Sunday, September 26, 2004

AN EXPENSIVE LEARNING CURVE

This is going to be a little rant. I'll introduce it by saying that, on Wednesday, I received a heads-up from a friend who works in marketing that the long-awaited film Therese from St. Luke Productions in Oregon, was having press screenings for its upcoming release. I emailed to be included in one of the area screenings and received the message, "Oh, sorry. The press screenings were last week. If you want to see the film, you'll have to wait to see it in the theater when it opens October 4th."

I'm trying to figure out if I should be annoyed at having been deliberately excluded, or if the press junket was just one more thing about this project that was mishandled.

I have no personal animosity towards the folks at St. Luke's. They are certainly very devout Catholics, and very sincere in their desire to put drama at the service of the Gospel.

It's just that everywhere I go, good Catholics ask me about the project, and "Isn't it a shame that Hollywood is shutting out the movie just because it's devout Catholic?!" No, the project is not being shut out because it's Catholic. If it's getting shut out, it's because it's a bad movie. It is disingenuous to try and get people into the theaters on some pretext of "showing Hollywood", when what you are really trying to do is desperately make back some of the millions and millions of dollars you obtained from good people who trusted you to know how to make a good movie.

Three years ago, I was approached to give notes on the screenplay for Therese. The screenplay, a first effort for the well-intentioned writer, was in very bad shape. The screenplay was not professionally formatted, and was missing all the most basic points of introducing and growing characters, of structuring for some kind of suspense, of thematic develpment, and also, there was really no story. The writer had lifted long sections of dialogue right out of St. Therese's work, putting them in extended voice-overs over shots of the saint doing laundry, looking out windows and gazing toward unseen horizons in prayer.

Because I have always had a special love for St. Therese, I spent a lot of time - for free - reading the script, giving extensive notes, and then trying to help in at least two extended phone calls. These were the days when I was still reading projects from non-Hollywood Christian writers for free. (I have since learned that people do not respect "advice". They respect "consultation." The difference between advice and consultation is that they pay you for consultation.)

A few months later, the writers sent me a new draft of the script. It showed some improvement, but was still far from being a commercially viable, and technically functioning project. I expressed to the writer and director, "My opinion is, you are over your head here with the screenplay. I do not discern any signs of writing talent, or even proficiency, here. I don't see any mastery - or even awareness - of any of the skills necessary in screenwriting: character creation, story, structure, dialogue, use of language, use of imagery, etc." I strongly encouraged St. Luke Productions to recruit an experienced screenwriter for the project. (I considered pitching myself for the project, but there was no way I could do it at that moment.) I offered to help them find a real screenwriter.

But no, the principles told me, "We're going to go with God here. There are a lot of people praying for us."

So then, I said, "We will be holding a month-long screenwriter's intensive in August - just a few weeks away. I will let you come for free, to sit in the back as observers. I promise you, at the end of the program, you will have a much better idea of what you need to do as filmmakers."

But no, the answer came back, "But we are planning to start shooting in September."

To which I said, "You are not ready to start shooting. You don't have a screenplay yet." They kind of laughed at my lack of faith. I remember someone saying, 'St. Therese is going to make this movie a miracle." I think I came back, "God is talking to you now. I'm on your side. I'm trying to help." I remember them kind of laughing again.

I made several other desperate suggestions like, "Please, please if you want ANY CHANCE of getting festivals, or distribution, hire some name actors." And, "You've never made a film before. Why not take $250,000 and make a short film first, just as practice..." And, "Hire a director who has made a movie before." But, no. The film went ahead as scheduled.

A year later, I got an inquiry from St. Luke Productions. I was writing a monthly column for Liguorian at the time. The request came in for me to write a feature article on the making of the movie Therese. I was kind of shocked. "Do you really want me to write something like that?" But then I thought, "Well, maybe the film will beat the unbelievably incrediblely monumentally enormous odds that it will come out mediocre....maybe, it will be a miracle."

So, I said, "Sure, I'll consider doing a feature on it. Please send me a VHS of the film so I can see it."

But the answer came back, "Oh, no. We aren't showing it to people yet. We just want you to write a feature in support of these good Catholics who are trying to make a wonderful Catholic movie." (I was actually told a few months later by some millionaires in Portland, that they had seen a roughcut of the film...but whatever.)

See, I can't support the way Therese was made. It goes against everything I am doing here in Hollywood to try and get Christians to make inroads as professionals. To the people who work at the craft of entertainment here in the business, watching the millions of dollars Christians waste in "showing" Hollywood, by outsider attempts at movie making, is heart-breaking. And kind of annoying. Multiple Emmy nominated screenwriter and Christian, Karen Hall, used to say, "It's like if I woke up one day and said, 'Hey, I have a shingle. I think I'll put it outside my front door and start doing psycho-therapy."

But anyway, they wouldn't show me the film, so I wouldn't write a feature on it.

About a year later, I got a call from two different dioceses, and also from an office at the U.S. Catholic Conference, asking me whether Therese should get the Bishops' support. Even just informal support.

So, I called St. Luke Productions and said, "Please, can I get a screener of this film? I could help you get the word out. But I have to see the film first." I had heard that the project was being shown around down to various studios, and I also offered my willingness to go to one of those. I was told that it wouldn't be possible for them to send me a screener, and that it wouldn't be possible for me to see it in the rounds here in L.A., but that if I wanted to fly to Portland, they would let me see the film there. Of course, this was an absurd thing to ask. It really started to seem to me that St. Luke's Productions didn't want me to see the film. (Which is also weird, because, frankly, I'm really not big enough to be worth hiding from...) I sighed, as I recall, and said, "No, I will not pay to fly to Portland to see the film. But do let me know when there will be press screenings here in L.A.."

This is why I got kind of mad this week, when I got an email from a marketer, asking me to help "Get the word out about Therese opening this week!"

I have participated in many, many studio film junkets. I have NEVER been treated worse, as a member of the press, than on this project coming from my fellow devout Catholics. No Hollywood studio would ever ask me to support a film without letting me see it first. This is the kind of non-professional weirdness that you have to be in the Christian market to encounter.

I hope the junket for the film here in L.A. was a little affair and maybe it was just an oversight that I didn't get invited. I think this is unlikely, because I am certainly THE ONLY member of the press in L.A. who had issued at least two prior requests to see this project. I am also certainly THE ONLY member of the press who had volunteered several hours of work in the early stages of this project. And that alone should have merited, as a professional courtesy, an invite to a screening. Hell, even the pagans do that.

I hope Therese is a great film. Although, several people who have seen it have basically kind of shrugged, "Really devout catholics will probably like it."

I hope the people at St. Lukes will make more films, now that they have had a multi-million dollar personal film school experience. Otherwise, it will REALLY be a waste.

I hope nobody ever, ever comes to me again and says, "God is going to make this movie great."

Well, I guess this is me getting the word out about Therese.

179 comments:

Anonymous said...

There was a really good film made in French about St. Therese by Alain Cavalier, which is now available on VHS with English subtitles on amazon.com - should anyone want to overcome their disappointment with this film

Lisa said...

It's certainly good to be reassured that it wasn't lack of faith that led me to be skeptical that three young women with a little more than basic programming skills could put together a Bible-based computer program because our superior assured us it was the will of God.

Rae said...

*Big sigh*

The problem is that people try to imitate the simplicity of the saints and instead wind up acting like simpletons. I hope St. Luke Productions learns from this. From the one review I read, the script did not get much better than when you saw it, Barbara.

Rae

Anonymous said...

What bugs me is that, from Barb's account, they essentially refused to be either professionals or amateurs. Amateurs would've just pitched in to buy a $500-700 digital video camera and tapes, plus the kind of software hobbyists use to edit their home videos on their home PCs, talked the actors of the community into playing the leads, and voila-lot less financial waste, nobody's disappointed if it's not-great, people are more impressed if it is kinda good. That's what they should've done if they weren't willing/able to follow Barb's recommendations (which, as listed here, look pretty sound to this mildly interested non-outsider.

-arag.

(I suppose they could also have rented a bunch of Robert Rodriguez dvds and watched only the "5-Minute Film School. But of course that still involves taking outside, non-"divine" advice.)

Margo said...

Way to go, Barb. You stuck to your guns and took the sensible, God-gave-us-faith-AND-BRAINS;-how-about-we-use-both approach. If this is complaining, it's some of the most honest and generous (to the other side) ranting I've heard in a while. I am no expert on cinema, but I enjoy your blog because a)you talk about imagination and the faith, and b)you come across as speaking with integrity. Thanks! ~Margo

Dahlia said...

Barb,
Yours is one of my favorite blogs, it is the only one in my favorites that is not predominantly political or social.
I am not a theologian, but this attitude of theirs doesn't strike me as Catholic at all. I don't think it is really a mainstream Protestant attitude, either. I can't help but think that it is very Anabaptist like. I do think that many Christians are flirting with this thinking, though. This "what will be will be" passivity goes against everything that, Charles Murray wrote in , Human Accomplishment, made Pre-Reformation Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism the greatest eras for accomplishment in Arts, Mathematics, Sciences, etc. It does describe, however, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Anabaptism, and Eastern Religions. I see this thinking very popular among my Fundamentalist Christian friends, some of whom are seriously considering becoming Mennonites. They want their children to work with their hands, as only that is honest work and biblically sound.
I've been troubled to hear Catholics talk so much like this and be so confused about what Catholics believe. I heard one boy in Kentucky say he didn't believe in evolution because he was a good Catholic. That would make him a good Fundamentalist, but not a good Catholic. In the U.S., it seems, there is a big blurring going on.
And don't get me going on how so many homeschooled students completely eschew the hard sciences in their career choices... but hopefully, not mine!

John Farrell said...

Anonymous,
Amateurs would've just pitched in to buy a $500-700 digital video camera and tapes, plus the kind of software hobbyists use to edit their home videos on their home PCs, talked the actors of the community into playing the leads, and voila-lot less financial waste, nobody's disappointed if it's not-great, people are more impressed if it is kinda good.Excellent point--and an example is here.

Not a bad way to start in this business, if I do say so
myself.

Anonymous said...

Unprofessionalism, I am sorry to say, makes this a Catholic project through and through.

Anonymous said...

Duh...I mean "non-insider" when referring to myself in the above post. Sorry.

-aragonvaar

John Farrell: heh. thanks for the example.

Anonymous said...

An interesting note... Catholic News Service ran an advanced review of the film on its wire a couple of weeks ago that called Therese "earnest, if mawkish" and gave other similarly blunt comments about the film throughout... last week, the review was reposted and most of the heavily critical comments were miraculously taken out or softened. The film is now "earnest, if modest." I was just picturing the USCCB film office's phones ringing off the hook from Therese promoters urging them to change it. Pretty funny.

I saw the film and it's OK. The last half hour is excellent and I applaud them for taking this risk. Like Barbara said, I hope they continue to make full-length films and that they learn from this experience.

victor said...

As a wise person once said, perhaps they would have been better off to put all of their money in a pile someplace and burn it.

I was kind of hoping the movie would be at least watchable, but this Nicolosi-snubbing, whether deliberate or not, has pretty much cured me of any such notions.

Kathy said...

Agreed. They should have spent the money sending thousands of copies of the real (French) Therese movie to a bunch of people.

surely it can't be as awful as Romero??

About the simplicity of saints: Agreed, again. The true definition of "humility" is "knowing your limits". There is nothing humble and simple about folks refusing (dare I say it) God-given advice. They are in fact revealing themselves to be self-centered, arrogant and stubborn. Not very Theresian traits.

Anonymous said...

Barb, this is Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute.

Just wanted to say that I so appreciated your comments on the making of Therese. I sent a copy to friends far and wide. We emphasized so strongly in our summer training the need for secular apostles to be *competent insiders* rather than pious or even prophetic outsiders and I used your work and Act 1 as a great example of how a competent insider functions. God bless you and your work and may your tribe ever increase! Someday I'd love to have you do a presentation for the Institute.

Debra Murphy & Family said...

I haven't seen the film yet, so I won't comment on that, but Barb's post induced me to blog at length on this subject of "Illuminism," which has got to be something like the Common Cold of the spiritual life, one sees it so often. (Been there, done that.)

Permit me, in this context, to recommend Ronald Knox's classic book, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion With Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries." Yes, I know it sounds very dull; but it will prove, I think, worth anyone's time who is serious about such things as discerning God's will, and the dangers of presuming upon extraordinary graces whilst "doing" an apostolate, and so forth. So much mischief has been done in the Church and in the world because Enthusiasts have gone running about in headless-chicken fashion, thinking it beneath them to use the ordinary means of grace common to all.

But as I said, been there, done that, and thank God no one had a camera on me, as it were, as I done that. I feel for any confrere who makes such a Big if Common pratfall in plain view of the public eye.

Anonymous said...

Agree with the comments regarding a passive blind faith that somehow God will get it done. St. Therese worked hard to be simply for God in every breath. It was a total focus. St. Francis did the same. St. Therese no more spent her days hoping God would miraculously get the laundry done then St. Francis did, thinking God would miraculously get someone to come care for the leper. Fra Angelico's paintings are the result of a life striving to put each brush stroke down using every ounce of skill acquired through sweat and tears as well as grace.

Anonymous said...

Or put another way, don't expect miracles till you have run out of blood, sweat, and tears!

Anonymous said...

Barb I like you and pray for your intentions, but you are so offbase on this one.

You would have done well to have attended the just concluded Call to Holiness Conference in Detroit and heard Leornado and Lindsay speak. They didn't want this to be a Hollywood/Dreamworks production.

Leornado specifically wanted the entire thing to be accomplished by "the little people". It seems he managed to do that.

It's all fine and dandy that you want Christians to participate in feature films that will be big box office sucesses, but that's not at all what this film is about.

Maybe you should study St. Therese and then go see the film...

regina doman said...

Barbara, God bless you. Better get out your LOTR flak jacket again...
Hey, you last poster - Barbara said in the beginning that she has a special devotion to St. Therese. So there's no question of her approaching this subject as an "unbeliever."

RC said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
RC said...

Anonymous writes: It's all fine and dandy that you want Christians to participate in feature films that will be big box office sucesses, but that's not at all what this film is about.That sounds so high-minded: this movie is about doing God's work!

But if a Catholic film doesn't reach a lot of people (because of artistic defects), it's not succeeding as God's work. If it doesn't break even and it leaves the investors poorer, they won't be able to make the next Catholic film.

Anonymous said...

Barbara, I agree.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I won't see the movie but...can somebody tell me why I should? I haven't read St. Therese. The saint for our times, in my limited view, is Our Lady of Fatima and St. Catherine of Siena. Maybe the timing is off for me. What exactly does Therese stand for? What is she the patron of? My 14 year old daughter needs a reason to see the film - any suggestions?

I'm bookmarking your blog. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I kinda liked the film. It had problems,definitely was not in Passion of the Christ league, but the last part,the death, was really touching. I don't know, I don't agree with Barbara a lot of times,and it looks like this is one of them. However,she's probably right,I'm probably wrong,and I hope Leonardo Defillipis apologizes to her for being self righteous.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I kinda liked the film. It had problems,definitely was not in Passion of the Christ league, but the last part,the death, was really touching. I don't know, I don't agree with Barbara a lot of times,and it looks like this is one of them. However,she's probably right,I'm probably wrong,and I hope Leonardo Defillipis apologizes to her for being self righteous.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I kinda liked the film. It had problems,definitely was not in Passion of the Christ league, but the last part,the death, was really touching. I don't know, I don't agree with Barbara a lot of times,and it looks like this is one of them. However,she's probably right,I'm probably wrong,and I hope Leonardo Defillipis apologizes to her for being self righteous.
P.S-I don't think the swearing at the end of the blog was justified

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