Life with hope: Locally made, web-based Christian soap opera seeks realistic take on life

photo Writer, director and producer David White, right, records a scene with actress Jenna Montijo for the Christian soap opera "Life With Hope" at Veterans Park in Soddy-Daisy. The web series is filmed in and around Chattanooga with local actors.
photo David White, right, talks with actress Jenna Montijo before filming a scene for the web-based Christian soap opera "Life With Hope."

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Jenna Montijo sits on the edge of the bench in the dugout of the softball field at Soddy-Daisy Veterans Park. It's a cold Saturday afternoon in January.

David McNeill White tells her to ponder a situation surrounding a rival cheerleader and the rumors that are flying within the squad.

"Think 'Mean Girls,'" he says, the suggestion implicit that the motivation for her stare should be the attitudes that abounded in the 2004 teen comedy about high school female social cliques and the effect they can have.

With that, a brief scene from the web-based soap opera "Life With Hope" is in the works. Dalene Millsaps claps the slate, and says, "Scene 3, take 2, close-up Dana."

White then trains his GoPro camera on Montijo, films her while she says her few lines, then finishes the clip as he walks past her and she turns her head.

It's one of only a few scenes the handful of people will complete during an hour at Veterans Park before they're off for more shots at Greenway Farms in Hixson. But that's show business.

"Life With Hope," a series about people and their struggles with life's problems - and the knowledge that there's always hope in Jesus Christ - is in the midst of its second season of filming.

The first two episodes and the first part of the third from the first season may be seen on YouTube. The second part of the third episode and episodes four, five and six from the first season are expected to be posted soon on the video-sharing site.

It's a slow process when you're the writer, director and producer, says White, a husband and new father who finds time for the venture in his off hours from his restaurant job as a server at Outback Steakhouse in Hixson. The idea, he says, is not to portray the Christian life as one without flaws as many other faith-based films do, he says.

"That's not what real life is," White says. "Going to church [without commitment] doesn't do anything for your soul. And being a Christian doesn't solve all your problems.

"Life happens," he says. "It happens to Christians and non-Christians - death, hard times. Christians still make mistakes."

So White, who came up with the idea for the series while sitting and watching people in Rechoboth Baptist Church one day, decided to produce something more accurate.

"Everybody's got a story," he says. "We just don't always know what it is."

White, 33, is an actor who has done theater, had parts in several indie and studio films and played roles in several commercials, but he also had designs on being a filmmaker. To support his idea for "Life With Hope," he launched a Kickstarter campaign for $3,000 - to pay for season one - in 2012 and saw it funded for $3,081 with 26 backers.

Kim Brady, a friend who has now moved to Mississippi, helped him write the first season of episodes. He then sought about 40 cast members in an open audition at Heritage House in East Brainerd.

"I had no idea what I was doing," White says. "I wondered, 'What did I get myself into?' but I thought, 'I'll try it and see what happens.'"

The audition produced about two dozen people, an agent's email garnered a number of others and a handful of friends pledged to help.

Dalene Millsaps, 36, of Ooltewah came to that open call and, to date, she, her son, Kyle Millsaps, her boyfriend, Jason Helton, and her niece have had roles in the series. Indeed, this season she has served as the web series' version of a stage manager, making sure the necessary scenes get shot, holding the script, finding actors and assisting with makeup, costuming and set design.

"He tells me what he wants," Millsaps says, "and I make it happen."

Once filming got underway on the first season in 2012, White had volunteer actors drive in from Savannah, Ga., and Winston-Salem, Whispering Pines and Murphy, all in North Carolina.

"They didn't get a dime," he says. "I was amazed."

With actors from far afield, White filmed all their scenes for the first season as soon as the actors were available. He could then use local actors to film the rest.

One weekend, he says, they had 28 pages of the script to film but couldn't start until after church on Sunday. "It went well," he said, "but I felt a bit overwhelmed."

While "Life With Hope" - Hope is a teenager who was the focus of season one - deals with problems such as alcoholism, gambling, death and drugs, it's not all serious, White says. There are moments, he says, where he thought "wouldn't it be cool if ..." or "wouldn't it be funny if ..." and inserted the bits into the script.

Once, for example, White says, he used the true story of a woman who asked a church group to pray for various people. The people for whom she was soliciting prayer, it turns out, were characters who found themselves in trouble on a television soap opera she watched.

"It was too good to pass up," he says.

Millsaps says she appreciates that White and the series don't sugarcoat the issues that people - Christians and non-Christians - must face.

"It's hitting some of the major things a lot of the Christian-based series are not touching," she says. "He's not afraid to go there. And that might help somebody."

Earl Epps III, 23, of Ringgold, Ga., became involved in "Life With Hope" after a neighbor auditioned and told him the series was looking for an athletic male who could play a high school character. Although he'd never acted before, Epps auditioned, "fell in love with it" and says his character, John, is one of the five or six leading roles.

"For a Christian audience, it's great," he says. "That's what we go on - using Christ to get through it." For anybody who is not Christian, he says, its portrayal of the "struggles everybody [faces]" is just good drama.

White tried crowd-source funding again for season two with efforts at Kickstarter and FaithLauncher, but both failed to gain much traction. However, he hopes to do a little better with Indiegogo, where he plans to offer his short film "Dead End," a mockery of horror movies, to raise money for projects under his McNeill Productions umbrella.

"Because ['Life With Hope'] is a faith-based thing, I had a lot of trouble getting funds," he says. "More people [may be] willing to give money to horror projects. You get it how you can."

That's about how it works with his equipment, too.

White's GoPro is new for season two, but the microphone attachment he used during the recent filming is borrowed. He also expects to have one person concentrating on sound and music in the editing process and for the newer episodes to have better lighting and color balance.

"I'd love to have more equipment," he says.

"Life With Hope" may last one more season "in a perfect world" and "if I can get the people," White says.

But, he says, "things may not be resolved. Some things are not resolved in life."

Either way, White says, "the main reason [he's doing it] is I love doing it. It's something I enjoy. And if one person is saved, it's worth it. If it helps somebody, if it gets people to come to God, ultimately, that's what I would call a huge benefit."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at [email protected] or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at