Sunday, July 31, 2005

Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture

(Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi, eds. Grand Rapid: Baker Books, 2005)

After a spate of books about Hollywood written by Christians who are observing the industry from a distance, it’s refreshing to see a book like Behind the Screen, which was written by a group of individuals whose day jobs place them at the heart of the most influential cultural enterprise on the planet.

The book was produced by the faculty and staff of Act One, a non-profit organization founded to train people of faith for careers in mainstream film and television. The list of contributors includes writers like Janet Scott Batchler (Batman Forever), directors like Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), producers like Ralph Winter (the X-Men franchise, Fantastic Four) and Dean Batali (That ‘70s Show), story consultants like Linda Seger (Making a Good Script Great), and many others. Their essays cover topics such as why Christians should be involved in the entertainment industry, how to know if you’re called to the industry, how to survive in Hollywood once you get there, and even practical advice on how to break into Hollywood on both artistic and financial levels. (On this latter approach, check out Charles B. Slocum’s fascinating essay “The $10 Billion Solution,” wherein he argues that if Christians really want to make a lasting impact in Hollywood, they should put their money where their mouth is and buy up one of the major studios.)

Some of my favorite contributions include “A Filmmaker’s Progress” by Scott Derrickson, where he uses Pilgrim’s Progress as a rough outline for his own spiritual and artistic journey; “Changing the Channels” by Dean Batali, in which he instructs Christians on how to communicate effectively with people of influence in Hollywood, and Linda Seger’s essay “What Kind of Stories Should We Tell?”, which issues a call for Christians to abandon overtly prescriptive stories in favor of those that take a more subtle, descriptive approach.

Apart from their association with Act One, I quickly got the sense that the contributors also share something else in common: strong feelings of frustration with Christians outside Hollywood who: a) treat Hollywood as if it is the whore of Babylon, b) assume there are no Christians working there, c) are shocked and appalled when they find out there are Christians in Hollywood or d) attempt to “take over the entertainment industry for Christ” without having the slightest idea about how the industry works, what audiences want or how to create a compelling, theologically significant piece of cinematic art. Clearly, this book was written to head such people off at the pass, and it definitely accomplishes that goal.

One thing I do want to take issue with in this regard is Lewerenz and Nicolosi’s opening remark about how Christians don’t like Hollywood. If they had prefaced the word “Christian” with the word “evangelical” or “fundamentalist,” and if they had written these words even five years ago, they may have been closer to the truth. However, today these and other Christian groups are embracing Hollywood like never before. (Remember that spate of books I mentioned earlier? Box-office attendance also bears this out.[1]) As it stands, such negative statements merely create a false picture of conflict—much like the one that has maligned the relationship between Christianity and science for the last few centuries—and ultimately work against the spirit of reconciliation this book is striving to create. That said, if I had to deal with as many sincere but ultimately ignorant Christian zealots as they have over the years, I would probably share their pessimistic view.

Part how-to manual, part meditation on what role Christians should play in the entertainment industry—and what role the entertainment industry should play in the lives of Christians—Behind the Screen is must reading if you’ve ever cast a stone at Hollywood, wondered how we can span the gap between Christianity and culture or considered getting involved in the entertainment business yourself.

[1] According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Barna Group, born again Christians who are neither conservative nor liberal on political matters are among America’s most prolific movie watchers. (


Liz the Brit said...

This is an interesting topic, to say the least, Kevin.

For example, I had no idea that for example, Janet Scott Batchler (and her husband?) were people of faith - Christians?

If they are... well, I'm just wondering why so many modern superhero movies (which people like the above work on) have this overriding need to "punish the villain", smash, flatten, obliterate, etc... Even when it is NOT necessary to do this to defeat him, as it was NOT in ALL the Batman movies to date.

(And on a note of comparison - WHY then did NONE of the (previous) Superman movie writers/directors think it was necessary to kill Lex Luthor?? Isn't this "kill 'em" a particularly DEPLORABLE modern ideological tendency - ie let's kill/torture terrorists or terror suspects - so that their friends have more incentive to come back and kill us??)

I think that if more (genuine and constructive) Christians worked in Hollywood/comics/superhero movies, we wouldn't see "endings" (that being the operative word!) like that of "Batman" or "Batman Returns"... and also, things like the asylum in "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin" would NOT be portrayed exclusively as places of torment or Stygian gloom, like a sort of earthly hell...

That's MY view.

After all, Christians are supposed to believe in outreach to sinners. Criminals, the rejected of society, etc.

But that brings me to my second point. All TOO often, Christians, even some sincere ones, often find themselves being patsies for big business or powerful interests. One example would be missionaries sent in to soften up natives. Another example would be some of those dubious "prison ministries" that exist in the States - Chuck Colson's for one - infiltrated by the CIA if you ask me! Also known as the "Christian Crips" in prisons nationwide, so I hear. And that Canadian radical Christian site you write for also admit as much; they say that historically, religion, or at least many of its leaders, have served the ruling class.

So. There's also that problem - it's in fact the one thing that has disillusioned me most about Christianity. I don't know (of) any Wiccans who work for/are part of the ruling class, so that's OK there...

So - you see - if the Christians "took over Hollywood", even one studio, bought one studio... WHICH Christians would it be??

Wouldn't it be much more likely to be the "fundagelicals", as I've heard them described? The Religious Right?

After all, where would the money come from? Isn't it the fundies and people like Robertson and Falwell who have both the most money and the greatest organising power??

If Christians bought up a studio, all SORTS of people... from Marxists to Democrats to ACLU would kick up hell. And I think, that from the track record, they would be right to.

Hell, I wouldn't even trust Marxists/Trotskyists with their own studio! Not a big one. I don't see what right anyone has to buy up a non-partisan "organisation" or business, and turn it into something to churn out exclusively "message movies" promoting ONE point of view.

Though I HAVE suggested to the Trotskyists etc. that they set up a LITTLE film studio, most particularly an animation/CGI one, to produce their own propaganda cartoons and skits. But so far they - the SEP etc - have shown nothing but disinterest. More fool they! They obviously don't have the propaganda skills of their pre-WWII predecessors.

6:01 PM  
Liz the Brit said...

But I'm going to buy this book once it is released on, because I think it will tell me how Hollywood works.

2:27 AM  
Liz the Brit said...

Er, yes, Kevin... in the absence of any further comment from other people - how about one of my remarks above, viz. WHY do YOU think - after all, you seem to be setting yourself up as a bit of authority here! About Hollywood and the market and Christians in it and so on... Well, OK, GIVEN your remarks... WHY has it been the "trend", in modern superhero movies, of the past fifteen years, (a very GOOD indicator!) to either kill the villain, have him kill himself by his own efforts (as in the Spiderman movies!), or, as in one of the Schumacher Batmans, have him reduced to a state of utter, gibbering madness? (As the next best thing - but as a grudging "concession" to "not killing", as I ruefully noted it was, at the time!)

When we don't see this in any of the 1980s Superman movies?

Well, WHY?

Why the current focus on killing, obliterating, "the opposition"?

Isn't it because the U.S. elite wants to obliterate all its enemies - all radical Muslims, all Third World leaders in general, viz. Pat Robertson's remarks saying that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela should be assassinated??

Well, do many Christians agree with such remarks? Or, if they don't directly agree with Robertson... do they agree with, say, Tim Burton? Or with all the modern moviemakers? Do they GO to a movie to see their fantasies fulfilled, of someone obliterated?? Someone "bad"?? Someone "weird"??

(Is THIS why Christians like Hollywood?)

Why does the "other" have to die? Why can't he be allowed to live to fight another day - in modern Hollywood? ("He" still usually is, in comics, but this is ONLY because they want to go on using the characters, in their "continuities"!! Ie, to make more money!)

2:41 AM  
Kevin Miller said...

Liz: This is a good question. I'm not sure why Christians like Pat Robertson and George Bush are so intent on obliterating their enemies (and why many Christian storytellers feel compelled to do the same, although I haven't done enough research to know if you're right about that). In my opinion, anyone who advocates the assassination of another human being cannot claim to be a Christian, which literally means "little Christ," because they are advocating exactly the opposite of what Christ lived and taught. Sure, Bush and Robertson can come up with all sorts of justifications for their actions, such as the clear and present danger men like Chavez may pose (although I don't know enough about Chavez to comment on that). However, Jesus was not into national security issues. He lived his entire life in occupied territory, and when everyone wanted him to lead them in a rebellion, to take much the same stance as Bush and Robertson are advocating, he led them in exactly the opposite direction, choosing to submit to his enemies instead. That's the amazing thing about his story, because in doing so, not only did he overcome the worst thing his enemies could through at him (death), in doing so, he opened up a way for everyone--friend and enemy--to do the same.

Anyway, the real question I think you're asking is why the radical right seems so intent on obliterating the enemy, both literally and in fiction. My guess is that their lives are controlled largely by fear rather than faith. They think that if only they can eliminate all the bad guys, they will finally be safe. It's almost comical, because it reminds me of that pseudo-South Park animated sequence in Bowling for Columbine. It's sad, too, though, because even if they do manage to kill all the "bad guys," it is only a matter of time before they come up with a new group of people to fear. That’s because the bad guys aren’t the true source of fear; they are merely a convenient target. The true fear comes from inside the radical Right. They fear the world, they fear God, and they fear their own worst impulses. Rather than deal with those fears directly though, they project them upon others. I think that’s called sublimation, correct? Anyway, until this fear is dealt with, they will never have peace, no matter how many bad guys they manage to take out. And lest anyone think I’m writing this from atop my high horse, let me be the first to say that I am just as susceptible to this sort of thinking as the radical Right. The difference is I am self-aware enough to flee from it rather than embrace it, although I’m not always as successful as I would like to be.

10:54 PM  
Kevin Miller said...

BTW: The thing that irritates me the most about people like Pat Robertson is that people hear him shoot off his mouth and then assume all Christians are as ignorant of Christ's teachings as he is. Not true. Pat Robertson speaks for a minority of Christians who have allowed their love of Christ to be subverted by their loyalty to the State.

10:56 PM  

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