Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 6 • The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

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In the sixth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast, we look at 2017’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, directed by Dallas Jenkins (What If?), written by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell, and starring Brett Dalton (Agents of SHIELD), Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (Bon Qui Qui), Neil Flynn (Scrubs), D.B. Sweeney (Taken 2), and former WWF celebrity Shawn Michaels.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a comedy about a washed-up former child star who is forced to do community service at a local megachurch, and pretends to be a Christian to land the part of Jesus in their annual Passion Play, only to discover that the most important role of his life is far from Hollywood.

In this episode, we review the film (how many golden groundhogs did it get?) as well as look at the state of comedy in faith based filmmaking. Also, we uncover a brilliant metaphor for the state of faith based filmmaking hidden in the scenes of Gavin Stone. 

You can listen to this episode as well as other great podcasts by visiting the More Than One Lesson website.

And oh! You can also read an interview I conducted with screenwriter Andrea Gyertson Nasfall after her last big comedy, Mom’s Night Out by clicking here.

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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

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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!

 

Moms’ Night Out • Thimblerig’s Review

MNO_OfficialPoster_LowLast Friday, my wife, my kids, and settled down to enjoy our traditional Friday night family movie night.  We’d ordered pizza (yes, you can do that in China) and got ready to watch Moms’ Night Out.  I was nervous as I hit the play button, because I knew I would be writing a review of this film – continuing my series of reviews of films made by Christians – and I knew that the odds were stacked against me having very much positive to say.  After all, am I not the blogger who wrote the highly critical article, “What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking“?  I don’t like anything made by Christians, right?

So.  My immediate thoughts after watching the credits roll?

This film couldn’t have been made by Christians.

It wasn’t preachy.  It was acted well.  It was genuinely funny.  And the real kicker?  I’d be happy to watch it with my friends who aren’t a part of the Christian subculture.

Is this truly the state of filmmaking from Christians, when we’re actually starting to make good films?

Maybe there’s hope after all?

The irony about how much I enjoyed Moms’ Night Out was how little the critics enjoyed it.  After watching the film I looked up the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and was shocked to see that the film had a 18% fresh rating – with complaints about “archaic gender roles”,  sexism (towards men), regressiveness, and overall blandness.  As I read through the reviews, I began to sense that some of the complaints seemed to stem from the fact that this film was one of a slew of so-called “faith-based” films that were released this year, and it became obvious that some “faith-based fatigue” has started to set in.

With that in mind, I feel the need to critique the critics for a moment.  I was stunned to see that so much of the negative criticism of the film stemmed from the filmmaker’s support of “traditional gender roles.”  Further, I was angry that so many critics viewed portrayal of a stay-at-home-mom as regressive – writing about that choice (aren’t we supposed to celebrate choice?) in a belittling and negative manner.

Let me get this straight – if you have a film that portrays two working parents then it’s positive, but it’s somehow a negative to portray a home where the mom works at home.  Okay, check.  It’s progressive to have a film that shows two daddies, but it’s regressive to show a husband and wife in a committed relationship.  Right.  Got it.  To truly wow the critics, try having a single parent, and you’ll have them on your side at once.

But feature a few traditional marriages that seem to be working?

Then you are obviously stuck in the 1950’s.

If that’s regressive, then sign me up.

But I digress.  Critics only get it right when we agree with them, and anyway, I’m not here to write a critique of the critics.  I’m here to review Moms’ Night Out.  So, here we go.

What I liked about Moms’ Night Out.

1.  The Casting

sarah-drew-in-moms-night-out-movie-10With a perfect combination of comic timing and vulnerability, Sarah Drew was fantastic playing stressed-out mom, Allyson.   She succeeded in making this potentially irritating and shrill character into a character that I liked and found myself caring about.  In fact, what I saw in Sarah in Moms’ Night Out leads me to believe that she would kill playing Lucille Ball if they ever decided to reboot I Love Lucy.

Having said that, let me make a quick note to the studios: please don’t ever decide to reboot I Love Lucy.

Please.

Back to the actors… Sean Astin did a great job as Allyson’s husband, Sean – and he reminded me specifically of a couple of incredibly busy dads who I know, who love their families, but also have chosen work that takes them out of the house for days at a time.  I take issue with the critics who complained that the men in this film were incompetent, largely because of Sean Astin. moms-night-out-sean-astin Yes, he was overwhelmed with the kids when he took them out, but no more than Allyson had been at the start of the film.  Why did the critics miss this?  Everyone is overwhelmed and acting foolish in this film – men and women alike.  It’s not reverse sexism at play, but thanks, critics, for looking for a reason to not like the movie.

Confession time: I had a big celebrity crush on Patricia Heaton when she was played Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond, so I was glad to see her back on the screen.  She was well cast as the busy preacher’s wife, and she was funny while bringing a bit of maturity to the trio of moms who were having a night out.

The rest of the cast did a good job, including comic turns by Andrea Logan White as the third Mom, David Hunt as an expatriate Brit cabbie, Kevin Downes as Sean’s old friend (I actually wanted to see more of Kevin – he was an interesting but underdeveloped character), and a surprisingly well-acted performance by country singer Trace Atkins as Bones the tough-guy biker (Pinterest?  Really?  That was a laugh-out-loud moment for me).

2.  The Writing

ligerMoms’ Night Out is the film equivalent of Napoleon Dynamite’s liger – a rarely-seen almost mythological creature – a laugh-out-loud comedy made by Christians.

Typically, comedy in our “faith-based” films is awkward, goofy, and pedestrian – more like the efforts of some amateur improv troupe than serious attempts at humor in mainstream motion pictures.  Our cinematic comedy usually feels like it was shoved into a bad dramatic storyline to offer comedic relief, and while the attempts may gets laughs, it’s usually not terribly smart.

The laughs in Moms’ Night Out were smart.  Yes, there were the goofy moments (just about every scene with Marco), but the humor was overall well-written and acted, and as the anxiety of the night built, so did the laughs.

But it wasn’t just laughter.  This was a movie with heart, and as a parent of young children, I identified with the problems and challenges these families were experiencing.  The filmmakers did a nice job bringing everything down to the touching conversation between Allyson and Bones in the waiting area of the jail.

I really, really liked this scene!  Yes, it had a powerful message about Allyson needing to allow herself to be herself.  And yes, it mentioned the name of Jesus (shocking!), but even so it didn’t come across to me as preachy.  How did Christians actually manage to make a climactic heartfelt scene that wasn’t preachy?  Stunning!  Was it the writing?  The acting?  Maybe it was both!

Regardless, the writers made the fantastically unexpected choice of having the tattoo-parlor biker comforting the suburban church-going housewife rather than the suburban church-going housewife leading the tattoo-parlor biker in the Sinner’s Prayer, and I loved it.  It was a surprising choice, a lovely calm moment in the middle of all of the comedic chaos, and it worked.

The Revolutionary Spirit of the Film

In 2014, Moms’ Night Out is a revolutionary film.  It is a dangerous film.  It’s a film that stands to piss off a whole lot of people.

And I love it for that.

Think about it – the film shows families that support each other, even when under stress;  it shows husbands who go out of their way to care for their wives – even when the wives are obviously stressed out; it has a lead who has the ambition to stay at home and homeschool her kids;  It treats faith like a normal part of life, and shows that people of faith aren’t that much different than people who don’t claim a faith.

Twenty years ago, these ideas would have seemed typical, maybe even dull.  Today?  They so stun the world that many critics can’t get past it.

And because the film was light, and airy, and not didactic, it worked.

Moms’ Night Out was not the typical “faith-based” film – no Christian celebrity cameos, no overt Gospel presentation, no cheesy acting and production values…

…and it worked.

In conclusion…

For all those filmmakers of faith out there with spec scripts burning up your harddrives, let this film serve as a lesson for you.  You don’t have to make films that are so on-the-nose.  You can make films that tell the stories that you want to tell, and they can be good and even make money – even if they don’t check the all the prerequisite boxes of the Christian films of the past.

Read my past reviews here:

Ragamuffin

God’s Not Dead

Heaven is for Real

Beware of Christians 

Up next?

Believe Me, which will be released this weekend, both in theaters and online, which means I’llbe able to watch and review while it’s fresh!