Monday, March 08, 2010


Let me know what you think of this interview I gave for upcoming book on independent filmmaking:

As a filmmaker, how many hours of practice would you recommend to an aspiring filmmaker before attempting to produce a really well-crafted film?
RR: It’s important to get started making art, without worrying about the result. We learn to write by writing, we learn to act by acting, we learn to make films by making films. We must take care of the quantity, and let God take care of the quality. In other words, make movies, keep doing it, and your craft will grow.

What specific factors differentiate Christian films from the average theatre release?
RR: The term “Christian film” is used in church circles to describe movies made by evangelical Christians. In my opinion, the term “Christian film” does not guarantee the quality of the film’s artistry or message. Psalm 24:1 says “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Dividing everything into a dichotomy of sacred and secular is common in the thinking of some religious people. I prefer to look for God’s hand and message throughout the earth, and I often find films that show faith in a powerful way, some made by evangelical Christians, but more often in some that are not called “Christian films.” One example of this off the top of my head, is one of my favorite films, "On the Waterfront," a movie starring Brando that has one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, delivered by Karl Malden (the priest character) which results in a transformation in Brando’s character. The message that Jesus wants us to love others and stand up for the weak and oppressed comes through very clear.

The bible stories show the full gamut of human nature. David is called a man after God’s own heart. His victories of faith are detailed, and his psalms of worship are there for us to see his intimate relationship with God. David’s flaws and faults are also there, like the problems with Bathsheba and Uriah. I think films have a unique opportunity to show this multi-layered aspect of humans who are fallen, yet created in the image of God, a mixture of light and shadow. In Sister Aimee, I didn’t shrink back from showing that she stumbled and bumbled along the way, that she was married three times, had a morals trial in court, and died under rumors of suicide. Yet she was an amazing church-planting evangelist, and the denomination she founded (The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) now numbers 32,000 congregations worldwide. Her fruit has remained. The best films show both sides of the duality of people, like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” He captures accurately the feel of the Pentecostal preacher and his world and the mix of emotions he experiences, praise and lust, eroticism and religion, love and violence, and ultimately redemption and eternal grace.

The Apostle character is not one-dimensional at all like some evangelical movies tend to do when they portray the Christian as wholly good and godly. Too often “Christian films” suffer from what I call the “white hat and black hat approach,” like an old B Western with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black hats. The Christians are seen as perfect people ready to be raptured and the non-Christians are evil, self-centered people and God is ready to judge them in fiery wrath. If we’re honest, we know the world isn’t like that. The dualistic framework of dividing humanity into a binary of two camps: the born again believers who are shining and shimmering being conformed to Christ, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, and on the other side, the wicked liberal unbelievers who are nasty, immoral fleshly wicked people does not correspond to the reality of how things really are, that unbelievers are often nicer people. Whether their niceness stems from nature, nurture, or the light from Jesus that lights everyone who comes into the world created in God’s image, I don’t know. I value as a core principle everyone is made in the image of God and looking for the light and shadows in my characters rather than discounting and dividing people anymore. I don’t believe in the simplistic dualism of guys in the white hats and in the black hats, and this is why I reject other tenets of fundamentalist films, like their conspiratorial view of the world.

Do you think that trying to wear too many hats can hurt the overall quality of the film?
RR: Multi-tasking is the reality for the guerrilla filmmaker. In an ideal world, we would like to have millions of dollars to hire award-winning artists in all levels of production, but it’s better to make art with what God puts in our hand than to not create at all. In the story of Moses, God asked him “What is in thy hand?” and Moses replied, “A rod.” God told Moses “It shall be the rod of God.” For the low budget auteur, the rod may be the camcorder in his hand, and by financial necessity he may have to ask God to inspire his creativity through the palette of his meager equipment and team. Film is a collaborative effort and I think everyone who is involved influences the final outcome of the film, but I would caution filmmakers not to draw back from making movies because you don’t have a lot of people and resources. Get help and input from as many people as you can, but sometimes the reality is the filmmaker finds he has to rely on himself in many capacities and leave the outcome to God. Make a movie with what you have. Don’t wait for an elusive millionaire to show up and fund you or a big studio system to greenlight you. Greenlight yourself.

Tell me, what first prompted your interest in becoming a filmmaker? An actor? Any early influences?
RR: The years I spent in the anti-art wilderness of Falwellian fundamentalism (I attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University where I earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in pastoral and biblical studies), isolated me from a lot of the wonderful moviemaking out there. On the positive side, they did show some classic films on campus (edited though for conservative Christian consumption). Movie theatres were forbidden by Falwell’s ‘Liberty Way” a legalistic law-book we were commanded to obey. After I made my spiritual journey from fundamentalism to freedom, from guilt to grace, I played catch-up and educated myself on the history of film by borrowing movies from the public library and taking a film history class at Los Angeles Valley College. My second film school was the New Beverly Cinema, a revival theatre in Hollywood owned by Quentin Tarantino that shows two independent or classic films every night. European filmmakers inspired me, like Bergman and Fellini. Bergman’s "Persona" impacted me in its style of close-ups of the actor’s hands and faces. It influenced me and gave me the idea to shoot a lot of close-ups when I made my movie "Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story." This enabled me to me to create a sense of Sister Aimee’s claustrophobia and also make a 1920’s period piece on a low budget without the pressure to create an epic with thousands of extras and period cars and sets. One of the highlights of my moviemaking career was when the New Beverly showed Sister Aimee and the owner told me it set a theatrical attendance record for the best-attended digital film shown there.

The Method actors of the fifties (Brando, Dean, Clift) are my favorites. Marlon Brando was my greatest influence as an actor and seeing his work in "On the Waterfront," "Godfather," "Last Tango In Paris," and "Streetcar Named Desire" was a turning point for me. I loved James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause" and Montgomery Clift in "A Place In the Sun." Robert Redford inspired me in "The Natural," a film that gave me the idea to make my upcoming film with a mythic motif, it’s a baseball bio-pic entitled "Baseball’s Last Hero: The Roberto Clemente Story." I’m raising money to make it now.

What’s this about you having been a “rock and roll preacher” at one time?
RR: I grew up playing guitar in the bars of Pittsburgh. When I became a born again Christian as a teenager, I shared my faith by playing Christian rock I composed in nightclubs and I started churches that worshipped with guitars instead of an organ or piano. Conservative Christians criticized me, saying rock was the devil’s music. Now it’s common, even in conservative evangelical congregations to play guitars and have a worship band but when I first did it, it was controversial. I’ve always been drawn to expressing my faith in an edgy and creative way, so my moviemaking follows that same theme of recognizing the Creator is the Master Artist, and our creativity is a small part of God’s creativity, an expression of the image of God in us. Art is a ministry and ministry is an art. I believe our imaginations can soar when we choose to be innovators rather than imitators. I encourage people of faith to follow their interests and intuition, even if their religious circles try to discourage them. Our talents are a gift from God. What we do with our talents is our gift back.

Tell me about Sister Aimee. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve never heard of her before now.
RR: She was the fabled female evangelist who built a temple of Hollywood proportions in the Roaring Twenties here in Los Angeles. Sister Aimee was front-page news, the most famous female faith-healer of her time, especially when she disappeared in 1927 at Venice Beach. She claimed to be kidnapped. Our film traces her story from her teen years through her life of preaching the gospel and praying for the sick, until her controversial death by overdose in 1944. I chose her story because I identified with her and used her story as an allegory for my life and some of the things I’ve gone through. For those interested in her life, my film "Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story" is available through Amazon, Netflix, and Blockbuster.

The Eternal Grace community sounds great. Is it a Christian community only type of things, or can anyone join in?
RR: Although our gatherings our Christ-centered, anyone is welcome whether they consider themselves a Christian or not. We seek to grow by attraction, rather than promotion, so we do not seek to convert anyone by debate or manipulation. We hope the presence of Christ where two or more gather in His name, will touch hearts with an awareness of God’s love that attracts them to Him.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to receive God’s eternal grace, and to give grace to ourselves and to others. We believe God is the Creator, the Master Artist. The Holy Spirit is highly creative. Therefore, we support the creativity in each other. We are pioneers, open to the adventure of faith. We express love through art, music, compassion, and prayer. We cooperate with God, praying, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Our spiritual journeys have taken us through different groups, cross-pollinating various teachings, ideas, and experiences. Through it all, we’ve come to understand that the goal is love, that they will know we are His disciples by our love. Love fulfills the law. Love covers a multitude of sins and love never fails.

Many of us have moved here to Hollywood from somewhere else, and many of us came here for a creative career, a calling to express ourselves. We highly value and encourage artistic gifts and expression. We’re pioneers. The same leap of faith that enabled us to venture to L.A. enables us to pioneer spiritually and creatively. We’re planting Eternal Grace, a church that brings Christ, creativity, and community together.

We’re believers in God, the One the bible describes as unconditional love, and we have a passionate hunger for a true spiritual connection beyond religion and the established church. Eternal Grace is a church that welcomes artists, supporting their creative journey without judgment. Worship includes following our artistic passions. As the Spirit hovered over the waters in God’s creation in the beginning, His Spirit hovers over us as we create today. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the Creator and creativity. Growing in relationship to one can open us to more of the other.

We come from diverse backgrounds, and sometimes we may disagree agreeably. What unifies us is our desire to do the works of Jesus, healing, restoring, and loving our neighbor, as we love ourselves. We read the gospels and Book of Acts, not just as history books, but models for church life.

We seek to extend the ministry of God’s Spirit by bringing healing to the hurting. Eternal Grace heals the hurting hearts of artists and actors, minstrels and mavericks, bohemians and burned out believers, with the embrace of God’s radical grace.

Where do you see yourself say…ten years from now? Twenty?
RR: There are two parts to that, being and doing. As far as being, I want a life of no regrets. I want to continue to grow and learn. I’m always reading books and taking classes. I want to keep getting better as a writer, actor, director, and musician. I want to keep growing spiritually and bring God’s healing and recovery to others that have been through a lot in their lives as I have, particularly people like me from imperfect families with imperfect pasts. Eternal Grace is a Christian community where imperfect people are perfectly welcome. I want to be a good father, husband, friend, mentor and teacher. I want to stay at peace with God, myself and others.

Now for the doing. My first novel, a coming-of-age story entitled "Stick Man" is slated to come out in 2010. I have three films in various stages of development I want to make soon. My baseball bio-pic about Roberto Clemente, a film about the Azusa Street revival, and the film version of my novel Stick Man. I will continue to be a working actor in mainstream and independent film, television, and theatre. I have a second novel in the works, a historical novel about Sister Aimee. I hope to play the role of Elmer Gantry again on stage as I have twice before at the Stella Adler Theatre. My wife and I also want to do some more cross-country trips. We like seeing America by land, all the different and diverse states, it’s such a beautiful country filled with great people. This also gives us a chance to visit our sister churches in other states.

I’m also writing a nonfiction book about my understanding of the teachings of Jesus and grace. I see Eternal Grace in Hollywood as a mother church, a spiritual sending community that will plant sister churches that plant other churches so Eternal Grace will be a church planting movement that will multiply hundreds of churches in the next twenty years. These congregations will nurture artists, providing them with the training in acting, writing, filmmaking and creativity so they can see their wildest dreams and desires of their heart come true as artists. As the psalmist wrote, “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart.” I want to start a foundation that helps artists and does real compassionate work among the disadvantaged children, to do our part to make up for the travesty that here in America millions of children have no health insurance and are hungry. Sadly, the policies that support these injustices are too often supported by those who claim the name of Christ. Our foundation will meet the real needs of people with compassion, grace, and understanding.

Any last words of faith or inspiration?
RR: The church is built on a revelation and understanding of who Jesus is. (Matthew 16:18) On New Year’s Eve, 2009, we were celebrating with an Eternal Grace house church that gathers at our apartment Thursday nights. At one point in the evening, the larger group of over twenty people broke into smaller groups of three to five people to pray for each other and for the visions in their hearts for 2010. I was led of the Spirit to go to our back bedroom by myself. I meditated for about thirty minutes and Jesus spoke clearly to me, “Take care of Me, and I’ll take care of you.”

I knew in my heart the fullness of the statement. I’m to teach who Jesus really is, correcting as best I can some of the bad P.R. He’s been given by rigid, religious fundamentalists, and work with Him in building churches based on His eternal grace, a clear understanding of the real Jesus. He takes care of me, my family, our Eternal Grace churches, and my creativity and artistic work. In John 12:32, He promises when we lift Him up, a clear understanding of the Real Jesus, not the Religious Jesus, ALL are drawn unto Him. Prophetically, we know one day “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” (Phillipians 2:10,11)

He showed me in a flash of insight that flooded in on me like an epiphany, the contrasts between the Real Jesus and the Religious Jesus. II Corinthians 3:6 says, “The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life.” These contrasts were a litany of deep spiritual understandings of the letter of the law versus the Jesus of love. I will elaborate on these truths in detail in a book I’m writing tentatively titled “Getting to Know the Real Jesus,” but I will share a few of them succinctly:

The Religious Jesus is Law. The Real Jesus is Love.
The Religious Jesus brings guilt. The Real Jesus brings grace.
The Religious Jesus brings condemnation. The Real Jesus brings compassion.
The Religious Jesus hurts people. The Real Jesus heals people.
The Religious Jesus uses people to build the church,
The Real Jesus uses the church to build people.

As a church planter, I’ve learned firsthand the differences between churches started on the foundation of the Religious Jesus versus churches started on the foundation of the Real Jesus. Eternal Grace Church, located here in Hollywood, has been the healthiest church community my wife and I have birthed, because we’ve become healthier in our understanding of God’s eternal grace. My prayer is that Eternal Grace churches will continue to flourish and multiply, bearing lasting fruit in sharing the unconditional love and eternal healing grace of the Real Jesus.

I think it is essential to understand the creative potential in human beings is the image of God. Whether or not we think of ourselves as artists, we are. To be artistic is to create, an instinct we were all given. Within each of us is creativity, because we were made in God’s image. Letting go of rigid religious thinking enables our artistic spontaneous side to emerge. Find an outlet for creativity, whether its filmmaking, music, writing, refinishing furniture, cooking, puppetry, acting, dance, drawing, embroidering, gardening, the possibilities are endless.

Anything that lets us create something outside ourselves is good. The reward is a sense of self-expression, the joy that we made something and can see ourselves in it. Sometimes what we create reaches others as well. The more I let go of the legalistic ways of thinking from the toxic teachings of fundamentalism, the more I see my creativity soar. My creativity is more important to me than rigid ways of thinking from my past indoctrination under Jerry Falwell and other preachers of the letter of the law. Like I quoted before from the bible, “The letter of the law killeth, but the Spirit gives life.” I welcome the Spirit to bring life and creativity. Here are seven principles I believe the Holy Spirit is saying to artists:

1. The Master Artist loves to support artists.

2. The Holy Spirit hovers over creation in Genesis 1 and hovers over us as we create today. The Holy Spirit is highly creative.

3. Creativity shows we are made in the image of the Creator. Our creativity is a part of His creativity. Therefore, moving towards our creativity can open us to the Creator and vice-versa.

4. Those who work together creatively often form a natural community. Three C’s: Christ, Creativity, Community.

5. Art is a ministry and ministry is an art. We bless artists to create freely and without judgment.

6. Art is an eternal seed reaching not only multiple countries but multiple generations.

7. Creating churches of artists in the 21st century requires new wineskins and new wine. We need to show them the Real Jesus, not the religious Jesus. (John 12:32)

One more thing, I wrote a prayer for artists I want to share in closing that other artists have told me they appreciate and some incorporate into their own prayer and meditation: “Thank you God for the talents You’ve entrusted to me and that my creativity is a small part of Your creativity. I glorify You with my art as an act of worship. Release me from the bondage of the extremes of grandiosity and inferiority, that I may affect others with my work and carry Your message forward. I surrender my talents to You, knowing You will flow through them in just the right way. I open myself to Your direction and abundance that I may know joy and peace in my work. Amen.”


Post a Comment

<< Home