[Christianity Today Movies; December 2, 2008]
‘Perhaps Just Out of Our Minds’
Christian filmmaker Buzz McLaughlin tries to find a niche between secular movies and preachy ones—only to find it’s an elusive market.
In the independent film The Sensation of Sight, Oscar nominee David Strathairn plays an introspective English teacher who feels himself complicit in a tragedy, and then begins selling encyclopedias door-to-door to the locals. But his anxieties begin to consume him as various characters and dreamlike situations increase around him, ultimately pushing him toward an unexpected awakening.
It’s sort of a strange synopsis for a “Christian” movie—which it isn’t. The filmmakers behind Sight—which played 19 festivals worldwide, had a limited theatrical release earlier this summer, and is now available on DVD—are Christians, but they didn’t want to make a distinctively Christian movie.
But they didn’t want to make an entirely secular one either, opting to include themes of faith and redemption in the story in more subtle, intelligent ways, instead of being preachy and/or didactic.
Executive producer Buzz McLaughlin and director Aaron Wiederspahn formed Either/Or Films—named for a book by Soren Kierkegaard—a few years ago “for the purpose of developing and creating films of beauty and artistic excellence that provoke the public to engage with the providential mystery of grace,” as their mission statement says.
Frederica Mathewes-Green of CT Movies caught up with McLaughlin at a conference in New Hampshire recently, and their conversation about finding a niche in the film business was fascinating—especially as the two filmmakers ran into outright hostility from industry insiders who even suspected that they might be men of faith.
CTM: The Sensation of Sight is the first movie from Either/Or Films. How did you come to form the company?
Buzz McLaughlin: I met Aaron some years back in Orlando, when he produced a play of mine; his theater, Trilemma, had been founded by a group of Christians.We immediately hit it off and began sharing our concerns over what was happening in our culture, and in the film industry specifically. Hollywood was supplying the marketplace with movies that consistently attempted to reflect the chaos of the world—sometimes quite effectively—but rarely tried to make sense of the chaos. On the other hand, films that did attempt to reveal God’s hand behind it all were often didactic or overtly proselytizing, preaching a “message” rather than telling a story artistically. With few exceptions, we saw films falling into one camp or the other, with only rare examples that presented reality truthfully and intelligently, asked important questions, and pointed in a positive direction.
CTM: Could you name a few of those “rare examples”?
McLaughlin: We’d rather hold up a filmmaker’s body of work than focus on individual films, but here are some examples: Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, and Krzysztof Zanussi’s The Year of the Quiet Sun. Of course there have been admirable earlier American filmmakers, like Frank Capra. I must admit we’re not sure where to place Mel Gibson.
Other than ourselves, however,we don’t know of any contemporary American filmmakers with films in distribution, who are upfront about their faithand attempting to make intelligent films outside the commercial marketplace that are not evangelical or didactic in intent. If they’re out there, we’d love to know them.
CTM: Before The Sensation of Sight premiered in 2006 at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, you hired a well-reputed firm, Premier Public Relations of London. But before the festival you received a surprising phone call from the PR person, didn’t you?
McLaughlin: Yes, not long after we hired them, I received a call in which she said, “I know who you are.” I asked, “What do you mean?” She said, “I was a philosophy major in college. I know about Kierkegaard, and I can see from the film what you’re up to.”
This surprised me. We’d thought that The Sensation of Sight would be our Trojan Horse into the film business, since the spirituality was not overt; we were trying only to tell a story of a man’s search for meaning in a hurting world. Our mission statement appears on our website, but is not explicitly Christian.
Her next question was even more unexpected: “Did your church fund you?” Iassured her that all our capitalization had come from private equity investors. She warned that there would be considerable hostility from the press, and that we should be careful not to mention anything about our faith or why we founded the company.
CTM: That must have been a surprising revelation to you.
McLaughlin: Up until that moment, both of us had been blissfully unaware that a sizeable portion of the secular media would be hostile to any production company bold enough to state what they’re trying to accomplish on the spiritual plane. Our assumption while making The Sensation of Sight was that the work would be assessed on its own terms, on the basis of quality and artistic merit. Like most film companies, we’d employed the best talent possible, from actors (including Strathairn, an Academy Award nominee for Best Actor in Good Night, and Good Luck) to cinematographer to key crew; most of them were not religious, and had come on board simply because they wanted to work and liked the material.
As it turned out, our London PR person was right. This is something that we’ve learned to live with since. In some venues where the film has screened, there hasn’t been a problem at all, with everyone seeming to judge the film on its own terms. At others we can sense the resistance, and sometimes wonder how the film even managed to slip into the festival. Of course, this brings up the issue of the gatekeepers and the power they wield in accepting or rejecting films.
CTM: Who are these “gatekeepers”?
McLaughlin: The person who makes the final choice about whether to accept a film or reject it. With film festivals, it’s usually the Artistic Director or the Program Director; with distributors, it’s the Vice President of Acquisitions. Of course, before a film gets to that person, it has gone through a gauntlet of “slush readers” and selection committees, as the hundreds or thousands of submissions get narrowed down to a manageable few. So the gatekeeper syndrome really begins with the readers who first set eyes on submissions.
CTM: Can’t anyone make any movie they want?
McLaughlin: Yes, but the issue is getting it into the marketplace. The Internet is helping filmmakers find new ways to control their own distribution, but in the end there are simply too many movies coming out for them all to be widely distributed. Some kind of stringent narrowing is inevitable.
CTM: What does getting into a festival, or getting a distributor, do for a movie?
McLaughlin: For an independent filmmaker, the festival circuit is the best way to build a film’s reputation, in terms of press, critical reviews, and industry buzz. Some festivals are more important than others, since they’re “market” festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and Berlin, for example), while others offer prestige and/or exposure. And a distributor is the middleman who adopts your film and gets it into the domestic and international marketplace—releasing it theatrically, on DVD, TV, cable, pay-per-view, on the Internet—anywhere it has a chance of finding an audience. There are big distributors, with lots of clout and money, and small distributors (like ours) with not much of either. Do-it-yourself distribution is a growing phenomenon, but it is a tremendous amount of work.
CTM: What would you say about overtly Christian film projects like Facing the Giants or Fireproof? Do those filmmakers have a different aim than yours?
McLaughlin: I have nothing but admiration for the producers of Facing the Giants. They set out to make a small budget film for a specific audience, and succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations. They went after their audience with skill and all engines firing, and did very well. But it seems to me that Facing the Giants and Fireproof are not so much cracking open the culture as preaching to the choir.I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but rather that they know their target audience, and are successfully making movies aimed at them.
Our films are aimed at a different target. We want to reach the person who would have trouble relating to an overt faith-based approach. We want to create films that deal in an artful and truthful way with struggles and moral dilemmas, and hopefully we will leave the audience considering answers that point gently toward forgiveness, healing, and life-affirmation. We’re trying to reach an audience that is willing to ponder difficult questions, but doesn’t want to be led by the hand—an audience that will, if we’re successful, accept the invitation and begin the search themselves.
CTM: And apparently that strategy has a hard time finding an audience, right?
McLaughlin: Right. It leaves us between a rock and hard place, practically speaking, in terms of getting our work out there. The commercial film industry is leery of our kind of films, because it doesn’t have a history of a “safe sell” in the marketplace. And much of the Christian market is leery as well, because the stories don’t hit the nail directly on the head, and present gritty characters and situations or language that would be considered unacceptable. Commercial viability today is not associated with the genre of “drama” anyway; studios and big distributors tend to avoid it, even when that drama won top prizes at Cannes or Sundance.So one could say we’re either masochistic for going down this path, or devoid of business sense, or perhaps just out of our minds. But those are the kinds of filmswe feel called to make.
Still, our experience with our first film, The Sensation of Sight, has been encouraging; at many screenings the feedback has been promising, as have been the user reviewsthat appear on sites like Amazon, Netflix, and IMDb. The film isn’t for everyone, but we often hear people—Christians and non-believers alike—saying that they’ve never experienced a film quite like it, that it was a profound experience and stayed with them for days or weeks, and helped them with struggles in their lives.This lets us know that what we’ve set out to do hasn’t been in vain, and provides much of the motivation to make our next film.