Films grounded in reality, rooted in faith, and shot in North Dakota

“For me,” says Dan Bielinski, the founder and lead producer of Canticle Productions, “making a movie that glorifies God means telling a good story in a rightly ordered moral universe. I believe a Western film can glorify His name.”

Daniel Bielinski (producer) and Charlie Griak (director) on set of End of the Rope. (Image: Matt Fern)

Dan Bielinski is the founder and lead producer of Canticle Productions. He has also acted in numerous films and co-starred in the HBO series The Leftovers.  His most recent film The End of the Rope is based on the notorious 1931 Charles Bannon Case.

Bielinski spoke recently with CWR about his work as a Catholic actor and filmmaker.

CWR: Tell us a little bit about your background. Did you start acting and directing early? Were you exposed to other actors and film makers at an early age? Is there a film you saw at an early age that inspired you?

Dan Bielinski: I grew up in Wisconsin, the eldest of six. I saw my first theatrical production when I was in high school, and then started acting and directing theater in college.

I went to grad school at Columbia University in New York City for acting, worked for a couple years in New York City, and then moved to North Dakota to direct the Dramatic Arts Program at the University of Mary. A few years after I arrived, I founded Canticle Productions.

I grew up watching lots of old movies from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. My dad was a big fan of the old silver screen classics. I grew up a big fan of western films: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart. I loved Frank Capra moves in particular, as well. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a favorite. Jimmy Stewart was my hero.

CWR: You currently live in North Dakota, and many of your films deal with the brutal world of the old West. Some have remarked that the American West still has yet to be settled. Do you believe the place in which you live affects your art? Do you still sense a harshness and violence in the West?

Dan Bielinski: My company Canticle Productions has definitely built its brand around its place of origin—North Dakota. Canticle is built around telling North Dakota stories. And there are so many great ones in North Dakota’s relatively short recorded history.

North Dakota was in a lot of ways the final frontier in America. People were still homesteading here into the 1910s. So there is a lot of the “old west” in North Dakota. There are aspects of violence in it, but violence is certainly not exclusive to “the West.” The violence in North Dakota history is more frequently the violence of man vs. nature. It was such a harsh place to homestead and make a home. The hardship and sacrifice of those early settlers are things we can only imagine today. I do explore other types of human violence in my films, but hopefully in such a way that it asks the right moral questions about how good people confront violence and make moral choices in the face of violence.

CWR: There is a famous line from Chariots of Fire in which one of the characters says that when he runs he can feel God’s “pleasure.” In what ways does your Catholic faith affect your acting and film making? Do you feel that film making is an integral part of your vocation?

Dan Bielinski: God made all these projects possible. I wouldn’t have been able to make any of my films without God giving me the resources and the opportunities and the collaborators to make them. So I’ve got to give these films back to Him.

I don’t think that means that every movie has to be a preachy, hard-hitting “message” movie. For me, making a movie that glorifies God means telling a good story in a rightly ordered moral universe. I believe a Western film can glorify His name.

The problem with some one-dimensional “message-driven” movies is that their stories exist in fantasy, white-washed universes, not in reality, and audiences sense that immediately, so they tune it out. A filmmaker always has to be a good story-teller.

CWR: Harrison Ford famously remarked that he feels Irish as a man and Jewish as an actor. You are a Polish Catholic American man from Wisconsin who has been transplanted to North Dakota. Do you feel Polish or American or a Midwesterner as an actor? Do you feel Catholic as an actor?

Dan Bielinski: My faith and my vocation as a husband and father shape everything I do, including the films. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get away from these themes in my work. That’s one of the empowering aspects of being a creative producer, rather than an actor.

An actor is powerless, in many ways. He is the servant of the vision of the director and writer and producer. His job is to bring someone else’s creative vision to life. As a creative producer, I can find and mold beautiful stories that reflect my personal values. I’m grateful for that chance.

CWR: St. Thomas Aquinas famously distinguished between one’s moral and artistic qualities. Twentieth-century popes have emphasized the importance of moral films. How important is it to you that your films present an ethical message?

Dan Bielinski: I don’t want to make any films that I’d be ashamed to show my children one day.  The name of my company is “Canticle”: A Song of Praise to God.

Again, this doesn’t mean I want to present watered-down, preachy material. I want to present stories that are truly grounded in reality. That’s why I’ve been so drawn to real historical events. As long as true historical events are presented in rightly ordered moral universes, then I feel we can’t go wrong. Because history is history, and the fingerprint of God is present no matter if the history is comic or tragic.

CWR: Family is another important theme in your films-especially a family trying to survival in a hostile circumstances. Why is this such a prominent theme?

Dan Bielinski: I am a husband and father of five young children. I can’t get away from themes of family in my work because it’s what I’m living and thinking about every day.

CWR: John Henry Newman emphasized the importance of art showing man in his sinful condition. Many of your films have a melancholy or tragic mood. Do you feel this is reflective of the times in which we live? Or is this something endemic in the human condition?

Dan Bielinski: I do seem to make a lot of “heavy” movies. I’m not exactly sure why. I guess that making a movie is such a huge investment of time and energy and passion that I wouldn’t want to waste it on anything that doesn’t try to explore something deep.

If I were to tell my wife that I’m going to leave her with five kids for a month to shoot a slacker comedy, I’d never get out of the house! Not that there’s anything wrong with comedies, of course. I have a comedy TV series that I’ve been developing. God does have a sense of humor, after all.

CWR: What is your favorite film to watch alone? Why?

Dan Bielinski: I don’t watch many movies. I don’t have time! But A Hidden Life, to me, was an incredibly beautiful and moving film.  On the other side of the spectrum, I’m a fan of the Coen Brothers and Clint Eastwood.

CWR: What is your favorite film to watch with your family? Why?

Dan Bielinski: Mary Poppins. What an incredible movie. Such great story-telling, such a beautiful script. So funny and charming. Great music.

CWR: How can people support your work?

Dan Bielinski: Check out our website at www.canticle-productions.com. We’re constantly making new projects and we’re looking not just for financiers but for creative collaborators as well.


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About Jesse Russell 5 Articles
Jesse Russell is the author of a number of articles on twentieth-century Catholic political thought as well as works on the poetry of Edmund Spenser. He is assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University.

7 Comments

  1. In the golden age of Hollywood, Jewish men ran all 8 of the production companies, according to Neil Gabler in his book, “An Empire of Their Own.” Gabler, himself Jewish, in other words bragged about the success of his tribe in the film industry. I thought this was very strange, that a small ethnic group could dominate a world-wide industry which produced psychologically power entertainment and propaganda. Where were the Catholics? Why did they not have at least one production company? Their percentage of the population in those days was around 20%. They did make an impact on films via the Production Code and the Legion of Decency. But, that is not the same as actually producing films for mass consumption. I blame Catholic leadership, both clerical and lay. The failure reflects badly on their understanding of modern life. I am glad to see that Catholics like Bielinski have taken up this challenge.

    • As you know from Gabler’s book, there are very specific reasons immigrant Jews started this industry and why no one else did. As you also know from Gabler’s book, these Jews, in general, held the Catholic faith in high esteem, as did becoming good Americans.

      These were not Jewish film companies, though. They were film companies that were operated by Jews.

      Why did not Catholics start film companies? They were busy doing the things that made the most sense to them.

  2. “Telling a good story in a rightly ordered moral universe.”
    This is a superb description of ontologically Catholic story telling.

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