Editor's Note: To read Thom Parham's essay, Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films, from Behind the Screen, click
GODSPY: Looking at reviews of your new book, "Behind the Screen," most Christian leaders seem to be on board with Act One's theme, that Christians should make good movies, not propaganda. Is that battle won, or do you still get some opposition?
Barbara Nicolosi: Oh we still get lots of opposition—most of it from people in the Church.
Has there been any progress in that department?
Yes, definitely. The Passion helped people understand in a profound way how much power and potential for good there is in entertainment media.
Looking back in hindsight, what's been the impact of The Passion?
Actually, we're not really in the hindsight phase of The Passion of the Christ wave yet. The phenomenon is still unfolding around us. This film gave a lot of orthodox Christians permission—permission from their parents, pastors, and teachers—to consider becoming part of the film-making industry, or else supporting the film-making efforts of other like-minded artists. It showed them that by going to Hollywood they weren't necessarily going into Sodom and Gomorrah. Hollywood isn't Sodom. It's Nineveh.
Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ showed orthodox Christians that by going to Hollywood they weren’t necessarily going into Sodom and Gomorrah. Hollywood isn’t Sodom. It’s Nineveh.
Do you mean they got permission to make religious films or to get into the film-making industry in general?
That's the problem, isn't it? Christians have no idea what the goal should be for us in arts and media. Should we focus on making movies about our saints and Scriptures? Should we make television that is all pastoral talking heads? Right now, lots of believers have come to the conclusion that, "Wow! We need more movies like The Passion!" The Passion will be a benchmark in the Church and arts area because it drew large numbers of believers together into the theaters. They saw our story told artistically, with lyrical imagery and a high level of craft. It was a wakeup call. Now, everywhere I go on Christian campuses, kids come up to me and say, "How can I be the next Mel Gibson?" (And I say, "Work at it for 25 years.")
With essays like Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christians Films, is your book building bridges to non-Christians in the industry?
I think so. For the younger set of Christians coming to Hollywood, this book is going off like a light bulb. I had one guy tell me last week, "It's like it gave me permission to do everything I've always wanted to do." That was great. We're trying to keep our young artists in the Church by telling them, "We need you, but be smart."
Unfortunately, the message of the baby boomer Church is that Hollywood—movies and television—is evil and to be avoided. Or else—and this is even more disdained by the younger set of artists we're working with—that movies and TV shows are only supposed to be used as evangelical tools or a way to get a pulpit in the culture wars. My students—I'm talking about Act One here—want to make movies because they want to make beautiful things. And film is the art form of their time. This idea of films as a kind of tool for cultural or political goals instead of serving beauty repulses them. They hate the suggestion that they have to justify their work by putting some overt evangelism in it, and so they tend to reject their Christian roots. We're trying to validate the idea that a beautiful film is good in itself—a joy forever!—and that every age is supposed to decorate the world, so to speak. Can we have more of an agenda in our movies and transmit our world view? Definitely. But it's definitely not in any propagandistic sense.
How about the expertise—are you seeing more Christians actually commit long-term to learning how to make good films?
Definitely. There's still a tremendous amount of resources and effort being wasted because of a lack of respect and humility in "Christian guerilla filmmaking." We see it all the time. Too many Christians are trying to do this very complex art form on the quick. Since it's easy to watch, they think it's easy to make. They buy editing and screen-writing software and a digital camera and think, "I'm a film-maker!"
I just saw one of these sorts of films yesterday, a million-dollar movie made by a group of Christians back East. It wasn't horrible—it was better than Left Behind—but honestly it was mediocre by Hollywood standards in term of dialogue, story, structure, acting, cinematography, editing, and sound. The director, co-writers, and the lead actors had never worked on a film before. They spent a million dollars on it. I would say that's a very expensive film school experience. It might be permissible if the people involved looked at it as a learning experience, but they don't. They think this movie is going to save the world. It isn't. The movie is substandard on all counts. As soon as it comes out the secular press will let them know.
My friend pitched a series to CBS, and she said, ‘I have to warn you, there’s some God in this.’ And the executive said to her, ‘We like God. CBS likes God.’
How are Catholics doing on this score?
Catholics are not exempt either. We saw this happen on the Catholic side with Therese. Not to harp on that movie, but it's another test case I can point to. We have to invest in the long haul, in building up a new generation of artists by mentoring, training, and supporting them, not in taking up a small collection and then squandering it in ill-considered efforts. Honestly, it's the artistic equivalent of selling your house, going to Vegas and putting it all on the red.
Getting back to the book, what's been the reception to the book outside the circle of Christians in Hollywood?
It's really interesting. The secular press is really fascinated with it. We got a positive, starred review from Publishers Weekly. I understand they don't review many religious books at all. Their take on the book was like, "Wow, these people are really working professionals and artists who are interested in integrating their life and their work. What a shock."
Several secular reviewers have noted with surprise that the book is not defensive in tone. They are surprised to have to admit that it is a thoughtful book about culture and faith. Meanwhile, on the Church side, we couldn't find a single prominent clergyman to endorse it. One Evangelical pastor sent me a letter saying he couldn't endorse the book, "because it blames the Church for what's wrong with the culture instead of Hollywood." Well, that's our shtick at Act One. Our observation is that Christians have been absent from the popular culture. It's not that our kind of movies are being passed over. It's that our kind of movies aren't being written. They aren't being pitched—because we haven't been here to do it.
Besides the craft itself, what's the most important thing Christians can learn from non-Christian filmmakers in Hollywood?
A huge thing the pagans have from which we could learn is their willingness to work with people who disagree with them to achieve their goals. I know a lot of people out here who just love movies and are willing to collaborate with anyone who loves movies and who are good at what they do. Christians will come to me very often and say, "We have money. We want to make a movie. But we only want committed believers to work on it." And I say, "Why do that? Why wouldn't you ask a pagan editor to work on your movie? You know what? The pagan might absorb something along the way, and he'll also do a better job for you than some believer who has mediocre skills." The result of insisting on like faith instead of excellence of craft is movies like the one I saw yesterday where all believers were involved, but it was hopelessly substandard.
Are you saying that nowadays Christians have to hire non-Christians if they want to have any really talented and skilled people work on their films?
No. We have some good Christian editors and cinematographers and so on, but even so, invariably, the Christian tendency is to not even work with the Christians in Hollywood who have an expertise. There is a strange suspicion towards anyone who has worked in the secular entertainment industry—as if they have some how been polluted! Frankly, I think the guerilla filmmakers are mostly trying to avoid being revealed as unprofessional. Mediocrity loves the company of people more mediocre than itself! The biggest thing that's holding us back is this refusal to collaborate with people who are not absolutely and one hundred percent in our court on everything. This goes for Catholics only wanting to work with Catholics too. And now there's a new Mormon film industry. It's pathetic.
The presupposition of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ film is that Jesus is a fraud. We really need to rally our Evangelical friends to this fight.
Why DO "heathens" or "pagans" seem to make the best Christian films?
First of all, by pagan, I mean people who worship other gods, many gods, and that's what most people in Hollywood are. That is, they worship money, prestige, power, botox, Spielberg, you name it.
Why is it that non-believers have actually made the best Christian films in the last few years? Because they value beauty and excellence. That's why even when they pick up a story accidentally that has some good value at its heart, they end up making a better project than we do when we start with Christian message stuff, because we don't value the craft as the gateway to beauty. We are all about using a movie to deliver a message. The best movies in the last few decades have been made by pagans who are serving the project as a beautiful thing in itself. Some examples are Amadeus, In America, Ghandi, Chariots of Fire, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, In the Bedroom, Spiderman 2, A Beautiful Mind, Hotel Rwanda.
That's ironic, isn't it, when you consider much beauty in art, music, and architecture Christianity has inspired over two thousand years?
Yeah. Just imagine some horrible, untalented Renaissance artist going around Rome painting angels all over the place. They would've considered it just bad graffiti. Now-a- days, we would let the guy paint on our cathedrals and drone a communal Gather Us In to celebrate the desecration! When I visited the new Cathedral here in Los Angeles, I was struck by the lack of aesthetic quality evident in the sculpture of the Blessed Virgin that looms over the entrance. The artist apparently wanted it to reflect "all people" so it has the racial characteristics of several races, plus a man's arms on a woman's body. I pointed out to the tour guide who explained all this, "Yes, but it is really very ugly." She sniffed at me in disdain, "We aren't about that kind of thing in the Church any more." Oh really. Somebody, quick call the Vatican to lock up the Pieta. We have lost the value and understanding of aesthetics in the Church.
Do you think this points to a deeper problem of the Church in the modern world?
Yes. But honestly, you probably caught me at a bad time. I went to the five o'clock guitar Mass at my parish this week. The music was so abominably bad that I kept thinking I was watching a Saturday Night Live spoof of church people. But no! We are doing it to ourselves. I sat there cringing while they sang unsingable song after unsingable song too slowly, in a flat tone, shouting through the microphone for everyone to join in. It was a horrific mix of bad music choices with inept production. This is a particularly dumb thing to do in Los Angeles, where most of the folks sitting in the pews are professionals who produce music and art in the secular sphere all day long. This is a town where the Church really, really can not afford to have lame music.
This is what Catholic liturgy in terms of beauty has come to. I wish it was the exception and not the rule in Catholic parishes, but my experience is that in most places I go, the arts are not the Church's priority at all. We are missing out on such a huge way of engaging people and helping them to feel the realities they're experiencing. It's so stupid. If Hollywood uses music in movies, it's because it works.
So how did we get here? Christians never had a problem before integrating art and faith and producing some of most beautiful, enduring, and universally appealing art in history. Why have Christians been so long in mastering the craft of film?
I have so many things I can say about it! It's a huge question: "How did we get to where we are?" I want to start by saying, "We're here. So, get over it and let's start doing something to fix things." I get exhausted sometimes with the never-ending critique and analysis of the culture in Christian circles. After we're done, everyone sits back self-satisfied—feeling like we've done something. But criticism doesn't build culture.
You're right that the community of faith and the community of art didn't used to be alienated from one another. I'd love to hear a historian put the whole thing together. In my essay in the book, I deal briefly with all of the many prejudices that religious people tend to have towards cinema as the art form of our time. It has to do with cinema being a "new" and visual medium that's tied to technology. Plus, there's a disdain in many religious people for entertainment. All of these factors have kept Christians from embracing cinema-making as a worthy way to spend a lifetime.
Why is it that non-believers have made the best Christian films in the last few years? Because they value beauty and excellence.
How can Christian filmmakers compete with non-Christians in making films that delve deeply into the human drama, if they have to worry about crossing moral boundaries?
This is a question we brood over all the time with our Act One community: "How does a Christian talk about sin in a way that's not an occasion of sin?" Well, that's a puzzle, isn't it? First of all, we can be absolutely certain that we—Christians included—are skewed as regards to what's really dangerous in art. We're used to reacting against the excesses of the secular materialist art that surrounds us. I was recently at a conference of one of the conservative Catholic colleges about year ago, and I said to the people there, "How many of you would let your child gaze on Michelangelo's David? Because he's completely nude, you know." And they paused, unsure. One woman finally said to me, "Well, maybe when my son gets older." There it is. We are in such a reactionary phase in the Church these days as regards aesthetics, that we can't even tell the difference between pornography and the David. That is something that is very particular to this moment in history and we have to be aware that we're not sure what's healthy and what isn't. I don't trust our sensibility right now.
Where does that leave Christian film makers? How do they know where to draw the line when trying to make films that get into the drama of the messy, fallen human condition?
We have to accept that the heart of drama is found in sin: betrayal, jealousy, greed, anger, fear, pride—that's entertainment!—and the reason for the redemption, by the way. Drama finds its suspense in stories of human beings trying and failing because of their inner demons and, then, finally succeeding by winning out over those demons. You can't take the demons out without creating stories that are sickly sentimental and absolutely useless to an audience searching for courage and inspiration on the screen. The great masters like Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene, managed to talk about very real human darkness without wallowing in it.
Take Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", the story of a serial killer wiping out a family of five. There's no gory description of the bullet tearing through flesh. She isn't about smearing blood and guts everywhere so that her readers become like passers-by at a car crash craning to see what death looks like. She uses violence to get our attention so that she can talk about grace. As my older sister the philosopher once said to me, "It's going to take the Church a hundred years to figure out where Flannery O'Connor left us in terms of literature."
Is this something you're trying to teach your students at Act One?
Yes. We tell our students that if they're living godly, holy lives, praying before they work, and trying very hard to keep the needs and the good of the audience at heart, chances are they won't do harm. So, they should go ahead without fear wherever their creativity in Christ takes them. And I don't know where that place is. I have no idea what the Christian artists of the next generation are going to do. But I do know that we need Christians in Hollywood.
Are you still advocating an open mind about the Da Vinci Code movie?
No, I'm not. I've had a chance to read the script. Granted, a movie can always change by the time it is done, but in this case, the presupposition of the film is that Jesus is a fraud. We really need to rally our Evangelical friends to this fight. I would hate to think that one of the reasons Evangelical America is willing to go lightly on DVC is because it is so hard on the Catholic Church. Talk about biting off your nose to spite your face! If DVC is right, then everything we believe is a lie. We shouldn't boycott the movie—boycotting is the technique of pathetic people with no power who have to whine and threaten and beg for favors. What we do is say in a very calm voice: "Not my kids. My family will not be going." Don't you old people say, "I won't go," because that's not going to impress Hollywood. Most of your over forties don't go to movies anyway. What's going to impress Hollywood and send the absolute finger of death running along the DVC production team spine, is: "Not my kids. My teenagers will not be going and our family will not be going."
What's your take on some of the recent high-profile Christian movies? Narnia? Left Behind: World At War?
I just saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe a few weeks ago. Disney and Walden did a wonderful job. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit and support. Every Christian needs to go on opening weekend as a corporate expression of, "Good job guys. Do it again and do it more often."
Left Behind in its latest incarnation continues to be an embarrassment; and, of course, Christians only have themselves to blame. They released it in 2,000 churches because they couldn't get 2,000 screens on the secular side. Believe me, no one really wanted to release it in 2,000 churches. I love the spin: "Oh, we have a different marketing strategy." Yeah, it's called no Hollywood studio would pick up this piece of garbage.
Can a film be Christian without in some way advocating faith in God and Christ? For example, could a film be Christian and tempt viewers to unbelief, such as a film presenting the problem of suffering and evil and leaving the question open?
Absolutely. But it depends on how you do it. There are a lot of stories that in the wrong hands could come off as being anti-Christian. Look at The Power and Glory by Graham Greene, or Silence by Shusaku Endo, who's also Catholic. Martin Scorsese is making a film based on Silence, and the idea of him turning it into an-anti-clerical diatribe has me tossing and turning at night. That would be subverting the heart of Endo's purpose. These books find their power in leaving the reader with more questions than when they started. It takes a lot of faith in both the reader and in the Truth to write like that. I find very few people of faith have that much faith in people.
We have to accept that the heart of drama is found in sin: betrayal, jealousy, greed, anger, fear, pride—that’s entertainment!—and the reason for the redemption, by the way.
Can you give us some examples of good things going on in Hollywood today?
There are so many cool things happening that I can't keep track. Anybody who has a project that they can say will appeal to "the audience of The Passion" is getting a hearing from secular Hollywood. Some cool people to watch are Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Wim Venders, and González Iñárritu, who did 21 Grams. Someone told me Inarritu had a note at the end of that film that said, "In honor of the Holy Trinity." Wim Wenders is also a filmmaker looking at the modern world and trying to exploit the full potential of cinema to do take his audience deeper. Check out his The End of Violence, Paris Texas, and Wings of Desire. Paul Thomas Anderson, the guy who did Magnolia is fascinating too. Magnolia is one of the strongest movies about grace that I've seen. You just have to block out the 400 F-words in the piece. Anyway, I think filmmakers like these are much more what the future will look like.
Speaking of tough films about grace, what did you think of Crash?
It was one of my favorite films of the year. But could you show Crash to your mother? Would the baby boomer orthodox Catholics in our midst support Crash and those who made it? No, they wouldn't, because the language and scenarios are so crass. And they also don't have the stomach for the ambiguity about who is really good and who is really bad in the world.
That's the problem we're having here at Act One. The baby boomers have all the money right now, but they only want family entertainment. And I don't know that at a time in which 70 percent of the world is given over to secular materialism and we're all fighting off terrorism and anarchy and the ravages of the sexual revolution that "family entertainment" is the medicine that's really needed for the culture.
The cultural divide in the country—much of it centered on faith issues—seems to be getting worse, not better. Secular people seem to feel more threatened than ever, based on what they're writing in the press. Are you seeing this in Hollywood too? Or has the culture war cooled down a bit there?
It's cooling down here because if it wasn't for the Christians, Hollywood would be in terrible financial trouble. If you think about it, a Christian project saved the global box office from 2001 to 2003 with Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Then another Christian project, The Passion of the Christ, saved the global cineplexes in 2004. And yet another Christian story is going to save the entertainment industry this year with C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What does that mean? You know what guys, you can hate Christians, you can disdain them, but you sure as hell better start pandering to them. (Laughs)
Is this potential to profit from the Christian market opening up minds in Hollywood at all?
It has to. You know what they're doing now? Everyone in secular Hollywood is searching Christian literature and the Christian Bookseller Association market, trying to find the good story tellers who already have a name in the Christan community. It's kind of funny. But what's really funny is that while we Christians are standing on the side of the road rolling up our sleeves to do battle with these people, they might end up getting to our story before we get to them. And how disgusting would that be for us Jonah's sitting under our gourd plants?!
So it seems Christians might be missing their own boat.
Yeah. It's strange how things work out. Remember, Hollywood is always ahead of the broader culture because today they're creating what you're going to be watching two to three years from now. Right now everyone's looking for stuff that has a "God element" to it. My friend pitched a series to CBS not long ago and she said, "I have to warn you, there's some God in this." And the executive said to her, "We like God. CBS likes God." And she's like, "Okay..."
The winds have changed all around us here. Does that mean these same people don't hate the idea of the George Bush-electing, homophobic, fetus loving red states? No, they absolutely do, with a fire-breathing, irrational hatred for the Christian right. But as they have to begrudgingly take more money from us Christians—which means associating with us more—they're eventually going to have to lose some of their preconceived notions to make good stories for us. They are going to have to enter into our worldview. Just watch!