Q: Why is it important for Christians to get their rear-ends to the theater on the opening weekend of a worthwhile film?
BRN: Right now, opening weekend is the measuring stick for all of the future investment in a project by the industry. By Sunday morning industry watchers can pretty much tell you how many more prints of the film they are going to strike and distribute, and whether the theater run is going to be expanded to include more theaters, and how much money they will be spending on supporting media and p.r. They have also decided by Sunday morning of opening weekend about how how many copies of the DVD will be struck, and how much money they will spend to promote it.
Let’s say a film opens on 500 screens and does really well opening weekend. They will then expand it to 1,000 in the next few weeks, which means now they have to support it with wider spray of ads - more TV and newspaper - so the whole promotional thing kicks in even bigger and becomes more of a cultural phenomenon.
After a movie’s opening weekend, they know how many weeks it is going to be in the theaters, they can predict the global box office. By Sunday morning in America, they can tell you pretty much the kind of money a movie will make in Brazil on its DVD sales. There is a formula and they’re amazingly right most of the time.
So, going to a movie on opening weekend is like voting. If you are going to have an impact on this industry, you are going to have to be much more aware of how you are voting at the box office.
Which reminds me, with The Da Vinci Code, (scheduled for May 19, 2006) we want everybody to turn out to see another movie to skew the box office away from the blasphemy movie as a signal to the industry. There is a fun little animated family movie by Dreamworks called Over the Hedge. We want everybody in the business to wake up Monday morning and see that this little silly movie won the weekend - or at least ate a chunk of the tally from DVC.
If we take all of our kids and ourselves intentionally to Over the Hedge, and we let the industry know we are going to see this other movie on purpose as a way to register our vote, we can make a much more impressive statement that if we all just stay away from the theaters that weekend. But if we just ignore The Da Vinci Code and let your kids go, then you are voting for that kind of movie to be made. If the "Jesus is a fraud and the Church is a corporate criminal movie" is a huge hit, we will see 10-12 clones of it before too long. Why? Because that is the kind of movie Hollywood wants to make anyway, and hit status will give them economic affirmation as well.
Disney did not green light the second movie of the Narnia franchise until it was clear the movie was going to make a quarter of a billion dollars because it is not the kind of movie the creative elites in Hollywood want to make. But now they almost can’t NOT make another Narnia film, because now it’s probably going to pass $300 million in the United States alone. How can they not make the sequel? But with DVC, if it’s half a hit, we will see a spate of knockoffs.
Q: You’re a devotee of Flannery O’Conner, who often depicted violent and otherwise objectionable material. Can you talk about why a Christian writer would do that?
BRN: The thing missing in that question is how Flannery used those things. She definitely used violence, but she didn’t use gore. I find that Christian writers haven’t thought this through enough.
Flannery O’Conner had an instinctive Theology of the Body thing going on. She saw violence as being the radical effect of sin, and she had a reverence for the human person. When you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which is the story of a serial killer killing a family of five, we don’t read about the bullet tearing through and exposing the blood, with brain matter on the ground and the person choking on their own vomit. That kind of obsessive staring at gore in entertainment really turns human beings into mere props - like chairs that get smashed up in a bar scene. Just wreck 'em and throw 'em away.
Christians still have a sense of privacy about sexuality on screen, but, curiously, violence doesn't seem to trip our triggers. Watching a human being shot should have the same impact on a believer as looking at people having sex. There is something sacred there. We don’t gape at it because it’s sacred and we have no business violating another human person's privacy for our entertainment - yes, even if they give their permission! They have no right to give their permission to be violated. (We're in such a weird moment of humanhistory!) A person being completely violated in their physical nature is not something we gaze at curiously and eat popcorn while we are doing it.
At the same time, Flannery said that when you have God in your life you are healthy, and the healthier that you are, the more you are going to be aware of the sickness all around you. She said it takes a healthy person to recognize a freak. So therefore, Christian arts projects today should be stuffed with freaks! What else can we do with the euthanizers down the hall waiting for grandma, and the weird scientists wanting to experiment on little humans, and barbarians coming over the walls in every sense!? Entertainment has to be better than real to be engaging for an audience. When "the real" is a freak show....
The other problem I find with young writers has to do with the failure to create real comedy. I think it is safe to say comedy is almost dead is a genre. For comedy to work, you have to have purity. The audience has to start with some sense of normalcy and purity for something to else to register as a joke.
For example, I was at a real live freak show not long ago with a woman who is a studio writer. Her daughter was playing in a soccer game. This woman was divorced and remarried. So, sitting at the game was my the woman and her ex-husband in the center - because they are the "parents of note", even though they don't live together. Next to the woman is her new husband cradling their new baby. Next to husband number two is his fifteen year old - really bored son from his previous marriage. Meanwhile, on the other side next to the ex-husband is his new wife with their new baby. And next to her is Debbie, with whom the father lived for three years after the initial divorce, and before he married the new one. In the three years of co-habitation, Debbie bonded with the little girl out there kicking the ball around, because she was there from 8-11, so Debbie was another pseudo mother figure. But wait, Debbie’s new boyfriend is also there. And then also in the line is the nanny, who has been the only real constant in the little girl’s life.
I’m sitting there, and all these people are all healthy and chatting and meanwhile, they are all kind of fervently there for the little girl so they can show that they are really invested in her, and they have so screwed up her life. She is a mess. I’m saying to myself, “What is comedy for this kid?” Her life is a circus. It’s an absolute feak show that can only have one predictable result as a child-raising strategy - nightmare! But anyway, in terms of the child's ability to appreciate comedy, exactly what is going to make her laugh? Real perverted, twisted stuff. And that is in fact the case.
And so I think the loss of purity has everything to do with the destruction of comedy. There is no sense of surprise anymore. When I was at Sundance, I was struck by how every comedy that I saw was essentially sneering: “Look at that idiot. What a loser! How stupid is that!” This is not the stuff that Charlie Chaplain, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett did. Think of the great people who have made us laugh throughout the history of the industry. It was not built on finger pointing at some idiot and kind of separating yourself from him with a sense of superiority.
Chaplain said his comedy was supposed to make the audience humble. He called it the laughter of the gaps, where the audience would become aware of who we really are versus who we want to appear to be. And so the audience would laugh gently at the Little Tramp, relate to him and his pretensions, and come away with a sense of “aren’t we funny? aren’t we ridiculous?” That is different from “You’re an idiot, you’re screwing up my world.”
Q: Do any recent films come to mind that convey truth beyond a PG rating?
BRN:Yes. Pretty much any one that is beloved by anybody probably reading this thing. Recently, I would say In America. This was a film that Christians didn’t see that they should have. It was made for adults. There was a sex scene in it, but it wasn’t graphic or erotic.
Q: It was husband and wife.
BRN: Which arguably should make it more sacred - but the way it was shotdefinitely perserved the privacy of the act. And it was so pro-life! The conception of this child was tied to the sacrifice of prayer that this neighbor artist is making at the same time for the family, which has experienced such trauma. This movie was fantastic.
Another example of something I loved was In the Bedroom. I thought it was very Flannery O’Conneresque, and all about grace being offered. I’ve had Christians say “How can you recommend that movie? At the end, the two murderers get away with it.” No they don’t get away with anything. They are insane at the end of the movie. No one wants to be them.
I think The Straight Story, a few years ago was a great film. It was a David Lynch movie about a brother going on this journey of reconciliation to his brother - a beautiful film that is one of the most powerful films about reconciliation that I’ve ever seen. Again, we didn’t go see it.
On a lighter, just general entertainment level, how about Return To Me, that Bonnie Hunt did, a lovely delightful film about family, faith and friendship. It was a romantic comedy with nothing geeky or weird about it, just a really good romantic comedy. What do you get out of romantic comedy in these serious times? You get a gentle sense of God in the universe and can laugh together without in any sense being degraded or demeaned. This is a good thing.
That list of good films even in just the last few years would be very, very, long. The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, October Sky, Hotel Rwanda, Narnia, Passion, Spider Man, X-Men, Corpse Bride, Millions - I could go on. In just the last five years there have been some amazing movies made that too often are not successful financially because Christians are out of the habit of looking for them.
I also think it would ruin our paradigm if we had to go see a movie that came out of Hollywood that was good, because how do we think of them now? The mass media making something good? They’re supposed to be evil!