Interstellar: The Ultimate Christmas Movie

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My family loves Christmas movies.  Each year, we can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be over so we can finally dust off the Christmas movie collection, and start the annual reviewing.

Some of our favorites are probably also some of your favorites: Home Alone 1, 2, & 3 (we won’t speak of 4 & 5); The Santa Clause 1 & 2 (we won’t speak of 3); Fred Claus; ElfNational Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation; A Christmas Story; The Polar Express; and of course, Scrooge – the Albert Finney musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Over the years I’ve realized that I love these movies for the same reason that I love Danish Wedding Cookies at Christmas: because of the memories.  They remind me of my childhood, sitting with my family in the glow of the glittering lights of the Christmas tree, watching the Grinch steal from the Whos down in Whoville, while enjoying my mother’s homemade Danish Wedding Cookies and a warm mug of hot chocolate.

And I appreciate that most Christmas movies deal with important themes.  For example, A Christmas Carol is about redemption, Home Alone is about the value of family, and Elf is about… Elf is about… candy?

But a funny thing has been happening as I’ve grown older.  I’ve carried on the Christmas movie watching tradition with my kids, and as we’ve sat down to re-watch beloved holiday classics each year, I’ve felt less and less satisfied.

This year I’ve finally figured out why.

Like Buddy the Elf’s four major food groups (candy, candy corn, candy canes, and syrup), most Christmas movies are sweet, but not nutritious; they can be quite tasty, but they’re not very filling; they are stuffed with empty calories when I’m longing for proteins and vitamins and minerals and something to help me stay healthy and alive.

Presents, leg lamps, someone trying to destroy Christmas, someone trying to save Christmas, the latest flying sleigh technology, updating Dickens, computerizing Dickens, Muppetizing Dickens, Bill Murraying Dickens, missing reindeer, flying reindeer, reindeer with attitudes, violent kids left home by themselves, and any one of the hundreds of interpretations of Santa Claus… what’s the point?

There are certainly exceptions, but for the most part, each tries to be bigger and shinier and more colorful and festive than the last one, but most Christmas movies wind up ultimately small and dull and monochrome and lifeless when you hold them up to the light of the season that they are supposed to represent.

Which brings me to my new favorite Christmas movie.

Not only is Interstellar my new favorite Christmas movie, but I contend that it is one the best Christmas movies to come out of Hollywood in years.  Accidentally.  Obviously, Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make a movie that had the least bit to do with December 25, but inadvertently, he did.

And then some.

To really help explain what I mean, let’s go back to the idea that most Christmas movies are too small.  Interstellar is the polar opposite – a big movie, dealing with big problems, big solutions, and the nature of the universe.

You can’t get much bigger than that.

Because of the mind-crushing size of the universe, most of us don’t spend much time pondering it.  Interstellar did, imagining that humanity needed to find a way across the universe to another galaxy, and the only possibility of crossing the vast distances from galaxy to galaxy would be through the bending of space and the creation of a wormhole.

Interstellar made us stop and think about the nature of the universe, and our place within it, while Christmas movies at their most shallow only ask us to wonder if we’re going to get a Red Ryder BB gun or a Turbo Man action figure, if Santa will get all the presents delivered on time, or – at their deepest – how much of a difference we make in the lives of those around us.

Just what is the nature of the universe, and what is our place in it?  Think about that question for a second.  And then watch this video.

That expansive universe is the playground of Interstellar.

But the video also explores the complexity of the microscopic universe, which makes me think that I wasn’t exactly right when I mentioned that Christmas films were too small.  In some ways, they aren’t small enough, choosing to gloss over important details on their frenzied way to become the next holiday classic.

Oftentimes the smallest details can be the most important.

In Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan lived in the details, forgoing the use of massive amounts of green screen that most of his contemporaries overuse in such films and using half as much CGI.  He had 500 acres of corn planted in the Canadian outback, built models of spaceships, sought out the most alien looking backdrops in actual physical locations, and went to the trouble of having Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist, serve as scientific consultant for the film in an attempt to have the scientific details as accurate as possible (read this for a fascinating article about the colliding of the science and the filmmaking in the making of Interstellar).

And the heartbeat of the film is the small, touching story of the relationship between a father and a daughter.  With all the huge set pieces and impressive special effects, the film boils down to the love between Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain/Ellen Burstyn).

It may not be nearly as impressive as the “twin paradox” of Nolan’s film, but I think I have proven my point that Interstellar is simultaneously a huge movie and a small movie.  However, I still haven’t proven that it deserves to be my favorite Christmas movie.

But before I go there, I need to pause and qualify something about myself, as there is still a fact about me that might have a direct impact on the argument.

I believe that this amazingly, mind-boggling, incomprehensibly unfathomably enormous place that we call the universe was created.

By God.

If you disagree with that statement, you’re more than welcome to continue reading, but you will be disagreeing with the foundation of my argument.  Please go on enjoying Interstellar as good science fiction cinema and It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard as entertaining holiday flicks, but you can forget about me and this blog post.  After all, I’m not trying to argue for the existence of God, nor am I trying to prove some “Young Earth”, “Old Earth” argument.  I’m simply trying to explain why Interstellar is my new favorite Christmas movie.

The car comes skidding to a halt as the believer response comes almost immediately:  “Interstellar doesn’t mention God at all, and actually seems to go out of its way to avoid talking about God!  How could that possibly be a Christmas movie?”

My simple answer is this:  look at the list of the top 25 Christmas movies from Rotten Tomatoes and tell me how many of those movies don’t mention God, and actually seem to go out of their way to avoid talking about God.

Point taken?

With that question out of the way, let’s head back out into the universe, and in case you’re wondering, we’ll not go gently into that good night.

The God of Scripture created the universe, and any open reading of the Scriptures will support that idea.  For example:

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Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 3.04.59 PMThinking back to that video about the size of the universe which is theorized to be at least 46 billion light years across, it blows my mind to imagine that the God we read about in Scripture is the same God who made it all (for more about the size of the universe, visit this fantastic site.)  This is one of the reasons why those of us who believe in that God also want to worship him, because of the idea that He is so indescribably immense that He can make something as indescribably immense as the universe.

But it doesn’t stop there.  That same God is the God of the details, as well.

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But even that’s not the end of it – the immensity and infinitesimality of the universe.  Those are only the parts of the universe that we can experience with our senses.  God is also the God of the unseen creation – what we might call heaven.

What do we know about heaven?  Most people have an opinion of heaven, based on their own hopes.  People see it as a place full of puffy clouds, with angels playing harps, and everyone getting the things they wanted to get down on earth.

But what does Scripture tell us about heaven, as another part of God’s creation?

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Some of the language of heaven in Scripture is poetic, and some is literal.  Regardless, when you read these and other Scripture passages about heaven, you come away with at least a few basic ideas about it:  Heaven is fantastic; heaven can accommodate a lot of people; and experiencing heaven will involve giving all of one’s attention and worship to the One who made heaven and us.

So, we’ve established that according to the Scripture, God made the universe and everything in it, and God made heaven, and God reigns over it all.  While this might be nice to consider from a theological standpoint, it still doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding how Interstellar could be connected – even loosely – to Christmas.

Hang with me.

The connective tissue is found in identifying one key player who we’ve not mentioned yet.  Who was there with God while all of this was being done?  Who was there while the hairs on our head were being counted?  While the stars were being hung in the sky?  While the foundations were being laid in the Father’s house?

SACRED HEART OF JESUS—The Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted in a modern painting by Stephen B. Whatley, an expressionist artist based in London. (CNS photo/Stephen B. Whatley)

SACRED HEART OF JESUS by Stephen B. Whatley

Jesus.  The Creator.

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Jesus.  Who transcends time.  

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Jesus.  Who transcends space.

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We need to stop and consider Him for a moment, this person we’re talking about.

According to Scripture, Jesus was there at the beginning, “with God… and was God”, making all things, speaking things into existence as The Word.  He made everything in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, all things were created through him and for him, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest quark, and everything in between.  He made them.  He was Lord over the heavens and earth before time began.

And he chose to leave it all.

To become one of these.

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The one who created the heavens and the earth, now helpless.

Utterly Dependent.

Without knowledge.

Unable to feed himself when hungry.

Unable to wipe his own bottom after a big poop.

The Word of God, who spoke the universe into creation, unable to say his own name and having to learn again how to speak.

How to roll over.  How to crawl.  How to walk.  How to run.

The one who ruled over the place where there was no pain, suffering, tears, or death chose to enter into a reality as a helpless, tiny baby on a insignificant little rock in the farthest corner of the universe where he would experience pain, suffering, tears, and death.

Why?

Why would he do this?

Was it a grand experiment?  The Christ grew bored in heaven, and so he decided that becoming a human would be an interesting experiment?

Was Christ like King Richard in Ivanhoe, who disguised himself as a wandering knight as he sought out adventure?

No.

It was a rescue mission.

88gyasi2910aLet’s return back to Interstellar for a moment.  In Christopher Nolan’s film – as in reality – space is vast, empty, and lifeless.  At one point early in the film, Romilly (David Gayasi), one of the scientists, is having a difficult time adjusting to the idea of being in a small spacecraft voyaging through the deep regions of space, and so pounds on the side of the ship in frustration, and exclaims, “Millimeters of aluminum— that’s it!  And nothing within millions of miles that won’t kill us in seconds.”

As far as science has been able to figure out, there is nothing out there like what we have here.  Our tiny little home, our “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan called it.  Scientists posit that there might be others out there, far distant planets capable of sustaining life, and while we’re hopeful that other planets exist like our own, right now this is the only show in town.  The only place that God created with beings like us, beings made imago dei, in His own image (Genesis 1:27).

And what do we bring to the table?

In Interstellar, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) nails it.

Keyes, Greg (2014-11-11). Interstellar: The Official Movie Novelization (Kindle Locations 1055-1057). Titan. Kindle Edition.

Keyes, Greg (2014-11-11). Interstellar: The Official Movie Novelization (Kindle Locations 1055-1057). Titan. Kindle Edition.

And we get a glimpse into the rescue mission here.  He created us on this pale blue dot, and for some unknowable reason, He loves us.  We’re told this over and over in Scripture, with perhaps the most famous passage being this:

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And how did we repay him?  By rebelling against him, and insisting on doing things our way.  From the very beginning, humanity has been characterized by arrogance, pride, lust, vengeance, greed, anger, hatred, evil.

And this evil that exists in each of us is what keeps us from being able to be with him.  After all, Scripture tells us this very important truth about heaven:

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Unfortunately, that means the door is closed on all of us, because all of us are impure, we’re all shameful and deceitful.  And so we needed rescuing.

And who better to rescue us, than the One who created us?

And just like Christopher Nolan’s wormhole opened the doorway to a far away galaxy, Jesus Christ’s decision to be born a baby, to live the sinless, perfect life that we were unable to live, and then to die on the cross in our place opened a doorway that enabled us to cross from this world to his.

la_ca_1023_interstellarWhen I compare Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to any of the films that we typically watch at Christmas, those movies come up woefully short.  They are timid, they are insufficient, they don’t inspire wonder or awe, they don’t give us any sense of the majesty of the world and the universe that God created.  They don’t give a hint or a tease about the condition of humanity that would necessitate the need for Christmas.

I’ll still watch them, and I’ll still enjoy them for what they are, and if I get up the nerve, I might even try to reproduce my mother’s Danish Wedding Cookies for my own kids, but they don’t come close to pointing me in the direction of the one who was born in that stable two thousand years ago.

Interstellar did that, in spades.

Thank you, Christopher Nolan, for making a big, bombastic, small, heartfelt film that made me remember a certain little universe-creating baby born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Thank you for pointing me back to Jesus.

Because He is the one I seek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea

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“Too little, too late.”

That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.

After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier.  There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church.  As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.

Mel-Gibson-and-Jim-Caviez-007Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.

Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.

It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.

The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.

And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.

And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

THREE ARGUMENTS WHY A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY IS A REALLY, REALLY BAD IDEA

1.  The audience – we want them to hang about, don’t we?

A Christian film industry would only succeed in driving the unchurched audience even farther away than they already are.

Hollywood stood up and took notice with Gibson’s “little indie film that could” because of the massive Christian support.  This huge group of people supported The Passion in a way they hadn’t supported a film before.  According to a Barna survey, roughly half of the movie’s audience identified as born again Christian, and the film was widely backed by Christian leaders of all denominational backgrounds because of the heavy lifting done by Mel Gibson to get them on board.

But the interesting thing about The Passion was how it was also seen by people who didn’t consider themselves religious.  That same Barna survey mentioned that one out of three Americans claimed to have seen the movie, a pretty stunning feat for any film.  Mainstream, indie, secular, Christian, whatever… any filmmaker would dream of numbers like that.

Isn’t that something?  The Passion of the Christ had an incredible return on its investment (both financially and spiritually), and while it was marketed to Christians, it was a movie everyone wanted to see, regardless of their faith.  In fact, I first saw The Passion in a packed movie theater in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in 2004, surrounded by people who had little to no idea who Jesus was, and they were blown away by the film.

But the faith-based movers and shakers seem to have forgotten the wide appeal of Gibson’s film.  Christian films continue to be made squarely for Christian audiences – and if some non-Christians happen to get dragged to the film by their Christian friends, then good on them, but the movies aren’t made for them.

Here’s the rub: if the movies were playing in churches, I wouldn’t have a problem!

But the movies aren’t playing in churches.  They’re playing in cinemas.  
At the malls and multiplexes.  
Where people who don’t go to church like to go on a Friday night.
That’s the problem.
left behindWhat do these people see on their Friday night out?  They see Left Behind (RT score of 2) playing beside Fury (RT 78) and Birdman (RT 94).  
They see  Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (RT 0) playing beside Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (RT 73) and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (RT 89).  
If you aren’t seriously bothered by those comparisons, then I really wonder if you’re paying attention.
And with every subpar film effort made to expressly please the Christian masses, the respect of the non-Christian for our art and – yes – for our faith – goes down.  Just look hereherehere and here.  Those are films made in our name, folks, and you can almost hear the sounds of doors closing as the unchurched audience sees what is done in our name, and checks us off their list of groups to be taken seriously.
The creation of a Christian film industry will not improve this, and conversely, I contend that it will entrench us deeper into our misguided acceptance of poorly written, preachy, unambiguous films with underdeveloped low-dimensional characters, and cartoonish, moustache-twirling non-Christian antagonists.

2.  People don’t like message movies.  Seriously.

A Christian film industry would excel at creating movies that are heavy on message and light on story and character development.

After all, that is what we’ve been creating, almost exclusively, since the dawn of so-called Christian filmmaking.

But here’s the crazy thing: people don’t like message movies, especially poorly made ones.

elysium-dvd-cover-36Remember how angry Christians got when the rumors hit that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would be a pro-environmentalist screed?  Why?  Because Christians disliked the message.  Neil Blomkcampf and Matt Damon’s Elysium was roundly blasted by conservatives.  Why?  Because they disliked the film’s liberal message.

The message of a movie should be like the caboose of a train – carried along by the other elements of the film – story, dialogue, character, cinematography, acting – and not the other way around.  The message of a well-made film will hit you hours later when you’re lying in your bed, while the message of a poorly-made message-heavy film will steamroll you over while you’re sitting in the cinema.

Granted, if you like the message that the message movie is presenting, you might fool yourself into thinking that you like the movie, but odds are you really only like the message and you’re tolerating the movie.  Again, if we are producing these films only for ourselves, and we’re showing them in churches on Sunday nights or at youth retreats, then we should feel free to knock ourselves out and preach away.

However, we aren’t making our Christian message movies in a vacuum.  The world is watching, and they are not getting our message because they don’t like our message-heavy movies.

3.   Further self-isolation is a big, short-sighted mistake.

A Christian film industry would drive us to close our ranks even more than we already have.

After all, the hard truth is that people who aren’t Christians already rarely read our books.  People who aren’t Christians already have little to no interest in listening to our music.  They typically don’t visit our blogs, subscribe to our magazines, attend our universities, shop in our gift shops, tune into our television programming, or take advice from our talk shows.  They’re rarely interested in attending our churches, our Bible studies, our home groups, our prayer meetings, or our revivals.

We’ve done quite a good job building a subculture for ourselves, isolating ourselves from the influences of the world, but in the process we’re also isolating our influence from the world!

newswAnd now we find ourselves stuck in the gravitational pull of a cultural black hole.  Religion has always been a huge factor in public discourse in the United States, but since a height of relevance in the 1950’s, Christian cultural influence has been in a steady decline.  In another study, the folks at Barna have shown that this decline will continue so that, unless something changes, by the time my one year old is college-aged, he will be in the definite minority.  I should say that he will be in the minority if he is following Christ – and it is my daily prayer that he will be.  But my son will need to know how to live and work in a post-Christian world.

And that post-Christian world that is coming will have very little interest in supporting or encouraging a Christian film industry.

THE ALTERNATIVE TO A CHRISTIAN FILM INDUSTRY

Believe it or not, I’m not saying that we should never make films for Christian audiences.  We should!   They should be fantastic films, just like films made for any subculture can be fantastic!  But that should not be the focus of our efforts.

Rather, we should focus on those Christians trying to make it in Hollywood right now – writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, CGI gurus, etc – who are currently studying and working in the Hollywood system, who need to be built up and encouraged by the church while the church still has the resources and relevance to be able to support them!  Rather than insisting that they produce middling message-heavy stories for Christian audiences, we should be encouraging them to learn how to tell their stories and live their lives within the system that will be there in the future.

We should be building these believing artists up so that they can have an impact on the lives of the unchurched writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, and CGI gurus with whom they work.

We should be helping them to make movies whose posters would be proudly displayed on any mall cinema or multiplex.

We should be helping them get the training and experience and connections that they can use to make films that would have big premieres on red carpets with paparazzi and gowns and tuxedos and limousines.

We should be providing them with the proper tools and support so that the movies they make can be well-made enough to be nominated for Critic’s awards and People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes and Oscars.

Instead of putting all our money and resources into creating movies that we can enjoy in our isolation, we should be investing in our filmmakers who are out on the mission field of Hollywood, helping them to make movies that can take the cultural landscape by storm, that can hit the widest of audiences, and trusting God to use those efforts to reach the unchurched audience how HE would reach them.

After all, we are called to live with that unchurched audience, not in closed ranks, regardless of how much influence we have.  We aren’t to be conformed by the world (Romans 12:2), we shouldn’t be of the world (John 15:19), but we are to be salt and light in the dark world (Matthew 5:13-16) and bearers of a great light to the people who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:2).

Maybe, just maybe, in our generation or the next – that great light will be seen flickering with 70MM projection on an Imax screen, to thunderous applause.

Below are a few good places to start if you want to find some Christians to support in Hollywood.   Just click on the logo to go to the organization’s website:

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Thimblerig’s Interview • Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of “Believe Me”

Riot Three

The hands-down surprise film of the year for me has been Believe Me, an indie film made by some upstart Texans from a production company with the anarchistically-sounding name of Riot Studios.  I’m not easily surprised by films these days, especially films made by Christians, but Believe Me caught me off guard from the first moment I heard about it, and kept me off guard until I was watching the credits roll.

78756-show-66125The first big surprise was when I saw that this film, apparently being made by a cadre of unapologetic Christian filmmakers, was going to feature Nic Offerman, he of the impressive moustache, a.k.a. Ron Swanson from NBC’s Parks and Recreation.  Nic Offerman might just have been the very last person I would have ever expected to see involved in a film made by believers.

But somehow, the boys at Riot Studios got him.

The second big surprise came when I went to the film’s website, and found out about their brilliant (yet bizarre) grass roots marketing campaign, wherein they paid people to utilize their social media platforms on behalf of the film.  The idea was that if you shared their link on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever – and people clicked that link to go see more about the film, then you earned money.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was still a creative way to encourage people to share the info.

And then, in another unorthodox move, the film was released on the same day in theaters and as a digital download, which meant that I could actually watch and review the film on opening night – pretty cool for a film reviewer living in China!

But the biggest surprise came when I watched the film, and found it to be refreshingly well-made, the kind of movie that I would show to any of my friends – Christians or not.  In my opinion, the movie successfully did many of the things that I believe Christian films need to do to actually be taken seriously as an art form.  Click here to read my review and see more of my thoughts on the movie itself.

In other words, I turned off the movie excited with the realization that I had found some filmmakers who spoke my language.

And so, as the second in my Thimblerig’s Interview series, I’m pleased and honored to have interviewed Michael B. Allen and Will Bakke, two of the three founders of Riot Studios, and the brains behind Believe Me.

In this interview, I find out some of what brought these filmmakers to this point in their careers, what sort of vision they have for filmmaking, and just how they managed to score Nic Offerman to be in their movie.

Please Introduce yourself…

Michael B. Allen – writer/co-producer of Believe Me
Will Bakke – writer/director of Believe Me
Alex Carroll didn’t have the chance to participate in the interview, but he is the other partner and co-founder or Riot Studios and the Producer of Believe Me.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

youtube-riot2Michael: Will Bakke and I worked on the documentary, One Nation Under God. Then, Alex Carroll came on board for our second doc, Beware of Christians. After that, we officially formed our film company, Riot Studios, together with the intention of making feature films, the first of which is Believe Me.

Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist(s)?

Michael: In film, I love the films from Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian have had huge influences on me that cross over beyond music. The design work and approaches of Saul Bass and Paul Rand. Probably above all, however is ole Leo DaVinci. I really identify with and strive for the ideal of the renaissance man, or the artist-engineer.

Will: In film, I’m a big fan of Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Good Will Hunting), and David Fincher (Fight Club, Social Network). Musically I love Broken Social Scene, Third Eye Blind, Cold War Kids, and The Black Keys. I am a big fan of “concept art” so I love a lot of Banksy’s work as well I follow Abduzeedo.com for different graphic designers.

Please explain your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community.

Will: The state of filmmaking within the Christian community is pretty narrow. For the longest time, the only “christian films” being made were for a very specific, usually conservative, older generation. Now, with Hollywood trying to get a piece of the profits, doors are beginning to be opened for Christians who want to present films in an alternative style.

Please give a synopsis of your film, Believe Me, and tell us a bit of the history of the film.

Will: Believe Me is the story of four college seniors that start a fake Christian charity in order to embezzle money for their college believe_me_xlgtuitions. The film was meant to challenge the power of platforms and investigate whether truth was relative or not. The filmmakers found a lot of inspiration for the film after touring their previous movie Beware of Christians around the country.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Will: The biggest challenges came with bucking the system and trying not to make a “message movie”. We feel that so often Christian films put the message or the agenda ahead of its story and that can only diminish it as a whole. If your characters are making decisions based out of the writer’s agenda to preach or be saved, you may be missing out on telling a more compelling and authentic story.

Believe Me is unusual for a film made by Christian artists, as it is a comedy that doesn’t pull many punches.  How would you advise Christian artists as they think about going outside the lines of typical so-called faith-based films?  

Michael: Artistically, my only advice would be to follow your personal convictions without the pressure of conforming to the dogma surrounding “faith-based” art. At its best, art should challenge its audience, and it’s impossible to challenge someone when you’re only worried about playing it safe.

Along those same lines, is it possible to make a God-honoring film if the creative choices you make earn you an R rating?

Michael: I think that’s up to the filmmakers and the individual members of the audience. If a filmmaker can create something, and a member of an audience watch something, in clear conscience that challenges them or her to love, honor, or enjoy God more, it shouldn’t matter which label the MPAA applies. So many Bible stories, if told through the medium of film, would be rated R, but it doesn’t diminish their ability to draw a spirit of worship from the reader.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers, especially those who are approaching filmmaking as a calling or a ministry?

Michael: Do the best work that you can do. Don’t feel a pressure or guilt if everything you make is not an explicit sermon. For most, that’s not the point of watching or making movies. If you want to preach sermons, consider a career as a pastor or consider street evangelism in your spare time. If you want to be a filmmaker, make really good films. Whether or not they convert anyone to your religion, they will be a blessing to culture, the same way an architect doesn’t have to build in subliminal Christian messaging to bless the world in his vocation by designing beautiful, functional buildings.

Regarding Riot Studios, can you tell us a bit about this organization, and what sorts of projects are coming down the pipeline?

Will: Riot Studios was formed by Will Bakke, Michael Allen, and Alex Carroll who all produced the documentary Beware of Christians together. We tell stories that compel viewers to challenge their beliefs, weigh the alternatives, and laugh while doing so. We make transparent and thoughtful art through film. We have several projects in the pipeline but right now our biggest focus is on Believe Me. Stay tuned for big things.

Finally, and the question I’ve really been wanting to ask:  How did you score Nick Offerman for your film?  That was a huge coup for a faith-based film, and worked out a whole lot better than the other Nic in Left Behind.

Will: Ha. Yeah we we’re absolutely psyched to get a guy like Nick Offerman in our film. It’s interesting because Nick is an outspoken atheist so we were curious ourselves as to why he would want to be a part of something like this. From what we know he really connected with the script and wanted to be a part of a story that felt authentic.

A big thank you to Michael and Will for taking the time to answer my questions, and for sharing a bit about their vision for filmmaking as people of faith.

Find out more information about Riot Studios: www.riotstudios.com

Will Bakke on Twitter: @iamwillbakke

Michael B. Allen on Twitter: @iamMichaelAllen

Believe Me on Facebook and Twitter:  @BelieveMeFilm  /BelieveMeFilm

Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!

 

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 27, 2014

Concept Art by Steven Cormann
Concept Art by Steven Cormann

1.  NaNoWriMo’s End

kslukfzfpi0iqqg8bumeThe end of November is here, which means that NaNoWriMo’s end is in sight.  For me, working on the second book in my Thimblerig’s Ark series, this has been one of my most positive NaNoWriMo experiences.  I’m hoping to actually win early, which I’ve never done before!  Heck, I’ve only ever even won NaNoWriMo once, so this is doubly a good year for me.

What’s made this year different?  One thing:  writing in community.

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 1.27.40 PMThis year I’ve been writing in several communities:  First, there’s my class of 6th graders at QSI International School of Shenzhen.  Second, there are the handful of teachers at my school who are also writing.  Third, there’s my online community through the NaNoWriMo forums.  And fourth, surprisingly to me, there are the new friends I’ve made on Twitter by using #NaNoWriMo and #amwriting in some of my tweets.  What a difference it has made to be writing with others!

I especially want to acknowledge Jessica, one of my 6th grade students, who made it a goal from November 1 to keep up with me.  As of this posting, Jessica has written 46,168 words!  She’s 11 years old, folks, and she’s writing at the adult level – and it’s pretty good writing, to boot!  Jessica has spent many days ahead of me, and when she’s behind me she’s caught up quickly.  But the most important thing to me is that Jessica has kept me on my toes, which I needed.   Thinking about Jessica, the QSI teachers who are also pushing me to finish, and the new friends I made last weekend writing in Hong Kong, led me to create this Tolkien-inspired ode to NaNoWriMo community and friendship.

Nano Carry

It’s with great pleasure that I acknowledge that I will reach the top of Mt. Doom because of the efforts of these various communities, and the encouragement of others who are also making the climb.  Sometimes they’ve carried me, and sometimes I’ve carried them, but the best news is that we will reach the top and accomplish our goals.  Happy end of November, my NaNoWriMo communities!

2.  Benjamin Watson’s Response to Ferguson

14041417-standardLiving in China, I couldn’t be much farther away from the recent events in Ferguson, but I have been watching and paying attention.  I even gave up social media for a day when I realized how polarized my beloved home country had become because of the decision of the grand jury, and I’d grown weary of all the fighting.

And then this morning I came upon a viral Facebook post by Benjamin Watson, who plays tight end for the New Orleans Saints, and I thought it had to be one of the most reasonable and reasoned responses to those events that I’ve read anywhere.  I’m going to post his comments in their entirety, but you can read it here.

At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:

I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.

I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.

I’M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.

I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.

I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

What a fantastic post, full of common sense and fairness.  And God bless Mr. Watson for that last paragraph, because that’s where he gets to the heart of the matter.  Well said, Mr. Watson!

3.  Jurassic Parks and Recreation Trailer

Like a lot of people my age, Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park and the Spielberg movie were both seminal pop culture experiences for me.  I remember reading the book on an airplane, and I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough.  And then Spielberg came along and made an amazingly satisfying film adaptation of Crichton’s fantastic novel.

When I heard that we were going to get a chance to return to Isla Nublar, I was hesitantly excited.  As is often the case with sequels, Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3: No Clever Subtitle were exponentially less interesting than the original, and so I had a hard time being fully on board with Jurassic World.

However, having now watched the trailer, I can admit that I’ve had a change of heart.  This movie looks like it will actually be pretty good!  And it has some things going for it. First of all, the movie stars current Nicest Guy In Hollywood, Chris Pratt, and I’ve never NOT enjoyed something that Chris has done.  Second, Mr. Spielberg is executive producing, and so he’ll 1384423664_chris_pratt_jurassic_parkhopefully help shepherd the film in the right direction (although he did also executive produce 3, so that’s not necessarily a plus).  Third, it appears that director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) has decided to mirror the feel of the original, which will hopefully mean we’ll have a fun ride in store for us when the film opens on June 15.

So, I hope you all have a fantastic Thanksgiving!  And Thimblerig’s Interesting Things will be back again next week.

T.Hanksgiving

 

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas • Thimblerig’s Review

saving-christmas-poster

One of the most challenging things about trying to review Christian-made films while living in China is that most of those films never find a screen in this part of the world.  They are too low-budget, too lacking in big names, and too religious.  Even Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s Noah didn’t play here because it was a biblical movie (a fact which would probably amuse the masses of religious people in American who hated the film because it was too un-biblical)!

What typically ends up happening is that I get a review out once the film has been released on DVD, which is sort of like surfing after the wave has passed.  I really appreciated that the Believe Me guys broke the business model by doing a simultaneous theatrical release/digital download, which meant my review for that film went out the same weekend the movie was released.  It’s to the point that I can comment on the trailer when it’s released, but not the movie, and that stinks!

But my community of Christian artist friends has been growing over the past several months, and I’m thrilled that one of my new friends, graphic artist Matthew Sample, agreed to do me the huge favor of watching the latest faith-based film to be released – Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas – and writing a review for me based on Thimblerig’s movie-watching scale (which you can read about here).

So, without further ado, I give you Matthew’s great review.  Enjoy!

Thimblerig’s Review of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas 

by Guest Thimblerigger Matthew Sample

Part of me wanted to run up to the ticket counter and say with my jolliest, bearded, and wonder-filled face, “I’m here for Saving Christmas.”

The rest of me goes to a church that does not celebrate Christmas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Kirk. (Not the James, but the Cameron. Holler, someone, if you know what that’s referring to and where to find it in the film.) I dislike the secularization of our culture, and I love putting Jesus first. I’ve even grown up celebrating Christmas. But my church brings up some really good points. They will talk about the pagan past of Christmas, the commercialized shadow of the holy-day that it was… and don’t get them started about the Catholic church and the worship of images.

So I came to this film with two missions. First, to write this review for Nate, who—bless his NaNoWriMo heart—is in deep, deep novel-writing land. Second, to see if I can get my head wrapped around all this Christmas stuff.

What Kirk Got Right

la_ca_1113_saving_christmas

 

When Kirk’s right, he’s right. And he’s got some spectacular goodness going on in this film.

First, he and his creative team have centered this film squarely on Jesus. He filters everything about Christmas through Christ, and we should applaud Christian creatives everywhere when they glorify Christ. I don’t think it was a marketing decision, but something that Kirk sincerely seeks to infuse in everything he does.

Second, because of his desire to glorify God, he does not go about this endeavor solely on his own, but he made this film in Christian community. We creatives should not be mavericks, and filmmaking especially demands that we collaborate extensively with others. Over the past several films, Kirk has made a point to do these films with his family. They are all over the credits. He even made a point to highlight his sister, Bridgette—not Candace who also acts in films, but the sister who didn’t make it. I think that’s cool.

0157411f0d7cdbe4622494a77e435247He also is increasingly forging creative partnerships with a wide variety of Christians in the entertainment industry. In Mercy Rule, his last film that he made with his family, he teamed up with comedian Tim Hawkins. In this film, he’s teamed up with Darren Doane and several others. He has also promoted this film extensively by joining with high profile, family-oriented, Christian entertainers—the Robinson family, the Duggars, etc.—to get the grassroots word out. It looks like they all had a lot of fun doing it.

And he’s teamed up with Liberty University again, passing his creative knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers. We in the Christian filmmaking realm learn so much by books or by making mistakes. Mentorship is needed on every level. I’m so glad he’s maintaining this relationship with Liberty. No man is an island, and no generation is, either.

Third, the cinematographer did a great job. That’s something I can usually count on when I come to a Cameron film, but it bears emphasis. I don’t think there was an (unintentionally) ugly shot in film.

Fourth, I heard genuine laughter in the audience. And the audience was about a third to half full, which is really decent for a film not on opening weekend. Kirk’s audience showed up, and they seemed to sincerely enjoy some of the laughs. Granted, there were only about 10 genuine laugh moments and a few other moments that didn’t work as well… But this film really was about concepts, and the laughs served as oases in the milieu of holiday contemplation.

Fifth, as I think I’ve mentioned before, Kirk made this film about concepts. I like his experiments in narrative documentary; they seem more personal and authentic than his recent foray into fiction. I hope he keeps experimenting in this genre, and that the quality of concepts grows and matures as he continues.

What Kirk Got Wrong

It is the little foxes that destroy the vineyards, and the unexpected details that make or break a film. Every phase of filmmaking seeks to prevent as many of the little surprises from destroying the film. Inevitably, a few foxes remain.

The most prominent problem with the film is the overuse of slow motion. This has become a tendency with Kirk’s films, and I’m not sure if he is trying to capture a certain aesthetic, or if he ran out of material in post production… or if he is just in love with the view through a camera lens. It happens. We aesthetes can feel a certain amount of pleasure witnessing an event in all the gory detail. But it also makes the film seem tedious. The audience knows exactly what will happen, so the thrill of slow motion comes in what happens during that moment. And not much happens during those slow moments.

Honestly the film could have been a 30-45 minute film with a different edit. Not that the editor did a bad job—he did a excellent job balancing everything. It’s the sign of not having enough content. Either the concepts were not big enough to warrant an 80 minute film, or the concepts were not explored enough. I think the creative team could have developed the concepts more fully.

Kirk-Cameron_Santa-Saving-Christmas

 

As an example of an undeveloped story element, the film’s antagonistic force needed more antagonism. A better antagonist would have been the actor who plays the conspiracy theorist at the party and Arius in the Saint Nicholas section. A much more dynamic villain, he would be. Christian’s character is described as a scrooge, but other than having him look glum and leave the party for the quiet of his car, the filmmakers don’t show his scroogeness. He just complains. But even his complaints are groundless: Chris hasn’t actually done any research and easily cedes Kirk’s points as Kirk makes them. He is a living straw man, crafted to grouse until he metamorphoses into the awkward and exuberant convert at the end of the film.

As an example of undeveloped content, the regulative principle of worship never comes up. My church is Reformed, which means that they view the Bible and the Church from a perspective of the Protestant Reformers and the Puritans—Christ alone, faith alone, scripture alone…. Whenever well-minded people add their good ideas to our faith, those additions tend to cause problems after people forget about the reasons. This goes for worship, too. I can hear my pastor say, “Should December 25th land on a day of worship, many who claim Christ will stay home from meeting with Christ’s church—which God commanded—to stay home and unwrap presents—which God has not commanded.” That’s an interplay of concepts I would love to have seen in the film.

Overall, the concepts of the film could probably fit on one sheet of paper. It’s a very simply structured film, with a collection of introductions, three main arguments, and then a collection of endings. The many introductions and endings indicate that the main story did not have enough content for the film, or that the creative team had a middle, but couldn’t figure out how best to begin or wrap up the content.

The Golden Groundhog Ceremony

Cue red carpet music. Turn on the spotlight. Brush up on your What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking if you need to get a refresher.

Films made by Christians should take risks. 1/2

I’m giving Kirk half a golden groundhog for this. He’s the only Christian I know in his genre, he made a film about an issue inside the church, and he portrayed jolly old St. Nick in a brawling pub fight. Credit where credit is due: he’s got his view of the world and he’s not afraid to say it. Yet he chose a relatively safe topic, one where he will get a lot of support from his base, and he’s starting to settle into a particular style.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience. 0

Kirk’s audience is primarily Christians, and most of them are in agreement with him. I’ve gone back and forth on this point, and I can’t sincerely give Kirk a groundhog for this one. The film reinforces concepts that the audience is convinced of for the most part. Perhaps this will motivate some to think twice about their lack of joy and glorify Jesus more in December and all year round. I hope so.

Art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit. 0

Unfortunately, this genre will almost always fail on this point. I’d love to see Kirk keep perfecting this as he improves his craft—not removing the truth from his work, but crafting his presentation of that truth to make it more powerful and more poignant.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions. 1/2

How we worship God as a body of believer’s is one of the most important questions we should think about. How we glorify Him with our lives is another. Who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how we should respond to His wonderful kindness are also excellent questions discussed in the course of the film. However, the core moral predicament of the film seems contrived.

Christian films should tell good stories. 0

The film told several stories. A scrooge’s redemption, the nativity, a vignette of Christmas tree shoppers, a retelling of the St. Nick myth, and the various quirky scenes at a Christmas party. As a filmmaker, I wish I could say that these stories moved me emotionally. Unfortunately, most of the interesting stories were unessential to the actual plot, and the creative team could have told all the stories in more engaging and creative ways.

Conclusions

So did this film change me profoundly? I wish it had. If you read this, Kirk, and I hope you do, here’s what would have made this film more profound to me.

First, I would use less slow motion. You don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because you have a look to maintain and it is kinda cool. But I would only focus on a few key moments when you really want to bring home a concept… and let those moments be the times that we slow down and linger.

Second, let Christian be the main character and the Arius guy be the villain. I like you, Kirk, as sage, but a sage never works very well as the protagonist. A sage is too knowledgeable and doesn’t change enough over the course of a story. In contrast Christian exhibits the most powerful character arch, but I would love to have him come face to face with the real antagonist lurking behind the scenes. Also, concepts have consequences: I would love to see his choices lead to something beyond mere hurt feelings. If the men cause harm because of their beliefs or lack thereof, or rise above the harm that they have caused, we have the makings of a more sympathetic hero and better interplay between the major concepts.

Third, I would include more concepts. I would present more of the real problems that Christians have with Christmas, and find more and better ways to deal with those problems. This would call for more time in the script stage and in preproduction. But the more time spent crafting our content before we roll film the better.

Thanks for listening to me, Kirk, and whoever else reads this. I can’t wait to see your next film. I love the way you strive to lift up Jesus. Keep serving God. I’m rooting for you.

Golden Groundhogs Saving Christmas

166332_1723873691747_2945331_nMatthew Sample II is a digital illustrator who likes, makes, and supports Christian film. In his spare time he writes a graphic novel which he will someday share with the eager world. If you want to see some of his artwork, check out his blog or his sketch club. If you want to argue with him about movies or Christmas, feel free to connect with him via Facebook or Twitter.