The hands-down surprise film of the year for me has been Believe Me, an indie film made by some upstart Texans from a production company with the anarchistically-sounding name of Riot Studios. I’m not easily surprised by films these days, especially films made by Christians, but Believe Me caught me off guard from the first moment I heard about it, and kept me off guard until I was watching the credits roll.
The first big surprise was when I saw that this film, apparently being made by a cadre of unapologetic Christian filmmakers, was going to feature Nic Offerman, he of the impressive moustache, a.k.a. Ron Swanson from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Nic Offerman might just have been the very last person I would have ever expected to see involved in a film made by believers.
But somehow, the boys at Riot Studios got him.
The second big surprise came when I went to the film’s website, and found out about their brilliant (yet bizarre) grass roots marketing campaign, wherein they paid people to utilize their social media platforms on behalf of the film. The idea was that if you shared their link on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever – and people clicked that link to go see more about the film, then you earned money. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was still a creative way to encourage people to share the info.
And then, in another unorthodox move, the film was released on the same day in theaters and as a digital download, which meant that I could actually watch and review the film on opening night – pretty cool for a film reviewer living in China!
But the biggest surprise came when I watched the film, and found it to be refreshingly well-made, the kind of movie that I would show to any of my friends – Christians or not. In my opinion, the movie successfully did many of the things that I believe Christian films need to do to actually be taken seriously as an art form. Click here to read my review and see more of my thoughts on the movie itself.
In other words, I turned off the movie excited with the realization that I had found some filmmakers who spoke my language.
And so, as the second in my Thimblerig’s Interview series, I’m pleased and honored to have interviewed Michael B. Allen and Will Bakke, two of the three founders of Riot Studios, and the brains behind Believe Me.
In this interview, I find out some of what brought these filmmakers to this point in their careers, what sort of vision they have for filmmaking, and just how they managed to score Nic Offerman to be in their movie.
Please Introduce yourself…
Michael B. Allen – writer/co-producer of Believe Me
Will Bakke – writer/director of Believe Me
Alex Carroll didn’t have the chance to participate in the interview, but he is the other partner and co-founder or Riot Studios and the Producer of Believe Me.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
Michael: Will Bakke and I worked on the documentary, One Nation Under God. Then, Alex Carroll came on board for our second doc, Beware of Christians. After that, we officially formed our film company, Riot Studios, together with the intention of making feature films, the first of which is Believe Me.
Who have been some of your most profound creative influences as an artist(s)?
Michael: In film, I love the films from Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian have had huge influences on me that cross over beyond music. The design work and approaches of Saul Bass and Paul Rand. Probably above all, however is ole Leo DaVinci. I really identify with and strive for the ideal of the renaissance man, or the artist-engineer.
Will: In film, I’m a big fan of Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Good Will Hunting), and David Fincher (Fight Club, Social Network). Musically I love Broken Social Scene, Third Eye Blind, Cold War Kids, and The Black Keys. I am a big fan of “concept art” so I love a lot of Banksy’s work as well I follow Abduzeedo.com for different graphic designers.
Please explain your thoughts on the state of filmmaking in the Christian community.
Will: The state of filmmaking within the Christian community is pretty narrow. For the longest time, the only “christian films” being made were for a very specific, usually conservative, older generation. Now, with Hollywood trying to get a piece of the profits, doors are beginning to be opened for Christians who want to present films in an alternative style.
Please give a synopsis of your film, Believe Me, and tell us a bit of the history of the film.
Will: Believe Me is the story of four college seniors that start a fake Christian charity in order to embezzle money for their college tuitions. The film was meant to challenge the power of platforms and investigate whether truth was relative or not. The filmmakers found a lot of inspiration for the film after touring their previous movie Beware of Christians around the country.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Will: The biggest challenges came with bucking the system and trying not to make a “message movie”. We feel that so often Christian films put the message or the agenda ahead of its story and that can only diminish it as a whole. If your characters are making decisions based out of the writer’s agenda to preach or be saved, you may be missing out on telling a more compelling and authentic story.
Believe Me is unusual for a film made by Christian artists, as it is a comedy that doesn’t pull many punches. How would you advise Christian artists as they think about going outside the lines of typical so-called faith-based films?
Michael: Artistically, my only advice would be to follow your personal convictions without the pressure of conforming to the dogma surrounding “faith-based” art. At its best, art should challenge its audience, and it’s impossible to challenge someone when you’re only worried about playing it safe.
Along those same lines, is it possible to make a God-honoring film if the creative choices you make earn you an R rating?
Michael: I think that’s up to the filmmakers and the individual members of the audience. If a filmmaker can create something, and a member of an audience watch something, in clear conscience that challenges them or her to love, honor, or enjoy God more, it shouldn’t matter which label the MPAA applies. So many Bible stories, if told through the medium of film, would be rated R, but it doesn’t diminish their ability to draw a spirit of worship from the reader.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers, especially those who are approaching filmmaking as a calling or a ministry?
Michael: Do the best work that you can do. Don’t feel a pressure or guilt if everything you make is not an explicit sermon. For most, that’s not the point of watching or making movies. If you want to preach sermons, consider a career as a pastor or consider street evangelism in your spare time. If you want to be a filmmaker, make really good films. Whether or not they convert anyone to your religion, they will be a blessing to culture, the same way an architect doesn’t have to build in subliminal Christian messaging to bless the world in his vocation by designing beautiful, functional buildings.
Regarding Riot Studios, can you tell us a bit about this organization, and what sorts of projects are coming down the pipeline?
Will: Riot Studios was formed by Will Bakke, Michael Allen, and Alex Carroll who all produced the documentary Beware of Christians together. We tell stories that compel viewers to challenge their beliefs, weigh the alternatives, and laugh while doing so. We make transparent and thoughtful art through film. We have several projects in the pipeline but right now our biggest focus is on Believe Me. Stay tuned for big things.
Finally, and the question I’ve really been wanting to ask: How did you score Nick Offerman for your film? That was a huge coup for a faith-based film, and worked out a whole lot better than the other Nic in Left Behind.
Will: Ha. Yeah we we’re absolutely psyched to get a guy like Nick Offerman in our film. It’s interesting because Nick is an outspoken atheist so we were curious ourselves as to why he would want to be a part of something like this. From what we know he really connected with the script and wanted to be a part of a story that felt authentic.
A big thank you to Michael and Will for taking the time to answer my questions, and for sharing a bit about their vision for filmmaking as people of faith.
Find out more information about Riot Studios: www.riotstudios.com
Will Bakke on Twitter: @iamwillbakke
Michael B. Allen on Twitter: @iamMichaelAllen
Believe Me on Facebook and Twitter: @BelieveMeFilm /BelieveMeFilm
Stay tuned to the Thimblerig’s Ark blog for more interviews with artists doing interesting non-conformist work in the name of Christ, and come join the Sacred Arts Revolution conversation over at Facebook!