Always the stickler for precision, Dean took EXACTLY 15 minutes to complete his list and added the following caveat: “I’m going to assume that the Bible is ineligible, but it should go as #1. Sheryl (Anderson) only listed writers, which I would be happy to do, in which case it would be “Preston Sturges” instead of Sullvan’s Travels and “Tom Fontana” instead of Homicide and “Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abraham” instead of Airplane! and Peter Jackson instead of Lord of the Rings… etc. But if I were doing just an author list, I’d have to get into names like Bob Briner, and maybe A. Scott Berg.
Here’s Dean’s “Fab 15” list of the greatest influences in his life.
“What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” Emerson marveled in his exquisite meditation on friendship. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this “just and firm encounter”?
In his insightful 1960 book The Four Loves(public library), C.S. Lewis picks up where Aristotle left off and examines the differences between the four main categories of intimate human bonds — affection, the most basic and expressive; Eros, the passionate and sometimes destructive desire of lovers; charity, the highest and most unselfish spiritual connection; and friendship, the rarest, least jealous, and most profound relation.
In one of the most beautiful passages, he considers how friendship differs from the other three types of love by focusing on its central question: “Do you see the same truth.”
Lovers seek for privacy. Friends find this solitude about them, this barrier between them and the herd, whether they want it or not…
If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.
He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”
To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.
(Note: This interview was conducted before Hard Times‘ cancellation.)
I can only hope that Randy Elrod‘s posts on edgy artists helped prepare you for today’s interview with Kevin Chesley, screen and television writer extraordinaire. Kevin’s current assignment is writing for MTV’s hit series The Hard Times of RJ Berger, whose Season 2 Premier is TONIGHT at 11pm.
MTV.com describes The Hard Times of RJ Berger as orbiting the “hilariously-hellish lives of a deeply unpopular fifteen year-old (Paul Iacono) and his scheming, sex-obsessed best friend, Miles Jenner (Jareb Dauplaise).
Other than pining after the girl of his dreams, Jenny Swanson (Amber Lancaster), receiving daily beatings from the meanest jock in school, Max Owens (Jayson Blair), …there really isn’t much excitement in RJ’s life. That is, until his anatomical gift is accidentally exposed to the entire school.”
Yes, that is the show’s gimmick — the ultimate revenge of the nerds on the jock value system — and if your goal is to create a morality tale that reaches the youth demographic, then you have to say it works.
Warning: If you loved Rob and Laura Petrie’s twin beds in the The Dick Van Dyke Show, or thought Happy Days was racy, then you’re probably NOT part of the target audience for RJ Berger. (Uh… it follows MTV’s reality sensation Jersey Shore, so what does that tell you?)
Before getting his first staff writer position at MTV, Kevin sold short-form pieces to The Onion, Showtime, and National Lampoon and performed sketch comedy on stages like the UCB, Comedy Central Stage, and The Viper Room. He also directs The Apple Sisters – a live 1940’s radio show spoof currently in residency at Largo in Los Angeles.
Oh, and he’s also a new dad to the beautiful Lucy Chesley, thanks completely to his long-suffering and gorgeous wife, Heather. (Please pray for her.)
I asked Kevin if he would answer a few questions in honor of the season premier of RJ Berger tonight. He graciously agreed.
Voices from the Edge of Culture: Interview with Kevin Chesley
THW: What is the edgiest thing you’ve ever written, I mean besides RJ Berger?
KC: Just last year, the LA Times hired me to write a false cover for their newspaper featuring a hoax headline that described a city-wide attack by King Kong. (See story.)
THW:How did that go?
KC: Well, Universal Studios (who purchased the ad space) likened me to a 2010 Orson Welles.
KC: Yeah, but most readers dubbed me, “The End of Print Media”… which is probably why you’re writing this piece on the Internet.
THW:So that was your fault, huh?
THW:So, then, what is it like working on ‘The Hard Times of RJ Berger?’
KC: It wasn’t lost on me how apropos it was to be working my first staff job on a show about the travails of high school. While scripting the struggles of teens navigating the murky waters of early adulthood, sexuality, and identity – I was also getting my first taste of catering to network notes, plotting episodes, and just all around trying to not look like an idiot.
THW: How did that part go? I mean, not looking like an idiot?
KC: Not so well.
THW:Tonight is the Season Two premier. What was it like getting ready for a second season?
KC: Some of the work I did on Season Two was literally performed in a real high school cafeteria, breaking stories beneath paper banners announcing the theme of the next big school dance. It couldn’t have been a better setting to display the excitement and fears of dipping my toe into professional screenwriting for the first time.
KC: I haven’t been this psyched and bewildered since Freshman Year. Which, to beat an analogy to a bloody pulp, is almost exactly what I’m experiencing all over again.
THW:So who are the cultural influencers we should blame… uh, I mean, credit for making you the writer you are today?
KC: Wow! Let me think about that.
THW:Actually, I’m only giving you fifteen minutes to answer.
KC: That’s not a lot of time…
THW:The clock is running…
KC: (A look of deep concentration fills Kevin’s face, kinda like when Yoda raises Luke’s ship out of the swamp.) Ghostbusters, Roald Dahl, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” C.S. Lewis, The Goonies, Chris Claremont, Anne Lamott, Neil Gaiman, Star Wars (Episodes 4,5,6 only!), Led Zeppelin…
THW: Five minutes…
KC:(Sweat beings to trickle down Kevin’s brow.) Mary Poppins, Alan Moore, Monty Python, J.J. Abrams, H.P. Lovecraft!
KC: Wow! That happened really fast…
KC: There’s almost NO TV on there!
THW:How does that make you feel?
THW:Anything you want to retract?
KC: Looking back on it… No, that’s kind of right… that’s pretty much me… I’d better let you publish that before I start second-guessing everything.
THW:Wouldn’t want that now, would we?
Please join me in praying for Kevin and other two-handed warriors seeking to make a difference in a culture desperately in need of salt and light.
 The Hard Times of RJ Berger regular time slot is 10pm Monday nights.
‘Christian Filmmaking’ Captures Hollywood’s Attention as Never Before, but are Christian Filmmakers Up for the Challenge?
As Soul Surfer roars past Fireproof‘s $33M payday, (eventually reaching $45M at the box office) Hollywood’s rush to cash in on adapting Christian stories–such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ($279), and stories about Christians–such as The Blind Side ($256M) continues to gain momentum.
Whether or not this trend proves to be good or bad for the future of Christians in the entertainment industry remains to be seen.
Suddenly, Christians who have spent their lives establishing themselves as world-class filmmakers–such as producer Ralph Winter (XMen), and director Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still)–find themselves in the same conversation as unproven “Christian filmmakers” who have clawed their way to the market only by virtue of uniquely Christian product. .
Two current projects may make or break Hollywood’s interest in ‘Christian’ projects. Ralph Winter’s The Screwtape Letters, and newcomer Steve Taylor’s adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-selling Blue Like Jazz are being closely watched by industry insiders.
It could be an uphill battle. The trend toward “Christian filmmaking” is already drawing mixed reviews in Hollywood, largely due to the less-than-stellar quality of many so-called “Christian Movies.”
I’ve chosen two takes on the movement in recent publications for your consideration (below). Cathleen Falsani’s post in the Huffington Post offers some positive press on the movement, and even suggests some possible future adaptation projects. Andrew O’Herir’s post in Salon offers a more sobering critique based on Hollywood’s memories of truly atrocious “Christian Films.” It’s painful to read and often overstated, but O’Hehir’s commentary is worth considering and striving for a higher standard.
This fall a film based on Donald Miller’s bestselling spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is expected to hit theaters nationwide. In many ways, Miller’s book is an unlikely subject for a feature film.
Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-autobiographical short essays based in part on Miller’s experience auditing classes at Reed College in Oregon that explore the author’s wrestling with questions of faith.
But the film project is part of a growing trend of adapting well-known “Christian” or Christian-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) as feature films. Recent movies based on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Two more film adaptations of Lewis’ works — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce — are in development.
Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media (Note: Ralph Winter contacted me this AM (4/30) to tell me that Cathleen’s report is mistaken –Walden Media is NOT connected to the project at this time), the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.
Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”
Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”
As “Soul Surfer” demonstrates, “faith-based” movies are a boom industry. Do they have to be so lame?
by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon
When a star teenage surfer named Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack, and then got back on her surfboard just three weeks later, you could hear another species of shark – the ones from Hollywood, who turn dramatic real-life events into movies — swimming to the scene.
Not only did Hamilton’s story have an attractive and charismatic central character, it also came with a moral message attached and (to think more cynically) a much-desired target demographic. Hamilton’s family were evangelical Christians who understood what had happened to Bethany as a personal and providential test of faith, and also saw it as an opportunity to testify to the wider world.
The resulting film, “Soul Surfer,” which stars AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, took some interesting twists and turns on its way to the big screen. There was evidently disagreement between the Hamiltons and the film’s producers along the way, over the question of how explicit to make the references to faith and the quotations from Scripture. (They’re plenty explicit, if you ask me.) But success has a way of resolving all such disputes, and “Soul Surfer” opened last weekend on 2,214 screens with a $10.6 million gross, and the third-highest per-screen average of any film in wide release (after “Hop” and “Hanna”).
You could call “Soul Surfer” a Christian film that got picked up by a mainstream distributor (Sony) or an inspirational mainstream film that was concocted with the “faith-based” audience partly or largely in view, after the fashion of“The Blind Side,”“Secretariat,” the “Chronicles of Narnia” series and so on. (For whatever it’s worth, the universe of Christian movie sites and bloggers seem to view it as the former.) While the Hamilton family’s religion runs through the story as an undercurrent, the movie’s only mouthpiece for official Christian theology is a youth counselor played (very clumsily) by country star Carrie Underwood. As Carolyn Arends, the film critic for the evangelical site Christianity Today, has noted, director Sean McNamara and his team of writers aren’t trying to preach the gospel to outsiders but to create a recognizable self-portrait for their target audience, “a reasonable approximation of daily American Christianity.”
However you want to categorize “Soul Surfer,” it’s going to make plenty of money, and should serve to remind those of us in the secular moviegoing public that the evangelical audience that emerged with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and the out-of-nowhere 2008 hit “Fireproof” hasn’t gone anywhere.
Christian-identified viewers remain voraciously hungry for content, and even though the major studios all have marketing arms devoted to courting them, they still feel poorly served by the mainstream film industry and its addiction to violent, sexual and otherwise profane subject matter. (Dozens of Christian-oriented movies are made every year, but only a small fraction of them will reach general release.)
But do Christian-themed movies really have to be so bad?
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:
Series Introduction: The journey toward reimagining faith and culture is never traveled alone. I asked some key cultural influencers: “Who are authors, artists, filmmakers, screenwriters, poets, musicians, films, books, plays, TV shows, or any other cultural artifact who have deeply influenced you and will always stick with you.” Then gave them only fifteen minutes to complete their list, to keep it “unedited.” (Part of an ongoing series.)
Dr. Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn., is an outstanding example of servant leadership. Jay has been a leader in Christian higher education for more than 30 years, both in academics and student development. Before becoming Bethel’s president, Jay served for 13 years as the university’s Provost and executive vice president. Prior to his time at Bethel, Barnes held at Messiah College (Penn), Wheaton College (Ill.), and at Black Forest Academy in Kandern, Germany.
Jay is known for his collaborative leadership, team-building skills, and student-centered approach to higher education. During his career, he took lead roles in improving student development theory and practices on a national level with the Association for Christians in Student Development. For many years, Jay and his wife, Barb, have co-led counseling groups for engaged students and have conducted workshops nationally on marriage enrichment.
Jay’s tenure at Bethel has also been marked by his deep commitment to racial reconciliation. Under Jay’s guidance, Bethel University began a Reconciliation developed one of the only bachelor’s degree in reconciliation studies in the nation.
Denny Morrow, Associate Executive Director, ReachGlobal, and former Executive Director of Daystar University (Kenya) asserts:“Jay is a quintessential servant leader. He is laser focused on excellence for himself and the University, but equally important, Jay listens well to others. His rare combination of a strong will and a self-deprecating humor engenders trust for those he leads.” I could not agree more. I’ve know Jay since he was my Resident Director at Wheaton College and have found him to be one of the more consistently Christlike servant leaders I have met in all my years in higher education.
1) Your list must be comprised of cultural artifacts readers have access to. You can’t include your Mom, or some other leader who had a personal impact on you, but who readers will never have the chance to meet.
2) Try to make your list in no more than fifteen minutes if you can, but take more time if you need it.
The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture.
Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the Hollywood community in hope it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in educational community.)
They begin with the most congratulatory and move on to the most critical, which is of course where all conversations get interesting.
They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.
Read Paparazzi and the thoughts below and then jump into the conversation,
I am no historian, theologian, philosopher, or qualified cultural critic, but your article hit a cord with me. The whole idea of celebrity, pseudo or otherwise, is a fundamental dilemma for our culture in general and certainly for Christians in particular. Well done!
Great article. You cannot help but be humbled by the life of Edwards and Whitefield.
We are indeed…”called to be missionaries in a media‐driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image‐driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence.”
My great fear is that we may not now have men who have the humility and virtue needed to be used by God in the way He used Edwards and Whitefield.
I hope you consider composing a shorter version of this call for use in more popular Christian publications (for the less scholarly of us readers).
I very much enjoyed your paper about Edwards and Whitefield and the notoriety they experienced.
I was just looking for a bit more differentiation between God-given celebrity and human-driven celebrity. I just know of too many young Christian actors and writers out here who dream of being famous so they can be used of God, when it’s actually the opposite – letting themselves be used of God might lead to recognition.
I think the threads are all there, but I was looking for a paragraph or so on the last page that made those clear. Your example of C.S. Lewis was well-chosen. This was a man who would have very much preferred his solitude and small circle of friends, but responded humbly when the attention came. Edwards and Whitefield had to have been similar in their approach to obeying God, wherever He led.