The Parable of the Director and the Screenwriter

Jesus told this parable:

hollywood-signTwo people went to Hollywood to get involved in the entertainment industry.

One was a film director from Georgia who felt called to make Christian movies, and the other was a screenwriter from Jersey whose ambition was to become the next Quentin Tarantino. The two wound up living in adjoining apartments in the Valley where they would pass each other every day, but they never spoke.

The director from Georgia, who had come to Hollywood because he was so bothered by the stream of morally bankrupt movies and programs being produced there, was offended by the lifestyles he encountered in L.A. and angered by the way industry people so often made fun of religion. Emboldened by the culture war messages he would read online, he decided to turn his energies to creating a Christian alternative to Hollywood.

One afternoon he sat in church and prayed, “God, I’m so glad I’m not like the other people I see out here – the godless actors, hedonistic directors, vile comics – or even like that liberal screenwriter who lives next door, people who don’t know you and who are trying to destroy traditional American family values. I’m in church every Sunday, attend Bible study twice a week, fast and pray regularly, and give money to conservative politicians. I will play an important part in saving the culture, and I’m so glad you sent me here to stand in the gap.”

At that same moment, the screenwriter from Jersey – after working for hours at Alfred Coffee trying to break a new script idea – was wandering the streets. She missed her family, was agonizing over the less talented writers who sold scripts while her career was going nowhere, regretted that clingy guy she’d brought home the night before, and was worried that she’d started drinking too much.

When she found herself standing across the street from the church, a small part of her felt like she should go in, but she just couldn’t. There was too much baggage.

Instead, she sat on a bench and broke down into sobs, crying out, “God, what’s the point of all this? What am I even doing here? If you’re out there, please give me a break. I just really need a break… I’m so sorry… for everything…”

And Jesus said, “I tell you that the screenwriter, rather than the director, was justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Inspired by Luke 18:9-14 and this article about the Golden Globes.

 

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate

Tyler and Josh, please introduce yourselves.

Tyler

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

Josh

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

Nate

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

Tyler

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

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

Nate

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

Tyler

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

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

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

Nate

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

Josh

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

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

Tyler

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

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

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

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

Nate

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

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

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

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

Nate

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

Tyler

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

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

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

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

Josh

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

Tyler

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

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

Josh

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

Nate

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

Tyler

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

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

Josh

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

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

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

Tyler

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

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

Nate

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

Josh

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate

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

Tyler

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

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

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

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

Josh

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

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

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

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

Tyler

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

Rembrandt's Jeremiah, The Weeping Prophet

Rembrandt’s Jeremiah, The Weeping Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to subscribe to MTOL on iTunes

Click here to subscribe to MTOL with RSS

Tyler Smith on Twitter: @tylerpretension

Josh Long on Twitter: @thejoshlong

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

and Twitter: @morelessons

Past Thimblerig interviews…

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

Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

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

Thimblerig’s Interview with Filmmaker Doc Benson

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

 

Thimblerig’s Interview • Filmmaker Doc Benson

Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed becoming networked with several Christians who are involved in the filmmaking industry, and who have what I consider to be a healthy and balanced view on living your faith out while attempting to create film art for the glory of God.

One of the filmmakers I’ve gotten the pleasure of meeting (virtually, anyway) is Doc Benson, a man who wears many, many hats: producer, newscaster, station manager, voice artist, feature film actor, pastor, church consultant, and restart specialist.  Doc has been involved in media and ministry since 1990, and has recently written, produced, acted in, and directed his first feature-length film, Seven Deadly Words.

One very interesting thing that Doc has done is started an effort to distribute a copy of Seven Deadly Words to every church in America.  This is an amazingly generous undertaking, with potential far reaching impact.  If you would like to learn more about this effort, you can find out more by visiting the website, www.givingchurcheshope.org.

I’m pleased and honored to have Doc Benson be a part of the third interview in my Thimblerig’s Interviews series.

Please Introduce yourself.

Hi, I’m Doc Benson… Director, Writer, and Producer and all around nice guy.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

While working on my doctorate, I took a break from ministry and became a producer and on-air talent for a CBS news affiliate. I eventually became a TV station manager in a small community in New England.   I had the opportunity to work on documentaries and in “Disappearances” with Kris Kristofferson. That experience solidified my desire to enter the field of film production. Eventually I studied under Dov Simmons (the same teacher of Quentin Tarantino and Will Smith among others). From all this, I crafted the script and production that eventually became the award-winning feature, Seven Deadly Words.

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

Well….Let me think a minute. I’d have to say that I draw on several sources for inspiration. First and foremost I’d have to say Frank Capra. Some directors like to tell stories about unapproachable people … people of the 1%. Capra, with films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was best able to capture the irrepressible optimism and daily courage of ordinary men and women.

I am also a big fan of classic radio programs. The ability to capture an audience and transport them into another time and place merely with the spoken word. Sure, the maxim is “show it, don’t say it”, but if the word pictures you create are not on par with the images you paint, you will lose your audience. Script and story matters.

By the way, I have to agree with Orson Welles when he stated that Buster Keaton’s The General is “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.”

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

Inspired by actual events, this docudrama follows the community and the congregation of Egypt Valley Church as they try to overcome the Seven Deadly Words: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ The church is out of funds and out of touch with the community. New pastor Evan Bennett sets out to change things for the better with the help of some folks in and out of the church. But there’s a problem… The Haman Family has been running things a long time, and they don’t like change. When their control and ministry comes under scrutiny, the Hamans decide to fight back. Evan and his family soon learn how far one family is willing to go to preserve the status quo.

For almost two decades I served as a pastor, church planter, and restart consultant. I have seen both the good and bad about churches going through change. I’ve even lived through some “horror stories” of my own. I thought I would combine some of those ideas, stories, and debates, and put them together into a film that could tell the story of one church, going through needed change. Folks may be shocked at some of the things that happen, but I am sorry to say that much of the film is inspired by actual events. In the end, however, it is a story about overcoming the conflict surrounding change, and growing in a direction that is Christ centered and ministry focused.

Script development began back in 2011. We assembled the cast and crew in early 2012, and began principal photography on June 9th of 2012. The premiere was held near the end of 2013, with distribution starting in the summer of 2014. We’ve been blessed to have won a number of awards for the project. It was even screened in Cannes during this year’s festival.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project? What surprises did you experience along the way?

Funding was the biggest challenge. We set up an LLC and secured members to invest in the project. Being that it was my first film, we were in uncharted waters. It took some time to find investors with the vision and courage to recognize the potential in the film.   Selecting a location was also paramount. We partnered with Connersville, Indiana, a community that was supportive to the extent that the provided resources for us at no cost and even let us use the city and local business names in the movie. This was a win-win in that we were able to reduce art costs and production expenses, and they gained a promotional boost with every showing of the movie. I strongly believe that these types of partnerships help to boost production value in lower budget films while reducing actual spending.

10933251_644042369054905_1706003274_nProduction wasn’t as big a challenge as you would think. I had very detailed call sheets, shot lists, and script notes. Good planning made the days run fairly smoothly.   Because of our preparations in advance, we often finished with filming by mid afternoon each day. I didn’t want it to feel like an indie set, but more like a SAG set. The professionalism on set gave the cast and crew time to rehearse, relax, and socialize in the evenings. We still finished the entire film, securing all shots we needed plus some, in the 18 days scheduled (six days shooting and one for rest per week). I believe that well rested actors and crew can give a much better performance in fewer takes than a crew working 16 to 18 hours a day on a mismanaged set.

Surprise? I guess I’d have to say the reaction from mainstream festivals. We have received more awards and recognition from secular festivals than faith-based festivals. Maybe it’s because our story exposes areas in church life that need improvement. Folks who have never stepped foot in a church tell us that they can relate to the conflict over the seven deadly words. Some have even told us war stories of personal experiences.   To me, that’s high praise.

What are your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community now, and your predictions for where it might go in the future?

We are trapped in a moment in time where church audiences and the Christian-industrial complex tend to prefer movies that don’t take risks. Movies with milquetoast stories and construction make millions, while films that break new creative boundaries barely scrape by. I call these “Godsploitation” films, after the “Blackspoitation” movies of the 1970’s. They are formulaic for a target market with come to Jesus moments and car salesman subtlety.

Godsploitation films continue to be made because they have a ready audience, and investors like ready audiences. It’s a catch 22. We need investors to take chances on redemptive films in new genres, but we also need believers to accept and promote these new movies. Some producers are starting to break out of this mold, but we have a ways to go before we see a wide swath of redemptive films covering multiple genres.

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

Yeah. If you made an accurate movie about parts of the Old Testament, it would be boycotted by many churches!

Life isn’t clean. Good guys aren’t perfect. Bad guys aren’t twisting a moustache and wearing a cape. We don’t exist in a Pollyanna world. If you want to make characters that are overcomers in Christ, you need to give them something to overcome. Give them challenges, problems, realism, grit… especially if your target audience includes Pre-Christians.

10887834_644042195721589_1443528046_nBut that doesn’t mean you have to show EVERYTHING in order to make your point. Take horror films: Hitchcock’s Psycho did more to scare me by showing syrup in a drain than any blood soaked slasher film of today ever will. Or how about just before the fight scene between Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Borgnine sees a photo of Sinatra’s sister, and whispers something in the ear of Montgomery Clift . You don’t hear what it was, but it was bad enough to cause Sinatra to grab a chair and start swinging.  Maybe it’s the radio fan in me, but if Christians want to make realistic films without gratuitous violence or over the top language, take a cue from the masters of the golden age…imply. Your audience’s imagination will do the rest.

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

I think that the movie My Son gave us a window into what an R-rated movie with a solid redemptive message could look like. Unlike many in the church, I felt that the movie probably deserved an R rating for drug use and violence, but that didn’t mean it was a bad movie. On the contrary. Keep in mind that the MPAA rating system is subjective at best and biased at worst. There are many mainstream films that receive ratings lower than deserved.

But really, who cares? Hollywood may release more R rated films, but over and over, studies have shown that PG and PG-13 movies make more money. Remember, you need investors, and investors like proven profitability.

Don’t tell me you couldn’t make that R rated film a PG-13 with just a few tweaks. Drop some of the language. The overuse of profanity is a crutch that weak writers use to create fake tension. Suggest some of the sex instead of just showing it. It will take more creativity, but will be more profitable in the long run and less apt to be shunned by the church community.

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

First, expect to be disappointed. There are going to be many hours of frustration, many dead end roads, and many moments of disillusionment. If you think that the faith-based film industry is paved with golden intentions and receptive hearts think again. There are egos, agendas, and self-centered prima donnas here too. They get away with it by disguising their pomposity in a shroud of spiritual language and religiosity. It will be very frustrating, but don’t let it rob you of your zeal and purpose. Keep the faith.

If you want to make a million dollar feature, show them you can make a successful $200,000 feature. If you want to make that, show them you can make a $60,000 film. To make that, make a great $20,000 movie and so on. Work your way up the path of budget and creativity. Don’t try to start too big, nor should you remain stuck in ultra-low budget purgatory. And for heaven’s sakes, no more shorts!

The other thing I would recommend is figure out what film-making job you are good at, and learn as much about that role as possible. Right now most redemptive films are made using the “Lone Ranger” model…One guy or gal is the director, producer, dp, grip, chief cook, etc. That’s not how the industry at large works. A quality production brings together a diverse staff of talented individuals uniquely gifted in their task. I myself have worn a number of hats, but have focused on directing as my calling.

Collaborative efforts will require bigger budgets, which will require greater investment, which will require better stories and quality to attract investors. Therefore, as we move to collaboration, we will see better movies.   Maybe instead of you and four other people each making an okay 10 grand film, you could work together to make an amazing 50 grand feature or web pilot? Leave your egos at the foot of the cross, please.

Can you tell us what you have planned for any future projects?

0dbc96_97dc63a963ad786760ab12a21d10f6c5.jpg_srz_309_496_75_22_0.5_1Ever since Seven Deadly Words and winning those three best director awards, I have been asked to direct for other producers. I look forward to those directing opportunities and others that may come along.   In the mean time I have another film in development entitled The Publication, which will include actors from SDW as well as talented folks like Lee Perkins from Foxcatcher and Nancy Stafford from Matlock. We are still gathering investment on this one.

I also have other scripts that I would love to direct and partner with a production company or church to make. If a church was interested in becoming a producer of redemptive film, I would come in, help train your people, assist with the production planning, and then direct the film.

The other thing happening is a campaign called Giving Churches Hope. There was so much positive feedback about our last movie and the value it had for church audiences, we are working with several church organizations and non-profits in an effort to give a copy of “Seven Deadly Words” to every church in America. Folks can learn more at the campaign website GivingChurchesHope.org or by contacting me directly via DocBenson.org .

Again, a big thank you to Doc Benson for taking part in this interview, and for giving so much great information for those of us interested in helping Christians excel in filmmaking and other artistic endeavors.

More about Doc…

Doc Benson’s article, The Little Red Hen for Filmmakers

Find out more information about Doc Benson: DocBenson.org

Giving Churches Hope website:  Giving Churches Hope

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

Seven Deadly Words on Facebook:  /SevenDeadlyWords

Past Thimblerig interviews…

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

Thimblerig’s Interview with Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

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

Real Steel – The Faith Based Film?

I just watched Real Steel with my son, and we absolutely loved it.  As the credits started to roll, I wondered – why can’t Christians make a film like this?  Is it because there’s no preachy message that we’re unable to do this sort of thing?  After all, it’s only a movie about a washed up boxer/father who desperately needs to really learn to care about something or someone, or he’ll continue his downward spiral until he dies alone.  He’s finally saved through the sheer stubbornness, determination, and resolute love of his son – a love that refuses to die.

Essentially, it’s a fun movie with heart.

real-steel-11Oh, yeah.  And big robots punching each other to an oily pulp.

As I was watching this movie I kept thinking – why can’t Christians make fun movies with heart?  We seem to want so badly to put The Message into everything we do, but the really funny part is that we really don’t have to do this!  If we could ever learn to just relax and tell good stories well, then we would actually give the opportunity to God to do what He does best: speak through the stories we tell despite us.  Even if we never explicitly mention God or the Gospel – God can still speak.

Yes, God could actually do that if we gave him the chance.

But back to tonight’s movie:  is Real Steel the Best Movie Ever Made©?

No.

Is Real Steel formulaic?

Sure.  Even the ending, which tries to be surprising, doesn’t shock us.

But, even with all of that being true – is Real Steel an entertaining and fun movie with heart?  Absolutely.  Without a doubt.  Undeniably.

Christians, while we’re also planning to produce our Sherwood Pictures, Rich Christiano, Rick Santorum Movies Meant To Evangelize That Really Only Reach The Churched©… let’s make well-told movies with heart, too!  Let’s break down the walls of the viewers by creating characters the audience actually cares about!  Let’s tell rousing stories that make the audience cheer!  Let’s get some giant robots who are fighting for something bigger!  Or maybe even aliens, or secret agents, or dinosaurs!

Let’s tell the stories well, and have fun while we do it, and then… let’s see what God might do.

Because – at the end of the day – they’re just movies, for heaven’s sake!   As the song says – here today and gone tomorrow.   Why do we forget that?

What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking?

 

gods_not_dead_xlg

This morning I read a review of the film God’s Not Dead over at Gospelspam.com, and was struck by the thesis of the review, which is found in the title, “God’s Not Dead but Christian Screenwriting Is.”

The review had plenty of good to say about the film, but also plenty to say about the problems currently found in Christian filmmaking – specifically the writing.  This issue brings up strong feelings and thoughts in me, as I am a Christian, and I have been a student of screenwriting since 2007.  I’ve written screenplays (both produced and un-produced), and have recently published my first novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  I felt led to respond to the article in the comment section at Gospelspam, and then decided to reproduce the bulk of my comments here.

Let me say from the start that my intention with this article is not to attack my fellow Christian artists.  I generally have great respect for anyone who carries an idea from imagination to the screen, and with Christian artists, I also respect the intention behind the process.  And I know that there are probably some very good independently made Christian films that try like crazy to break out to a larger audience, but are unable to do so for many different reasons.  The intent of this article is more to express my frustration of the limitations faced by Christian artists, put there by the church at large.

flanneryFor centuries the church was the main sponsor of amazing art.  Christians were responsible for setting the tone of art for the culture, and we have the amazing work of artists such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and many others as the fruit of that labor.  But for some reason Christians have rarely been able to accomplish dramatic storytelling effectively on any large scale, which is ironic, considering that we are the custodians of the Greatest Story Ever Told.  While there are the occasional mold-breakers (thinking about C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor in the literary world, to name a couple), modern Christians seem to have a hard time jumping feet-first into the story-telling deep end, telling a compelling story that will go beyond the church walls.

This is a multi-layered conversation, and it is thankfully a conversation that is taking place among many creative Christian writers and artists.  In 2007 I was privileged to take a month long intensive screenwriting course in Hollywood with  Act One, an organization that trains Christian writers and producers how to write and produce good films with integrity.  It was one of the most stimulating months of my life, as we wrestled with these issues on a daily basis.  From that time, and since, I’ve thought of three major hurdles that Christian artists face when attempting to write, sing, or film something that will have the potential to impact the world.  For the sake of this article, I will focus on Christian filmmaking.

The first problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be SAFE.  When is the last time a big “faith-based” film had an R rating because of it’s true depiction of sin?  It’s a huge dilemma, because we – as followers of Christ – don’t want to sin ourselves in making a film, or encourage sin, but this really handcuffs us and our ability to realistically portray life.  If you are a Christian, when was the last time you saw a Christian film that truly challenged your faith?  What was the last Christian film that asked questions without giving answers?  Does the greater Christian culture allow for that?

Facing_the_giantsThe second problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to be PREDICTABLE.  When I was doing drama in summer camps in Kazakhstan, a friend pointed out that the representation of Satan was always more interesting than the representation of Jesus.  He also said that it wasn’t saying much, because Satan was fundamentally not so interesting because no matter the drama presentation, he always acted the same way, and the same was true of Jesus.  I see this carried through in expectations for Christian filmmaking – the protagonist and the antagonist usually act a certain way, and if they don’t, the film won’t be received well.  What does the audience want?  The non-Christian needs to become a Christian, and the Christian needs to find “victory” of some sort.  My major disappointment with the Kendrick brother’s film, “Facing the Giants”, was that it was a wonderful opportunity to show how a Christian deals with failure, but in the end the filmmakers decided to make it a fairy tale where a prayer changes the direction of the wind.  It was predictable, and the film was wildly successful.

The third problem is that Christian filmmaking needs to PREACH TO THE CHOIR.  With the exception of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, how many films made by Christian filmmakers have made any sort of dent in the culture beyond the church walls?  When is the last time a film made by Christians received substantial praise from non-Christian film reviewers?  This past weekend, God’s Not Dead had good box office – earning a respectable $9.2 million, but how much of that cash was from non-Christian wallets?  The film also currently has a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is high for the typical Christian-made film.
Noah 1

Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film, Noah, is a very interesting case to me, and it is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Unfortunately, a  big reason that I’m hopeful for the film is that it was NOT made explicitly by Christians, and while the studio also wants a piece of the “faith-based audience box office pie”, Aronofsky made the film he wanted to make.  I am much more interested in this film than I am in God’s Not Dead or the recent Son of God, because it will be everything a typical Christian film is not:  it will be a dangerous film – forcing the viewer to rethink the traditional way of viewing the story of Noah; it will undoubtedly be unpredictable, because Aronofsky is not handcuffed by an allegiance to modern evangelical sensibilities; and finally, thousands and thousands of people are going to be flocking to see it, and not because of their church allegiance.

How cool would it be if a film made by Christians could make the box office that Noah will make, with audiences from every different walk of life?  Here are my tips on how the body of Christ can come closer to making that happen:

1)  We need to permit our artists (writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers) to take more risks.  And artists, whether you are permitted or not, take more risks.  Did you really get into your artistic field because you liked playing it safe?  Why play it safe with the most important thing you have to say?

2)  We need to encourage our artists to challenge rather than stroke our sensibilities.  A pearl is made when dirt is irritated inside the oyster, after all.  And so artists, don’t wait for permission.  Start challenging your audience.  They will undoubtedly resist you, but we need to be challenged or we’ll stagnate and fade away into irrelevance.

3)  We need to recognize that art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit, and while the two might cross paths from time to time, they are completely different animals.  This goes for everyone.  Does everyone truly understand this?  With all the recent criticisms of Noah because it “is unbiblical”, I have to think that lots of people don’t.  Read here for more of my thoughts on this.

4)  We need to be okay with movies that don’t give all the answers.  If they succeed in asking some good, deep questions, they might actually open the doors to conversations where answers can be explored.  Artists, isn’t part of our job to provoke questions?  Don’t feel you have to end every sentence with a period

5)  And most importantly:  tell good stories.  As Frank Capra famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”  If you are an artist, the quality of your work should be at the top of your list of considerations.  Jesus wasn’t known for telling mediocre stories that ticked off all the correct religious boxes.  He was known for telling compelling stories that challenged his listeners while communicating God’s truth.  Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?

I need to conclude this article by saying once more that I do respect that there are Christians out there trying to bust into the filmmaking business, and I wish them well.  I just hope we can figure out how to tell The Story – truly the Greatest Story Ever Told – in the manner in which it deserves, and in such an excellent way that people outside the Christian subculture will receive it.

Update:  If you have read this far, and you want to read more of my thoughts on this subject – especially as related to what artists of faith need to do – please go here for my follow up article:   What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking Episode 2

You can also respond further about the things brought up in this article here.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtFinally, if you would like to see me trying to put my words here to practice, then download my new novel, Thimblerig’s Ark!  It’s the story of Noah’s Ark from the animal’s point of view, and here’s what has been said about it:

“A great romp!”

“…couldn’t put it down…”

“A powerful story!”

“…seems like a children’s book, but its themes are more adult.”

For the price of a latte at Starbucks, you can own this novel, and help an independent first-time author at the same time!