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.
How did these ideas play into your writing and directing The Song?
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: @RichieRamsey
City on a Hill Productions on Twitter: @COAHStudio
The Song on Facebook and Twitter: /TheSongMovie & @SeeTheSong
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!
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