Cole Claasen and I caught up in between his Master of Fine Arts classes at Western State University of Colorado. Claasen is studying filmmaking so that he can be a better screenwriter, but also so he can teach others at the college level how they can tell their stories. The writer, director, and producer of Road to the Open shares energetically about his second film, and opens up about what it means to make good films that share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Claasen’s love for tennis began at a young age, as he currently follows Roger Federer but was originally an Andre Agassi fan. “The story came from playing with a friend one day, long after high school,” Claasen reminisces. “A couple of guys next to us were just loud, obnoxious, and bitter. One guy was yelling and screaming, and throwing his racket all over the place. I took that moment and was thinking about how to write a script on a low budget. My background as a high school player at country countries helped because I met quite a few characters, guys who thought they were better than their talent really allowed.”
“I had to give a nod to Agassi at the end of the film. When Miles shaves his head, Jerry just looks at him, and asks, ‘What did you do?’ Miles says, ‘Agassi, dude.’”
I ask Claasen how he was able to net the trio of John Schneider, Eric Roberts, and Judd Nelson to star in his independent film. He admits that the amounts are much smaller than you’d find in a bigger film, but thanks to the generous donation of a member at his church, he was able to hire a strong cast. “I learned with my first film, Fern Hill, that very few people would see a film, even with a strong script,” Claasen says. “I realized I could use this chunk of money to get stars. So we shot as much as we could of the big names in one day to be able to show them throughout the film.”
“One of the best days of my working life was shooting with Judd Nelson. He was the coolest, funniest guy, and so easy to work with.”
Not everything about Road to the Open is hilarious though. The main character, Jerry, wrestles with the death of his wife, and raising a young daughter all by himself. I ask him where he drew that story from, the painful side of what it means to seek faith in the midst of suffering?
“I was doing a TV documentary pilot that never came to the screen, about a woman with Stage 4 breast cancer. Her fiancee proposed to her anyway, and a philanthropist paid for an extravagant wedding. They had a wonderful honeymoon, but sure enough, five to six months later, she passed away,” Claasen shares.
“That’s where the ‘Where is God? This is baloney!’ part comes from.”
Claasen’s own story has taken him all over the world seeking out examples of faith and purpose. He’s backpacked through Europe, and served for two years as a counselor to young men in need of role models. [More on that later…] “I am a Christian,” he says, “who got saved in high school. I felt like an outcast until I met those real friends who became my community. I’ve been chasing the answers to the questions about how we find our purpose and when God tells us that. I still don’t have the answer.”
Claasen feels the tension in making films that share his faith while also wanting to share an open-minded view of Christianity with the world. “My goal is to make people go, ‘wow, I never saw God that way.’ I don’t want to be labeled a Christian film because I know that will turn some people away, and I want to reach non-believers,” Claasen says.
“This guy lost his wife but because of a shooting star, and a smile on his daughter’s face, he sees God. That’s the kind of movie I want to make.”
After talking about tennis, school, film, and faith, I ask Claasen what comes next, after he’s done promoting Road to the Open and he gets really excited. “Right now, we have three Academy Award winners who have read the script we’re working on and they want in. I have two producers interested and we’re trying to raise five hundred thousand dollars to make this movie.”
“The movie is about a true ministry in New York, a group home on a horse ranch for sixty boys who are the worst case juvenile offenders. Ninety-nine percent of them have never met their fathers,” Claasen continues. “I worked there for two years, mentoring those boys, gangbangers and arsonists, writing this script. Isn’t that what God was talking about when he told us to care for widows and orphans as the purest form of religion?”
“The crux of that story is when one of the kids looks at the counselor, an African-American ex-gangbanger himself and asks, ‘What’s it mean “to be saved?”’ That’s the simplest question you can ask over a phrase we throw around all of the time! And the counselor tells him the story of Mary Magdalene, who has nothing except for the perfume she bought with her earnings from prostitution, but who is set free because of her faith. People who are interested can check it out at www.timothyhillranch.com.”
In Road to the Open, our ‘hero,’ Jerry, is set free when he finally realizes he’s loved; in Claasen’s next film, freedom is both metaphorical and literal. Either way, those examples of freedom are found on the road toward the recognition that God loves us, and Jesus died for us, and even in our darkest days, that has to be enough.
Claasen is on the road, seeking answers to his questions, and sharing the truths of God as he finds them along the way.