Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Vischer, Creator of Veggietales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about your spiritual or theological influences?

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

What are your top three favorite films, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter:@philvischer
Facebook: /PhilVischer

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

You’re welcome!  Keep on rigging your thimble!

That we will, Phil. That we will.


 

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Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • May 17, 2016

It’s been a slow few weeks, and considering I have a personal boycott of anything having to do with the presidential election and I’m tired of people arguing about bathrooms, I thought I would reinstate the old “Three Interesting Things” I’ve found recently as I’ve been jumping around the internet.

Today, I’ll be writing about Lecrae, Phil Vischer, and The Flash.

1. Lecrae Signs a Deal with Columbia Records

lecraeThis is tremendously exciting news for a number of reasons. But for me, I’m excited because it shows that secular companies recognize and reward artistic excellence, even when it comes from *gasp* Christians.

This news also flies in the face of the American persecution narrative that is so popular in certain Evangelical circles these days. If things were so bad for American Christians, would one of our top artists be getting deals with major labels?

Let’s take a moment and look at this particular artist.


Over the past few years, Lecrae has had songs reach #1 on the Billboard charts, won two Grammy awards, and has appeared on secular national television performing his music (see the video above). These things wouldn’t have happened if he cared about his artistic integrity less than he did sharing his faith, and I think his story should inspire all Christian artists to work hard on achieving excellence in both things.

Believing artists, take your craft seriously, do it with all excellence, and the world will notice and respond.

2. Phil Vischer’s Patreon Page

You might know Phil Vischer as the creator of Veggietales. Well, I have been a loyal listener of the Phil Vischer podcast for the past couple of years, which I wrote about in a past article. I highly recommend this podcast for those of you who want fun and reasoned discourse on all sorts of important issues. Phil and his co-hosts Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor do a great job breaking down stories of the day and discussing them from a Christian perspective.

Recently, Phil announced that he was starting a Patreon account so that the podcast gang can branch out and do more. I’m personally excited to see what this might mean, and am happy to encourage Thimblerig readers to consider supporting Phil’s Patreon as well.

So, if you aren’t familiar with Phil and his podcast, go check it out!

3. The Runaway Dinosaur

CiM_J7dUoAAK_JaOkay, technically, this isn’t a news story I found online. It’s an episode of my family’s favorite television program, The Flash. And if you don’t watch The Flash, know that it delivers, week after week.

My family loves it, my toddler thinks that he is the Flash (see the video below), and I’ve been consistently impressed by the way the show delivers action with heart. Grant Gustin is the perfect Barry Allen/Flash, and in this past week’s episode (directed by Kevin Smith), the show outdid itself, taking us to places we’ve never been before. And darned if I didn’t get a bit teary-eyed by the way they wrapped up Barry’s time with the Speed Force. Great job to Gustin and the cast, Kevin Smith, writer Zack Stentz, and producer Greg Berlanti.

If you aren’t watching The Flash, then what are you waiting for? Binge the past two seasons and get caught up in time for the summer hiatus.

Photo by Christopher Patey

Photo by Christopher Patey

Having said that, I do have one word of criticism for The Flash and the other superhero programs produced by Greg Berlanti, and I’ll mention it in the off-and-not-likely-chance that he reads this article.

Mr. Berlanti, I appreciate that you are committed to diversity with the programs you produce, attempting to represent all different aspects of our society. For example, I thought it was bold and brave that you made the potentially controversial choice to have the West family be African-American rather than Caucasian, that you’ve consistently had strong female characters as well as male, and that you have quietly introduced homosexual characters, all in an attempt to reflect society.

But, in my opinion, you’ve left out one group of people, and it’s pretty glaring.

Where are people of faith?

Almost 90% of Americans identify as religious, and yet we see no people of faith (not counting ancient Egyptian religion) in any of your superhero programs. No character turns to their religious beliefs to help them grapple with receiving super-powers, no character mourns the loss of another character by praying in (or out of) church, no character reads any sort of sacred text as inspiration or goes to a priest to discuss what is happening in the world, no talking heads discuss the theological ramifications of super beings in the background on Central City talk shows.

It’s a pity, especially when a nuanced handling of the topic could increase the potential power of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, putting them over the top of being great dramatic/action television.

So, Mr. Berlanti, as a “fan of faith”, I’d love it if you’d consider representing my people in your programs as well.

By the way, here’s my toddler (Noah, the fastest three year old alive) recreating a Flash sprint through the ferry terminal here in Shenzhen, China, complete with the slow motion scenes. And yes, we are planning on getting him a Flash costume when we are back in the U.S. this summer.


Thanks for joining us for Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day! Look for a new episode next week, and feel free to share your own interesting stories!

What’s Wrong with Christian Media?

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Lifeway Research recently released a study that examined the use of Christian media.  The results showed that the vast majority of Christian media is consumed by – hold onto your hats for this, folks – Christians.

Christian Media Barely Reaching Beyond the Faithful

This doesn’t come as a surprise.  Media will typically be consumed by the target audience, and in this case, why would a person who is not a Christian care to listen to a Christian podcast?  Why would they be interested in reading a book about Christianity?  Why would they spend their time watching Christian television programs?

It seems like the logical thing to do here is to circle the wagons.  After all, if the Christian family is consuming most Christian media, then we should just keep creating media for the family!  This is how business works, isn’t it?  You identify your target audience, and then push your product for that audience.

Given, the study does show that some of our media is being consumed by people outside the church – like a positive form of collateral damage –  but we should count those people as frosting on the cake and keep on doing what we do when we do what we do.

But hold on, hit the brakes, stop the engines, turn off the lights… there’s a slight problem with all that.

Did Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go back into the church, close the doors, and make disciples”?

No.  Of course not.  He said “Go into all the world…”  Go.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Stop naval gazing and get out into the world where people need the message of hope that we find in the story of Jesus.

Christian media should deal with finding the lost, and not just massaging the found.   What are the “Christianese” words for this?  Witnessing?  Sharing?  Evangelizing?  We’re supposed to be engaging with the world outside of the church, not just circling our wagons to protect the women and children.

Look at it this way.  Imagine your church supports a missionary family living in some foreign country.  The missionary family comes home on furlough, and visits your church to share about the progress of their work in this foreign country.

The missionary husband sets up a powerpoint presentation in the fellowship hall after the pot-luck dinner, and starts showing slides of the family’s work.

“We’re so grateful to be serving in our host country, and blessed to be able to share our work with you today.”

The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.

“In this picture, we’re having some missionary neighbors over for dinner.  We like to have other missionaries over for dinner regularly.  This next picture shows us at our bi-weekly Bible study with some other missionary families.  Oh, you’ll love this one – it’s a picture of us worshipping on Sunday morning at our church, which is only for missionaries.   Hmm….  this is our neighbor who isn’t a missionary… I’m not sure how that picture got in there.   Ah, here!  This next picture is better – it’s our missionary office, where we work with other missionaries.  Finally, here’s a picture of our kids going to their missionary-kid school.  It’s missionary run, taught, and attended.  They just love it there.”

That missionary probably wouldn’t be supported by the church for much longer.

So, we want our missionaries to engage with the culture around them, but for some reason, we seem to be perfectly comfortable that Christian media is only reaching other Christians.

And Christian media isn’t even doing that very well!

RNS-CHRISTIAN-MEDIA bTake Christian movies for example – one of the categories where the results were considered the most encouraging.  The Lifeway study shows that four out of ten people said that they watched a Christian movie in the last year.

Four out of ten?  That’s pretty amazing!

Well, it seems like an encouraging number until you remember that eighty-three percent of the American population identifies as Christian.

Eight out of ten people consider themselves Christian, and four out of ten people watched a Christian movie last year.

Let that sink in.  Less than half the Christian population of America watched at least one Christian movie last year.

So, what does this all mean?  Should we shutter all the Christian bookstores?  Boycott Chris Tomlin concerts?  Send Phil Vischer snarky letters for hosting a podcast with a Christian point of view?

No. Of course not.  (Although sending Vischer snarky letters about his ukelele might be warranted…)  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with producing media for small segments of ourselves.  People do that every day, all over the world, in all walks of life.

But as Christians, we shouldn’t be content with that.

So, if you are a person interested in Christian media and interested in changing those statistics reported by Lifeway Research, here are 6 (+2) things that Christian media must do better to catch the attention of those people who normally wouldn’t care.

1.  Be Professional.

If something is good in media, it’s not because it is good by accident, or because someone prayed for it to be good and God miraculously made it so.  Things are good in media because professionals have been hired to make them good.  Christian film producers have finally started to realize this, raising enough money to enable them to hire pros to help shoot their films, and the result?  Christian films are finally starting to look like well-shot films.  People in the world outside the church respect professionalism.

2.  Be Excellent.

Maybe this is a part of being professional, but if you’re involved in Christian media, then you shouldn’t cut corners.  If you’re a self-published writer, then revise, revise, revise.  Give yourself time to do the best you can possibly do with your efforts.  Want to be a filmmaker?  Cut your teeth on shorts before moving to features.  Watch a LOT of movies – and not only Christian made movies.  Read scripts.  No matter what area of media you feel drawn to, take the time to become excellent.  Say what you will about the world, but the world appreciates and is drawn to excellence.

3.  Be Creative.

This is where we often drop the ball with Christian media.  In our rush to get our message out, we tell sloppy stories.  We create one-dimensional characters.  We allow our faith to handcuff us, which is not why we have our faith.  “It was for freedom you were set free…”  Remember?  That includes the freedom to be creative.  Try to look at the world in a different way, in a real and authentic way.  Especially when you consider those people who believe differently than you do.  We call God the Creator, not just because he created everything, but because He is also so incredibly creative.  Go, and do likewise, because people outside the church are attracted to true creativity.

4.  Be Intelligent.

We’ve all seen the near-constant parade of apparently unintelligent Christians in media.  People hosting programs who have trouble putting together intelligible sentences; faith-based scripts that seem not well thought-through or properly edited; embarrassingly discourteous or rude commenters on the internet; self-published novels that are so plotless and pointless that they make one wish that self-publishing were as hard and expensive as it used to be.

Our reputation for being unintelligent has been well earned by these things and much more.  Write intelligently, direct intelligently, comment intelligently, create intelligently.  God may use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, but that doesn’t mean we should aim to be fools.  Christians in media are the front lines for changing the intelligence perception with the media they create.

5.  Be Ingenious.

Christian media is known for trying to take something the world has done and recreate it in a faith-friendly way.  The world gives us 50 Shades of Grey, Christian media reacts with Old Fashioned.   There’s a good article about this on Vox, written by Brandon Ambrosino.  I’d also recommend the article he cites by Alissa Wilkinson.

The point is that Christians in media need to be ingenious.  We should lead rather than follow, set the standard rather than chasing after the latest fad or trend.  We should aim to take the world by surprise with our ingenious and unique creations.

6.  Be Honest.

Finally, one of the best weapons we have at our disposal as Christians in media is honesty.  As we interact with people who aren’t in the faith, they should see this about us – as we interact with the media, they should notice this about us.  As we write, direct, act, talk, sing, produce, film, record, edit, draw, or whatever it is we do, people should recognize it in us.

They should talk about it behind our backs.

And if they do?  That’s okay.  We should have nothing to hide, and no reason to hide.  We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, because we know that we don’t.  We don’t have to act like our families are perfect, because we know that they aren’t.  We don’t have to act like we have all the answers, because we know that we don’t.  And that’s okay.

What we do have is Jesus.

And if you’ll pardon my brief use of Christainese, we have his forgiveness, his mercy, and his grace.   And He gives us the ability to live openly, transparently, and honestly – in life and in the media we create.

And that is how we will impact the world.

And now the (bonus +2).

1.  Drop the Secret Language.

Christianese – the secret language of Christianity.  The moment you fall into using the secret language, you lose potential interest from people who don’t speak it.  If your Christian media is inundated with Christianese, you need to make some changes, or you might as well just create your media in Klingon for all the good it will do you.

To find out more about Christianese, go to the Dictionary of Christianese, or read a good article about it here.  And then cut it out.

2.  Give the End Times a Rest.

What do we know?  Jesus will return.  How?  When?  We have no real idea – just theories and interpretations.   That means that our Rapture books and movies are just the Christian versions of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Road, or any of the other dystopsian end-of-the-world stories you want to pick.   And they’re not nearly as compelling, well told, or well made.

Can we just give it a rest for a while?

Please?

(Actually, having said that, a Christian dystopsian story that absolutely nothing to do with the Rapture or the anti-Christ could be a really interesting read.)

 

 

Thimblerig’s Top Five Favorite Podcasts

Crowded_Nanjing_Road_in_ShanghaiI’m always on my feet living in China; walking to the bus stop, walking to the store, walking to the school where I teach, walking, walking, walking.  And riding on buses.  And subways.  And not understanding what’s going on around me most of the time.

The result?   I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts.  Over the years, living in China and Kazakhstan, I’ve found that podcasts have become my primary source of entertainment and information, replacing talk radio, the news, late-night television, and talk shows.  It’s like the people hosting the podcasts have become a part of my expat community and my overseas experience.  They’ve become one of my important connections back home.

Hasn’t the internet made everything weird?

Be that as it may, I’m particularly interested in podcasts that are somehow connected to the American entertainment industry, to screenwriting, to storytelling, to the culture, and how they all connect to the Christian faith.  You’ll find these things reflected in my podcasts of choice, some moreso than others, depending on the podcasts.

And so, I’d like to introduce you – my faithful readers – to my top five favorite podcasts, for your consideration, and in no particular order.

Thimblerig Podcast B

1.  The Phil Vischer Podcast

MV5BMTM5MzA4NTkxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY5NTAyNw@@._V1_SX214_CR0,0,214,317_AL_You might know Phil Vischer as the man who created Veggietales, and provided several of the voices of the characters, including Bob the Tomato.  Phil has an amazing story, which you can read about in his book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables

In a nutshell, Phil created the wildly popular kid’s videos featuring talking veggies, and he had lofty aspirations to become the next Walt Disney – but in a God-honoring way – and then lost it all.  Phil’s story is a real-life example of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as he went through a very dark place but has come through a better man as a result, with an incredible perspective on life, success, faith, and culture.

I just discovered Phil’s podcast a few months ago, and have grown to really enjoy it.  I appreciate that Phil has a great sense of humor (how could you create Veggietales and not have a great sense of humor?), but he can also come through with some really profound perspectives on faith and modern American culture.  maxresdefault

Each week, Phil – along with co-host Skye Jethani and the occasional guest host – discuss cultural issues, the entertainment industry, and current events from a Christian point of view with a refreshing and healthy mixture of seriousness and silliness.

Now, if we could just get Phil to ditch that darned ukulele…

2.  On The Page

Pilar-AlessandraPilar Alessandra‘s podcast about “the craft and business of screenwriting” was one of the first podcasts I started listening to, and is the one I’ve been listening to for the longest time.  I found On The Page while living in Kazakhstan sometime around 2006 (give or take) when I first became interested in screenwriting.  I remember digging in my garden in Almaty while listening to Pilar talking about loglines and treatments, amazed that it felt like I was taking part in an online screenwriting class – with all the fantastic quality content I was receiving.  For free! Actually, I feel like Pilar has been my unofficial online instructor for many years. I even took one of her online courses a few years ago, and enjoyed what I learned. I’m grateful for all that she’s taught me these past few years!

Pilar invites guests from all walks of life in the entertainment world to her podcast, but most commonly writers.  She researches her guests well enough to tailor her interviews and bring out the most teachable moments from the lives and work of her guests, all with goal of helping her listeners to improve in their own writing.  This is what I appreciate the most about On The Page – that I always get important new concepts and information that help me in my writing.  If writing is your thing, particularly screenplays, then you should be listening to On The Page.

3.  Steve Brown, Etc

stevebrownwebWhile I’ve been listening to Pilar’s podcast for the longest time, I’ve actually been listening to Steve Brown for over 20 years, just not in podcast form!

In the late 1980’s, I attended King College with Steve’s daughter, and – as the audio technician in the college chapel – I had the pleasure to run his microphones during the chapel service when Steve visited and spoke.  I was so taken by his focus on God’s grace that it led to me ordering cassette tapes (!) of his talks from Key Life, and always trying to find him on local Christian radio stations when I went from town to town.  I also often subscribed to the Key Life newsletter, where I was encouraged and challenged by Steve’s written outlook on life and the Gospel.

I don’t know when I actually found out that the old white guy had a podcast but I was thrilled when I found out that he did, and even moreso that it wasn’t your typical Christian podcast.  Thanks to the offbeat humor of producer Eric Guzman, and the wonderful variety of guests from all backgrounds, Steve’s focus on the grace of God really resonates.  Steve Brown, Etc can be joyfully irreverent while diving into some very deep waters at the same time, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

You think about that.

4.  Wretched Radio

frielMy family was home for the summer, and we were driving across the south in a rented car that had SiriusXM radio.

Usually, we had to listen to the Disney station (thanks, kids) but every now and then – when everyone was sleeping – I would scan around until I found something interesting.  I remember when I found Wretched Radio, and heard the voice of Todd Friel.

He was brusque, loud, and arrogant.

And the more I listened to him, the more I liked him.

When we returned to Kazakhstan, I immediately went and found Wretched Radio‘s podcast, and began to binge listen to past episodes.  I couldn’t get enough, and considering that he uploads new episodes five days a week, I had plenty to listen to!

Typically, Todd unpacks events of the day, examining issues from a Christian point of view, also with his somewhat warped sense of humor (Todd was formerly a stand up comedian).  But what I really enjoy are the Wednesday episodes, called “Witness Wednesdays”.  In these episodes, Todd goes out into some public place with a microphone and talks to people about spiritual things.  He will often go to a university campus and talk to students, and sometimes a state fair, and sometimes just out on the street.  The more I listened, the more I realized that Todd is not actually brusque or arrogant, he’s just willing to say what he believes with conviction, and he challenges others to think logically about what they believe.

Todd and Wretched Radio have some sort of connection to Ray Comfort’s Way of the Master ministry (although you don’t hear as much about that these days), and so he is quite serious about challenging people to examine their Christian faith critically to see if they really understand what it means to be a Christian.  It’s challenging stuff, and usually pretty entertaining.

5.  Never Not Funny

imgresSome people enjoy Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.  Others spend hours watching grown men chasing balls all over a field.  My guilty pleasure?  A podcast.  A podcast that is true to it’s name – Never Not Funny.

Hello, everybody, indeed.

Hosted by stand up comedian Jimmy Pardo, Never Not Funny is – by far – the most rated R podcast of the group, and it is also the most consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

Pardo and producer Matt Belknap (who used to also produce On The Page – which is how I found NNF), who have been doing this since 2006, have guests from all over entertainment, including comics such as Weird Al, Conan O’Brien, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser, Sinbad, and many others who I met through the podcast.  He typically has stand up comedians on the show, but not always, and the reason I like it so much is because I feel like I’m sitting around a table with some of the funniest people on the planet, just listening to them riff off of each other, tell stories, and bust each other’s balloons.

Ideologically, Pardo and I couldn’t be more different, but I would love the chance to get to know the man, and actually sit down and talk to him, because he’s just an incredibly interesting guy.  In fact, with his wit and style, I’ve often thought Pardo’d be the perfect performer to voice the main character in my book, Thimblerig’s Ark, if it were ever made into an animated feature.

Let me make this clear:  unlike the other podcasts I’ve mentioned, you don’t want to listen to NNF with the kids around.  But if you can handle the occasional sailor-like outburst, and if you think it would be fun to hang out with some very funny people for an hour and a half, you should give it a try.

Well, that’s my five.  What podcasts do you like, and why?

 

Persecuted • Thimblerig’s Review

Continuing my series of reviews on 2014’s films made by Christians (the so-called “faith-based” films), last night I watched Persecuted, which was released theatrically this summer.  I want to get right to the point about this film.

What I liked about Persecuted:

Christians are finally become more technically proficient in the way we shoot our films, or at least in hiring people who know how to shoot a film.  Persecuted looks pretty good – being shot, framed, and edited well.  The cinematography was by Richard Vialet, and editing by Brian Brinkman.  I’m glad films made by Christians are finally starting to look as professional as secular films.

Christians are also finally finding the funds to shell out on quality performers.  In this case, the film has some familiar faces – including veteran actors James Remar in the title role, Fred Thompson as Luther’s Father father, Bruce Davison as the sinister senator, and Dean Stockwell as Luther’s ministry accountant.  [Sidenote – as a fan of Quantum Leap, I sure hope Stockwell was well paid for taking what was such a minor role.]  I’m also glad that Christian films are finally starting to be more professionally acted.  We must be learning something about the production side of things, which is good.

Finally, Persecuted is not a bad thriller.   It’s not necessarily a good thriller, but it’s not bad – certainly not bad enough to deserve the ridiculous 0% ranking that the film has gotten on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put the film much higher.

Why wouldn’t I go very high with my own RT score?

There are several reasons, and they mostly fall on the shoulders of writer/director, Daniel Lusko.

Technically, while the film was shot well, there was entirely too much darkness in this film.  This – coupled with the dark soundtrack – made it irritating to watch.  Perhaps – since the film ends in the light of day – the darkness was an attempt at symbolism?  If so, it didn’t work.  Not at all.  Honestly, it came across as an attempt to cover a low budget (which I can’t really say, since I curiously can’t find the budget of the movie reported anywhere.)  Regardless of the reasons, it was just unpleasant to watch – the speeches given in darkness with a single spot on the speaker;  just about every interior shot was in darkness, again with very focused lighting; it could have potentially been more powerful to have dark deeds being done in the light of day.

Second, the casting.  As much as I appreciate the career of James Remar, he was simply not the right actor for the role of John Luther.  Not even close.  Here’s why:

First, he’s supposed to be the son of Fred Thompson?  Really?  How old was Fred when he had him?  Ten?

Second, Luther’s wife appears to be about forty, and according to his IMDB page, Remar is nearly sixty.  Yes, older guys can marry younger gals and have children at an older age, but it just seemed too much of a stretch.

Third, considering the mistakes Luther makes in misguidedly trusting the people around him, he should have been a much younger man.  It would have made a lot more sense to have him as a very forty-something successful evangelist who is in over his head, thus trusting the counsel of the sinister senator, buying the accolades and weird backstage pep-talks of his second-in-command, and being stubborn about his faith to a fault, so that the experience teaches him humility.  As it is, I’m not sure what Luther learns over the course of the movie.

But I can forgive miscasting.  The thing I have a hard time forgiving is more philosophical.

I’m so incredibly bothered that someone would have the nerve to make a fictionalized movie with the title “Persecuted”, imagining possible future persecution of a fictional evangelist in America, while Christians are actually being persecuted in Iraq, North Korea, Central Asia, and many other places around the globe, right now.

I’m amazed that the filmmakers decided they needed to create a fictional story about John Luther, an American pastor, being hunted down by the U.S. government for refusing to support “The Faith and Fairness Act”, a multi-cultural religion law, when there is an actual American pastor who has been held in prison in Iran for the past two years for the crime of sharing his Christian faith, a person whose story is much more compelling and heart-breaking, because it’s true.

The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by the film’s fictionalized storyline, and not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped.  On the film’s website, we’re asked to be challenged by Persecuted “to consider how (we) would react if—and when—attempts are made to limit (our) own religious freedom.”

But the film doesn’t really do that at all.

Rather, the film looks at one man who – standing up for his faith – refuses to support a pluralistic religion bill that his senator friend (apparent friend) is proposing, and has his life and ministry torn apart as a result.  It seems to me that the film is more a lesson on being wise about the people in whom we put our trust, and not so much about limits on our religious freedom.

So, to back off the philosophical problems I had with this film, I’d like to go back to the writing.  I really, really had a problem with the writing in this film, and it was mainly because the film made several promises it didn’t keep.

First, there were the flashbacks to Luther’s conversations with his granddaughter daughter.  In those flashbacks, a relationship was set up between Luther and the girl, but we never saw her again.  Why make this relationship a big deal, but never give the audience the payoff?  You mean to tell me that in the end it’s more important that we see Luther surrounded by his ministry’s board than his family?  What that tells me is that the characters didn’t matter – just the Point the filmmakers were trying to make.  It was a setup with a disappointing lack of payoff.

Another promise that wasn’t kept was with the senator.  Here he was – the big scheming senator – the guy who was putting Luther through all this hell – the main antagonist – and he’s offed in a heartbeat by order of the president, and Luther’s nowhere nearby when it happens.  Are you kidding me?  This is the guy that arranged Luther’s whole predicament, and he doesn’t even get to be a part of the climax?  It should have been the senator, deciding to get his hands dirty, chasing Luther up the mountain.  It should have been the senator that Luther is FORCED to kill to protect the FBI agent.  But no, it’s this nameless strange assassin – the dog on the senator’s leash – who is in the climax for some inexplicable reason.  What a misfire on the filmmaker’s part.

This brings me to ANOTHER set up lacking a payoff… when the FBI agent was talking to Brad Stine’s character – asking him suspicious questions about the senator, it seemed like the FBI was quietly investigating the senator,but it was dropped, never discussed again.  Why?  What was the point?

The lady in the ministry van, who loans Luther a phone, and then she’s gone?

The drug addicts who witnessed Luther being set up.  We see them for a moment, and then they’re gone?

The young priest who drives Luther away from the bad guys, uploads the incriminating video, and then he’s gone?

Luther’s shot in the friggin’ back – with a hole in his spine – but he still drives away and fights to the bitter end?

The man's shot in the middle of the back, and he's still going on?  Is this Rambo?

The man’s shot in the middle of the back, and he’s still going on? Is this Rambo?

I could go on, but the longer I’m thinking about this movie, the sloppier it seems.  So, rather than continuing to nitpick the problems, let me look at my five standards for filmmaking by Christians, as written about here, to see how Persecuted stands up.

Films made by Christians should take risks.  

Considering that Christian filmmakers haven’t tackled the political thriller genre that much – unless you include the end-times movies – I’d have to give props to the makers of Persecuted for trying a unique mashup of genres.  However, it’s unfortunate that the film was rather paint-by-numbers political thriller, with no genuine surprises or twists to surprise or shake the viewer.  This was unfortunate, and meant that ultimately, the film was not very risky.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.

If the audience was the “faith-based” audience, there was no challenge here.  Yes, the filmmakers stated that they wanted to challenge the audience to imagine a time when we’re losing our religious freedoms, but it didn’t succeed.  Perhaps because it was so focused on one man’s story, and he was put there by his own lack of judgment in the character of those around him, it just didn’t feel prophetic or even relevant.  If anything, the core audience who saw this film were probably the folks who already think that politicians are sitting in Washington trying to figure out how to bring about the destruction of all Christendom.

And the character of John Luther is supposed to challenge us in our faith, but with all he’s going through, Luther remains robotically steadfast – which is admirable in real life, but disappointingly uninteresting in a character in a film.  After discovering his father’s unfortunate death, the only crisis of faith Luther appears to have is standing on the cabin porch and screaming, “Are you not true to your name?” and then he’s back to the business of surviving, with nary a tear shed.  His father was executed, for heaven’s sake!  Because of the choices that Luther made!  The man should have a moment of brokenness at some point, but he never seems to arrive at that point.

Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit

This film preaches all over the place, with a disturbing mixture of Christianity and conservatism.  It would have been more appropriate to call the movie Didactic: The Movie.  That’s all I have to say about that.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions

On the one hand, it could be argued that Persecuted raises the question – what will happen if your government turns against you?  But is that really an important question to raise?  Our country is so polarized that the question is a hot button question, feeding the paranoia of the kind of Christian who think Left Behind and God’s Not Dead are brilliant movies just because they talked about God in a nice way.

But for those Christians, I don’t think it’s the kind of question that really needs to be raised.  Ragamuffin came a lot closer to asking the right questions – looking unapologetically at the personal struggles of a Christian icon.  Believe Me – using self-depreciating humor – made Christians look at themselves and ask important questions about how well we think things through.  Mom’s Night Out, asks Christian moms at the end of their rope to consider what really matters.

These “faith-based” films all asked more important questions than this Persecuted, a film which wants to be a lot more important and relevant than it really it is.

Christian films should tell good stories

I think I’ve already shown that Persecuted falls woefully short of this.  If the filmmakers had cast a younger lead, if they’d followed through with the promises they made, and if they’d filmed a few more scenes in the light, it might have been a stronger story.  Unfortunately, it failed.

A test I always put to a faith-based film is to ask this question – would I be happy to show this film to friends who don’t attend church?  Showing Persecuted?  Nope.  I wouldn’t do it.

jonah_a_veggietales_movieAnd in conclusion – while I don’t put a lot of stock in the RT rating system when it comes to “faith-based” films – I think we, as Christians, should pay attention to what the secular reviewers say – since we should desire our films to reach beyond our Christian subculture.  I find it fascinating that the highest rated “faith-based” film I could find at Rotten Tomatoes was Phil Vischer’s 65% scoring, “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie.

The lesson I take from that?  Christians need to make more movies with talking vegetables.

And by the way, if you don’t, you should really listen to the Phil Vischer Podcast.  It’s the most intelligent, reasonable, and entertaining culture-examining podcast by Christians that you’ll find.

Even if Phil does insist on playing that annoying ukelele.