Friday, March 17, 2006

Pt. I - The Really Long Wichita Interview

I was in Wichita recently for some talks and press interviews. One young writer, the enterprising Del Torkelson, set up his tape recorder and then proceeded to ask me to articulate pretty much every thought I've ever had in my head! Seriously, it ended up being like 7,500 words. He used some of it in an article, and thenforwarded me the rest of it.

I thought I would excerpt it here over the next few days (or weeks...or months!) just so that Del's hard work does not go for nought! And also,in the event that I get suddenly hit by a truck, this archive will make my doctor of the Church process go that much easier. Ahem.

Anyway, so here's the first installment of the Wichita interview.


Q:So, one of your constant themes is that the gulf between the arts and the church is only a recent development, that our time is an anomaly. Isn’t one of the reasons you’re doing what you’re doing with Act One because at a previous job you were so consistently disappointed by the quality of the screenplays submitted by Christian writers?

Well, submitted by everyone. The good news is, there is just as much banal work - a lack of artistry and craft - on the secular side, but there are more of them, so they have the luxury of being lousy.

Q: Sheer numbers?

Yeah. We Christians do not have the luxury of being lousy. If we are really only going to have a substantial creative impact on five films a year they cannot be sloppy and stupid.

But yes, the incentive for me to be part of starting Act One came out of a tremendous sense of frustration with the work of Christians that I was reading in the production company. The product being sent to the industry by believers was marked by a complete lack of professional understanding of the technical needs of the industry in a screenplay.

I remember a guy who wrote a movie about drug-running by the CIA in Central or South America. I opened the script and it was typed in the wrong font. He had pasted articles all over it. It had handwritten corrections and was just a mess. So I sent him a format guide with a little cover letter: “Persevere, we need good people,” whatever. So, somehow, he got me on the phone and started screaming at me that if I cared about social justice I would have looked at his script despite its "small technical flaws." I told him I did way more for him than what most of Hollywood would do - just throw it out. That experience said to me that not only are we Christians technically insufficient as artists, but we’re arrogant.

You don't get extra credit for being an ass.

Q: What are the worst misconceptions Christians have about Hollywood and visa versa?

BRN: The worst misconception Christians have about Hollywood is that it is basically a monolithic, antireligious legion of people that hate Christians and the Church. It’s just not true. Nine out of 10 people in Hollywood may be liberal Democrats, but their agenda is not politics. It’s art - creativity and entertainment. They want you to laugh much more than they care about how you vote.

The problem is, the 10 percent left in the business - the ones who do have an anti-religious bias - tend to also be the people with the most power. Is there is a single head of a studio or network or top agency that is not a fervent secular humanist? I don’t know a single one. Certainly few of the most powerful folks in entertainment go to church or temple with any regularity. The secular humanist philosophy is very homogenous in the top levels of the business. And these are the folks who can ultimately say thumbs up or thumbs down to a project going ahead.

So, what do we do about that? We work our way up, we persevere and we get some clout and influence the way that anybody gets influence in Hollywood: money and talent. Then we will have the powerful chairs and you will start seeing a lot more of the things we want green lit–and things not being green lit that should never be made.

The misconception that people in Hollywood have about the Church is the same–that we are monolithic and fit a certain caricature as fetus-loving, Bush-supporting, homosexual hating, uncreative fascists who have no use for science or reason. Right after the re-election of George W. Bush, there was a sci-fi writer giving a talk in a bookstore in northern California and she was raging against the Christian Right that had put George Bush in office. Her speech was transcribed and got circulated to a lot of Hollywood writers. At one point in her diatribe she said, “Christians can never understand what we (literary people) are doing here because they have no sense of art or beauty. Christians could never make anything beautiful because they are so full of fear and anger.”

I was thinking to myself while reading this, “What about every Christian writer for the last 1,000 years? What about Dante, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, just to name a few.” In fact, when I said that in another interview, a mainstream journalist said to me, “Come on, you’re not claiming Dickens was a Christian writer.” I said “Yes! I am! He was!” Anyway, it is so telling that this woman would basically castigate an entire religious tradition as being made up of people that are full of hate and fear.

Both sides have been very comfortable with caricaturing each other.

Q: What’s a good example of a film making a profound impact on you or someone you know?

BRN: Once when I was 24 and still in the convent, I was stationed out in Los Angeles. I found myself totally at odds with a sister with whom I was living. We practically hated each other. It was pure personality. We just could not synch. We ended up going to a screening of this movie, Romero that Fr. Bud Kieser had made about Archbishop Oscar Romero. The movie's portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man was unflinching and horrific.

There was one particular scene in which the El Salvadoran government is basically torturing his priests to get the Archbishop to do what they want. The movie does not show the torture, it shows Romero alone in his cell up against a gray wall and we are hearing the priests being tortured and it’s on the Archbishop’s face. He can’t compromise, because it would sell out the people of El Salvador and the Gospel. At the same time, his priests are being tortured.

It was so devastating–the struggle, the man, and how evil we can be–that the next thing I knew, that sister and I were holding hands in the theater and we were friends from that day on. There was something about that experience together that got us past all our little garbage and stupid little things of personality separating us. The movie cut through our idiocy and helped us see that the main thing should be the main thing, that we are united in Christ and that we both want the same things. That was a unity that the movie awoke us to.

That was such a powerful experience for me. It was because of that film that I went to film school and then wrote Fr. Kieser a letter, which led to my first job in Hollywood. I was hired by him to work on his Dorothy Day movie, Entertaining Angels. I’ve had many other experiences like that with movies and television, but that was the most visceral.

Q: What about a film making a profound impact for the worse?

There are many. I remember one young man who saw the movie Saved, for example, who then said to me, “That movie opened up to me how the Christian Church is just a pack of hypocrites and liars.” Now, I heard some p.r. folks in the business describe Saved as being just a light comedy poking harmless fun at Evangelicals. But the kids who watched it were left thinking, “I don’t want to be one of those hypocritical/stupid religious people and I don’t want to be associated with any trappings that even look like that.”

Saved is an example of a whole genre of movies that are out there right now. The Sundance Film Festival was packed with them. They are not healthy satire in the sense in which humor can gently lead us to a humble awareness of the gap between who we are and who we think we are. There can be such a thing as good political satire if it skewers both sides. That is what satire ought to do. It ought to show the hypocrisy of both sides. The problem with Saved was that it made religion very political/culture-warish, and then only skewered the people that believed in Jesus, but not the secularist students.

To show the hypocrisy of the liberal/pagan kids who mouth equality and social justice but live basically as self-absorbed narcissists - there is a lot of skewering you could do there. I know, I teach undergrads! But the movie unfairly only skewered one side, which is why I think it was an evil satire.


Unknown said...

I look forward to the rest of the interview. And thanks for reminding me not to stereotype the other side. Having worked in the mainstream news media, I'd say there is a similar proportion of journalists who are committed professionals willing and eager to hear other points of view. Though often cynical and secular, they can be extremely ignorant of conservative ideas and of religion in general but willing to listen if one is willing to patiently explain.

However, many of the powerful in journalism are also secularists, wedded to an ideology that is as intolerant of opposing points of view as they believe Christians are.

Bob said...

Two things:

The attitude you've encountered among Christians who hope to break into Hollywood but won't follow the rules is similar to the one I ran into when working in computer support at a large evangelical church, which I might summarize as: I'm doing the Lord's work, so it's perfectly OK for me to be incompetent with the main tool with which I might accomplish that work.

Second, when "Romero" came out in '89, it seemed strange to me that when Fr. Kieser wanted to make a movie about injustice, torture, and murder against the church in Latin America, he ignored the obvious, longest-established, and most severe example: Cuba.

Since you later worked with him, perhaps you can shed some light on his reasons for doing so.

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