At a recent talk in Washington, D.C., a devout young Catholic raised his hand and asked me what he should do to enter into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. He wants to be part of producing many more Passions of the Christ on the screens of the future.
I felt a little like Jesus to the rich young man in answering him, “Give away everything that you have and are now doing so that you can throw yourself into mastering the art form. Go to a top film school. Study philosophy and theology so that you have something real to say. Read lots of classic novels and write thousands of pages so that you achieve command of the language as a creative tool. Get your spiritual and moral act together. Then, come and follow us by moving to Los Angeles. And in 10 or 15 years, maybe you'll see your name on the screen appended to a movie of lasting value.”
When I was through, I looked with hope at the eager young aspiring film-maker, but his face fell, and he pretty much went away sad.
The Passion of the Christ did not come out of nowhere. It came 30 years into Mel Gibson's filmmaking experience mainly at the top levels of the industry. It came almost a decade after he produced his Oscar-winning film Braveheart. It came 15 years after his profound conversion and the reorienting of his life to Christ. The film itself took 10 years of a brooding, devastating creative journey. Many people in the Church have been asking me if in the wake of The Passion's success Hollywood will produce many more such movies. “Hollywood” can't! There will be no “other Passions” without “other Mels” to bring them into being.
In terms of renewing culture, however, even a string of movies such as The Passion of the Christ will ultimately be insufficient. The industry needs people and then projects. The ability to produce movies such as The Passion is only the bait God will use to draw more Christians to the business. He doesn't care about movies. He cares about moviemakers.
In the days immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, I received several calls from industry acquaintances who wanted to talk about God. Most just needed comfort, and they instinctively sensed that I, as a religious person, might have some to offer.
Note that these folks didn't call their local church. They are industry people. “The Business” is their church. Hollywood people tend to see themselves as separate kinds of beings. They don't follow trends, they make them. They don't buy the illusions, they weave them. They live Plato's allegory of the cave: The whole world is divided into those who throw the shadows on the wall and those who experience the shadows as real or preferable to the real.
I'm sure there were many more thousands — probably tens of thousands — of people in the industry who weathered that dark hour without anyone godly to turn to, mainly because they didn't know anyone in their circle who knows Jesus. There just aren't enough believers to go around in Hollywood. It is a mission territory.
Eventually, the industry will need overt preachers and evangelists to support the troops by teaching and ministering here. But as the first wave, Hollywood needs artists who have their spiritual, moral, emotional and professional acts together.
We need people in place who give a witness to the truth of the Gospel by their lives and by the quality of the work they do. We don't need sermons, tracts, conferences and study guides from the Church. We need people of rectitude, discernment, peace, joy, passion, mercy, kindness — artists and professionals who have been transformed by the love of Jesus — to come to Hollywood, to make beautiful things and to build bridges of friendship with the people outside their family of faith.
The Spirit of God is clearly calling the secular creative community back. We in the Church can help by being available so that when one of these Hollywood “Samuels” has an experience of God he might have an “Eli” to turn to who can help him understand it.
There is a small but vibrant community of committed Christians now working in Hollywood. We are a small community not so much because Christians don't come to the industry but because of what happens to them once they are here.
A large proportion of Christians who land jobs in the business soon lose their color as believers. They are unable to integrate their faith with their careers, so they end up letting their faith life slide. Some of these go on to becoming the angriest anti-religion voices in town. It happens gradually.
A Catholic writer friend confided to me not long ago that she had missed church on a recent Sunday because she was out late the night before at a new film premiere. Somewhere in the last few years, she has become more interested in showing up for Paramount Studios than for God.
The Lord says, “Keep holy the Sabbath.” There is no exemption for movie premieres.
A second group of Christians who find some success end up just as quickly leaving the industry because they figure out that no amount of money is worth putting up with what it takes to get something on the screen.
I have a friend who is one of the top TV writers in the business. She converted to Christianity seven years ago, and ever since then, it is all I can do to convince her to stay on the front line. She wants to retire to the Blue Ridge Mountains and write novels. She is tired of putting up with what she calls the vampires in the business.
We are never going to get anywhere in Hollywood until Christians are willing to do for God what the pagans do for money.
The reason our people leave or change is because they weren't spiritually prepared for what they would face in having a career in the entertainment world. No more than the Church would pack somebody off and send him to Uganda without any preparation should the Church send young artists into Hollywood without preparation.
We need people to be sent, but we need people who know what awaits them and have a spiritual strategy to transform the realities of an industry career from stumbling blocks into step-pingstones to deeper communion with God.
The Christians who make it in both the business and in their relationship with God are those who take seriously what the Holy Father calls “the artist's special relationship to beauty.” This is to live keenly focused on beauty in terms of mastery of their craft and then beauty of life and beauty of soul. They take Christian community very seriously, the way a man in a desert knows where the wells are.
This is a tough town in every way. Holiness in Hollywood is anything but accidental. But through God's grace, it is possible. It's nothing to go away sad about.
Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi is the founding director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood.