The Act One Writing Program… Is It Worth It?

2016SummerAdWebsiteImage

I’ve had several people contact me and ask me to share my experiences with the Act One program. Rather than just cutting and pasting my response to this question into different emails, I thought I would just post it here to answer the question once and for all:

Is Act One worth it?

Before I get to that question, let’s start with a little teaser about Act One, in case you aren’t familiar with the organization.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have lived overseas for the past fifteen years. I chose to attend the Act One Writing Program back in 2007 while living in Kazakhstan and working with the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT). I had dreams of expanding KELT to include filmmaking, and so I chose to take part in the writing program while home for the summer.

Unfortunately, when I returned to Kazakhstan after taking the program, life stepped in the way, as it is want to do, and I had to put the film plans on hold. I continued writing and theater production, but was forced to watch my filmmaking dream wither on the vine.

Now I live in China, where filmmaking is growing in leaps and bounds, and I have long-term plans to resurrect that dream. I’m developing a few live action film ideas, and I’m also adapting my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, into an animated feature screenplay.

But this leads us back to the question: was Act One worth it? As a person whose route to the film industry has been anything but direct, would I recommend that hopeful Christian artists spend the money and a month in L.A. working with professional film industry people, studying the process of writing or film production with Act One?

The short answer is yes, to both questions.

My Act One experience was transformational for me as as a writer, and my short time there also had a profound impact on my life as a Christian. That month in L.A. helped me see how artistic endeavors could be more than ego aggrandizement, and the huge potential for created art to bring glory to the One who created Art.

Any believer who is considering entering into the film industry (or even believers who just want to develop their own artistic sensibilities when it comes to film) can find great benefit from investing in the Act One program.

Just as I did.

The three reasons why I feel this way:

1)  The Friendships and Relationships Developed

My involvement in Act One has led to some great relationships with people who are in Hollywood, working in the film industry. Getting to know them, I have developed the utmost respect for people living their faith in the trenches, and I see them as missionaries as much as anyone I’ve met while living and working overseas. My Act One friends helped me edit my first novel, dialogue with me frequently about my thoughts on Chrisitan filmmaking here on the blog, and even taught the excellent screenwriting class I took at Asbury last year (Andrea Nasfell, writer of Mom’s Night Out and other films).

Without Act One, I would have been hard pressed to know any of these people.

2)  The Power and Value of Story

Act One champions the power and value of story, and this is something that Christian filmmakers need to learn. While you could probably get much of what was taught in class from a book, there was the added and very real benefit of sitting in a classroom with twenty other passionate students, all working through the same issues, listening to stories by film industry professionals. I felt, for that month, that I had found my people – people who loved movies, loved talking about them, analyzing them, dreaming about making them. And we went on a month-long journey together.

As a class, we spent time looking at examples of strong cinema storytelling and having discussions about why those examples were strong. We learned how to develop and pitch our story ideas, including holding a pitch session with actual producers. We heard stories from successful screenwriters and producers, where they told about the challenges, difficulties, and rewards of pursuing this particular line of work. Act One brings in top of the line talent to teach and get to know students; faculty with years and years of collective experience, and we soaked up every day.

My only regret was that the month was too short.

3) The Diverse Christian Perspective

As much as I loved developing the relationships, as much as I soaked up learning about the power of story, the best thing about Act One was that everything was done from a Christian perspective. Believers from all different backgrounds took part both as students and as teachers, and I felt right at home in that atmosphere. It reminded me of my experience living overseas, where the differences of our denominations and traditions weren’t as important as our being faithful Christians in difficult or stressful situations.

I was also relieved that Act One wasn’t trying to train us to go out and build a Christian film industry (although the program certainly equipped us to be a part of faith-based filmmaking), rather they were training us how to survive and thrive as Christians in the secular film industry.

That being said, my relationships in Act One also introduced me to several weekly Bible studies and prayer groups in the Los Angeles area, helped me get to know many of the great churches that are hard at work ministering in those parts, and led me to learn about many of the other fantastic Christian organizations ministering in Hollywood, such as Hollywood Prayer Network and 168 Film, to name just a couple.

So, is Act One worth it? Even if you don’t wind up living in a 900- zip code? Well, I couldn’t be farther away from the biz, but since 2007, but I’ve used what I learned at Act One over and over.

I used it in developing Thimblerig’s Ark as well as other projects both published and not.

I used it while working with the theater in Kazakhstan.

In my writing classes here in China, I use it quite often, taking students through intense novel and short story writing.

I use it when analyzing films with a critical mind.

Along those lines, I use it all the time when putting my thoughts together for writing about the Christian Film Industry for this blog, with much of what I wrote in What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking coming directly from what I learned in Act One.

And so, yes, Act One is absolutely worth it. It’s worth the money you pay, it’s worth the time you spend away from your family, it’s worth the mental energy you will bring to the table. And if you have the desire to be a part of the film industry and to do it in a way that is true to your faith as a Christian, it is most definitely worth it.

I just wish I could do it again!

To apply for the Act One Writing Program, click here. And while I didn’t take the Producing & Entertainment Executive Program, I’ve heard good things about it as well. Click here for more information.

NOTE: The deadline for applying for the 2016 summer program is May 25, 2016, so don’t delay!

And by the way, nobody from Act One asked me to write this. I just really believe in the program.

Advertisements

A Response To A Hopeful Screenwriter

I recently received an email message from an individual looking to promote their screenwriting. I was putting together a response and I realized that the advice I was giving this individual might be useful for others also looking to “break into the business.”

Here is the original email, unaltered except for taking out the writer’s name and location, followed by my response:

Hi my name is — . I live in — and I know that you’re on the other side of the world. I just had to ask do you by any chance know anyone that is interested in a  religous short screenplay? It has won three film festivals but is not getting the exposure/attention I wanted it to get.  I even have a great TV pilot ,but I have no way into breaking into this business as I have no agent. Plz contact me if you can help in any way.  Thanks again. 

Dear —,

Thanks for writing, and for asking my assistance in finding filmmakers to connect with your screenplays. Unfortunately, I don’t have any filmmaking friends who have announced that they are shopping around for new material, so I really can’t do anything for you in that regard. However, if you are really serious about having your work read and potentially produced, I have a bit of advice. You can take my advice, or you can ignore it with extreme prejudice – it’s your choice.

First, don’t ever, ever, ever take this cold call approach when trying to market your writing. Serious filmmakers are serious about their business, and they typically don’t pay attention to messages from people they don’t know. In fact, a cold call message is a pretty good way to make sure that your writing is never read.

Don’t cold call on the phone or email, don’t send unsolicited screenplays, don’t write unprompted self-promoting messages on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media outlet in an attempt to try and get someone to read your work. There are appropriate channels for getting your writing out there, and these are not them. So, do a bit of research, and use the right channels to get your writing into the right hands. It’s a bit of effort, but if you are serious about being a writer, you should be willing to put in the hard labor to accomplish your goals.

Second, take care with how you craft your correspondence. When you write to people in the industry, make it professional and formal, especially when they are people you don’t know. Don’t dash off quick emails on your phone, but take the time to write proper business emails with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Use proper greetings and sign off your messages properly as well. The old cliche about not getting a second chance to make a first impression is a real one!

Also, avoid assuming familiarity, even if you feel like you know the person because they might have a familiar public persona. For example, don’t use internet shorthand like “Plz contact me”, as that’s a great way to ensure that people won’t, in fact, contact you. Let your correspondence communicate seriousness, and you stand a better chance of being taken seriously.

Keep in mind that none of this may matter, and your well-crafted message may be deleted just as quickly as your hastily jotted message. However, it might also be that a well-written letter would be such a novelty to your target reader that they actually stop and give it a glance. Stack the odds in your favor as much as possible.

Third, if you are really serious about “breaking into the business”, you need to go to the business rather than waiting for the business to come to you. In the film industry, the business is Hollywood. So, that means that if you are able, you should consider a move to the West Coast. But if you do, be patient, as the numbers of unemployed writers using free coffee shop wifi in L.A. attest to the fact that overnight screenwriting success is the stuff of fairy tales. Be prepared to work and wait.

When I was taking part in the Act One Screenwriting program back in 2007, industry professionals told us over and over that a screenwriter can expect a minimum of ten years between setting out to be a writer and actually making a living at it. I’ve seen this played out in the careers of other Act One alumni. Of those who stuck to screenwriting (and many have not), most are just now starting to come into their own, and we’re coming up on the ten year mark.

Also, remember that this pattern holds true when the writer is actually living in Hollywood while trying to develop their writing career. If you choose to live outside of Hollywood, the likelihood of industry success decreases exponentially. You can still be a writer, but you may have to go about it differently.

Fourth, do it yourself. If you really believe in your writing but you’re also too impatient to go the traditional route, then make your film yourself. Study the business of filmmaking, find some like-minded creatives, get a decent digital camera (use your iPhone!) and invest in some editing software, put together an Indigogo campaign, and build your writing into an indie film project. It won’t be easy, and the end result might not be so great, but when the credits roll you will have gained experience and put your ideas onscreen, which is a substantial accomplishment in and of itself.

The bottom line is – if you are serious about being a screenwriter, then you have to be willing to take it seriously. Learn the craft, give it all of your energy and focus, and then be willing to fail, because most hopeful screenwriters do just that.

But anything worth doing is worth risking failure, I think.

Best of luck with your writing!
Nate

Web: www.thimblerigsark.com
Blog: thimblerigsark.wordpress.com
Facebook: /ThimblerigsArk
Twitter: @RNFleming

Thimblerig’s Interview • Screenwriter Andrea Nasfell, Mom’s Night Out

My first foray into screenwriting came back in the summer of 2007, when I took part in Act One’s Writer’s Program, and experienced my first taste of the Christian community in Hollywood. That time was transformational to me as I learned about the craft and business of screenwriting in a faith-focused context, and I enjoyed the relationships I gained as I became a part of the ever-growing Act One alumni community.

MNO_OfficialPoster_LowLast May, I was thrilled to hear that Andrea Nasfell, another member of the Act One community, had written Mom’s Night Out, that rare film made for the faith-based market that would be released widely, in over 1,000 theaters.

When I finally had the opportunity to watch Mom’s Night Out, I loved it. I especially appreciated the casting choices, the quietly subversive and revolutionary nature of the film, and the writing, which I found to be funny, smart, and heartfelt. Mom’s Night Out was one of my favorite films of the year, and I continue to be proud that it was written by a fellow Act One alum.

You can read my review here.

Last January, I had the surprising pleasure of taking a screenwriting class taught by Andrea as a part of Asbury University’s Master of Digital Storytelling program. It was a tough academic experience, where we were required to produce quite a bit of writing in an eight-week period, but I loved every minute of it. It reminded me of my time at Act One, and I really felt like I was in my element.

When the course was over, I presumptuously approached Andrea and asked if she would mind sharing some of her thoughts about being a successful Christian screenwriter with the readers of the Thimblerig’s Ark blog, and she graciously agreed.  I’m happy to present that interview to you.

andreaNate

First of all, please tell a little bit about yourself.

Andrea

I always wanted to be a writer, even as a little girl. At first I thought I would be a novelist, but then in high school I fell in love with movies and realized they have to start with words on a page. So I got a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay and tried to figure it out. I studied Media Comm in college and went to L.A. for a semester to study film. I was hooked – I loved L.A. and knew I wanted to stay. Luckily, my fiancée was just as excited about L.A. Now he’s my husband and he’s a producer. We live in Burbank with our two kids who were both born here in California.

Nate

How did you become a screenwriter?

Andrea

It’s a gradual process, but it starts with lots and lots of writing. I attended the Act One program, and that was a huge jumpstart for me. I met a mentor who was a working screenwriter, and she is still a good friend. I joined her writer’s group and they put me through the ringer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I developed my voice. Finally, a friend from Act One met a producer looking for a writer for an indie film. He read my work, I pitched a take on his story, and he hired me. That script never got made, but later that producer formed a bigger company and I have written ten scripts for him since.

Nate

Please describe your working day as a writer.

Andrea

I have to write in the hours that my kids are in school, so that’s how every day is structured. Drop them off, make coffee, write, pick them up and try to be present with them rather than in my work at that point. It’s not always easy, especially when there are deadlines. There is a lot of juggling that happens.

Nate

Congratulations on the success of Mom’s Night Out, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Can you tell a little about your involvement bringing Mom’s Night Out from idea to screen?

Andrea

At the red carpet premiere of Mom's Night Out

At the red carpet premiere of Mom’s Night Out

The process started when David White at Pure Flix came to me asking if I’d be interested in writing something for moms. There had been a number of successful faith-based films for men – especially the Sherwood movies – but nobody had tried the female audience. David and Andrea had just had their second baby and she was very interested in a movie about motherhood. So I pitched them this idea and wrote it for hire for them, with the expectation that it would fit into their TV or DVD model at the time. But then Kevin Downes – a friend of David’s – read it, and he took it to the Erwins. All three of them had two children under the age of 3 or 4 at the time, so they “got it” immediately and wanted to be involved. Kevin acquired the film to make with Jon and Andy, whose October Baby success got Sony into the picture. It kept getting bigger from there. Jon rewrote it to make it more cinematic – he had significantly more budget and was able to add scenes and characters, honing it to get the actors he wanted, which he did. The nice thing was that I felt like they really understood the original vision, and they kept the main skeleton of the story the same, while adding some really fun things. So in the end, I still felt like it was my movie, even though Jon had kind of made it the “deluxe” version!

Nate

The film had some great laugh-out-loud moments. Who are your comedic influences – from the worlds of screenwriting, standup, television, or elsewhere?

Andrea

I fell in love with movies in an era when there were a lot of successful “comedies with heart” and those were the films I wanted to emulate — Father of the Bride, Sister Act, Mrs. Doubtfire, even going back as far as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Back to the Future, and Tootsie (which I think is probably the best comedy of all time). I also really loved those movies like Adventures in Babysitting, Bringing Up Baby, or It Happened One Night where everything goes wrong in one long, zany day or night. More recently there was Date Night, which I had high hopes for, but I felt like they bowed to the modern need for “edginess” in a way the story didn’t require. But those in particular were inspirational films to me. I’m sad we’ve gone a different direction with comedy in recent years because I think the heart part of the comedy is what makes them endure. Those are all still terrific movies when you watch them today.

Nate

What was your role in Mom’s Night Out while it was being filmed?

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

On the set with Jon and Andy Erwin

Andrea

The screenwriter doesn’t usually have much to do once the cameras roll. Occasionally I have been called up to adjust a scene or help solve a logistics problem by adjusting the script, but in the case of Mom’s Night Out, I visited the set in Alabama for a couple of days and that was it. It’s such a joy for a writer to visit though – it’s like seeing your imagination come to life. To watch as a huge group of people bring words to life is very exciting.

Nate

Looking back on the experience, is there anything you wish you could change about the finished product? Any scenes that you wish you could have added, or wish had been left out?

Andrea

I really loved Jon’s version of the script, and we had talented and hilarious actors who added their own bits to it – I was really happy in the end. The only thing I wondered about was the fact that in the early drafts both Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) had careers that were discussed more explicitly. I think, had those elements of their character remained in the final version, it might have opened up a better conversation about all types of moms rather than pegging them all as stay-at-home moms (which many of the films’ critics assumed, but was not ever said explicitly in the film, except about Allyson.)

Nate

I was frustrated that Mom’s Night Out was the criticized for “reinforcing traditional gender roles” and for featuring a protagonist who was a stay-at-home mom. How do you respond to those criticisms?

Andrea

Sarah Drew as Allyson

Sarah Drew as Allyson in Mom’s Night Out

I was frustrated too! We fully expected to be panned by critics because of the faith elements of the movie, but that was almost overlooked completely. We were shocked that a movie that was supposed to be a love letter to moms, recognizing their hard work and allowing them to laugh at their frustrations was called “anti-feminist” and criticized for daring to have a stay-at-home mom as the protagonist. I always thought the point of feminism was for we as women to be able to choose our own paths and not be limited by any societal expectations. But apparently that is true only if you choose a full-time career. One of my pet peeves is when women turn on each other instead of giving a hand up, so my biggest frustration was with female critics like the one who said, “Why didn’t she just quit whining and get a nanny?” Wow. I think many of them saw the film was rewritten by a man and directed by two men and completely disregarded my involvement. But Jon and Andy chose this film because they saw the joys and pains of their own wives and wanted to recognize them.

The other side of that coin is that the male characters were criticized for being incompetent, which is completely untrue if you think carefully about it. Anything that seems like incompetence (excepting Marco, I guess) is in Allyson’s imagination, not what actually happens. The rest is a series of unfortunate mishaps that they handle quite well, in my opinion. It’s a comedy, people. Lighten up!

Nate

As a Christian, what are some of the challenges you have faced being involved in the film industry?

Andrea

One of the challenges is that I’m just not interested in writing the things that are “hot” in the marketplace, so I have to find other niches to fit in. I’m not interested in writing Bridesmaids (and I actually sat in the theater in front of some women who walked out because they thought Mom’s Night Out was going to be in that genre and it wasn’t). That’s just not my style. So I don’t fit in a lot of places, and I often have people tell me, “You should get a meeting at Hallmark.” That’s fine too, but I think there is a mainstream movie audience that wants wholesome but still funny and adventurous stories. And many of them are not opposed to having issues or characters of faith in them. The problem is that many of those audience members are gun shy, because the marketplace is flooded with stories that are cynical, raunchy or just disappointing. They’ve been burned, and movies are expensive, so it’s hard to get them out to the theater.

Obviously one of my own biggest challenges has been meeting the expectation of a “Christian movie audience” as perceived by producers while also creating something artistic and true. It’s a very difficult position as a writer, when the marketing team and the producers need that moment that seals the deal for pastors, while at the same time you want to create something challenging and artistically beautiful. It’s a balancing act and it’s not always in your control. (I’ve had scenes added to scripts on-set, because the producers didn’t think they had enough on-the-nose content for marketing the film.)

Nate

How can Christians outside Hollywood support Christians working in Hollywood?

Andrea

Go see their movies! The only thing that matters to decision makers in Hollywood is money. That is the only thing. You will get more of whatever makes money. Period. And they stay employed and making more product when that happens. Certainly pray for them to find opportunity and stay strong in their faith as well.

Nate

What are your thoughts on Christian filmmaking? Where do you see it going in the future?

Andrea

I never make predictions. There are too many unexpected blockbusters and surprising disappointments. It’s good old William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” But I will say that, in my experience, there are a lot of secular companies recognizing the potential of the church-going audience and trying to figure out how to capitalize on it. Some of them are going to succeed and some of them are going to fail. They need good Christian artists to help as cultural language-translators to figure it all out.

Nate

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

Andrea

I don’t know if I completely agree with this, but I understand how it might look that way from the outside. There are certainly movies like The Song, Blue Like Jazz, To End All Wars and others that have been fine to delve into certain grittier subjects. It’s just like with any secular movie genre – each movie is made for a particular audience, and a good amount of Christian movies make a bundle of their money from church licensing or word-of-mouth from pastors and other Christian leaders. Those people are going to be hesitant to bring films into their church building or to send their parishioners to the theater if it’s going to bring them blowback over offensive content. So yes, the filmmakers consider that and cater to it. My opinion is that we should choose film content that matches the audience we serve, rather than sanitizing or dumbing down the content to the point that it doesn’t seem real. If you need it to be church and family friendly, choose a story about churches or families rather than about war or drug addiction. Make those movies for a different audience and be okay with them not being shown in church. Maybe you’re actually making a mainstream movie that happens to have elements of faith, instead of a movie branded by faith-based production and distribution.

You’re right that the Bible isn’t family friendly, but the Bible is told in words and not pictures that take viewers through experiences the way movies do. I’m sure blood squirted everywhere when David chopped off Goliath’s head, but we should consider how helpful it is to glorify that moment if we’re making that movie. As artists we can be responsible to the spirit of a grittier piece while at the same time being responsible to the audience that experiences it.

Nate

What final advice would you give to Christians who want to become involved in any aspect of filmmaking?

Andrea

IMG_9964

The Nasfell family at the premiere of Mom’s Night Out

I’ll go back to my Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains and Automobiles hero and quote Steve Martin. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” There are lots of reasons why people get opportunities in Hollywood, and some of them aren’t related to talent. But nobody keeps working in Hollywood without talent and hard work, and that’s the only part you can control. The worst thing for Christians in Hollywood are those filmmakers who come out here saying “God called me” but yet they aren’t talented and they won’t put in the work. Yes, God can open opportunities, but you have to be prepared enough to take them.

Nate

Finally, do you have any projects in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

Andrea

I have a couple of films in development and one that is shooting right now. I can’t share too much, but it’s another comedy, set in a mega-church, and I’m really excited for you to find out more soon!

A big thank you to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions, and for openly sharing her experiences and her thoughts about screenwriting and filmmaking for people of faith.

To find out more about Andrea:

Andrea Nasfell on Twitter: @AndreaNasfell

Andrea Nasfell on IMDb: IMDb

Andrea Nasfell’s blog: ahundredhats.wordpress.com

Mom’s Night Out: www.momsnightoutmovie.com

And if you enjoyed this interview, check out past Thimblerig interviews!

Michael B. Allen & Will Bakke, makers of Believe Me

Author and Filmmaker Bill Myers

Richard Ramsey, director of The Song

Doc Benson, writer and director of Seven Deadly Words

Tyler Smith and Josh Long, co-hosts of More Than One Lesson podcast

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

 

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!

 

Nine Things I Learned from 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media. Yes, it’s over.

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

Media cloud, VLADGRIN / Shutterstock.com

On March 12, I made the decision to consume nothing but Christian media for forty days and to document the experience.  I wasn’t angling for a book deal, or trying to increase revenue by upping clicks on my blog (I make no money off of this blog).  I just wanted to see what would happen if I restricted myself to a steady diet of media created by Christians, for Christians, the kind you could only buy from a Christian bookstore.

Would I grow in some way?  Spiritually?  Physically?  Mentally?  Would it somehow make me into a more sincere and effective Christian?  Would I snap and throw my laptop from my 16th floor balcony?

Well, as of today (due to some international travel that messed up the days a bit) those forty days are finally over, and while I did have to get a new laptop, it was because of catastrophic systems failure in the old one, and not because of a Christian-media-induced mental breakdown.

And that sound you hear is me, breathing.

Deep breaths.

Deep, cleansing, cautious breaths.

My first official non-Christian-made media as I’m coming off the forty days?  Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack.

Man, I missed me some Hans Zimmer.

Yesterday, my wife asked me if I’d learned anything over the past forty days, and I’d like to answer her question here, for anyone to see.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE 40 DAYS (AND NIGHTS) OF CHRISTIAN MEDIA CHALLENGE

Over the past 40 days…

1.  You take the good, you take the bad…

I have learned that, like with regular media, there are some really good bits of Christian media and there are some incredibly horrid bits.  The incredibly horrid bits are typically the ones that get the most attention and marketing money, and get sold by Christian retailers.  The really good bits are typically harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.

2.  The Balaam’s Donkey Effect

I have learned to my surprise that God even uses the incredibly horrid bits of Christian media to encourage people.  I have no idea why He does this, but I call it The Balaam’s Donkey Effect.

As Rich said, you never know who God is gonna use.

3.  Misuse of The Balaam’s Donkey Effect

I have learned that some Christian media producers take the Balaam’s Donkey Effect to mean that you can produce media with good intentions alone and God will bless it because of those good intentions.

They seem to forget that the Bible has a lot to say about excellence.

4.  The True Salt and Lighters

I have learned that there are Christian producers of media, true “salt and lighters”, working very hard within traditional media companies to produce great work that is not necessarily obviously Christian.

I’ve also learned that these people don’t get near the attention from within the church as do the obvious Christian media producers.

And this is going to be hard to hear, but I think that it needs to be said:  I have concluded that this is really stupid and short-sighted on the part of the church.

Church, pay special attention to the following statement, because it is a message for you: Support Christians working in non-Christian media companies like they are missionaries, because that’s what they are.  

“But my denomination doesn’t send out missionaries to Hollywood or Nashville.  How do we know who they are?”

Easy.  Do some research.  They’re not hard to find.

And once you do find them, support them with prayers and finances.  Have a Sunday School class adopt them, and send them Amazon gift cards.  Remember their kid’s birthdays.  If they live close, invite them out to dinner and let them talk about their projects.  Creatives love talking about the things they are trying to do.  In short, treat them the way you do your missionaries to Africa and Asia and Latin America.  They are in a mission field that is just as challenging in many ways.

And lastly on this point, don’t just find and support the people working in the more visible fields of Christian media (the authors, the singers, the directors, and such), but also the ones who work behind the scenes (the sound engineers, the DPs, the editors, the key grips, and so on).  It’s just as hard to be a Christ-following techie in media as it is to be a celebrity.  Maybe harder.

5.  The Dreaded Christian Bubble

I have learned that our Christian sub-culture bubble is arguably un-Biblical.  We weren’t called to be hermits living in caves.  How can we show we’re not of the culture unless we’re engaged with the culture?

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a somewhat well-known Christian filmmaker, who stunned me when he said that he’d not actually watched any non-Christian movies in his life.

In. His. Life.

Not even the “safe” non-Christian movies.  He didn’t see any need to expose himself to the films of the world, and didn’t think that it affected his own filmmaking abilities.

Romans 14 tells me that I have to respect this man’s convictions on watching films, and so I do, from a brother-in-Christ point of view.  From a filmmaking point of view, I will be really surprised if he ever actually makes an all-around decent movie.  The odds are stacked against him, since he’s cut himself off from the professional influence of people who really know how to make films.

And we see Christians encasing themselves in bubbles all over the place.  We need to pop those bubbles.

6.  The Need for Christian Media for Christians

I have learned to respect the need for Christian-made media that is made specifically for Christians.  It’s quite nice that we can watch television and surf the internet and listen to music, just like non-Christians do, and grow in the faith.

But I do wish a couple of things would happen with this media:

First, I wish that the ones making media for the Christian subculture would just acknowledge they are making media for Christians rather than pretending that their work is making any substantial positive impact on the wider culture.  The Balaam’s Donkey Effect notwithstanding, I’m talking about being honest and open about the demographics you honestly think you will reach.  The majority of non-Christians in the world have a very low opinion of our music, our movies, and our books.  We need to face that fact.

Second, I wish the ones making media for the Christian subculture would challenge the Christian subculture more, and not just hit all the right beats to make it suitably digestible.  Doesn’t 2 Timothy say something about itching ears?

family7.  Family Friendly ≠ Faith Based

I have learned that we should – for once and for all – draw a big fat line between “family-friendly” and “faith-based”.  I’ve made this point on the blog before, but over the last forty days I found myself longing for a faith-based film that was willing to plumb the depths of the human condition as well as explore the heights, and only found it with The Song.  Faith-based films should be allowed to go mature and dark in order to truly show the light.

Where is the Christian-made Calvary?  Where is the Christian-made Shawshank Redemption?  Unforgiven?  Schindler’s List?  For that matter, why did we need Angelina Jolie to make a decent (if incomplete) version of Unbroken?

The problem is that we’ve shackled family-friendly and faith-based together, and in the process we’ve cut ourselves off from being able to make really good drama.  Only a non-Christian can really tell our stories well, and then we get upset when they don’t tell them the way we want them to be told.

8.  Fear Not

If I can judge the state of the 21st American Christian church by the state of her media, I’ve learned that we Christians seem to be afraid.  Of all sorts of things.

We’re afraid of homosexuals, Muslim radicals, bad parenting, Hollywood, video games, illegal immigrants, the dark side of the internet, atheist filmmakers making Bible epics, the other side of the political aisle gaining political power, magic, public education, higher education, and losing our American freedoms and rights.  To name just a few things.

6a00d8341bffb053ef0133ed1fe566970b-450wiDon’t get me wrong.  Of course we should be concerned about the issues.  Of course we should learn what’s going on so that we can pray about things.

But we shouldn’t be afraid.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then we should live with hopeful anticipation about what He is doing in the world, not in fear that He’s somehow losing control.

9.  The Heart of the Matter

Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned over the past forty days is the importance of starting the day in God’s Word.  I’ve mentioned a couple of times over these past 40 days that I’ve been utilizing the daily devotional written by Skye Jethani, and I highly recommend it.

If you are a Christian who – like me – loves secular media, I strongly urge you to make it a point to start your day in the presence of your heavenly Father.  This will better enable you to meet the challenges found in trying to swim in the tsunami of secular media, and will infuse you with the grace to step into the stream of Christian-made media with understanding and patience.

There are plenty of Christians around the world for whom the Bible is literally the only Christian media they have exposure to, and guess what?

They survive.

And in my opinion, they’re probably a lot better off than the rest of us.

Thanks to all who joined me in this forty day adventure in odyssey.  Come back for my next challenge, The 40 Days (and Nights) of Star Wars Media Challenge.

screen-shot-2014-08-25-at-12-30-30-pm

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

The Song • Thimblerig’s Review

The_Song_(2014)_Official_Poster

I just watched The Song.

And I’m angry.

I don’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to watching a film.  I mean, the credits are rolling, and I just want to punch the wall.  I want to hurl my glass into the fireplace.  I want to take a 2×4 and shatter the windows of the cathedral I’m building.

Why?  What could possibly make me so angry about a film?

It’s simple.  I’m angry that a film that is so inspiring, so challenging, so authentic, so brave, so introspective, and so enjoyable hasn’t been seen by more people, while lesser films – both Christian and secular – thrive.

Make more money than they should.

Win $100,000 awards for being inspirational that they simply don’t deserve.

I suppose if King Solomon were asked to comment on this situation, he would throw his hands in the air and quote himself from Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

You should try it sometime.  It really does put things into perspective, doesn’t it?

But seriously, I loved The Song.  I really, really loved The Song.  As you read this review, I hope that this sentiment comes across louder than my anger over my sense of injustice (okay, maybe “injustice” is too strong a word) that the film hasn’t been seen by everyone.  And I hope that reading this blog will encourage you to put this film on your Netflix queue to be watched sooner rather than later.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.

The Song is the story of King Solomon set in modern times, with the protagonist a singer/songwriter named Jed King (Alan Powell).  Jed is struggling to get out from underneath the shadow of his superstar father, David King (Aaron Benward), and is finally inspired to write a breakout hit because of his love for his newlywed wife, Rose (Ali Faulkner).  King’s success and fame pull him away from his wife and growing family, and when the attractive and tempting Shelby Bale (Caitlin Nicol-Thomas) joins his tour, King is faced with hard choices that will radically change his life.

As usual, let me start with what I liked about the film.

1.  The Direction

thesong-group

Director Richard Ramsey, with actors Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Alan Powell, and Ali Faulkner

I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Ramsey a few months back about his life, this film, and his ideas on filmmaking in the Christian community.  I was impressed by Ramsey’s thoughtful attitude on the subject of Christian-made art, and appreciated that we had a shared dissatisfaction with much of what we – as Christians – produce.

The interview was great, but it also made me incredibly nervous to watch The Song.  What if, after all the fantastic things Ramsey had to say, the movie sucked eggs?  How in the world would I be able to write that review?

Thankfully, that was not the case.  With credit also going to cinematographer Kevin Bryan and editor Jared Hardy, Ramsey made a beautifully shot and cut film.  I loved the style of it, the use of light, the symbolism that was found throughout.  This was a project borne out of passion, and these filmmakers put their hearts and souls onto the screen, a truth that is evident from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

I especially want to note the opening of the film, which is reminiscent of the montage that opens Pixar’s Up.  The first five minutes of The Song is a powerful montage depicting the imperfect life and early death of David King, which serves as a wonderful setup for Jed’s story.  It drew me in, and made me care about what would happen to the son of the King.

The-Song-ali-faulkner-photo-624x266Richard Ramsey has a strong director’s voice, an obvious sense of visual style, and is a definite storyteller.  Based on this, his first time in the cinematic captain’s chair, I definitely look forward to seeing what he does next in the world of feature films.

 

2.  The Story

I was nervous about the premise of the film when I first heard about it, because it came across as almost gimmicky.  The idea of setting the life of King Solomon in the present, in the world of country music?  It reminded me too much of the countless Shakespearean productions that have attempted this sort of thing to a varied level of success.

If I have to suffer through one more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in outer space or Love’s Labours Lost in a 1920’s speakeasy…

Thankfully, in the case of The Song, the conceit worked.

The-Song-photo-Caitlin-Nicol-Thomas-Alan-Powell-singing-624x260The story of Jed King was solid from beginning to end.  It ably showed his journey from son of a star to happily married man, to big-time success, to frustrated husband, and then the descent.  And the descent was true-to-life, and horrifying.  So often in Christian-made films, the filmmakers seem to live in fear for showing the ugliness and reality of sin, but that was not the case with The Song.  Jed falls hard and far, and we’re voyeurs, watching helplessly as he comes crashing to the ground.

And then we get to see what happens next, which I won’t spoil.  But I will say that it is satisfying.

The Song was compelling storytelling, a fantastic character study, with banjos and fiddles to boot.

Which leads me to my next positive point.

3.  The Music

I want to say a big thank you to music director, Vince Emmett.  Music can make a story more accessible when it’s not just background, when it serves the story almost as a character, and can add power to the punch the filmmaker is trying to land.  The Song did this in spades.  The music – almost bluegrass at times, sort of country at others – helped the movie fit well into a long tradition of musical films such as Dreamgirls, Walk the Line, The Commitments, and That Thing You Do!.

And special props to director and jack-of-all-trades Richard Ramsey, who also had a hand in composing many of the songs along with several other fantastic songwriters.  Of course, a film like this couldn’t succeed without top notch musicians, and actors who could both sing and act, and The Song had both.

You can sample the album here, and follow the links on that page if you want to purchase it.  Having just done so myself, I would highly recommend adding it to your collection.

4.  The Acting

Alan-Powell-as-Jed-The-Song-king-on-throne-photoThe Song has actors who can sing, but also actors who can act.  It seems funny to say this as a positive, but good acting is not a given in the world of Christian-made filmmaking.  For now, that’s just the reality, but I’m hopeful that films like The Song can help dispel that stereotype.  Did they hire actors who could sing?  Or did they hire singers who could act?  Either way, it’s clear that the filmmakers chose their actors carefully, and the payoff was a well-acted film.

5.  The Grittiness

As I said earlier, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the harshness of life, that actions – good and bad – have consequences, that a fall is usually something that happens gradually and with open eyes.  And while the film deals openly with hard issues like sexual infidelity, drug abuse, alcoholism, and the like, it’s never gratuitous.

I think the way The Song handled these difficult subjects could serve as a template for future faith-based films seeking to show the hard stories of the Bible in an honest, open manner.

And this brings me to the second part of the review.  What I didn’t like about the film.

To be honest, the only thing I didn’t like was Jed King’s out-of-control beard.  You have to understand, I’m a beard guy as much as anyone, but it was approaching Civil War, Duck Dynasty length by the end.  At one point, I thought they’d misnamed the film, and rather than calling it The Song, they should have considered The Beard.

THE BEARD

Anyone with me?  Anyone?  No?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I discussed the film with a friend who also watched it today, separately from me, and by my recommendation.  While she basically liked the movie, she felt that it moved too slow, and it was too introspective for her taste.  So, you should watch the movie realizing that things happen at a slow burn, but when stuff starts to burn, it’s worth the wait.

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

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

The Song was definitely risky, taking the audience to uncomfortable places, shining light on dark spaces.  Even the idea of making a film based on a character from the Bible is risky, because it forces us to re-examine our preconceived notions of these characters, to see them as actual living and breathing people who made sometimes tragic mistakes, just as we do.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Because The Song did #1 so well, it was definitely a challenging film.  Again, we often don’t want to examine the uglier sides of life, but the darkness is illuminated by the light, and provides a stark contrast.  It’s valuable to allow our art to go to these places to help us to understand them, and to avoid the traps the darkness might try to set.

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

As ironic as it might sound for a film based on a person from the Bible, The Song was anything but preachy, at least not in the modern evangelical sense of the word.  The film is full of truth in much the way Scripture is full of truth.  The only reason people might feel preached at in this film is because the film mentions God, examines questions of faith, and was directed by a Christian.  However, those people need to learn to approach films based on the merits of the film, and not their own preconceived notions.

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

While it could have been interesting to end the film unsure if Rose takes Jed back, it would have been unfulfilling, considering the romantic nature of the film.  While I am a fan for ambiguity in film when appropriate, it wouldn’t have worked in this case.  Besides, there are plenty of unanswered questions – do Rose and Jed make it?  What happened to Shelby?  Does Jed continue singing?  Sometimes the Hollywood ending works.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

As I’ve already discussed, The Song does this, and does it quite well.

And so, to conclude my review, I’m pleased to award The Song five out of five Golden Groundhogs, only the second time a film has earned such a high score (Believe Me was the first).  Thank you again, Richard Ramsey and City on a Hill, for bringing such a wonderful film to life.

Golden Groundhogs The Song

I watched The Song on the first night of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge.  It was a good way to begin the challenge.  Please check back to the blog often to read about my journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 down, 39 days to go.