Great storytelling embraces the chaos of life and doesn’t try to wrap up all crises as the credits roll, observes Hollywood veteran Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran.
As director of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ BestSemester L. A. Film Studies Center, she leads an innovative program designed to teach people of faith how to tell a story and how to actually make a difference in Hollywood, through artistic achievement. It’s a role she landed after forming friendships with some of the most powerful names in the entertainment industry.
I recently talked with Rebecca about what she has observed over the years, the evolution of faith in film today, how Christians in Hollywood are most effective, and why horror films may be the most spiritual films on the market.
Q: You were once a pastor. How did you become head of a Hollywood film program?
I totally backed into it. I was involved in the music industry through my husband David Raven, who has been a drummer, writer, singer and producer for over 40 years, working with artists like Keith Richards, Norah Jones, and Bruce Springsteen. His own music is used on many television shows, so I got to know many people in the entertainment industry first through music. I was a pastor for 14 years, including the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, which is home to artists of all kinds.
Randall Wallace, who wrote “Braveheart,” taught our adult Sunday school class and through him and the church I met John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Blind Side”), Ken Wales (“Amazing Grace,” “Cagney and Lacey”) and many others. I began developing film and arts ministries, such as screenwriting groups, Sunday Night at the Movies events, artist retreats, etc. Those ministries led to opportunities to be on the boards of both the City of Angels Film Festival and Reel Spirituality, a program of Fuller Theological Seminary. A lot of exciting outreach was going on.
For many years prior to the 1990s, there was quite a stigma attached to being Christian within the film industry — people could lose their jobs if discovered. After the controversy of “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), Christians started gathering and being supportive of each other, so entertainment-related ministries developed and were flourishing by the time I became involved in the late 1990s.
While working with the City of the Angels Film Festival (eventually becoming director) and Reel Spirituality, I left First Congregational to start an unusual church with my husband for artists, filmmakers and thinkers called Tribe of Los Angeles. Since I needed a full income along with this, I became principal of a school for low-income families, adding education to my resume of ministry and artist relationships. I got a call when the position opened up at the L.A. Film Studies Center.
Q: You describe a very dynamic group of believers who meet and talk together and keep each other strong, which contrasts with those who say that when you go to Hollywood, you lose your faith. Have you found that your faith can become stronger in Hollywood?
Yes, it can. The environment is really changing here, but not always in the way people expect.
Many people believe that if content coming out of Hollywood is changed, it will change culture. While that is true to some extent, what we found is that the biggest impact in Hollywood is made by people using their own gifts and skills in the industry and building relationships with industry peers.
I have a salon in my home (a social gathering for purposeful conversation) where people like Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), Scott Derrickson (“Doctor Strange,” “Sinister”) and David Oyelowo (“Selma”) discuss culture, the art of film, career development, theology or ethics. Not everyone is Christian, but we learn from each other.
When you consider the makeup of the dynamic churches in the area and people who participate in industry ministries, I would say that conservatively there are 8,000 Christians (Evangelical/Protestant and Catholic) at all levels of the industry in Hollywood who can reach out to their community so we have found that more than content change comes about through relationships.
Q: In the last few years, Hollywood has taken notice of faith-driven entertainment and the faith-driven audience. Is that a good thing? How has it impacted some of the vehicles chosen?
Overall, Hollywood is much more open to Christian thinking, and there has been a major shift in content. Now some television shows have fascinating theological subtexts and thoughtful or struggling Christians in recurring roles. HBO invited one of our faculty members to be an official blogger for “The Leftovers” from a faith-based approach. Our own program has quite a few strong Christian alumni who write on TV shows and bring thoughtful content to them
But there is something different between being open to Christian thinking and being open to faith-based types of films. Studios embrace the genre because it represents a large audience, but they give it little funding, making it difficult to make a high-quality film. If the films are challenging rather than inspiring, their audiences react negatively, as if the only way to Jesus is through inspiration and hope. This directly contradicts the Gospels.
Also, Christians who finance films too often use people they know outside of Hollywood to write, produce, direct and act in their films, ignoring Christians who have been honing their skills in Hollywood for years and could actually make quality productions and understand the nuances of the industry.
And so it can be hard to find great quality Christian productions.
Q: Hollywood often struggles with telling a faith-based story respectfully. Consider Russell Crowe’s “Noah,” who wants the world to end or Christian Bale in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” who does not believe the plagues are really signs of the power of God and instead is worried about how people get paid and economic structures. Why doesn’t Hollywood tell the story that is there?
They care about the story. But those kinds of changes are the creative license that writers/directors use to tell a different story, either to fit it into the film form that tells it well in two hours (compared to a novel or a different story) or because the filmmaker has that different perspective. Artists are not obligated to an audience.
On the other hand, one problem with Christian filmmaking is that while we could tell the story, we don’t do it well. We get too close to it and tell too much or not enough.
“Ben-Hur” is a good example. It’s getting poor reviews, and criticized for being too violent or that the main character is physically not strong enough to bear what that character had to undergo. But the biggest criticism is that the story of redemption has been cut out.
Christians try to make films like others, but often don’t do it as well. My students are interested in being the best in the business. Right now, for example, our postproduction students are interested in working at companies like Light Iron, a leading digital postproduction company, and we were excited that they specially created a position for a new graduate. Young alumni are winning Emmys for editing, being offered television acting roles or as writers on TV shows. These are the things what my students want to do and it is where they make a difference. Not surprisingly, when you are excellent at what you do, people will want to know what you believe.
Q: Hollywood once included stories with a values component as part of its regular rotation. Films like “Boys Town” with Spencer Tracy or Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” were not made to pander to a subset of the population, but to provide inspiring entertainment as part of their regular fare. Is this a thing of the past?
When those films were made, Christianity was part of the culture. From the ‘50s and ‘60s on, we saw the emergence of a postmodern, post-Christian culture and a radical shift in culture. The sacred became less accepted, less visible, less present, and people do not know how to access that world.
I think that even Christians from a Word-based, propositional belief structure living in a post-Enlightenment world don’t have the tool kit anymore to know how to listen to God and hear God speak, let alone assume that a materially oriented culture does.
That’s not to say that there aren’t people who do, but a majority struggle with being able to know or feel God’s presence. I don’t think we have the tool kit for listening to God and to hear him. So, we don’t make those films because people in the culture don’t understand that worldview as they once did. They don’t see it.
I will say that Catholic writers and directors seem to have a capacity for opening up the spiritual world to us that others don’t, even if their films are not explicitly religious or they no longer retain their faith, such as Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock.
Richard Blake calls it an “afterimage” or “footprint” of that worldview. Evangelicals, particularly those who fund films and set the parameters are Word-driven and want to beat a message into everything.
Catholics see the world as sacramental and images become tangible evidence of spiritual life: Bread is the body of Christ, wine His actual blood. They seem to be able to deal more richly with the nuances of Christianity and of storytelling. Catholics have a better sense of image. And film is image.
Q: You said previously that a lot of Christians don’t know how to mentor artists. Why?
When it comes to the movies, too often many Christians want to see things that fit within our codes and our views of what we think Scripture to be.
There is frequently an ambiguity in spiritually penetrating films.
While most people want to watch a film that resolves the conflict in the story and ends well, our brains react in a way that says, “That’s done. It’s over. Now we move on.”
But certain kinds of stories don’t have a type of ending and don’t resolve the conflict. It’s those stories that have the capacity to stay with us and alter us. We have to tell stories we can’t forget.
When we offer inspiring stories that neatly tie up the endings, it’s no wonder no one relates or wants to listen: It isn’t honest. It’s time for Christians become people identified with being truthful, honest and willing to expose our own struggles. So I don’t think this is the day for evangelism in the way we’ve understood it. This is the day for credibility.
The only way we can really address our culture is to become the people known for telling the truth: not tell who we are, but be who we are.
Q: So how can people of faith make better, more memorable films?
To make great films, you need to find the very best people — even if they are not believers.
I’ve seen people come to Hollywood with all of this money to invest in changing the culture, but I’ve found that people not in the center of the industry don’t always choose the best people. They choose people who think like them.
A lot of the most talented Christians in Hollywood today like working with horror films because you can say there is evil in the world and depict it and grapple with it. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a great example.
I believe “The Devil’s Advocate” (that starred Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves) is one of the most biblical portrayals of the devil and how he could operate.
I was moved by what Scott Derrickson said about horror films. This comes from the book, “Through a Screen Darkly” (2007), by Jeffrey Overstreet:
“When I interviewed Derrickson for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, he explained his appreciation for the genre. ‘There’s evil in nature. We’re not in control. I think [horror is] the genre of non-denial, and that’s fundamentally what attracts me to it. ‘Emily Rose’ is a movie that takes some of the darkest aspects of spirituality and portrays them in a realistic way. And the value of that is that I don’t think you can watch the film without asking yourself if you believe that these things are real
“It’s valuable for the culture as a whole to be asking itself those questions. Because once you’re in that arena, you can’t ask yourself if you believe in the devil without ultimately asking yourself what you believe about God. To dissect evil is ultimately to define good.”
Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran is director of a semester program for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities at L. A. Film Studies Center in Los Angeles. She is a mentor and friend to many throughout Hollywood, recently giving a Princeton Lecture on “The Dark Side of Beauty,” and the American Scientific Affiliation keynote. She is completing her doctorate from King’s College in London, exploring the prophetic voice in art and in film.
• Kristi S. Hamrick is a writer, speaker, media consultant and president of KSH Media Inc. @KristiSHamrick
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