Brock Heasley: A First-time Filmmaker’s Journey to Success
If you had told Brock Heasley 20 years ago that he would write and direct his own film starring Samwise Gamgee, he probably would have laughed in your face.
Neal McDonough (left), Sean Astin (center) on set of The Shift
Unlike his contemporaries, Brock never had any ambition to get into the film industry. Though fascinated by films from a young age, and being the only kid in his junior high with a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, Brock never entertained the idea that filmmaking was a viable career. Part of the reason, he thinks, is because he grew up in Fresno, California where the culture was a far cry from the flashing lights of Hollywood, despite being only a few hours away.
“[Where I grew up], there isn’t anybody who does that. I’m basically in the red belt of California, so L.A. and that culture felt very very far away. [Filmmaking] was never even something I thought I could do,” Brock told Angel Studios.
A Spark is Lit
It wasn’t until Brock and his wife, Erin, lost their jobs in the same week, that he started considering a new career path. With three daughters to support, a mortgage to pay, and living off of food stamps, Brock had to act fast.
Five months into unemployment, Brock was approached by a local film company to assist on the set of their new film. As an art director, Brock was a strong writer and had experience directing educational videos, which was why the film company was keen on bringing him onto the team. The only catch? It was unpaid. As Brock had done since he was a small child, he made his decision a matter of prayer. Both he and his wife Erin prayed separately about the decision and came back a month later with the same answer: Brock had to take this job.
Because of his lifelong love of film, Brock took to filmmaking fast, quickly learning the ropes and networking with dozens of local actors. His confidence was growing and he started nurturing an ambitious question in his head: “Can I direct a movie?” Brock didn’t know the answer to that question, but thought it was worth asking.
Kristoffer Polaha (left), Elizabeth Tabish (center), Brock Heasley (right) on set of The Shift
Though he had never written a movie script, he had published a short story on his MySpace account years earlier called “The Shift.” It centered on a man being tempted by otherworldly powers while stuck in an alternate universe. The dots were connecting in his head and he decided that he needed to turn “The Shift” into a short film. The only caveat? He had no money.
A year and a half into unemployment, the Heasley’s were still barely getting by. Once again, he took the idea to Erin and they prayed about it. There was every reason in the world why Brock shouldn’t make this film: He had a family to support, a mortgage to pay, and he was in his late 30s and entering into the film industry that late felt like a dead end. Despite every reason to say no, Brock knew that God had something else in mind. With his wife’s support, Brock made “The Shift” short film on a $500 budget.
“It turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” Brock said. “The first day on set when I called action for the first time … I just felt at ease and I felt at home. I knew this was what I was supposed to do and I didn’t say it out loud—I was really afraid to say it out loud … but that was genuinely how I felt at that moment.”
When asked where his confidence came from to follow his intuition despite every reason not to, Brock recalled having a deep sense of purpose that has driven him from a young age. “I really spent a big portion of my life trying to figure out what the Lord’s purpose was for me and feeling like I was never figuring it out. When my wife and I had that prayer of what am I supposed to do, and I got on set and felt like home, it felt like the answer to that finally.”
He continued, “God often calls us at the worst time because that’s when we’re the most humble. That is what sustained me. I had been waiting so long for that answer that I was not going to let go of it once I had it.”
Bringing The Shift to Life
Fast forward a few years later to 2017 and The Shift partnered with Angel Studios to be made into a feature film. But that was just the beginning. Shortly after signing, Angel Studios got sued by Disney and Brock had to undergo four grueling crowdfunding campaigns across the span of five years to raise the minimum $3 million for production. Filming finally commenced in January 2023.
When reflecting on that challenging time, Brock said, “It was hell. Each crowdfund was the equivalent of making a movie. By the time I actually made the movie, I felt like I’d made it four times.”
As Brock sat down to finalize the script in preparation for filming, he couldn’t help but think of the parallels between his journey with The Shift and the grueling journey Kevin endures in the film. It was only after overcoming these trials that Brock was inspired to weave the biblical story of Job into the script.
Neal Mcdonough (left), Kristoffer Polaha (right) on set of The Shift
“A part of Kevin’s story in The Shift is a long period of waiting on the Lord and not receiving any guidance from the Lord… that was built into the story probably not by accident,” Brock recalled. “When I wrote the short film, I didn’t have a Job-like experience to draw upon, but by the time I wrote the feature film, I did.”
This wasn't the first time Brock had to rely on his faith during challenging times. When Brock was 13 years old, his father was involved in an armed robbery and was shot 13 times. Miraculously, Brock's father survived; however, eight years later, he was again involved in another armed robbery, and this time he did not survive. Despite all the heartbreak, Brock has learned to forgive the men who killed his father.
“Light can only come from passing through a moment of darkness like what my family passed through,” he said. “Because of what happened to my father, I had an experience with Christ and his love that I never would have had otherwise.”
On Set with the Stars
When Brock called action in his director’s chair on set in January 2023, he wasn’t nearly as nervous as he thought he’d be. Why? Because in his mind, 90% of the work is already done if you cast correctly. Getting the right cast was so important to Brock, to the point where he was sure he was frustrating everyone.
“The people that we did get, I know are right. Part of the reason we have such a great cast is that we spent that time and effort. I did my homework on all of them and studied what they do with what they’re given,” Brock said.
In fact, Brock had studied these actors so intently, that not one of the main cast did a single audition. Kristoffer Polaha, who plays Kevin, was cast a week before shooting began. Even superstars like Neal McDonough and Sean Astin didn’t require an audition because Brock had been studying their work for over 30 years.
Brock Heasley directing Elizabeth Tabish on set of The Shift
One of the most poignant moments on set came when all the main actors gathered to film one of the most climactic scenes in the film. Kristoffer Polaha (Kevin) delivered one of his most powerful speeches in the film and after just one take, Brock said they were good to move on. Polaha pushed back and asked to do another take to get it just right. Due to time and budget constraints, Brock wanted to move on. Shortly after, Brock recalled Sean Astin pulling him aside and saying, “Hey look, when an actor is asking for another take like that, you might want to give it to him.”
Sean Astin and Kristoffer Polaha on set of The Shift
Brock quickly realized his error and asked Kristoffer to do another take of the scene. After some reluctance, Kris did the take again and it was magic. “Kris brought this energy that was totally different. He gave it this undercurrent of love and that’s the take that’s in the movie and it’s one of my favorite moments in the entire film,” Brock recalled.
“Kris was there to make art and to service this story in a way I couldn’t. I will always be grateful that we had such a stellar cast because when you have a really good cast they can save you from yourself.”
Brock’s Directorial Debut
As Brock reflects on his journey with The Shift, the first thing that comes to mind is his wife Erin. “She’s my full partner on this,” he said. “There would be no Shift without her. There would be no story without her.” Brock credits Erin for believing in him even when he didn’t believe in himself. “She’s had every reason to doubt and she never did,” he said.
Another word that came to mind when thinking about his directorial debut is humility. “Being the director of a film requires you to be a whole person, talent will only take you so far. If you aren’t a healthy, well-adjusted person, you will not be able to do this job,” Brock said. “You have to direct from a place of confidence and humility and those are two difficult things to hold in tandem.”
Brock Heasley on set of The Shift with Kristoffer Polaha and Neal McDonough
Though he got a late start in filmmaking, The Shift is just the first of many stories he plans to tell. “The Shift is not a movie that was written by a young man. It is very much the story of somebody who has passed through some stuff. I think that’s one of the reasons people are drawn to it, is because it’s written from a different perspective than we’re used to seeing. I don’t know what story I would’ve written in my 20s.”
Whether or not he’s done his job as a director is for others to decide, Brock said. But either way, he’s happy where this journey has landed. “I’m finally fulfilling my purpose and that’s a very satisfying place to be.”