Unsolicited Advice from a Failed Filmmaker
Editors' Note: Reflecting on the movies produced by Sherwood Baptist Church, Andy Crouch imagined the scenario where "one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to Los Angeles, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies." What would these movies look like? What advice would you give to a Christian screenwriter, director, or producer who wants to make a film with artistic excellence from a Christian worldview? The Gospel Coalition posed these questions to writers, filmmakers, and artists to reflect together about Christianity and film.
In the summer of 1999 I finally became a Christian filmmaker.
I wrote a screenplay (title: "Other Than War") about two Marines who serve together in Somalia (on a peacekeeping operation) and San Diego (on recruiting duty). I selected the cast (fellow Marines), the crew (fellow Marines), the locations (Rosarito, Mexico; San Diego), and the caterer (Pizza Hut). But the production hit a snag when, because of "cost overruns," my executive producer (MasterCard) refused to provide the funding I needed ($2,500) to buy a digital film camera (a Canon GL1).
As a result, I've been stuck for the past 13 years in what we in the business call "development limbo." Having my first film project languishing in the pre-production phase somewhat limits the practical guidance I can provide as a screenwriter/director/producer. But I'm not one to turn down the opportunity to offer unsolicited advice, so I present these six suggestions for my fellow filmmakers.
1. Don't be ashamed of the "Christian" label.
"We're a movie made by Christians," director Steve Taylor said about his new movie Blue Like Jazz, "but we don't like it tagged as a Christian movie."
Whatever artists think they are saying with such a claim, they really convey, "Yes, I'm a Christian, but I didn't allow my Christian attitudes, beliefs, experiences, or ideas to shape my work---my art is indistinguishable from what would be produced by a non-believer." Is this really what you intend?
Unfortunately, many Christians have convinced themselves that we can approach our vocations with a sense of religious neutrality. But we can't. Our work either betrays a worldview shaped by Christ or one influenced by the world (or, more likely, a syncretistic mix of the two). Whether we are plumbers, teachers, or mathematicians, our faith ultimately shapes the way we approach and carry out our work.
This is especially true for those whose vocation entails storytelling. We either consciously acknowledge the ways our faith forms our artistic vocations, or we will be willfully blind to how our sinful nature shapes our craft.
When it comes to art, common grace can only carry us so far. Without the redemptive guidance of the Christian faith, our culture-making efforts as Christians will eventually stagnate and atrophy. Our work will become indistinguishable from those who rebel against our Creator.
We Christians are not only set free from our sins but also set free to help carry out God's redemptive role in creation. In response, we should desire to use our gifts for the glory of God, rather than merely for the advancement of our own exaltation. Why then would we not want our art to be labeled as "Christian"? And why would we Christians want to produce art that cannot be distinguished from those who despise our Redeemer?
2. Don't imitate Terrence Malick.
Last year one of America's most overrated directors released one of the most overrated "Christian" films in the history of cinema: Tree of Life. I've read dozens of reviews---many by Christian film critics---and the praise for the film tends to be based on three factors: It's well-acted, it's pretty, and it isn't a cheesy Christian film like Fireproof. Admittedly, all of that is true. Tree of Life contained superb acting, lush cinematography, and is cheesy in a way completely unlike the unfairly maligned Fireproof.
Just as Fireproof was welcomed as a Christian alternative to Hollywood schlock, Tree of Life was embraced as a substitute for Christian kitsch. In many Christian intellectual and artistic circles, admitting that you don't like Malick's latest snoozefest is a sure sign that you are a philistine (and probably from somewhere like Tulsa or Omaha).
Even so, Tree of Life is deadly dull---like watching a documentary by a Buddhist who has read the Old Testament. Tree of Life fails as a work of art because it does not meet the minimum required of every competent film: tell a coherent and compelling story.
Unfortunately, critical reception of the film ensures that it will be influential among Christian filmmakers for years to come. As a result, Christian audiences will be subjected to a slew of meandering tone poems rather than treated to vibrant and enthralling narratives.
You can spare your audience such grief and pain by following a simple rule: Don't be like Malick. Don't portray God's creation as boring. Don't make a film that will only win you kudos with critics too insecure to admit they don't understand why you included the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park in a remake of The Great Santini. Make a movie for us unwashed masses. Give us a story. Give us a narrative that makes us gasp at its audacity and ask "What is man that you are mindful of him?" rather than "Seriously, what's up with the dinosaurs?"
3. Sometimes it's okay for a film to just be a movie.
Not everything needs to be work of art. Sometimes we just need entertainment. (Don't worry, we'll still call you an "artist.")
4. Don't be knostic.
Over the course of my 42 years I've watched roughly 3,000 films. In order to justify my rather indiscriminate viewing habits I became a master of eisegesis---the process of misinterpreting a text by introducing one's own presuppositions and agendas into the text.
For most of my movie-watching career few films eluded my efforts to read into the script some form of "redemptive" theme. No matter what the filmmakers' intent in making the film, I had the ability to suss out its hidden, deeply embedded, "Christian" meaning they didn't even know they had included. I was what Douglas Wilson would call a "knostic," a person who has a "tendency that attempts to resist Gnosticism while simultaneously falling into something else very much like it."
Many modern knostics have wanted to learn how to appreciate the arts of narrative. As far as that goes, nothing wrong with it, but whether writing about novels, or movies, or stageplays, they have found "redemptive" or "death and resurrection" themes in all kinds of grimy stories. In other words, an abstract thing, the structure of the story, is mysteriously able to sanctify the actual content of the story. By means of this amazing magic trick, any amount of Tarantino sludge can be made edifying.
Now . . . three cheers for structure, but content matters. Content is determinative.
Content determines whether your film is Christian (i.e., influenced by your Christian worldview) or syncretistic (influenced by a mix of worldviews). As a filmmaker you must make that choice consciously rather than relying on the structure to convey your theme. Consider, for example, the common structural trope of the "Christ-figure." Any moderately competent director could turn Satan into a Christ-figure. But that wouldn't give the movie a "redemptive" theme. Don't expect your audience to do the work of reading into your movie a redemptive theme that you were unwilling to include.
5. Don't be afraid to make distinctly Christian films.
Gene Veith explains the defining element in Christian art:
All distinctly Christian art must be, in some sense, about the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.
Mere moral lessons, while perhaps commendable, are not enough to be distinctly Christian, since Mormons, Muslims, and ethical humanists could agree with them. And mere optimistic positive messages are not enough and may even be harmful, since they can create the illusion that we can achieve righteousness by our own efforts. Works of meaning and beauty have their own value. But to be explicitly "Christian," a work needs to be, directly or indirectly, about sin and grace and what Christ has to do with them.
While not all films made by a Christian need to be explicitly Christian, our culture could use more works that are distinctly Christian. If Christians filmmaker won't make them, who will?
6. If you want to be a Christian filmmaker make a film.
From my experience I've found that after about a decade, people become skeptical about your claims to being a filmmaker if you've never actually made a film. If you want people to take you seriously as Christian filmmaker, then be a Christian and go make a film. You may fail in your efforts, you may even make a very bad film, but at least you can say you made a film. That's more than most of us failed filmmakers will ever be able to say.