Thimblerig’s Review • Ben Hur

ben-hur-final-posterI need to begin this review with a confession: I am not a fan of the 1959 Academy Award winning version of Ben Hur. I saw the film on television when I was a kid, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or the other. I respect that the movie won so many awards, and I appreciate the influence the film had on a generation of film lovers, but even with all of that in mind, I simply don’t get the hostility aimed at filmmakers who would dare remake a movie that came out over fifty years ago.

While I appreciate that people like the old film, is anyone really so invested in that particular story that they’re willing to be upset that it’s been remade for the modern age? Especially considering that the 1959 film was a remake of a remake itself?

Maybe there are. And if so, then obviously nobody will make these people see Ben Hur, and they can live their lives as if it never happened.

However, I think the more relevant question is this: is Ben Hur (2016) any good?

My answer? Yes, it is good. And at the same time… no, it isn’t.

But I’ll get to all that in a moment. First, a bit of voiceover narration to set the scene.

The latest incarnation of Ben Hur is an unusual animal: a wide-release $100 million dollar secular film that has been promoted strongly to the faith-based audience. It’s understandable that Hollywood would do this, because the faith-based audience has proven that it will show up for the right project. But finding that right project has not proven easy.

To help shepherd the faithful to Ben Hur, Paramount and MGM brought in Hollywood’s premiere faith-based power couple, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, as executive producers early in the film’s development. This was an unprecedented move, and presented a huge opportunity for faith-based films to enter the mainstream. Unfortunately, opening weekend box office returns do not bode well for the film, or for the experiment. As of this writing, the film has made about $20 million combined domestic and international, and films typically don’t gain momentum after that opening weekend.

[Insert chariot joke here]

It really is a pity that it’s gone this way, because – Rotten Tomato score notwithstanding – Ben Hur is actually an enjoyable movie. It is not going to repeat the awards success of the 1959 movie, and it was far from a perfect film, but it did what a big summer flick is supposed to do: it entertained.

What I liked about Ben Hur (minor spoiler alert):

1. That the leads were not big names.

It’s been argued that the film has not attracted the audience it could have attracted because the main actors are not household names. I can see this, as audiences crave familiarity, and there’s a reason why certain actors command huge salaries. Ben Hur’s only well-known actor was Morgan Freeman, and he plays a supporting role.

In this case, I actually appreciated that I didn’t know the actors who were playing Judah and Mesalla because they seemed real to me. I wasn’t distracted by having Bradley Cooper or Tom Hiddleston (he considered the role) looking back at me every time they were onscreen. It allowed me to be more immersed in the film.

2. It was not a white-washed Bible movie.

Considering the criticism Hollywood has received recently for white-washing films, it’s pretty stunning that Ben Hur’s filmmakers largely avoided this trap. For example, Jack Huston (Ben Hur) has Jewish roots, Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian, Nazanin Boniadi (Esther) is Iranian-born, Ayelet Zurer (Naomi Ben Hur) is Israeli, Morgan Freeman (Ildirim) is African-American, and the list goes on. This diversity in casting gave the film increased authenticity, and the filmmakers should be applauded for this. Strangely, I’ve seen very little celebrating of Ben Hur‘s diversity from the folks who typically love to point out this issue.

Of course, now people are calling Ben Hur an example of “straight-washing“, so… I guess you can’t win.

3. Timur Bekmambetov

WACVNS_D005_04477I love that this big budget Hollywood Bible epic was directed by Kazakhstan’s most famous film director. This is showing some bias on my part, as I lived in Kazakhstan for fourteen years, and my wife is Kazakh. But Bekmambetov is famous for a reason: he has a unique style and voice as a director that he’s shown over and over, and he was able to bring a lot of that unique vision to this film.

Bekmambetov’s style worked especially well in Ben Hur’s big action set pieces. The sea battle was amazing, because it was so claustrophobic. Bekmambetov kept you locked in the galleys with Ben Hur, with only quick tantalizing glimpses at the battle that was raging outside. It was a stunning visual example of the power of showing less, and it was incredibly effective. The same could be said about the infamous chariot race, where fast cuts, thumping sound effects, and unexpected camera placement put you right into the heart of the race.

In short, thanks to Bekmenbetov’s direction, I was never bored with Ben Hur. Unlike most films that are categorized “faith-based”, the film kept my attention from the beginning.

4. There wasn’t much Jesus in this faith-based film

I’ll also be talking about this in my negatives section, but I was so glad that this faith-based Bible period film didn’t show very much Jesus. In fact, the most effective scene involving Jesus didn’t show him at all. In this scene, Judah was talking to Esther while she’s going with a group, palm fronds in hand. It’s pretty obvious that they’re heading to Jesus’ Triumphant Entry, but there’s no mention of it, and no follow up. It’s like an Easter Egg (pun intended), and it worked. I wish they had used this sort of subtlety more.

5. It felt like a real movie.

This point is huge for a faith-based film, and hopefully reflects a new age for these sorts of films. Most faith-based movies have a distinct “made-for-TV” feel. When you watch them you realize that you really wouldn’t have missed anything if you’d waited and watched the film on Netflix (or one of the Christian versions of Netflix). Ben Hur is not this sort of film, and seeing the big set pieces on the big screen definitely enriched the experience for me (although 3D is not necessary). The film also has a distinctively epic feel to it, and it is firmly and distinctly grounded in the right era, with great attention apparently paid to detail.

If you don’t get to see it in the theater, at least make sure you watch it on a worthy home theater system.

6. Giving away ministry resources

This doesn’t have to do with the movie per se, but more with the marketing of the movie and recognizing the difference between ministry and commercialism.

It’s become common for Christian movies to develop ministry resources for their films, with the hopes that pastors and Bible study groups will purchase copies of the movie for viewing, and purchase study materials to go along with it. It’s actually a pretty big money-making component of faith-based films, and an unfortunate part of the development of a “Christian film industry” that often seems more enamored by profit than outreach.

And almost all of the big faith-based filmmakers do this.

But Ben Hur is an exception. Yes, the filmmakers developed ministry resources, but somehow they were able to convince the bean counters that ministry resources should be free.

Look what happens when you search for Ben Hur on Lifeway, the big Christian retailer.

Now, look what happens when you search for War Room.

And God’s Not Dead.

And look what happens when you go the Ben Hur official ministry resource page. Everything is free.

I have nothing but respect for the fact that Downey and Burnett have decided to give away all of their ministry resources. Kendricks, Pure Flix, everyone else – this is how it should be, especially if you are making big money off your movies and can already afford to pay your writers.

You can read more about my thoughts on this subject here, How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industryif you are interested.

What could have been better about Ben Hur:

The movie was good, and I enjoyed it, but there were also some big problems. They weren’t big enough that they soured the movie for me, but they were still problems.

1. Use of Voiceover

jack-huston-stars-as-judah-ben-hur-and-morgan-freeman-is-ilderim-in-ben-hur._V1_SX1024_CR001024575_AL_The film starts and ends with voiceover narration. I understand that you’d probably be a fool not to use Morgan Freeman’s voice if you have it, but even so, it was not necessary. In fact, it is rarely necessary. Don’t waste time telling me what you want me to know, jump right into showing me what you want me to know.

Not a fan of the voiceover, even with Morgan Freeman’s glorious pipes providing it.

If Mr. Bekmambetov had asked my opinion, I would have suggested that they start the film with Judah and Messala racing the horses as kids – establish that they are close from a young age – maybe even have a moment where their race is interrupted by the sight of Roman soldiers to establish how much Messala admires the Romans, then they start racing again. Do a “ten years later” thing and drop us into the race as young adults that they show us and pick it up from there. Forget the initial glimpse of the chariot race, forget the Morgan Freeman voiceover, just drop us right into the action.

And by the way, what happens at the end of Judah and Messala’s initial horseback race was wonderfully unexpected. The lady beside me literally shrieked and nearly fell out of her chair. It was delightful.

2. There was too much Jesus in this faith-based film

ben-hur-movie-clip-screenshot-jesus-the-carpenter_largeNow, I know that above I mentioned that it was good that the film had so little of Jesus, but to be honest, they could have done with much less. I’ve heard the term “shoehorned” used to describe Jesus’ part in this film, and I would agree wholeheartedly. It was like the filmmakers stopped Ben Hur several times to interject a scene from an entirely different Jesus movie. I wish they’d gone more subtle – as the original did. Faith-based audience needs to learn to embrace subtlety and not have to have things so in-the-face, a lesson that I hope Burnett and Downey learn from this experience.

By the way, I do recognize that the filmmakers could have gone nuts and done a whole lot more with Jesus in this movie, and I’m glad that they didn’t. I just wish they had done less with him.

3. Ben Hur’s Redemption

This one has taken me a while to process, and it’s a big one. I liked Huston in the role of Judah Ben Hur. He carried the film well, and he demonstrated that he is a very good actor. But as I thought about the movie afterwards, it occurred to me that the character ultimately didn’t work – and it came down to Ben Hur’s redemption.

The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t get it. Why would hearing Jesus say that he was willing to die by his own free will matter? Why would seeing Jesus crucified change him? Why would Jesus looking at him while he says, “Father forgive them” cause him to fall to his knees in repentence? Yes, knowing what I know about Jesus, I get it. But in the context of the story, I didn’t.

Ultimately, I didn’t buy Ben Hur’s descent into hatred and unforgiveness that needed to be redeemed in the first place. Judah, as played by Huston, seemed like a fairly nice guy through the entire film. He didn’t seem consumed by a thirst for revenge, just a desire to see his family.  And when Messala came to meet him in the abandoned Hur house, I didn’t get the sense that Ben Hur wanted to do anything more than punch him in the face, which he did. Where was the rage? Where was the hatred? It would have helped if Ben Hur had really let loose on Messala, so that the troops breaking in actually stopped him from murdering his brother.

5. The healing of the sisters

Benhur-13Healed by the rain of the crucifixion? Please. Yes, I know this happens in the 1959 movie, too, but it was just so convenient and contrived and typical faith-based “trust God and he’ll solve all your problems” theological nonsense.

Considering how Biblically accurate Downey and Burnett have wanted this film to be, why go so far off The Book? Jesus heals the women himself in the original novel, and I wish the new movie had gone that route. Or, they could have gone an even riskier route and had the sisters not be healed at all.

6. The ending

Which leads me to the ending. Really? They’re all back, happy, like nothing ever happened? I know that reconciliation and forgiveness were the themes of this movie, but what about consequences? What about dealing with loss? In the original novel, Ben Hur and Messala do not reconcile. In the 1959 movie, they reconcile as Messala dies after the chariot race. In this version? They’re all happy, back together, and going off to live with Morgan Freeman.

This detail sets this incarnation of Ben Hur apart from any earlier versions, and not in a good way. Unfortunately, it’s what we’ve come to expect from faith-based films.

7. The pop song in the end credits

I really don’t have anything more to say about it except this: what a terrible, terrible idea, to freeze frame the boys on their horses and turn on this pop song, the name of which I don’t recall. I’m sure the song is probably fine as far as pop songs go, but it was completely jarring and unfitting to the rest of the movie. A bad decision.

8. The shaky cam

My last criticism is a small one, but it’s worth mentioning. While I do like Bekmambetov, I so, so, so dislike the shaky cam. I know that it’s supposed to create a sense of being “in the moment” and urgency, but to me it just makes the action hard to follow and gives me a headache. I was so glad I wasn’t watching this in 3D.

And so, there you have it. My thoughts on the 2016 redo of Ben Hur. My final prognosis is that the movie is pretty good, is brilliant in parts, and is well worth the price of admission as a big summer movie.

And while I don’t typically subscribe to this point of view, if you are a Christian who wants Hollywood to make more fare that recognizes and respects your faith, you really should go see this movie, and convince your friends to go as well.

Remember, Ben Hur is a big experiment being conducted by the studios. They want to see if they can make a big budget film that you will enjoy, that you will pay to see. If the film ultimately fails, it will quite possibly be a long time before we see another like it. We’ll be relegated to nothing but the little micro-budget movies like the Kendricks and Pure Flix make. Given, those movies have their place, but it would be a shame if they continued to be our only option.

Not to mention that non-Christians who would never go see a low budget Christian-made film will possibly go see Ben Hur, partly because it’s a big budget summer movie, and partly because they saw the 1959 movie and are curious what the updated version will do. This non-Christian viewer will possibly be affected by Ben Hur’s redemption in a way that I wasn’t, and it might be an important point on their own journey of faith.

And that would be worth the price of admission.

By the way, if Ben Hur fails, it might not be the end of big budget faith based films.

As Yoda tells Obi-Wan at the end of Empire, “There is another…”

And his name is Mel.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thimblerig Goes Hollywood

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I’m excited to be attending the Variety Purpose Summit on Friday this week as a member of the press, and will be reporting on the summit here on the blog as well as on Twitter, which you can follow here. This summit, sponsored by Variety magazine, looks at the state of faith-based media, especially focusing on television and movies.

Look for up-to-date information about what’s going on in the world of Christian entertainment, possible interviews with industry insiders, and reports on what it feels like to be a plebe in the middle of a conference like this.

Also, if anyone else who reads this blog will be there, I’d love to meet up for a cup of coffee and say hello! Just drop me a line.

Hollywood, get ready for Thimblerig!

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Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Vischer, Creator of Veggietales

PVP_card_squareThe Phil Vischer Podcast is one of the few podcasts I listen to consistently. I love the thoughtful conversations about important topics, the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere created by hosts Phil Vischer, Skye Jethani, and Christian Taylor, and the humor. There’s a lot of laughter each week, and considering all the difficulty and trouble in the world, a good dose of laughter is a welcome addition.

Phil is best known for creating Veggietales, as well as for voicing many of the characters on that long-running video series. He has an amazing story, and you can read about it in his fantastic book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables. I’ll also link a video from Biola University at the end of the interview, where you can watch Phil talk about the rise and fall of Big Idea Productions. It’s well worth your time. 

I’m so grateful that Phil agreed to take a few minutes to answer some questions so that readers of this blog can get to know him better. I highly recommend that you give his podcast a listen, and also consider joining Phil and the gang in supporting their new Patreon page so Phil can do all sorts of new and fun things!

Phil, most people know your work, even if they might not know your name. Why don’t we start with a little bit about who you. Who are you and where do you come from?

aboutHi, I’m Phil!  I was born in Muscatine, IA, moved to the suburbs of Chicago when my parents split up while I was in junior high, and now live in the vicinity of Wheaton, IL with my wife and two youngest kids.  I make stuff.  Vegetables, puppets, Bible-teaching videos, podcasts and such.  I used to think of myself as a filmmaker, but now I really think of myself as a communicator.

Can you tell us some of the folks who have influenced you the most creatively?

Walt Disney and Jim Henson, obviously.  (Animation and puppets!)  But also Monty Python and the films of Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers and Tim Burton.  I tend to favor witty Brits for some reason.  (Terry Gilliam’s bizarre British children’s film Time Bandits was a huge influence on me.)

How about your spiritual or theological influences?

C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton (I tend to favor witty Brits), as well as N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Henry Blackaby and A. W. Tozer.

What are your top three favorite films, and why?

That’s tough.  Three films that I love … Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou and The Hudsucker Proxy.

Speaking of films, we talk about Christian films quite a bit on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog. What are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?

We seem to be in the same position as the Christian music industry in the mid-1970s.  Sales were growing and artists started to realize that Christian music was something you could actually do for a living.  Like – for real.  That brought a huge influx of new artists, expanding the industry greatly through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  New record labels, better distribution, higher quality production, more talented artists.  By the late 1990s, Christian music was so good that new artists realized they could sign with secular labels and pursue much broader audiences.  They didn’t need the Christian cocoon to survive, and so Christian labels began to atrophy even as Christian artists made more impact on the world.  This same dynamic could be happening now with Christian film, where suddenly it appears that Christian filmmaking is a viable business.  Right now we’re building the Christian infrastructure (marketers, distributors, financiers).  But ultimate success would be to discover we no longer need distinct Christian infrastructure – that Christian filmmakers are proficient enough that they can move seamlessly in the secular film industry.  That’s a ways out still, but it’s a good goal.

You obviously know your way around family-friendly entertainment, but considering that the Bible is often not very family-friendly, can a Christian artist create content that is not family-friendly without compromising his or her faith? If so, how would you recommend they go about it?

THP3254Sure – there’s a fair amount of non-family-friendly art created by faithful Christians.  I’m thinking of horror films in particular.  Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the two Conjuring films are two examples of Christian filmmakers succeeding in bringing their point-of-view to art that will never get shown in churches.  The fact that horror films are the example shows something very important:  There has to be an audience for the stories you want to tell.  Scott Derrickson in particular made Emily Rose because it represented an intersection between stories of faith and stories that the world was interested in seeing.  Exorcism.  Horror films are easy to market.  Just like Kendrick brothers films are easy to market.  A non-family-friendly faith film in another genre might be much, much harder.

Turning to your podcast, “The Phil Vischer Podcast” has been one of my favorite podcasts for the past couple of years, although I’m still not a fan of the ukulele. What made you decide to start a podcast, and what have been your biggest challenges as you’ve sought to build your audience?

I can’t answer your question until you apologize to my ukulele.  He’s crying in the corner right now.  I was having these interesting conversations in my head (I’m an introvert), and sometimes at Q&A sessions with college kids after speaking.  I thought I should share those conversations with more people.  As for building an audience, we haven’t really done anything.  As a result, our audience isn’t terribly huge!  But it’s still fun.

Recently, you celebrated your 200th podcast episode. Congratulations! Having started my own podcast that lasted all of five episodes, I know that 200 episodes is quite the accomplishment. On that episode you talked about your new Patreon crowd funding account. Can you talk about what led you to creating the Patreon page, and what some of your plans for using the support you raise?

maxresdefaultI got to the point where the podcast probably needed to get more organized if it was going to continue – which meant I needed a little help.  Which meant I needed to pay someone for that help.  Which meant there needed to be a source of income.  We’ve talked about sponsorship before, and may still do that, but Patreon was a better first step.

Do you have any final advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – Christian or otherwise?

Just do it.  Make stuff.  It’s really easy to make stuff, develop a sensibility and a voice.  Use YouTube and Vimeo and iTunes to get your work out there.  The key is to begin making stuff for zero or near zero budget to see if your sensibility can attract an audience.  If the first thing you want to make is a $40 million feature, forget about it.

What are the best ways people can follow you (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?

Yes and yes!  Go to philvischer.com.  Sign up for my emails.  I’ll then follow YOU all around with email!

Twitter:@philvischer
Facebook: /PhilVischer

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Phil!

You’re welcome!  Keep on rigging your thimble!

That we will, Phil. That we will.


 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Screenwriter Andrea Nasfell, Mom’s Night Out

My first foray into screenwriting came back in the summer of 2007, when I took part in Act One’s Writer’s Program, and experienced my first taste of the Christian community in Hollywood. That time was transformational to me as I learned about the craft and business of screenwriting in a faith-focused context, and I enjoyed the relationships I gained as I became a part of the ever-growing Act One alumni community.

MNO_OfficialPoster_LowLast May, I was thrilled to hear that Andrea Nasfell, another member of the Act One community, had written Mom’s Night Out, that rare film made for the faith-based market that would be released widely, in over 1,000 theaters.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch Mom’s Night Out, I loved it. I especially appreciated the casting choices, the quietly subversive and revolutionary nature of the film, and the writing, which I found to be funny, smart, and heartfelt. Mom’s Night Out was one of my favorite films of the year, and I continue to be proud that it was written by a fellow Act One alum.

You can read my review here.

Last January, I had the surprising pleasure of taking a screenwriting class taught by Andrea as a part of Asbury University’s Master of Digital Storytelling program. It was a tough academic experience, where we were required to produce quite a bit of writing in an eight-week period, but I loved every minute of it. It reminded me of my time at Act One, and I really felt like I was in my element.

When the course was over, I presumptuously approached Andrea and asked if she would mind sharing some of her thoughts about being a successful Christian screenwriter with the readers of the Thimblerig’s Ark blog, and she graciously agreed.  I’m happy to present that interview to you.

andreaNate

First of all, please tell a little bit about yourself.

Andrea

I always wanted to be a writer, even as a little girl. At first I thought I would be a novelist, but then in high school I fell in love with movies and realized they have to start with words on a page. So I got a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay and tried to figure it out. I studied Media Comm in college and went to L.A. for a semester to study film. I was hooked – I loved L.A. and knew I wanted to stay. Luckily, my fiancée was just as excited about L.A. Now he’s my husband and he’s a producer. We live in Burbank with our two kids who were both born here in California.

Nate

How did you become a screenwriter?

Andrea

It’s a gradual process, but it starts with lots and lots of writing. I attended the Act One program, and that was a huge jumpstart for me. I met a mentor who was a working screenwriter, and she is still a good friend. I joined her writer’s group and they put me through the ringer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I developed my voice. Finally, a friend from Act One met a producer looking for a writer for an indie film. He read my work, I pitched a take on his story, and he hired me. That script never got made, but later that producer formed a bigger company and I have written ten scripts for him since.

Nate

Please describe your working day as a writer.

Andrea

I have to write in the hours that my kids are in school, so that’s how every day is structured. Drop them off, make coffee, write, pick them up and try to be present with them rather than in my work at that point. It’s not always easy, especially when there are deadlines. There is a lot of juggling that happens.

Nate

Congratulations on the success of Mom’s Night Out, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Can you tell a little about your involvement bringing Mom’s Night Out from idea to screen?

Andrea

At the red carpet premiere of Mom's Night Out

At the red carpet premiere of Mom’s Night Out

The process started when David White at Pure Flix came to me asking if I’d be interested in writing something for moms. There had been a number of successful faith-based films for men – especially the Sherwood movies – but nobody had tried the female audience. David and Andrea had just had their second baby and she was very interested in a movie about motherhood. So I pitched them this idea and wrote it for hire for them, with the expectation that it would fit into their TV or DVD model at the time. But then Kevin Downes – a friend of David’s – read it, and he took it to the Erwins. All three of them had two children under the age of 3 or 4 at the time, so they “got it” immediately and wanted to be involved. Kevin acquired the film to make with Jon and Andy, whose October Baby success got Sony into the picture. It kept getting bigger from there. Jon rewrote it to make it more cinematic – he had significantly more budget and was able to add scenes and characters, honing it to get the actors he wanted, which he did. The nice thing was that I felt like they really understood the original vision, and they kept the main skeleton of the story the same, while adding some really fun things. So in the end, I still felt like it was my movie, even though Jon had kind of made it the “deluxe” version!

Nate

The film had some great laugh-out-loud moments. Who are your comedic influences – from the worlds of screenwriting, standup, television, or elsewhere?

Andrea

I fell in love with movies in an era when there were a lot of successful “comedies with heart” and those were the films I wanted to emulate — Father of the Bride, Sister Act, Mrs. Doubtfire, even going back as far as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Back to the Future, and Tootsie (which I think is probably the best comedy of all time). I also really loved those movies like Adventures in Babysitting, Bringing Up Baby, or It Happened One Night where everything goes wrong in one long, zany day or night. More recently there was Date Night, which I had high hopes for, but I felt like they bowed to the modern need for “edginess” in a way the story didn’t require. But those in particular were inspirational films to me. I’m sad we’ve gone a different direction with comedy in recent years because I think the heart part of the comedy is what makes them endure. Those are all still terrific movies when you watch them today.

Nate

What was your role in Mom’s Night Out while it was being filmed?

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

Andrea

The screenwriter doesn’t usually have much to do once the cameras roll. Occasionally I have been called up to adjust a scene or help solve a logistics problem by adjusting the script, but in the case of Mom’s Night Out, I visited the set in Alabama for a couple of days and that was it. It’s such a joy for a writer to visit though – it’s like seeing your imagination come to life. To watch as a huge group of people bring words to life is very exciting.

Nate

Looking back on the experience, is there anything you wish you could change about the finished product? Any scenes that you wish you could have added, or wish had been left out?

Andrea

I really loved Jon’s version of the script, and we had talented and hilarious actors who added their own bits to it – I was really happy in the end. The only thing I wondered about was the fact that in the early drafts both Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) had careers that were discussed more explicitly. I think, had those elements of their character remained in the final version, it might have opened up a better conversation about all types of moms rather than pegging them all as stay-at-home moms (which many of the films’ critics assumed, but was not ever said explicitly in the film, except about Allyson.)

Nate

I was frustrated that Mom’s Night Out was the criticized for “reinforcing traditional gender roles” and for featuring a protagonist who was a stay-at-home mom. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Andrea

Sarah Drew as Allyson

Sarah Drew as Allyson in Mom’s Night Out

I was frustrated too! We fully expected to be panned by critics because of the faith elements of the movie, but that was almost overlooked completely. We were shocked that a movie that was supposed to be a love letter to moms, recognizing their hard work and allowing them to laugh at their frustrations was called “anti-feminist” and criticized for daring to have a stay-at-home mom as the protagonist. I always thought the point of feminism was for we as women to be able to choose our own paths and not be limited by any societal expectations. But apparently that is true only if you choose a full-time career. One of my pet peeves is when women turn on each other instead of giving a hand up, so my biggest frustration was with female critics like the one who said, “Why didn’t she just quit whining and get a nanny?” Wow. I think many of them saw the film was rewritten by a man and directed by two men and completely disregarded my involvement. But Jon and Andy chose this film because they saw the joys and pains of their own wives and wanted to recognize them.

The other side of that coin is that the male characters were criticized for being incompetent, which is completely untrue if you think carefully about it. Anything that seems like incompetence (excepting Marco, I guess) is in Allyson’s imagination, not what actually happens. The rest is a series of unfortunate mishaps that they handle quite well, in my opinion. It’s a comedy, people. Lighten up!

Nate

As a Christian, what are some of the challenges you have faced being involved in the film industry?

Andrea

One of the challenges is that I’m just not interested in writing the things that are “hot” in the marketplace, so I have to find other niches to fit in. I’m not interested in writing Bridesmaids (and I actually sat in the theater in front of some women who walked out because they thought Mom’s Night Out was going to be in that genre and it wasn’t). That’s just not my style. So I don’t fit in a lot of places, and I often have people tell me, “You should get a meeting at Hallmark.” That’s fine too, but I think there is a mainstream movie audience that wants wholesome but still funny and adventurous stories. And many of them are not opposed to having issues or characters of faith in them. The problem is that many of those audience members are gun shy, because the marketplace is flooded with stories that are cynical, raunchy or just disappointing. They’ve been burned, and movies are expensive, so it’s hard to get them out to the theater.

Obviously one of my own biggest challenges has been meeting the expectation of a “Christian movie audience” as perceived by producers while also creating something artistic and true. It’s a very difficult position as a writer, when the marketing team and the producers need that moment that seals the deal for pastors, while at the same time you want to create something challenging and artistically beautiful. It’s a balancing act and it’s not always in your control. (I’ve had scenes added to scripts on-set, because the producers didn’t think they had enough on-the-nose content for marketing the film.)

Nate

How can Christians outside Hollywood support Christians working in Hollywood?

Andrea

Go see their movies! The only thing that matters to decision makers in Hollywood is money. That is the only thing. You will get more of whatever makes money. Period. And they stay employed and making more product when that happens. Certainly pray for them to find opportunity and stay strong in their faith as well.

Nate

What are your thoughts on Christian filmmaking? Where do you see it going in the future?

Andrea

I never make predictions. There are too many unexpected blockbusters and surprising disappointments. It’s good old William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” But I will say that, in my experience, there are a lot of secular companies recognizing the potential of the church-going audience and trying to figure out how to capitalize on it. Some of them are going to succeed and some of them are going to fail. They need good Christian artists to help as cultural language-translators to figure it all out.

Nate

“Faith-based” films are typically also expected to be 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?

Andrea

I don’t know if I completely agree with this, but I understand how it might look that way from the outside. There are certainly movies like The Song, Blue Like Jazz, To End All Wars and others that have been fine to delve into certain grittier subjects. It’s just like with any secular movie genre – each movie is made for a particular audience, and a good amount of Christian movies make a bundle of their money from church licensing or word-of-mouth from pastors and other Christian leaders. Those people are going to be hesitant to bring films into their church building or to send their parishioners to the theater if it’s going to bring them blowback over offensive content. So yes, the filmmakers consider that and cater to it. My opinion is that we should choose film content that matches the audience we serve, rather than sanitizing or dumbing down the content to the point that it doesn’t seem real. If you need it to be church and family friendly, choose a story about churches or families rather than about war or drug addiction. Make those movies for a different audience and be okay with them not being shown in church. Maybe you’re actually making a mainstream movie that happens to have elements of faith, instead of a movie branded by faith-based production and distribution.

You’re right that the Bible isn’t family friendly, but the Bible is told in words and not pictures that take viewers through experiences the way movies do. I’m sure blood squirted everywhere when David chopped off Goliath’s head, but we should consider how helpful it is to glorify that moment if we’re making that movie. As artists we can be responsible to the spirit of a grittier piece while at the same time being responsible to the audience that experiences it.

Nate

What final advice would you give to Christians who want to become involved in any aspect of filmmaking?

Andrea

IMG_9964

The Nasfell family at the premiere of Mom’s Night Out

I’ll go back to my Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains and Automobiles hero and quote Steve Martin. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” There are lots of reasons why people get opportunities in Hollywood, and some of them aren’t related to talent. But nobody keeps working in Hollywood without talent and hard work, and that’s the only part you can control. The worst thing for Christians in Hollywood are those filmmakers who come out here saying “God called me” but yet they aren’t talented and they won’t put in the work. Yes, God can open opportunities, but you have to be prepared enough to take them.

Nate

Finally, do you have any projects in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

Andrea

I have a couple of films in development and one that is shooting right now. I can’t share too much, but it’s another comedy, set in a mega-church, and I’m really excited for you to find out more soon!

A big thank you to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions, and for openly sharing her experiences and her thoughts about screenwriting and filmmaking for people of faith.

To find out more about Andrea:

Andrea Nasfell on Twitter: @AndreaNasfell

Andrea Nasfell on IMDb: IMDb

Andrea Nasfell’s blog: ahundredhats.wordpress.com

Mom’s Night Out: www.momsnightoutmovie.com

And if you enjoyed this interview, check out past Thimblerig interviews!

Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of Believe Me

Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

Richard Ramsey, director of The Song

Doc Benson, writer and director of Seven Deadly Words

Tyler Smith and Josh Long, co-hosts of More Than One Lesson podcast

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

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Tyler Smith and Josh Long of More Than One Lesson Podcast

One of my favorite podcasts these days has to be More Than One Lesson, co-hosted by Tyler Smith and Josh Long.  I first found these guys because of Tyler Smith’s work with another excellent film review podcast, Battleship Pretension, as well as his multiple appearances on Pilar Allesandra’s On The Page.

I was thrilled to find out that Tyler was a Christian, and that he also hosted More Than One Lesson, a podcast that approached film from that point of view.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then it won’t come as a surprise to you that I strongly believe Christians should be able to intelligently watch and discuss movies, especially as Christian films are becoming more and more a part of the cultural landscape.  More Than One Lesson is a very rare Christian-made podcast that helps enable listeners to do just that, because the hosts approach movies as serious film critics, not just as a couple of guys chewing the fat about the latest movies.

I was thrilled when Tyler and Josh agreed to take part in one of my Thimblerig’s Interviews.  They bring a fresh and different perspective to the idea of Christians being involved in the arts, and I am happy to share the interview with my readers.

As consummate podcasters, Tyler and Josh elected to answer my questions in recorded form.  So, I will offer the interview in two ways.  First, as an unedited sound file, and second, as an edited transcription of the sound file.

This is an interview that is well worth your time.  Enjoy it, and run over to iTunes to subscribe to More Than One Lesson, today!

Nate

Tyler and Josh, please introduce yourselves.

Tyler

I’m Tyler Smith, and I am a podcaster and film critic living in Los Angeles. I host a podcast called Battleship Pretention and another called More Than One Lesson.

Josh

I’m Josh Long, and I am the co-host of More Than One Lesson.  In addition, I work in the entertainment business here in Los Angeles. I work primarily as an assistant director.

Nate

How did both of you develop an interest in film and filmmaking?

Tyler

I grew up in a family that loved movies. It was one of the things I loved to do. I just enjoyed all kinds of creativity: drawing; writing; and that sort of thing. So, to be able to sit down and watch characters and see their stories was just such a novel thing for me, and I found it more satisfying than anything else that tyler-smith-photo-e1400847018126my that my peers were doing.

Thankfully, my parents were very movie friendly, which is kind of rare in a Christian environment, and so both of them encouraged me to watch movies. They recommended movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, A Fish Called Wanda, and Chinatown. And so I feel like I owe a lot of my appreciation of good films to my parents and also to my brother, who is four years older. If there was ever a movie that I wanted to see that I thought my parents would not approve of, I would just go see it with my brother. So, between the three of them, I actually got a pretty good film education.

Josh

josh-long-photo-e1400847048890I grew up in a very movie friendly household as well, which was great. And some of my love of film as a medium came by way of a love of theater. I did theater in high school and in college, but in high school I developed an interest in filmmaking as an art, and started to seek out filmmakers that I really liked and responded to. That grew into a personal study of all the things that I found intriguing and interesting in film. In college that led me into deeper studies of the art form as a whole, learning things I probably would have learned about if I had gone to traditional film school. But I created my own field of study, and found that the more I delved into the world of film as an art form, the more I fell in love.

Tyler

I have a follow up question. Josh, you say that you got into film from theater. As a film fan, have you moved away from that? Was theater just your gateway into film, or do you feel like you still retain your love of theater?

Josh

I still retain some of that. I think learning more about film opened the idea of what film can be, that it doesn’t have to be just like a play. But I still love a lot of the films that are that are based around those key elements that exist in plays (story and dialogue and character).

Tyler

I feel like that’s probably the same thing for me. It’s something that I’ve actually felt very self-conscious about as I’ve gotten more and more into film. I’ve been called a “story and character guy” and I know that it’s not meant as an insult, but I tend to take it that way. I think it’s because I did a lot of theater as well, and I was an actor and a writer, and so as a result I tend to like good writing and great characters and great acting.

Nate

Please tell a bit about your podcast, More Than One Lesson.

Tyler

More Than One Lesson is a Christian podcast in which we discuss movies from a Christian point of view. That doesn’t mean we count swear words or anything like that. We try to approach film artistically and thematically.

QrnVx7QRThe podcast has been running since 2009, and when it started I had been co-hosting Battleship Pretention for over two years. I was already bringing a lot of my faith to my film talk (on BP) and somebody suggested that I start a podcast that looked at film from a Christian point of view. So, I began More Than One Lesson, and at first a typical episode was just me, talking for thirty to forty minutes about a film.

In 2011, I decided I needed a co-host. Josh had been on the show a couple of times and he and I had nice chemistry. I responded well to the way he analyzed film, and I also felt like he knew about certain genres of film and certain filmmakers about whom I didn’t have that much of a knowledge.

Nate

Tyler, you were a film critic with production experience. And Josh is an actor and filmmaker, and you are both Christians. Can you share some of the challenges you both face as Christians involved in the film industry, living and working in Los Angeles?

Josh

In general, the industry is not populated with a lot of Christians, but it also isn’t the godless Babylon that some people make it seem. There are plenty of Christians in Los Angeles. I’ve met some of the strongest Christians I’ve ever met here. I feel like I need to remind people that it’s a city like any other, full of good and bad people. The issue of Christians in the film industry isn’t as bleak as some would make it seem.

That being said, the industry can be very cutthroat and can run counter to Christian morals, the same as any competitive industry. But it’s important to remember where our center lies as Christians, regardless of what the rest of the people around your industry seem to think.

Tyler

Like Josh, I have met some like some of my best Christian friends in Los Angeles and I’ve met a number of non-Christians who, when they find out I’m a Christian, are fine with it. In fact, they think it’s really interesting and they’re not at all judgmental. That being said, people in Los Angeles have often moved here from elsewhere, and chances are they’re moving not merely to pursue their dream but also as an active rejection of the place they came from, and often a rejection of midwestern morality or even a Christian upbringing.

shot-iconic-hollywood-sign-behind-sunset-30050849You run across a lot of film people, comedians, and artistic people in general who were raised that way and did not like it, so they looked elsewhere for their satisfaction and for their identity. While you can find people who are fine with what you believe as a Christian, you can also find some people who are actively hostile to your faith. I haven’t experienced that from a lot of people, but I have experienced it a lot from a few people. They mock, they bully, they’re shaming, and moments like that can be very difficult.

This can also be a very “surfacy” city. People will talk to you, but also look over your shoulder to see if anyone more interesting has entered the room. And it’s cutthroat in a very passive aggressive way. Even if people don’t like you, they may need you in the future, and so they will be very nice to you. I’m somebody who occasionally has trust issues, and it’s not a great place for that because people can be very disingenuous.

If you are a Christian moving out here it’s a good to plug into a solid church community as soon as you can.

Nate

Can you suggest some good practical ways that Christians from outside the industry can support Christians who are working in the industry?

Josh

Go see good movies. A lot of people just watch movies to have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie. But if you want to support the people who are working in the industry then find filmmakers that you like and go see their movies every time they come out. If you don’t have any favorites, then dig into the vast film catalog that’s out there and find things that you like that you can support. Supporting the filmmakers that you like supports the people in the industry in general.

Tyler

On a more on a more personal level, back when I used to try to make movies and write scripts I would ask relatives and certain friends from back home to read the scripts or watch these films. Some would read my script and then criticize what they read, but never ask why I made the choices I made. They would basically ask me, “Can’t you just do this thing that I’m more comfortable with?”

People outside of the industry often don’t understand that a person’s desire to write something stems from something inside, something that is being wrestling with, and it’s not always going to be clean. It’s not always going to be nice. It might be a little difficult. It’s important that we try to figure out why an artist is doing what they’re doing, especially if you don’t understand how they could have arrived there.

For example, we’ve had actors on the podcast who act in horror movies, and Christians often hate horror movies because they’re just so ugly and “demonic.” But these guys have perfectly rational explanations of why they want to be in horror movies.

People should just take the time to sincerely ask why artists make the choices they make. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean there’s not a reason for it.

Josh

I agree with that. Engaging with the decisions that a Christian filmmaker makes is a way to support them, and while it might not be a practical or financial support, it is an emotional support. This is valuable in a world where oftentimes you just hear what you’re doing wrong.

Tyler

It’s hard enough to pursue this stuff without having fellow Christians constantly questioning and undermining you, especially if you genuinely feel like this is what God wants you to do with your life. You’re pursuing him while also trying to be the best artist you can be, and somebody questions your very motivations just because they don’t understand them. It can be very disheartening and very exhausting.

Nate

Turning to faith based films, what are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community now and your hopes for where it might be in the future?

Tyler

“Ten years out” is a thing that I would usually say when people asked when I thought Christian film would get good. And given movies like Gods Not Dead, Courageous, Fireproof, and that sort of thing, it wasn’t looking good.

believe_me_xlgBut then last year Believe Me came out, and while it’s not a perfect film, it is actually the first Christian film I’ve seen that is interested in character. It’s a comedy, getting genuine laughs, and it has filmmaking style, the technique was there. It was also written in a very sharp and decisive way.

That’s very exciting, but it’s only one. There are plenty that have been made that are just awful, and it’s because they are films that have no interest in being films. They are films made by people who view film mostly as a delivery device for their message. If that’s the case, all they care about is getting the message there.

Christian films are big and making money, and occasionally a Christian film will make a bit of a stride in certain filmmaking techniques, maybe in acting. But they’re still pretty awful. The Christian filmmaking industry right now is pretty awful.

Josh

I always reject the general idea of a “Christian” film industry because a film industry can’t accept Jesus or go to heaven. So if we’re going to talk about films made by Christians that have a specific Christian message, I don’t think there is the need for that. At the same time, I don’t believe anything wrong with making those films, but I don’t feel like we Christians are making those films well. Like Tyler said, they are more of a means to deliver a message, a lecture hidden inside a movie. It’s kind of like when you put a pill inside a piece of cheese to get a dog to eat it. And you buy the cheapest cheese possible.

Tyler

You know why you do that? Because the dog is not discerning, and doesn’t have a strong palate. That analogy works even better than you thought.

Josh

Yeah, so I guess that speaks to the Christian film audience at the same time. Part of the responsibility is on Christian film audiences to not go see movies that are bad, to not recommend movies that are bad, to not take to the message boards to support a movie just because it has a message that you like.

Tyler

This is kind of a universal thing that can be said about any film. People often ask why bad movies are made, and they’re quick to blame the studios, but if a film genre is not making money then they’re not going to greenlight it. If it is, they’re just going to make more.

It’s the same with Christian film. The best possible way to make sure it gets better is to not see the ones that are bad. But a lot of Christian audiences don’t care. They only care that they’re being told that they are right, and that other people are hearing the message. The message might be a good one, but if that’s all they care about, and they pay to see it over and over again, then the Christian film industry has no reason to change at all. In fact, they are only being affirmed over and over again that what they’re doing is the right thing.

Josh

But at the same time, if we get to a point where there are a lot of Christian movies coming out every year, at some kind of noticeable level where general everyday people will know about and see them, we have to eventually hit a critical mass where within that Christians will have the choice to be discerning.

Nate

Faith based films are typically also family friendly but the Bible is often not family friendly. How would you how would you advise Christian artists as they think about portraying the grittier side of life?

Tyler

Probably the same way I would advise anybody. First, put everything on the table: language, violence, gore, nudity, sexuality, drug use, it’s all on the table. Then look at the story you’re telling, and take the things off the table that are not necessary. Start with what is necessary, what is organic, and I think that is the best possible way.

If you make a war movie, you’re going to need violence. You’re probably going to need a fair amount of language because of the high stress situation. If you want to make a family friendly war movie, then you’re not doing any favors to the depiction of war. You’re probably even glamorizing it a little bit by not showing it as horrible and stressful and exhausting and life threatening. You should be willing to do what the story dictates, or what the characters dictate. That includes nudity. I personally don’t think it’s necessary, but sometimes it can be. You just need to be very careful about it.

Josh

If you are unsure of what’s necessary, then seek counsel of other Christians around you. That could help you in either direction. It could tell you that you don’t need this extra thing, or it could say it needs to be grittier.

If we want our art to portray an element of truth, it’s pretty obvious from looking around that the truth is gritty, and the truth is dirty, and the truth is very uncomfortable sometimes, and that means that sometimes the dirtier things are necessary.

But I agree with Tyler, that it is important to understand what’s necessary, and getting to the point where you can understand what’s necessary reliably may mean regularly taking the counsel of others.

Tyler

To go into a bit more detail, I would say that necessity is at the core, and once you get to a point where you’re able to determine what is and is not necessary, then it’s about degrees.

You may discover that the world that you’re depicting has characters that would probably swear at each other, and probably do drugs. So then the question is, to what degree is it necessary? It’s different depending on the story that you want to tell.

Nate

Along those same lines, do you think it’s possible for Christian filmmakers to make R-rated films? If so, how would you imagine that would look and what would be the risks.

Josh

I absolutely believe that Christian filmmakers can make R-rated films, and I think sometimes they should. The question of the rating goes back to the last question, about what is necessary in a film. A lot of times something that is gritty or something that would make a film R-rated is necessary in order to tell the story truthfully.

Some of my favorite movies are R-rated, and they’re not all films that get that rating through gratuitous sex, violence, or language. A lot of the R-rated movies that I love absolutely call for the things that make them rated R. I think we as Christian filmmakers are a little bit too afraid of the rating, but that being said I always agree that we should be discerning.

As far as what Christian R-rated films should look like, Christian filmmakers should make movies that look just as good as non-Christian movies. I don’t think there should be any distinction there.

My-Son-Christian-MovieFilm-on-DVD-CFDbThe risks come when we’re talking about films that are marketed to a Christian audience. For example, earlier this year there was a movie called My Son that got an R rating and there was a little bit of a backlash, some of it on the part of the filmmakers. The concern was that a lot of Christians wouldn’t go to see the movie because of the rating.

There are audiences who are not going to see something purely based on the rating. This again goes to the responsibility of a Christian audience to not look at the rating as a simple restriction. Our perspective shouldn’t be that a movie’s R rating means that I can’t see it.

Tyler

It’s not as though a PG-13 film is a moral film and an R-rated film is immoral. There are PG-13 movies that are absolutely odious in their morality, in their outlook, and in the cynicism of their studio. On the other hand, there are R-rated films that can be life affirming, that can make you feel closer to God, that can make you feel a love for your fellow man and a desire to help him and encourage others and love your family.

It is often astounding to me that an R-rating is the mark of Cain for Christians. And so, yes, I absolutely think that that it’s possible for a Christian filmmaker to make an R-rated film.

If you’re going to make a movie that is honest and you choose to make a movie that takes place in even a slightly seedy element of this world, it’s going to be R-rated.

When I’m asked what would it what would that look like, I think a Christian R-rated film would be a film where every bit of violence, every bit of drug use, every bit of sexuality, and every bit of profanity is something that brings us more into the film, makes us more aware of character, has more of an impact on us, and gets us more engaged.

For example, one of Josh’s favorite films is Fargo, which has tremendous profanity and it’s also quite violent. But only one character uses excessive profanity. The fact that he uses so much, is it excessive on the part of the filmmaker, or on the part of the character? I think it’s on the part of the character. This is the character we’re watching.

Any time you set up a litmus test saying this is what is morally acceptable, that’s when you start to get into trouble. We’re not saying be gratuitous, we’re saying be discerning, and you will be surprised. Sometimes your discernment says this is the best way to proceed. This is how you do justice to these characters, and to your audience.

As far as the risks go, Josh has said it already. If you’re making a Christian film that’s R-rated, much of the audience will see that rating and be done. In fact, it’s not merely that they will not see the film, they will probably judge your film sight unseen for the fact that it’s rated R. That it could ever have any content that warrants an R-rating will be enough for them to judge it, and that is intensely frustrating because it might be a film that will engage them tremendously, but they’ll never know.

That’s assuming the film is ever made at all, because a Christian studio might not even put any money into it, seeing it as too risky. But it is possible to get your film made, even so, especially in the days of Kickstarter an Indiegogo. You might just have to be willing to go independent with it.

Nate

Based on your life experience so far what general advice would you give to emerging filmmakers, critics, or entertainment-focused podcasters who are approaching film as a calling or a ministry.

Tyler

Viewing these things as a calling or a ministry, many people seem to think that that is the end. Viewing it as a ministry is all that matters. But if you were a doctor and you felt like your calling or your mission was to go to a war-torn country and offer free medical care, you would not stop being a good doctor. You would not say that God called you to it, so you don’t need to put any effort into it.

In any other profession that somebody could see as a calling or a ministry, the idea of doing it halfway would never even come up. But somehow when it comes to film, TV, writing, painting, and art in general, there are people who seem to feel that since God called them to it, they must be able to do it, and that is not the case.

If you feel like going into the arts because God wants you to (and it’s entirely possible he does), know that He wants you to do it to the absolute best of your ability. Always ask if you are doing the best you can do, and if it is not, then ask what can you do better.

Go to film school, watch movies, learn what filmmaking is. It might be the opposite of what you think it is, but you have to acknowledge what audiences respond to. Recognize that if you’re going to try to buck the system, the odds are against you, as far as engaging an audience. Recognize what works in film by watching a lot of films and studying filmmaking so that when it comes time to do your ministry, you’ll be able to do it the best possible way you can, to the point where no one could ever say he could’ve done better.

Josh

I agree that if God is calling you to be involved in the arts, he would want you to do it to the best of your ability. I think anything that God calls us to, he calls us to strive for excellence, and I think that’s an important thing to remember.

We already addressed how it can be a difficult industry at times, but on the one hand, I’d like to say don’t give up. There are a lot of people who come out to work in the arts in some capacity and eventually give up. But part of striving for excellence is to be dedicated.

On the other hand, we need to be open to the fact that God may not be calling us to something like the arts. Because it seems exciting and fun, it can be easy to convince ourselves that God wants us to something, but really, it’s what we want to do. Any calling to the arts needs to be thought about and prayed about and not just jumped into.

From a more practical standpoint, everything takes time in the arts. Yes, there are some people who move out to L.A. and become stars right away, but there are maybe about four of those people every ten years. If you think you’re going to be the one who becomes a star suddenly, you’re probably not going to be. It will be very helpful for you to kill any delusions of grandeur like that, and be willing to put in very hard work for a long time before you get to the point where you’re really getting to do what you want to do.

Tyler

Just because it is a ministry, just because it’s a calling, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Look at people in the Bible who felt called to do a specific thing. It was almost never easy.

Rembrandt's Jeremiah, The Weeping Prophet

Rembrandt’s Jeremiah, The Weeping Prophet

The book and person that I always go to in the Bible is Jeremiah. God called him to be a prophet and to speak the truth to a community that did not want to hear it. And they never listened. Ever. There’s a reason why he was called the “weeping prophet.” He did what God wanted, but it was remarkably difficult.

There is absolutely no reason to think God is going to make everything just fall in your lap, and that you’re going to be successful overnight.

Your calling might be to work remarkably hard. In fact, your calling will be to work remarkably hard, and to have moments that are incredibly humbling. All so that someday maybe you can do this thing, and have control over it, and make a living at it, and that you can actually you know that you can make a difference.

By the way, ministry doesn’t start once you become successful. Ministry starts the minute you decide to do a thing. The minute you enroll in an acting class, that’s ministry. The minute you start writing and getting comments from other people, how you take those comments is part of your ministry. In a way, everything is a ministry.

It’s a very Hollywood and Los Angeles mentality, that I’m not doing anything until I’m doing the thing that I feel like I was called to do. But the nature of Christianity is that we can make a tremendous difference in just the day-to-day nitty gritty of doing whatever it is we are doing.

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

Find out more information about More Than One Lesson: morethanonelesson.com

Click here to subscribe to MTOL on iTunes

Click here to subscribe to MTOL with RSS

Tyler Smith on Twitter: @tylerpretension

Josh Long on Twitter: @thejoshlong

More Than One Lesson on Facebook: /More-Than-One-Lesson

and Twitter: @morelessons

Past Thimblerig interviews…

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

Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

Thimblerig’s Interview with Richard Ramsey, director of The Song

Thimblerig’s Interview with Filmmaker Doc Benson

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

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Richard Ramsey, Writer and Director of “The Song”

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

photo courtesy of City on a Hill Productions

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.

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey's Facebook page

Photo shamelessly swiped from Richard Ramsey’s Facebook page

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-songHow 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?

maxresdefaultFor 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!

Thimblerig’s Interview • Filmmaker Doc Benson

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.”

Seven-Deadly-WordsPlease give a synopsis of your film, “Seven Deadly Words”, and tell us a bit of the history of the film.

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.

10933251_644042369054905_1706003274_nProduction 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.

10887834_644042195721589_1443528046_nBut 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?

0dbc96_97dc63a963ad786760ab12a21d10f6c5.jpg_srz_309_496_75_22_0.5_1Ever 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

Doc Benson on Twitter and Facebook: @CuldeeDoc & /EricDocBenson

Seven Deadly Words on Facebook:  /SevenDeadlyWords

Past Thimblerig interviews…

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

Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

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!