...of an Interview I did with the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Because I was in Australia, we did the interview by email, which meant I ended up writing lots more than will ever end up in the paper. So, why waste it? Here it is...
Q: Why did you get into the movie business?
A: I always think of myself as a writer first and a movie person second. Flannery O’Connor said there is really only one answer to why anyone works professionally as a writer – because you’re good at it. I am a good writer and I am someone who gets bored quickly. So movie writing is a great fit for me. It is a very challenging kind of writing because it is so multi-leveled. And most projects are of short duration, so, you move on just when you are getting bored.
I love a great movie – one that is a harmony of harmonies, in which each of a movie’s many art forms are executed well and then married with the others in a complementary way – and all serving a great theme. That’s why I work in the movie business. My driving hope is that I might at some point work on a project that will be inspiring to people. Something that will last.
Q: Who told you that you are a good writer? Seriously though, how does someone know if they should move to Hollywood and throw their hat in the ring?
A: It’s a great question that I have spent a lot of time thinking on because I have worked with so many young writers. My day job for the last eight years has been running Act One, a mentoring and training program for Christian screenwriters and entertainment executives (www.actoneprogram.com).
Talent shows up early. It’s a sign you have them. I won my first writing award in the fourth grade and after that gradually became the designated writer in every arena in which I found myself. As a young person, I had to be pushed into sports which I found very dull. What I wanted to do was be home memorizing Paul Revere’s Ride, by Longfellow – which many of my friends thought was really dull! People are always telling me they want to be writers but they don’t show any particular love for language. Emily Dickinson described writing as a romance with words. She used to sit in a corner reading the dictionary like it was a novel. And then, writers are people who care about the meaning of things. They are drawn to story as a medium to wrestle with ideas. They have something to say about which they are passionate, and they earn a hearing because of the way they are able to frame it.
Secondly, I grew up in a family with a great appreciation for the arts. One of my sisters is a musician and a painter, another is an opera singer, another is a drama coach. We’re all writers. When we were little, my parents introduced us to great movies as the principle art form of our time. My father’s theory was that if you exposed children to beautiful things, they would lose their taste for barbarism. So, my folks made an effort to watch great films with us. On Saturdays mornings, I watched Laurel and Hardy and Chaplain with Dad as much as kiddie cartoons. As a teenager, when all my friends were watching Animal House and Halloween, I was watching Giant and Gone With the Wind and Dr. Zhivago and Rear Window - and so many more!
Q: How would you describe your religious beliefs? Liberal or conservative?
A: I am a Catholic. A happy one. Which means I cleave to the teachings of the Church that have carried us through two thousand years of basically being mercy, light and consolation in the world of men. There have been evil hypocritical Christians, of course, but I’m talking less about the good projects vs. the bad projects that Christians have done in history, and more about the resonance and power that the Person of Jesus has been for hundreds of millions of people down through the ages. It seems to me that no story just made up by people could have proved so compelling for so many for so long.
Does that make me a liberal or a conservative?
Religion is a response to a call that echoes in your heart. If you don’t hear it anymore it is because you have perverted your nature. Plato – hardly a puppet of the Christian Right! - noted that human beings have an instinct for immortality and eternity. That people feel the tug of life after death isn’t a plot by the Pope to get us to put money in the collection basket. It is who we are. Self-destruction is running from that nagging echo.
Q: Is there such a thing as the Christian audience?
A: Is there a gay audience? Is there a Latino audience? Why don’t you ask the folks who made The Lord of the Rings, Narnia and The Passion of the Christ? I would say Hollywood thinks there is, and that is why you are talking to me now, isn’t it?
The real question is whether things that will appeal to Christian audiences will have anything to offer non-Christians. I would answer this with another question. Are the throngs of people who line up in Rome to see the Pieta all just Christians? Are the folks who wait in line half a day to see the Sistine Chapel just Christians? Why do they come? When Hollywood, and particularly the Christians in Hollywood figure this out, it will be very good for the world!
Q: What does Hollywood have to offer the Christian audience?
A: Not much right now, for a lot of reasons. But mainly because the art they are making for that audience is coming from people who aren’t believers. It’s a kind of arrogance that the industry doesn’t practice in crafting product for any other group. They wouldn’t dare make a move for the black audience that wasn’t written and directed by black filmmakers. Or could you imagine a hospital show in which no doctors were consulted? But they will continually craft TV shows like Book of Daniel and Revelation and movies like Constantine and Kingdom of Heaven which are all about Christians, and yet no happy Christian was involved in the production process. There is a snotty influential crowd in Hollywood that doesn’t want to work with Christians because they think they know how we vote politically.
I am hoping that the industry learned a lot recently when The Nativity bombed. That film was a superficial take on the defining mystery of Western Civilization – the Incarnation of God as man. Basically turning this story into a series of Christmas card tableaus was insulting to the people who know the story, and irrelevant to those who don’t.
My father is a military historian, and he raised us with the adage, “It is never good strategy to underestimate your adversary.” So, Hollywood needs to stop looking down on the people who want the transcendent side of human nature to be reflected in their stories. Hollywood needs to stop thinking they can throw cheap platitudes at the people who are, you know, brooding over Leviticus and Dorothy Sayers and Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and John Paul II in their free time. How did Aretha Franklin put it? R-E-S-P-E-C-T! But it’s very hard to respect people if you loathe and fear what they believe.
The word now is that FOX is going to greenlight ten movies for the Christian audience at a cost of about $40 million. Well, in a day in which the average studio movie costs close to $50 million, that means that FOX has decided that the Christians can be had on the cheap. Ask a woman how she feels about a guy who thinks he can win her on the cheap…
But I don’t really blame the industry. People tend to make the movies they want to see. I blame Christians for losing the love of the arts and for not being a serious presence creatively in Hollywood. The Church used to be the Patron of the Arts. Now, our Sunday Masses can mostly be reckoned aesthetic horror shows – terrible music badly performed, lame homilies with no point or oratorical style, environments which are a celebration of the sterile and talentless. It isn’t fair for Christians to critique Hollywood serverely until we get our own aesthetic act together.
Q: Do films like Left Behind and Facing the Giants work for the crowds that flocked to The Passion of the Christ?
A: Clearly not. There is no mystery to the answer why. One of those projects was great art. The others were crap.
Q: Do you approach the craft of screenwriting as a Christian or as an artist first?
A: That’s one of those trick questions like, “So when did you stop beating your wife?” It is stipulating a false dichotomy in which being an artist is one compulsion and being a Christian is another one and that they are somehow struggling against each other. You are assuming that dogma makes truth-telling impossible. I think it makes it essential.
I can’t step outside of the effects of my baptism, nor outside of my talents. I am an artist who was baptized and I bring both things to everything I do. The kinds of stories that intrigue me build on where I come from, what I have read and brooded over. But as a professional screenwriter, I am also very aware that a story has to have mass appeal if it is going to be worth spending millions of dollars to realize it as a movie. My Christianity has a lot to do with my desire to make stories that would help the audience experience the depth of their humanity – to aspire to not just live like beasts scratching and burping, but to aspire to heroic choices, to deep attentiveness, to yearn to be everything that God willed for us when He thought us up.
Q: How tolerant are you of films that offer up a distinctly anti-Christian view? South Park for example…
]A: The question undermines itself. An anti-Christian view is, by definition, prejudice, isn’t it? Are we supposed to be tolerant of prejudice? If you are asking me do people have a legal right to say prejudiced things, I guess they do. Although it seems like if you say bad things about one group you are practicing hate speech, but if you say something hateful about Christians you are being courageous.
Anyway, I haven’t seen South Park so I can’t comment specifically on it. I see one-sided, sneering satire to be unhealthy for the society regardless of what agenda it carries. I also consider it bad art as agenda tends to crush the freedom that makes creativity surprising and fresh. I am as “tolerant” of bad art as I am of bad cooking. People have a legal right to do it. But it is sickening to serve up bad food to people and rather unkind to put your own urge to express yourself over everybody else’s poor stomachs.
I think the Church brings a refreshing voice to the entertainment industry which is floundering around trying to decide if it should have an ethics. The Church says, “Wherever there is power there must be ethics.” Ethics is helping people ask, “Just because I can do something, does that mean I should?”
So, if you look at the culture today, there are many infections out there that I would rather not contract. Radical cynicism, sexual degradation, horrific cruelty -these are kinds of disturbing evils that most people would never encounter, except that they are shoveled at them on the screen. Maybe they aren’t ready to have these images imprinted on their spirits. Maybe their life would never have taken them to the kinds of hells that filmmakers routinely put into their movies – just to get the kudos of the industry which mistakes outrageousness too often for courage. My question to the filmmakers who want to sneer at and debunk everything beautiful is, just because you have lost your hope and faith, does that mean you have to be busy about trashing mine? Just because you have lost your own innocence, does that mean it is a socially responsible thing to destroy mine?
Many films today offer some small goods of insight to the audience. But, the insights are cloaked in so much depraved barbarity that the teeny good of the content is not worth the sliming journey of its method. I am someone who actually believes that there is a place for decorum and graciousness in human society. Many of the movies out there today are just way to full of things that fall into the realm of what St. Paul meant when he said, “There are some things that should never be mentioned among you.” In my mind, there are some shameful things which should be the fodder for prayer and sacrifice, but should never be served up with popcorn as entertainment. Beyond just perversions like bestiality, which is getting a few screenings at Sundance this year, this means things that are just crass and purely voyeuristic and degrading.
Movies like this are “Little Children” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” They have something good to say, but they violate your innocence and defile you so much on the way that it just isn’t worth it. It is like if you told me you have a headache, and I said, “Oh, well I know where there is an aspirin for you! You just have to walk through a putrid sewer for a few miles to get it.” So, on the way to curing your headache, you pick up diptheria and typhoid. Peachy. Thanks for that.