Writing Faith into Film in Hollywood

After several years as a director of project development for Paulist Productions in Los Angeles, one thing was clear to me: Very few quality scripts were being written for Hollywood by committed Christian writers. I wrote an article on this subject for the February 1998 issue of CRISIS (“Screenwriting the Gospel”), which found its way to David Schall, the director of Inter-Mission, an interdenominational network of Christian professionals in the entertainment industry. David invited me to begin a training program for “the next generation of Christian screenwriters.” So on January 25, 1999, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, Act One: Writing for Hollywood was born in Los Angeles.

Now as Act One heads into its third year and has grown to comprise a faculty of 75 working screenwriters and producers, I have hope that better days are ahead for the arts and the Church. The training program is a month long, rigorous experience that includes classroom tutorials, cinema screenings and discussions, writing assignments, and industry mentorships. Act One’s curriculum covers every aspect of writing for show business, as well as spiritual and ethical formation to help students keep God as their first priority as their careers unfold. Here are the lessons we have learned from this unique experience.

Respect What Hollywood Does Well

One day, C.S. Lewis was preaching on a street corner when a heckler from the crowd shouted, “If I were God, I would have made a better world!” Lewis looked at him in surprise. “Indeed?” he said. “Well, would you mind making a rabbit, just for confidence sake?” Hollywood has much to teach us, if only we Christians will relinquish our lofty posture and indignation and be humble. Over the last three years, countless Christians outside the industry have scoffed to me, “I could write better scripts than most of what ends up in the theater.” I have often wanted to reply, “Indeed? Well, would you mind writing a decent public-service announcement, just for confidence sake?” Hollywood is so very good at what it does that many people think making movies is easy. Anyone working the long, intense hours that go into making anything that ends up on the screen knows just how ridiculous and ignorant that notion is.

Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the greatest Catholic novelist of the past century, once noted, “Christian writers should be much less concerned with saving the world than with saving their work.” Many begin the Act One program with a slight cockiness that our seasoned faculty likes to call “the Messiah complex.” At some point in their lives, they swore off the cinema out of either fear or disdain, and they have come to Act One with the idea that they can save it from the outside. It takes several days of showing them some of the stunning and profound work being done in secular cinema before we can really begin to teach them. Generally, they then shift to the opposite pole of “What am I doing here? I’ll never be brilliant enough to write a good script!” We calm them with the assurance, “Relax. Look at all the morons who are doing it.”

Except for music, most Christian media are dreadful by secular standards. Religious television networks typically run nothing but an endless parade of talking heads, which offer the least screen-art possibility. This is partly because talking-head shows are the cheapest to produce, yet many impressive independent films are made every year for less than the budget we Christians spend on what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as impotent “chattering heads” in terms of real cultural impact. Considering the powerful palette that television has to offer as a storytelling medium, Christian television usually resembles an artist who only uses the color blue on his canvas. Picasso used mostly shades of blue in his paintings for several years, but he was Picasso, exploring the infinite potential of blue. Christian television producers opt for making the easiest kind of productions more because they lack creativity than because they truly desire to explore the cultural impact of talking heads.

The only recent films made and marketed by Christians for Christians, Left Behind: The Movie (2000) and The Omega Code (1999), have been met by many in the broader entertainment industry with almost a sigh of relief. Until these films, they thought Christians wanted something deep as entertainment, something beautiful, inspirational, and uplifting. Watching the bizarrely bad Omega Code secure a spot as one of the most profitable independents in 1999 and the ghastly Left Behind rake in $60 million in video sales has strongly impressed Hollywood. Creative executives are responding with a puzzled “Oh well, we can do that?’ Brace for a spate of similarly themed pieces of theology-lite, sci-fi “spiritual thrillers.” Just peachy.

Ken Gire, an Act One alumnus, wrote in his book, Reflections on the Movies: Hearing God in the Unlikeliest Places (Chariot Victor, 2000), “I would rather be exposed to an a R- rated truth than a G-rated Having no conviction of hope, the entertainment industry tends to obsess over the only realities of which it is certain: confusion, darkness, isolation, fear, and depravity. Skewed as it is in its representation of what it means to be human, this kind of cinema can still hold profound truth for us about life without faith and, on another level, about using the screen art form in powerful ways.

Learn From the Best in the Trade

Every year, Act One gets better. We adjust and deepen the curriculum based on the gaps we detect in our young Christian students. We added ethics classes last year, and we’ll be adding creativity and narrative theology studies this year. As good as we make the program, however, the biggest determinant of whether our students will be able to cut it as successful screenwriters is completely out of our hands. As grace builds on nature, so Act One needs innately talented writers of depth and spiritual maturity.

Where have all the great Christian storytellers gone? Where are the Graham Greenes and the Chestertons, the Evelyn Waughs and the C.S. Lewises? People continually recommend a “great new Catholic novelist” to me, and I rush to the bookstore only to end up lamenting to myself, “This isn’t `great.’ It’s barely even good.” We’ve got to stop elevating mediocrity just because it is the only game in town.

One problem we have identified in the screenwriting of our students is that they have very little connection with their own cultural heritage. Our faculty has compiled two lists of the 100 most influential novels ever written and the 100 most influential films ever made. Most potential screenwriters who come to Act One have read an average of only six to ten of the novels and have seen only ten to twelve of the films on our lists. It always boggles my mind that someone would try to make a career as a writer without first being a reader. “You do realize that as a writer, you will be using words?” I ask them.

Our Gen X students, the largest demographic in Act One, are saddled with another burden on their journey to become brilliant screenwriters: They do not know English. Most cannot spell, do not know grammar, and have pathetically limited vocabularies.

After three years of working with Christian screenwriters, I have also come to realize that many godly people are just too healthy to be great artists. Their work is shallow because they are guessing about what darkness feels like. Instead of filling them with zeal, their Christianity has left them balanced and boring, without passion and rough edges, and with nothing to say. The most provocative screenwriting comes from people who have descended into one hell or another and have the scars to prove it. They are the hardest people to work with, as they often argue passionately over arcane distinctions and disrupt the class schedule. They drive me crazy, right up until I read their work, and then they make me laugh and cry.

Show, Don’t Tell

My friend Karen Hall is a writer and producer for CBS’s Judging Amy. She has hundreds of prime-time credits and a slew of industry awards, and is also a best-selling novelist. She told me recently that she knows her eleven-year old daughter also has writing chops because “the other day, she wrote an essay for school about how her feet feel inside of her shoes. You can’t teach that to a person.”

Many well-intentioned Christian screenwriters who want to make a difference in the industry try to do all the spiritual work for the viewer by spelling out right and wrong, truth and lie. This is the viewer’s job. The role of the screenwriter is to craft a fascinating arena, compelling characters, and an intriguing story that will allow the viewer to experience what the truth feels like. The theme must be cleverly embedded in the work under a web of details that provide scope for the imagination.

In Hollywood, the nastiest dig you can make to a writer is to call his or her work “on the nose.” All good screenwriters know that the real power in movies is the subtext: the worldview of the filmmakers that viewers absorb in an unconscious way. We fall in love with a character and then assume his or her attitudes about life and its meaning. When a filmmaker brings his or her personal agenda into the film, it always feels like propaganda and draws out the derision of the industry.

Don’t Distrust the Arts

When we began promoting a training program exclusively for Christian filmmakers, we expected to meet resistance from Hollywood and—okay, I admit it—applause from the Church. Surprisingly, we have found the opposite much more likely to be true.

We have received encouragement from people at all levels of the entertainment industry. For example, a prominent secular Jewish journalist surprised us with his enthusiasm for what we were attempting, noting, “We need good women writers. We need good African-American writers. We need good Christian writers. Every group has something to share.” Act One has also been positively portrayed on CNN and CBS and in the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly.

The response of the Church, on the other hand, has been a mixed bag. The message of the Catholic hierarchy since the Second Vatican Council has been that the Church needs to infiltrate the arts and the media, infusing them with a gospel worldview. In the last few years, there have been four ecclesial documents on the topic: Pope John Paul II’s heartfelt Letter to Artists (1999), Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture by the Pontifical Council for Culture (1999), and Ethics in Communications (2000) and Ethics in Advertising (1997), both by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The Catholic Communications Campaign of the U.S. Catholic Conference became a major sponsor of Act One during our second year, demonstrating our bishops’ pastoral vision and an impressive openness to ecumenical collaboration. However, many of the Catholic faithful don’t understand why we need good screenwriters. We must first address what the Church and the world have to gain from the arts.

The Church needs the arts because they are the best medium to express the mystery of God. Hollywood understands that spoken language is hopelessly limited and unable to express the totality of any reality. A film that “works” is one that delivers layers of meaning both visually and aurally, using language sparingly to reveal psychology but not to deliver facts or advance the narrative.

Flannery O’Connor became annoyed when readers of her work plagued her to reveal the meanings in her stories: “If I could do it in a sentence, why would I write a story?” Artists cajole us into setting out on their finely crafted journeys, where we may find what Joseph Conrad called “that kernel of truth for which [we] had forgotten to ask.”

In the 1990 anthology Only the Lover Sings, the great philosopher Josef Pieper makes the point that we all need to be artists to be saved. We are overstimulated by the distractions of popular culture and technology. We are losing the gift of our humanity to perceive and then to wonder at the hand of the Creator wherever He shows Himself. It is the province of the artist to focus on the significance of the infinite details that harmonize in every unity. When we create something, we train ourselves to be more observant and thus to preserve our ability to see.

Many Christians see the in a kind of dark fury against those who work in the arts. There is a general sense of having been let down by painters, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, as though these people should somehow have been exempt from acting out the errors of postmodernism. Even worse, many Christians are suspicious of the power of the arts to sway on a level beyond language. This is particularly true in the evangelical Protestant community, which often has taken the Word made flesh and turned Him back into words again.

Not long ago, a devout Catholic woman said to me, “Our daughter has always wanted to be an actress, but her father and I told her we would pay for her to go to college for any other field but that one. We don’t want her to lose her soul.” She added that the young woman had reluctantly agreed to forgo her dream of theater and study nursing. I respectfully suggested that her daughter might lose her mind instead.

Never mind the weird sort of religion that would teach a child to make vocational choices based on fear. And never mind the tragic lack of pastoral love that ought to rejoice in the prospect of sending a spiritually healthy actor into the entertainment industry as a missionary. I am dumbfounded by the implications of rejecting the gifts of creativity that God bestows on young people. We in the Church have lost too many artists this way. Most often, they hold tremendous resentment against religious people for being superficial and full of fear. After flailing around in agony and isolation, many of these gifted but alienated young people have found a welcome in the gay community instead.

Christians very often wax nostalgic for the great days when movies never offended. I might be taken in by all this if it weren’t for my frightening memories of growing up in the Sixties. Gidget, Pillow Talk, and Andy Hardy Makes a Cake, The Sequel may have been fun movies to make, but they were also too easy. I remember whining to a philosophy professor early in college that Kant was too hard to understand. He dryly offered the challenge, “People who read only what is easy for them do not grow.” The saccharine, artificial cinema that postwar America overdosed on and now remembers longingly poisoned the popular culture as surely as the graphic excesses of today’s Hollywood will. The Sixties and Seventies could be regarded as one great heaving to shake off what Flannery O’Connor rejected as a perverse and, for Christians, an inexcusable appetite for sentimentality, an “overemphasis on innocence.”

I subscribe to an online discussion listserv of O’Connor admirers. Most on the list are secular academics scandalized last fall at the news that a Catholic high school in Louisiana had banned her works on the ground that they are “racist and offensive to some people?’ Art should always have a prophetic aspect. A prophet’s job is to shake us up with the stunning revelation of truth. Art doesn’t need to be crass, but it should always stretch our minds beyond what we are comfortable with. Art that doesn’t disconcert us will not deepen us because there is no growth without tension.

Win Over Your Secular Coworkers

We started Act One to change the entertainment industry for the good by replacing people in the business who are ungodly with those who are godly. Good programs, we reasoned, can only come from good people, so we needed to exchange “us” for “them.” As we have prayed and grown, we have realized that God could take the film industry tomorrow if He wanted to. Success in our program should not be measured only in how many shows our students are able to get produced, but also in how faithful they are to bearing the presence and love of Jesus to those with whom they work.

Our task is to make ourselves one with those who are the decision-makers in the industry, so as to change their hearts and ultimately change the projects they are attracted to. Every year, Act One sends into the industry professionally trained artists who understand themselves as apostles of love self-donation. They will work and dwell in the heart of the industry, bringing to it hearts of prayer and examples of the life of faith. Hence, the goal is not to replace the secular people in Hollywood but to win them over.

Get Along With Other Christians

Every movie is a miracle of collaboration. In the typical Hollywood production, the talents of hundreds of creative individuals are harmonized to achieve what is essentially art by committee. People with nothing in common strive to get along and bring out the best in each other, all so a movie or television show can be produced. It is a marvel that we Christians can rarely do for God what Hollywood has learned to do for money.

Act One brings together a highly diverse group of Christians from every denomination. The group is also diverse in terms of age, place of origin, education, economic level, and writing expression. We have been able to achieve and maintain unity in the program by applying Pope John XXIII’s strategy for effectiveness: “In every situation, I strive to stress what I have in common with others as opposed to what separates us.” As the sign in our Hollywood office reads, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

On the first day of class, students, faculty, and mentors all pray together and commit themselves to the goal of bringing an example of unity and mutual love to the industry. We call on our students to refrain from making jokes or negative comments about any other student’s race, age, religious tradition, or place of origin. We also assign each student a writing partner within the group, generally from a different religious tradition, for whom that student is encouraged to assume a particular burden of prayer and sacrifice. Finally, we encourage students to dwell on universal themes in their projects, transcending strictly denominational subcultures and experiences.

We did not create Act One as a model of ecumenical dialogue. We were compelled to work together as Christians of different faiths because no single denomination had the resources and talent to get such an ambitious project off the ground. As friendships have developed, we have come to appreciate the gifts of the different “mansions” of the Christian community. Liturgical faiths bring a strong sense of the power of symbol and the ability to construct allegories. Evangelical faiths bring an absolute conviction of the life- changing power of truth and a strong commitment to the fellowship of faith.

Occasionally, we trample on each other’s theological sensibilities and feelings. As a Catholic, I have had to adjust to being routinely asked by my evangelical brothers and sisters if I am in fact “saved” and whether I have ever “accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” In return, the evangelicals must remember not to lose patience with our Catholic reticence about sharing our faith, even with other Christians. Success for Act One has been found in not taking offense where none is intended.

 Take Center Stage in the World

As Act One has grown, we have only begun to see tangible fruits in the writing projects our students submit. One of our students just made a deal with a major studio. Several others are working on television shows as production and writing assistants. Still others are working as screenwriters for hire with a variety of production companies. We have every reason to believe that over the long term, these new screenwriters will affect Hollywood’s writing community for the good. More than anything else, however, the Christian screenwriters we train in Act One have become a sign of real hope to the Church outside Hollywood. We are showing that there are good people in the industry who want to redirect popular entertainment toward beauty, truth, and goodness.

By

Barbara Nicolosi is a Catholic screenwriter and the executive director of the Galileo Forum at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. She has a Masters in Cinema from Northwestern University and a B.A. from Magdalen College in Warner, NH. She is the recipient of two Catholic Press Awards and the editor of the 2006 Baker Books release, "Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith and Culture."

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