Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Christians Investing in Culture

There has been a lot of talk around Hollywood this past week about the best way for Christians to spend their money to see a positive impact in the culture. I have been to no less than three events this past week on this subject, and about three more in the last month.

And it's great. A dream really. For too many years, we Christians in the business have been operating in a parallel universe from the rest of the Church was has always ready to wag fingers and send recriminations, but never up to actually rolling up sleeves and making the sacrifices to help things get better. So is surreal to suddenly be sitting in many rooms with "potential investors" who are seriously discerning how and where to invest towards a new renaissance.

The change has been due to many things like John Paul II's emphasis on the arts specifically highlighted in his Letter to Artists, and then the success of The Passion of the Christ and LOTR and Narnia, a complete exhaustion with the proliferation of unsatisfying and even degrading stories offered by secular materialists in the last few decades, but probably most of all the dawning realization among the People of God that our natural place is to be leaders in the arts and storytelling. It's a very good movement to realize that nothing will change in Hollywood without an intelligent, integrated strategy for change.

As I see it, there are two ways that make sense as investment approaches. There is the major investment approach, and the minor investment approach. Both are necessary, and ironically, the minor investment approach will probably have the longest term strategic impact. Both of these approaches assume a "people versus projects" emphases.


The major investment approach has to do with identifying creative people in the industry who are looking to provide entertainment product for your neighborhood cineplex.

What I mean by that is, in this age of You-Tube, there are lots of people who will be happy to take gobs of money to express themselves on screen. These folks are making movies on a dime, without a lot of training or experience, without any industry relationships, without a serious business or distribution plan, really without much more than a wish and a prayer. This stratum of folks are the object of approach number two, so we'll get back to them. But frankly, they are not the folks to whom you give $5,000,000 or $2,000,0000 or even $100,000 to.

The idea is to find people who share your values, but also have much more besides just your values, that would enable them to get projects on television and in the theaters. They would have all those things I listed above, plus talent. Um, and then they should have some talent. And by talent, I mean, actual, you know, talent.

So, once you've identified them, they need to be trusted with serious investments. Millions of dollars. Ultimately tens of millions of dollars. Because global influence doesn't come cheap. And because what companies need is to support a large slate of projects, each of which is a multi-year, multi-million dollar enterprise. Serious investment will allow thes companies to sustain long-term relationships in the industry, which will be the key to the celebrity talent which drives the global audience, and to distribution. It will also maximize the chances of achieving the magic combination of great story and high-level execution which secures a movie a place in the hearts and minds of viewers.

Investing in the movie business is very much like investing in building construction. You wouldn't hire an architect and contractor to build you a skyscraper just on the basis of their Christian commitment. You'd want to know that they have the technical know-how, relationships, and experience to do the job for you. Movies are just like that. Really expensive. And requiring a very advance level of expertise.

And there are definitely companies like this. Committed Christians, with a vocational dedication to Hollywood, with serious business plans and structures, and with an intelligent understanding of art, story and entertainment.

But the thing is, once you have satisfied yourself that the company fits all of the above requirements, then, you have to step back and let them do their thing. In the same way that you wouldn't try and tinker with where the architect puts the electrical system in the skyscraper he is designing for you, investors shouldn't try and dabble with dialogue in movies, or come up with character quirks or really good ideas for second act transitions.

The truth is, most of us Christians have very little sense of art or story. We've lost any aesthetic standards, starting with what we are doing in our own churches in the arts. We are going to have to trust our artists to be "prophetic voices" for us, borrowing from John Paul II. (NOTE: Again, you don't trust just any one who declares themself an artist. Read above again and then move to Section B.)


For those investors who can't afford to shell out hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, the next best way to positively impact Hollywood is to support those people who are directly invested in nurturing a new generation of people for the industry.

There will be no long-term change in Hollywood without a whole new generation of people with Christian values coming to be a part of the business at all levels. (Here I go again.... but it is my thing:) We need actors, writers, directors, agents, studio, network and production company executives, cinematographers, stunt people, publicists, grips, mechanics, production designers, graphic artists, animators, editors, hair and makeup people, script supervisors, production coordinators -- get the picture?

But principally, we need people who can affect content: writers, directors, executives, and agents. We need to develop and support programs that identify and recruit talented individuals at top schools who share our values and who have the real possibility of pursuing a Hollywood career. Then, we need to support programs that train, mentor, and help launch the careers of these people.

The training we provide needs to be a combination of high-level, real world craft study, (of the nature that few Christian universities even aspire to), married to an insightful curriculum of ethics and spirituality to support people as their careers in the industry unfold (of a nature that no Christian universities have even thought of yet.) We also need coordinated efforts to rally the People of God to support their brothers and sisters in Hollywood with prayer and resources.

And there are programs in the business that are doing this. Programs like Act One and the Los Angelus Film Study Center, the Angelus Awards, Hollywood Connect, and backing them all up with prayer, the Hollywood Prayer Network. But all of these projects are shoe-string non-profits who struggle month to month to meet payroll for their dedicated, servant-minded staffs. For any of these programs, a donation of five or ten thousand dollars makes a huge difference.

But I think it is shameful, that these programs are struggling. Christians have no business whining about how horrible Hollywood is if they haven't done anything to support those people who are trying to make it better.

So, there it is. A two-pronged strategy for cultural renewal. The question is, how serious are we about having our voice heard in Hollywood?

Good for you, Jess!

I found this through a link at Pewsitter.

Actress Jessica Alba has vowed that she would 'never' strip naked for a film - because her Catholic background does not allow her to do so.

The 26-year-old actress revealed that she wouldn't think twice before turning down a role that requires her to go nude, as she believes it is important to abide by her strict religious beliefs.

"I will never do a nude scene in a movie - not ever. I can act sexy and I can wear sexy clothes but I can't go naked. I think I was always very uncomfortable about the way my body developed," Contactmusic quoted Alba, as saying.

"I come from a Catholic family and it wasn't seen as good to flaunt yourself. I can handle being sexy with clothes on but not with them off," she added.

Hopefully this will be a new trend. Christian actors coming out, you know, as Christians. Good for her!

About that "High Per Screen Average"...


On Monday, the Hollywood Buzz woman, Nikke Finke noted on her site,

Also, Roadside Attractions' little known PG-13 Bella opened in only 165 theaters to make $1.3 mil this weekend but surprisingly had Friday's 3rd best per screen average ($8,026). "Think there are some distribution guys around town wondering right now what the heck a Bella is?" an insider on the film boasted to me...

So, then, I just got copied on this following email from a friend of mine in New York who got it this past weekend:

Dear _____,

10,000 tickets to BELLA have been purchased by GOYA FOODS for your use this

This is a free gift from Goya Foods to New York.

(All showings Saturday/Sunday. Manhattan only. See Times/Locations below.
First come, first serve).

Goya foods believes in the message of Bella and wants New Yorkers to
experience the movie for FREE when it opens this weekend in Manhattan.

Bring anyone and everyone you want and spread the word.

Pick up tickets at the box office or look for people wearing Bella or Goya

The executive producers of Bella and Goya Foods finalized these details
yesterday and we've been asked to help, so please get the word out. This
will be awesome.


Ten thousand tickets!?!! Wow!

How do we feel about this? Do you suppose this fact was also 'boasted' to Nikke Finke? Does it bug you that this movie's high per screen average is being vaunted in the press, but not that it was actually inflated by, um, Goya Foods? Suppose George Soros bought a million dollars in tickets to the latest anti-America movie and, then, the movie was reported to be a huge hit, how would you feel about that?

But more than just perception, it matters because according to one person associated with the project, the future expansion of the film's release was going to be decided by the distributor, Roadside Attractions, based on the opening weekend's receipts. But those receipts were inflated by 10,000 tickets in New York alone. When the secular industry finds out, do you think they will see this as Christians being admirable and savvy? Or trying to rig a game we can't win legitimately?

I don't know if this is wrong. Maybe it's just really shrewd playing of the game. I don't know.

I do know I have a headache...

"Regressive Utopians" - The Other Church Which is in Hollywood

And because it's Halloween, I thought it would be appropriate to do a piece on the real servants of darkness that lurk on every corner of Hollywood Blvd. in front of lovely restored buildings and huge complexes. Scientology, the omnibus cult that, in the Church's pastoral absence, has filled the spiritual void in so many creative people here, has made Hollywood its Vatican. One estimate I read says Scientology owns 60% of the land in Hollywood, including this place, right down the street from me...

I see the kids crossing the street every day from their cheap apartment building to the glamorous Celebrity Center. You know them because they wear a weird uniform of navy blue chinos and white shirts, and they always have a grimly focused demeanor, as though they need to be particularly intent, on crossing the street and mixing with non-Church members, not to be distracted off the elitist dogma that has them living the separatist lives of slaves.

So, in honor of this day dedicated to creepy ghoulishness, here is an excellently written and researched piece from a few years ago that appeared in Rolling Stone about Scientology. Definitely worth a read. Here are a few snips...

Unique among religious faiths, Scientology charges for virtually all of its religious services. Auditing is purchased in 12.5-hour blocks, known as "intensives." Each intensive can cost anywhere from $750 for introductory sessions to between $8,000 and $9,000 for advanced sessions. When asked about money, church officials can become defensive. "Do you want to know the real answer? If we could offer everything for free, we would do it," says Rinder. Another official offers, "We don't have 2,000 years of acquired wealth to fall back on." But Scientology isn't alone, church leaders insist. Mormons, for example, expect members to tithe a tenth of their earnings.

Still, religious scholars note that this is an untraditional approach. "Among the things that have made this movement so controversial," says S. Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, "are its claims that its forms of therapy are 'scientific' and that the 'truth' will only be revealed to those who have the money to purchase advancement to the various levels leading to 'being clear.' It is this unvarnished demand for money that has led many observers to opinethat the entire operation looks more like a business than a religion." Clearing the stages along the Bridge to Total Freedom is a process that can take years and cost tens and often hundreds of thousands of dollars -- one veteran Scientologist told me she "donated" $250,000 in a twenty-year period. Other Scientologists can wind up spending family inheritances and mortgaging homes to pay the fees. Many, like Natalie's parents, work for their local church so they can receive auditing and courses for free.

Both of Natalie's parents are Clear, she says. Her grandmother is what's called an "Operating Thetan," or "OT." So is Tom Cruise, who is near the top of Scientology's Bridge, at a level known as OT VII. OTs are Scientology's elite -- enlightened beings who are said to have total "control" over themselves and their environment. OTs can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behavior of, both animals and human beings. At the highest levels, they are allegedly liberated from the physical universe, to the point where they can psychically control what Scientologists call MEST: Matter, Energy, Space and Time....

..."L. Ron Hubbard says, 'What is true for you is what you observe to be true.' So I'm not here to tell you that Scientology is the way, or that these are the answers. You decide what is true."...

....In one of the stranger chapters in Hubbard's life, recorded in detail by several biographers, the soon-to-be founder of Dianetics became Parsons' assistant -- helping him with a variety of black-magic and sex rituals, including one in which Parsons attempted to conjure a literal "whore of Babalon [sic]," with Hubbard serving as apprentice.

Charming and charismatic, Hubbard succeeded in wooing away Parsons' mistress, Sara Northrup, whom he would later marry. Soon afterward, he fell out with Parsons over a business venture. But having absorbed lessons learned at Parsons' "lodge," Hubbard set out to figure his next step. In his 1983 autobiography, Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, the sci-fi writer Lloyd Eshbach describes meeting Hubbard in the late 1940s. "I'd like to start a religion," Eshbach recalls Hubbard saying. "That's where the money is."....

There is lots more mind-blowing stuff in the article. You have to read it if you want a real sense of the spiritual warfare going on for the soul of the 'City of the Angels.'

Please pray for the real Church to wake up, and see this place as a missionfield.

P.S. I guess this makes it officially "Barb Takes on the Cults Week." You either know what I mean, or not....

Hollywood's All Hallow's Eve

in Hollywood, the writer meant nothing. They were paid well, but the moguls never saw any real difference between their writers and the carpenters who built the sets. - L.A. Times"

So tomorrow, everybody here in the business is expecting the Writer's Guild of America to go on strike. This means all of us who make our livelihoods in the word writing side of the business will stop getting checks and delivering pages. Karen has a synthesis of issues and links at her site here. The issues are very real in this conflict and basically come down to greed on the part of the studio/networks who have been for years finding new technology ways to profit on the work of writers without having to pay for the privilege. It isn't right, and it has to stop. But I am not hopeful for the negotiations because I have been in rooms where Greed was the other silent presence in the room, and it is a presence which neuters and obstructs every rational argument.

This past Fall, I was a party in a negotiation with a producer who was screwing a writer, completely in breech of a contract that we all had in front of us. And in between the agent's well-constructed pleas, and the producer's blustering distortions, the writer kept holding up the contract and shaking their head at the producer, "Just do the right thing." Finally, the producer began screaming the F-word in feigned horror that his ethics could be in question, and everyone in the group just walked away. (BTW, the producer here is a Christian...) It was ugly because it was so transparent that the producer was fighting for, in the words of Fargo 'just a little bit of money.'

My experience is that there is a weird thing that happens when people get money in their bank account. Especially if it is money that is due to be remitted to other people. As soon as the money comes in, people start to imagine it is their own, and that to pay it out is an act of charity and personal discretion. When it isn't. If it is due to others, the money in your bank account doesn't really belong to you, and they are either going to get it the easy way or the hard way. This is why so many of us run for our lives from deals that are predicated on this proposition: "As soon as we sell it, we will pay you $______." I always think when I hear that, a) You might not sell it, which means I will have worked for nothing. AND b) If you do sell it, you might not be able to let go of the money so as to pay me. (Think I am kidding? Just the other day one of our alumni turned in a script to a production company which then announced to the writer that they no longer had the money to pay for the script but that they would "eventually." There was a contract, and there had been money given for the script. But it got spent once the script deal was signed, and now the money meant for the script was gone. Oh well. We're sorry you can't pay your rent dear writer.... Did I mention that this production company too was run by Christians?)

Back to the strike...My sense is most folks outside of the business are secretly enjoying the idea of spoiled, overpaid Hollywood narcissists in a war against themselves. But the truth is, lots of everyday people will suffer in this huge industry, as the wave of production gradually moves towards a halt. It will take several months before the viewing audience starts to feel the effects of the strike. By the time most of you start to get fed up with one more super-extended week-long extravaganza of Deal or No Deal - the models will probably be close to topless and in G-strings by then - the most struggling people in the business will already be in foreclosure on their homes and selling off their furniture piece by piece. As with any sad situation like this, the top-tier people in Hollywood - the one's Christians are really thinking of when they call this place evil and poisonous - will not suffer too much from the strike. It's always the poor who take the hits when the sh*t hits the fan.

To try and put some kind of a hopeful spin on this, perhaps those of us who care about the cultural demise, can pray that the writers will spend these next few weeks or months of strike as a time of retreat and reflection. Pray that while they are having to stop writing, the writers here, who have so much power, can be moved towards eventually writing things that will be good for the world.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Best Team in Baseball!

An Administrative Note

I am suddenly seeing a strange uptick in infuriated and ad hominem attack style emails and comments (which have variously claimed that I'm stupid, unjust, jealous, pro-choice, clueless about movies, un-Catholic, and not even Christian, but also that the Bella "movement" is holy...okay then....)

Consequently, I have had to adjust my blog to moderate most comments. This will mean that there will be a delay in getting your comment up while I am out living my life and not sitting on my computer waiting.

Sorry, to everybody else.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Bandwagon Proposal

If we must have a cinematic bandwagon, I propose that we have it for The Assassination of Jesse James. Based on the novel by a devout, brilliant, and very-talented Catholic novelist Ron Hansen, the film is truly Catholic. That is, it has matter (profound truthful content) and form (technical and artistic mastery). It is therefore sacramental in the way that art should be.

Anyone who is walking out of Bella theaters full of wonder and delight, I'm happy for you. Be of very good cheer! You can find much more abounding joy in box set editions of Touched By an Angel and Highway to Heaven at your local Walmart. And that may not be bad for you in the long term. (I'd have to know you to make a better guess.)

But anyone who is walking out of Bella screenings disappointed and confused, because the hype didn't seem justified, then you are the kind of person for whom The Assassination of Jesse James is waiting to fill you with wonder and delight....and more gravitas, besides. Go back to the cineplex. Give movies another chance! Buy another ticket before you renounce this art form altogether!

But all anti-Wormwooding aside....

It is an interesting question. Is it possible for Jesse James and Bella to both be great in the same time and aspect? If Bella is great, then what is left for poor Jesse James?

And remember, for Christians, the answer can not be that movies are in the eye of the beholder. The only thing in the eye of the beholder is stuff with which to see or not see.

Such fun we're having this weekend!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


So slight that a gentle breeze might tip it over, "Bella" is a film about selfless love that wants to be loved too much. Manipulative pic trades in fairy-tale views of New York life alongside briefly sustained emotional confessions, which may partly explain its victory as Toronto fest's aud winner. Mexican-born helmer Alejandro Monteverde's debut will be remembered as a curious case of a mediocre film that wows crowds... Daily Variety

I have been getting loads of email asking (and sometimes demanding!) my opinion of the indie project Bella that opens (frantically) this weekend in several cities. I have thus refrained from making an official comment about the project because it seemed to me there was no upside. There has been an aggressive and, frankly, stupefying marketing blitz in the Catholic, pro-life universe for the film, and the folks behind the film have recruited an impressive number of good-willed, Catholic and pro-life notables to give the film a thumbs-up. I can't figure out where the momentum is coming from - as the film itself is not that good - except that everybody in Christendom is eager to support something in the culture instead of always saying "Bleck." (Which Christians really wouldn't have to always be saying if we paid attention better to the good work that is out there to be seen...but that's another post.)

So, we have ourselves a real-live, mind-numbing bandwagon going here to get behind Bella if you love Jesus and care about the babies! I have been contacted three separate times in the last two months trying to get me to say something in support of the film, and my response was, "Why do you need me? You have nearly the entire orthodox Catholic world telling you it's the greatest Catholic, pro-life film ever made?" A producer on the film subsequently left a message on my voicemail noting that my refusal to support the film had its source "in the demonic." Really? "Demonic"? It couldn't just be that I found the film plodding, easy, sloppy and uneven?

In short, I don't think Bella is great. It's not really "Catholic" (in the sense of overt spirituality). And it really isn't pro-life (in the usual sense of that term). Is it the worst film ever made? No. I'm not saying that at all. It is a first-time project from some filmmakers with clear potential, that has some nice moments and certainly loads of good intentions behind it. But is it great cinematic story-telling, or even really good cinematic storytelling deserving of all the raves it is getting? No.

When you know, practically from the beginning, what's going to happen at the end of a movie, what do you do with your time in between? Offer to buy everyone in the theater popcorn while you sit this thing out? Check cellphone messages? Catch up on lost sleep? We opted to just watch "Bella," a Mexican movie in which the outcome is never in doubt, the scenes are endless -- sorry, we meant poetic-- and the false beard on the central character's face looks as though it could use a little extra gum. One conversation segues into what seems to be eternal walking and talking....Anybody need any help with where this is going?.... But as the film amiably observes the passage of time, we can only think about the clock. - Washington Post

What is going on is a wildly over the top marketing blitz in which the investors in Bella are trying desperately to recoup their investment, by telling good Catholic people that they must support this film to send a message to Hollywood. As with so many other mediocre Christian movies, the only "message" that Hollywood will get if Bella does well, is that the Christian audience has no idea what a good movie is and will rave about anything that remotely mirrors our world-view. And the really sad thing is, that message isn't true. Most Christian people, like the rest of the world, do know a good story when they see one. So many, possibly most of the folks who are going to dutifully show up to support Bella this weekend are going to be disappointed or annoyed, or generally confused at what it is they are missing that everybody else is raving about. Trust your gut, audience of The Passion, you're not missing something. There's just not much in Bella to miss.

...It's as if director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde felt the episodic and wandering tale had gone on long enough and now needed to round the film off with a neat ending. He wanted to avoid the most obvious, but did not come up with the surprising or the satisfying, but rather the second-most-obvious choice. Movie logic replaces character logic, and we feel cheated....It ends like a TV show, and everyone has learned a neat little lesson. Phooey. - Arizona Republic

Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I haven't seen the film in over a year since it was in rough cut. In the weeks before the project was shot, I had read the "screenplay" (and I use the term loosely, because it was astoundingly unprofessional, but I understand from one of the producers that "80% of the script was thrown out on set as the actors improvv-ed the scenes...."Oh great," I thought. "That will fix things just fine.") My notes on the project were, "This screenplay is deficient in every area in which it can be." I noted that there was no real story, and that the character's choices were unmotivated. There was no conflict, no theme, no imagery, no subtext and no rationale to the structure. And the dialogue was very bad. And there was a lot of stylistic showing-off that had nothing to do with the main story. And the only two choices that make up the entire A-story, HAPPEN OFF SCREEN! All in all, a very bad script.

Bella, which surprisingly took the top audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, is yet another dull American independent movie, one that eschews the empty flash of the Hollywood model but doesn’t substitute anything interesting of its own. It’s content to plod along as it plays out its rather hackneyed skein... None of this is done with any real style or panache... Bella is as pedestrian as they come. - Boxoffice Magazine

When I saw the film in rough-cut, it was ostensibly to help the filmmakers decide on a name for the movie. I remember saying to them, "I don't know what to call it, it isn't really about anything." (In response, one of the producers on the film suggested to my manager that I have "deep spiritual problems". I'm just saying...) I noted at that point that the performances were uneven, the structure was deeply flawed, the costuming and make-up were bad, and that the production design was, well, non-existent.

Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde has so little control of tone or nuance that even the most tragic and serious moments here come off as melodramatic jokes. (During the screening I attended, nearly the entire theater burst out laughing at the violent death of a child.)...(Bella) manages to be utterly predictable without making any sense at all.....The Village Voice

Okay, a year later, people are telling me that the movie is "the greatest Catholic pro-life movie ever!" Every Catholic media outlet is covering the project like it is Gone With the Wind for the Church. I am hearing stories of people breaking into tears and renouncing lives of sin because of the movie. Everyone mentions the "amazing story" of the filmmakers who converted to Christ and then knowing nothing about movie making, won an award at Toronto. (And I should note, I really like the lead actor here, Eduardo. He's a lovely, prayerful, completely sincere guy.)

Though the Toronto Film Festival doesn't have an official competition section, its People's Choice Award winners have been a reliable bellwether for movies that will enjoy some degree of popular acclaim: Tsotsi, Hotel Rwanda, Whale Rider, Amélie, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Given that history, a full-scale investigation needs to be launched over how Bella managed to take the award in 2006...this gooey, cheap-looking Mexican tele-novella...The emotions at play in "Bella" are no doubt heartfelt—and must have resonated with a few hundred people, anyway—but they're so cut-and-dried that the mawkish script virtually writes itself. - AV Club.

Monteverde's movie is full of long, melodramatic monologues, meagerly developed motivations and TV-movie staging. The choppy narrative makes the story unnecessarily confusing and largely uninteresting. The good news for Monteverde is that he must have a lot of family and friends in his corner. How else to explain the fact that "Bella" won an audience award at last year's Toronto Film Festival? - Los Angeles Daily News

I don't know what they were smoking at Toronto, but I suspect that the film was well-received there because of its occasionally charming images of a Latino family, but mainly because of the fact that Bella, regardless of what is being said about it, is ambiguous on the subject of abortion. One review I read praised the film for being a look at a problem pregnancy "in which the woman is supported in the choice that is right for her." (which has mysteriously disappeared this week...) was scratching their heads as to why pro-lifers were supporting Bella. One of the writers there wrote, "Just because a woman has a baby, doesn't make a movie anti-choice!"

But please, can we just take all the hype out for a second and be down-to-earth, gut-wrenchingly, "Emperor may not have any clothes on," honest? Do you really think, under any conceivable scenario, that a movie that compellingly articulates the Culture of Life, would get under the radar of the lefty crowd at the Toronto Film Festival? In this day and age in which the issue of abortion is THE SUBTEXT TO JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING?! "A house divided against itself cannot stand. If NARAL celebrates a 'great Catholic pro-life movie' than how can NARAL's kingdom stand?" Try and put the situation in reverse. Could you ever see us pro-lifers being heart-warmed and won over by a subtly pro-choice film, you know, and kind of not see that it is undermining our world-view? And aren't pro-choice people minimally as smart as we are? You're damn right they are. So, regardless of what is being said, this movie is not strongly pro-life. It doesn't represent common-ground. It just takes a very complex, divisive social issue and handles it, well, sloppily enough that neither side in the argument knows exactly what case is being made. I don't even think it is pro-adoption as some have claimed. If it was, then the bookend at the beginning would have Jose looking somewhat healed after five years with the child. As it is, he looks like a pedophile who hasn't moved an inch from the last time we saw him. If it is supposed to be "pro-adoption," it's just sadly sloppy.

While I don't want to question the reliability or taste of Toronto Film Festival audiences, this super low-budget movie doesn't seem to have very much plot or purpose; the writing and storytelling just aren't there. Monteverde tries too hard to squoosh too many ideas into a short amount of time, and there's little reason why you might be interested in spending a day roaming around New York with these two people...but what really kills the movie is when it jumps forward an indeterminate number of years and the two main characters look exactly the same, showing exactly how lazy and sloppy this filmmaker really is. Rating: 5/10.... from Weekend Warrior

"Phooey." "Lazy and sloppy." "Cheap." "Utterly predictable." "Pedestrian." "Melodramatic." "Mawkish." "Gooey." These are the words secular critics are using to describe this movie that Catholics everywhere are raving about as "grrrrrrreat!" These are not words one generally sees applied to great art, even when one disagrees with its agenda. We can't both be right. Someone is blind here, or else not telling the truth.

I want to know, what the hell is going on here that the damned pagans can see exactly what this project is as a work of art, but the Christians can't? Or if we are not blind, God forbid, we don't care! What the hell is going on?

Clearly, the pagans take art much more seriously than we Christians do. And that is not something we get to be all bullish about.

The "Cream of the Crop" percentage for Bella over at Rotten Tomatoes is a "25%" Which is about right. And no, I don't think the industry critics are panning the project because of its Christian worldview, although I know that many Christians will make that case. If only they were panning this film as propaganda. But they're not. They are panning it as bad art. Bad storytelling...and that should really matter to us Christians who are raving about this project, shouldn't it? Should we Christians be throwing ourselves on the ground in front of a movie just because the filmmakers are Christians? Should we rally around a project that is ambiguous about the "right to choose," simply because the filmmakers meant to make a pro-life film? Does wanting to make a great Catholic pro-life film equate with actually making one?

How do we respond to the serious charges against this piece from the secular critics? Should we just ignore what they say as the threatened snarling of jaded, hedonistic, pagans? I'm hearing people tell me that, anyway, movies are all just a matter of taste. "Movies are like food." Oh, so now, we Christians are going to be the ones making that case that there is no such thing as the beautiful and that beauty is all in the eye of the beholder? Be careful with that. I promise you, you're not going to like where it goes.

(In Bella) it's necessary to endure a cruel barrage of sappy butterfly imagery, dubious evocations of "New York moments," and one laughable spectacle of cultural immersion... Until the especially maudlin final reel... After the prodigal son returns to his parents' home, the whole family subjects Nina to violent fluctuations between adoration and admonishment. "Joy" is what Nina calls their borderline minstrelsy, when really it's closer to the latest episode of Ugly Betty....SLANT magazine

Will Bella hurt the world? Probably not. The only damage it might do is to affirm some people in thinking the world would be a better place if we all just "supported women in the choice that is right for them." Will Bella do good in the world? It seems like it is inspiring lots of folks, so that's good. (It's what I like to call "Precious Moments good" You know, the stuff soul-searing, self-abnegating heroes generally feed on.... Uh-huh.)

Someone asked me if Bella was okay for kids. My take is, "No." First of all, they'll be bored out of their gourds. But second of all, and critically, there is still time to raise them to love good stories well told. Please, be better to your kids than you are to yourselves!

Seriously, I don't recommend or not recommend this film. Truly this is the kind of film for which the phrase, "It is what it is," was invented.

...with "Bella," the melodrama and cheap theatrics of the story's off-center segments drag the whole thing down. In his feature directorial debut, Alejandro Monteverde hits the mark as often as he misses it, but the film's problems linger longer than its successes. - Chicago Tribune

A Friend's Movie...

Some friends of mine on the East coast have made an indie and will be screening it around in the next few weeks. It has done very well at film festivals around the world.

I haven't seen it yet, but the folks behind the project are kindred spirits on the importance of craft and excellence in cinema, so I look forward to seeing it soon.

Here are some of the review blurbs:

“Graceful, intelligent filmmaking… Strathairn is remarkable.”

--Warren Etheredge, The Warren Report, Seattle

“Compelling, engrossing, beautifully shot. Strathairn is marvelous.”

--Ron Henderson, Artistic Director, Denver Film Festival

“Absolutely absorbing.”

--Michael Rabehl, Programming Director, Cinequest Film Festival

“Wiederspahn’s episodic character study might have been inspired by a lost short story by John Cheever…Several standouts in the effective ensemble…” [Film Pick of the Week]

--Mark Griffin, The Boston Globe

“Savory American indie fare…impressive…ambitiously ruminative.”

--Lisa Kennedy, The Denver Post

“The movie is hauntingly real in its portrayal of the human condition in all its depressed yet redeemable glory. David Strathairn pulls off another Oscar-worthy performance and the film’s ensemble stays with you long after the closing credits…this film is truly an eye-opener.”

--Yaniv Rokah, Moving Pictures

“The Sensation of Sight is brutally hypnotic.”

--Emmas Gluck, film critic, Diario Vasco (Spain)

“Completely different from what we see in current American movies…A modern Jim Jarmusch.”

--Carlos Fernandes, film critic, CINeol (Spain)

“Delightfully smart independent fare…carried thoughtfully forward with intellect, poetry, and pithy insight…You can walk away touched by feelings, motivated toward compassion, engaged to face fears…a tall order, but well within range of this film…The Sensation of Sight carries tremendous audience appeal.”

--W. Fred Crow, film critic, Cineblog, San Jose

“A very beautiful film…informed by a transcendent sensibility.”

--Aaron B. Smith, film critic,

For more information on The Sensation of Sight, go here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Monday, October 15, 2007

Heideggerian Thought for the Day

I'm working on my speech for Orlando, and came across these very clarifying thoughts from Heidegger's essay "The Origin and Work of Art":

To make a work of art means to set up a world.


The work (of art) is not the reproduction of some particular entity; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of that thing's essence.

In other words, art doesn't bother with telling you literally how things look. Or, in a story, to describe the entire world around a character. The assumption is that we already have the actual things amongst us but that their very reality obscures what they really mean. Art, helps us to see what those things mean...their place in the Cosmos, so to speak.

I see this dove-tailing perfectly with Flannery's contention that in art, "A certain distortion is necessary to get at the truth."

Art is in this sense, better than the real.

Emily Monday


A loss of something ever felt I --
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was -- of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out --

Elder, Today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is --
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinguent Palaces --

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven --

Just in time for Halloween...

EEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeek! Dawn of the Knitted Dead!


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Back to Natural Law School for Michael Clayton

Movie theme: It is possible to be slimy and unprincipled in many little things, and still make a courageous stand for principle when your big moment comes.

Yeah..... uh, no.

This is a stylish, studio star-vehicle of the same nature of most of the projects on which (the beginning to seem really overpaid) George Clooney is building his career. It's well-acted (except for Clooney who never manages to transcend himself) with Tilda Swanson and Tom Wilinson turning in notable efforts. It's well shot and edited and has some pithy dialogue, but in the end, as my director friend noted as we tossed our empty popcorn box into the trash, "What was the point of that? What is the story that they wanted to tell?"

I think it didn't make sense to my friend, because the meaning of the character's choices in the story comes out to the theme I wrote above. And that theme is untrue. So, what was going on in my friend was a search for the movie's choices to add up to something else that would be true. And she couldn't think of anything, because she can add and the character's choices added together, only sensibly end up leading in one direction. Not heroism.

The basic story here is that a slimy lawyer who is a fixer for a huge slimy corporate law firm, gets the task of covering for one of the partners who has flipped his lid while closing a billion dollar lawsuit for a slimy chemical company. While the slimy chemical company sends its head of legal affairs (Swanson) to silence and kill anyone who is trying to blow the whistle on their poisoning of innocent mid-westerners, the lead character, Clayton, is forced to face the truth that he collaborates with people in large corporate law firms and agricultural conglomerates who are slimy. In the end, Clayton violates his attorney-client privilege for a higher good, and completely walks away from his own life and self-interest to do a heroic thing.

I wasn't sure if the subtext of the movie was to say that slimy agricultural companies shouldn't be allowed to employ defense attorneys? Or maybe it was that the attorneys of large conglomerates should just agree to be less clever and vigorous in defending said clients?

But honestly, I think this would have been a moral movie if Clooney had just shaken down the evil conglomerate, and left on a plane for the Bahamas with ten million dollars. See, then, that theme would be that "You are the sum of your choices." Spoken to me years ago by a weathered pagan entertainment attorney, "People who will screw anyone will screw everyone." She followed it up with, "Some people are cheaters. They cheat. Others aren't. They don't." I thought that was a great practical addendum to the Sermon on the Mount.

I don't think the filmmakers here were trying to spread perncious moral lies. (Except in the sense that a whole stratum of society has been forced for ten years or so argue that personal and public morality are unrelated...) I think they were just trying to be all clever and surprising. But making a silk's purse choice out of a life of sow's ear choices isn't surprising. It's impossible. Or in the Aristotelian narrative-need sense, a story in which a slimy character makes a heroic choice is not only not better than real life, it's not even as good as real life. It's less than the real.

And it is true that people can be scared straight. But, Michael Clayton never made me feel like anything that was happening to the main character was really getting to him that much. If his son had been caught in the cross-fire, I maybe would have bought his redemption. But losing his Mercedes just wasn't big enough.

There were several small missteps in the story-telling, but nothing hugely distracting. One grave narrative misstep was expecting that the lead character being gorgeous George Clooney would be enough to establish sympathy with the audience. Uh, no.

There's no point in dwelling too much on this as the audience has already passed the project by. The Academy might keep it alive for Oscar time, but while it is an anti-corporate film, I don't think it is shrill enough to make a big deal about on Oscar night in an election year. There will be much bigger anti-war fish to fry.

On the matter of the audience versus Michael Clayton I find the verdict to be, pass.

I'm Writing a Speech....

...that I will be giving soon to a Christian women's group. The title is "Living as a Disciple in the Media Age" and I have been wracking my brain to try and put some kind of new spin on this title, which has been my speaking bread and butter for the better part of eight years. Basically because I loathe and fear repetition, I've been all over this topic hundreds of different ways from hundreds of different podiums (and one covered garbage can in Baton Rouge....but I digress). But I think I am running dry because all I keep coming up with to say is, with exhaustion, "Oh, D*mnit. Just send a check here."

The folks at one recent talk asked me to prepare in advance a list of "contact information for people to complain to networks and studios." I told them I didn't have one of those lists, and that that really wasn't my message anyway. I think encouraging people to send protest messages is possibly an important message, and the r'aison d'etre of groups like this. But it isn't my message. First and foremost, because I don't think protesting is any kind of cultural strategy.

I said this at an event in Wichita this past summer, and a young woman came up to me cradling a child in her arms and kind of got in my face (with all the "You've clearly been poisoned working in Sodom, I bet you receive Communion in the hand" subtext) and said, "You don't have children, do you?" As though, the having of children would also spawn the conviction that cultural endeavors are exclusively for the damned. (I wanted to say to this young chicken something to the effect that, "Actually, at last count I have about 700," but it occurred to me that the appeal to the notion of spiritual childhood would just be way too Apostolicam Actuositatem for her.)

Just so somebody can get the wording right for my obituary, the reason I don't get behind the "Protest as Culture" parade is that it won't produce even one beautiful "Thank you!" to be sent back at the Cosmos. Which is the only reason to labor at art that makes any sense at all to me. (Actually, the wording of that was really dreadful. Please somebody, do tidy it up for my obituary.)

And if we want to get all pragmatic about "winning the culture war" (and I do think what's going on is a war, but hardly a new one... ref. the only and ever war) there is only one thing that is going to bring alternative (ie. better) product to the screens of the world. (And it isn't churches in Georgia and Minnesota turning into film production companies). We won't see alternative movies and television until we have alternative hearts and minds in Hollywood which is the center of global movie and television production.

So, we have only two real options for profoundly changing the channels (and literally changing the channels isn't one of them):

1) Create a new missionary imperative to recruit, form, support and commission for Hollywood a whole new generation of well-catechized, loving, merciful, prayerful, self-sacrificing, talented and professionally trained writers, directors, cinematographers, executives, producers, agents, attorneys, managers, publicists, editors, lighting designers, production designers, musicians, animators, and I suppose we must have some actors too.

2) Convert through prayer, sacrifice, patience and intentionality, the writers, directors, cinematographers, etc. who are already here.

Every other initiative to impact culture is ultimately straw.

And it is "straw" because it is not pleasing to God, who wants us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And He also wants us to tell "all creation" the Good News. He just isn't that wrapped up in us making mediocre, low-budget pep-rally projects for the disciples who are cowering in caves wishing the non-believers would either go away, or at least entertain us without sex, language and violence.

Any questions? Good. So, help us out already, huh?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Does Richard Dawkins Exist?

This is hysterical. Check it out. But not while you're eating!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrating Flannery

A former English professor, Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco recently gave a wonderful presentation on the great Catholic writer (and patroness with St. Paul and Emily Dickinson of this blog!), Flannery O'Connor. Major hat-tip to Whistpers in the Loggia for finding this. (They have a link on their site to the whole speech in .pdf.)

Take it away, Your Excellency:

"My days as a teacher of college English are long past, and now I am a Roman Catholic archbishop, who agreed to speak, from that viewpoint, about a woman and a writer whom I admire greatly, Flannery O'Connor. I remember, though, what Flannery O'Connor wrote after meeting Paul Hallinan, the new Archbishop of Atlanta, whom she admired. She said: "Usually I think the Church's motto is The Wrong Man for the Job; but not this time.”

That pungent little verdict suggests much of what I believe is wonderful and valuable in Flannery O'Connor: the savvy, sly wit; the dead-on honest observation; the faith, strong in spite of all; and the Christian realist's hope that this time it might be better, but not easily, and not likely for long.

Flannery O'Connor died during the Church's Second Vatican Council, while the bishops were writing anew what she had always known: that the Church is the Body of Christ, the People of God, that laypeople are its flesh and blood and that the clergy and religious orders are its servant-leaders. While Flannery O'Connor was a supreme artist in fiction, this afternoon I want to suggest how she is also a particularly valuable witness to the Catholic Church and its leaders in this country. Hers is the testimony of a watchful, honest, faith-filled, eloquent lay person, and she had much to say about the experience of living her faith within the Roman Catholic Church, especially in a society and a culture that had marginalized genuine Christian faith and practice. I invite you now to listen with me to what she said in her letters about several closely connected aspects of Roman Catholic experience: 1) the experience of being a believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ; 2) the cost of discipleship; 3) the power of grace in the experience of the believer; and, 4) the experience of the Church as the setting of that life of faith and discipleship, a setting that she saw as all too human as well as divine in origin....

Flannery O'Connor said of herself as a writer: "I feel that if I were not a Catholic I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything" (p.114). The Church, she claimed, was "... the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable" (p. 90). Why? Quite simply because the Church taught as its central doctrine the Incarnation, the belief that God became human and creaturely, with us, in Jesus Christ. Flannery O'Connor believed that teaching, and, for her, its truth transformed everything in life: She said: "... the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for" (p.92). Thus there follows the clash of consciousness between O’Connor and her audience, the clash between the believers and the non-believers, between contradictory sets of assumptions about human experience.

She claimed the Incarnation as the principle of her spirituality: "... if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it" (p.90). But beyond shaping her personal spirituality, Incarnation directed her strategy as a writer. She asserted that, "... the writer has to succeed in making the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality. This has to be got across implicitly in spite of a world that doesn't feel it, in spite of characters who don't live it" (p.290). Incarnation even helps explain an aspect of O'Connor's writing which is particularly challenging for many readers: The grotesque. She said: "The Incarnation makes us see the grotesque as grotesque" (p.227)....

[W]hen her novel, Wise Blood was re-issued, she wrote in an introductory Author's Note: "Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence."

O'Connor said that some writers had even enshrined this lack of faith as a prerequisite for the artist's vision: "It is popular to believe that in order to see clearly one must believe nothing" (p. 147). As a young student, Flannery O'Connor's antidote to that false assumption was what she called "Christian skepticism," and she recommended it to others: "Learn what you can but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free - not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you" (p. 478). Also, "What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read" (p. 476).

On another occasion, Flannery O'Connor dealt with this conflict between faith and unbelief, and its effect on the writer who is a believer: "I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It's hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not."

So the believer needs patience and passion. According to Flannery O'Connor, faith naturally waxes and wanes, and we must not panic or jump to conclusions because of that. She wrote: "...let me tell you this: faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will" (p. 451). She was especially fond of the prayer addressed to Christ in the gospel: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' (p.92). She wrote: "It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospel, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith" (p. 476).

The Christian must yearn for and seek out faith, not just grudgingly take delivery of it if God sends it along: "Faith is a gift, but the will has a great deal to do with it. The loss of it is basically a failure of appetite, assisted by sterile intellect" (p. 451). But Christian faith cannot remain in the intellect; it must be lived for, with, and in Christ. Flannery O'Connor declared: "What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe" (p. 354). This cost of believing, of discipleship is crucial to an understanding of genuine Christian faith, as opposed to the casual, superficial, cultural Christianity that she so deplored. Genuine Christian faith transforms the meaning and value of everything; cosmetic Christianity merely brightens Sunday morning and highlights the tiny compartment of life labeled "religion."...

In one letter Flannery O’Connor observes that “Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold its own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit, you have a saint, and not necessarily a canonized one.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Looking for Orthodox Catholic Theologians in L.A.

It's unbelievable really. Here I am living in a metropolitan area of around ten million people, and I am pulling my hair out trying to find guest speakers for our Hollywood RCIA program. Honestly, the Church in Los Angeles is in an incredibly sorry state. Where do you go in L.A. to find people who can reliably and authoritatively deliver the Church's theological line on any of a variety of topics without grumbling, dissenting, scoffing or just plain old distorting?

One of our students this year took RCIA at a prominent L.A. parish two years ago. He is taking RCIA over with us, because, as he expressed it last week, "I didn't learn anything the last time." Good grief.

Anyway, we need happy, brilliant (okay, we'll also take really smart) Catholics who will combine good presentation skills and strong theological content for our very smart group of eleven candidates. We do not want to go into the strange and wonderful world of ecclesial polarization with this program, but are rather looking tom communicate the deposit of faith according to the Mind of the Church. I don't believe in encouraging controversy where there is insufficient context.

So, if anybody out there knows anybody here in Southern California who might fit the bill, please do send me a heads-up at .

Gaudium et spes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

YESSSSS! Thank You, Cleveland!

Hahahahahahaha! [Galumphing evil chortle.... It's time to make obeisance, David....]

Of course, you noble Tribe too will soon have to die having fulfilled your purpose of eliminating the pinstriped infection. But thanks from a grateful nation.

Emily Monday


A Counterfeit -- a Plated Person --
I would not be --

Whatever strata of Iniquity
My Nature underlie --

Truth is good Health -- and Safety, and the Sky.

How meagre, what an Exile -- is a Lie,
And Vocal -- when we die --

Dear Barbara Letters

Periodically, I like to share queries from my email bag, as well as my responses to the same in the hope that it will be generally instructive for those who are about to send me - or some other citizen of Hollywood - a similar query. I promise that each of what follows are prototypical of scores of inquiries I get every year. (And especially this week, as EWTN is airing a show I taped at Franciscan University this past spring.)

I added a little to my replies here just because I got in the groove...


Dear Barbara,

I heard you on the radio with Teresa Tomeo doing movie reviews.
You talked about the need for Good people in Hollywood, in media.

I am not a writer, but I have a great idea for a story and I have been praying for help to get it out.


I don't know where to begin.
I felt led to write you.

K. in Illinois

Dear K. -

Thanks for your message and for telling me a little about your grandmother's story.

I am not sure what kind of help I could give you. Perhaps you could find someone who is a writer to tell the story, possibly in a format for a magazine article. Then, see what happens.

There isn't any easy structure set up for a person who is a non-writer to get their story to print or to the screen. If you are willing to put some money into it, you could hire a writer to co-write a book with you, or write a screenplay for you. However, then, you would have to be willing to shop the book around to publishers or agents, or the screenplay to production companies.

People are always approaching me with "great ideas" for movies, and I never know what to say to them. Most of the ideas are not really "great" by real narrative standards. A story is more than just a cool thing that happened to somebody in your family. Still, if I ever really do hear what sounds like a great idea, I never know if I should say, "Cool, that is a great idea. Mind if I just take it and run from here?" Few people are really willing to just see their idea launched without getting some kind of money or credit. And the truth is, trying to keep someone attached who knows nothing about the process is rarely worth the trouble.

But anyway, maybe your grandmother's story is mainly for you to tell your children and then for them to tell theirs. And you should, as it is part of your family's "salvation history." Not everything needs to be for the mass audience.

Thanks again for sharing it with me. God bless -

Barbara R. Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.

The follow-up email....

Dear Barbara,

I thought YOU were a writer.


K. in Illinois

The follow-up response....

Dear K.,

I am a writer. You need to find one who wants to do this job.

God bless -



Dear Ms. Nicolosi,

A group of us here in [INSERT NAME OF TOWN INCREDIBLY FAR OFF SUNSET BLVD] are working on making a movie based on [INSERT NAME OF INCREDIBLY ESOTERIC CHRISTIAN NOVEL]. We already have the script, the director, the cast, the crew. We’re seeking funding, but we do have a lead on that in an investor who is interested. But he does not believe it can be made for the budget we are proposing. He wants us to look into getting a real producer, a professional who has been involved in movie production before, to either advise or even takeover the production chores. It’s a low budget movie, so it has to be a low-budget producer.

Any suggestions?

D. in Town Incredibly Far Off Sunset

Dear D. -

Well, you asked....

I have very strong feelings on this question, as I have watched too many good people waste too much money and time in ill-conceived efforts in movie-making. In the end, the process breaks up friendships (I've even seen it lead former friends into court), and generally results in eminently forgettable, unwatchable projects. The subtext of what follows is that movie-making is a highly complex, demanding art-form that takes years to master, and then requires the cooperation of some people in Hollywood who control theater and television screens for the world. Making a movie is like building a building. You better know what you are doing or it will be condemned...

Your investor is asking all the right questions. Have him call me if you want me to say any version of what follows so as to prevent loss of his investment.

I don't understand how you can not have a producer. A producer is the one who launches the whole enterprise of making a movie. The producer picks up the script and attaches the director. Technically, you don't find a producer. A producer finds everyone else. So maybe what you mean is that you need to find a line-producer? A line-producer is responsible to do the budget breakdown and to hire all the below the line talent.

I don't know what you mean by a "low-budget" producer. Do you mean someone who will not be fairly compensated for their work? Because making a movie is always an all-consuming, demanding task whether it is an indie project or a studio tent-pole. I am always leery of projects that are going off for much lower than the minimums established by the industry guilds. Go to the PGA website to find out what the guild minimums are for a producer.

The matter of budget can be related to how many people you want to eventually see the movie. Unless you hit a jackpot of unlikely eventualities, but I don't recommend a business plan built around the miraculous. A movie is meant to be consumed by the masses - or, at least, people in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Why else go to all the trouble? Many Christians seem to go about the process as though they were bringing together a wall mural meant to be seen by a few hundred people. Forgive me for being direct, but guerilla filmmaking that ignores all the normal expenses and procedures of the business ends up generally making movies not fit to be viewed by guerillas.

Budget for a movie is not principally determined by how much money you have in hand or can presumably collect, as in, "Hey, let's make a movie. How much money does everybody have in their pockets. I've got a quarter." The first question you ask is "How much money will be needed to serve the needs of this story as outlined in the screenplay?" It's not, "How can we make this story smaller to serve what we can afford?"

If you pay for professional talent (cinematography, directing, production design, editing, etc.), the product will be better and you will have the chance of setting yourself apart from the other 3000 indie films whose whole distribution plan is to win the lottery and be picked up at a festival. If you bring in a name actor or director, you will have a better chance of minimally getting your project pulled out of the stack at a festival or distribution office, and possibly get coverage in the broader press which will contribute to your marketing efforts further down the road. If you have a distribution partner before you start (because you want to have your movie play in actual movie theaters some day, you would be shopping the script around first to production companies who have some kind of deal or contacts at studios).

Regarding the first-timeness of the director/writer... Exactly how "first-time" is he? Has he worked in the industry as an AD or a cinematographer, or even an editor? Does he have a nice, rich reel of shorts that show that he really has the chops? Does he have real talent that stands out among other young filmmakers? Movie-making is like any other art form. Everybody's first everything is bad. Michelangelo took nine years of practice before he sold a statue.... A "first time" writer/director usually refers to somebody who has been working in the business for years in a variety of capacities. He has made a whole bunch of short projects and has written five to ten screenplays. He has been AD on several projects and so has been mentored by other more experienced directors for years. IT DOESN'T MEAN that somebody right out of film school (or, God forbid, somebody who never went to film school!) convinces you to let them get some more education learning by having you pay them to make a feature.

Here's what you should do.... Submit the screenplay to a professional script-analyst who can tell you if it is ready to go. I have no doubt that the script doctor will give you notes that will make the project better. (A good one who is also a Christian is Vicki Peterson: Have the script rewritten until the analyst gives you a thumbs up. Then, shop the script to some production companies being sure to tell them how large an investment you already have attached. I can help you at that point. (Of course, if the investment is under a milion dollars, you basically are saying that you aren't making a real movie to be seen by the masses, but rather this is an expensive hobby thing.)

There it is for what its worth. Good luck to you. God bless -

Barbara Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.


Dear Barbara,

Your name was given to me today as one who might know a Performing Arts School that also promotes Christianity. Our 16 year old daughter is passionate about theater and movies. We would like to help her pursue this dream to see if it is her destiny and have begun looking into performing arts schools but have not found one that we feel will support her belief system. Do you have the name of those schools that will train her in her craft and also support her in the moral life style she is choosing for herself? We appreciate any help you might be able to offer.


B. in Texas

Dear B. -

Thanks for your message.

There are several Christian schools with strong theater and cinema departments. Azusa Pacific University out here in Azusa is a good one. I am an adjunct there and the people there are great. Another option to check out would be Pepperdine University. Regent University in VA has a good cinema department, I don't know about their theater department. Notre Dame has made it a priority to have a state of the art media department. Catholic University has a good theater school. There must be more on the theater side, but I really don't know much in that area.

Do encourage your daughter, however, to take some strong Liberal Arts classes during her undergrad years. She should absolutely plan on going to grad school for theater, so she should see the Liberal Arts as making her a more interesting person who will one day be a storyteller. In addition to art history classes, she should take lots of literature and history classes and maybe some psychology as all of these will help her as a storyteller. Tell her to get her spiritual act together so that she can attend one of the top secular schools for grad school. We need good kids to go through the top programs so that they can compete well in this demanding business.

You could also have your daughter check out the Act One program at and Hollywood Connect at These are both programs for Christians starting out in the arts.

God bless -

Barbara R. Nicolosi

P.S. If this advice has been helpful to you - or I suppose even if it hasn't but just because I tried - please send a donation to Act One. It was founded so that you would have somebody here to give this kind of advice, and it could really use the support just now.

Upcoming Event


The TV Summit of the Fall Season

Saturday, October 27, from 8:30am to 2pm
at the Director’s Guild of America in Hollywood.

Is it “JUST TV?” or is it something more?

Join celebrated showrunners like Larry Wilmore
(The Bernie Mac Show, ‘Senior Black Correspondent’
on The Daily Show, ‘Mr. Brown’ on The Office) and
Nancy Miller (The Closer and TNT’s new drama, Saving Grace, starring
Holly Hunter) as we consider television’s potential
to initiate social change. We’ll also interact with
producers from Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files,
and The Invisible Man as they project
today’s topical issues into the future.

Amongst the all-star panelists guiding the discussion will
be Dr. Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion
at USC and Dr. Thom Parham from Azusa Pacific University.

Special guests include producer Michael Taylor from Battlestar
Galactica and Star Trek: Voyager, Valerie Mayhew from The X-Files and
Charmed, Matt Greenberg, creator of the Sci-Fi Channel’s
The Invisible Man and screenwriter of The Screwtape Letters,
Dean Batali from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and That 70s Show,
and Leilani Downer from A Different World and Growing Pains.
“JUST TV?” will be hosted by Craig Detweiler, co-director of Reel Spirituality.

Continental breakfast and lunch are included in the $60 registration
(half price for students). Sign up now before this TV event sells out at:

JUST TV is presented in connection with the 14th City of the Angels Film Festival

Monday, October 01, 2007

See Barb in Orlando

I will be giving a speech in Orlando on October 17, 2007 that is opened to the public. It is being hosted by a group called Una Fides and will take place at the social hall adjacent to St. James Cathedral.

My talk will be titled "Living as a Disciple in a Media Age" which should just about cover every possible rant in my head. I think it costs $15, but that includes lunch which would be a bargain even without adding a rant.

If that's your thing, go to here for more information.

Heroes in Storytelling

I gave a talk this weekend to the San Diego Christian Writers Guild. The talk was on heroes in storytelling and in society - why we need them and what they should look like. Lots of people asked me for my notes, and as I only had my computer with me, I told them I would post the notes here. Sorry if what is here is too sketchy. It may be that this was one of those talks where you had to be there.

I. Intro

II. Some signs of the times

a) Last year for the first time, American high school students listed as their #1 Hero "no-one." (and I don’t think they are being too cynical. Because really, who should be a hero today?) And Is it good or bad that kids have no heroes?

b) An interview with one of the hoards of fans on the news the night of Paris Hilton’s release from prison. “Paris Hilton is my hero – she’s so glamorous and famous.” (Hmmmm... in the words of The Princess Bride, "I don't think you know what that word means.")

c) Where twenty-somethings in the 1940's found a hero in Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca, today's coming of agers are more likely to want to be Napoleon Dynamite – where the new heroism is just to be able to look the world in the eye and spit. It’s some version of be true to yourself… But what if “yourself” is really screwed up? Would you want your kids to be true to themselves if they were nuts?

III. Why should we care if there are no heroes?

a) What does a kid (and by extension, a society) look like who has heroes? Idealistic, hopeful, imitative, open, eager to please, reverent, grateful

“A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around.”
Edgar Watson Howe

b) What does a kid look like who has no heroes? Cynical, haughty, suspicious, jaded, irreverent, entitled, self-absorbed.

“Nurture your mind with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.” Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881)

c) As a child, a hero provides a teaching example of a life worth living. In fact, the “no greater life” of one who gives his life for his friends.

d) As an adult, heroes should engage us in a holy rivalry; to shame us into being more generous and tireless in doing good. Mother Teresa shamed me into facing what a schlep I am. In some ways, because she could pick a maggot ridden poor person out of a gutter, I was able to be kinder to the annoying guy in the next office.

e) In a society where the family has broken down, the need for heroes becomes even stronger. (Can I please just appeal to the Baby Boomers out there to try and make the last years of your lives heroic. Just heard the other day fromone of my students how her 53 year old father just walked out on the family – two teens at home and an eight year old – and moved in with his 26 year old receptionist. He told his daughter he was bored and feeling unfulfilled. Enough of this nonsense! We don’t want to hear about your need to be having fun anymore! We need you to be brave as you face your elderly years – you will be wrinkled and sickly and forgetful – and your heroism will be to be uncomplaining, and wise and solicitous and serene for the rest of us! “ heard on the radio the other day, “70 is the new 30!”

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being." May Sarton

e) But it is also true that not all stories need to be hero stories, and that adult should be able to handle a lot more ambiguity. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha makes a huge inward step, by shedding his protective idealism and accepting the complexity of life. “Hurrah for Karamazov!” I get that reading Harry Potter/fantasy is diverting and on some level edifying, but if all the grown ups are reading about Harry fighting dragons, who is left to be reading Crime and Punishment?

IV. What is a hero?

a) A story will be illustrative here.... (I found this on the Internet somewhere, but there wasn't a writer credited, so to whomever write the following, thank you!)

The time is about four in the afternoon of January 13, 1982. The place: Washington’s National Airport, blanketed in snow and ice. After several delays, Air Florida’s Flight 90 had finally received clearance to take off and was roaring down the runway. Like his fellow passengers, Arland Williams, a forty-six-year-old senior examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, was just getting settled in for the flight when something went wrong. After a dramatic shudder, the Boeing 737 smashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge and fell into the icy Potomac.

Once the initial shock passed, onlookers could see a piece of the plane ís broken-off tail section afloat in the river, with four people clinging to it. Then a fifth person bobbed up to water’s surface and was pulled to the tail section. Given the freezing conditions and their distance from shore, survival was uncertain at best.

At 4:20, a U.S. Park Police helicopter arrived on the scene. Hovering over the floating debris, they lowered a line to Bert Hamilton, one of the five. Hamilton grabbed the line with all his strength and was soon being lifted out of the water and whisked through the wintry air to safety on shore.

The helicopter returned and dropped its line to Arland Williams, who quickly passed it to Kelly Duncan, a flight attendant. Duncan was carried safely ashore. The helicopter returned and dropped the line once more to Williams. This time he passed it to Joe Stiley, a severely injured passenger. By now, all the victims were suffering badly from the icy exposure, and it was vital to get them ashore as soon as possible. Stiley grabbed another passenger, Priscilla Tirado. A second line was dropped this time, and it was passed to Patricia Felch.

As the helicopter again lifted higher in the air, it became evident that too much had been attempted in one trip. Both Tirado and Felch fell back into the water during transport. When the helicopter rushed back to rescue Tirado, she was too weak to take the line. At this point, an onlooker standing on the shore, Lenny Skutnik, leaped into the icy water and swam out to get her. The helicopter then proceeded to where Felch had fallen, and Rescue Officer Gene Windsor dropped into the water to attach a line to her.

Four lives had been saved. Now, thirty minutes after the crash, the helicopter returned to the floating tail section for Arland Williams, who had repeatedly passed the life-saving line to others. Williams was gone. His heroism had cost him his life. Gene Windsor wept as he described what Williams had done that day in the middle of a freezing river: "He could have gone on the first trip, but he put everyone else ahead of himself. Everyone."

b) (from What sets heroes aside from the rest of humanity is the willingness to assume a personal responsibility for public problems. As I will use the word, responsibility is assumed, not assigned, undertaken rather than imposed. I am interested in responsibility as a function of declaration rather than duty. This book is about people who take on responsibility where no one else would regard them as responsible.

c) So in a story, a character to be a hero must assume responsibility for something that is not theirs by assignment. But it falls to them in their mind.

d) And it seems clear that heroism always has to involve someone dying so others can live. Now, there are many kinds of death.

1. Luke Skywalker has to die to his sense of being in control. He also has to risk his physical life.

2. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddel has to die to his ego and his plans for the future by being willing to lose the Olympics and not run in the race on Sunday.

3. In The Fugitive, Dr. Shepard risks his life and freedom to save a child he happens to meet while he is on his quest at the hospital.

4. In Casablanca, Rick needs to lose the woman he loves.

5. CLIP from One Against the Wind

e) And because a story needs to be better than the real, the stakes of a character have to be higher. The risks to himself must be bigger. The good for the world more urgent.

V. The kind of heroes Hollywood too often provides are not doing the job that the audience needs in its longing for heroes. Too often, these are the kinds of things we see set up as the lead character/the one in the movie to whom we are supposed to relate:

a) People who are purely about self-survival. Napoleon Dynamite.

b) People who are in the service of a false good. Million Dollar Baby or ER Christmas episode in which people euthanize other people. Like it is ever a heroic idea to murder someone!

c) People who aspire to nothing outside of their own pleasures. Knocked Up and Superbad.

d) People who become worse than their rivals. Kill Bill. The Brave One.

e) Comic book heroes. Which are perfectly appropriate for kids, but weird and ultimately unsatisfying for grown-ups.

f) People with disordered souls. Craving some evils in some quarters. The Departed. Or the doctors on ER who in the later seasons have become self-absorbed, whining narcissists. It's the Bill Clinton problem in which we are asked to believe that you can be a lie and cheat on a small scale, but that it won't effect the decisions you make on a big scale. As my pagan Hollywood agent told me once, "People who will screw anyone will screw everyone. Cheaters cheat."

g) Hollywood creatives are very often jaded. Because most don’t have the example of the Crucified Jesus, they are very suspicious about the idea that people can really do selfless things. They are also bloated with false goods, so that they can’t be sure anymore if it is better thing to save a stranger because who can say whose life is more valuable? But I think the real reason we so many schleppy heroes on the screen these days has to do with the being shamed by the good thing I mentioned before.

“The presence of the just one is obnoxious to us. He reproaches us with our laziness and failures to live up to our training.” Isaiah

h) So, btw, if you are in a committed relationship to evil, I suspect you will lose the ability to write a selfless character. In the same way that if you smoke pot on the side, it is really hard to tell your teenager not to. (As long as you hate your sin you might be able to do it. But there is no voice of authority like purity. Ref. Lancelot in Camelot.)

i) There is a positive side to Holywood's desire to create heroes with a dark side. It is coming from a rejection of melodrama and sentimentalism. SENTIMENTALISM IS THE PROBLEM FOR US CHRISTIANS. We want to show that God is basically in charge of the world so everything is really okay. We want to give God the benefit of the doubt.

j) Facing the Giants is anti-heroic because it costs the hero nothing. The Christianity depicted in the movie is a rejection of the cross and presents a fantasy religion in which believing in Jesus means no suffering. “Give me some of that Jesus stuff!” The truth is Christianity promises that we will suffer without despair...and probably we will suffer more than others!

k) Flannery: “Sentimentalism is the one inexcusable defect for the Christian storyteller because it is an overemphasis on innocence.” We know that there must always be original sin in the story. No human person is perfect and immune from temptation.

VI. So here is the paradox: The world needs heroes from us as writers. It needs examples of people to model our lives after. But we have to tell the truth for adults and show that heroes are also human beings with failings.

a) Here’s the trick: your story hero can and must have weaknesses, but the character must be consistent in the conviction that leads him to his heroic act. As Aristotle says, in the Poetics, we don’t need unity of character in a story – that is, a story in which all of a characters problems are resolved – but to be a hero, a character has to have an almost supernatural understanding and commitment to the value that will allow him to embark on his mission in the story.

b) You have to figure out in your story, what is the characters’s dawning, and defining conviction. Then, you have to make sure that he/she is consistent IN THAT CONVICTION. She may be, as in One Against the Wind, snippy and proud, but she is absolutely unconfused about the fact that we are to save each other from being killed.

c) This kind of conviction can not be contradicted by his defects or you undermine the hero and make his choices seem random.

d) So, in Million Dollar Baby, the character of the coach is anti-heroic, because his one vision was as a coach “You never give up!” And he had already given up on his daughter before and now he had a new daughter. So when he euthanises her, it shows he never really got the one lesson of his life. (Now, the movie suggests that letting go of his coachly convictions was a growth for him, but that is twisted and bad writing. It was his one understanding to give to the world.)

e) In The Departed, the character is lying and cheating with another man’s fiancée. Well, why is it worse for the mob to be lying and cheating then? Who is he to try and stop them? And the suggestion that he would have the moral energy to do risk his life to stop some men from doing what he himself is doing on the sly is absurd.

VII. Things That Are Not Heroic:

a) To have an illness. To be a victim. To have a bad hand dealt to you. HEROISM is in still serving others with an illness or bad thing.

b) To survive your own iniquity. (In the Bill Clinton sense. I heard a lady on TV say that she admired Clinton because he was "a survivor." Well, by that standard, you could admire roaches.) HEROISM for a person in habits of iniquity would be in full repentance, and in heading back into the sewer you once created to repair it.

c) It isn’t heroic to have a great talent or skill. To be able to run fast or sing well. It might be heroic to develop that talent to your utmost and at great price – as long as it is in response to the cosmos and not for your own glory.

d) It is not heroic to fight for the wrong thing. To build a business or buy a house or paint a fence or go on a trip or make a million dollars or win an award.

e) It is not heroic to fight using disproportionate means. Someone attacks your son, and you nuke their country. The whole vengeance thing is essentially anti-heroic.
f) It is not heroic to do an evil to achieve a good: Torturing someone to save the U.S.

VIII. The world needs from us:

a) The conviction that there is something worth dying for. That suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

b) The conviction that some things that people are dying for are the wrong things! (Money or fame or to be a size zero...)

The most pitiful among men is he who turns his dreams into silver and gold. Kahlil Gibran

c) Another conviction the hero brings is that there is good and evil in the world. The hero story is a direct attack on moral relativism which, Pope Benedict recently said was the wrong idea that is at the heart of the decay of Western civilization. The only thing that explains Ahmadinijad at Columbia is that there is no more good and evil in the world. If everything is relative, then we can listen to a man in a suit share his ideas about how the Holocaust didn't happen, because who are we to judge the fact that he has murdered hundreds of American soldiers, and has imprisoned scores of Iranian journalists and dissenters, and that he has killed and tortured so many homosexuals that they no longer exist in Iran? I mean who are we to judge him, right? Just because we find those behaviors repugnant might be our problem – like the way we don’t really eat eel here. Right? See, we aren’t going to be able to hold off the conviction of Islamo-fascism with yawning relativism.

d) The mystery of immortality.

“A man of courage is also full of faith.” Cicero

e) That being a hero is not a unique call, but a universal one.

f) Being a hero doesn’t come out of nowhere. That you can’t be a hero in big things if you are unheroic in little things. You will not be up to the big moments unless you have made virtuous habits, and have cultivated a broad respect for others. And most of us are schleppy and lazy in our normal moments...

“We can't all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” Will Rogers

“It's choice - not chance - that determines your destiny.” Jean Nidetch

“A man must indeed be a hero to appear such in the eyes of his valet.” Thomas Carlyle

VIII. Let’s create a hero story. From your own life. What is there that you have stumbled over that made you say to yourself, " Somebody ought to do something about that?"

a) What would be a heroic choice/task for you to take on?

"The cowards think of what they can lose, the heroes of what they can win." J. M. Charlier

b) What scares you about it? (Or, why don’t you do it today?…”Well, I have kids.” Well, I have a job.” “Well, I have a pain in my foot.” “Well, I’m not rich.” “Well,…”)

"Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared." Eddie Rickenbacker

"Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway." John Wayne

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear." Mark Twain

c) What miracle would have to come about to allow you to achieve this goal? What are the obstacles that will have to be overcome? If it doesn’t require a miracle, it isn’t big enough.
“People will never stop doing THAT.”
“That is a problem that will never go away.”

d) What good will you have to see killed to do your goal?

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

e) Has to be something good for the world, not just for yourself or your own. There has to be an aspect in which the good that is coming back to you is unknown.

f) Can’t be something that relies on other people doing it for you. It has to be obvious to you that you just have to do this thing, regardless of whether you are fitted for it, because somebody has to do it and it is in front of you.

g) Can’t be something that just needs somebody to write a check or getting a law passed. Those don’t require you to get down into the depths of yourself. Don’t require you to have to die.

IX. Test example: Yesterday, I saw that story about the little child who had been filmed being molested. And the bell went off in my head for the umpteenth time. “Pornography. Her molester was making his own pornography.”

a) I used to have an office opposite the teen canteen….”Somebody ought to do something to help those kids.
b) Task: To end the porn industry in the San Fernando valley.

c) What scares me: To be around that level of sin and degradation. To get killed by the people who make $$$$$ in this business. To be laughed at and even hated for trying to take away people’s rights to their “first amendment freedoms” (As though, by the way, the first amendment covers allowing you to exploit other people for your own self-expression.)

d) Obstacle: It’s too big. It’s in the shadows.

e) Action plan: To gradually create a climate in which porn is unacceptable - to associate it to women’s rights… To stop shows like “The Girls Next Door.”….. To pressure Madison Avenue to stop the pornification of women and children in ads… To make it a felony to ship obscenity overseas and inter-state…To address the addiction… To buy out the producers… To regulate the industry severely… To make the guilds shun people who moonlight in porn…. To give the actors other work… To save some of the actors, and then send them as missionaries back to those trapped in the industry…

f) So, what is your heroism? Write that story.

X. A Poem by Leigh/Darion.... Is this too hokey for us today? What's wrong with us?

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To be better by far than you are
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know, if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest

And the world would be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star