I am thrilled to present an interview with Richard Ramsey, the writer and director of the feature-length film The Song, which was released in theaters last fall and just came out on DVD on February 10.
Ramsey is also the Creative Director of City on a Hill Productions, an organization that uses storytelling to “inspire hope and offer a vision of the beauty of a Christian life.” I’m personally very excited at what these folks are doing, especially when I read that their mission includes the following ideas:
We strive to craft multimedia resources for churches with the same level of artistry and sophistication that exists in the best Hollywood films. Our work includes design, development, recording, production, and post-production, and we provide multimedia consultation, instruction and training.
We want to help build a church where what you see and hear is just as engaging and relevant to your life as what you watch on television every night.
Our work seeks to create a gateway to Christ for people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered Jesus as a direction for their lives.
This is exactly the mindset that this blog has promoting for the past year! So, I’m happy to do my small part to help promote City on a Hill, and help them further their mission.
To the interview…
I really enjoyed my casual China-to-Kentucky Skype conversation/interview with Ramsey last fall, when The Song had just been released in theaters all across America, and I’m glad to share notes from that online meeting with you. But before we get to the interview, allow me to present the trailer for The Song.
Richard, thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for my Thimblerig’s Interview series. Why don’t we start with you telling a bit about yourself and how you got involved in filmmaking.
I was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Before I can even remember, we moved to Houston where my dad got a job. While in high school in Houston, I was really into theater and loved acting and storytelling from that perspective.
After I graduated with a degree in theater from the University of Houston, a youth minister approached me and asked me to take over a youth drama group. My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I started writing plays for them to perform, and we really enjoyed it. A lot of times as an actor you are at the mercy of the world view of the writer, and that was no longer the case for me.
Eventually my wife and I decided to try something with professional actors. We did a twenty minute film and entered it into a film festival, and from there I met the staff of City on a Hill productions in Louisville.
Several years later I moved to Louisville to join their staff. I’ve cut my teeth on a number of short films over the years, and The Song is my first feature length film.
What were some surprises you had as you went from making shorts to a full length feature film?
The stamina that was required, as everything takes longer. If something takes you a week with a short film, it takes you eight weeks with a feature.
Also, I don’t want to use the word persecution, as that word is overplayed, but I think I was surprised by the prejudice I saw in the responses of some critics and audiences.
Prejudice because the film was a faith-based film?
There are times when people come into a film knowing it’s by an evangelical filmmaker and they can read the worst possible interpretation of things, because of prejudices. I’ve seen it done or felt it done to previous filmmakers or films I’ve seen, but to be honest, I underestimated it and was taken aback by it when I experienced it with The Song.
What do you think it will take to overcome that sort of prejudice?
I think it’s going to be a matter of individual filmmakers building credibility for themselves and the industry as a whole over time. I think it will also take a few breakout films to teach people not to necessarily expect certain things, and shake up the prejudices. And while not always the solution (Nicolas Cage in Left Behind), sometimes it will mean attaching big names to add some mystique to the projects.
Sadly, many Christians don’t care about overcoming filmmaking prejudice, they just want their faith-based films to have a clear presentation of the Gospel. How do you respond to that idea?
That’s why most evangelical art is utterly abysmal, because we rate its merits on a purely utilitarian basis. I think that’s why many of our church buildings are ugly, because we don’t value beauty or mystery. We want all the answers, and we want everything spelled out for us, and we want to imagine that the movie is crystal clear, even to the most obtuse viewer. If we hold the parables of Jesus to that same standard, most would be found wanting. I can only think of one parable by Jesus that overtly depicts a conversion, and that is Luke 18:9-14, where the man says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” If it’s not the point of every story Jesus told, why should it be the point of every story we tell? It’s a ridiculous, unbiblical standard.
The phrase I had in my head was actually from the parables of Jesus, and that was, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ve had people criticize me, saying that the film doesn’t contain the Gospel, but it’s actually in there. I gave you two dots and trust you to connect them. I don’t write for the most obtuse viewer I can imagine. It’s not fun to do that as a writer, and it’s not fun to engage with that as a viewer. I wanted to write a movie that worked for the reasons movies work, and a movie that looked like life, and I tried to use Jesus as a storytelling model.
How would you advise a Christian artist who wants to create something that reflects reality, including the ugliness of sin? What’s the balance?
I try to strike this balance: the difference between simulated sin and committed sin. You can’t simulate being nude in a sex scene, or saying the Lord’s name in vain. You either do it, or you don’t. What are you simulating? And what are you actually committing?
You also have to acknowledge market realities. Sure, you could make an R-rated film as a Christian, but you have to ask yourself why you’re doing those things and ask this important question – what are pastors and other Christians going to encourage each other to see?
Concerning this notion of simulated and committed sin, when you were making The Song, how did you handle intimate scenes between men and women? I’ve heard stories that Kirk Cameron had his wife stand in for the intimate scenes in Fireproof to maintain the purity of their marriage. Did you do anything like that?
For our honeymoon scene, our lead actor had his wife stand in, which was a personal conviction he had at the time. It’s not something I would be compelled to always do, like a hard and fast rule, but I was happy to honor the actor’s convictions.
There are a couple of schools of thought from an audience perspective and a Christian filmmaking perspective that actors in a Christian film need to be like ministers, because they are the carriers of the Gospel, and their lives should meet the standards of ministers. I disagree with that. I think it is true that the writer, the director, your high-end crew members are ministerial. They’re shaping the world view and controlling idea of the story. But the actors are people who could be ministered too, as much as anyone else. They can learn and grow from being in a Christian film. That’s not to dehumanize them and turn them into a project, I want to honor them, their convictions, their journey, their space, but at the same time I don’t put actors on the side of the line that treats them as pastors.
What projects do you have coming up?
City on a Hill does many Bible based DVD series, and we have one coming up in the spring on the Beatitudes. As far as feature length films go, it will be a time of assessing where we go forward from The Song. I am in preliminary talks with some people involved in a true story that I would like to do, and all I can say is that if I get to that story, when it comes time to make the announcement, it might just break the internet.
Many thanks to Richard Ramsey for taking the time to talk to me and take part in this interview.
Make sure that you rent or download a copy of The Song today! A Thimblerig’s Review should be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.
Richard Ramsey on Twitter: @
City on a Hill Productions on Twitter: @COAHStudio
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!
Just thought everyone might like to know that Thimblerig’s Ark is eligible to be nominated for the 2014 Grace Awards, and if you visit the linked blog, you can learn how to nominate a book like Thimblerig’s Ark!
Thanks to everyone!
Originally posted on Grace Awards:
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The Grace Awards is reader driven. That means in the first round readers vote for their favorite novels and chose “Finalists” in five literary categories.
WHO CAN VOTE FOR NOVELS:
Individuals (not organizations). Readers who maintain a networking page (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, Linkedin, Ning sites, a blog, etc.) created before November 1, 2014. We check each link to verify there’s a real person there.
Readers can only vote for ONE novel in each category.
Authors are also readers and can vote, but not for their own novel(s). DON’T vote against yourself, simply vote in the other genre categories for novels you deem worthy.
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This morning while I was having my coffee, this headline came across my Facebook page:
Curious, I clicked it, and read a testimonial from George Perdikis, one of the co-founders of Christian mega-group, The Newsboys.
As I read this article, a few things that Perdikis said popped out at me.
I always felt uncomfortable with the strict rules imposed by Christianity. All I wanted to do was create and play rock and roll… and yet most of the attention I received was focused on how well I maintained the impossible standards of religion. I wanted my life to be measured by my music, not by my ability to resist temptation.
The Christian music scene is populated by many people who act as though they have a direct hotline to a God who supplies them with the answers to the Universe. There seems to be more ego and narcissism amongst Christian musicians than their secular counterparts.
The truth is — from someone who knows what went on then and what goes on now — the Newsboys aren’t as holy as they profess. Instead of wearing a mask of “righteousness,” they should acknowledge that they are struggling as much as everyone else.
Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.
It’s one of the unfortunate truths of life that we Christians love having Christian celebrities as much as the world loves having theirs. Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-15 and you’ll see that even in the early church Christians had the bad habit of idolizing other Christians. But unlike the world, Christians typically add unrealistic expectations to our idol worship: holding our idols to perfect standards that they – and we – simply cannot keep.
This is true with Christian singers and musicians, church pastors, academics, athletes, writers, and many other high-profile occupations. These are our Christian idols, and while they may desire to point people towards God, we quite often nod in agreement about their proclamations about God and then spend the bulk of our time dwelling on them – the idols themselves.
In their defense, I know that many inadvertent Christian idols hate this. They work hard to be accessible and to spend time with the people who come to their concerts or lectures, to be real people. But as hard as they might work towards pointing people to Him, we still adulate them and hold up as super-spiritual superstar role models. It’s as if their ability to play chords on a guitar, write catchy or poetic lyrics, write a compelling novel, or put together an effective Bible study somehow makes them extra-special to God, gives them unique knowledge about God, and designates them especially worthy of our praise.
And then, when it turns out that they are just as messed up as the rest of us – when, for example, their sin becomes public – we toss them to the curb for not living up to the standards we – the Christian audience – have set up for them.
And then we move on to the next Christian celebrity to idolize.
Actually, I feel somewhat sorry for our Christian idols, because they have to deal with our adulation. As funny as it might sound to our fame-craving culture, I can’t imagine anything more difficult for a Christian than actually making it in a field that exposes them to celebrityism. Unless you are truly grounded, with a team of non-celebrity friends close by who will warn you when you’re starting to wander off the ranch, you will live in constant danger of believing that you are as wonderful as everyone around you tells you that you are.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called 3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea, and I would make this my fourth reason. As we stand on the edge of a new Christian Film Industry thanks to the successes of 2014: do we really want to do the same thing for Christian filmmakers? Do we really want to create a new cadre of Christian film actor idols? Christian film director idols? Christian film producer idols?
We have an opportunity in filmmaking by Christians – a relatively new animal – to do things differently than we did with music and publishing, and I believe part of that comes from not creating an industry around Christian film, but building up professionals from within the existing industry – as missionaries. Not celebrities.
We have the fresh possibility of intentionally seeing our filmmaking artists – no matter their level of success – as children of God, who are constantly battling their own flesh-driven thorns just like we are, who are the same as we are in God’s eyes, even though they may be able to turn a phrase in a special way, look good on camera, or have a unique eye behind the lens.
Christian filmmakers, part of this fall on you, too. As you begin to achieve success in Hollywood, stay firmly grounded in the truth that God isn’t impressed that you wrote a feature length script that has been picked up to be made into a film. He isn’t impressed that the film you worked on for five years was the surprise of the season and brought in a surprisingly high box office. He isn’t impressed that you made it onto the cover of Variety or Hollywood Reporter. He isn’t even impressed that you won an Academy Award.
What does impress Him? Among things, this…
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. Matthew 18:2-4
Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. ‘And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. “And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” John 15:4
Fellow Christians, we must stop idolizing other Christians, no matter what their calling. They’re people, just like you and me, using their gifts to the glory of God. When we idolize them, we set them on a path that is potentially destructive for them, that could lead them and us away from Him – the only one who deserves our praise.
So admire our Christian artists, academics, writers, and pastors; appreciate and enjoy their gifts; pray for them, certainly.
But let’s keep the idolizing where it belongs.
In front of this guy.
Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed becoming networked with several Christians who are involved in the filmmaking industry, and who have what I consider to be a healthy and balanced view on living your faith out while attempting to create film art for the glory of God.
One of the filmmakers I’ve gotten the pleasure of meeting (virtually, anyway) is Doc Benson, a man who wears many, many hats: producer, newscaster, station manager, voice artist, feature film actor, pastor, church consultant, and restart specialist. Doc has been involved in media and ministry since 1990, and has recently written, produced, acted in, and directed his first feature-length film, Seven Deadly Words.
One very interesting thing that Doc has done is started an effort to distribute a copy of Seven Deadly Words to every church in America. This is an amazingly generous undertaking, with potential far reaching impact. If you would like to learn more about this effort, you can find out more by visiting the website, www.givingchurcheshope.org.
I’m pleased and honored to have Doc Benson be a part of the third interview in my Thimblerig’s Interviews series.
Please Introduce yourself.
Hi, I’m Doc Benson… Director, Writer, and Producer and all around nice guy.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
While working on my doctorate, I took a break from ministry and became a producer and on-air talent for a CBS news affiliate. I eventually became a TV station manager in a small community in New England. I had the opportunity to work on documentaries and in “Disappearances” with Kris Kristofferson. That experience solidified my desire to enter the field of film production. Eventually I studied under Dov Simmons (the same teacher of Quentin Tarantino and Will Smith among others). From all this, I crafted the script and production that eventually became the award-winning feature, Seven Deadly Words.
Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist?
Well….Let me think a minute. I’d have to say that I draw on several sources for inspiration. First and foremost I’d have to say Frank Capra. Some directors like to tell stories about unapproachable people … people of the 1%. Capra, with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was best able to capture the irrepressible optimism and daily courage of ordinary men and women.
I am also a big fan of classic radio programs. The ability to capture an audience and transport them into another time and place merely with the spoken word. Sure, the maxim is “show it, don’t say it”, but if the word pictures you create are not on par with the images you paint, you will lose your audience. Script and story matters.
By the way, I have to agree with Orson Welles when he stated that Buster Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”
Inspired by actual events, this docudrama follows the community and the congregation of Egypt Valley Church as they try to overcome the Seven Deadly Words: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ The church is out of funds and out of touch with the community. New pastor Evan Bennett sets out to change things for the better with the help of some folks in and out of the church. But there’s a problem… The Haman Family has been running things a long time, and they don’t like change. When their control and ministry comes under scrutiny, the Hamans decide to fight back. Evan and his family soon learn how far one family is willing to go to preserve the status quo.
For almost two decades I served as a pastor, church planter, and restart consultant. I have seen both the good and bad about churches going through change. I’ve even lived through some “horror stories” of my own. I thought I would combine some of those ideas, stories, and debates, and put them together into a film that could tell the story of one church, going through needed change. Folks may be shocked at some of the things that happen, but I am sorry to say that much of the film is inspired by actual events. In the end, however, it is a story about overcoming the conflict surrounding change, and growing in a direction that is Christ centered and ministry focused.
Script development began back in 2011. We assembled the cast and crew in early 2012, and began principal photography on June 9th of 2012. The premiere was held near the end of 2013, with distribution starting in the summer of 2014. We’ve been blessed to have won a number of awards for the project. It was even screened in Cannes during this year’s festival.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project? What surprises did you experience along the way?
Funding was the biggest challenge. We set up an LLC and secured members to invest in the project. Being that it was my first film, we were in uncharted waters. It took some time to find investors with the vision and courage to recognize the potential in the film. Selecting a location was also paramount. We partnered with Connersville, Indiana, a community that was supportive to the extent that the provided resources for us at no cost and even let us use the city and local business names in the movie. This was a win-win in that we were able to reduce art costs and production expenses, and they gained a promotional boost with every showing of the movie. I strongly believe that these types of partnerships help to boost production value in lower budget films while reducing actual spending.
Production wasn’t as big a challenge as you would think. I had very detailed call sheets, shot lists, and script notes. Good planning made the days run fairly smoothly. Because of our preparations in advance, we often finished with filming by mid afternoon each day. I didn’t want it to feel like an indie set, but more like a SAG set. The professionalism on set gave the cast and crew time to rehearse, relax, and socialize in the evenings. We still finished the entire film, securing all shots we needed plus some, in the 18 days scheduled (six days shooting and one for rest per week). I believe that well rested actors and crew can give a much better performance in fewer takes than a crew working 16 to 18 hours a day on a mismanaged set.
Surprise? I guess I’d have to say the reaction from mainstream festivals. We have received more awards and recognition from secular festivals than faith-based festivals. Maybe it’s because our story exposes areas in church life that need improvement. Folks who have never stepped foot in a church tell us that they can relate to the conflict over the seven deadly words. Some have even told us war stories of personal experiences. To me, that’s high praise.
What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community now, and your predictions for where it might go in the future?
We are trapped in a moment in time where church audiences and the Christian-industrial complex tend to prefer movies that don’t take risks. Movies with milquetoast stories and construction make millions, while films that break new creative boundaries barely scrape by. I call these “Godsploitation” films, after the “Blackspoitation” movies of the 1970’s. They are formulaic for a target market with come to Jesus moments and car salesman subtlety.
Godsploitation films continue to be made because they have a ready audience, and investors like ready audiences. It’s a catch 22. We need investors to take chances on redemptive films in new genres, but we also need believers to accept and promote these new movies. Some producers are starting to break out of this mold, but we have a ways to go before we see a wide swath of redemptive films covering multiple genres.
“Faith-based” films are typically also family friendly, but the Bible is often not family friendly. How would you advise Christian artists as they think about portraying the grittier sides of life?
Yeah. If you made an accurate movie about parts of the Old Testament, it would be boycotted by many churches!
Life isn’t clean. Good guys aren’t perfect. Bad guys aren’t twisting a moustache and wearing a cape. We don’t exist in a Pollyanna world. If you want to make characters that are overcomers in Christ, you need to give them something to overcome. Give them challenges, problems, realism, grit… especially if your target audience includes Pre-Christians.
But that doesn’t mean you have to show EVERYTHING in order to make your point. Take horror films: Hitchcock’s Psycho did more to scare me by showing syrup in a drain than any blood soaked slasher film of today ever will. Or how about just before the fight scene between Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Borgnine sees a photo of Sinatra’s sister, and whispers something in the ear of Montgomery Clift . You don’t hear what it was, but it was bad enough to cause Sinatra to grab a chair and start swinging. Maybe it’s the radio fan in me, but if Christians want to make realistic films without gratuitous violence or over the top language, take a cue from the masters of the golden age…imply. Your audience’s imagination will do the rest.
Along those same lines, do you think it’s possible for Christian filmmakers to make R-rated films? If so, how would imagine that would look, and what would be the risks?
I think that the movie My Son gave us a window into what an R-rated movie with a solid redemptive message could look like. Unlike many in the church, I felt that the movie probably deserved an R rating for drug use and violence, but that didn’t mean it was a bad movie. On the contrary. Keep in mind that the MPAA rating system is subjective at best and biased at worst. There are many mainstream films that receive ratings lower than deserved.
But really, who cares? Hollywood may release more R rated films, but over and over, studies have shown that PG and PG-13 movies make more money. Remember, you need investors, and investors like proven profitability.
Don’t tell me you couldn’t make that R rated film a PG-13 with just a few tweaks. Drop some of the language. The overuse of profanity is a crutch that weak writers use to create fake tension. Suggest some of the sex instead of just showing it. It will take more creativity, but will be more profitable in the long run and less apt to be shunned by the church community.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers, especially those who are approaching filmmaking as a calling or a ministry?
First, expect to be disappointed. There are going to be many hours of frustration, many dead end roads, and many moments of disillusionment. If you think that the faith-based film industry is paved with golden intentions and receptive hearts think again. There are egos, agendas, and self-centered prima donnas here too. They get away with it by disguising their pomposity in a shroud of spiritual language and religiosity. It will be very frustrating, but don’t let it rob you of your zeal and purpose. Keep the faith.
If you want to make a million dollar feature, show them you can make a successful $200,000 feature. If you want to make that, show them you can make a $60,000 film. To make that, make a great $20,000 movie and so on. Work your way up the path of budget and creativity. Don’t try to start too big, nor should you remain stuck in ultra-low budget purgatory. And for heaven’s sakes, no more shorts!
The other thing I would recommend is figure out what film-making job you are good at, and learn as much about that role as possible. Right now most redemptive films are made using the “Lone Ranger” model…One guy or gal is the director, producer, dp, grip, chief cook, etc. That’s not how the industry at large works. A quality production brings together a diverse staff of talented individuals uniquely gifted in their task. I myself have worn a number of hats, but have focused on directing as my calling.
Collaborative efforts will require bigger budgets, which will require greater investment, which will require better stories and quality to attract investors. Therefore, as we move to collaboration, we will see better movies. Maybe instead of you and four other people each making an okay 10 grand film, you could work together to make an amazing 50 grand feature or web pilot? Leave your egos at the foot of the cross, please.
Can you tell us what you have planned for any future projects?
Ever since Seven Deadly Words and winning those three best director awards, I have been asked to direct for other producers. I look forward to those directing opportunities and others that may come along. In the mean time I have another film in development entitled The Publication, which will include actors from SDW as well as talented folks like Lee Perkins from Foxcatcher and Nancy Stafford from Matlock. We are still gathering investment on this one.
I also have other scripts that I would love to direct and partner with a production company or church to make. If a church was interested in becoming a producer of redemptive film, I would come in, help train your people, assist with the production planning, and then direct the film.
The other thing happening is a campaign called Giving Churches Hope. There was so much positive feedback about our last movie and the value it had for church audiences, we are working with several church organizations and non-profits in an effort to give a copy of “Seven Deadly Words” to every church in America. Folks can learn more at the campaign website GivingChurchesHope.org or by contacting me directly via DocBenson.org .
Again, a big thank you to Doc Benson for taking part in this interview, and for giving so much great information for those of us interested in helping Christians excel in filmmaking and other artistic endeavors.
More about Doc…
Doc Benson’s article, The Little Red Hen for Filmmakers
Find out more information about Doc Benson: DocBenson.org
Giving Churches Hope website: Giving Churches Hope
Seven Deadly Words on Facebook: /SevenDeadlyWords
Past Thimblerig interviews…
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!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.
Do you know the name?
If you know Scottish music, it’s a name you might know. If you know Scottish music, it’s name you should know.
His could have been a name that most all would have known, regardless of our fondness for music from Scotland. There are some names that deserve to be known. But life has a way of writing our scripts in surprising and sometimes cruel and tragic ways.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I tell you more about Martyn Bennett and why I’m writing about him, you need to hear him. I think we’ll start with the first track from his second album, Bothy Culture. The song is called Tongues of Kali.
Oh, and make sure you turn up the volume.
How I heard about Martyn Bennett is a bit of a story.
My wife and I were married in 1998 on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, the day of Hogmanay (the last day of year in Scottish). It’s also the day of one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world, as Edinburgh is transformed for one night into a citywide mix of free concerts, dancing, celebratory kissing, and the kind of joyful revelry that should always happen on New Year’s Eve.
Considering we had a small wedding that included only five, we made the decision that Edinburgh’s festivities were actually our wedding reception, with thousands of guests and music and fireworks. As night fell, I put on my rented kilt, and my new bride and I headed out to see what the city had arranged to celebrate our new marriage.
Weaving our way through the festive crowds, we came upon a stage on a fairly empty city square being prepared for a concert. We had no idea who would be performing, but since few people had yet stopped at the spot, and since I saw different kinds of Scottish musical instruments being handled on the stage, we decided to park ourselves and enjoy watching people until the concert began.
A man with baggy camouflage pants and long hair in dreadlocks came out on stage and started tuning instruments, creating an immediate disconnect for me. He didn’t fit my image of a traditional Scottish musician. With the dreads, he looked more like a reggae artist. Were we really about to ring in the new year in Scotland with reggae music?
But since he was tuning pipes and the other Scottish instruments, it would had to be Scottish music, right?
The crowd had started to build, effectively trapping us at the front of the stage, and so we had no choice but to wait and see.
When the performance started, I was transfixed by what I heard coming from the musicians onstage. It was most definitely Scottish music, but it was infused with club beats and samples and sitars and syncopated rhythms and sounds like I had never heard before.
This was music.
Music full of passion.
Music full of life and energy.
It wasn’t safe music, like some other attempts at blending traditional Celtic music with modern sounds. It was raw. It was risky.
And things just got better.
My wife, who is a native of Kazakhstan, started squealing (yes, she squealed) and hopping up and down as she realized she’d seen the dreadlocked musician perform at the state opera house in her home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan just a few weeks earlier, when he and a small group of musicians had travelled there as guests of the British Consul.
It was like a special gift, to have the band at our wedding reception be so fantastic and unique, and to have them playing a return engagement especially for my wife. Well, at least to us it was especially for my wife.
The concert that night was unforgettable, especially when midnight came, and the city erupted in a massive fireworks display. Bennett led the now overcrowded square in a traditional singalong of Auld Lang Syne that segued into an audience-pleasing high energy song that would be well-met in any rave. We danced and celebrated well into the night, one of the best nights of my life, and an amazing way to start our married life.
In Edinburgh, in the days that followed, I managed to find a copy of Bennett’s Bothy Culture, which we would listen to frequently, fondly.
Soon after, my wife and I moved to Kazakhstan, where we lived for fourteen years. One day in 2005, I decided to hunt down information about the dreadlocked musician that we had enjoyed so much that New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh. I loved the CD, and wanted more. We would be returning to the U.S. for the summer, so I went searching, knowing I would stand a pretty good chance of tracking down any new music in the states.
To my heartbreak, I found that Martyn Bennett had died on January 30 of that year at the ridiculously young age of 34. He’d died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he’d been fighting since being diagnosed in November of 2000.
I couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t imagine it. That energetic, creative, driving force, who I’d watched blow across Hogmanay like a hurricane – was gone?
From what I’ve read, as Martyn’s illness weakened him, he became unable to tour, and eventually had to stop playing his instruments. But this didn’t stop him from recording his final album, entitled Grit. Bennett described the idea of Grit this way:
Split between the songs of travelling people (Roma) and the Gaelteachd traditions of the Hebrides (Grit) brings together by far the strongest links to the ‘real’ folk culture in Scotland. Virtually all the songs and narrative were sampled from vinyl records or from original quarter-inch tape recordings, the sources of which were mostly recorded from 1950 onwards…
Rhythmically and sonically I have gone to great effort in this recording. In recent years so many representations of Scotland have been misty-lensed and fanciful to the point that the word ‘Celtic’ has really become a cloudy pigeon-hole. This album was a chance for me to present a truthful picture, yet face my own reflection in the great mirror of all cultures.
When I found out that Martyn Bennett had died, it’s hard to describe how devastated I felt, considering I had never met the man. I really didn’t even know much about him. And I hadn’t even taken the time to drop him a note thanking him for the important part he played in the start of my marriage.
His music had travelled the globe with my family several times, and I’d never tried to let him know.
That’s the kind of thing we think about doing, but rarely ever do. And we almost always wind up wishing that we had.
So, Martyn, this is my note. We’re coming up on ten years since you were liberated from your suffering, and this blog post is my attempt to honor you, and thank you for all the joy and pleasure you brought to so many people in the too-short time you were given to share your gift. Especially the joy and pleasure you brought to us.
And it’s also my attempt to help more people to know your name, and your music.
Because yours is a name that deserves to be remembered.
Martyn Bennett lived a full life, pursuing his dreams of preserving the musical heritage of Scotland’s past while embracing the progressive nature of Scotland’s musical future. He was a classically trained musician, a meticulous musical perfectionist with a love of sampling and house beats. He was – and continues to be – an inspiration to countless young musicians across Scotland, and beyond.
Please read more about Martyn’s life in his own words, by reading the bio he wrote on his blog.
Also, read more in depth about Bennett’s life from Herald Scotland journalist, Rob Adams.
Finally, enjoy some of the music of Martyn Bennett, then share it with others.
Extreme biker Danny Macaskill’s The Ridge, with soundtrack Martyn Bennett’s Blackbird from Grit
Hallaig, from Bothy Culture, and the award winning short film by Neil Kempsell
Swallowtail, a more traditional song by Martyn Bennett, with scenes from Man of Aran
Sky Blue by Peter Gabriel, the Martyn Bennett mix. The last recording Bennett made before his death.
And if you have the chance, try to see GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.
I know something about you.
Don’t worry, it’s not about a new scandal, and you haven’t been hacked again, as far as I know. It’s simply this: you have been trying desperately to figure out how to crack the faith-based film formula, and while you have had moderate success here and there (even a broken clock is right a couple of times a day, right?) you’ve also had plenty of misfires.
I know that you are frustrated.
It must be so disheartening! After all, everyone knows the formulas for your non-faith-based films that have served you so well: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat; Robert McKee’s Story, but like Indiana Jones in his hero’s journey, you’re staring at a pile of amazing treasure, and you have the enormous obstacle of a great chasm in the way.
And you don’t have a whip.
The wealth you could accumulate with that formula in your hands is unimaginable, and I know that you’ve thought about it. With the knowledge of how to successfully tap into those middle America faith-based box office ticket sales, you could finally add the new wing to your beach house in Malibu. You could finally buy that new candy apple red Jaguar F-type R you’ve had your eye on and park it in your driveway for everyone to see. You could finally get that plastic surgery you’ve been dreaming of, ever since Renee what’s-her-name got so much publicity for making her big face change.
But you just don’t have a whip.
Well, breathe a sigh of relief my friends, and schedule your consultation with Dr. Grossman, because after months of research by the tireless staff at the Thimblerig Institute for Faith Based Film Studies©, with untold hours spent watching a variety of faith-based film successes and failures, guess what?
We’ve done it.
We’ve cracked the formula.
We know what you need to do.
And we’re giving this information away, for free.
This won’t be as earth-shattering as the mythical memo sent by Christopher Vogler while he was working for Disney, but these nine things might be just what you were looking for.
So get your assistant to take notes.
9 Things Hollywood Can Do To Make The Perfect Faith-Based Film
1. The Perfect Christian Film needs to look good.
This first point seems pretty obvious, but the history of faith-based film may lead you believe that Christians like films that aren’t shot and edited well. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recent films have proven that Christian audiences want their films to look as good as Hollywood’s best, so don’t try to save money by hiring a kid just out of film school. Pony up the dough and get competent, experienced people to shoot, sound, and edit the film.
Don’t worry. You’ll save money on acting, as the mass of faith-based audiences don’t seem to mind amateur actors, especially if said actors play supporting characters, and they are outspoken Christians in real life.
Save more money and get your cousin who went to music school to compose the soundtrack on his Yamaha MOX6 keyboard. The score is inconsequential as long as you can get a few songs by current contemporary Christian musicians to play over the opening and closing credits. That’s the stuff the audience will eat it up.
2. Message is King.
Good news! You can also save money on screenwriting, as typical faith-based audiences are mostly concerned about the message rather than the story. That being said, it’s important that you run your message by a few friendly Christian leaders to make certain that it’s kosher before releasing the film, which will also probably get you some good bullet point quotes you can use to further promote your film. And while certainly the film should have some entertaining moments of drama and comedy to keep the audience engaged, ultimately you can forget Samuel Goldwyn’s Western Union quote.
It’s all about the message! Say that to yourself a few times to let it sink in.
3. How to Write Characters for Faith-Based Films.
Since we’ve established the importance of the message in faith-based films, we should take a moment to explain what should take place in the creating and writing of characters, so as to avoid confusion.
The protagonist should be noble with few flaws, and the flaws he or she has should be pretty minor. We don’t want any Lester Burnhams (Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) or Colin Sullivans (Matt Damon in Departed) sneaking into the casts of our faith-based films. And if you make the bold choice of having the protagonist wrestling with his or her faith, something miraculous should happen to help convince or reassure the hero that he is following the right spiritual pathway. Forget suffering servants, the faith-based audience wants the hero to live in victory!
As to the antagonist, it is helpful if the antagonist is written to be fairly one-dimensional, with underdeveloped motivations for being opposed to the hero or the faith that the hero represents. The antagonist exists solely to stand in opposition to the protagonist, and we needn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the motivations.
Also, seriously consider having the antagonist pray the prayer of salvation at the climax of the film, possibly even right before he or she dies. Yes, that would be a big encouragement to the audiences, even if you have to sort of force the situation.
Such an ending is highly recommended, and should not be considered hacky or manipulative.
4. More on the Writing…
I know, for something that doesn’t seem to be so important for faith-based films, we are spending quite a bit of time on the subject of writing. Isn’t that strange? But research is research, so we continue.
There are several things that you may be used to having in feature film scripts that you don’t need to spend too much time worrying about in the faith-based scripts you will develop: symbolism, metaphors, allegories, subtlety, structure, interesting narrative, poetry, innovation, creativity, ambiguity, unanswered questions, analogies, euphemisms, paradoxes, satire, irony…
oh, you get the idea.
Just avoid being provocative, and focus on being on the nose and didactic, and you’ll do well.
5. Christians like their celebrities, too.
If you can get a celebrity to cameo in your film, it will be a sure draw to the box office. It can be a singer, an actor, a sports star, a reality TV star, a journalist, or even a pastor! As long as the celebrity is an inoffensive household name in Christian homes, they don’t even have to act well!
Christian or not, having a pseudo-famous name attached will somehow make the film seem more legitimate, and if there is some question about the faith of the celebrity, it will also get the faith-based audience talking about the film as they wonder hopefully if the celebrity is a Christian, too!
More publicity for your film, right?
6. Faith-based = Family Friendly.
That being said, you can potentially get away with a PG-13, but that should probably only be for scenes of mild violence, or a mildly bad word or two if you’re being really edgy.
But you should definitely avoid the temptation of making a film that shows the unfiltered ugliness of sin or the unbridled passion of love, so that you might earn the coveted Dove Seal of Approval, the earning of which indicates to all of your potential audience that you have successfully made an absolutely inoffensive movie.
7. Movies Based on Bible Stories
Don’t do it any more.
Trust me on this.
8. Speak the Language.
If you were going to make a film for a teenage girl audience, you would make certain to use current idioms and expressions in your film to help make the film more accessible. In the same way, make certain to pepper modern Christianese throughout your film, and you will be loving on your faith-based audiences, showing them true fellowship, even in the buckle of the Bible belt.
To help you with this, I refer you to the excellent online resource, The Dictionary of Christianese.
9. Help the Audience Spend Money.
If you’ve been to ComicCon, you know that those fans love to spend their money on merchandise that ties into their film obsession, and faith-based audiences are the same. So make it easy for them! You might not be able to make an action figure of your movie’s characters, but you could always have a well-known pastor write devotional materials connected to your movie which will be sold in Christian bookstores all across the fruited plains, and would sell like autographed dancing Groot Bobbleheads at ComicCon!
In fact, if you do the devotional material first, you can write your movie based on the material and not the other way around. After all, don’t forget that it is the message that matters.
Does your main character wear a special piece of Jesus jewelry? Merchandise! Does he or she (usually he) say some sort of catch phrase? Slap that bad boy on a t-shirt and make it merch! Get that merch into Lifeway and Family Christian Stores! But don’t just stop there, also get it into WalMart, Target, and other major retailers who will sell anything to make a buck.
Everyone makes money, and everyone is happy!
There you have it. If you are a clever, intrepid, go-getting Hollywood producer, you should be able to take these tips and blaze the trail for conquering the faith-based film market. The heavy lifting has been done for you by our crack team at the Thimblerig Institute for Faith Based Film Studies©, and now all that’s left for you to do is to take it and make it a reality.
Shhhh… can you hear it? Is that the purr of a Jaguar’s engine?