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Essay

IT STARTED with a phone call.

“Sweet D, I’m coming to California. I want to interview you for my new book.” Nobody ever called me “Sweet” except my Davidson College roommate, John Marks. Evidently he was on the prowl, in search of his next story. I was intrigued.

“Why me?” I asked him.

“Because you were the witness. You were the last person who knew me when I still had faith.”

“True. But why now, after all this time?”

“I need to understand what happened. Where it went. I’m going to tape our interview. We need a whole day. To talk about everything.”

John wanted to retrace his journey from faith to doubt, to restart our conversation about life and God that drifted off when we graduated. As sophomores, we had been united by fervent commitments to Bruce Springsteen, John Wayne, and Jesus Christ. We exchanged favorite songs and scripture passages, and around midnight, our room sounded like a honky-tonk revival tent. But skepticism swept across John’s junior year abroad in Marburg, Germany, and he came back to campus a changed man.

John Marks, who grew up in Dallas, Texas, showed up at Davidson College wearing a cowboy hat and boots and brought a big appetite for barbeque, but that’s where the stereotypes surrounding long tall Texans ended. The range he liked to roam was internal: he studied the human condition in all its brokenness and beauty, and gravitated toward writers, artists, and journalists who mined a similar vein. To a comfortable kid from suburbia like John, suffering proved an irresistible lure—and so did the arts. John was cast as the lead in several student theater productions, but he never paid much attention to his appearance. He could go several days without combing his hair or shaving, and would crawl out of bed two minutes before class started, slip into the previous day’s shirt, and be ready to roll. John was a raffish role model.

He and I never got to the heart of what had happened to his faith. He made oblique references to the weight of history, but what did that mean? Had he toured too many concentration camps? Read too much Nietzsche? By senior year, we traveled in separate spheres. John devoted himself to theater, while I dove into campus ministry. John turned to Bertolt Brecht. I turned to the Gospel of John.

Now, twenty years later, John wanted to pick up the conversation where we’d left off—and write about our reunion. Since graduating from Davidson, he had taken an MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and become a novelist, journalist, and 60 Minutes producer. Now he had a contract with HarperCollins for a book that would set his former faith within the larger story of the rise of the religious right. So many writers might have taken the low road, going for cheap shots, but John could write about evangelicals as a former insider, with empathy, understanding, and insight.

I countered his proposal. “If you’re going to bring a tape recorder, I’m going to bring a camera.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“I just got back from Sundance. I really want to make a movie. Maybe there’s something here.”

“I thought this would be more of a private conversation.”

“You won’t even notice the cameras are there.”

“Cameras?”

§

For ten days each January, Park City, Utah, serves as the nexus of independent film, and as a film professor, I take students along for an immersive educational experience. At the Sundance Film Festival, commitment covers a multitude of sins. Audiences will overlook shaky cinematography or muddy sound if a filmmaker’s passion shines through. At their best, Sundance films offer a prophetic edge, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but they can also devolve into artistic navel gazing. Many a self-indulgent Sundance director could have benefitted from a stronger editor. Even the most independent filmmakers depend upon honest and insightful collaborators.

I make films, but I’m not one of those obsessive documentarians who chronicle each moment of their personal lives. I am more comfortable behind the camera, directing the action, recording the confessions of others. But John Marks’s phone call came at a moment when I needed to express something. I’d seen Jesus invoked one too many times in the political arena, and to me, an unholy mixture of church and state seemed to undermine both institutions. Televangelists may have entire networks, but I had a few video cameras and a stable full of film students. I asked one of our most successful graduates, John Priddy, for seed funding, and he and his brother Ed became our supportive producers. John Marks and the Priddy Brothers bought plane tickets and headed to Los Angeles, while I hired a few Hollywood professionals to bring specific skills. On Monday, I told my students we’d be shooting a documentary on Wednesday, and they got busy recreating our old dorm room on a soundstage.

There is nothing inherently cinematic about two friends rehearsing ancient history, but the gap between John and me parallels the widely publicized religious and cultural divide between Blue and Red, and we thought our story might resonate with families who endured awkward silences at the dinner table. We hoped that by airing the uncomfortable topics of politics and religion, we could push past the polarization of Red versus Blue, believer versus skeptic. Our project’s title, Purple State of Mind, expressed our search for common ground. We agreed that there would be no script and no ground rules. Any topic, no matter how painful or personal, was fair game.

Here are a few things we learned during our discussion.

§

It is easier to shoot a film than to edit it.

We met four times over the course of a year. I hosted John in Los Angeles, and later we went to our twentieth Davidson College reunion in North Carolina. John coordinated our meeting in New York City, and I spoke at a conference in his hometown, Dallas. We found no shortage of topics to discuss, as the unresolved questions between us were many. We each needed reassurances, and we each had confessions to make.

Our expert crew captured all kinds of awkward and painful moments on camera. I broke down talking about my sister’s death in a car accident. John lost his composure recounting a harrowing experience in Bosnia. Bringing buried emotion to the surface is tough, but that was nothing compared with the job of editing the material we recorded.

Documentaries are found in the editing room, where the movie you planned to make becomes something else. Assistant editors comb through hours of footage in search of the most vital, relevant, and arresting scenes, the footage from which the story will arise. How do editors find the spine, the dramatic through-line?

Between John and me, the off-camera debate about what footage to include and what to lose was even fiercer than our on-camera exchanges. In the heat of the moment, with the lights on, we managed to keep our wits about us, but once those moments were fixed in time, we had to live with what we said, or didn’t say. The toughest debates were not about how well a scene played or whether the humor worked, but whether we were comfortable including our own embarrassing moments onscreen. I wanted to edit out a sequence about my missionary journey to Japan. John insisted we keep it. I wanted to include a miraculous encounter with a night-blooming cereus. John wanted to cut it. In the end, some of our most awkward moments provided the best drama: we had to be willing to look bad in order for the film to look good.

We took turns editing the film. John carried the footage we recorded in Los Angeles back to New York, and I took the New York café conversation back to my editor in California. John worked with a colleague from 60 Minutes while I waded through hours of tapes with my sharpest student editor. We each presented our own cut of the material, and probably sent ten or twenty different versions across the country before we were done. After a year of editing, we agreed on several core scenes but were no closer to a final cut. We showed the material to friends and family and consulted some of the most creative minds in the industry. While people felt there was something there, no clear consensus emerged on what to keep and what to lose.

Our prescient producers made the executive decision to bring in a third editor, one who knew neither one of us. Greg Bayne brought fresh eyes and served as the ultimate mediator. He found footage we overlooked, extended scenes that we’d shortened, and put in painful bits we both wanted to avoid. Two years after we started working on Purple State of Mind, John Marks and I sat down in the same editing bay for the first time. With our modest budget drained, our producers had given us an ultimatum: we had one week to finish. With Greg as our go-between, we hammered out an ending to our mutual satisfaction.

§

Your mouth can get you in trouble.

How many of us have said things we’d like to blot out? A friend or family member may hold onto a phrase for years—and worse, may never tell us how much something stung. Years can pass between our offense and our comeuppance. Mercifully, those awkward moments are not usually recorded on camera. Except in my case.

One unspoken question lingered behind my conversations with John: Had I said or done anything to undermine his faith? Had I been loving, patient, thoughtful, and kind? Did my actions draw people toward my religion, or create another reason to dismiss it? I summoned my courage to ask John at the end of our first session. After three hours of rehearsing the past, it seemed appropriate to ask, “Did I contribute to your exit from Christianity?”

John responded quickly and unequivocally. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s nothing for you to worry about.”

His certainty about the cause of his uncertainty lightened my burden.

Unfortunately for me, in the three months between that answer and our next meeting, John reflected. He thumbed through his mental Rolodex, recalling a particular conversation about the relationship of faith and art. It was a recurring topic in our dorm room, probably because John was the only freshman I knew with the chutzpah to declare that he wanted to be a writer. While the majority of the campus worried about their dates for the next fraternity mixer, John was entering poetry contests. Davidson College produced plenty of doctors and lawyers, preachers and politicians. But writers? The career office did not offer seminars in that.

John was struggling to reconcile faith and art, and one night he asked me what I thought. In my new-found fervor, I said (according to his recollection), “God doesn’t like artists because they ask too many questions.” How had I concluded that? As an English major, I’d been inspired by John Donne, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Didn’t every singer I respected (Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, Cave) explore the thin line between faith and doubt? Hadn’t the rants of the Clash sparked my own spiritual search? My Christian convictions began with the probing films of Martin Scorsese; the violent self-destruction of Raging Bull woke me up, sent me on a spiritual search. How could such a strong anti-art bias have slipped into my ethos so quickly?

I don’t recall the conversation, but John did. He even wrote it down in his college journal. Making a personal documentary opens us up to moments we’d like to forget. My meager mea culpa on camera couldn’t capture the bitter irony that in the two decades since that horrendous assertion, I’ve pushed aspiring artists to ask tough, ultimate questions. I’ve dared college students not to be satisfied with the first blush, with the party line, with orthodoxy unchallenged. How painful that a project intended to present a different side of faith reawakened the anti-art bias I had presented to John twenty years earlier.

§

It is important to listen.

John voiced plenty of the classic problems with Christianity, taking shots at foundations that have been blasted many times before: hypocrisy, sexism, the Crusades. He seemed particularly disturbed by the notion of hell. How could Christians stand in judgment over millions of people? How could they consign good souls to eternal damnation? He couldn’t separate what Christians have done in God’s name from the vibrant teachings of Jesus. I resolved to absorb most of his blows without swinging back—especially since his targets shifted. Over the course of a year, John’s problems with God changed.

When we first reunited in Los Angeles, he seemed more committed to goddess worship than a masculine savior. In our initial on-camera conversation, he indicated that his college move away from faith was about sex, a hunger for experience beyond the strictures of religion. How many legendary poets and musicians had reveled in the pleasures of the flesh? John couldn’t possibly aspire to publication without romantic entanglements to draw upon. Having arrived at Davidson as a virgin, John was committed to altering that reality. I had crossed that bridge in high school, and found it far more complicated than advertised. Pleasurable, certainly, but with plenty of emotional strings attached. Following Jesus clarified things for me. It allowed me to focus on studies, on ministry, on others.

In the conversation at our college reunion, John dropped the art bomb. Standing outside our old dorm room, he recounted my egregious statement about artists and questions. He hadn’t necessarily wanted to abandon God, but when presented with a false either/or choice between a life of letters and a life of devotion, he went with art. He wasn’t alone. I’d heard horror director Wes Craven describe the prohibitions against moviegoing from his college days at Wheaton. He once skipped Sunday-night chapel to slip into a theater, trembling at the thought of being caught or, even worse, being left behind if Jesus returned while he was in there. The film was To Kill a Mockingbird. He concluded that if this was the kind of thing his professors forbade, he’d embrace the movies with enthusiasm. Atticus Finch blazed the trail that led to Freddy Krueger and Nightmare on Elm Street.

I could have argued with John about sex and art, but that was only his initial provocation. I listened with intent, offering a sympathetic ear. Only after hours of talking, months after we started, during a conversation near his Brooklyn home, did he feel comfortable revealing his deepest problems with God. In Bosnia, John had an experience that changed his life. As a young reporter (for U.S. News and World Report), he was placed in a God-like position, knowing more about what was going on in the war—matters of life and death—than the people whose story he was covering, and his ability to stand above the cruel conflict seemed perverse. He couldn’t find any good or true or noble moment amid a brutal war, and he had no one to process those feelings with. I wished I could have been with John in Bosnia. Perhaps we would have renounced God together. Or perhaps we could have found enough comfort in a shared experience to transcend our circumstances. I don’t know how many people he’d shared this with, and it doesn’t happen until the final ten minutes of the movie. Had I tried to argue with him earlier, I would have missed it.

§

It is easier to make a film than to get it seen.

Filmmakers used to grouse about the difficulty of getting things made. Today, affordable cameras and editing equipment allow anyone to make a movie. The challenge is getting it seen. Or, more precisely, getting people to pay to see it.

A label like “independent film” sounds almost nonsensical in the YouTube era, when everyone has their own channel. A student of mine at Pepperdine has already had his comedic short films viewed one million times. Of course, he’s never been paid for those screenings (and YouTube hasn’t figured out how to profit from him either). We’re far removed from the golden era of the studio system, when craftspeople were on weekly contracts. Now, every filmmaker is an independent, living from project to project. Sure, the studios still finance films, but almost no one is on retainer, with the studio paying their overhead, giving them a discretionary fund to purchase and develop projects. Independent productions are the province of the very wealthy, or of producers who find backing from Turkish millionaires looking to cast their wives (see Pia Zadora). So independent filmmakers are more dependent than ever upon patrons of the arts—to support their projects both before and after they are made.

I’m the rare screenwriter who has had the privilege of seeing my ideas turned into feature films. How amazing to walk onto a set in Victoria, British Columbia, and find hundreds of people bringing your descriptions and dialogue to life. The attention to detail on costumes, props, and makeup is staggering. How thrilling to watch actors speak your lines while riding skateboards or doing kung fu. The process also breaks your heart a hundred times. Budget limitations can result in less spectacular locations. Scenes that require elaborate stunts or special effects may be scrapped. Your dream cast may end up scuttled by scheduling conflicts. The compromises en route to a finished film are countless, and it can be difficult to watch an idealized dream become a less-than-stellar product.

The mathematical odds against independent films are overwhelming. Festivals like Sundance receive more than three thousand feature film submissions for roughly one hundred slots. Of those hundred, only ten or twenty will be bought by a studio for distribution. And of those ten or twenty, one or two will be lucky enough to capture the public’s attention. For every Little Miss Sunshine or Blair Witch Project, there are thousands of contestants who don’t make it. Precious finds her place in the world, but most become costly home movies.

Some refuse to accept rejection. Filmmakers whose pet projects didn’t get into Sundance founded the Slamdance Film Festival in 1995, booking an alternate venue near Park City. Their films never gained widespread release, but the Slamdance brand became a hot alternative. Charging thousands of filmmakers fifty or sixty bucks to enter an even more selective festival (Slamdance only screens about twenty features) proved to be far more profitable than making movies. Others double down on their bets. The producers of Bottle Shock couldn’t believe that no studio wanted their true story of Napa Valley wines, and after a Sundance premiere, they raised even more money to self-release their picture. After all, with a mountain of debt, why not risk even more to recoup it? Did you see Alan Rickman’s delightful performance as a British sommelier? If so, you are one of the few.

But independent filmmakers who can become their own distributors are rare. The rest depend upon word of mouth, social networking, and forwarded emails with links and invitations. The YouTube era takes the movies back to their communal roots.

§

Filmmakers are road warriors.

Purple State of Mind did not crack the upper echelons of Sundance and Slamdance. So what would we do? The new independence involves grassroots screenings, finding your niche audience. We just started showing it, one city, one screening at a time.

We began with a natural constituency: our alma mater. Our premiere occurred in the same domed auditorium where we both listened to freshman humanities lectures on Gilgamesh, Plato’s cave, and the Roman Republic. How thrilling to show the film to a capacity crowd. John and I stood in the back, gauging the reaction. The laughs occurred in the right places. During the scene where John recounts his experience in Bosnia, I saw a tear on the cheek of a woman beside me. The post-screening conversation was just as rambling and raw as our movie. Clearly, our film worked with college students who are having the same heated debates in their dorms.

We were less certain about churches. Could a church audience get past John’s opening salvo: “Did Jesus ever have an erection, and if so, did he touch it?” But our second screening at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was also packed. Four hundred people turned out on a Monday night, and John found himself thrust into the unlikely position of confessor. Longtime churchgoers felt comfortable bringing their doubts to John. They pulled him aside, speaking quickly and quietly. A young mother talked about her revulsion at so much God-approved killing in the Old Testament. She looked over John’s shoulder, fearful that the friends she’d come with would judge her for even talking to him.

I found an unlikely ally in Austin, a viewer who identified himself as a med student at the University of Texas. My discomfort with the label “Christian” resonated with him. Like me, he wasn’t sure he wanted to identify with those who announce themselves as true believers. He used to be proud of his name, which had heroic associations in his youth, but now he no longer wanted to be known as Muhammad.

Meanwhile, my reticence to consign John to hell left many Christians frustrated. When John attacked Christianity, why didn’t I strike back with equal force? Probably because I felt we Christians had already communicated far too much aggression and anger in the public square. Those outside institutional religion found me a surprising foil. When we took Purple State of Mind north to bastions like the New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan, my faith made me into an exotic, even endangered, species. For the liberal audience, John came across as too strident. “Why did the atheist have to be so angry?” they asked. “Couldn’t he have been more respectful?” In the City of Brotherly Love, a Buddhist almost punched me, so furious was he that I would engage in proselytizing activities in Japan. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” he wanted to know. The implication seemed to be that if I didn’t know the answer, I would receive a fist in my face.

As the tour progressed, we found ourselves defending each other. At Baylor University, John decided to play a prank for April Fool’s Day. As the lights rose after the screening, John said he felt “strangely moved” and suggested that the baptismal waters in Waco were calling him. He felt like he needed to make a decision, change his ways, maybe even be born again again. The honors college crowd leaned forward in anticipation—until John shouted, “April Fool’s!” The gauntlet had been thrown down. The next eight questions were directed at John. All kinds of testimonies were proffered, from healed grandmothers to stories about three men in a lifeboat. I had to beg Baylor to back off.

John returned the favor in otherwise laid-back Ojai. The Southern California mountain town is one of the most metaphysical communities in America, stocked with New Age bookstores and healing crystals. People invest hours in meditation, centering prayer, and inner peace. At the Ojai Film Society, the audience declared war on me, venting all their anger at organized religion. I was responsible for the Crusades, the Holocaust, and the nuns who smacked their wrists in the third grade—and it was John who had to help them separate things done in God’s name from the person standing before them. In Ojai I felt how much pain and animus informs those who pursue alternative forms of spirituality. The intensity with which they meditate may be in direct proportion to the grief caused by formal, western religious traditions.

Ultimately, each screening proved unique. Our college tour ranged from the public Universities of Maryland and Iowa to private schools like Colorado College and Wheaton, and our appearances sometimes resulted in unlikely partnerships. At NYU, the Navigators Christian Fellowship co-hosted us along with the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers Club. The atheists were vastly outnumbered (evidently, they’re not really joiners), but we were honored by members of both groups who shared their personal stories.

Along the way, we discovered a fascinating network of independent booksellers and theaters. We admired the purple awnings of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, and appreciated the hospitality of the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. We screened at co-operatives like the Red Vic Movie House in Haight-Ashbury and mini-chains like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. Innovative churches and synagogues hosted us, too. Each venue provided a dynamic place for conversation. The Purple State road show, which coincided with the 2008 presidential election, renewed our faith in American democracy.

At each stop, we sought out the finest regional cuisine, sticking to locally owned restaurants and tasting the best America has to offer. Memorable breakfasts included the Tastee Diner in Bethesda and the Flying Biscuit in Atlanta. On our Texas swing, we compared the barbeque at Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas with the Goode Company in Houston, but neither could touch the smoky walls of Kruez Market in Lockhart. John took great pleasure in eroding my wavering commitment to vegetarianism.

Some of the most touching moments were musical. Our New York premiere featured live performances from our gifted soundtrack artists, Rob Bailey and David Clement. In Philadelphia, John Francis took a break from recording with John Carter Cash to dedicate “Atlantic City” to the Purple State cause. Our Austin event began with the raucous sounds of pioneering punk rocker Jon Dee Graham. We never expected our little movie to inspire an entire concert, but Abilene Christian University welcomed us with a night of musical duets (to accompany our filmic duet). We heard dueling classical pianos, and a scat vocalist versus a saxophone. Great music depends upon deep listening, and a deep understanding of what your partner is playing. Plenty of rehearsal went into the Purple State musical performances, but as with the film itself, improv reigned.

We were honored by unexpected accolades (and rejections). The Breckenridge Festival of Film named us Best Spiritual Film, an award presented by film critic Jeffrey Lyons, whose reviews we’d grown up following on PBS’s Sneak Previews. Purple State also scared people off. We were disinvited from places like the National Religious Broadcasters’ convention in Nashville (evidently we were too hot for the televangelists to handle), and many friends, churches, and ministries went from initial enthusiasm to fear. They realized that Purple State sparks a conversation you cannot control. It forces viewers to surrender power. Our hosts had to embrace embarrassment and air dirty laundry. We admire their courage. We started messy discussions they had to finish.

§

Our last stop was in the most divided state. After Florida suffered through the contentious recounts of the 2000 Presidential election, anger unleashed by both sides spilled over the entire divisive decade. Florida is both the deepest part of the Old South and the capital of Latin America, and its retirees and recent immigrants must figure out how to live there together, since neither group appears eager to leave the Sunshine State. Florida understands the fragility of civility.

We brought Purple State of Mind to the Tallahassee Film Festival in the state capital, where we held screenings in an old train depot and on the campus of Florida A&M. Out of almost one hundred films competing at the fest, our little documentary satisfied viewers best, winning the Audience Award. We were thrilled. Our goal had always been simply to connect, to build a bridge across the alleged chasm.

We addressed the Village Square, a Tallahassee community organization whose founders, Liz Joyner and Lea Marshall, had formed a friendship from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Legislators who are willing to reach across the aisle have joined them. The organization holds meetings in a historic Episcopal church that has been divided by the ordination of homosexuals, and its programs often read like the beginning of a joke: “A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar….” But in Tallahassee, people who have suffered loss were eager to talk to John Marks and me about forging a future.

We also addressed a statewide gathering of Leadership Florida in the happiest place on earth, Disney World, where we spoke to civic leaders who have been both the conduit and the object of civic outrage. Leadership Florida invited us to bring our families along. It was the first time our kids had played together. They ran across the manufactured landscapes of Epcot Center.

The sight of so many countries jammed into a single space is jarring—sort of “Cultures ‘R Us”—but somehow the airbrushed dream still resonates. Tourists can move from Norway to Japan in a few strides, the sounds of mariachis blend into Arabian nights, and massive distinctions blur into one entertaining mix, with no politics in sight. Did our kids want to eat sushi or enchiladas? Pizza or couscous? The panoply of choices overwhelmed them, and the Central Florida heat didn’t help either. Tempers began to fray, and the mood darkened.

Just in time, we retreated to the water park, where we camped under the man-made waterfalls. The three kids, aged seven to ten, slipped down the massive slides together in the cool water, and soon we joined them. They found an inflatable raft and climbed aboard, and the four adults swam out and held on. We took turns steering until we realized it was better to simply float with the current. The whole group of us drifted down the lazy river together, whiling away the afternoon.

Our Purple State road show approximated the classic Small World boat ride: we encountered a variety of cultures and customs, but people retained their own languages, styles, and beliefs. And strength emerged from such diversity: on the road, we found an alternative community, off the radar, deeply committed to conversation. We met people who joined our declaration of interdependence, and we found that harmony depends upon listening, on finding your part before joining in. What could have been a cacophony blended into a surprising chorus.

We’re still figuring out what songs to sing, and the daily conversation continues at www.purplestateofmind.com. Our new goal: to make civility sexy.


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