Mormon Artist

Josh Wagner

Josh Wagner is a husband and dad of two children (and one on the way). He also works as a filmmaker and teaches filmmaking at East Hollywood High School, a film-themed charter school in West Valley City. He’s worked on various documentary and reality TV projects such as To Lose, to Love, and to Be Free; Road to Zion; and The Generations Project. He’s most excited about the new web series he has been working on with his high school students, Paradise High. Website
Photo courtesy Josh Wagner

How did you get into filmmaking?

My freshman year of high school, I had to make a final project for a Romeo and Juliet unit. Episode I of Star Wars had just come out, so I decided to adapt one of the scenes of the play into the Star Wars universe. We of course picked the scene with the most swordfighting and replaced all the swords with lightsabers. It was a terrible movie, but it started something that hasn’t stopped!

Did the gospel have any impact on your decision to go into the film industry?

Very much so. The first time I considered filmmaking was when a woman in my ward who I saw as a mentor watched some of the films I was making in high school and said I should go into filmmaking because the Church needed more talented filmmakers (she was a bit frustrated with the quality of some of the Church films she saw being produced at the time). Her recommendation stayed with me in the back of my head, and so, during my freshman year at BYU, I decided to take Intro to Film with Dean Duncan, which had a huge effect on me. I wanted to pursue filmmaking as a career but was worried I couldn’t support a family as a filmmaker. I made it a matter of prayer. I actually ended up praying to the Lord and telling him that I had chosen not to go into filmmaking. The Lord gave me a very clear answer that He did indeed want me to pursue filmmaking as my college major. It scared me. I wanted to be sure I was getting a true answer, so I asked my dad to pray about it as well. He didn’t think I should pursue filmmaking either but he got the same answer I did.

Since my decision to become a professional filmmaker started with a revelatory experience, I have always felt like I need to somehow do something for the Lord with this career. I don’t really know what that means yet. I know that being a filmmaker has helped me be a more open-minded person and that has helped me serve people better. I also have worked on projects which deal with gospel subjects, but I’m not really 100% sure yet why the Lord cares that I pursue filmmaking. We’ll see how it plays out.

But I do know this: being told by the Lord that I should pursue this career has helped me a lot at times when I was worried about having work. When I was nearing the end of one project and not sure what project I would work on next, I felt like since I was doing what the Lord wanted, He would provide work for me. And He has.

How does it influence your work today?

The gospel has helped me to think about filmmaking with an other-minded approach. Rather than just thinking about creating things that fulfill my personal artistic and emotional needs (which, in some ways, can be a little selfish), I try to think about how what I create blesses the people who watch it and the other people who work on it.

And now you’re teaching it. How did you make that jump?

About three years ago, I was writing and producing reality TV shows that aired on BYUtv. It was a job that demanded a lot of my emotional energy and time but I wasn’t really happy with the product we were producing. It felt like an awful lot of stress and work for little reward. The stress got so intense one day that I chose to let it out on my three-year-old son. He was acting up. I was holding him. I dropped him in anger. I was shocked that I had chosen to engage in a behavior that can be described as physical child abuse. I decided that I needed to do something different for work. At the time, I had a neighbor who taught film at East Hollywood High School, the charter high school I teach at now. I asked him if the school would be hiring any time soon. He said that they were planning to hire a new film teacher but hadn’t posted the position yet. I applied and got the job. I was excited to do work that felt more service-oriented. Rather than stay up late at night worried about whether my producer would yell at me because some person had decided not to appear on camera, I would be staying up worried about how to help students with names succeed at life. That’s the kind of stress I want to have in life.

East Hollywood High seems like a unique environment—can you tell us a little more about the program?

Students who attend East Hollywood High School receive a full high school degree while also getting the kind of film education you would receive at a college or university. Film classes range from cinematography to screenwriting to film scoring to editing to film criticism. All of these classes culminate in advanced film production classes that are based around specific genres (for example, this year we did film noir, steampunk, and horror). In these classes, students take on different roles on the film crew and produce the films. Some of our students go on to pursue a career in filmmaking, others learn skills such as creative problem solving and teamwork that apply to other careers that they pursue. Also, many of our students are teens who simply didn’t fit in or weren’t succeeding at a traditional high school and are looking for a different kind of environment in which they can get their degree.

Also, last year at the prom, the music selection included the Pokemon theme and the song “Freeze Ray” from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And our mascot is the Manbear, a man in a suit with a bear head. So, yeah, we’re pretty awesome.

Photo courtesy Josh Wagner

In its nine-year history, East Hollywood High has produced a variety of projects, perhaps most notably three feature-length films based on Shakespeare. Can you walk us through the process from conception to post-production?

Five years ago, one of the film teachers decided that since we don’t have sports at our school, we should produce a feature-length film that the whole school could rally behind, sort of like our version of going to State. They decided to produce a Shakespeare play into the movie so that the script would already be mostly prepared. They picked Macbeth and set it in a post-apocalyptic setting. One of the English teachers helped with adapting the script and also produced. One of the film teachers directed. All the rest of the crew and the cast were students. Production took place over the course of the second trimester of that school year. Students enrolled in a class where they spent a little less than half of the school day doing production. During the third trimester, the advanced editing class divided up the scenes among the students and edited the film.

Over the next two years, the same process was followed to produce two more Shakespeare adaptations: Much Ado About Nothing set in a high school, and Hamlet set in a fundamentalist Mormon polygamist colony.

In addition to working with a new format, Paradise High is also your first original story. How has that differed from previous projects?

When I first started working at East Hollywood High, I had my advanced screenwriting class write a web series. I was thinking that it would be good to produce a long-format project based on an original script and figured that a web series would have more distribution options than a high-school-produced feature. The class produced a really strong outline and a rough draft of a script. A student and I kept working on the script and after a year, we had a really solid story that we were super excited to produce. So, it was a lot more work to produce the script for this project than it was for the adaptations. But it feels good to have made something original.

You’ve also launched an impressive marketing campaign around the project. Can you explain why you feel that has been an important facet of this film project?

We want people to see the work we’re producing. Doing so is important for our students’ future careers and their current sense of confidence and pride in their work. It’s also good for my own career, which is a blessing to my family. It has motivated all of us to up the level of production value because we realize that we’re competing with other web series on the internet rather than just making something to watch at our school. I think it’s also an opportunity for students to learn the principles of successful social media marketing which will become relevant in every field in ways we’re only beginning to realize.

How do you think social media is changing the film industry?

I think social media is good for the film industry. Sure, it has resulted in a plethora of pretty bad stuff out there (I mean in terms of quality, but I suppose issues of morality are also relevant here), but that doesn’t really matter to me because I can simply choose not to watch that stuff. I focus on how social media allows filmmakers to take their work directly to an audience and let the audience decide if they like it. It has the potential to cut out the middleman of the big studios and networks. I think that’s great! And it’s a great opportunity for our school and our students.

It also has provided a way for short films to get seen by people, and I really like short films!

Photo courtesy Josh Wagner

As was mentioned, these projects are largely completed by high school students—amateurs in the field. What have been some of the most surprising aspects of working with these students? Most rewarding? Most frustrating?

The most rewarding part, by far, is the relationships I have formed with the students. It is one thing to engage with a student in a classroom but it is quite another to go through the grueling process of shooting a 100-page script with the students. I really value the relationships we formed. I get a bit emotional when I think about it.

It is hard working with high school students, however, because there are some things I have to do that a director wouldn’t normally do. There are matters related to money that would normally be handled by a production manager, but in this setting, I, as the adult, have to do it while also directing the film. That is hard to do. Also, a small percentage of the students can drive so I sometimes have to go and do tasks that require a car which a director wouldn’t normally be worried about.

How do you see your work building the kingdom?

I’m not sure, but I hope it does. I made a documentary I’m really proud of a few years back called To Lose, to Love, and to Be Free that told the story of a Cuban refugee’s flight from her country and eventual conversion to the gospel. That film had a lot of heart and testimony. I feel like it contributed to the building of the kingdom. And I feel that, as I work with young folk, I am setting the kind of example a saint should set and influencing them for good.

Overall, though, I hope that I am doing more with my work to build the kingdom than I am aware of. I feel strongly about the ideal of the law of consecration and want everything I do to be a holy act. I am not 100% sure if my filmmaking and teaching work is “holy,” but I hope it is.

With your busy schedule, do you find any time to work on personal projects on the side?

I would say that Paradise High, which I am super proud of, is a personal project for me. I am so happy with the quality of show we are producing. People are shocked that it was produced by high school students. It resonates strongly with audiences as something that’s entertaining, funny, and dramatic.

Paradise High plus the more traditional teaching I do plus church callings and family time fill up my schedule right now. When the second season of Paradise High (for which we’re in preproduction right now) is done, I plan to devote more time to screenwriting during my vacation and commuting time and sell some scripts in Hollywood. I look forward to that. As a filmmaker, I’d say that I am first and foremost a writer.

What advice would you give to someone interested in working in the film industry?

Get a confirmation from the Spirit that it’s what you should do. Then work hard to produce the best product out there and make sure that the right people see your work. Then you’ll be fine.

What’s next for you?

Like I said, I plan to finish Paradise High and then focus more on screenwriting. I also want to spend more time with my family. I don’t think I’ll ever stop teaching. I really love it. And I especially love working with teenagers. It’s a great age to teach filmmaking to! ❧

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