Dec. 9, 2008
By Darla Martin Tucker
The collaborative story-telling efforts of La Sierra University alumnus Donald Davenport and country music legend Kenny Rogers debuted Dec. 12 as a Hallmark Channel Original Movie. The cable network is continuing its run of the show through December. The movie is an adaptation of the duo's book, "Christmas in Canaan," published in 2002 by HarperCollins.
“Christmas in Canaan” focuses on racial hostilities between two young Texas boys, one white, one black, during the highly charged Civil Rights era. Their perspectives begin to change, however, when an injured puppy brings the warring boys together in an unlikely, long-lasting friendship. Country music Grammy nominee Billy Ray Cyrus stars in the movie as Daniel Burton, a widower raising three children on a limited income. Zak Ludwig (“Martian Child”) plays 10-year-old DJ Burton who makes an enemy of his classmate, Rodney, simply because Rodney is black. Jaishon Fisher (“Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story”) plays young Rodney.
Years later, Rodney goes to live with the Burtons after Rodney’s grandmother dies. At Christmas, Rodney takes to heart the hope imparted by Daniel Burton. When white neighbors try to destroy that hope and the hope built up by the black community, Rodney comes to understand the true meaning of family. He must soon decide where he belongs and what to do with the inspiration DJ’s family has given him.
"Christmas in Canaan" will air Sat., Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. ET/PT, 1 p.m. CT and at Pacific Time on the following dates and times: Dec. 23, 6 p.m.; Dec. 24, 12 p.m.; Dec. 30, 8 p.m.; Dec. 31, 2 p.m.
The movie is the culmination of work that began in 1997 when Davenport first connected with Rogers. Around that time, Davenport wrote a television movie script that grabbed the attention of Rogers’ development team. They wanted to pitch the story with Rogers’ involvement. While television producers ultimately rejected the movie idea, Rogers asked Davenport to work with him on a Christmas story he’d been thinking about. In June 1997 Davenport traveled to Rogers’ Georgia farm to work out the details of a script.
“We were together about two weeks,” Davenport said. “During that time, we worked pretty closely together. We’d discuss ideas, I’d write up outlines and, in some cases,
actual scenes.” Rogers knows how to tell a good story, build intensity and create the foundations, Davenport said. After Davenport returned to California he and Rogers occasionally talked by telephone.
Following his work at Rogers’ home, Davenport began writing a script from the storyline he and Rogers had worked out. Toward bettering their chances of securing interest from movie producers, Davenport turned the script into a book. It proved a successful move. New York publisher HarperCollins released “Christmas in Canaan” in 2002 and Davenport’s agent sent a copy of the book to Hatchery LLC which optioned the work for a movie. Davenport began writing another screenplay for the Hatchery movie production of the story. “We worked together for about four years getting the script to the point where we could present it to Hallmark, which we did early in 2009. They were immediately enthusiastic about the project,” Davenport said. As often happens, the book contained changes from the initial script and the second script, adapted from the book, reflected those changes, he added.
“Christmas in Canaan” is a Hatchery production in association with Bauman Entertainment. Ted Bauman, Harvey Braunstein, Dan Angel and Margaret Loesch are executive producers. Randolph Cheveldave is producer. Associate producer Neill Fearnley directed the movie from Davenport’s script.
Davenport viewed the big screen roll out of “Christmas in Canaan” on Dec. 3 at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood.
Davenport, a writer, director and producer, earned bachelor and master degrees from La Sierra in 1975 and 1977. His recent work includes scripts for the Hallmark Channel Original Movie “Expecting a Miracle” which debuted last January, and a script for “Love Finds a Home” based on the book by best-selling author Janette Oke. That film aired on the Hallmark Channel in May. He’s currently working on a love story set along Route 66, a feature film project and the beginnings of a potential sequel for “Christmas in Canaan.”
Davenport’s first produced film, “Doomsday Ward,” earned the Gold Medal for Public Service Television in 1977 at the Houston International Film Festival, now called WorldFest. He also directed and produced a series of international documentaries, shot throughout Asia, on world food and local economies issues. In 1984, he wrote and produced the award-winning “Lesson in Loving,” starring Mel Ferrer and Lee Meriwether.
While many movie directors prefer to keep the scriptwriter away from a show’s production, Fearnley allowed Davenport into the process of making “Christmas in Canaan.”
“Neill Fearnley is a wonderful director, knows what he wants, but is open to ideas. I was able to stay involved a little longer on Canaan [and] fine-tuned things just prior to shooting. I think the whole production experience was memorable for everyone. I know Billy Ray has said it was unlike any production he’s ever been in,” Davenport said.
Watching the metamorphosis of his and Rogers’ book into a television production was delight for Davenport. “This whole experience has been a dream,” Davenport said. “The producers, the director, the cast, the people at the network have all been wonderful and eager to make this as good as it can be.”
However the story’s core theme of racial tolerance presents some risks to the cable network, he said. “People have expectations that Hallmark Christmas movies will be very warm and fuzzy, and this one strives to be a little more than just that. …I think there will be people -- and there have been critics already -- who think we’re coming down a little message-heavy.”
“It’s a fine line. I’m comfortable with where the balance ended up with “Christmas in Canaan.” I hope it entertains, but I also hope it makes us think a little.”
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University