Q: Talk about your own creative experience. For instance, I know you’ve written before that Eucharistic adoration is a great cure for writer’s block.
BRN: Indeed. This is another reason I think that the Church needs to put itself in artists’ faces. We have an answer for them in our proximity to the sacred which is the font of inspiration. Right now, to get inspired an artist goes into his room, shuts the door and tries to get focused. But again, they are looking inside of their own guts, which is an unenlightened place. It’s another thing to sit in Eucharistic adoration with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. You’re looking at your history and psychology, but you are not doing it in isolation. You’re getting God’s perspective.
I have a weird thing in my personal creative life that I always only seem to get the answer to any problem when I'm sitting in church. It's God’s way of making sure I never leave the Church from a purely pragmatic standpoint. Honestly, I have this weird experience where the best solutions to creative problems come to me at Mass or during meditation at church–not even at home when I’m praying.
Q: You’re not even necessarily thinking about the problem when the answer comes to you.
BRN: No. I'll be sitting there paying attention and all of a sudden I'll get the answer to something that I've been puzzling over outside in my work. It's even funnier when I get sudden answers to things that I didn't even realize were problems in my work!
I bring a notebook into church all the time. I always have one in my purse. It’s kind of like God is saying to me, “Just so you know, anything cool you ever manage to come up with really comes from me.” That’s good for me....Ask my family!
This points to one of those stimbling blocks that artists have to learn to watch or it sidetracks us. When we come up with something really cool in our creative isolation, it’s a holy thing to say “Now, that’s really cool!” It’s another thing to say “I’m cool.” You have to be careful. We artists are always on the verge of arrogance - walking around peering down at all the other people on the planet thinking, “How can I bear to be with these simians? I am a giant of understanding and depth.”
Q: You talk a lot about how community can save artists from this kind of temptation.
I think about it more and more – almost exclusively lately. What is the relationship between community and creativity? It is in my mind all the time as the executive director of Act One which, according to our mission statement seeks to foster truly creative community for disciples of Christ.
The arts are a genius-driven arena. Basically, the Church should be busy readying all kinds of these systems ready for the next genius. That means we are going to have to work with a lot of people who are not geniuses, but one of them might be.
Having said that, we want to create a community that would be there to take the genius to the next level of holiness and skill as an artist for all of us. What kind of community is that? It is going to be a mix of the pragmatic and the ethereal - a place of psychology, prayer and patience. On some days we are very chastening to our students. I will literally say to them, “What is this slop you gave me to read? What were you thinking? Do you want me to read a first draft that is full of sloppiness? What are you doing here with your life!?” On some days I have to be that way, and on the inside I’m thinking “I hope I’m not hurting them too much.”
On other days we can see they are really in need of more affirmation. So we say things like, “I think you have an amazing potential here. I think you have a real voice, and I see touches of brilliance in some of your stuff.” Sometimes you have to say that too. Some days, my students just need me to say, “Okay, we are going to loan you the money for your car payment this month because you need a car.” And that might be enough for them.
So when we talk about the Church being the patron of the arts, it’s all of the above. And then it’s prayer. Honestly, every day when that part of the Mass comes up, “Pray for the Church around the world,” I pray for my students, that they will have the grace and inspiration to persevere, to work hard, that doors open in front of them and they have luck and opportunity and everything they need. That is also part of being a patron of the arts.
Q: You’ve said before that your experience in some of your own writing has taught you that sometimes it is necessary to handle religion in a very straightforward manner, whereas previously you had often assumed it was better handled in a roundabout way. Can you expand on that?
BRN: I have come full circle on this question. It is really a huge issue that has many ramifications for consideration. As with most other things, most voices in the Church oversimplify it.
I used to be part of a constituency in Hollywood that has been telling Christians we need to stop writing overtly Christian stuff because it is our subculture and that it will make drama that is unintelligible to the masses. We used to say that overt Christian stuff is uncommercial.
Well, then The Passion of the Christ comes along. You can’t get more overt and in-house than The Passion. To paraphrase St. Paul, it was foolishness to the critics at the New York Times and a scandal to Daily Variety.
So, I had to step back and say that sometimes we need to be overt.
What times are those? I think there is definitely a need for sacred art. There is a need for us to tell our stories in an overt way. With my St. Josemaria Escriva movie, what I was more worried about was writing a saint’s story that would be intelligible to the secular mind.
It’s been done before. You have movies with Hollywood distribution like The Song of Bernadette or A Man for All Seasons, The Mission or even Ghandi, that are overt stories. I found that downplaying the role of religious faith in the story to make it mainstream actually turned the saint into a social worker. But then, his ultimate choices do not make sense because there was nothing to die for.
Plato is right. He said that the only thing that does not make sense is dying for something because we do not know. Of course, he willingly died.
But that was my problem. Can you write a mainstream movie about a saint? It seemed to me that in parts, I had to just say to the audience, “Go with me here. There is another character in this saint’s life that you don’t know. You can’t perceive Him, but the saint lives in His presence.” God has to be an unseen but absolutely present character in a saint’s movie. Because that person is present to them, there may be choices that do not otherwise make sense. It has been said that Christians should live as though their lives would not make any sense if Jesus was not in the universe. I think it is the same thing with an overtly Christian story. The movie should not make sense if God isn’t real. That is the tricky thing.
But there is nothing more uncinematic than watching someone pray or read the bible. How many of those shots can you do before it gets very boring? And yet, I found some Christians who read the early drafts pressuring me for more of that: “Can’t you put a homily in it? Can’t you have more shots of him praying?”
Well, these things are not fun for the audience. They are not compelling, it is not dramatic, there is no pulse to it. It is just us being nervous. It was a very challenging thing. I know I succeeded in some parts through the use of intercutting. Again, using the whole pallet of the cinema, what can a movie do to communicate? It can cut from this picture to that picture and there is a lot of power in the juxtaposition of images.
That is different than what most Christians think. How do most Christians try to get their point across when they write a movie? Dialogue, which is the least effective. Conversations are the worst thing to do in a saint movie. It is the paradoxical choices that the character makes and then it is the intercutting, the juxtaposition of images that suggest “We’re looking at this, but it means that.” And it’s very, very hard.
Because I am kind of out there, if this movie gets made–it looks like it will–I am going to get nailed to the wall by some Christians because it is not going to be perfect. I have it coming. I've been hard on everybody else! Something else to look forward to!
I am hoping it is a step in the right direction. I know enough about movie writing to know that I am not one of those artistic geniuses we are all waiting for. I am good. Someone is going to be better.
But I can tell you, this movie is nothing like Therese or Left Behind. It is trying to do something else. It is trying to be a movie, not a radio show.
Q: What’s it called?
BRN: The Work is its working title.
Q: Aren’t you collaborating on something?
BRN:I’m collaborating with Benedict Fitzgerald, who is sort of Flannery O’Conner’s Godchild.
Q: Do you want to talk about any of that stuff in the pipeline?
BRN: It is so tricky to talk about stuff because you don’t want to spook things. There are two things I am negotiating to write now. I’ll tell you what I would love to write. I would love to write A Severe Mercy. I would love to do With God in Russia. I would love to do One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I really feel like we haven’t seen them. The Gulag was 70 years of persecution of the Church and of faith, and there are amazing stories there, stories that we do not even know yet from the gulag years, and I want to tell some of those stories. I love With God in Russia because it has the American angle that we need. But somebody has to pay me to write those.
I am writing a book now. It started as spirituality for writers. I am not a theologian, so it is basically just a practitioner talking about the church and the artist. How did we get where we are? I can’t do much on that because I am not an art historian, but I can say what the attitudes in the Church are towards the arts, how we need to get past them to grow, what the artists need from the Church and what the Church needs from the arts. The second half of the book is specific spiritual challenges that come with the artists’ territory that the Church needs to help them turn–as Fr. Benedict Groeschel would say–from stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Isolation, creativity, insufficiency, rejection, collaboration, success, instability are all particular realities that come from the artists’ experience doing art.