Faith and Film: An Oxymoron?
Found a great interview online between Adam Holz and my friend Barbara Nicolosi, talented screenwriter and founder and former executive director of the Act One Program: Writing for Hollywood – on whose faculty I have served for more than a decade. I have strong feelings about this topic, as you may have gathered from previous posts.
But I could not have answered these questions any better than Barbara — so I repurpose it here for your benefit. For those of you who identify yourselves as people of faith, especially those of you who work in (or aspire to work in) Hollywood, I urge you to read carefully. Your survival in Showbiz depends on it. If you’re not a person inclined to matters of the spirit, please drill down deeply into this material anyway. It will help explain how crucial an exploration of the soul is to the craft of screenwriting.
Onto the interview…
Christians and Hollywood. It may seem like a paradoxical relationship—maybe even a mutually exclusive one, more like oil and water than toast and jam. But an increasing number of Christians have committed themselves to being a part of what Tinseltown is right now—many of them hoping to influence where it will go tomorrow. Barbara Nicolosi is one of those Christians. For more than a decade, Nicolosi has been working to train Christians screenwriters and executives via a program she helped found called Act One. She’s also a screenwriter and adjunct professor of cinema at Seaver Graduate School at Pepperdine University, as well as the co-editor of the 2006 bookBehind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture. She blogs regularly at Church of the Masses. I spoke with her about the complicated intersection of Hollywood and faith.
Adam R. Holz: Barbara, start us off with a quick recap of what Act One is.
Barbara Nicolosi: Act One goes back to 1999. It was an organic effort started by a group of Hollywood professionals who were all believers. We were grieving together at one point about how many Christians come to Hollywood and really commit suicide, metaphorically speaking, and then they think they’re being martyred because of their faith. The idea was that many Christians were approaching the business without a lot of professionalism. They weren’t approaching it with any real sense of the industry standards. And very little regard for the art form itself. A lot of times Christians come in and they don’t really love the medium of film and television. They’re coming to use it as an agenda-driven thing. So we decided we wanted to create a program that would help Christians make a better start. We also included a lot of ethics and spirituality and spiritual formation content because we saw that many weren’t prepared for the dilemmas that come up for believers in the business. We wanted to give our students a better leg up in those areas.
Holz: Were you already in Hollywood and writing screenplays at that point?
Nicolosi: Yes. I was a writer, and I was working in a production company as a director of project development. Pretty much everybody in the core team of Act One was working in the business. It was kind of the litmus tests we had. We didn’t want anyone guessing at what was involved in being in Hollywood. We wanted people who were speaking from the battlefield. And so we started this thing 11 years ago, and now we’ve trained over 1,000 young people. About five years ago we started training executives and producers, executives who want to work in network studio production companies and on the creative side. Eventually, we would love to start a program for actors and directors. (Anyone who wants to see what we’re up to can go to actoneprogram.com.)
Holz: Right or wrong, many Christians tend to see Hollywood as a godless wasteland that pumps out garbage for the rest of the culture to consume. As a Christian within the industry, though, you have a perspective that very few people have. How would you describe the climate in Hollywood for Christian moviemakers today, and what are some of the ways you see them making a difference?
Nicolosi: I think it’s a really great time to be a Christian in Hollywood. Because with the change in the generations—with the Boomers stepping down and now the Gen Xers and Millennials stepping up—there’s tremendous openness to hear new stories, stories that have some hope. I think we saw the Barack Obama campaign make a lot of hay out of the concept of hope, but he really latched onto something that people are feeling. Namely, the need for some hope. In contrast, the end of the Boomer experience has a lot of cynicism [in the movies they've made]. They’re not very happy with where their lives are and the lives that they’ve lived. But now their kids are wanting some reasons to be heroes. They’re wanting reasons to be committed. They want to be in relationships that last. It seems to me as Christians, if we can master the craft of the art form, there’s an openness now to give meaning to people. To tell stories that would help them to live their lives differently than their parents did. Stories that give them some reasons to be a hero. It’s as if they’re saying, “Give me some reason to make a sacrifice, and convince me that I’m going to be glad at the end of my life that I did that.” So, I think this is a natural thing for Christians. And now that the Christians have been organized in Hollywood for the last 15 years or so, there’s a tremendous network of believers in the business.
Holz: What are some examples that show the contrast between the generations of filmmakers?
Nicolosi: If you look at Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or The Departed orThe Aviator, these movies basically say that life is a cruel joke because everybody is caught up in the system, the system is corrupt and evil, and in the end there’s nothing you can do to change it. At the end of The Departed, for instance, the hero gets killed for his trouble. And it just feels like a total waste. You see similar themes in movies like Mystic River from Clint Eastwood. Several other films of his have also reflected this type of cynicism (though not Gran Torino). What they’re saying is that we haven’t been happy, therefore human happiness is not possible. Now let’s look at some of the new filmmakers, the Gen Xers, who are beginning to make a mark—like Jason Reitman, who made Juno. My college students had two favorite movies in the last year: Up and Juno. Both of these movies are positive. If you’ll remember, Juno is about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and carries her baby to term. She says in the movie, “It might be the greatest thing I can do with my life to give the possibility of parenthood to somebody who wouldn’t have that.” And she’s willing to sacrifice nine months of her life to do that. That makes no sense to the Boomer generation. In this year’s Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s Academy Award-nominated film, he has a Gen Xer just basically looking in Boomers’ eyes and saying, “I don’t want to be you.”
Holz: How does that play out onscreen?
Nicolosi: George Clooney and Vera Farmiga play two people who’ve decided that that the best way to live is to not have any commitment. Just have as much sex as possible and then run. And this 23-year-old character looks at them and says, “I don’t want to be you. I want to be committed.” Those are just a couple examples. But I’m seeing it all over. The movie Preciouswas an indictment of the Boomer welfare state. That film has a Millennial saying, “I don’t want to be you” to her mother and walking away.
Holz: That’s a difficult film to watch. But I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that it’s inspiring.
Nicolosi: It’s a very hopeful film, which makes no sense because of the harsh, really graphic nature of the brutality that the star, a teenage single mom, suffers. Her mother is the product of the welfare state. She’s the consummate product. And the movie condemns that lifestyle, and she walks away. She’s going to have a tough life. But she hopes for a good life.
Holz: What would you say it looks like to be a biblical and discerning moviegoer?
Nicolosi: I would say that there are two wrong ways to live as a disciple in the 21st century. The first wrong way is to be what I call a “cave-dwelling Christian.” These are literally the ones who are hunkered down, those who proudly say, “We don’t watch television, we don’t ever go to the movies, it’s all garbage. We’re trying to shut out the world.” To that mindset I would say, We’re supposed to be yeast in the world. We’re supposed to be telling all of creation the Good News, not ducking our heads down hoping we don’t get caught in the crossfire. There’s nothing heroic in the vision. In fact if Christians do nothing, it allows the forces of darkness to have free rein. So I believe that’s the wrong way to live. The other wrong way is what I call being “Teflon Christians.” These are the ones who say, “Ahhh, it’s just a movie. It’s just music. It’s just a video game. The kids are just having fun, and I don’t wanna think about it.” These people will let their kids go unaccompanied to see movies like 300 and Watchmen and never trouble themselves to find out what they’re taking in. We live in a very complex moment right now. To be a Christian and a disciple in the 21st century means you have to be adept at learning. You have to walk through the mire and find the good stuff there and point to it and hold it up. In City of God, St. Augustine said, “Evil is taking something complicated and making it simple so it’s easier for you to deal with that way.” We’re living in a time where we have to be alert. Our sanctity is going to be found in this careful process of finding the good, pointing to it and holding it up for other people, patiently watching stuff with our kids, teaching them to look for meaning, teaching them to look at method, unveiling agenda where it’s present. We don’t have the luxury of going to the movies, like maybe our grandparents did in the postwar period, and just munching on the popcorn.
Holz: Christian filmmakers often include an evangelistic or a theological message in their movies, messages that are impossible to miss. Do you think this is an effective way to communicate our faith via film?
Nicolosi: When you want to put a sacred or transcendent message in a movie—let’s say one that’s going to mention God or the life of the soul—I think it has to be so beautifully done that people will feel that you’re sharing something that’s beautiful, not something that’s trying to get them to do something.
Holz: Or to convert them?
Nicolosi: It’s not agenda driven. What you’re doing is sharing a beautiful insight. And even if your audience doesn’t share that insight—or if they haven’t had it themselves—they can say, “Wow, that’s really cool.” So I think that’s the secret for us to talk about these things we’re really burning to talk about. But that takes a tremendous amount of skill and practice. When my students come in and say, “I want to write the next Passion of the Christ,” I tell them, “Why don’t you just write a really good short film right now about a father and a daughter and leave the God stuff out the picture because you don’t have that ability. You shouldn’t take on the life of the Spirit until you’ve kind of mastered the basic stuff.” I think a lot of times Christians are biting off way more than they can chew, and their talent and training just isn’t up to what they’re attempting. It ends up that they make the work look banal. It’s over simplified. It’s badly done. It just ends up making you wince. I wince terribly when I watch us talk about God in our movies because it feels so oversimplified. This is the kind of work that Flannery O’Conner condemned very often.
Holz: She was a Catholic writer?
Nicolosi: Yes. Certainly one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century … maybe ever. But she also happened to be a very strong Catholic who was committed to her faith. She said that for Christians to place an overemphasis on innocence is inexcusable because we know what’s in the heart of men. This is a very complex thing we’re doing here—living human life—and when Christians reduce it to simple platitudes, it’s kind of disgusting.
Holz: Still, for the sake of argument, isn’t it better to make something that’s nice than nothing at all? Or something that’s not nice?
Nicolosi: Someone once told me that the word nice comes from the same Greek root word that means stupid. I see a lot of Christians trying to create nice movies that would be better left undone.
Holz: What, then, does a beautiful movie look like?
Nicolosi: It involves a mastery of craft in which the artist encounters the world. And because it’s filtered through their talent and their training—they’ve practiced it many times—they’ve actually got something to say. It’s probably going to come out in a metaphor, because that’s what artists do.
Holz: Is it something like what Jesus was doing with His parables?
Nicolosi: Yes. That’s where this idea comes from. Having said that, I do think there are some values we have as Christians that need to be articulated in the mainstream marketplace, values that flow out of the theological truths of our faith. If Christians went missing tomorrow from the marketplace of ideas, for example, what would be missing? I think we can nail down some of these values that we bring to the table. For example, one of them would be the sacramental quality of life. For Christians, everything we see is a sign of everything we don’t see. There is order and meaning behind all of material life. … That is a Christian value that would be missing.
Holz: It seems like that value is especially important in a postmodern age in which people say, “There is no truth. It’s all up for grabs. Pick and choose what you want.” Because of that view of reality, our minds have ultimately become pretty chaotic.
Nicolosi: There are absolutely no absolutes in postmodernism. In contrast, another important Christian value is our conviction that good and evil are not equal. We believe good is much better than evil is bad, even though it doesn’t always look like that on the surface. Our movies, our stories, need to reflect that truth. Another value would be the ironic juxtaposition of joy and suffering, of hope and suffering. Christians can hold in their hands hope and suffering simultaneously with no sense of contradiction. The cross is the greatest sign of that. And so we can talk about how grace is always being offered. These are Christian values that should infuse our stories.
Holz: If you could say anything to Christians who see only a few films a year and who are generally cautious when it comes to the world of movies, what would it be?
Nicolosi: What you need to do is find critics whose sensibilities you trust and then regularly listen to them. Because the truth is, God is sending the Holy Spirit and He is inspiring artists and storytellers today to tell stories that we need to hear as people of this moment. I think Christians need to see themselves as people of this time and moment and stop thinking that we’re standing outside the culture. We aren’t. We’re in it.