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Storytelling in the “Bethel universe” and beyond

J.D. O’Brien, filmmaker and Bethel employee, recently premiered his newest film “After the Gunflint.”

By Molly McFadden

Not only did J.D. O’Brien sell out the premiere of his new film at The Twin Cities Film Festival recently, but he’s also made two documentaries, visited 25 countries and works in Bethel University’s Communication and Marketing department as a photographer and videographer.

O’Brien can often be found around campus covering everything from Cheer Night to the Royal Run. Late nights to early mornings. Classrooms to courts.

“Because we are a liberal arts college, there’s a lot of different worlds all within the Bethel universe,” O’Brien said. “One day I’m talking about physics and another day I’m talking about theology. And on another day, I’m talking about football or volleyball.”

Aside from working at Bethel, O’Brien’s career lies in film making. “After the Gunflint,” O’Brien’s most recent film, premiered at the Twin Cities Film Festival Oct. 29. The film is about a teenage girl, her dad and her grandpa going into the northern Minnesota woods. While in the woods, her grandpa has a heart attack, forcing the teenager and her father to find their way out of the woods and save him.

“As a filmmaker, I get to work with people who are creative experts of so many different things,” O’Brien said. “My job as a director is to be the chief storyteller and harness their creative expertise towards a singular vision.”

With help and inspiration from Al Norby, O’Brien wrote the film in 2018, shot it in 2019 and put it on the shelf during the pandemic. Now, debuting in 2022, the film was recognized for its work in post-production, receiving The Twin Cities Film Festival’s Indie Vision Breakthrough Achievement Award. The award recognizes the hard work that went into creating the film, specifically a scene referred to as “the bridge scene.” This scene, where a rope bridge falls over a canyon, O’Brien said, was based on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

J.D. O’Brien carries The Twin Cities Film Festival’s Indie Vision Breakthrough Achievement award, which “After the Gun Flint” received this year. The award recognizes the hard work that went into creating the film, specifically a scene referred to as “the bridge scene.” This is O’Briens second time having a film in the festival. | Photo submitted by J.D. O’Brien.

“I chose that way of telling the story as an homage and as a way of paying tribute to Steven Spielberg and the wonderful work that he’s done and all the wonderful movies he’s made,” O’Brien said.

The film takes place in the Boundary Waters but was filmed in different locations. The opening scene was filmed in Bethel’s Anderson Center, where O’Brien’s office is, with a handful of shots being taped in the woods behind the center as well. As for the award-winning “bridge scene,” a green screen studio in Minneapolis and a styrofoam cliff helped create the shot.

Outside of work, O’Brien enjoys spending time with his wife Steph, paddleboarding and traveling. Out of the 25 countries he has visited, O’Brien said recently visiting South Africa was his favorite. From England to Uganda, he has seen many different places, but still hopes to visit more. 

J.D. O’Brien and his wife Steph smile for a photo on the red carpet at the premiere of “After the Gun Flint.” O’Brien has also produced two documentaries “Out in the Cold” and “Uganda Gold.” “I hope I make more films. I hope I make more people laugh. I hope I leave the planet in a better place than I found it,” O’Brien said.  | Photo submitted by J.D. O’Brien.

“I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, and because God is infinite, the way that you are made in the image of God can be entirely different than the way that I am made in the image of God,” O’Brien said. “There are eight billion imperfect portraits of God walking around planet Earth… That makes me want to meet everyone on the planet and go to every country and experience everything that I can, that God has created.”

In the future, O’Brien is hoping to continue his mission of meeting more people and storytelling.

“My goal is to experience more of the creativity of God and to be God’s apprentice in that in any way that I can,” O’Brien said. “I hope I make more films. I hope I make more people laugh. I hope I leave the planet in a better place than I found it.”

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