An interview with Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington

Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington is a screenwriter, author, and professor at Pepperdine University.  The founder of Act One, an organization that seeks to nurture the next generation of Christian artists and media pioneers, she is currently the Chair Emeritus of its Board of Directors.  She co-edited Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith and Culture, and her latest screenwriting project is Mary, Mother of the Christ, which stars Al Pacino and Peter O'Toole and will be released in 2010 by MGM.

As her students can attest, Nicolosi-Harrington is one of the most creative voices speaking today at the intersection of faith and culture.  She brings an insightful, provocative, prophetic voice, calling for people of faith to communicate the message of Christ through the most powerful media of our time.

 

Can you tell us a little about your faith and how you got into the filmmaking industry?  Were the two related?

After college, I became a member of a Catholic religious community called the Daughters of Saint Paul, whose work was in using modern media to promote the gospel.  I was with them for about nine and a half years.  We prayed for the media and thought about how modern media and storytelling can be a gift to people.

When I left, it was motivated by the fact that the community was not doing evangelization as much as they were doing catechesis.  They were speaking mainly to a Catholic audience that would come into a Catholic bookstore.  I was interested in talking to people who would never enter a Catholic bookstore.  We had an amicable parting of the ways, because we just have two different goals.  

I went to film school at Northwestern and got my first job as a director of project development for a production company in 1996.  Then I finally got some scripts going, and that's my main work.  I'm a screenwriter. 

How would you classify yourself religiously?  Given your strong commitment to evangelization, would you call yourself an evangelical Catholic?

I am an orthodox Catholic, a happy Catholic.  I don't dissent from the Church's official teaching in any area.  Many Catholics have complaining to do, but, basically, it's worked for me.

Much of my professional work has been done by the generosity of evangelicals.  If only Catholics understood my vision as well as the evangelicals have!  But I would say that I've found that things are shaking out historically, so that if you are someone who is a traditional biblical Christian, Catholic or Protestant, you will end up on the same side of the divide.  There are many who call Jesus "Lord, Lord," but in fact they dissent from so much biblical Christianity that they are almost indistinguishable from non-Christians. 

So there are Catholics I have very little in common with theologically or spiritually, and there are evangelicals with whom I have a tremendous amount in common.  It comes down to, "Are you really engaged in this relationship with Christ?"  If you are, then it's amazing how you will find a whole new community of friends.

How do you perceive your vocation and what God might accomplish through it?

My vocation is to be a storyteller to the people of my time -- and if I create a good enough story, stories have a way of transcending time.  I'm very preoccupied with creating a story and characters that will haunt people in a way that sends them on a journey of introspection. 

I am a political animal in many ways.  It's a big hobby for me.  But I have, with the rest of my generation, almost completely lost confidence that real good in society can be achieved through politics.  I don't think that's the pathway to lasting good.  I think that politics can clear the field for good to be done, but I don't think it actually achieves anything.  I think culture is what creates good in the world.  That's the realm of the artist: the storyteller, the musician, the poet.  And I see myself as a storyteller.

Christianity is communicated to us via stories.  How do you perceive your role as a storyteller in relation to the Word, and the divine storyteller?

That's a lovely question.  All Christians have the mandate to tell the story of how God has saved them.  That seems to be the Christian vocation.  There are two kinds of stories that interest me now, and this has changed.  When I first came to Hollywood, I was not interested in telling explicitly Christian stories -- stories dealing with Christian heroes, Christian history, or overtly featuring Christian characters or saints.  That was not what I was interested in doing.  First of all, I thought, everyone knows those stories.  Second, it will always come across as being preachy. 

I have come a long way now.  People really don't know the story anymore.  With a group of twenty-somethings not long ago, I threw out an introductory comment, "Well, you all know the covenant with Abraham..."  They just looked at me.  I said, "You know, the sacrifice of Abraham..."  This was a group of twenty-somethings did not know what I was talking about.

It's amazing how the stories can be lost in one generation.  But I think they have been.  So we have an obligation to make sure that the stories of salvation history are handed on.  And the screen is the preferred method of receiving stories among the people of our time.  So somebody had better be telling our stories so they are not lost.

But I was more interested in telling a kind of story that would leave a lot of work to the viewer, so the reader would be prodded into thinking about uncomfortable realities.  I guess you would say a more prophetic kind of storytelling is what I am interested in.  I'm always reminded of Plato, when he speaks of man as a thoroughbred who needs a stinging fly to get him galloping across the field, so that he can realize he is a thoroughbred.

The technology of storytelling is changing, as we see with Avatar.  How do you perceive the potential positives and negatives that might come out of increasing our ability to immerse the audience in imaginary worlds?

Virginia Woolf said that you could never have a pure cinema criticism, because it's an art form tied to technology, where the technology is always outstripping the artistic achievements of the artists using it.  It's an interesting suggestion.  It's almost impossible to compare fairly John Ford with Steven Spielberg, because Spielberg has an entirely different palette available to him.

And now we see with this new "depth" aspect, which is really the hallmark of the new 3D.  The old 3D was about things popping out at you in an artificial way.  The new 3D is about the screen going backward, so that you feel like there is a whole wide world deeper than the screen. 

What does it mean for storytelling?  I'm not really sure.  For Avatar, it meant that everyone had to see that movie because it was new and it was working.  There have always been gimmicks tried in cinema, through the years.  But this one, immediately everyone knew that this was not merely a gimmick.  So it did that amazing thing that everybody wants, where it became the thing that everyone had to see. 

As far as what this new technology will mean, maybe I'll be able to tell you after Alice in Wonderland opens.  This movie, which features Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, is also done in 3D.  We'll see if people start demanding that every movie be done this way, because we love it -- or if it was just a fluky experiment.

I happen to be a big fan of the new 3D technology.  Avatar is a one-dimensional story told beautifully in three dimensions.  The script was lame, the characterizations were cliché and stereotypical.  Having said that, there were many moments when I grinned at the screen because it was so lovely to look at.  That's a part of movies, and the arts, period.  A part of their job is to make people go, "That's lovely."  Avatar did that.  The question is whether people will grow weary of it.  Will they say, "I've seen eight hundred incredibly astoundingly beautiful images, and now I'm done."  Right now, at least for the next decade, I think people will want to go see it. 

From an ethical standpoint, filmmakers should consider: Are we so beautifully creating an artificial world that young people will prefer it to the real world? 

That's not something to be laughed away and lightly dismissed.  I asked my undergraduate students last semester what would be a perfect day for them.  One raised his hand and said, "I would have a stack of pizzas, I would spend the whole day playing computer games and everyone would leave me alone."  The other guys nodded their heads.  That was the sentiment almost universally among the young men in the class. 

That's important, and it's interesting.  When I look at my 8-year-old nephew watching Avatar, is the impact on him going to be "This is not like any world out there that I can see with my eyes, but I like it better"?  I don't know.  I don't know. 

You have a quotation standing above your blog, from a 1930s film critic, that says: "Theaters are the new Church of the Masses -- where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human."  What does that quotation mean to you?

It means that the Church has lost its distinctive voice of authority in the contemporary moment.  That quotation was written in the 1930s, but it's even more true today.  The Church, which had been the primary teaching voice in human history, has lost its voice of authority.  It's just another competing voice out there now -- and to tell you the truth, because the Church has shunned using the modern media, it's not even a very compelling voice. 

So if you're not going into a Church, you're not hearing the Church's voice.  But the Church used to be an authority that would stand up in the culture and say to you, "This is what virtue is.  This is what meaning is.  This is what the point of your life is.  This is good and this is bad." 

Where do people find those things now?  They listen to television and the movies.  They go to the media, and the media will tell them what the point of their life is.  I don't know that that's a good thing.  It's not a bad thing in every case.  There are some people writing who seek very responsibly and seriously to help people discern what matters in life.  I know a lot of them in Hollywood.  But for many other people, their whole preoccupation in making movies and television is to keep people distracted for 22 minutes, 47 minutes, or 2 hours.  For those people, there's no interest at all in doing good, or no concern with doing harm.

Dostoevsky said that man, in the end, will be saved by beauty -- or nothing.  In other words, the last voice of authority will be the Beautiful.  The Beautiful is the last voice that will be compelling for people.  So the question is, if we have become a society that no longer produces the Beautiful, and we're no longer in an agrarian society so people no longer have regular access to natural beauty, then there will in fact be no compelling voice of authority.  When there is no ultimate voice of authority in the world, then everyone is his own authority.  Then you have moral and cultural anarchy. 

How ought the Church to respond?

The Church needs to get back into the work of the Beautiful.  It needs to get back into the work of subsidizing and training and mentoring artists and guilds.  It needs to feed people who can sing and write music, and commission their works.  In a previous day, we would have commissioned statues and paintings.  Today's Church should commission novels and movies and screenplays.  

The fact that there is not a single Christian university in the top twenty film programs in the world is a sign that the Church has lost its way in modernity.  We are not seeing ourselves as people of this moment. 

The saddest realities to look at are not Hustler magazine and Big Love.  Much more tragic is what you find on EWTN and CBN, because these things are devoid of creativity and devoid of respect for the audience.  They are banal.  They may be produced with the best of intentions, but they have no sense of the appropriateness of the art form, of using the medium to its full potential.

Sad though it is, you would never call the Church the patron of the arts today.  Never.  You would be laughed down.  I know that to be true.  I used the phrase with a class of undergrads.  A young woman raised her hand and said, "Who is the ‘patron of the arts'?"  I asked the students who they thought the patron of the arts is.  They looked at me for a while, and finally one kid raised his hand and said, "The Bravo Channel?" 

"Patron of the arts" used to be the moniker of the Christian Church.  But this generation has no experience of the Church being a patron of the arts.  We are so far behind in being a compelling voice in the culture.  We have allowed our voice in culture to disappear. 

John Paul II said that this generation of Christians will have to atone for its failure to use the media to spread the gospel of life.  This generation of Christians will be called to account for its failure to use these powerful gifts we have in our hands to create global community and to move people to tears.  Others will be asked why they did not recognize Jesus.  We will be asked why we did not make television shows. 

Many perceive a tension between "heartland" and "Hollywood" values.  Is that a legitimate perception?

Again, not to get myself burned in effigy, but Christians feel as alienated from Hollywood as Hollywood people feel watching EWTN or CBN.  Hollywood has a value of excellent production value, of talent, and the pagan world absolutely believes in talent, this mysterious gift that comes from they-know-not-where.  We know where it comes from; they don't know where it comes from, but they believe in it.

The Church does not believe in talent anymore.  We think the most important thing is that everyone feels welcome.  So we sit at church and suffer through Doris and Stan, who can't sing, because we don't want to be mean.  They would never get a job in Hollywood, because Hollywood has integrity about the beautiful.  Or if it's not "the Beautiful" in the classical sense, at least, they value the non-lame.

So when you speak of a tension of values, well, there is the value of the Beautiful, which Hollywood understands and the Church does not, and then there are the values specifically of what is good for human beings.  What is it that leads them to their fulfillment, their ultimate destiny, fulfilling their nature?  Those things are missing, content-wise, in what you're seeing in a lot of the media. 

But in the end, which is more harmful: true words cast in an ugly frame, or untrue words cast in a beautiful frame?  I think Hollywood will get people into heaven faster.  Even if they have the message wrong, people in the end will turn off some of that.  What will really impact them will be the harmony, the wholeness, the completeness of a work.

So for example, a show like Friends, which might make light of pornography, is ultimately not as dangerous because it's very well-produced, well-acted, well-written.  It's funny.  It works as a whole.  Whereas you can have a minister in front of a Bible on CBN with a bad toupee, lit garishly, and saying lovely things, but the message is that Christianity is uncreative, banal, boring, undynamic, and irrelevant.              

So I'm deliberately not giving the easy answer.  One of the things I do in the Church is, whenever Christians ask me to condemn Hollywood, I always condemn the Church.  People always ask me if I am surprised by how many gross things Hollywood produces.  Being here, and knowing how few people in Hollywood talk to the Living God in any conscious way, I am actually amazed at how much good they do.  They do much more profound things than we give them credit for.

Things are changing, too.  The boomers are dying and ceding power, and the power is going into the very troubled, introspective hands of the Generation Xers, people like Jason Reitman, who made Juno and what I consider this year's best film, Up in the Air.  These folks are completely ambivalent about the promises of the sexual revolution.  They don't have other options, but they know the way they were raised was wrong. 

You're starting to see this in so many movies.  I think four or five of this year's academy award nominees are very hopeful pictures.  They're seeded with hope, not infected with the kind of cynicism that the boomer generation had come to.  The boomers, after exhausting themselves with every kind of sexual license and permissiveness and me-centeredness, basically had come out with a "whatever" attitude in their movies.  That is not the spirit of the Gen-Xers.

Do you have advice or words of encouragement for people who want to get into the game, but they are afraid to give everything up and move to Hollywood?

If you're young enough, I would ask: "Why don't you throw your hat in the ring and get the best training you can get in the field you're interested in?"  You need to discern if you have talent, and what level your talent puts you at.  Maybe you're a talented singer, but you're only in the top 15%, so that means you should sing in Denver.  If you're in the top 10%, you can sing in New York or Chicago.  And then if you're in the top 5%, you can sing in Broadway.  It's the same thing in the movie business.  This is the major league out here, but there are many places to be an actor, and you want to become as good as you can.  So find the top school you can get into, and get yourself in there. 

I would also say to get your act together first, spiritually and morally.  This is a very competitive, demanding field.  Creative people can ask you to make choices that will define you, in a way that working for an insurance company may not.  Where you have a lot of power, you're going to have requisite dangers and temptations.  But this is no reason for us not to be in the middle of it.  We need to get rid of the fear.  Let's stop cursing the darkness and make something beautiful for the people of our time.  That will go a long way. 

But there's no secret way to get in, for someone who believes in Jesus.  That's something I combat all the time.  I have people contacting me constantly asking if I can help their kid start out.  I say, No, not really.  What's your kid done?  "He just graduated high school."  Well, no, I can't do anything for that.

What I'm saying is this.  You shouldn't seek to be the exception to the rule, if you're going to make a profession out of something.  You should do what everyone tells you to do.  Work hard.  Find the best education and training you can.  This is a field like any other.  The misperception is that because we make entertainment, people think it should be entertaining along the way.  It isn't.  It's grueling.  But it is cool.  Very cool. 

You mention how Christians entering the filmmaking industry may be pressed into "defining" decisions.  Do you have any such stories from your own life?

There have been many, probably because I was on the executive side for the first couple years.  On that side, I had an experience when I had just arrived, when a woman came and pitched a reality show.  This was at least four years before Survivor.  She was just off the turkey truck from Iowa, but she pitched a reality show that my boss really liked, and she left the room.  She had just pooled all her money and got a plane ticket and came to Hollywood to meet with production companies, pitching her proposal.

My boss said, "You know, it's a good idea.  Find a way to get rid of her, and see if we can't retool the idea."

She didn't know anything about the business, and he felt that she'd be more trouble than she was worth.  I was horrified at the idea of stealing someone's idea.  So I had to look him in the eye and say that I would not be the person to do that for him.  He got irate.  He said, "This is just how this town functions.  You're naïve.  If we don't do this, someone else will!"

All of that may have been true.  But I had to stick to my principles.  For a day, I wasn't sure whether I was going to have a job.  As it turns out, he didn't fire me. 

Then I had an experience where a movie that I had written was taken into production by a major studio.  I won't say which one.  They said, "This is a nice little art-house movie, but it doesn't take enough risks.  If we change the protagonist to a lesbian, then it will make another $5 million at the box office and it will better satisfy the art-house crowd."

But it was based on the true story of an American icon.  So I said, "Well, this person was not a lesbian."  They looked at me and said, "We're not making a documentary here, and if you're not willing to go there, we'll bring in someone else who will."

In their mind, it wasn't that big a deal.  They were just trying to raise their profit margin and help the promotional people by putting some controversy into the film.  They weren't trying to spit Christian America in the eye.  I think a lot of times, Christians think that's what's going on here.  It wasn't; it was just a very pragmatic business decision on their part. 

I had to tell them that I wouldn't do it, because it wasn't true.  My agent gave me a lecture.  In the end, the studio said they didn't like the movie enough to do it without me.  But the parting comment from the executive was, "When you're ready to go there, give us a call."  They were absolutely sure that after I had been in Hollywood for another couple of years, my integrity would be on the table.

So those are not typical stories, but they happened to me. 

Is there any underground circle of support for people who come to Hollywood and wish to remain faithful to their Christian values?

This is going on all the time, frankly.  I've been here since 1996, and I'm always meeting with people who just got off the bus, and they want to have a truly Christian production company, or they really want to make a masterpiece.  This is ongoing.  The problem really is that we as a group don't understand the game well enough. 

I'm always meeting with Christians who are telling me that it's time that Christians start making quality projects.  People call my agent, wanting to hire me.  I'll take the meeting, but when they're told that they need to pay me $100,000 to write the screenplay, then people flip.  They say, "We were thinking about $20,000."  Well, that's not even legal.  I'm in the writer's guild, and the minimum is $108,000.  So I can't even legally work for that amount.

You'd be shocked at how many people find that sum ridiculous.  But if you were building a $20 million building, how much would you pay the architect?  There's a complete unreality among religious people about playing the mass media game. If you want teenagers in Brazil to be watching your movie and eating popcorn -- and Japan and Germany and Spain and Omaha -- how much does that cost? 

We are always saying that we want to play to win the World Series, but we finance our efforts as though we're playing PeeWee Baseball. 

You're involved with a program called Act One that nurtures Christian talent.  What can Christians do to support a Christian voice in Hollywood?

I do think everyone should take out a checkbook and write a check to Act One.  I don't say this just as the emeritus Chair of the Board.  Act One is doing the thing the Church should be doing, in that it's focused on people, not projects.  Act One is about training the next generation of writers, executives, buyers, producers.  It's giving them a responsible meter to evaluate projects and assess whether they will be good for people, or do harm. 

So, Act One is about helping the next generation of artists understand what their responsibility is, and what the Beautiful is and means, and to aspire to that.  If you train a writer, then you can impact a hundred projects.  That's where our focus should be, in training people to be our voice in the business. 

 

For more from Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, see her blog at Church of the Masses.  For more articles like this, see the Catholic Portal or the Evangelical Portal