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!
Tyler and Josh, please introduce yourselves.
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.
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.
How did both of you develop an interest in film and filmmaking?
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 my 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.
I 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.
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?
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).
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.
Please tell a bit about your podcast, More Than One Lesson.
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.
The 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.
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?
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.
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.
You 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.
Can you suggest some good practical ways that Christians from outside the industry can support Christians who are working in the industry?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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!