How The Chosen Became a Hit TV Series

Season three of The Chosen is here, and producer Chad Gundersen has overseen the show’s surprisingly successful run thus far. Why has the success been a surprise? Because Christian media isn’t exactly the most highly respected form of art these days.

However, Gundersen hopes that The Chosen can play a part of changing that. In this episode of The King’s Collective podcast, Chad Gundersen talks with me about his recent lecture for The King’s University’s Bachelor of Media Arts program, Christian art’s reputation and the reason that crowdfunding the TV show has played a major role in how The Chosen became a hit TV series.

Daniel Hopkins: Chad, thanks for joining us today.

Chad Gundersen: Yeah, man. Thanks for having me.

Daniel: Yeah. Well let’s jump right into it. I’ve got a couple of questions. I was just telling you here before I started recording that you came to TKU media arts class and I thought that presentation was really interesting. And I didn’t want to hijack the class with all my questions so I thought I’d set up this interview with you. But one thing that I thought was really interesting was your role on the show. You kind of talk about you kind of have a unique role. So describe what you do on The Chosen and how you came to be a part of it.

Chad: Sure. Well again thanks for having me, man. It’s an honor to be here. It was great to do the class and meet some of the students there and how their journey is going. All these journeys especially within this entertainment world are always so unique. Obviously God always has fun and exciting things for all of us to do and that was a cool part to be a part of. So thanks again for having me on that.

Yeah. Well, the interesting thing is The Chosen itself is so unique that I don’t know if my part in it is unique, or if that’s just because the show is so unique that everybody that’s a part of it gets to be unique. But at the end of the day, I’m the producer of the show so myself and my business partner Chris June are the producers. And of course that’s always a fun term because there are multiple producers on the show and each of those producers have different roles and what their kind of main goals and objectives are. But Chris and I specifically, we’re in charge of the production itself.

So really at the end of the day, how you get the show finished, how you get it shot, done, and finished, and even prepped before that. And Chris and I, even our roles are very, very different. I’m more on the production side, so literally the day to day of the actual shooting of the show. Chris is still very there, very present and a big part of that. But Chris’s role really kicks in more on the post-production side and the visual effects side because there’s definitely multiple parts to the show and obviously who cares if you shoot a show if you can’t actually put it all together and edit and the music and the sound design and digital effects and all these different things.

So that’s really where Chris’s role kicks in. But myself, I’m that very much that day to day on the ground producer of the show itself. So my role is everything from budgeting the show, which is obviously quite unique, so I build the budget for the show itself, every season. All the way to just the day to day. And I work along with our line producer and UPM Kerri Navarro. Um, she runs the show itself as far as the cast and the crew and those day to day. And then obviously I work with all the department heads to kind of get what they need on day. So whether it’s production design or the camera department or wardrobe or the location or whatever it is, I kind of oversee and help put all those things together. So ultimately kind of responsible for everything.

Daniel: Yeah. It sounds like you just whatever needs to be done, you just get it done.

Chad: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So, I like to say everything’s my fault because if you’re going to be in charge, then you get to take the brunt of that. Oddly enough, it’s a quote that Dallas gave me years ago when he and I were working on a short film together. And I was the producer and he was the director of it. And he basically just, I was complaining one day about so and so didn’t do their job and so and so and then Dallas was like, “Man, if you’re the producer, everything’s your fault, right?” That’s the role that we as the creators get to take. And that’s kind of where it is for me. So how I became a part of it, Dallas and my’s relationship goes back a really long way. Probably close to 20 years now.

So his father Jerry Jenkins wrote the Left Behind series, right? Pretty big series of books there, back in I guess it’s been about 20 years now.

Daniel: Yeah. I think I’ve heard of that, I think I’ve heard about that somewhere.

Chad: Yeah. They’re a pretty big deal. So I was really just a fan of the books. I mean I had just graduated college and I literally hand wrote, I didn’t type, I hand wrote a fan letter to Jerry and basically just said, “Hey, I’m a recent film grad. If these ever get made into a movie, I’d love to be a part.” And he wrote me back. And basically said, “My son,” and Dallas is a year, maybe two years older than me, so he’s a little bit further down the road. When he got out of school he had started to work for this company that was making them into films. So Jerry connected me with Dallas. Long story short there, Dallas and Jerry kind of parted ways with that whole, that group that was making those into movies and kind of made a decision to go off on their own and do their own thing.

But even after they left that film, Dallas and I stayed in touch. Dallas decided to shoot as a director, he and his dad had helped produced one of Jerry’s stories into a film called Hometown Legend, a good little film that they were helped produce, executive produce. And so anyway, so Dallas was like, “Hey, I’m going to go shoot my first short film as a director. I already have a producer, so it’s not really what I need.” And I just said, “Hey, man. I’m happy to help. I want to connect, I want to be a part.” And so I literally, they were shooting the short film in LA, I was living in Texas, still live in Texas now, I literally flew myself to LA, found a place to stay. I think I slept on Dallas’s hotel room floor a couple of nights. And I was an unpaid PA. I was not anything, right? I just was there to just do whatever. And by the end of that short film, I was a co-producer on the film.

Daniel: That’s awesome. You just kind of worked your way into that role.

Chad: Yep. Yep. Just was like okay, not taking no for an answer here. And went and did that. And then not too long after that, Dallas reapproached me and said, “Hey, doing another short film based on the short story of my dad’s.” And that was Midnight Clear. We shot Midnight Clear as a short film with Stephen Baldwin. And then we turned around and shot Midnight Clear as a feature film about a year or two later, and that would’ve been about 2005ish or so. And that was my first feature film as a director, or sorry as a producer, and Dallas’s first feature film as a director. And that’s how our relationship started. So that was 15, 16 years ago now, shot that.

Oddly enough, Dallas and I have not worked together since then until The Chosen. Always stayed in touch, what are you working on, what are you doing, hey, we got to find something to do together, and it just really never lined up. But I guess it’s one of those such a time as this, right? That God brought us back together and Dallas approached me and said, “Hey, I’m doing this little crowdfunding idea.” He even said, “I don’t think it’s going to work. I don’t think we’ll raise any money. But if it does, do you want to be a part?” And I was like, “Oh it’s a Jesus story. How many times has the Jesus story been told.” And then I read the script and I was like, “Okay, yeah. I see what you’re doing here and if we can pull this off, I definitely want to be a part.” And so and then we ended up shooting season one all here in Texas and now Texas is our kind of home base for the show. And here we are about to enter into season three.

Daniel: That is so cool. I mean, you mentioned the Left Behind series and I think when people associated Christian film or Christian media, that’s probably the first thing that comes to mind is Left Behind, until now. So I think now we have The Chosen which is okay, the Left Behind series is well known. But I don’t want to put it down, it’s not necessarily well respected outside of the Christian realm.

Chad: Sure.

Daniel: However you watch The Chosen and you read about The Chosen, I read in The Atlantic recently that they’re like, “Hey, this Christian show’s actually pretty good.” And you never hear that from a very left leaning secular news source like The Atlantic. There are others as well that are kind of praising what you guys are doing on The Chosen. So I think it’s a breakthrough show in that regard. But what do you think is it about the show that has led to its popularity?

Chad: Yeah. I mean it’s definitely something that of course kind of Christian media in general, especially in the film world, and now television because we’re technically a TV show, we’re not a movie, it has gotten panned pretty bad for its quality, right? I think it’s really at the end of the day, or it’s over proselytizing, right? It’s over focus on salvation, which again not taking the focus off of salvation, that’s obviously a pretty important thing to we believers.

Daniel: Of course. Yeah.

Chad: But I think when it comes to entertainment, that is something that a lot of people, especially non-believers obviously that’s not a big one, they’re like, “I want to hear preaching, I’ll go to church,” right? Or, “If I want to get saved, then I’ll go and talk to my saved friends or go to church,” or whatever the case is.

Daniel: Right, right.

Chad: So when it comes to entertainment I think that has something that has gotten a little bit of a bad rap in the faith space. And then obviously the quality on top of that. Now to say that there’s not quality stuff, I mean you look at Passion of the Christ which obviously that was a huge a crossover project because it wouldn’t have made the kind of money if it didn’t have … you couldn’t have just believers watching that film.

Daniel: Right, right.

Chad: And then you have a lot of more allegorical type of things, Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lord of the Rings, and some of these other films over the years that have a lot of undertones and are very Christian in the sense that the authors of those original stories were believers and very open about their faith. But I think what The Chosen has done on a lot of levels, I think number one, the quality, honestly. People do expect kind of cheesy not well written, not well acted, not well produced type shows. And when they see The Chosen, they’re kind of like, “Well that’s actually really good,” right?

And I like to say, “Look, I don’t care that you don’t like my message. But don’t tell me that my art, my craft isn’t any good.” And that’s a focus for all of us on the show, right? From every again production design, cinematography, wardrobe, hair, makeup, all the things that we do, we really strive for excellence with the best people in the industry too. And that’s another thing. We don’t have all believers working on our show.

Daniel: Oh, that’s interesting.

Chad: Yeah. We just have the best people available. That’s what we want, we want the best. Now we do have a lot of believers and there are an amazing amount of believers within the industry that are on the top of their game and are really, really good at what they do. And we do have a lot of those, but not all of them. And so, I think that’s really what it is. And on top of that, I think it’s really honest. It’s an honest show, right? And outside of the overtly quoted scriptures, which we do, right? People say all the time, “I’m watching the show and I’m just entrenched in these characters and the next thing I know, I hear oh wait a minute, that was scripture. They literally just quoted scripture in that piece, that section.”

Daniel: Right.

Chad: But it’s the getting to that, right? It’s these characters and their back stories and their realities and their struggles. And I think people across the board can say, “I can relate to what Mary has struggled with. I can relate to what Simon has struggled with. What Matthew has struggled with.” There’s just a lot of reality in there in the sense that people back then dealt with problems the same that we deal with today, right? There’s nothing new under the sun, right?

Daniel: Right.

Chad: It’s all the same. And I think that’s a big part of it, is it’s handled in a very honest way. And then again, it is a quality show, right?

Daniel: Right.

Chad: There’s quality writing.

Daniel: The acting is great.

Chad: Our talent, our actors. Our actors are unbelievable. It’s just we’re amazed about them and then obviously all the other elements. We kind of call it the perfect storm, right? It’s been it’s this thing that everything has come together specifically on the production side, but then on the marketing side, the distribution side, the guys at Angel, our executive producer, Derral Eves and what he’s done. Obviously Dallas is operating at the top of his game as a creator. It’s just all these elements have come together and it’s been a blessing to be a part. It’s been pretty impressive.

Daniel: Sure. I want to talk a little bit about you touched on this just a second ago. But just the notion that Christian film isn’t as good, or Christian media, really Christian art. It goes over to music, it’s just kind of a, I don’t know what else to call it other than just a notion, that it’s not quite as good. And I want to know just from your opinion, from somebody who’s entrenched in the industry, why do you think that is? What’s at the core of that?

Chad: Well I have my thoughts, whether they’re accurate or not.

Daniel: I want to hear your thoughts, as much as you can tell me.

Chad: Well I do think it’s interesting because I would say probably in the last 10, maybe even 15 years, I think the music industry in the faith space has changed drastically. I mean you see bands now that are believers that are playing opening, going on tour with, going to festivals with some mainstream type of individuals. And you have Christian artists I think of just off the top somebody like Lecrae for example, right? I mean he’s selling as many albums as anybody else out there.

Daniel: Right, right.

Chad: It’s not like this oh well, you’re doing well but you’re not doing quite as well. No, he’s doing as well, right? And when he drops a new single or whatever, and that’s just one example. There are many, many. So I do think that the music industry, and I think a lot of what that is, is they just … I would personally say I think they just got kind of fed up with kind of the lackluster ability. And I also think that it is taking the craft serious. And I think for a long time, in the faith space specifically in film, it’s kind of like there was these people, this group, this church, whatever it is that kind of go, “Well God told us to do this.” Okay, fine. Not arguing that. And I’ll never argue what God’s telling you unless it’s just entirely anti-scriptural.

Daniel: Sure.

Chad: Then I’ll argue. But at the end of the day, if God says, “Make a movie,” well there’s nothing in the Bible that says, “Don’t make movies.” Or tell a message. But then I also think they kind of feel, at least from what I’ve witnessed, they just take that well God told me to do it, then I have to go do it, and who cares what’s good or not because He’s going to bless it. And I’m kind of like that’s probably not really accurate. I always like to say, “Look, my Bible says, ‘Do all things in excellence,'” right?

Daniel: Yeah.

Chad: My Bible says that in the Old Testament when God built the Temple, he wanted the absolute best, right? He said, “Go get wood from Lebanon and go get these jewels and this gold. And here’s the plans and all these things.” And He just spared no expense to make it the best. And all along, he knew it was going to be destroyed, right? Let’s not pretend God didn’t know it was going to be destroyed, but He still wanted the best for what it was that was going to be. And this was something directly related to people, right? The Temple is for the people, right?

Daniel: Right.

Chad: It’s about God, but it’s for the people. And so he knew that people were going to walk in here and I want them to respect me, and what we’re about, and the excellence that we operate in. And for whatever reason, in the film world, in the Christian film world, that just wasn’t happening, right? They weren’t taking it serious, they were not honing their craft, they were not becoming better filmmakers. And then they were pretending like well oh if God told me to do it, then it’s just going to get blessed.

Daniel: Sure.

Chad: And so for me, that was always a big thing that I noticed. And it’s always been a goal of mine is to operate at the top level, right? And I definitely can’t say and Dallas can’t say, and a lot of us can’t say that our films have been the best, right? Moving up to this point. But it’s always been a goal, right?

Daniel: Right.

Chad: The goal was to get to this point and I think The Chosen now is the perfect example of that. And what I hope is that others are going to follow suit. I hope others kind of go, “Let’s get better at what we do. Let’s be a master craftsman and always be striving to be better.” And I do think there’s a lot of groups out there within the faith space that are doing that. And it’s fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of that. But I do think that that’s kind of, it’s just an odd thing.

It’s kind of like if you were a believer and you were in a builder, right? If you were going to build a hotel, well you wouldn’t just say, “I have no clue how to build a hotel, but God told me to do it, so I’m just going to go do it.” Now you can start talking about Noah and Noah’s ark and all these kinds of things. But we’re not talking about the flooding of the world right here where God was going to save his people. We’re talking about a hotel, right? So, but if you were going to go build a hotel, then you would go find the best people to build a hotel.

Daniel: Right.

Chad: Right? You wouldn’t find somebody that makes a motel, a shady crappy side of the road motel to build your five-star hotel.

Daniel: Right.

Chad: You would find the best of the best. Or if you were in the car industry, you wouldn’t go find the people that if you were called to make the next Ferrari or Lamborghini, then you wouldn’t go hire the people that make the cheap stuff on the back side of the whatever.

Daniel: Right.

Chad: I don’t want to name any other cars. But you would probably go to Ferrari and Lamborghini and say, “Hey, here’s this mission I have. Will you come over here and help me? Take what you know here, and let’s make it even better.” And I think that’s kind of been missing in the faith space, but I do think it’s starting to become more and more. Because like I said, we have a ton of people that are just not believers on our show.

Daniel: Yeah.

Chad: But they respect what we’re doing because the art is there. The craft is there, you know?

Daniel: Yeah.

Chad: And I can honestly say people’s lives have been changed and people have been touched and we’ve kind of shattered a few stereotypes of the Christian filmmakers being not good at what they do.

Daniel: Yeah.

Chad: And now we have people coming to us going, “Hey, we want to be a part. When is the next time? How do I get on board?”

Daniel: That’s so cool. Yeah. The door just kind of cracked open there.

Chad: Yeah.

Daniel: You mentioned earlier crowdfunding. And I have this, I have a working theory and I don’t know if I’m ready to go public with it yet. But actually I think I just did, I’m going public with it. Is that maybe being beholden to either proselytizing or a message or maybe a somebody who is funding what you’re doing, may water down your artist ability to create the most excellent product that you can or most excellent art. And when I see that you guys are crowdfunded, you’re kind of getting to do whatever the heck you want to do. And I wonder if that also plays a big role in the fact that The Chosen is such a great show.

Chad: Mm-hmm. Well that’s true. And the other day, we are beholden I guess to the millions of fan we have.

Daniel: Sure.

Chad: And at the end of the day, if something were to happen and all of a sudden nobody wanted to watch the show anymore, well the show would disappear because versus what the network or a studio or whatever, if they want to keep playing your show, and we’ve all seen shows that have gone well beyond their audience, right? They kind of just kept going. Or they got canceled and the audience is like, “What the heck? Why did you? This was a huge show. Why would you do that?” Right?

Daniel: Right. Arrested Development, great example.

Chad: Right. There’s tons of them out there that people kind of scratch their heads and go, “Why did you do that?” Or things that everybody’s like, “The ratings aren’t there, nobody watches that show. Why is it still going? Why is it still being made?” So that is a weird thing. And so, but at the same time you’re right, because of what we’re doing, nobody can cancel us, right?

Daniel: Right.

Chad: We cannot be canceled, and as long as our audience and our fans continue to want it, then we’re going to keep making it. So it does create a bit of freedom. But also kind of a lot of pressure, to be honest with you. I kind of jokingly say, one of my biggest comments right now is, “Lord, just please don’t let us mess this up,” right? Because right now we’re the only ones that can mess this up. What God’s doing with it, we can’t control. We never predicted, we never could’ve seen coming. And so really it’s up to us to mess that up, right?

Daniel: Mm-hmm.

Chad: And so it’s about kind of staying humble and excited but also working very, very hard to maintain this momentum. But we don’t have to worry about that big brother coming in and not liking our message or telling us to change it. At the end of the day, we make the message that we want, right?

Daniel: Yeah.

Chad: But at the same time, we do have tons of consultants. We have multiple Biblical scholars, historical scholars, all kinds of things that we keep ourselves in check. And I would even argue that there are times things are being read or written that we all kind of look and go, “Is that the best way? Should we change? Should we kind of … how do we address this?” But I do know that our writers, which includes Dallas, but Tyler and Ryan as well, they take it very, very serious. And if anything, it’s one of the reasons that season three is delayed is that we just didn’t feel that the scripts were there yet, right?

Daniel: Wow, okay.

Chad: And not in a bad way. I mean it was just they’re just not ready because we have to know that we have to keep upping our game and making them better and developing these characters and doing what we’re doing. So it’s been an interesting ride. And to be honest, I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen.

Daniel: Sure.

Chad: But I can say that we have all plans to do all seven seasons.

Daniel: That’s great. That’s great.

Chad: So here we go. Here we go.

Daniel: Well I have one more question for you. I only have a few minutes left with you. And you kind of hinted at this earlier. What do you think that the success of The Chosen and just what you guys have been striving towards really for years, before this show was even an idea, what do you think the success means for Christian art moving forward?

Chad: Well I hope it just opens doors, right? And I hope it also does challenge people. I hope it does challenge we as current filmmakers and other filmmakers, TV makers, and honestly just anything in the entertainment world, right? I mean it’s a truth that everything is downstream of media. Everything is downstream of Hollywood. Politics are downstream, education is downstream, and we’ve all seen it time and time again that when Hollywood wants something, or they want to try to change an agenda or do something, 9 times out of 10 it happens, right?

Daniel: Mm-hmm.

Chad: Or at least it gets more attention than it should, even some zany, crazy stuff that to be honest with you, and we’ll talk about this in America right now, not the entire world, that even the majority of America’s like, “What? Why would you think that this is what the mass majority wants?” Right? But he who has the biggest microphone or the biggest projector or whatever it is, they’re the ones that get the attention. And therefore there is this feeling, this thought that well because Hollywood said it, because the news said it, because the media said it, because social media said it, then that must be true. Then the majority must want that.

Then all of a sudden you start doing polling and you ask people, you even ask your own friends. You’re just like, “Is this something you would want or want here or see?” And they’re like, “Nope. Not even remotely,” right? And so what I hope this does is it opens up the opportunity for others to do things similar, right? And not just a TV show about Jesus, any TV show, any movie, any news or social media, or any sort of influencer type thing that people realize how important it can be and the impact that it can make. And they just take it serious. And I hope too is that they, from an artistic standpoint too. I mean that would be a challenge I would send out to everybody, is go learn your craft. Be good at what you do.

And find others that are even better. I like to say, as the producer, “I want to be the dumbest guy in the room. I am happy to be that guy.” But I also I think one of the gifts that God’s given me is to know how to put teams together, how to create an environment where people like Dallas and other creatives can soar, can do what it is that God’s called them to do. Because we’ve all seen it, right? We talked about it even now is that we’ve seen where they have this great vision but it wasn’t executed properly, right?

And so what I want to do, at least in my part, and what little part that I do, is to help create those environments, right? But it takes resources, it takes money, it takes talent, it takes creativity, it takes all those things. And the skillset that I believe God has given me and Chris and other producers like us is that we want to create these environments and do these things so that whatever it is, TV show, movie, we’ve done live events, we’ve done all kinds of weird things, animation. We do a lot of animation as well. And we just want to do that and put these teams together and allow people to do what God’s called them to do as well.

Daniel: That’s great. Well Chad, thank you so much for taking the time today. And great answers, really enjoyed talking with you and yeah. Looking forward to season three whenever that comes out.

Chad: Yeah, man. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

Daniel Hopkins
Daniel Hopkins
Daniel Hopkins is the associate director of marketing and communications at The King's University.