A week ago Friday, I interviewed Steve Taylor over the phone — and I did not realize until afterwards that our chat had taken place exactly 12 years to the day after my very first interview with him, way back when I was just a star-struck university student happy to write for no pay at all; just the joy of meeting one of my favorite songwriters and seeing my name in print was enough.
Between these two interviews, I also interviewed Taylor in 1995 (when he returned to SonFest), in 1997 (when the Squint record label got off the ground and he began seriously talking about making a movie), and in 1999 (for an article on Christian actors and musicians getting involved in secular film).
A rather condensed version of this interview will be in the August issue of BC Christian News, which comes out this weekend.
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By Peter T. Chattaway
IN THE 1980s, Steve Taylor was one of the more popular Christian rock stars — and one of the genre’s wittier and more scathingly satirical writers. A former film student at the University of Colorado, Taylor also directed some of CCM’s earliest and most interesting “concept” music videos, for songs like ‘Meltdown‘ and ‘Lifeboat‘.
After a brief spell as head of the Squint music label in the late 1990s — during which he produced Sixpence None the Richer’s hit single ‘Kiss Me’ — Taylor turned his attention to filmmaking. The result is The Second Chance, starring Michael W. Smith as the popular music minister of a large, comfy suburban megachurch and jeff obafemi carr as an inner-city pastor with a large chip on his shoulder.
The film is now out on DVD, and I spoke with Taylor about it over the phone.
I feel obliged to say that this may be the first time I’ve interviewed a filmmaker after hearing his commentary —
Taylor: Oh wow, right.
— ’cause usually when I interview people, it’s usually when films have their theatrical releases or whatever.
Taylor: Yeah, right. Well this is the first time I’ve had an interview after doing a commentary, so —
So, you’ve been talking about making a movie for quite a while, a feature-length film, and now it’s actually happened.
Taylor: That’s right. They were mostly idle threats, but it finally came true.
So why did it come true now? What was it that made everything coalesce at this point?
Taylor: Well, I had a couple of false starts. I actually had money to do a project that I’d done a treatment for, called Saint Gimp, but I kind of put it on the back-burner when we did a table reading, the first table reading, where you get actors around the dining-room table and have them read it back to you, and it just was obvious that this was not a movie that was ready to be shot.
So instead of trying to go in and do a massive overhaul, I thought, “Maybe I should do something on a subject that I know a little more about” — kind of the “write what you know” advice. And that’s where I came up with the thought of– I thought that most Hollywood depictions of church life and pastors and those settings usually felt to me like they were made by people who don’t go to church.
And so I thought it would be interesting to try something set in that world, make it redemptive but also make it realistic and try to make characters where there weren’t any easy good guys and bad guys, or kind of where everybody has their reasons.
So you actually had money for Saint Gimp, then?
Taylor: I did, yeah.
And you actually cast it as well?
Taylor: I never cast it. It was going to be about 25 percent animated, and we actually started the animating — and in fact, somewhere there’s a website you can go and see some of the stuff that was being done, because I was working with a guy, Jonathan Richter, who had done this ‘Cash Cow‘ video for me a while back, and he was on the staff at Squint. So the animation part would have been good.
But I just, between myself and the other writers working on it, we just ended up with a plot that was kind of overcooked, and kind of probably too clever for its own good, and we were almost writing above our means at that point. We just didn’t have enough experience to pull it off. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to probably– It was at least enough to get me into trouble. So in retrospect, it probably was best that it all worked out this way. Because I recognized that it was a big job to do a movie and that project was probably just a little too ambitious for my abilities at the time.
Is there a possibility you might go back to that in the future?
Taylor: Yeah, you know, I went back and rewrote the first act and got it to where I really liked it, so it kind of intrigues me now to try to revisit it some time. I think once you’ve gone through the process of doing a movie, you learn so much in that process that that’s probably why getting in is so difficult, because people who are savvy on filmmaking realize that there’s a really big jump between never having directed a movie and directing one and then, y’know, directing a second one.
You’ve directed music videos before too, right?
Taylor: I have, and those give you sort of a false sense of security, like, “Maybe I could direct a movie, I’ve done music videos,” and really there’s very little in common.
Really? Because obviously, the writing would be different, because you’ve got to write for two hours and not for five minutes —
— but what about being on the set? Is that different as well?
Taylor: It is, because really, with a music video, it’s like you’re adding images to a pre-recorded soundtrack — so it’s just a vast jump. And there are some really good directors that have come out of music videos. But there are some other directors that have come out of that, and they’re surrounded by an entire group of Hollywood technicians and producers and people who are essentially making the movie almost for them instead of with them. So I don’t think– Let’s just say it’s a lot bigger leap than probably most of us realize.
And I had actually done a Newsboys long-form piece, a comedy, about four or five years ago, with the intent of, “Well this will give me the experience to better know how to direct a movie,” and I think that probably was the case. It’s just that, then the record label came along, and it ended up being a longer span of time before I was finally able to get to this.
In the past, dealing with music, you had to wrestle with that whole question of whether you were in the “Christian” genre, as it were, or whether you were not going to be so confined by that label —
— and you had the experience with Chagall Guevara and so forth. Making a film, did you wrestle with those issues as well? Because looking at The Second Chance, it seems like a very “Christian” film.
Taylor: That’s right.
It’s got Michael W. Smith, and the title even sounds like a very safe sort of Christian title, you know what I mean?
Taylor: Right. Oh, I agree. I did wrestle with that, which is probably why that was originally not my intent, to do a movie like this first. It ended up being a combination of things.
I was simultaneously working on a comedy — and in some ways I would have preferred to do the comedy first, because it was going to be a movie played strictly for laughs — but the Second Chance screenplay ended up being done first. In retrospect, it’s probably better that way, because I think a movie like The Second Chance had a little more margin for error, when you’re doing a drama, than when you’re doing a comedy, where you have to really kind of thread the needle.
And really, once I got into this movie, particularly with the issues of racial reconciliation and what’s the nature of service, it felt like the only way to make this movie work was to make it a movie primarily for fellow Christians. I haven’t found it a movie that’s sort of inscrutable to people outside the Christian faith, I think they understand it and get it, and a lot of them have enjoyed it. But the movie resonates more with fellow Christians, because when you’re dealing with some of those issues, the nature of why is Sunday morning so segregated and things like that, what does God require of us, is it just about giving money, or is it about giving of ourselves — I think a lot of those questions have their deepest resonance with my fellow Christians.
So it’s safe to call this a “Christian film”, then?
Taylor: Well, the only reason I haven’t called it that is because it puts me in such bad company. It’s like it makes people think of end-times dramas and their sequels.
At least one of which, by the way, is advertised on the DVD that your film is on.
Taylor: Well that’s another thing. I went in with so many– Since I was funding a third of the movie myself, I had final cut and total creative latitude, and then Sony buys the movie and I’m not worried about it because I’ve got final cut, but then what happens to the DVD, I have virtually nothing to do with. There were commentaries that they insisted be deleted, and they were concerned I was being too self-critical and things like that, and I was like, “Y’know, what do you care?” So there were aspects to the DVD release that were a little bit frustrating for me. Anyway, they’re selling a ton of DVDs, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.
Did the studio give you a copy of the DVD or did you have to go and buy it?
Taylor: No, I still don’t have a copy of the DVD. I’m anxious to find out– I mean, it was frustrating. I was going, “Send me a copy so I can at least tell if you got it right or not.” It’s like, I would never make a record and not check a master disc, right? And Sony says, “Oh, well, we don’t do that.” It’s like, what? Well who’s supposed to know if this is right or not?
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to even ask that question if it weren’t for the fact that– Do you know Hoodwinked, the cartoon?
Taylor: Hoodwinked, yeah right. I like those guys a lot.
Taylor: (laughs) Right.
— because the studio just didn’t give him a copy.
Taylor: No, I haven’t gotten a copy, I don’t even know what it looks like yet! I mean, I shouldn’t act too disingenuous. I saw the cover, and I told them I hate it, and they ignored me. I like the movie poster a lot, but I thought the cover was really cheesy. And I saw the– They let me know that they weren’t going to be putting a lot of the stuff on the DVD that I wanted to put on, and I complained bitterly and they ignored it, and so I guess that’s how these big studios work.
Wow. So is it a bit of a comedown from when you used to run your own label and used to be in charge of all those things? Do you miss the control?
Taylor: Well, part of the frustration has been– I started a record label just because I was so tired of having to deal with things like that, and as a recording artist myself, I have to say I had always been given an extraordinary amount of creative freedom and leeway, but I was really shocked at how many artists didn’t get that. And so, at Squint, obviously all our artists were very involved with everything to do with their project, and I just figured that that’s the way it should be. But I learned of course that that’s not typical.
And so making the movie was a great experience, and for better or for worse, the movie that you see is the movie that that was the best I could do, I can’t blame anyone for any mistakes, they were all my mistakes, and that’s what I was wanting the opportunity to have. But when it came time for the DVD, as far as the extras go and everything like that, I guess that’s just something that I forgot to ask for on the contract.
You mentioned a comedy that you were working on at the same time. That’s not Saint Gimp, then, I gather.Taylor: No, no, it’s another project. I probably don’t want to talk too much about it at this point, but the script is pretty close to being done, and I’m trying to raise money for it. I’m assuming it’ll be easier the next time around because it couldn’t have been any harder.
I have to admit that I was kind of one of these people who thought The Second Chance wasn’t what I was expecting from “a Steve Taylor film”, initially. I’ve seen the film twice now, once when it first came out, and then once on DVD, and the first time around, I was a little surprised by the fact that it wasn’t, shall we say, an absurdist satire.
It didn’t have quite the level of humour that I would have expected, based on some of your most popular or favorite songs. However, on the second viewing, I came to realize that it does fit in with a more serious strain in some of your songs. It’s more like ‘The Finish Line‘ than ‘Guilty by Association‘.
Taylor: Right. Oh man, nicely put.
So for those who were hoping for a really funny, wild, crazy Steve Taylor movie, and then they see this more sort of gritty, inner-city drama, how would you respond to that?
Taylor: Yeah, I mean, first I would say, y’know, sorry about that. Because I think that’s an understandable criticism. If I had been a good-enough filmmaker to make Saint Gimp, I think that’s probably more like what they — y’know, fans — would have been expecting. I would suppose the comedy that, Lord willing, I’ll be doing next is more along the lines of what you were talking about too.
Even in editing The Second Chance, there were so many times when we’d get stuck on something, and I would be thinking, man, if this were a comedy, I would know exactly what to do right here. But it’s not that kind of movie. Probably, I think what happened was, on one hand, the subject matter dictated a certain amount of serious intent, and I think there were some good and subversive elements in the movie. But honestly, in the thick of it, it was just hard to do that without losing the thread of what the movie was about, and it’s certainly not a feel-good movie, and I wanted the movie to leave you thinking.
And I think I even mentioned this in the commentary: I kind of feel like the movie doesn’t really get going until about 20 minutes in, and most of the editing and cuts that were done were to try and make that first act shorter and more concise and get the thing moving faster. It was kind of really difficult, you know, it wasn’t really until they take the tour of the ‘hood that I think the movie really kind of kicks in and starts moving. So yeah, I think that’s a fair criticism, and a lot of it’s just the result of a rookie filmmaker.
How well did you know some of those neighbourhoods before you started shooting there? Or even before you started writing the script?
Taylor: I actually kind of needed those locations almost in some way before I could even start writing some of the scenes.
For example, the Second Chance church I found early on in the writing process, and once I got the approval from the congregation to use that as a location, then — along with Ben Pearson in particular and Chip Arnold, the other writers — I took them around and we walked around some of those other areas, and started writing some of the other scenes based on what was happening in that neighbourhood.
So all the stuff, like, under the bridge is of course right around the corner from the church, and the fact that this freeway had come along and essentially separated the church from its neighbourhood seemed like a good metaphor for what was happening in the movie, and the pedestrian bridge that crosses the freeway is right around the corner from the church, so a lot of it just came from what that actual neighbourhood kind of set is.
So you actually explored the neighbourhood with the purpose of making the film there? It wasn’t a neighbourhood that you knew beforehand?
Taylor: No, in fact, that’s how a lot of the film kind of came together, and we kind of carried through that in the actual production as well, using people from the neighbourhood as extras, and the homeless people you see in the movie are actual homeless people from shelters in the neighbourhood that we paid for being extras for the day. And the projects where we shot had the nickname “Dodge City” because of the amount of gunplay that goes on there, and has since been torn down, so we kind of got in under the wire before it got torn down, because it’s just a bad kind of neighbourhood that was getting to be kind of hopeless. So yeah, the process of locations and the story was very connected.
You mentioned racial reconciliation. Is this movie primarily about race, or would it be fair to say that it’s more about class, or economic disparity?
Taylor: Yeah, well, I think it’s a mix. In the United States, the two are very closely connected, at least they are for a lot of parts of the country, and I think the class aspect of it is in some ways more important. I don’t know many kind of old-school racists, I don’t know that that many exist any more.
I think a lot of sociologists refer to it more as “racialization”, where we’re separated because of economics and, as a result, often times we don’t have all that much connection. People in the suburbs go to church, and their churches are a reflection of where they live, and those churches end up being predominantly white, and a lot of inner-city churches end up being predominantly black, and of course a lot of areas become more racially mixed with Hispanic people moving in. So we tried to reflect that
In many ways, Nashville is a microcosm for what’s going on in a lot of the country, and race is still a tricky topic to deal with. But it feels like dealing with it in the context of the church was particularly interesting, because race relations are– They’re decreed by law, that the workplace has to be integrated, and that the military has to be integrated, education, and yet going to church is still voluntary, and it’s still the most kind of segregated hour of the week, as Dr. King said 40 years ago.
It’s interesting, because another reason why the film didn’t seem quite like the “Steve Taylor movie” I was expecting was because this didn’t seem like an issue that you had really addressed in your music, with the possible exception of ‘Color Code‘. But even there, ‘Color Code’ kind of specifically targeted extreme cases, Bob Jones and South Africa, both of which don’t even apply any more —
Taylor: Right, right. (laughs)
So that was another reason why the subject matter of this film struck me as a little unexpected, just because it didn’t strike me as something you had dealt with before.
Taylor: You know, part of it might have been just living in Nashville now for 15 years, and it’s not that Nashville has particularly bad race relations. Certainly a city like Cincinnati with riots a few years ago, and we could come up with a lot of good examples of cities that, from the outside, appear to have particularly bad race relations. I don’t think Nashville is like that, it’s just that white people and black people tend to live apart.
And when it comes to church, that same thing happens, and you can count on one hand the number of racially diverse churches in our city, and it just doesn’t happen very often. There’s models of that happening across the country, but it’s just not happening a lot.
So yeah, it felt like a good subject, partly because I felt like I was part of the problem. I know I’m not a racist, y’know, so kind of my attitude is, “Well what’s the problem? Can’t we all get along?” And in the process of making this movie, certainly writing the movie, I found out a lot about why Sunday mornings are still so segregated. And as the majority culture, we don’t have to think about. We just assume that everything’s fine — y’know, what’s the problem?
Listening to your commentary was very interesting, because you told anecdotes of a sort that you just normally don’t hear on a regular movie commentary, some of the issues you had to deal with. Talking for example about using the word “damn” in church —
Taylor: (laughs) Right.
— and how apparently jeff carr used the word during a take when he shouldn’t have, or something.
Taylor: Right, right.
How was it actually just navigating issues like that, things like language? There’s the famous anecdote about Steve Camp and Tony Campolo, that whole thing of saying, “People are dying in Africa and nobody here gives a damn, and you’re more concerned about me using that word than you are about the fact that people are dying.”
It’s a common thing you hear, and yet I do know people, personally — actually, Tony Campolo said that at a church that I attended 20 years ago, and years later, there was a person at my church who still had no respect for him because he did that.
Taylor: Right, right.
So how was it, having to make those kinds of artistic decisions for a movie like this? Because I’m sure there are other people who would say that you could have gone even further with the language.
Taylor: Oh absolutely.
If you look at a movie like To End All Wars, that had even harsher language, and that was a Christian film set during World War II.
Taylor: Right, yup. I mean, it’s a tightrope that you’re walking, y’know. Part of the reason that the movie sort of has almost this sort of gang aspect of it that was kind of off to the side of the subplot, was because there was no way I could deal with that realistically if that was any more of the plot. And so it comes up a couple times on the bridge, and they’re in the presence of a pastor, so I figured it’s conceivable I guess that they wouldn’t go out of their way to use language in front of the pastor.
But even then, it was a very difficult decision to make. Obviously, I couldn’t make anything gratuitous, and at the same time, you couldn’t make it totally sort of sanitized either. So it was tricky. At one point I was thinking, “Why am I trying to make this movie, y’know? Because nobody’s going to be happy with this!” But I don’t know, it still felt like the subject matter was compelling and it was a subject that I hadn’t seen addressed satisfactorily within the church, so I just thought it would be interesting.
You mentioned also that the church where you filmed the movie, apparently the people there initially thought you were making an R-rated movie or something?
Taylor: Yeah, right! Oh man, I wish I would have had a camera during that first meeting, because they went into the meeting thinking it was an R-rated movie, and it was like sitting at a table with about six undertakers, and they were just really grim-looking, and I thought, “Well, maybe this is just kind of how they are.” And then they said why they had a problem, and I explained to them, “I don’t know where you got your information, but that’s not what this movie is.” And the mood so completely turned around and lightened, and we all got along great. In fact, the senior pastor at the church and I still keep in regular contact, so we ended up having a great experience.
But man, in retrospect, it was a really funny meeting, because I just had to have that church, y’know. I loved that location, and had already started writing it with it in mind, and I just had no backup. I never like to be in that position but I didn’t have a backup, I just had to be able to shoot it in that church, so they were really gracious and let us do it there.
I couldn’t help thinking that it is terribly easy to get an R rating, just through language, even. If you use a certain word two or three times, there you go.
Taylor: The MPAA, the whole thing seems completely arbitrary to me. We ended up getting a PG-13 rating because of drug abuse, and y’know, it’s not like anybody’s smoking weed or anything, what’s the problem? But there was a short flash of a baggie with some pills in it, and that got us a PG-13 rating.
That’s not a new thing, though. Billy Graham, or his company, made a movie back in ’86 called Caught, about a guy in Amsterdam —
Taylor: Oh yeah, I never heard of that.
— and that one was rated PG-13, and my recollection — this is 20 years ago now — but my recollection is that at the time they said it was because of the drugs the character uses in Amsterdam. And it wasn’t especially graphic, but just because there were drugs in the story, that made it a PG-13 movie, even then.
Taylor: Yeah, wow.
So in your immediate future then, you’re working on this comedy now, and that’s —
Taylor: Filmmaking has, kind of of necessity, become pretty much all I work on. I tell people, when I first started having meetings with Hollywood guys, I could tell that they had suspicion of musicians who wanted to direct, and I can understand that, because I have the same suspicion of actors who think it would be fun to be in a band. So I have to really let people know I’m serious about this, this is what I’m planning on doing for the next while, and would like to make music again sometime, but it’s kind of, not on the calendar yet.
Do you still work in music at all, either as a producer or anything like that?
Taylor: I really don’t, not since — not for a couple years.
This comedy — here’s that question again — would it be for the “Christian” market or would it be a cross-over?
Taylor: The comedy’s really just going to be played for laughs. I genuinely love working on projects with faith elements, Christian elements, but I just don’t want to be in a situation where that’s all I’m allowed to do. In a perfect world, I’d love to alternate. But we’ll see what’s allowed, y’know. Even independent filmmaking costs a lot of money.
Right. Well, I mentioned the analogy of this movie being more like ‘The Finish Line’ than ‘Guilty by Association’. As I was coming up with that analogy, watching the film a second time, I sort of mentally scanned as many of your songs as I could remember, and I realized that there were actually very few, if any, of your songs that actually were funny just for the sake of being funny. All of them actually had a very serious element to them, but they just expressed themselves with varying levels of absurdity or satire or whatever. So do you think you could make a comedy that didn’t have any of those other elements in it?
Taylor: One of the problems is, when you’re working on a screenplay, you get so deep into it, that– I remember on The Second Chance, people would ask me what this movie is about, and I would have to say, “Honestly, I don’t know.”
And I’m still not sure if I can put it succinctly, because when I see it, certainly racial reconciliation is a theme, and the nature of service is a theme, but the nature of celebrity is in there as well, and you would probably see a number of echoes through songs that I’ve written in the past as well. And I’m sure that with this comedy, that’s going to be the same story. You end up writing things — even, I’m assuming, when you do adaptations, you end up inserting a certain amount of your own sort of way of looking at things, for better or for worse — and I’m sure that will be the case with the comedy as well.
It’s just so much time. Making a movie is usually a three to five year investment, so I can’t imagine working that hard on something for no other reason than to make people laugh — but on the other hand, I just love making people laugh!
When we were showing the movie — and we did a lot of screenings — even though I’d seen it a zillion times, I’d always go back and pop my head in to make sure that the laughs were working. And I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but that’s just how it was. Whether people cried or not, that was fine, but I wanted to make sure they were laughing at the right spots!
I have to say, one scene that jumps out at me — and it’s a nothing scene, on one level, but I just love it — is the scene where Michael and jeff are looking at the church sign, trying to figure out how to spell the word “travelling”.
Taylor: Oh, man, right!
And I loved it because, as much as the movie did have a message, it was still clearly written by a guy who loved language.
Taylor: Right. You’re the only guy who’s mentioned that! And I just love that exchange, y’know. Because to me it just says so much about their characters, and these are two guys who just flat-out don’t see the world the same way, and it all has to do with how they’re going to spell this word.