatever He has planned for you.”
Homeless for the Holidays releases to DVD on September 28.