Faith-based crime series produced by Texas church
BURLESON, Texas – Filmmaker Jarod O'Flaherty didn't intend to produce a television series for streaming on Amazon Prime.
O'Flaherty, who wrote, directed and produced the award-winning faith-based 2013 film "My Son" with the talented congregation of Retta Baptist Church in Burleson, Texas, planned to use funds designated for video and film ministry left from "My Son" DVD and ticket sales to create a short film for the festival circuit.
O'Flaherty did that, writing, directing and producing a film using as many professional actors and crew members as possible, supplementing the budget with private donations. Michael Dennis, a minister then on staff at Retta, served as a co-producer.
"We wanted to take the production quality of My Son up a notch, enter the short in festivals and see what God would do with it," O'Flaherty told the TEXAN in a recent interview.
The result, a 26-minute film called "Vindication," was accepted into a dozen secular and faith-based film festivals across the country, garnering nominations and awards, including best short film of the 2017 Christian Worldview Film Festival.
With the film's success, the distribution company Vision Video reached out to O'Flaherty and Dennis, who had planned simply to post the video on YouTube and end the project.
Distributors asked about the film's main character, Gary Travis, a police detective in the fictional town of East Bank, Texas. They wondered if he might have more cases.
With the demand in place, O'Flaherty and colleagues started creating new cases for detective Travis, played by Dallas actor Todd Terry.
They scraped together funds to shoot another episode. The production quality, acting and writing convinced additional donors to come aboard, and financing for a full 10-episode season was arranged, although O'Flaherty admitted that the budget per episode was a "fraction" of what Hollywood would spend on a similar show.
Hence, there are few bells and whistles – no frantic car chases or fiery explosions. Compensation for actors and professional crew was generally above industry standards, but some volunteers were not compensated and other crew members were "undercompensated," O'Flaherty said, adding that if there is to be a season 2, he wants to see all involved receive proper compensation.
"We wrote the stories to fit our budget," O'Flaherty said, adding that story arcs involving the main characters begin largely with the show's third episode.
Low budget did not mean low quality. Producers used proven industry professionals including cinematographer Ron Gonzales and his camera, sound and lighting crews. Gonzalez's resume includes projects for ABC, FOX, HDNet, Discovery, the Travel Channel, Biography (now FYI) and the Disney Channel.
Veteran actors Terry, alum of "Breaking Bad," and Peggy Schott ("Fear the Walking Dead") lend believability to their roles as the nominally-Christian detective and his devout wife. Emma Elle Roberts ("Unplanned" and "I'm Not Ashamed") flew in from Los Angeles to play the couple's troubled daughter.
Many cast and crew are believers, O'Flaherty said.
Although Vindication features professionals, volunteers from the church and area helped, appearing as extras or supplying homes for location shoots or meals for cast and crew. The church let filmmakers use its vans.
Connor Watkins, a law school student and graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music who wrote the score for My Son, wrote original music for the series.
Church member Tammy Ricketts, whom O'Flaherty called "extraordinarily creative," handled all the props and set designs. "Most shows have entire prop departments. We had Tammy," he said with a chuckle.
The Retta congregation and pastor were "100 percent" supportive, O'Flaherty added, noting that the Retta Vision name first used for My Son appears at the beginning of each episode of Vindication. Ed Lowe, Retta's pastor, served as executive producer of episodes 8-10.
"The series reflects real-life scenarios, offering hope that Jesus is enough to make a difference," Lowe said, praising the professionalism of O'Flaherty, cast and crew.
"Being faith-based, the series does not focus on heinous crime scenes," O'Flaherty said. While gory autopsies are absent, episodes do explore serious crimes and their consequences: date rape, substance abuse, pornography and teenage sexting, human trafficking, even murder, achieving a level of good taste and a notable absence of cursing. O'Flaherty's brother-in-law, a Burleson police officer, gave technical advice as did a licensed counselor who attends Retta.
The characters ring true. Travis is not as religious as his wife, and he experiences no "come to Jesus moment." The gospel comes across in conversations and actions, not in overt proselytizing.
"We show faith to you," O'Flaherty said.
Vision Video negotiated streaming deals and the entire series premiered on Prime in August, although the first episode had been on Amazon since March 2018 and on PureFlix since March 2017.
The streaming deal was one of the many "miracles" of production, O'Flaherty said, recounting stories of God's provision for staffing, scheduling and even the weather.
As for the future of Vindication, O'Flaherty, cast, crew, producers and Retta Baptist hope for a second season. The next six months will prove pivotal, as people watch – or not.
When episode one appeared on Amazon Prime as a solo short, viewership soared to 100,000 after Amazon promoted it. O'Flaherty hopes a similar bump will occur for the series.
"Every few months, a new Christian movie comes out," O'Flaherty said. "Binge-able faith-based TV series are very, very rare."
The series DVD was released Oct. 15. Negotiations have concluded for airing in Australia, the Middle East (including 25 Muslim countries), South and Central America and some parts of Europe. The series has been translated into Spanish, Farsi, Arabic and Turkish.
"We're just a little country church, not a multi-million-dollar church," Lowe said. "This is exciting for our congregation."
With Vindication, Retta's congregation of around 200 is poised to make a worldwide impact.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.