Lights, Camera, Action
The Varvel Brothers Have Cultivated Their Creative Sides with new film this fall, Mayberry Man.
At 5 years old, Brett Varvel was a huge fan of the 1985 blockbuster movie “Back to the Future,” and was captivated when he first viewed the film.
“These moving pictures and sounds created all of these emotional reactions inside of me,” recalls Brett, 34.
Even as a preschooler, he was dreaming big.
One day his dad put him in the car so they could run an errand. When his dad ran back inside the house momentarily, Brett’s imagination went into overdrive.
“I decided it was time to be Marty McFly, so I got into the driver’s seat and pretended to turn the time circuits on in the DeLorean so I could go back to the future,” says Brett, who released the vehicle’s emergency brake. The car rolled down the driveway and obliterated a lamp post.
Luckily for Brett, his little brother Drew, now 30 years old, shared his passion for creativity.
“I’d grab a camera and my brother and I would goof around making silly music videos or stop-motion animation videos with our toys,” says Brett, who made a short film in high school centering on his faith, which won a statewide competition.
At the awards ceremony, someone approached Brett and told him a janitor mentioned that he had peeked his head into the screening, and after watching the movie surrendered his life to Jesus.
“In that moment I felt the spirit of God say, ‘Imagine what I could do through you,’” Brett says. “As an 18-year-old kid, it was not just about following my dream of becoming a filmmaker, but making my talent matter by doing something with it.”
The Varvel brothers attended Ball State University where they both won the David Letterman Scholarship twice. During his junior year, after Brett proposed to his girlfriend, it occurred to him that he needed to figure out a way to pay the bills upon graduation.
Brett wrote a script called “The Board,” which he shot and released in 2008. Though initially he had expected the film to screen in the local community, it far exceeded his expectations and ended up being distributed around the world and translated into five different languages. He says he appreciates the storytelling aspect of filmmaking.
“The endless canvas of creativity is enthralling to me because film is the one art form that encompasses all aspects of art,” says Brett, the executive director of Indianapolis-based House of Grace Films. “You’re not limited to one medium.”
Though the majority of the movies he has been a part of have been in the Christian genre, Brett is also drawn to other projects. For instance, “The War Within,” filmed in 2012, was not a cookie-cutter, feel-good movie, and he received critical acclaim for it. This fall he’s filming “Mayberry Man,” which will be shot partly on location in Danville, and in which he plays an A-list Hollywood actor who, after getting a speeding ticket, is sentenced to community service in the town of Mayberry.
“I play an egotistical jerk who transforms through the movie because of the people of Mayberry,” Brett says. “This has been a fun role for me to sink my teeth into.”
Growing up in the Varvel household, creativity ran in the family. The brothers’ dad Gary is an artist. Drew loved art, music and acting, but video was where he felt most comfortable. He competed in film festivals and competitions, and winning some of them boosted his confidence. College is what solidified his passion, however. His defining moment came when a class project tasked him with creating a short film with no words.
“I loved that challenge,” Drew says. “Up to that point I’d been working with my brother or my dad hovering over my shoulder. I felt like I could stand on my own two feet and tell a story of my own. It was a liberating feeling.”
Though many people told him that in order to pursue his dream he’d need to move to the east or west coast, Drew was intent on staying in the Midwest. He started his career working at Grace College in Winona Lake. He was later hired by RTV6 as a creative producer, which excited him as it was an opportunity to move back home with his wife Jamie.
“Making commercials opened up a door to challenge me to create stories in 30 seconds or less,” he says. “It’s like making a film, but everything is condensed.”
Drew learned how to write, shoot, edit and get a segment on the air within an hour’s time.
He next worked at Angie’s List before moving on to CBS.
“My time at CBS offered me the opportunity to create content strictly for advertising the Colts, which was fun,” says Drew, who secured an Emmy win for one of his commercials. Brett also won an Emmy in 2007 for directing a live television show.
“Winning that Emmy felt like crossing some sort of finish line,” adds Drew, who now works in visual media for IU Health making primarily internal videos that train nurses and doctors.
Theater has been a big part of Drew’s life since high school. In college he focused primarily on filmmaking and directing. In 2015 he returned to the stage to help his wife put on productions at his alma mater, Bethesda Christian Schools. In the past five years he has directed nine shows at the school. It’s all volunteer work, but he loves it.
“It’s a ministry to me,” says Drew, who also likes to participate in productions through Hendricks Civic Theater. “This becomes a place for the students to belong.”
Drew and Jamie have a 3-year-old named Medli. Brett and his wife Christina have six children, two of whom, Seth and Roi, passed away. Their other children are Kherington, 9, Damon, 6, and twins Reagan and Roman, born in August. Enduring such a tragic loss proved to bolster Brett’s faith.
“I remember at 18 years old having a conversation with the Lord about how actors and directors need to draw on personal experiences from life, and I had not yet experienced anything difficult, so when I performed it was so fabricated,” Brett says. “I said, ‘Lord, I need to go through some difficulties in order to grow as an artist and as a person.’”
Since 2014 it’s been a rollercoaster of trials, from financial troubles to the miscarriages, all of which Brett calls a “horrible blessing” that led him to where he is today.
Though the Varvel brothers remain busy, they collaborate every chance they get.
“Every time we separate and come back together, we’ve both learned something new,” says Drew, calling his brother his best friend.
“We are each other’s default,” Brett says. “I know how he creates. I trust him implicitly. When we’re on set together, it’s some of the most fun times we’ve ever had as brothers.”
And those fun times are plentiful. For eight years, they videotaped weddings. In fact, they have so many funny stories that one day they plan to make a movie about their wedding videography escapades.
As kids, the brothers played in a softball league. When Brett was learning to pitch underhand, he wanted to study his form and asked Drew to simultaneously catch the ball and run the camera.
“It was a terrible decision that did not go well,” Drew recalls with a chuckle.
Perhaps a brotherly autobiographical film is in order – one that includes the weddings, the baseball, and maybe even that “Back to the Future” roll down the driveway.