It took Josiah Burdick just two days to drive the 1,600 miles from Chicago to Kalispell, leaving a thriving career as a corporate filmmaker in his wake when a life-changing call came through in September 2013.
His father had suffered a massive stroke, his second, as was barely hanging on. Burdick arrived at the hospital in time to say goodbye before his father passed two days later.
Burdick had started his own film company, Fearless Pictures, in 2012 and through a fortunate friend connection, found a foothold in the Windy City making commercials and promotional short films for a large corporation.
The job allowed Burdick to make a sustainable living doing what he loved, and he said he never imagined moving to somewhere like Montana, a dead end in his mind.
But his desire to tell stories through film lingered from his teenage years, when his father bought he and his brother their first video camera.
His father’s passing not only forced Burdick out of the comfort he’d found in Illinois, but it also plunged him into a new chapter, inspiring a story driven by the very loss that he said brought him home.
“This is where I’m supposed to be, partially because I have family and partially because I have this connection, you know, rushing to be here, and I don’t really want to go anywhere else,” he said.
Getting a film company off the ground in the Flathead Valley, far from the influence and opportunities of a big city, proved challenging, Burdick said.
He started off making around $12,000 a year making promotional videos for businesses a few times a month.
“I just kept at it,” Burdick said. “I just wasn’t going to give up because I honestly felt like God had asked me to move here.”
Over time he picked up more and more corporate gigs and in October 2016 started working on his own feature film set in Montana.
The result was “Useless,” a family-friendly film about a young Montanan barrel racer learning to navigate the world in the wake of her mother’s death. The story of loss, grief and coming back from both became thematic, not only within the film but also within the lives of those connected to the film.
Early on in the film’s production, the deaths of two people connected closely to the film or its crew rattled everyone involved in the movie.
Burdick said he struggled to understand the implications of such loss in the midst of a project aiming to bring such a story to life on screen.
It felt almost gross to think of it as inspiration for the film he said, but through his faith, he began to recognize a very different meaning.
“The message of the story is actually applicable to the people connected to the film as it is for those who are just going to watch it,” Burdick said. “I felt like through this movie, realizing that it’s not just the message that’s in the film, but it’s also how we interact with the people that are around us, that there is a message about coming back after a loss and helping people through their grieving process.”
That connection between real life and fiction, the ability to relate to people through a commonly shared experience, Burdick said, is why stories are so integral to the human experience.
“I believe that stories are at the core of us as humans, that deep down inside in our spirit we are driven by stories,” Burdick said. “I can’t imagine not telling stories. You can find stories wherever you are in life.”
Though based in fiction, “Useless” became a way for Burdick to examine and share his own story and the ways he believed God had moved through it.
“Ultimately, what I was looking at was - what story are you going to tell that helps you examine something that is very key, very cornerstone in your life? The more you’re able to spend time on that theme or that subject matter, you’re able to examine something and understand it differently.”
Then, he said, came the miracles.
First was the location. The setting of Burdick’s story mirrored a location he’d been eyeing and had some specific requirements, including a ramshackle farmhouse with a horse arena, a hill out back for his protagonist to ride her horse up and views that screamed Montana.
When his intended location fell through, Burdick said he picked up the phone and made a single call. That call connected him to someone who knew someone who knew someone with a property similar to what he’d envisioned.
When he got to the location, however, Burdick said it exceeded every expectation, as did its owner, Cindy.
The hill, the house, the area and the views all matched up perfectly, but an added bonus came with Burdick’s and Cindy’s first conversation.
As he pitched the movie idea to her, she shared her own history as a real-life champion barrel racer, and after discovering their shared faith, Cindy decided to allow Burdick and his entire film crew to use her home and property however they wanted for a week, saying “if God’s in it, I’m in it.”
Cindy even provided a staple prop for the film, an old racing saddle she won in a competition years before, which would come into play in a critical moment in the film.
Though Burdick saw many other moments he said he could describe as miraculous, his final day of filming stuck in his mind as truly special.
He and his team had completed filming all but one last scene for the movie and needed a hospital setting to make it happen.
After weeks of back and forth, the team finally got approval to shoot in a room at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Burdick said he walked into the room his hospital had provided and was overcome with a sense of déjà vu when he saw the view from the window.
When he’d finished filming the scene, he asked if he could explore the hospital wing a bit before leaving.
He walked past eight rooms along the corridor before stopping to stand in front one near the end.
Turned out, he said, he’d been filming his movie’s final scene just eight doors down from the room where he’d said goodbye to his father years before.
“Last day of shooting, to have the story that inspired and motivated the story in the movie come full circle was really profound,” Burdick said. “It has helped me learn and understand the grieving process.”
That, he said, is what he hopes people take away from the film. Everyone, he said, has experienced loss and grief in some way, and no one really know how to deal with it.
“I just feel like if, on some level, every person who watches this movie could walk away and say ‘I feel a little better,’ that’s what I want,” he said.
Currently still in the production phase of the movie, Burdick said it will still take some time to finish, and he anticipates a premiere sometime early next year.
Though not specifically faith-based in nature, he said the film has become it’s own testament to God’s involvement in his life and in the lives of anyone in his future audience.
“Why is God involved in this film?” Burdick asked. “When I went to make this movie, for whatever reason...I wanted to honor God.”
“I wanted people to watch this movie and feel like ‘wow, there are miracles here.’ This is something that points to God, not to me.”
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org