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

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

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

But somehow, the boys at Riot Studios got him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please Introduce yourself…

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

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Bakke on Twitter: @iamwillbakke

Michael B. Allen on Twitter: @iamMichaelAllen

Believe Me on Facebook and Twitter:  @BelieveMeFilm  /BelieveMeFilm

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

 

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Beware of Christians – Thimblerig’s Review

The other day, I came across the trailer for an upcoming film called Believe Me, which has this logline: “Desperate, broke, and out of ideas, four college seniors start a fake charity to embezzle money for tuition.”

official-movie-poster-for-believe-me-in-theaters-and-on-demand-starting-sept-26-2014

This film caught my eye because it is being marketed as the anti-faith-based film – a movie made by Christians that tells the kind of story most faith-based filmmakers aren’t willing to tell.  It is a movie that the filmmakers aren’t interested in labeling a “Christian movie”.   In an interview with The Christian Post, director Will Bakke said emphatically, “to be clear, ‘Believe Me’ is not a Christian movie. Christianity is the backdrop to the story, but there’s no hidden agenda or altar call at the end of it.”

When I read this interview, part of me was intrigued.  After all, it sounded like these guys were trying to do exactly what I’ve been challenging the readers of this blog that Christians needed to be doing – making good films that don’t necessarily have “a family-friendly, faith-based, Dove Foundation approved” label slapped onto it.  A film that might actually attract people from outside of the church, and plant a few seeds through excellent storytelling rather than bashing them on the head with didactic on-the-nose preaching.

You know, kind of like Jesus used to do.

Radical idea, eh?

But then my cynical nature popped up, and the warning lights started flashing.  After all, what if these guys were playing some sort of game?  What if they were conning us, just like the characters in their film?  What if they were just a group of guys who really weren’t interested in the Christian faith, but who were savvy enough to recognize that there were a LOT of Christians out there who haven’t jumped on the sub-par faith-based film bandwagon?  That there were lots of us looking for an “anti-faith-based” film made by Christians?

What if they just saw that there was money to be made by saying all the right things, but not really believing them?

So, being the good blogger journalist I’m endeavoring to be, I decided to do some research.  I scoured their website, where I saw that these guys were pretty creative and seemed to be a bit on the hipster side with their retro Mad Men suits, but what I didn’t see was anything that confirmed or denied what they were saying in the interviews.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.04.35 PM

I realized I would have to go a step further, and check out one of their previous films in the hope that I might get some confirmation, one way or the other, which led me to download Riot Studio’s 2010 provocatively-titled documentary, Beware of Christians.

Beware of Christians is a film made by four young college-aged Christians who decide to spend five weeks backpacking across Europe, talking to people and each other about their thoughts on God and the following seven topics: identity, materialism sex/relationships, church, wealth/poverty, media/entertainment, and alcohol.  The film opened with one of my favorite quotes from Brennan Manning, which caught my attention and started me wondering if the Riot Studios boys might be Ragamuffins, too:

“The single greatest cause of atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny him with their lifestyle.”

It was a good sign, and so I pressed on.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.16.42 PMFilmed as if the viewer had just walked up on a conversation in progress, we’re introduced to the four affable young men: Alex, Will, Michael, and Matt, sitting around a table surrounded by darkness, but bathed in a single light.  They are typical early 20-somethings, talking alot, often about nothing at all, but surprisingly sometimes about much, much deeper things.

Through a series of quick shots, they share the reason for this documentary – to get away from all of the influences and distractions of their American Christian lives to try and figure out what Jesus wants from them.

And so they fly off to Europe for five weeks to try and wrangle this out.

This thought came to me pretty early on in the viewing:  When I was in college, why the heck didn’t I think of flying off to Europe with my friends and making it into a documentary?

But I digress.

On the one hand, I appreciated that these four guys were earnestly asking questions, and I appreciated that they seemed willing to dig deeper into the things they’d been taught growing up in the Bible belt.  Too many Christians never take that step, blindly believing what they’re taught.  This makes for flabby, sheep-like Christians who typically end up following a charismatic pastor rather the Good Shepherd.  These misguided sheep also don’t have a problem flocking to poorly made “faith-based” films because the films hit all the right beats that reaffirm their place in the flock.  In Beware, I was impressed both by the questions these four asked, and the fact that they were willing to search – not for something to replace their faith, but for how to be authentic Christians.

On the other hand, it was obvious from the get-go that I was not a part of the intended demographic for this film.  The filmmakers plainly made this film for their peers – churched kids in their late teens or early twenties – not married dads in their mid-forties.  This meant that as I watched the film, I had an increasing awareness that I’m years away from the stage of life of the intended audience, and while I don’t claim to understand everything about the Christian faith, I have already been through much of the same soul-searching, but it’s been a while.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 1.31.06 PMThe result?  Half the time I wanted to pat these guys on the back in support of the spiritual journey they were documenting, and the other half the time I wanted to smack them upside the head for their goofiness and general immaturity.  Really?  Dressing like gladiators and fighting with toy swords at The Coliseum?  Stealing your friend’s postcards and lying about it?  Does twenty years of life really make that much of a difference?  I suppose it does.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of watching Beware of Christians was a renewed respect for the folks who are called to minister in campus organizations like Intervarsity, Crusade, or FCA, or those called to teach on university campuses.

To speak to the quality of the film…

This is the second film that Riot Studios produced, and so while the film was reasonably well-cut, and the pacing was fairly brisk, the finished product was still a bit rough and I felt like it could have done with some trimming.  For example, it seemed like they tried to create a little conflict between a couple of the guys with the previously mentioned stolen postcards running gag, but in my opinion, this was a darling that should have been killed.  It didn’t add to the film, and just made Alex and Will look a bit like jerks.  Just let the guy send his postcards!

Overall, I would recommend the film for youth groups or university ministries, as those demographics would probably appreciate the antics of the leads, but more importantly, the film could be a great launching point for discussion about God, life, and the Christian faith.  The quartet does a good job of raising questions, and I was gratified to see that they consistently look for answers in the right place.

And the best part for me is that now I won’t go into Believe Me with any reservations about the spiritual foundation undergirding the filmmakers.  I feel reassured that they will probably be doing their best to produce a well-made film that will contain an important nugget or two of truth, even without a hidden agenda or alter call.  And I hope beyond hope that it will be the anti-faith-based Christian film that I’ve been waiting for.

And considering that Believe Me has Nick Offerman in a supporting role, I think there’s a pretty good chance that it will be just that.

nic