Christians often complain about Hollywood's excesses. This Catholic screenwriter wants them to do something about them. She started “Act One: Writing for Hollywood,” a nonprofit program based in Los Angeles dedicated to training a new generation of Christian writers. Fresh from Act One's just-completed inaugural session, Barbara Nicolosi spoke with Register correspondent Greg Erken.
Greg Erken: How did the idea of a scriptwriting school for Christians originate?
Barbara Nicolosi: The idea was born in three people around the same time. Coleman Luck, who has been in the business for 20 years, had decided this was a necessary thing. And David Schall, the head of Intermission, the largest Christian networking and fellowship organization in Hollywood, recognized that everything starts with the script. Meanwhile, I had written an article for Crisis magazine saying that Christians shouldn't complain that there is some big conspiracy in Hollywood against us. The fact is we're not giving Hollywood anything to work with. We're expecting non-Christians to write Christian themes, when we ourselves are not willing to roll up our sleeves, write the scripts, and learn the business.
David read the article, and last summer, he asked me if I would be interested in running a program to train screenwriters who come from a Christian background, if they could secure funding. Having read so much schlock written by Christians, and having said publicly many times that I was sick of seeing that kind of work coming out of our community, I felt like I had to say “Yes” and put my money where my mouth is.
What are you trying to accomplish with Act One?
Our plan for Act One is to every year pump into the [film] industry a group of talented writers who are writing with a consideration not only for technical proficiency but also artistic excellence.
It's not so much that they are going to be writing stories with overtly Christian themes, because we're not writing in a Christian culture anymore. Those would be largely unmarketable. But as believers, they would be overflowing with whatever is in their heart. We are trusting that the stories that come out of that place would have a different look than what we're seeing out there currently. They might handle the same material, but the way they would handle it would be different than a nonbeliever.
You talk to Christian writers every day. What are the biggest challenges they face?
They are largely the same as those facing non-Christian writers. They are entering a terribly difficult business, which takes a complete commitment. Many secular people in Hollywood do it for money, and I see many of my Christian friends not willing to make the sacrifices just for money, so they drop out. So I say, “OK, you see through all of this, but will you do it because it's a mission field? Will you do it for God?” Because if you aren't willing to make the sacrifices that these secular people make, we're not going to have a voice, and we're passing up the most powerful pulpit on the planet.
That reminds me of when Christians beginning in the late 1970s decided they no longer wanted to be outside of the political process. Slowly, over 20 years, they have learned to roll up their sleeves and get organized at the grass-roots level. It sounds like what you are launching is another step toward cultural renewal.
Definitely. Hollywood is not going to be reformed from the outside. We must have a heart for popular culture, and recognize that we Christians are not on a mountain looking down. We are part of this culture. Either we are going to be representing ourselves in the culture, or we're going to be represented by others who don't understand us. That's what's happening right now. I have so little patience when I hear Christians sit around critiquing the media, and then feeling like they've done something. It doesn't accomplish anything; it just gets our frustration out of our system for a while. I would much rather see people from the Church getting together and saying, “What's a great project we can do? Let's make A Man for All Seasons for this generation.”
How might a script like that be written from a Christian heart without consigning it to only the religious market?
First of all, when it's done well, you don't have to worry about [being ghettoized]. Any [major] film that has dealt with strong Christian themes in the last three decades has received either the Academy Award or tremendous critical acclaim. Think of Ghandi, Chariots of Fire, or The Mission. I think you have to understand who you are pitching to, and who is in control [of the filmmaking process]. You have to be smart. You have to find a way to deliver the truth of the Gospel, without getting people's back up.
There is money in the Christian community to make productions, but let's face it, how much money is going to Church communications projects, which could be put toward a feature film that could be seen by 50 million people worldwide, who are outside of the Church. And we're making the easiest kind of projects, which are documentaries and talking-head stuff. Narrative is very, very hard.
Sometimes it seems like the Church has gotten out of the business of using narrative — stories — to communicate.
And isn't that a tragedy? Stories are, after all, the way Jesus taught. Flannery O'Connor, perhaps the greatest Catholic storyteller of the last 50 years, said that the challenge for Catholic artists is to try to compel people to look squarely at reality, which nobody wants to look at. This is the essential difference between Christian art and what passes for most entertainment these days. Secular Hollywood is into the business of escapism — to separate the viewer from reality. But Christian artists believe that all reality flows from the heart of a loving God and that if people penetrate reality then they will encounter the Divine at its core. We have to be so good at what we do as artists that we will draw people into the uncomfortable place of looking at themselves. They will be compelled to enter into this kind of study because our characters and stories are well drawn and fascinating.
That sounds like John Paul II's insistence that we confront the true nature of man and the human condition, rather than escaping from it or averting our gaze.
There are a lot of Christians who are scandalized by the incarnation, by Christ's humanity and our potential for darkness and evil. We don't want to see movies with violence or intense themes. But Flannery O'Connor noted that violence is one of the most effective methods for an artist to rivet the attention of a reader. She said moments of violence uniquely prepare us for the action of grace.
As a screenwriter, I'm not interested in returning to the days of Father Knows Best, even though that kind of program is what many of our Christian people are clamoring for. That kind of entertainment isn't really good for us. It may be just as bad as programs full of gratuitous sex and violence — just another fantasy to escape into.
What kind of reaction has Act One received from the Hollywood establishment so far?
We were written up in a positive way by [key Hollywood observer] Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times, who in the past has not always been gentle with religious projects. Howard said that the idea of [the Christian community] always being defined from the outside has not been a good thing for Hollywood. We approach much of the industry by saying that we're another cultural group with a distinct voice, and just as you need women and African-Americans in Hollywood, you also need Christians.
How about from the Christian community?
When I go around and speak to Christian writers groups around the country, I always say “Greetings from the Church in Hollywood,” and they all laugh. Christians have bought into the idea that Hollywood is the throne center of the Devil, and there is no Church here. Then I ask them, “How many of you in the last month have complained about something in the movies or on TV?” And 300 hands go up. Then I ask them, “How many of you in the last month have said a prayer for those Christians laboring in Hollywood, or that God would send more Christians to Hollywood?” and I get maybe three hands.
Act One Faculty and Mentors
Act One's students are taught by leading Hollywood producers and writers, including:
Ron Austin (Mission Impossible, Matlock, Fr. Dowling Mysteries)
Dave Allen Johnson (High Incident, Against the Grain)
Coleman Luck (The Equalizer, Gabriel's Fire)
Dave MacFadzean (Home Improvement)
Karen Hall (M*A*S*H, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure)
Ken Wales (Christy, Cagney and Lacey)
Michael Warren (Family Matters, Two of a Kind)
So this is the problem: Not only are we trying to do something that is terribly difficult, but if the Church is not praying for us, it's impossible. Hollywood and television are tremendously powerful means that God has given to mankind. The Pope is saying they are tools to help unite human beings. But the devil has convinced the Church that they belong to him, and that they are intrinsically evil.
I've gone to many conservative conferences where they say “throw out your televisions.” But this is not what the Church is saying. The Church is saying that these instruments have the power to bring the human family together on a global scale. You definitely have to educate your children so that they are critical consumers, but also tell your children to be artists, producers and journalists.
One of the big challenges facing Christians in any endeavor is working together on an ecumenical basis. How does that tension play out with Christians in Hollywood?
Well, there's nothing like the great equalizer of persecution to get us Christians beyond our personal issues and prejudices. Let's face it, the Romans didn't ask, “Now, which side of the Arian heresy are you on?” before they threw the Christians to the lions. If you call on the name of the Lord, the powers of darkness label you all Christians. The devil is an equal opportunity opponent. We Christians in Hollywood are so much the minority that we have to work together to accomplish anything. I will work with anyone who is sincere and good-hearted and loves Jesus.
What kind of help is Act One getting from established Christians in Hollywood?
We had 52 faculty members and mentors from the Los Angeles entertainment community, all fervent Christians from all different denomination who have been on the front lines for many years. For example, Martha Williamson, executive producer of “Touched by an Angel,” spoke at our closing dinner. Our mentors met with their students for an hour each week on a one-to-one basis to provide feedback on whatever project the student was working on. And now our students have friends in Hollywood who can introduce them to contacts, be reference points, and encourage them — but not carry them.
Act One also has relationships with several production companies who have asked us to pass on the best scripts that come out of the program. We don't hand on anybody's work just because they happen to be Christian. I get deluged with scripts, and I know this interview will result in another hundred coming my way. So those of you are reading this, before you send me a script, make sure you know what you are doing. Read Syd Field's Screenplay, know the three-act structure, your characters better be developed, and the format better be industry standard.
How many students did you have for your first program?
Twenty-nine — 13 men, 16 women, 6% minorities, and various denominations. We had 300 to 400 people request applications, and 100 actually replied. From that pool, we accepted 30 (one student dropped out). We didn't have any money to advertise the program, so we used word-of-mouth and Internet mailing lists. I also went to about five or six writers conferences.
Can you point to any impact Act One has had already?
The last two days of the program we had five production companies come in and listen to our students pitch their work. Each of these companies asked to read at least four scripts when they are finished, which is terribly impressive for this industry. To have a script “read” is the first step, meaning a producer will look at your screenplay and consider developing it. It means circumventing the need to get an agent, and getting it right into the hands of a decision-maker. This is a huge opportunity for these students.
We have also started our script-critiquing service. Our faculty and mentors will be reading scripts and asking, “Is this story commercial, and is it a good vehicle for the Christian world-view?” If we get a script that is really great, I'll be happy to pass it on to the production companies we are working with.
What does Act One need to keep going in the future, and where are you looking for support?
Right now we have enough funding for one more program in L.A. But because of the tremendous response we've received, we want to have an East Coast version, which will cost about $50,000 to $75,000. We want to expand our promotion, and we would love to have two or three sessions every year instead of just one. So we need support from the Christian community. You can't do anything without money. We also need students. If you know talented writers, challenge them to write for a mass audience, and send them our way.
We also need prayer for the people in Hollywood, for the students, and for a renewal of the culture. Never before in history has a culture renewed itself, but maybe we can be the first. Our people have the “Jonah syndrome”: They want to get gourd plants and sit up in the mountains and watch God vent his wrath. But we have not yet received a divine commission that its time to head for the hills. That would be too easy — but it might make a great movie!