AN EXPENSIVE LEARNING CURVE
This is going to be a little rant. I'll introduce it by saying that, on Wednesday, I received a heads-up from a friend who works in marketing that the long-awaited film Therese from St. Luke Productions in Oregon, was having press screenings for its upcoming release. I emailed to be included in one of the area screenings and received the message, "Oh, sorry. The press screenings were last week. If you want to see the film, you'll have to wait to see it in the theater when it opens October 4th."
I'm trying to figure out if I should be annoyed at having been deliberately excluded, or if the press junket was just one more thing about this project that was mishandled.
I have no personal animosity towards the folks at St. Luke's. They are certainly very devout Catholics, and very sincere in their desire to put drama at the service of the Gospel.
It's just that everywhere I go, good Catholics ask me about the project, and "Isn't it a shame that Hollywood is shutting out the movie just because it's devout Catholic?!" No, the project is not being shut out because it's Catholic. If it's getting shut out, it's because it's a bad movie. It is disingenuous to try and get people into the theaters on some pretext of "showing Hollywood", when what you are really trying to do is desperately make back some of the millions and millions of dollars you obtained from good people who trusted you to know how to make a good movie.
Three years ago, I was approached to give notes on the screenplay for Therese. The screenplay, a first effort for the well-intentioned writer, was in very bad shape. The screenplay was not professionally formatted, and was missing all the most basic points of introducing and growing characters, of structuring for some kind of suspense, of thematic develpment, and also, there was really no story. The writer had lifted long sections of dialogue right out of St. Therese's work, putting them in extended voice-overs over shots of the saint doing laundry, looking out windows and gazing toward unseen horizons in prayer.
Because I have always had a special love for St. Therese, I spent a lot of time - for free - reading the script, giving extensive notes, and then trying to help in at least two extended phone calls. These were the days when I was still reading projects from non-Hollywood Christian writers for free. (I have since learned that people do not respect "advice". They respect "consultation." The difference between advice and consultation is that they pay you for consultation.)
A few months later, the writers sent me a new draft of the script. It showed some improvement, but was still far from being a commercially viable, and technically functioning project. I expressed to the writer and director, "My opinion is, you are over your head here with the screenplay. I do not discern any signs of writing talent, or even proficiency, here. I don't see any mastery - or even awareness - of any of the skills necessary in screenwriting: character creation, story, structure, dialogue, use of language, use of imagery, etc." I strongly encouraged St. Luke Productions to recruit an experienced screenwriter for the project. (I considered pitching myself for the project, but there was no way I could do it at that moment.) I offered to help them find a real screenwriter.
But no, the principles told me, "We're going to go with God here. There are a lot of people praying for us."
So then, I said, "We will be holding a month-long screenwriter's intensive in August - just a few weeks away. I will let you come for free, to sit in the back as observers. I promise you, at the end of the program, you will have a much better idea of what you need to do as filmmakers."
But no, the answer came back, "But we are planning to start shooting in September."
To which I said, "You are not ready to start shooting. You don't have a screenplay yet." They kind of laughed at my lack of faith. I remember someone saying, 'St. Therese is going to make this movie a miracle." I think I came back, "God is talking to you now. I'm on your side. I'm trying to help." I remember them kind of laughing again.
I made several other desperate suggestions like, "Please, please if you want ANY CHANCE of getting festivals, or distribution, hire some name actors." And, "You've never made a film before. Why not take $250,000 and make a short film first, just as practice..." And, "Hire a director who has made a movie before." But, no. The film went ahead as scheduled.
A year later, I got an inquiry from St. Luke Productions. I was writing a monthly column for Liguorian at the time. The request came in for me to write a feature article on the making of the movie Therese. I was kind of shocked. "Do you really want me to write something like that?" But then I thought, "Well, maybe the film will beat the unbelievably incrediblely monumentally enormous odds that it will come out mediocre....maybe, it will be a miracle."
So, I said, "Sure, I'll consider doing a feature on it. Please send me a VHS of the film so I can see it."
But the answer came back, "Oh, no. We aren't showing it to people yet. We just want you to write a feature in support of these good Catholics who are trying to make a wonderful Catholic movie." (I was actually told a few months later by some millionaires in Portland, that they had seen a roughcut of the film...but whatever.)
See, I can't support the way Therese was made. It goes against everything I am doing here in Hollywood to try and get Christians to make inroads as professionals. To the people who work at the craft of entertainment here in the business, watching the millions of dollars Christians waste in "showing" Hollywood, by outsider attempts at movie making, is heart-breaking. And kind of annoying. Multiple Emmy nominated screenwriter and Christian, Karen Hall, used to say, "It's like if I woke up one day and said, 'Hey, I have a shingle. I think I'll put it outside my front door and start doing psycho-therapy."
But anyway, they wouldn't show me the film, so I wouldn't write a feature on it.
About a year later, I got a call from two different dioceses, and also from an office at the U.S. Catholic Conference, asking me whether Therese should get the Bishops' support. Even just informal support.
So, I called St. Luke Productions and said, "Please, can I get a screener of this film? I could help you get the word out. But I have to see the film first." I had heard that the project was being shown around down to various studios, and I also offered my willingness to go to one of those. I was told that it wouldn't be possible for them to send me a screener, and that it wouldn't be possible for me to see it in the rounds here in L.A., but that if I wanted to fly to Portland, they would let me see the film there. Of course, this was an absurd thing to ask. It really started to seem to me that St. Luke's Productions didn't want me to see the film. (Which is also weird, because, frankly, I'm really not big enough to be worth hiding from...) I sighed, as I recall, and said, "No, I will not pay to fly to Portland to see the film. But do let me know when there will be press screenings here in L.A.."
This is why I got kind of mad this week, when I got an email from a marketer, asking me to help "Get the word out about Therese opening this week!"
I have participated in many, many studio film junkets. I have NEVER been treated worse, as a member of the press, than on this project coming from my fellow devout Catholics. No Hollywood studio would ever ask me to support a film without letting me see it first. This is the kind of non-professional weirdness that you have to be in the Christian market to encounter.
I hope the junket for the film here in L.A. was a little affair and maybe it was just an oversight that I didn't get invited. I think this is unlikely, because I am certainly THE ONLY member of the press in L.A. who had issued at least two prior requests to see this project. I am also certainly THE ONLY member of the press who had volunteered several hours of work in the early stages of this project. And that alone should have merited, as a professional courtesy, an invite to a screening. Hell, even the pagans do that.
I hope Therese is a great film. Although, several people who have seen it have basically kind of shrugged, "Really devout catholics will probably like it."
I hope the people at St. Lukes will make more films, now that they have had a multi-million dollar personal film school experience. Otherwise, it will REALLY be a waste.
I hope nobody ever, ever comes to me again and says, "God is going to make this movie great."
Well, I guess this is me getting the word out about Therese.