In Her Story
interview with Barbara Nicolosi: art for the masses
Barbara Nicolosi is a screenwriter, founding director of and teacher at Act One, and co-author of Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, and that's only the beginning of her C.V.
I first heard Barbara speak at the symposium, Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts. She had us laughing so hard, we threw our heads back and snorted. She understands the artist, and yet she doesn't excuse the artist. She speaks what she thinks. More than that, she lives what she thinks.
HG: Tell us about your move from a nunnery to Hollywood (couldn't help myself--it's Shakespeare in the Park season). What was the catalyst for this?
BN: Everybody always wants to know why I left the convent. I think it is a much more interesting question why anyone in this day and age would go into a convent. But since you asked...
For nine years in my twenties, I was a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, which is a women's religious community dedicated to evangelization with the media. We published books and ran bookstores, and were supposed to be engaged in using all the modern means to spread the Gospel. Unfortunately, the community had actually retreated into serving just the very limited constituency of Catholics who go into Catholic bookstores. There wasn't any real interest in the community in what I thought was the most compelling part of our constitutions, which was the mandate to master the most powerful means of communication - movies, television, radio, music - as vehicles for the Good News. We also had a mandate to provide formation for media professionals, but none of the folks with any clout in the community seemed to want to take that on either. So, I found myself categorized as a bit of a rebel in the convent, just because I wanted to do what I thought I would be doing when I joined the community. I was always either bored unpacking books in the centers, or kicking against the goad, to borrow from St. Paul, by trying new things and getting in trouble under the heading, "Who do you think you are?"
I left the community with many friends, and I still feel a great affection for many of my former sisters. When I think of them I always feel a wave of sadness though because the world really needs from them what they were supposed to give. But, personally, I wasn't a patient enough person to let thirty years of my life pass in frustration.
HG: It seems that often, we're facing frustrations no matter what field we're in. Too many of us, though, don't do anything about it...
How did Act One get started?
BN: My first job in Hollywood was as a creative executive at a production company. I spent my days and nights reading scripts, books and articles trying to find project ideas for our company. Because our company was run by a prominent Christian, we got a look at lots of scripts from believers, and pretty much all of them were terrible. By terrible, I mean they were unprofessional in their format, and had very little understanding of the possibilities of the screen art form. They tended to be completely preachy, lacking in dramatic tension, and frankly, lame.
I had come to Hollywood thinking that Christians were being persecuted here. I realized very quickly that we were committing suicide. So, a group of other Christians and I got together under the banner of Inter-Mission, which was an Evangelical ministry to Hollywood, and we concocted a rigorous program that would combat the four principle problems that we saw in the efforts of Christians as they started out in the business. Act One with its keynotes of professionalism, artistry, ethics and spirituality was the result.
HG: What is your vision for Christians in Hollywood?
BN: Hollywood matters because it is the global center for art, entertainment and storytelling. Art is the way that human beings respond to the cosmos. Every generation is supposed to put something beautiful out there as an expression of gratitude and love, for future generations to brood over and in which to take delight. Storytelling is the way human beings learn. It is the way we define our values. It gives us heroes and noble dreams. Entertainment is the way we stretch ourselves beyond the limits of our work a day world to experience the depth of our human nature. Our entertainment should lead us to laugh hard and to cry with empathy and to feel exhilaration and wonder.
It makes no sense at all that Christians would be missing from this unbelievably influential and urgent landscape. We have something to say that would be sorely missing in Hollywood were we not here. Namely, we bring a note of hope. We also bring a mandate of concern for the needs of the audience. And we bring the glory and creative energy of the Holy Spirit.
My vision for Christians in Hollywood is basically that we be here. That we be here as artists and professionals of integrity and probity and nobility and skill. And that we are here as presences of prayer and charity in the heart of every studio lot, office, set and writers room.
HG: How can non-filmmakers support this vision for Christians in Hollywood?
BN: Act One has been extremely successful at identifying, mentoring and launching hundreds of Christians into the business. What we haven't been successful at, is convincing the broader Christian community how vital it is for us to be here training, mentoring, exhorting and challenging. We are a shoe-string non-profit that struggles every month to meet the salaries for our grossly underpaid but wonderfully dedicated staff. This makes absolutely no sense to me.
Christians outside of the industry need to see organizations like Act One as missionary efforts that need their financial and prayer support. We are here on the front lines, trying to make the future for your kids better in terms of movies, television, video games and the Internet. People can donate to us through our web site at www.actoneprogram.com, and that would be a huge thing people can do to make a difference.
The other thing that needs to happen is prayer. We need Christians to be praying fervently for a new generation of faith-filled artists and professionals to come to Hollywood to be writers, directors, actors, executives, agents, publicists - everything. There will be no substitute for having Christians on the ground here, befriending people and changing hearts one at a time. We have to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send many laborers into Warner Bros, Paramount, Dreamworks, Sony, ICM, CAA, etc.
HG: How can Christians get beyond curse word counting and overtly pious themes to determine if the message of a movie is Christian or not?
Christians need to view movies and television with a sense of context. That is, when considering a movie or television show, the questions need to be who is this show for, and what here is true? And then, what is there in this show that is a sign of the times that I can use as a means to talk to people about the Gospel? Too many Christians are not even reading the signs of the times. We are so engaged in ducking and running, and wishing we lived back in the 1830s. No, this is our time. This moment with its post-modern confusion, with its 24 hour chattering news cycle, its post-Sexual Revolution cynicism and vulgarity, and with the incipient sloth which is the ultimate gift of all our modern conveniences.
Christians need to grow up and understand that this is a very dark world which is locked in a high stakes struggle. What I mean by that is, we have people on one side thinking homosexuals can make a marriage, and scientists over there are experimenting on baby humans, and folks over there are wanting to euthanize grandma. This is not a moment in which a Precious Moments style message and apostolic approach is going to help anything. Christians should be the ultimate realists who are not shocked by the ravages of sin. An old nun once said to me, "Only fools are scandalized." The Scriptures say that Jesus knew what was in the heart of man, and so must we if we are going to tell stories that will lead people to compunction, and then grace.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Barb in Glimpses
I did an interview recently with Heather Goodman for her weekly eZine "Glimpses." The eZine is for Christians who are artists or who care about arts and culture and I recommend checking it out and possibly subscribing. I'm going to put the whole interview here because there isn't a place you can link to it on line.