Pop Culture From A Spiritual Point of View
September 26, 2003
Greetings from David Bruce, Web Master
page was last updated
October 10, 2003
THE LUTHER FILM: HOW IT WAS DONE
Roaring Lambs Bring Film to the Big Screen
The inside story of the Luther film
LUTHER BULLETIN BOARD
1. David Bruce
of HollywoodJesus.com talks with
Executive Producer Dennis Clauss
David Bruce: Congratulations on producing Luther and getting it into nationwide and international release. I have been so curious to ask how you did it. Doing a motion picture like that isn’t easy is it?
Dennis Clauss: No, there is a lot of struggle. We had a magnificent team of people working on this. But, I have to tell you there are times when strong personalities get in the way. But decisions have to be made. Feelings are hurt. It’s the nature of teamwork. But everyone ultimately comes together.
David: Filmmaking is a give and take process on everybody’s part.
Dennis: Yes that’s right. We partnered with a German production company to do this film. They are great people and their 50-year-old business is riding on this film. We put up most of the front-end money, and they had to raise their portion. They wanted Eric Till as the director. We didn’t, but we had to go with it, even though we had an A list which included director Bruce Beresford. We insisted that it had
to be done in English. It had to appeal to an American audience, and so it was —give and take. But, they did not want an American screenwriter because of the demands and high cost of the union. And then we wanted American actors, but they told us that the Screen Actors Guild would kill us with their royalty payments, and a lot of American actors won’t sign on unless you have a guild director, guild photographer and sound person. So these realities limited us to filming
in England and Australia.
David: I think The Gospel of John film ran into these same problems. In order to maintain budget American unions had to be avoided.
Dennis: And it’s not just the unions. People in the various guilds can make certain demands that add to production costs. American directors can insist on two assistant directors, instead of one. It gets expensive. But we discovered that we could get just as good of quality oversees. There is wonderful talent there.
David: No wonder so many independent films are made in Toronto and overseas.
Dennis: Yes. We had the same crew that worked on Mission Impossible overseas! It was great. And we paid 27 cents on the dollar that we would have had to pay in America. Same great quality —I defy anyone to tell the difference.
David: It saved a lot of bucks.
Dennis: Yep. The same film done in the US would have cost us double.
David: Which would have been prohibitive
Dennis: It would never have been made.
David: How much did it cost?
Dennis: 25 million. The average film out of Hollywood costs 53 million —so half.
David: The stats, just to bring a motion picture to the screen: 52% of the films made never make it to the screen and go straight to video. Is that right?
Dennis: Yes, I checked with the Wall Street Journal and I think the figures were that just 24 percent ever go into nationwide release. And 24% never make it past limited release.
David: So this is really a miracle. To come, as you have, from not knowing how to do it, learning as you go, and succeeding at getting a quality major motion picture on the screen. That’s amazing.
Dennis: It’s interesting because we do not have the kind of resources that a major studio have. On the opening weekend they can release a film on 3 to 4 thousand screens. Dump it all out there. Hope it goes well for a couple of weeks. After that, having pretty much exhausted the market, they move on.
Several (investment) angels have helped us, because they believe in this project and us. But, none-the-less, we don’t have that kind of money Hollywood has. We have to use direct market, grass roots, and call people on the phone. We have to work with a number of people who will put their reputations on the line and back the film. I am learning that it is as much work releasing a film, as it is creating it. It’s
so much detail, connection and follow-through.
Hollywood can inundate the population with television and magazine ads, and on the side of buses. But that kind of expense would eat us up alive. (Note: Hollywood can spend up to 34 million in opening weekend publicity. Opening weekend makes or break most films).
We’ve been so naïve and green on this thing that sometimes it’s been a blessing. If we had known all that it would have been involved, we probably would never have started. It would have seemed overwhelming. In the process, however, we have met so many encouraging and helpful people.
David: I always appreciate it when Christians get out there in the real world, as it were, and communicate to people other than the choir. That’s what Jesus did, speaking on hilltops to thousands of ordinary folk. He reached his world.
Dennis: Yes that’s right. We’ve been pretty fortunate in our efforts. The secular reviews have been coming in and they have been largely favorable and fair. The only problem we are having with it is in the area of media responsibility. For example, somehow the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com) put John Osborne down as the writer of this film. He’s not. He did a play on Luther, but it
is not connected in any way with this film. But there it is, and his name pops up even in the New York Times review of our film. We hired two writers that worked from original material. We stayed away from anything that was out there. And somehow John Osborne is given credit and now some lazy journalist throws it out there. And I want to say, “Hold it.” First they do a disservice to Osborne, because this is not his work, and they do a disservice to our writers who wrote
a totally different story line. So, I’m beginning to wonder about some of these people who do reviews.
David: Tell me how the film got started. You are a Lutheran, so doing something on the life of Martin Luther was already interesting to you, right?
Dennis: Yes. Actually it started when we wanted to celebrate the 100th year anniversary of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans by doing something special to say “Thank you” to our members. But as the last millennium was ending in 1999 there were all these lists appearing of the top people of the last 1000 years. Time/Life did one and so did A&E Biography. Luther was on everyone’s list,
and usually in the top 10. And these were secular lists. Not Evangelical Christian lists or something like that. So here were these secular historians saying that Martin Luther was one of the most important people to our culture! And so we thought, “Let’s look at this person from a broader perspective, and let’s not just make a film that merely congratulates our centennial.” And so as we got into this we made sure we put together a strong contingent of non-Lutherans,
and non-Christians on the team. This kept the production of the film balanced. We had some creative people who said let’s get away from religion and theology, and then we had theological advisors who thought it wasn’t religious enough. This tension was great.
David: You followed the Roaring Lamb principle. How did you come in connect with it? (Note: The Roaring Lambs are Christians who remain in the culture to make a positive difference).
Dennis: Yea, Bob Brinner’s book Roaring Lambs has been my guide throughout this whole project. What happened was, a few years back, we put out the TV film, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace,
and with the attention that it received, I got connected to some folks –evangelicals (Roaring Lambs) in Washington DC who were committed to having a positive impact on culture. I don’t think they would want their names revealed. They have roles at the highest levels of government. After we did the premiere in New York City, I got a call asking if we would show Bonhoeffer on Capital Hill to Congress. I said, “Let me think about it for 30 seconds (laugh).” And
said “Sure!” They set us up in the largest room on Capital Hill, the Dirkson caucus room, which holds 300. They sent out invitations, and I though maybe a few might come. But lo and behold two weeks before the screening we had surpassed the room’s capacity by a hundred! This thing became a hot ticket. Everyone wanted to see it. I’m talking ambassadors from other countries, Supreme Court justices, you name it…
David: Your kidding. Wow! That’s exciting!
Dennis: Yea, so we had to set up an adjacent room with TV monitors. We packed packed both rooms. So many important people were there. After we showed the film, we had a little forum up front to discuss the impact of Bonhoeffer on our culture. I thought maybe this would last 30 minutes or so. We
figured these high-powered government people would watch the film, grab some food and leave. But, an hour and a half after the film people were still there, discussing the implications of this Christian Theologian, and no one wanted to leave. These Supreme Court justices and all these folks were really getting into this, they really wanted to talk about it.
Afterwards, I got phone calls from people (Roaring Lambs) who said, “You have really struck a cord with this film.” And, “You provided a forum to influence people.” And they sent me a copy of Roaring Lambs. I read it and thought, “Wow this really makes sense to me.” I had already
started the Luther project two years earlier, and this book reshaped our direction. After all, we could have made it a much smaller film --a self-congratulatory thing. You know, preach to the choir kind of a thing. But, the book and these people (Roaring Lambs) provided the nudge to see the larger market that was out there. We had a unique opportunity, so we went for something more. And that lead to the formation of a Christian and non-Christian team, as I mentioned before. Creative
artist, historians, theologians, documentarians, --this blend just blew my mind.
David: You kept an eye toward the popular audience. Was that hard? So many Christians that I know cannot get past preaching to the choir. And they seem to think that it would compromise their faith to be artistically involved with the secular world.
Dennis: Yes, well this was not a problem for us. It was simple: we wanted to reach out. Our feeling was that people go to the theatre to be entertained, not educated. First and foremost they want to be entertained. You got to have a good entertaining product. You got to have a good story. If you don’t hook them in the first three minutes of the film, you are dead. They have to care about the protagonist
and identify with the situation. They need to be able to say, “I could be that person. I have been in a similar situation.” You have got to create a situation they can identify with. There has to be a hook, and then you can’t let them go.
We had two beautiful scenes that we cut, because they interfered with the flow. We never wanted anyone to disconnect from the story. We wanted people to suddenly realize, “It’s over?” For 2 hours we really wanted to keep the audience.
But that’s just the storyline. Then there are the technical elements –the right colors, believable actors, setting, and location. Bottom line: It’s got to be good entertainment where people feel it was worth their time and their money. And in today’s market it’s probably more about time than money.
David: Yes, today time has greater value.
Dennis: The issue for us was to get the message across. We had to weave the message into the story in a natural and well-constructed manner. You know, for example, World Wide Pictures —Billy Graham’s organization— has never been able to get beyond the church audience. They have done some good films, but they never really broke bigger. And we asked, “Why didn’t they?”
And what we heard was: they had a story line, but there was a commercial. It was like a time out in the middle of the movie. It was akin to an altar call. They weren’t satisfied with the just the story, they had to reinforce it with a sermon —to preach at you. Demanding something of you. And that turns people off.
So we were told that if you are typed or perceived as a religious movie —something that wants something of you by watching this movie— you are going to turn people off. Actually, we struggled with that a lot, because we do want something from the people who watch.
David: Doesn’t any storyteller want at some level to convey a message. Isn’t it more how its done, than that it is done?
Dennis: So the way we did it was to make the message such a woven part of the story that people would hear it. In a good film you put yourself into the character and you hear their message and it’s meaning.
The other thing, you want the message to be clear. There is a very clear gospel articulation three times in this movie. But as people watch it does not seem overbearing. It’s what the people would have heard. It’s appropriate to the situation. If you are struggling with the issue of a personal God, thinking God hates me, or doesn’t love me, you are going to hear someone talk about the same problem and
finding an answer; Or if you are a person who wants to know how to care for other people; Or, you want to know what it means to have God in your life; Or, what does faith cost me? —You will hear that come out in the film.
David: What is the initial hook in the film?
Dennis: A person who is terrified about going to hell. What’s going to happen to me after I die?
David: That’s Luther!
Dennis: Yep! That’s Luther!
David: I truly hope the film does well. Hey, thanks for taking your time.
Dennis: My pleasure and thank you.
LUTHER BULLETIN BOARD
Info on Bob Brinner’s book Roaring Lambs
Info on the video Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace
Trailers, Photos pt1
About this Film
About this Cast
About this Crew