Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why Don't We Have Any Great LDS Directors?

Note: I am going to say a lot of controversial things in this post. Perhaps the most controversial will be this: Discussions of George Lucas as a great movie director are only relevant when considering "Star Wars: A New Hope" as that is the only landmark picture Lucas has ever directed. The prequels definitely do NOT count. "The Empire Strikes Back", "Return of the Jedi" and the Indiana Jones movies were all directed by other people, so they don't count either. Star Wars fans, have at me.

Also Note: Much of what I'm about to say applies to other artistic endeavors as well, like music, acting, painting/drawing, etc. This could explain why there are so many LDS American Idol contestants who go nowhere after the show is over.

My husband has started a fascinating morning routine. He's been checking out big coffee table books on how great movies have been made and he reads them every morning at breakfast. First it was  Pixar Story, then the collective works of Steven Spielberg, then the Dark Knight trilogy, now it's Indiana Jones. And an interesting thing has happened: I have the answer to the question of why there are no Great LDS directors. If you're interested, keep reading.

In General...

I don't think I can fully discuss how this relates to Latter Day Saints without a few words on more general factors. What does it take to be a successful director in Hollywood?

  • Tenacity- A little known fact about success is that in its early stages it often looks like catastrophe. Not just failure; catastrophe. Jaws was so far over budget and over schedule that rumors were flying that Steven Spielberg would never work as a director ever again. A New Hope was over budget, over schedule and panned by executives and critics before it even premiered. During filming Lucas checked into the emergency room with chest pains. The experience was so stressful he vowed to never direct again once ANH was done. John Lasseter and company spent over a decade desperately holding their little team called Pixar together while honing their craft in hopes that they would eventually be able to realize their dream of creating a full-length CGI animated feature. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, suffered a major blow when his first full length animated movie directing debut The Iron Giant flopped. He had a wife and three kids and was struggling with the decision of whether to call it quits on his dream when he was brought on Pixar's team. To make it you have to have the persistence to keep doing what your gut tells you is right.
  • Blood, sweat and tears- To make something really great you have to be willing to bleed. Most great movies are born out of adversity, painful experiences, stressful shooting and nervous breakdowns. Shooting Schindler's List was a 90 day breakdown for Spielberg. Toy Story 2  was a frenzied labor of love as Pixar rushed to scrap all the previous work that Disney had commissioned on the movie and put an amazing one together in half the time normally allowed for an animated feature. If you're not suffering, you're not creating.
  • An extremely supportive family- There is often this perception that Hollywood is a graveyard of broken dreams- and broken marriages and families. While there are those in the business who have racked up a series of relationships rivaling Liz Taylor's numbers, many extremely successful directors have relied heavily on their spouses and children for their success. Steven Spielberg's wife and children moved with him to Poland for the entire three months of shooting Schindler's List. Spielberg credits his wife Kate Capshaw and his oldest stepdaughter with getting him through the wrenching production. Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan has collaborated with his wife Emma Thomas from the start of his career. She has produced all his movies, including his first short films from their student days. While making the  Dark Knight movies, Nolan kept his office at home in the garage. Peter Jackson (LOTR) co-writes his movies with his wife Fran. Interestingly, Judd Apatow, the creator of many raunchy guy comedies, co-writes all his movies with his wife and then they check with their daughters to see if they want to be involved as well. Most artistic jobs are not something you can clock in and clock out of, so having a family that is willing to be involved through the process is a necessity for maintaining a work-life balance.

But Why No Latter Day Saints?

So it's difficult to be a great director anyway. But why haven't any Latter Day Saints done it? Well, there are a few things about Mormon culture that I believe are holding many people back...

The Creative Feedback Loop

You're gonna hate this, but here it comes... as a culture, we Mormons are not very creative. Creativity requires asking a lot of questions. As a culture we are very afraid of asking questions because we think it will shake our testimonies. Instead, we write make media that asks few questions of our lives and culture and then when people say it isn't art we just claim they aren't spiritually enlightened enough to see how artistic it is. And so the self-congratulatory loop goes around and around. Comfortable, yes, but challenging, no. I don't think we should ever be afraid to ask questions or admit that we don't know or are uncertain about something. That's what faith is for. I find that the more questions I ask, the stronger my testimony becomes.

What Makes A Good Movie?

We have a tendency as a culture to define a "good" movie by what it doesn't have in it; sex, drugs, violence, nudity, etc. Often, we will look past what a book or movie teaches as long as it doesn't have certain elements in the story. Take Twilight for example. Often praised because Bella and Edward wait to have sex until they are married, the Twilight books teach that a man is really only worthy of a woman if he has a lot of money, good looks or status. Men who treat women respectfully and become good friends with them are not really relationship material in the world of vampires and werewolves. (For an example of a supposedly pro-Christian marriage movie that teaches a horrendous set of morals, see my post on Fireproof.) Many movies that are devoid of sexual content, nudity, violence or drug use are nonetheless lacking in a deep discussion of ethics and values and keep to shallow, pat answers to deal with conflict. If we continue to define the worth of a movie by the things it doesn't have, we will continue to miss the mark in creating meaningful narratives.

Another phenomenon I've observed amongst Latter Day Saints is to automatically qualify anything that has "Church" subject matter as art. As long as a movie, book, song, or even a viral video has a Mormon theme, it is thought to be superior to all other kinds of media. I sometimes feel like Latter Day Saints use gospel themes as a way to hide from exploring other more challenging questions and themes in their work.

Mormon vs. Human Narratives

Another problem with Mormons in cinema is that as a whole we are uncomfortable with stories about the human experience. Most of the stories coming from LDS filmmakers are about the Mormon cultural experience rather than dealing with shared feelings and experiences of people not of our faith. Could this be because many of us see ourselves first as Mormons (members of a particular cultural group) first and as people second? Though it's not the most well-written TV show, I give props to the creators of BYU TV's Granite Flats  for going down this road and attempting to tell stories that don't have to be expressly about the Mormon experience. In order to create movies (and other media) that appeal to people outside of the Mormon movie crowd, we are going to have to start using the gospel as a jumping off point to connect with those outside of the Church instead of seeing it as something that sets us apart from others.

This is not to say that we shouldn't make movies that deal with Latter Day Saint characters or stories. In fact, I believe that we need more great stories about Latter Day Saints that can appeal to mainstream audiences. But we need to find the common ground that our experience as Latter Day Saints share with others. The gospel of Jesus Christ should be a bridge, not a barrier, in relating to others. I think The Other Side of Heaven actually did a good job of this. This was a movie that had an LDS protagonist but wasn't about being Mormon, but rather the love that one man developed for a different culture through serving it people.

Sharing the Gospel?

Many Latter Day Saints have taken the counsel of prophets to share the gospel through the arts to mean that work by LDS artists should revolve around telling everyone why they should become Mormon. This is missing the mark. Some of the most deplorable people I have met in my life have been active Mormons. Being a disciple of Christ means living a Christlike life and sharing the gospel means telling stories that inspire to live Christlike lives that exemplify faith, hope, charity, gratitude, forgiveness and courage. This doesn't have to involve getting baptized. Schindler's List is a movie about charity and courage. The Star Wars trilogy is about recognizing the dark side within ourselves and choosing to live a life of honor and righteousness. About Time is about living each day in gratitude for the blessings we have. The King's Speech is about having the courage to confront your fears and reach for something better. The Dark Knight trilogy is about sacrifice, patriotism and service. Most people aren't Mormons and they may not be ready to get baptized, but most people are actually hungry for gospel centered narratives.

Discomfort with "Hollywood"

Ah, yes. The convenient scapegoat. Who is responsible for teen pregnancy, drug use, a climbing divorce rate, pornography, eating disorders and overcrowded prisons? It's not us parents. If we teach our children that they are never good enough for our approval, never talk to them bout sex, abuse our children or allow others to abuse them, we can't be held responsible for the consequences. Heavens, no, it's Hollywood that messed up our kids! I grant you, there are plenty of movies that come out that preach moral degradation or trivialize sin, but here is what Hollywood really is: a collection of every day people who are in the business of selling stories. That's it. They're interested in getting a movie to sell, and that doesn't always mean sex, violence or raunchiness, because a lot of movies that have these elements still don't sell. We like to think of Hollywood as a secret combination or the kingdom of the devil, but they're really just a bunch of professional storytellers. There are plenty of secret combinations going on within our own membership to worry about. 

Discomfort with Artistic Careers

If a Latter Day Saint says that he/she wants to be a great movie director, what this young person likely hear? "Go make movies for the Church!" Every time some teenager reaches a small amount of youtube success with a Mormon based video, I hear the creator say, "I'm going to make movies for the Church because that is how I will use my talents to serve God!" The Church needs people to help it make films now more than ever, but that isn't the only virtuous way to make a living in the arts. Unfortunately, many of our membership are very uncomfortable with the idea of careers in the arts. The idea of pursuing a career that could put you in the public eye and <gasp!> even make a lot of money without professional school seems almost scandalous to some members I've met. Amongst many bishops and priesthood brethren, there almost seems to be a culture of one-up-man-ship about giving up on dreams. The bigger the dream you quit on (being a professional athlete, musician, etc.), the more of a man you are. Now, being rich or famous isn't in the cards for everyone, nor is it everyone's dream. But I find the idea of defining maturity by how low you set your ambitions to be extremely unsettling.

These are the issues that we as Mormon culture are going to have to deal with if we want to produce great artists. As a culture we are going to have dig deep if we are going to make the next Mormon Spielberg, Beatles, or Arthur Miller. And that is a good thing for everyone.