April 19, 2002|The Catholic Church's auto-immolation at the soiled hands of pederast priests unable to live in the imitation points to a crisis of perception for those hoping to proselytize the Christian walk. For a faith of which most of its sects are evangelical, the popular secular opinion that Christians are patronizing, hypocritical, close-minded, corrupt, and smug--mostly dormant since the heyday of the Bakkers and Swaggerts, though the occasional book-banning and Darwin-bashing keeps it breathing--is resurrected again in our current climate with an Old Testament fury. A spate of terrible Christian films the last couple of years (The Omega Code, Left Behind) has led to a spate of wildly-uneven offerings in just the last several months, pictures that were greenlighted and produced prior to this most recent need for a little low profile.
There's the somewhat simplistic if well-intended A Rumor of Angels, plus The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, the sepia-drenched mawkish of A Walk to Remember, the surprisingly effective Frailty, and, finally, the unintentionally uproarious Joshua. The cinema, once a haven for pious big-budget epics (The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Ten Commandments, The Robe), is now a reliquary for either the non-sectarian mainstream query (The Sixth Sense, Dragonfly, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) or the abovementioned independent salvo, not a one of those little indie productions timid, but with the exception of Frailty, not a one of them particularly good, either.
The modern skittishness with which Hollywood approaches Christian films is ironically at least partially the fault of those skulking at the base of the Christian demographic (and at the underbelly of all cults and movements). Thoughtful ruminations on "true faith" like The Exorcist, Michael Tolkin's brilliant The Rapture, and, of course, Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ garnered pickets and worse, the trouble of creating a modern spiritual work of both mythical resonance and Franciscan questioning seemingly not worth the fallout from ignoramuses far less dangerous when they're impotently protesting things like Harry Potter. Better to incite them in the condemnation of something widely acknowledged to be innocuous than challenge their entrenched and jingoistic perceptions of (again that sticky phrase) "true faith."
This reticence to portray controversy is not merely a failing of the religion itself (recalling that the Bible absolves God from the creation of Sin--not so Milton where the lineage of Sin is direct from God to Satan), but also the failing of the soapbox celluloid sermons of the most visible of modern Christian culture. (Blandly emotive music sharing time with likewise artless cinema and literature.) What strikes most deeply is the realization that besides being barely ordinary, what distinguishes new Christian music and cinema is a general belief that non-believers are simpletons and easily swayed by broad and intelligence-insulting narratives that read as a Sunday School lesson plan or those over-simplified versions of The Bible, which cast aside poetry in favour of a lifeless literal interpretation.
Understand that I don't have a problem with the faith so much as the ways in which Christianity chooses to inculcate new members into its flock. Nor do I condemn all of Christianity, but rather intolerance and stupidity in any walk that is made worse by a conviction of right reason. Gone are C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton--in their place, Scott Stapp and Jerry Jenkins. It's no wonder the credibility gap is wide and widening. FILM FREAK CENTRAL sat down a few weeks before the Catholic Church's latest "outing" with Peter O'Fallon, director of A Rumor of Angels, and John-Paul Macleod and Louise Clark Goddard, star and producer, respectively, of The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, to discuss in part the difficulty of bringing Christian messages to the movies these days.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about the transition from television to film.
PETER O'FALLON: I told my agent that I wanted to learn how to make movies before I made a movie. I did "thirtysomething", "Northern Exposure", "Party of Five", "Profiler"... I was waiting to do [A Rumor of Angels] for twelve years--it's sort of a labor of love. Out of the blue, a friend of mine called me up and offered me Suicide Kings. I read the script, I liked it, and it was actually pretty easy. The film did pretty well and I was offered a lot of different movies that for various reasons I didn't do. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't because I'm very proud of [A Rumor of Angels].
Tell me about the casting process for Suicide Kings.
Well, we did something a little different, had everyone audition. Hollywood's a weird place, it's kind of like dating a girl. If she's too available, no one wants her--if she's not available, everyone wants her.
You had Christopher Walken and Denis Leary audition?
No, no. (laughs) Once we got Chris and Denis involved everyone else fell into place.
What's the philosophy that governs your direction of actors?
It's kind of like jazz. I like it chaotic and messy--I show up ridiculously organized then I throw it right out the window. I try to get the actors "off of" acting--I'll try to interrupt them or just leave the film running. That kind of pressure, all of a sudden sometimes they'll just stop acting. Chris and I got along really well because he's into the "jazz" too. There were moments in Suicide Kings where he'd kick out all the kids because he was sick of 'em and have me read the other parts. He'd get frustrated sometimes with me and I'd say, "Hey, Chris, I'm not an actor, man."
Are you a neo-Tarantino?
Not at all, not even kind of, not even sort of--that really pisses me off. Bless Tarantino, I mean, Pulp Fiction is an amazing film, but the difference is that I personally get upset when someone blows someone's head off and makes a joke out of it. It's not moral and not that I'm a particularly moral person, but though it's funny it's a little nihilistic, for myself I want to feel like there's justice in this world. In Suicide Kings they get their just desserts at the end.
After your work on the excellent TV series "American Gothic", and with the first ten terrifying minutes of A Rumor of Angels, have you had any thoughts of going on to work in the horror genre?
You should've seen the first cut of this! I brought my friends in and they said, "Well, you've got this horror film and then this really nice film." I've actually got this thriller that I wrote with [A Rumor of Angels co-screenwriter] Jamie Horton that I really would like to make called The Best View is From the Edge, about my first year at the University of Colorado.
Tell me about casting Vanessa Redgrave for A Rumor of Angels.
I always had her in mind--I felt it was important that the movie wasn't too sweet. I always pictured Maddie as kind of a bitch--a woman who lives alone on a hill mostly because she wasn't very nice. Likewise, I wanted the kid [played by Trevor Morgan] to be a little twelve-year-old brat.
What are some of the difficulties of bringing spiritual messages to the movies these days?
One of the fascinating things I found about this film is that it's very age-specific. Under a certain age you don't see much tragedy in life so in general younger audiences tend to like darker films. I think they like them because they can flirt with the darker side of things.
Film as peepshow.
Take a look and go home, exactly. The thing I found is that as people get older they start to see that darkness and angst in their own lives. Roger Avary is a good friend.
The screenwriter of Pulp Fiction?
Right, and after watching the film he said, "Peter, this is a very bold film," and I said, "Whaddya mean?" He said, "Hollywood doesn't make this kind of film, it's scarier than anything I've ever written, I admire your balls"--and this is the guy who wrote Pulp Fiction. Right now the sicker it is, the better--the more twisted, the more obscene...that's actually something I'm actually worried a little about with critics in particular who watch so many movies alone. This film is much better with an audience--it's a total experience.
You feel as though it's more intimate, ironically, in a group setting?
Well, the reason I got into this business was because something moved me in a movie and we've gotten away from that a little. I mean, Why not? Why is there such a resistance offered against films that move us? I envisioned Rumor of Angels as something like a Field of Dreams--a so-called "male weepy."
So do you like the test screening process?
I do, I do. People who don't like it, in my opinion, are ignorant...or they're much better than I am. Basically you go to Hell for eighteen months with a movie and by the time you get done you have no perspective on it. You sit in that first screening with a test print and the volume control and you really discover what works. Rumor of Angels got a new ending because of the process--the film originally had a bigger Hollywood ending and it turned off the audience a little and I just felt it. I ran immediately and said I was going to recut the last few minutes and the film is better for it.
JOHN-PAUL MACLEOD & LOUISE CLARK GODDARD
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about working with the late Ian Bannen.
JM: It was a wonderful experience. We only worked together for a week, but I learned so much from him in that short period. He taught me how to be natural on camera--the scenes with him are so important in the film. It wasn't even like work, it was so wonderful--and I wasn't so much good in those scenes as he was great and made all of us better.
LG: He was the most generous man--he was the most professional, least demanding person. We miss him very much.
Why this novel for the screen?
LG: Well, I read it first and gave it to my husband. I adored the story so we hired a screenwriter who actually lived with us. We were very involved in this project from the beginning. I was interested in making people feel a certain way--I didn't want to do "Marcus Welby", I didn't want to do the sex and violence, and here was an opportunity to bring a wonderful and celebrated work to the screen.
How did Jonathan Pryce become involved with the project?
LG: He loved the script. I was told when I said that I'd love to get him that we'd never get him for our budget, but he loved the project, his character reminded him of his father, and he came aboard out of love of the project. The same happened with Ian Bannen--he loved the message and was so proud to be a part of it.
John, your scenes with Pryce are among the most effective of the piece, tell me of that experience.
I learned hugely from Jonathan--he's my icon. I have so many actors I look up to, but I used to watch him in the movies and think, I want to be that, I want to be Jonathan Pryce. I was so nervous--I saw him walk on set and I just said, "Oh my God."
LG: He was only on set for a few days, but he really broke John in and took him under his wing. When he was about to leave, he even cast around for someone else who would take care of John when he was gone. It was an extremely nurturing set.
What were your reservations, if any, of making a film so steeped in issues of faith and spirituality?
LG: We were told by everyone that we were making a mistake--we were limiting our appeal and distribution. But what I couldn't figure out was how could spirituality be controversial?
JM: Right, God is the longest running character in history.
LG: (laughing) I mean, basically the powers that be loved the film but didn't want to touch it because they didn't know how to sell it. We actually lost financing the first week of shooting and had to scramble to make up the shortfall. We had to pull together everything we could every step along the way.
Tell me about audience reaction to your film.
JM: We just had a great screening in Florida and I'd never seen so many men crying.
LG: Festival audiences have been so kind and enthusiastic. I've had people say to me that, "This is the best film on spirituality that I've ever seen." I think the film is great because it's not preachy and it really touches you--it makes you think about what you believe and how you affect the people around you. It's not about what church you go to, but what kind of person you are.
What is your audience, ultimately?
LG: I don't know. I don't know what age group or demographic--we've won so many children's festivals and the like and yet we deal with a lot of mature subjects like divorce and dealing with death and how to heal. Someone said at the last screening that in light of the events of 9/11 we really need films that teach us how to heal.
Has there been a backlash for the film from either side?
LG: Some comments from people who are very religious complain that we don't hammer it home enough--they're upset that we don't pound the fact home that it is only God that heals and not our faith-healing protagonists
JM: It's impossible, I think, to ever satisfy either extreme.