If you’ve seen movies like “The Blind Side” and “The Passion of the Christ” or TV series like “Lost” and “24,” you’ve been exposed to projects that have been worked on by alumni or faculty of the Act One program in Hollywood. Originally created to be a screenwriting school for Catholics and people from other Christian denominations, it now includes a Producing and Entertainment Executive program as well.
Since The Christophers have always been concerned with the quality of popular entertainment (that’s the reason our founder, Maryknoll Father James Keller, established the Christopher Awards), I recently interviewed Act One’s Programs Director, Vicki Peterson, on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss effective storytelling from a Christian perspective.
Peterson explained, “I believe—and really the Act One philosophy is—what the audience does with a film or with a TV show after they watch it is just as important as what they’re doing when they watch it…We strive to instill in our students that it’s important to respect the audience. It’s important to give them opportunities to think.
“It’s what God is doing in the hearts and minds of the people watching your material that is important. If your material can be a vehicle for someone to get in touch with their thoughts and their beliefs, then that’s a great thing. But that’s not something that the filmmaker can force someone to do. The filmmaker is only presenting stories and situations that people will hopefully chew on later. The way to do that is to create mystery, and to create situations where the audience can…have something to think about.”
One of the temptations for Christian storytellers can be to get a little preachy in their work. During the interview, I recalled writing a story in high school with a pro-life theme and being told my point was “subtle as an anvil” by the teacher. I was annoyed at the time, but in retrospect, he was absolutely right. In order to engage readers or viewers—especially those who might disagree with you on a subject as heated as abortion—it’s more effective if you take a more emotional approach.
For instance, one of the most accepted pro-life movies in recent years was “Juno,” which won a Christopher Award. Yet the screenwriter was not looking to make a pro-life movie. She herself said she was pro-choice, but the story took those aspects on by itself.
Peterson said, “The reason why ‘Juno’ worked was that the storyteller was telling the truth. The abortion room scene where she walks into the clinic is a great example of what an abortion room scene should be in a movie. She walks in and it’s this gross, crass place. Then there’s this wonderful scene when Juno realizes that babies have fingernails. Just that thought alone and that image—she looks around and sees all these people using their fingernails in this room. That is the way to address the fact that there is a human inside of her…We can all be on the same page when somebody’s talking about fingernails.”
Though movies and TV programs reflect the culture in which we live, they also influence it, shaping our thoughts and beliefs. That’s why it’s important for more people with well-developed talent and a firm foundation of faith and values to get into the entertainment business—to share stories of truth. Thanks to Act One for helping many young people do just that.