JODY ELDRED by James Riordan
Producer/Director, D.P. Jody Eldred is a 40-year veteran of documentaries, TV news, features, commercials, and episodic TV. An excellent cameraman and writer as well he has been honored as a nominee for Best Director of a Documentary by the Director’s Guild of America for, “The China Experience: Beyond the Wall”, which he also produced and shot. He received a national Emmy for his work on the ABC News “Nightline” series, “The Iraq War: Fox 2/5”. He has shot and directed hundreds of documentaries and news stories around the world for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic, including programs such as 20/20, PrimeTime Live, Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, 48 Hours, PBS’ Frontline, Oprah, and The Tonight Show. His work also includes 14 seasons of high definition and digital shoots for CBS’ “JAG”, “NCIS”, “NCIS: Los Angeles”, and NBC’s “Medium”.
When I asked him about his values he replied that, while people can describe their values, the real test is to determine them by one’s actions. “That’ll tell you what your values are. We act out of what we believe, so looking at a person’s actions is the best way to determine their real values. I would have to say that unfortunately, some of my values are apparently having nice things, because I like to have nice things. I’m not proud of that, but if I’m going to be honest with myself that’s a value. I’m not a wealthy guy. I am compared to 99% of the rest of the globe, as are most of the poor people in America. I don’t drive a fancy car, live in a fancy home or wear a fancy watch. I don’t have any of those kinds of things. I’m not a millionaire, but I was been raised in America by a family that liked nice things. My mom was an interior designer and she taught us to appreciate nice things. That is a double-edged sword.”
When I pointed out that anyone who could be so candid must also values honesty, Eldred acknowledged that “Honesty is a huge value for me. It’s really, really important knowing what truth is and being a truth teller. Those are definite virtues and major values for me. Transparency is a value for me. It’s important for people and nations to be transparent. It’s important for us to be transparent with ourselves so that we can be accurately introspective and be self-aware and not be deluded into some sort of false reality, because that’s a dangerous place to live. It’s been important for me to try to be as self-aware as possible without obsessing over it. I was raised by a dad who was a World War II veteran, an honest man and a hard working guy. He had been an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts and he pushed me to get my Eagle Scout, which I did, and the values that scouting provided are still things that I think about often, and I’m very grateful for that. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Those are things that I learned back in 1968 or so when I joined scouts and it’s still an important part of who I am.”
Of course, a big part of who Eldred is today has to do with being raised in a Christian home. “My mom always made it real clear, and she still does to this day, that God has a plan for me, and a special plan. There’s something special he wants to do with me. That really sunk in, and it’s true for everybody. He has something specific that He has in mind, and a specific plan that’s good for each of us. The values of scripture, of obedience to God, of trust, which I think is a value, of trying to not be fearful, which is an hourly challenge for me , because fear is a sign of unbelief and not trusting God. These are things that were values to me growing up and are values to me now.”
Like most who are committed to their faith and values, Eldred has had to deal with rejection because of his beliefs. “I have certainly lost work. When I sense an opportunity, I am not shy about exploring matters of faith with my colleagues who have expressed openness or interest.” Now, these are not contentious conversations. In fact, in one particular instance, I remember they brought it up, and it was a very polite, respectful conversation. It wasn’t adversarial in any way whatsoever. But the conversation got back to the company who had hired me to do this project, and the principal from that company pulled me
Eldred (R) with Diane Sawyer (L) in a bunker under attack in Iraq.
aside and was super angry. He said, ‘You are never, ever to talk about your faith to anyone ever again as long as you’re working with me.’ Well, first off, an employer cannot legally restrict protected speech like that. But, just as important is the point that I wasn’t the one who brought my faith up in the first place. They asked me. I’m not a bonehead when it comes to that thing. I mean if, for example, a Muslim hires you to do a project on something to do with the Muslim faith, you wouldn’t try to proselytize the Muslims in the process. That would just be plain stupid. But, if you’re working with someone and they ask you about your faith, what are you supposed to do? Lie? Well, that was pretty much the end of my tenure with those guys. It was sad but I don’t regret it.”
As a person seeking to do God’s will, sometimes there are jobs that Eldred has to turn down, even when he needs the work. “There are projects that I could pursue that I’m just not going to do because it would be a violation of my faith. It would be showing disobedience to God, it would be saying to Him to Him ‘Hey, I don’t trust You to cover my needs here. Here’s a job that pays good money, I’m just going to take it.’ Yeah, these are restraints that I’m allowing God to place on me. It would be ridiculous for me to think that somehow I’ve got a better perspective on this than He does and that I can live in disobedience to Him. Eldred defines freedom as a virtue “because it is something that God has given us, that He has placed inside of us. Freedom can also lead to really bad choices sometimes. Freedom carries tremen-dous responsibility with it. If I give my kid the keys to my car, there’s tremendous freedom with that and tremendous responsibility and tremendous threat of bad things happening. “
Every Christian, especially those who work a great deal in the world system, has to have sources of regular inspiration. Reading the Bible on a regular basis is important and finding a church and a pastor that speaks truth to your heart is as well. “Jack Hayford was my pastor for about twenty years at the Church on the Way in L.A. We became personal friends during that time and I got to travel with him a few times to Israel and shoot a lot of stuff for television. He was somebody who really encouraged me through his preaching to really stretch myself spiritually. I came from a Methodist and a Presbyterian background and then began to go into Church on the Way and learned the value of being obedient to God every day, praising God every day, worshiping God every day. I am behind in all those kinds of things, but I have him to credit for making me aware of the value of it and at least trying to do it more than I would have otherwise.”
Eldred also cites Billy Graham as a source of inspiration. “Here’s a guy who’s just relentless. He just said, I’m going to do what God wants me to do and I’m not going to do anything that I think he doesn’t want me to do. I don’t care what anybody else says. He has touched more lives for the cause of Christ than probably anyone. A friend of mine was involved in the building of the Billy Graham library in Charlotte and he told me that when they built the library Billy didn’t want his name anywhere on it. He didn’t want Billy Graham statues or signage or anything. Finally, his son Franklin said, ’Dad, if your name’s not on here, nobody’s going to come.’ Billy said, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about Jesus. And Franklin said, ‘That’s right, and we have to point to Jesus, but if they won’t come here in the first place nobody’s going to get pointed to Jesus because they didn’t come here. So Billy very begrudgingly said all right. There’s one sign right out by the guard gate that says the Billy Graham Library, and that’s it.”
Some of the most important sources of spiritual inspiration in our lives may not be a designated pastor or preacher, but a friend who we respect. Jody Eldred credits fellow producer/writer Coleman Luck in this regard (see Men of Value for a previous interview). “Coleman, even though he’s 10-11 years older than me, is a person that I’ve been in proximity to the whole time that I’ve been here. He’s been an advocate of mine, he’s been a mentor, he’s been very hard on me like he is on his own kids some-times when they need to be brought into shape. I appreciate that very much. We’ve had some contentious conversations, the most recent on a New Year’s Eve in the hours leading up to midnight when my wife and I were visiting him and Carel at their home. For two hours we sat at a table and had a great discussion. It was iron sharpening iron. We all need people in our life who are going to sharpen us, people who are going to make us better people. He is also a person who’s a very, very good example of someone who sacrificed greatly for the cause of Christ, losing career opportunities, losing money, losing position with the networks, and having shows that he created yanked out of his hands. And he’s a humble man. I have learned probably more about the nature of sacrifice in Hollywood through him than anybody else. Also, he’s just a great servant leader. We’ve spent a lot of time with him and Carel up at their place in the mountains and seeing the ways that he serves her and serves us. Here’s this famous show runner, writer, author and so forth and he’s the guy doing the dishes afterwards. He’s just been a really great mentor.
“I would add in there that one of Coleman’s sons is a Navy SEAL. Before he became a SEAL I got to know a couple of SEALs from a TV show that I was working on and in the ensuing 25 years or so, I’ve gotten to become friends with several SEALs. A couple of them are very close friends. They came to my wedding. These are guys who have a mental toughness like no one I’ve ever known. A lot of them are believers in Christ as well. I’m a better man for having been around them, because they have taught me that being tough mentally and being tough physically is really important and it’s stuff that really God calls believers to do. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to be a world class athlete to be a Christian. That’s not what they’re saying. It is part of that whole readiness thing. Be ready to give an answer for the hope that lives inside you always. No matter what the season is, no matter what the situation is. When I’m around these guys, I realize that I need to stop complaining about things and appreciate what I have. I need to step up and be the man that God called me to be. That doesn’t mean I’ve got to be Mr. Tough Guy or anything like that. It does mean that I need to be a protector of innocents, a protector of my family. I train myself, I try to harden myself and prepare myself for any eventuality so I will be able to do that. The SEALs that I have been around are guys that really, really encourage me. I have a TV show right now we’re trying to pitch that involves teaming Navy SEALs up with families who are in great crisis, and using their creative problem-solving skills to help these families perform self-rescues.”
Jody Eldred produced, directed and DP’d the TV special “Changed Lives: Miraces of the Passion” based on real-life miracles as a result of Mel Gibson’s hit film, “The Passion of the Christ.” The documentary has been shown to millions worldwide at Easter for over a decade, and Harvest House Publishers commissioned him to author a book by the same title. When asked about the present condition of America he said our nation suffers from a spiritual problem that outweighs the political concerns.
Eldred with Diane Sawyer
“There is an African preacher, Jackson Senyonga from Uganda, who I once heard describe the problem with American Christianity is that we are not desperate for God. In Africa, if you pray to God and he doesn’t answer your prayer, your child dies. Or you die or something else really awful may happen. In America, if a prayer isn’t answered we might miss a car payment. Part of the reason we don’t often see huge miracles here like you do in third world countries is because they’re desperate for God. Senyonga said there was a church in Africa that had this sister church in America. The two pastors would call each other once a month. The American one was middle class and had a typical congregation of a couple of hundred people, but the African one was very poor. The pastor lived in a hut or some-thing. In one phone call the American pastor shared with the African pastor that his church family was praying for them in their poverty. The African pastor said, ‘Thank you my brother, I appreciate that. And I want you to know sincerely that our congregation is praying for you in your prosperity.’ One of the great dangers happening in America now is this whole thing of compartmentalization and willful self-delusion, the lack of critical thinking. It’s the era of Facebook memes which somehow become our truth. Critical thinking has flown out the window. I have seen very intelligent, thoughtful friends who post stuff on a regular basis that is just crazy. And these are intelligent people, some of whom are Christians. We live in a world where clearly all lives do not matter. There’s no question about that. Some lives matter less than others. The unborn is the most perfect example of that. Those lives obviously don’t matter as much as born lives do. To get to that point you’ve got to do some very serious compartmentalization. You’ve got to do some very serious willful self-delusion to get to the point that you’d believe that you are not killing a human being. There is just no way to get around it.”
Working in the media Eldred recognizes that God often places believers in crucial situations where they can make a real difference just by living out their beliefs. His work has put him on the front lines, not only politically in places like the Iraq War, but spiritually as well. ‘I was able to work alongside Peter Jennings during the war. At that time we did not know that cancer would soon end his life. I had previously shared some matters of faith with him– which is very unusual and even risky for a camera-man. One night at a remote Marine outpost near the Iraq border, shortly before the invasion, we were coming back from filming all day when we heard some singing in the distance. A worship service was underway. Peter looked at me, grinned and said, ‘Let’s shoot this.’ We went into a big tent where Marines were praising the Lord with upraised hands and tears in their eyes. A chaplain ambled over to Peter to seize an opportunity to talk with Peter about his faith. That was a God moment when I knew He’d used me because I’m not sure Peter would have gone in there otherwise. I would discover later that one of Peter’s nurses at the end of his life sang in the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and he specifically asked for her often… she would sing worship songs to him during his last days. Peter knew I was praying for him. I’d sent him an email as soon as I heard that he had cancer. If we respond when God puts us in a situation then He can do all kinds of things with that. One time I got into a discussion about faith with Diane Sawyer when we were shooting some stuff at the Oscars and then she asked me to come on her show and discuss my faith and so I did.
Another time I was shooting a project for ABC News with President Clinton, and when we first met I mentioned to him that Pastor Jack Hayford (whom he knew and respected) was my pastor and that my church (who Clinton knew was mostly conservative) was praying for him because we loved him. Later in the day as he and I were walking down some stairs together, he leaned over to me and very quietly said, ‘I really do need your prayers.’ I found out a long time later that this was the very day that he broke off the affair with Monica Lewinski. You just never know how God will use a situation. We just need to show up and be willing to be a tool in His Hands because there’s always something He wants to do. Hollywood wants you to believe it’s all about you. That’s the big deception.”
Recognizing God’s hand and having the courage to be who He called us to be is one of the traits of men of value, men like Jody Eldred.