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!

 

40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media – Day One Finished

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.29.45 PMThe day started well, with Skye Jethani‘s daily devotional waiting faithfully for me in my e-mail inbox when I awoke.  I read it, and then, since my family has not been doing very well with devotionals lately, I called everyone to the breakfast table.

Together, we read through Jethani’s devotional, which dealt with Luke 23: 27 & 28.  It focused on Jesus’ encounter with the women while he was carrying the cross to Golgatha.  They were weeping for him, but he told them to weep for themselves – and Jethani pointed out that Jesus had the chance to act like a victim, but instead he focused on the true victims, and he challenged his readers to do the same.  It led to a really nice discussion with the kids about times they’d felt like victims.

We went to church, and had a nice service at the international fellowship here in Shekou.  Afterwards, I came home to a quiet house.  My wife and daughter had a girl scout event, my older son was playing at a friend’s house,  and my toddler son had fallen asleep.  I wanted to see what sort of Christian television programming I could find, and went searching.

I quickly realized that watching Christian programming from China was not going to be easy.  Parables.tv – the Christian Netflix, as it bills itself – streams videos, but they are mostly the bottom of the barrel, quality-wise.  I’ll try to give them a go later, but the two that I started watching (some Christian “comedian”, and a really REALLY low budget movie about Samson) weren’t worth pursuing.  I tried Godtube, but again, didn’t find anything.  I perused the Cornerstone Network (home of The 700 Club and similar programming), but wasn’t in the mood for the perfect people in suits who smiled too much and talked too much about people being “anointed”.  I did find something about a Christian sitcom called “Pastor Greg”, but couldn’t find any way to watch it online.  Also, there were rumblings about a sitcom starring Stephen Baldwin, but again, nothing available online.  I checked the religion section on Amazon Prime, and there was absolutely nothing there worth watching.

People producing Christian programming, you guys really need to make your things available online.  Riot Studios, the makers of last year’s Believe Me, were brilliant with this – releasing their film simultaneously in the theaters and as a digital download.

I checked over on Christian Faithbook to see if anyone had acknowledged my new membership, and had a single request for friendship.  I’d even commented on one of the groups, but apparently the faithful Christians of Christian Faithbook rarely visit.

By this time, my toddler son woke up from his nap, and so I had to turn from the Christian media to my son.  My attempts to find decent Christian programming online?

there-is-no-try-only-failOne of the really fascinating things that has happened as a result of my announcing this challenge has been the pity exhibited to me by other Christians who also don’t see much of redeeming quality about the bulk of Christian media.  I received comment after comment from Christians telling me how sorry they are that I’m doing this to myself.

I was also fascinated by the folks who wrote encouraging me to consider all the great artists who are not famous for being Christians, but who were.  Tolkien, Hugo, Christie, etc.  One person even wrote, “there’s no excuse to imbibe bad art when you can have good art at the highest cultural level.”

Truth is, I hope to discover some new good art while wading through all the bad.

Interesting note on the day – I decided to prepare dinner, since I was home alone with the baby, and sat down on the computer to find a specific recipe.  Since I could only look on Christian websites, I discovered there are very few Christian websites that specialize in recipes.  This is ironic, considering how much Christian love to eat.

So, if you are a Christian looking for a niche – there you go.

I ended the day on an extremely positive note – watching Richard Ramsey’s The Song.  Here’s the trailer, if you don’t know it:

This movie is absolutely amazing.  Quite literally one of the best films of 2014, in my opinion.  I’m going to be writing a review on the film tomorrow, but you need to see it.  It was a great way to end the day.

Day 1 down, 39 days to go.

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!

 

Believe Me • Thimblerig’s Review

A few weeks ago, I got wind of Believe Me, a little indie film that was being produced by some Christian filmmakers – and the thing that really got my attention was that Nick Offerman was somehow involved.

Nick Offerman, who plays the impressively mustachioed libertarian director of the parks department in one of my favorite sitcoms, Parks and Recreation, involved in a film made by Christians?

I was further perplexed when I did a bit of research and discovered that the guys making this film, who run a studio called Riot Studios, had never made a feature film before.

And they got Nick Offerman?

Extremely curious, I went and found a copy of Riot Studio’s claim-to-fame documentary, Beware of Christians, and watched it.  You can read my review here.  I walked away somewhat reassured that the guys making Believe Me were spot on theologically, but I was also extremely nervous.  Could these Christian kids pull off a decent feature length movie?

After all, I’ve been challenging Christian filmmakers and the church-going audience about the condition of our films in blog posts like this, and this, and this, and this, and this.  So needless to say, I am heavily invested in the possibility of seeing good filmmaking by Christians.

Last night I watched Believe Me, and now I really, really want to call this post, “What’s RIGHT with Christian Filmmaking”.

Because the boys at Riot Studios get it.   They GET IT.

Let me give a quick synopsis of the film.

The film tells the story of Sam (Alex Russell), a frat boy who is about to graduate from university when he finds out from his dean (Nick Offerman in the world’s shortest cameo – but I’m still impressed that they got him) that he has nearly $10,000 in back tuition that has to be taken care of before he can graduate, a bill he can’t afford to pay.  Sam is not willing to take time off to try and earn the money because he’s afraid he’ll never get back on track to continue his education in law school, but he also doesn’t have access to that kind of money.

A girl-hunting trip to a campus church is the inciting incident that propels this story forward, as Sam sees how much money Christians are willing to give to ministries.  This leads him to hatch a scheme to create a fake ministry to scam money away from Christians.  He enlists the aid of his roommates and frat brothers, Pierce (Miles Fisher, who looks amazingly like he could be the product of a union between Christian Bale and Tom Cruise), Baker (Max Adler), and a reluctant Tyler (Sinqua Walls), the conscience of the group, who is not from Africa (that bit made me laugh).  In a short amount of time, their “ministry”, Get Wells Soon – allegedly digging wells in Africa – is born.

The ministry is an immediate success, mainly because of Sam’s Jeff Winger-like ability to tell people what they want to hear, and gets the attention of Ken Hopkins (veteran actor Christopher McDonald), the executive director of Cross Country, the “second most impactful ministry in the country” (as rated by the Holy Herald).  Hopkins offers the boys a spot on his twenty-seven city tour, and an opportunity for them to raise some serious support for Get Wells Soon.

Realizing that this is their chance to score some serious cash, the boys (who become known as The God Squad) accept Hopkins’ offer, and join the Cross Country team.  Along the way they meet worship leader Gabriel (Zachary Knighton) – although he doesn’t call himself a worship leader, again – laugh out loud moment, and Callie the tour coordinator (Johanna Braddy), who also seems to be the most sincere Christian of the Cross Country bunch.

Over the next few weeks, the team criss-crosses the country, and Sam and the rest of the God Squad become better and better at selling their scam, and they begin to skim quite a bit of cash off the top of the donations.   But of course, conflict emerges, secrets become known, and they are faced with losing everything.  But I’m not giving out any spoilers with this review, so if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to go see Believe Me.  You can also download it and watch it here.

And I would highly recommend that you do.

When I wrote What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

Believe Me was an incredibly risky movie for Christian filmmakers.  The hero of the film is a con-artist fratboy, and so he and his buddies talk and act like con-artist fratboys.  The movie has a PG-13 rating for language, but the characters talk the way those characters would talk – with little punches pulled.  They also drink a LOT of beer, and that’s shown.  But it doesn’t seem like the filmmakers did this because they wanted to shock the traditional faith-based audience, they did this because they wanted the film to be true.  And Sam and his friends acted true to the way guys like that would act.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Sam teaching the other members of the God Squad the important words to use in prayer.

Sam teaching the other members of the God Squad the important words to use in prayer.

I absolutely loved that this film took contemporary evangelical American Christianity, and allowed us to see ourselves through the eyes of the non-Christian con-artists.  First of all, Gabriel, the incredibly pretentious non-worship leader worship leader, has a signature song called “Jesus”, and according to the screen in the scene, it’s simply repeating the word “Jesus” over and over again (x16).  Secondly, Sam realizes that if he and his friends are going to pull off this scam, they need to be able to be completely convincing as modern Christians, and so he assigns each member of his team a different aspect of Christianity to investigate, and then they will teach each other how to be convincing.  This bit was hilarious, and reminded me a LOT of the humor of Tim Hawkins, who also has fun with modern Christianity in his standup routine.  The bit on how to pray was especially pointed, and has been a bone of contention for me for a long, long time.

One of my biggest problems with movies being made by Christians these days is that they are tailor making films for the Christian subculture, and I firmly believe that this should not be the mission of all filmmakers of faith.  I contend that filmmakers who follow Christ should be making films that people outside the bubble would want to see, and in the process we might actually be able to see seeds of our faith planted.

I loved that Believe Me was not necessarily made for Christians, that this film is well-made and well-told enough that we could gladly show it to our non-Christian films, but I also think that this is a film that mature adult Christians need to watch.  Because it’s about us.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, don’t have preachy, didactic films.

This film is all about a cross-country ministry, and several scenes involve Sam preaching to the audience, but the film never comes across as preachy, because we know that he doesn’t believe the things that he is teaching.  The film comes closest to being preachy when Sam and Callie are having private conversations, but those scenes aren’t preachy because we know that she is sincere – and she is talking the way Christians talk – and we know that Sam is not, and he just doesn’t get it.

And when things start to turn (again, not giving out spoilers), it seems like things are turning the way that they would turn.  It doesn’t seem contrived, or forced.  It doesn’t feel heavy-handed or didactic.  It might be a bit predicable, but then we have that ending, which was oddly satisfying in its ambiguity.  Which brings me to the next point…

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

Without going into details, I love the ambiguity of the ending of the very last scene of the film.  That – my friends – was a spectacular choice by the filmmakers.  But you’ll have to see it to understand.  It just goes along with my contention that not every question needs to be answered in filmmaking, because that is what creates good discussion and conversation.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

Believe Me is a well-written, well-acted, well-produced film.  The script was pretty solid, and the filmmakers somehow made me care about these four fratboy con-artists, and by the end of the film I was rooting for them to somehow find their way out of the mess they’d made for themselves.

The movie had several laugh-out-loud moments, and when it threatened to get bogged down in the sincerity of the third act, it pulled itself out and recovered nicely.  The filmmakers went to the trouble to hire real actors who were believable, who have no connection to the modern contemporary faith-based filmmaking scene, and I hope that it pays off for them.

The only part I didn’t like about Believe Me was the LeCrae scene.  I didn’t quite get why Callie was in that movie theater, and what kind of movie she was going to see, and it felt a bit forced as a way to get LaCrae into the movie.  It seemed like this was an attempt on behalf of the filmmakers to show that they had some sort of cred with the hipper elements of the evangelical Christian subculture – “Hey!  We got LeCrae!”, and it just didn’t work for me.

But hey, at least it wasn’t Willie Robertson!

Folks, this is a historic moment.  Believe Me is the first film made by Christians to be awarded the coveted five golden groundhogs for doing all five of these things, so first of all – congratulations to Michael Allen and Will Bakke for this high honor.  I wish I actually had golden groundhogs that I could send to you guys.

Golden Groundhogs Believe Me

 

In conclusion, I look forward to seeing the future efforts by Riot Studios.  You guys have my prayers (without overusing the word “just”), as well as my admiration.  And if you ever want to get into feature animation, I’d love to talk to you about my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  It seems like it would be in your wheelhouse.

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