The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

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I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

Twitter Responds To Clinton’s Venn Diagram Fail

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I don’t usually post political items, but this is just too amusing, and so I can’t help myself. A few hours ago, Hillary Clinton’s twitter page posted this.

Now, in case you are wondering exactly what that tweet means, you wouldn’t be the only one. It seems that Mrs. Clinton is trying to use a Venn Diagram to promote the idea of Congress doing something about universal background checks, and somehow it has something to do with 90% of Americans, and 83% of gun owners. But, something went wrong with the execution.

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This is one of those golden moments that Twitter could not allow to pass unnoticed. And I don’t care if you are for Hillary, for Trump, for Bernie, or for Flavius Octavius von Imasillyman, you have to appreciate the humor of it all.

Here are some of the responses offered by the Twitterverse:

And then there’s this…

And this…

See, Twitter wants to make sure that the Clinton campaign understands that the point of a Venn Diagram is to help you to understand something better, not make it even more confusing. And so, there was plenty of help proffered.

For example:

And this…

And this…

And because the power of the Venn Diagram had now been shown to the Twitterverse, others started trying to use it to their own benefit. Like this Seinfeld fan page:

And this guy, who was looking for the Venn Diagram to help provide some answers for his struggling marriage:

And this person who wanted to show that a Venn Diagram can even help you understand other countries!

So, thank you Twitter, for helping end the week on a high note. And whoever it was in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign that made this error, don’t worry. Truth be told, the internet’s got your back.

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • May 17, 2016

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It’s been a slow few weeks, and considering I have a personal boycott of anything having to do with the presidential election and I’m tired of people arguing about bathrooms, I thought I would reinstate the old “Three Interesting Things” I’ve found recently as I’ve been jumping around the internet.

Today, I’ll be writing about Lecrae, Phil Vischer, and The Flash.

1. Lecrae Signs a Deal with Columbia Records

lecraeThis is tremendously exciting news for a number of reasons. But for me, I’m excited because it shows that secular companies recognize and reward artistic excellence, even when it comes from *gasp* Christians.

This news also flies in the face of the American persecution narrative that is so popular in certain Evangelical circles these days. If things were so bad for American Christians, would one of our top artists be getting deals with major labels?

Let’s take a moment and look at this particular artist.


Over the past few years, Lecrae has had songs reach #1 on the Billboard charts, won two Grammy awards, and has appeared on secular national television performing his music (see the video above). These things wouldn’t have happened if he cared about his artistic integrity less than he did sharing his faith, and I think his story should inspire all Christian artists to work hard on achieving excellence in both things.

Believing artists, take your craft seriously, do it with all excellence, and the world will notice and respond.

2. Phil Vischer’s Patreon Page

You might know Phil Vischer as the creator of Veggietales. Well, I have been a loyal listener of the Phil Vischer podcast for the past couple of years, which I wrote about in a past article. I highly recommend this podcast for those of you who want fun and reasoned discourse on all sorts of important issues. Phil and his co-hosts Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor do a great job breaking down stories of the day and discussing them from a Christian perspective.

Recently, Phil announced that he was starting a Patreon account so that the podcast gang can branch out and do more. I’m personally excited to see what this might mean, and am happy to encourage Thimblerig readers to consider supporting Phil’s Patreon as well.

So, if you aren’t familiar with Phil and his podcast, go check it out!

3. The Runaway Dinosaur

CiM_J7dUoAAK_JaOkay, technically, this isn’t a news story I found online. It’s an episode of my family’s favorite television program, The Flash. And if you don’t watch The Flash, know that it delivers, week after week.

My family loves it, my toddler thinks that he is the Flash (see the video below), and I’ve been consistently impressed by the way the show delivers action with heart. Grant Gustin is the perfect Barry Allen/Flash, and in this past week’s episode (directed by Kevin Smith), the show outdid itself, taking us to places we’ve never been before. And darned if I didn’t get a bit teary-eyed by the way they wrapped up Barry’s time with the Speed Force. Great job to Gustin and the cast, Kevin Smith, writer Zack Stentz, and producer Greg Berlanti.

If you aren’t watching The Flash, then what are you waiting for? Binge the past two seasons and get caught up in time for the summer hiatus.

Photo by Christopher Patey

Photo by Christopher Patey

Having said that, I do have one word of criticism for The Flash and the other superhero programs produced by Greg Berlanti, and I’ll mention it in the off-and-not-likely-chance that he reads this article.

Mr. Berlanti, I appreciate that you are committed to diversity with the programs you produce, attempting to represent all different aspects of our society. For example, I thought it was bold and brave that you made the potentially controversial choice to have the West family be African-American rather than Caucasian, that you’ve consistently had strong female characters as well as male, and that you have quietly introduced homosexual characters, all in an attempt to reflect society.

But, in my opinion, you’ve left out one group of people, and it’s pretty glaring.

Where are people of faith?

Almost 90% of Americans identify as religious, and yet we see no people of faith (not counting ancient Egyptian religion) in any of your superhero programs. No character turns to their religious beliefs to help them grapple with receiving super-powers, no character mourns the loss of another character by praying in (or out of) church, no character reads any sort of sacred text as inspiration or goes to a priest to discuss what is happening in the world, no talking heads discuss the theological ramifications of super beings in the background on Central City talk shows.

It’s a pity, especially when a nuanced handling of the topic could increase the potential power of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, putting them over the top of being great dramatic/action television.

So, Mr. Berlanti, as a “fan of faith”, I’d love it if you’d consider representing my people in your programs as well.

By the way, here’s my toddler (Noah, the fastest three year old alive) recreating a Flash sprint through the ferry terminal here in Shenzhen, China, complete with the slow motion scenes. And yes, we are planning on getting him a Flash costume when we are back in the U.S. this summer.


Thanks for joining us for Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day! Look for a new episode next week, and feel free to share your own interesting stories!

An End Times Movie in Two Minutes

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We Christians just love our end times movies.

We’ve done bunches and bunches of them, from the classic A Thief in the Night trilogy to Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind movies to Nic Cage’s Left Behind movie reboot to movies with subtle names like Final: The Rapture and Tribulation and Revelation Road (1, 2 & 3) and The Apocalypse and The Remaining and Blink of an Eye and Pre-Trib! The Musical

That last one might not be real.

But, if you look at the bulk of Christian-made movies out there, and how many seem to deal with this topic, then you would have to conclude that we Christians must just love our end times movies.

But maybe you’ve never seen one of our end times movies, want to know what the big deal is, but don’t actually want to sit through 90 minutes of a Christian film? Well, Thimblerig comes to the rescue! If you watch this two minute clip from Community’s third season, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what our end-of-days movies are all about. In fact, Dan Harmon pretty well nails it.

Although I must admit that the Community clip does have a bit more nuance, subtlety, and artistry then our usual attempts at showing the end-of-days, but I think you get the picture.

Meanwhile, if you want to see some of my reviews of a couple of end times movies…

Here’s Left Behind, which was awful.

And here’s The Remaining, which was actually pretty good.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

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I was pleased and honored to be asked to write an article for the National Novel Writing Month about my experiences as an international educator taking students through NaNoWriMo. Here is an excerpt from that article, with the link to the whole article at the bottom of the page.

Young Writer Chronicles: Students Around the World Discover a Love for Writing

by Nate Fleming

tumblr_inline_o6x334JM8u1r0x68m_500I fell into NaNoWriMo backwards, through Script Frenzy, a program sponsored by the nonprofit behind NaNo from 2007 to 2012. In Script Frenzy, a writer would write the first draft of a screenplay over the month of April. At that time, I had aspirations to be a screenwriter, even going so far as to take a screenwriting course in Hollywood over the summer of 2007 to help me down this path.

My biggest obstacle to a screenwriting career was geography. That summer I’d come to Hollywood from my wife’s home country of Kazakhstan, where I was teaching in an international school. Central Asia is not exactly the best place for a writer to live if he wants to break into Hollywood, is it? So, on the advice of a screenwriter friend, I turned to NaNoWriMo. If I couldn’t be in Hollywood to sell my screenplay idea, perhaps I could write a novel, and that novel could sell itself! In 2008, I decided to set aside November to work on making my screenplay into a novel.

downloadAlthough I didn’t finish the novel that year, I enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much that in 2009, I decided to try and see if I could fit NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program into my international school’s curriculum. That year, with the approval of my administration, I piloted taking a valiant class of fifth graders through the month of writing, and it was maddening, exhilarating, insane, and immensely rewarding.

My eyes were opened as I saw students who had previously struggled to write a paragraph effortlessly filling pages and pages of a first draft. It also unlocked writing in other classes across the curriculum, and writing was coming easier for these students in history, science, and literature classes. It was revolutionary! The doors had been opened, and my students suddenly believed that they could write! It was almost magical!

To read the rest of the story, go here.

 

Thimblerig’s Spoilerific Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

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One of the benefits of living in China is that every now and then, the Hollywood studios decide to roll out their big films in our corner of the world, rather than in the United States, where you’d think they’d drop first. Of course, there’s quite a bit of irony in the fact that a Captain America movie would not premiere in America, but regardless, it’s still cool for us. And considering the movie has already made $84 million internationally [update: $200.2 mill], and has yet to open in the United States or even in my host country of China, I’d say it’s been cool for a whole lot of people.

So, yesterday my kids and I hopped a ferry from Shenzhen to Hong Kong with the express purpose of eating at McDonald’s Next, and taking in a viewing of Captain America: Civil War. It was a tiring day, but was it worth it?

civil warAbsolutely, it was.

As director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) tweeted yesterday:

I agree wholeheartedly with Derrickson. This is a trilogy where nothing erodes or gets lost from episode to episode. In fact, if anything, each installment builds on and improves on the other. Even my beloved original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t able to accomplish this, with The Empire Strikes Back unarguably the high point of the trilogy.

With Captain America, the films just get better and better, and this last installment is – by far – the high point.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, I want to discuss the biggest, most glaring lesson that I took from the film. And no, this doesn’t involve spoilers.

The Goodness of Steve Rogers

Captain-America-image-1Ever since Chris Evans and the Russo brothers first suited up, I have been constantly blown away by the unflinchingly goodness of Captain America. This is a character that lives for doing the right thing, even when the forces of the world are arrayed against him. As we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he has a strong moral code, and he tries to elevate his comrades to live by that same code, even as they make fun of him. He would sacrifice everything for the sake of his friends, including friendship when need be. He has such a noble character that he could almost pick up Thor’s hammer, and if he had, we wouldn’t have been surprised.

And while most of the other superheroes we see are tortured about one thing or another, in the Captain America trilogy, Rogers is only tortured by two things: not being able to help is friends in need, and the fact that he is a man out of time, that he was ripped away from all that he knew when he was thawed out in the 21st century.

And yet, Captain America is one of the most popular superheroes to come out of modern superhero films.

chris-evans-shirtless-captain-americaYou could argue that one reason that Cap is so popular lies in the fact that Chris Evans is, as my friend Jasmine said, just so hot. (Yeah, I put that image there just for you, Jasmine. You’re welcome.)

And while that might be the draw for a certain demographic, I don’t think Evans’ hotness has anything to do with the fact that I see kids here in China running around wearing red, white, and blue Captain America t-shirts.

Then what is it? In my mind, it boils down to the truth that Cap is the hero we all wish we had in our lives: someone who will stand up for us, and who will refuse to stay down on our behalf, because it will always be the right thing to do. But not only that, thanks to the Dr. Stark’s Super Soldier Serum, he has the skills to back up the stands that he takes. He’s like the Boy Scout’s Boy Scout, All-American, apple pie, Brooklyn, and all that jazz. Cap proves time and again that in the right hands, our absolutely good characters can be portrayed as absolutely good, and it can work. They don’t always have to go through a dark night of the soul to get there. (Hear that, Zach Snyder?)

This all speaks volumes about the Russo brothers (read their thoughts on Cap here) and Joss Whedon, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Chris Evans. They chose to handle this potentially irritating and absurdly good character with integrity and consistency. Directing, writing and acting tortured characters is not such a challenge. Directing, writing, and acting good characters that maintain their goodness throughout, and doing so in a compelling way is nearly impossible.

But these guys have pulled off the nearly impossible.

But enough Captain America pontification. If you have not seen Captain America: Civil War yet, and you are trying to steer clear of spoilers, then steer way clear of this blog post. Because here there be spoilers.

***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***

I’m not going to take the time to summarize the events of the movie, as you can find that just about anywhere, including Wikipedia. Rather, I just want to give my thoughts.

• As anyone would know from watching the trailers, Captain America: Civil War could actually be called Avengers: Civil War. While it focuses most of the attention on Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to stuff any more Avengers into this film. And the amazing thing is that each Avenger has their moment to shine, and so the film doesn’t come close to feeling overstuffed.

captain-america-civil-war-will-change-the-mcu-even-more-than-the-winter-soldier-say-866418• I loved how both Captain America and Tony Stark are right, in their own way. It’s an interesting metaphor of how wars can really start – with a small disagreement that eventually billows out of control. And in wars, people get hurt. Civil War is no exception. And the fight at the end between the two of them feels earned, as compared to that other big superhero v. superhero film that came out earlier in the year. And I loved that the big issue between them isn’t resolved in the end. It gives us somewhere to go with the characters in the upcoming Infinity War films.

• I’m fascinated that Captain America, who has headlined three movies and been featured prominently in two others, is a character with no arc. Like James Bond or Indiana Jones, Cap changes very little, but rather demands change from those around him. Conversely, Tony Stark has been forced to go through several radical changes since he premiered in the original Iron Man, but with Captain America, this lack of substantial change works.

• The film’s humor is spot on. Considering the destruction of both property and relationships, the film has several laugh out loud moments. The strained relationship between the Falcon and Bucky being a great example, another being the expected quips of Spider-Man (more on him later). But the best example of use of humor in this film was anything that came out of the mouth of Scott Lang, aka Ant Man. If this film accomplished anything, it made me look forward to the next Ant Man film to see more of Lang, who played a decidedly BIG role in one of the best scenes of this, and just about any superhero movie that has come down the pike.

Oh, and while Stan Lee’s cameo was not so impressive, Rhodes’ (War Machine) response to it was priceless and perfect.

• Spider-Man. What can I say? Spidey has always been my favorite superhero, and while I enjoyed Tobey and Andrew’s turns in the red and blue suit, Tom Holland looks to be the perfect choice to carry the mantle. I love that he is actually the age that Spider-Man would be after just receiving his powers, and his immaturity shows. He is skilled, but not as skilled as he will be. And he is immature, just wanting to please Tony Stark, and so starstruck by his new relationship with him that he is unable to think for himself or entertain the notion that Stark might be wrong.

This film (and the end credits scene) are a nice setup to the new Spider-Man franchise, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with it (especially since we blessedly won’t have to sit through another tired Spider-Man origin story).

My one beef with Spidey in this film was that the CGI wasn’t quite as fluid as I would hope. There were moments that he looked cartoonish, which I hope that they fix when they make the standalone film.

• The trailer bait and switch. As with the trailer for The Force Awakens, the Russos did a great job making a trailer that made you think you knew what would happen, while in actuality, something else entirely was going to happen. Some examples: the almost Luke Skywalkerian Spider-Man trailers made it seem like Spider-Man would play a much smaller role in this film than he actually ended up playing. Also, the trailer made it appear that Bucky shoots down War Machine, when someone else altogether is responsible for that incident. I love when trailers do this, rather than just giving away everything, or not giving enough.

I obviously loved this film, but as I rode the ferry home writing notes, I realized that I had several questions:

  1. How did Zemo know that blowing up Vienna would help him to achieve his actual goal of tearing apart the Avengers? I know that he had studied the Avengers, and he apparently knew that Cap would go off to help Bucky after he framed him for the destruction, but how did he know that Iron Man wouldn’t support his teammate?
  2. Also, Zemo kept referring to December 16, 1991, the night that Stark’s parents were killed. How did he know that the Winter Soldier had something to do with it? Why did he even suspect it?
  3. How did Cap know that the Winter Soldier killed Stark’s parents, and when did he find it out? I didn’t take any bathroom breaks, but I don’t remember this being explained.
  4. Where did the Black Panther get his powers? I know the comic books explain this, but I felt like the film just wanted you to accept that he had them. That wasn’t quite good enough for me.
  5. How did Stark know that Spider-Man was Peter Parker?

These are minor issues, and perhaps some intrepid reader can help explain the answers to me.

So, in conclusion, this film just continues to build on the fantastic MCU that is being developed with such incredible deftness and consistent balls-out-of-the-park by Marvel. It makes me that much more interested and even excited to see what Scott Derrickson and Benedict Cumberbatch do with Dr. Strange, where Guardians 2 takes us, and what will happen with Thor and Hulk in Thor 3. Not to mention Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Let me know your thoughts!

Thimblerig’s Review • Risen

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risen_posterWe’ve been living in an unusual time of cinematic history, where it has become normal to find a film or two aimed squarely at the Christian filmgoing audience in the local cinema at any given moment, often making decent box office. While the presence of so-called “Christian” films has become so much of a given that they are now even mocked by the entertainment industry, what has not been a given is the quality of the films. They typically resonate with the intended audience, but don’t typically make much of an impact outside of that demographic. And they’re usually destroyed by most critics, both secular and Christian, in the process.

Why is this? Well, the reasons have been discussed far and wide (including right here on this blog), and hopefully filmmakers and film producers are starting to listen. Perhaps they are starting to heed the call to look beyond the bubble when casting the vision for their films. Maybe the time is coming that films produced for us will stop naval gazing, that filmmakers will put the kibash on creating works of propaganda rather than works of art. We can only hope that producers will begin to see the value in (to paraphrase the late Prince) giving the audience what they need, rather than what they want.

With the exception of a few slight missteps, Risen has the potential to do all of those things. Risen is a bubble burster (is that a word?), where the filmmakers have made a Jesus movie that isn’t focused on Jesus, and in the process, they’ve made a film that is potentially accessible to a large and varied audience.

maxresdefaultIn the film, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a Roman military tribune stationed in Jerusalem who is entrusted by Pontious Pilate (Peter Firthwith the responsibility of overseeing the execution of one Yeshua of Nazareth (Cliff Curtis). When Sunday comes, and the body has vanished from the tomb, Pilate orders Clavius to find the body and squash any trouble before the Emperor arrives to evaluate Pilate’s job as the prefect of Judaea. With the hourglass sand running, Clavius sets out to prove that Yeshua is dead.

The goal of Thimblerig’s Film Reviews is to see how well movies made by Christians (or with Christian involvement) accomplish the five challenges I set out in my article, What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking. Those challenges are:

1.  Take more risks

2.  Challenge your audience

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

5.  Tell good stories

The reviews are honest about what the filmmaker has done well, and where improvement is needed.  I humbly acknowledge that making any film is a huge achievement, worthy of respect, and I hope my reviews are read with that in mind.

So, now to Risen, with a slight spoiler warning.

1. Did Risen take risks?

Let me put it this way: I’m amazed that Risen got made.

First, when you consider the thrashing the “faith-based” audiences gave to Aronovsky’s Noah and Scott’s Exodus, one would think that no studio would have the nerve to play around with the biblical narrative again. But here’s a movie that took that narrative and flipped it on its head, examining the story of Christ from an entirely different perspective. And best of all, the filmmakers managed to do it in a way that didn’t make the audience feel disrespected.

Jesus-2Second, as I said earlier, it was a risk to make a Jesus movie and barely show Jesus, and not even say the name “Jesus,” rather opting for the Hebrew name, Yeshua. I also admire that the filmmakers went the route of casting a non-white actor in that role, acknowledging that Jesus may actually have not been blond and blue-eyed. This is something that Hollywood doesn’t even have the nerve to attempt.

Third, the filmmakers also took a bit of heat for portraying Mary Magdelene as a prostitute, something that is not supported by the biblical text, but was a risky choice that was good for the film. It made Mary Magdelene’s journey that much more powerful, seeing that she went from being “known” by the majority of the soldiers in the barracks to knowing and following Yeshua, to the point of being willing to die for him.

[As an aside, did anyone else notice what Clavius’s assistant called Mary Magdelene when Clavius said she was mad? “Perhaps she’s a witch, sir. Shall I have her stoned?” I really want to know if the filmmakers gave Tom Felton this line because he played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films…]

Finally, the film took the risk of making the disciples look, as a group, like an absolute mess. When watching the film, you can’t help but wonder that this group of bumblers would actually be largely responsible for exporting the words and message of Yeshua to the world. Bartholomew is a blithering idiot, Simon Peter is a hothead, and the rest just stumble along barely making their way. The filmmakers were critiqued for this choice, but it holds true to the biblical account, and makes it even more amazing that the Christian faith actually made it out of Judea.

Kudos to the filmmakers for taking risks with this film.

2. Does Risen Challenge the Audience?

Risen was released by Affirm Films, which is one of the top studios producing, acquiring, or marketing films to the faith based audience. Recent projects have included War Room, Miracles from Heaven, Heaven is for Real and Mom’s Night Out. Affirm also publicizes itself as “the industry leader in faith-based film.” And so it’s not a surprise that Risen would fit that mold.

So, would the faith based audience be challenged by Risen?

Yes and no.

risen-clavius-marymagdalene-1024x304I think there are aspects that might challenge a Christian. For example, looking at the Scriptures from a different angle would challenge many. Evangelical Christians (who make up the bulk of that faith-based demographic) have a way of holding onto Scripture tightly, not permitting any deviation for fear of the corrupting influence deviation can have. This is understandable when dealing with exegesis and Bible study, but creates severe limitations on artistic interpretation.

In the case of Risen, the filmmakers have walked the tightrope of being true to the biblical account, but also taking creative licence in several different areas for the sake of the narrative. And for the most part it works, and the results may challenge some believers to be willing to look at Scripture from different points of view.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the film goes far enough in challenging that core audience. There are beats in the story that feel like they were added so that the faith based audience would be happy, and I desperately want my brothers and sisters in the film industry to stop making movies just to make us happy. At least not all the time.

For example, I was so excited to see that the film was dealing with a skeptic, but was let down that the film allowed us to see Clavius make the decision to become a believer. It felt like this choice was shoehorned into an otherwise excellent script in order to hit those beats that the faith based audience would demand.

Which leads us to the next point…

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers.

As I said before, the film took us on Clavius’s journey from skeptic to believer, and I don’t know about you, but I long for the Christian film that doesn’t feel the need to show the skeptic making a definite decision. In fact, if Risen had ended with some question as to whether or not Clavius had believed, it might have been more effective in provoking conversation on the question of belief from the non-faith-based audience.

1122563Christopher Nolan’s Inception did “question” wonderfully well, and people still have arguments about that maddening ending with the spinning top. Was Cobb awake, or was he still in the dream? But our Christian made films have a very hard time with the concept of the ambiguous ending. I think we’ll be demonstrating a higher level of maturity when faith based audiences begin to permit ambiguity – at least from time to time.

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

Risen was good art until the last ten minutes of the movie. Things I really liked:

The setup, the action scenes, the character of Clavius and his interactions with Pilate, the investigation (even though I knew the answer to Clavius’s question, I was fascinated watching him try to figure it out).

I thought the scene when Clavius finally encounters Yeshua was wonderfully mysterious, especially when Yeshua vanishes, taking everyone by surprise. In that scene, Fiennes did a great job expressing everything he was thinking through body language and facial expressions, and you could imagine what was taking place in his mind as he wrestled with the truth about what he had just witnessed.

I enjoyed the disciples and their journey across the desert, loved watching Simon Peter develop in the short amount of time we saw him, thought it was brilliant that Clavius’s skills as a soldier was put to use helping protect this fledgling group of Yeshua followers, how it demonstrated the respect he’d developed with his assistant as they were found out in the ravine.

I enjoyed the way the filmmakers interpreted the fishing trip, and the dark figure on the beach yelling instructions. I even thought the healing of the leper was nicely done.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 3.46.01 PMBut then we get to that last scene with Yeshua – The Ascension. At that point, we were taken out of the film and dropped directly into a pew. And compared to the artistry of the rest of the film, the scene seemed rushed and thoughtless, like it was there because the audience would demand it.

It was not the ending that the rest of the film deserved.

5.  Tell good stories

As the rest of my responses have insinuated, Risen did an admirable job with storytelling, much better than the typical faith-based film. The concept of the film was brilliant, and the execution was extremely well done for the first ninety minutes of the movie. If the film had found a way to wrap things up more quickly after that impressive scene with the flock of starlings, I would have said that the film was great, rather than just really good.

As it was Risen represents a huge step in the right direction for films being made and marketed to the faith-based audience. It’s a film I would gladly watch with friends who don’t share my beliefs, and I would feel no regrets or embarrassment (with the exception of the last ten minutes), which is not usually the case. It was extremely well cast and acted, the cinematography was good, the locations were authentic, the soundtrack fitting… I could go on with the things the filmmakers did well.

But the main shortcoming brings us back to where we usually find ourselves – the misguided attempt by people putting out faith-based movies to please and not challenge the faith-based audience, to give us what we say we want, and not what we need.

We’re past the baby food, y’all. We’re ready for some meat and potatoes.

By the way, Peter Chattaway at Patheos does a good job of getting information out about films that are of interest to the “faith based” audience. Here are some links to some of his stories leading up to the release of Risen.

Apparently, Risen was originally called Clavius. That seems like a good name change.

And in the original version, Clavius had a Jewish lover named Rachel. I really wish they’d kept Rachel in the final version of the film, as it seemed like Clavius would have benefited from that relationship.

Finally, Mary Magdalen was originally going to play a larger role in the film, going with the disciples to Galilee. I also wish they’d have kept this in, as MM was a well-formed character, as opposed to ten of the twelve disciples.

The Ballad of Dr. Bill Story, Christian Cardiologist

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[This story is dedicated to Christian film critics who actually critique films made by their fellow Christians – just as they would any film – and don’t just give free passes because the films are made “in the family”.]

UntitledI want to tell you about my friend, Dr. Bill Story. Dr. Bill is a great guy; he coaches his son’s little league baseball team, teaches a couple’s Sunday School class with his wife every weekend, volunteers with his daughter’s Scout troop at an animal shelter as often as he can, and more. With Dr. Bill, what you see is what you get. He’s the real deal.

Dr. Bill loves his family, and he loves his work as a cardiologist. He became a doctor because he dreamt of using his gifts as a cardiologist to help share his Christian faith. He says that he wants to heal people’s spiritual hearts as well as their physical ones. He shares that vision regularly with men’s groups and church groups whenever he can.

Dr. Bill is an amazing guy.

Dr. Bill’s patients love him. They come mainly from the churches he visits, because they want to encourage and support Dr. Bill’s dream, and Dr. Bill works really hard to help them with their heart issues. He prescribes meds, diagnoses medical problems, and has even started working on surgery over the past few years, all within the confines of the churches who support him.

When you consider that Dr. Bill didn’t go the traditional route to become a cardiologist, it’s even more inspiring. You see, Dr. Bill trained himself. He read books, talked with others interested in cardiology, moonlighted in a surgery ward, used trial and error, and prayer. And the result? He has accomplished the amazing. He is probably the most dedicated doctor I know.

I really, really admire Dr. Bill.

Recently, Dr. Bill performed major open heart surgery in the main operating theater at the big university hospital in our city. It was huge, because it meant that Dr. Bill was finally going to be able to make an impact outside of his supporting churches. It was covered by all the big secular and Christian media companies, and – maybe you heard about it? If you didn’t watch the live streaming, you really should go back and watch the videos. There were some real harrowing moments when Dr. Bill nearly lost the patient because of some small mistakes (Dr. Bill is only human, after all), and there’s some talk that the patient will have lost some motor functions after he recovers, but he is alive.

Here are some reviews of that surgery, from some of the people who watched the live stream:

“Dr. Bill is a great man of God, and his surgery was an amazing testimony to the power of prayer. Just think about it – he was touching that man’s heart, and that man is still alive today!” Pastor Dale Srudge, Rural Heights, Alabama.

“If my heart stopped, I would want Dr. Bill to be the one to restart it. He has annointed, healing hands.” Mrs. Emma-Lou Johnson, 75. Johnson City, Tennessee.

“That was the best heart surgery I’ve ever seen IN MY LIFE! Dr. Bill is AWESOME!” Heather, 12. Chicago, Illinois.

“When I try to picture a great American Christian man of God, who is promoting American and Christian values from surgery to the sanctuary, from the pulpit to the prep ward, I think of Dr. Bill.” Dr. Ted Bear, DoctorGuide Magazine.

And best of all, because of the support of his church communities, Dr. Bill’s surgery was one of the biggest live-streamed surgeries of the year, receiving an A+ at SurgeryScore. The medical establishment had to pay attention, because the numbers of views were so impressive. There were even folks watching from as far away as China!

Dr. Bill’s life is just one big miracle after the other.

Unfortunately, this high-profile surgery brought out the critics. Biased secular critics said that Dr. Bill’s work was “sloppy”, “amateurish”, and “barely proficient.” Further, the secular critics had the nerve to compare Dr. Bill’s work to the surgeons out in Los Angeles who have been performing heart surgery for years. Given, those surgeons have lost fewer patients then Dr. Bill, and their patients who survived have had fewer complications as a result of their work. But when they look at Dr. Bill, all these critics can do is focus on his mistakes.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, because these critics are secular, and of course they would hold Dr. Bill to a different standard, because he is an outspoken Christian cardiologist.

But what I can’t understand is the Christian critics who do the same thing. The critic over at Christian Medical Today said that Dr. Bill’s lack of training made his operation “irresponsible”, and they suggested that he might want to reexamine how he’s going about reaching his dream. The critic at Relevant Surgery went further, expressing that Dr. Bill should just go back to administering basic healthcare clinics out of his church, but leave the heart surgery to the “professionals.”

I have this response to these so-called “Christian” critics who would attack their so-called “brother”:

Dr. Bill is a committed Christian, he really loves God, and he is doing everything he can to honor God through his surgery. His surgeries may not be as effective as those of his secular colleagues, and he might lose a patient from time to time, but is that really what matters here? After all, he’s only treating other Christians so why would we judge his medical practices by the “standards” of the world?

And don’t forget – surgery is really, really hard. It takes a long time, and lots of practice, and people to practice on, and lots of extra blood, and the scrubs and doctor’s gloves and such. It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, and not just anyone can do it.

Which brings up the big question: if these critics are such experts on doing open heart surgery, why don’t they go out and do some open heart surgery themselves? If they think being a cardiologist is so easy, why don’t they go out and unclog some poor fat bastard’s arteries and see what happens?

They don’t, because they can’t.

Remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds

All the critics can do is complain and make Dr. Bill’s life difficult, not to mention all of the other Dr. Bills out there in the world who could be inspired by his success. Are they jealous? Is their criticism a sign of spiritual immaturity? Maybe they’re just failed medical students who can’t stand seeing someone else become what they were not able to become. I don’t know.

But it’s sad. And it’s especially sad when you remember how great Dr. Bill is, and how wonderful and inspiring his life dreams are. Why can’t the critics just realize that, and get on board the Dr. Bill train, where the destination is Peace, Joy, and Happiness?

Dr. Bill has a big open heart surgery scheduled for the middle of summer, and rumor has it that he’ll be operating on his first atheist. I’m sure it will be publicized in all the big Christian podcasts, magazines, websites, and so on. When it comes, you can help Dr. Bill by making sure you support it. Gather your youth group, your Sunday school class, your small group Bible study, and buy the group licence to watch that live stream. Buy the Dr. Bill Study Guide and Prayer Journal and give a copy to your friends! Convince your pastor to use the four week preaching series, “Give Us A New Heart, the Dr. Bill Story Story” and don’t forget to invite seekers!

Most especially, go onto Healthy Tomatoes, the surgery review aggregator, comment, and give Dr. Bill a high rating. Remember, by doing all this, you will be helping to send a message to the Big Medical Establishment that we want more cardiologists, doctors, and surgeons just like Dr. Bill!

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