An Interview With Riot Studios
The new film Believe Me tells the story of four recent college grads who jump on the Christian preaching circuit in order to make some quick cash. The problem? They don’t really believe anything they’re saying. At the heart of the film are questions about the integrity of our Christian subculture and our search for deeper truth behind all of the religious hype. It’s not your typical Christian film, and I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the story and the quality of the film-making.
The movie was written and produced by Riot Studios, an independent film group located in Austin. Some of the stars of the film are familiar faces like Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and the rapper LeCrae (who plays a small role).
Michael Allen, one of the screenwriters, was a student in my wife’s seventh grade class back when she taught school (yes, as much as I hate to admit it, we’re that old). Michael went to Texas A&M and we’ve kept in touch over the years. So he and Will Bakke (who directed and co-wrote the film) were kind enough to answer a few questions about their new film and about the relationship between quality art and Christianity. My questions are in bold type and their responses are below. Enjoy!
What originally motivated you guys to jump into Christian film-making?
Michael: I don’t know that we ever endeavored to jump into specifically Christian filmmaking. We got our start making documentaries about some trips we took during college to explore our own personal faith. The fact that we’re Christians ourselves, and the films are about us, naturally brings about the label “Christian films,” but honestly we don’t feel limited to only telling stories about Christians or Christianity.
Who is the main audience for Believe Me? Christians or non-Christians or both?
Michael: I think it’s both. We’ve found there are a lot of people who wouldn’t identify as Christians currently, but they’ve grow up in or been exposed to the church culture, which is the subject of most of the humor in Believe Me. We’ve heard from people of all different perspectives that the authenticity in the characters makes the film more uniting than polarizing. No matter where someone is coming from, he or she can find a character to relate to in this story.
What was your primary goal with the film? Is there a particular point you were hoping to communicate?
Will: Our primary goal was to tell a compelling story. Something we really set out to do was to not put any kind of message or agenda ahead of the story. We’re a part of a generation that can smell an agenda a mile away, especially in film. We’ve found more success in asking the right questions instead of handing people the right answers.
How did you want this movie to be distinct from other Christian films?
Michael: Well, we’ve tended to resist that label in the first place (“Christian film”). For us, it’s not about distinguishing Believe Me from other Christian films, but rather about being true to our own voice and trying to make an honest production with good writing, acting, cinematography, and editing (probably the goal of most films, though arguably not always in “Christian films”)
Tell me a little about your creative process. What goes into generating a film idea and seeing it through to completion?
Will: This was MIchael and I’s first feature to write and so we felt like we were making a lot of it up as we went along. We weren’t just inspired by other movies but all different forms of art. Music was a big factor in creating the world that we wanted these guys to live in and so we spent a lot of time in the early story phases just trying to understand the tone of the film. Once we had a rough script, we had countless writer-friends go through it and tear it apart. We feel like whenever you create art, it’s best to have people with good taste around for critique.
The Christians in the film seem to be a gullible group of people. Do you think Christians are more gullible than others, or just more optimistic about people?
Michael: The latter. I think Christians can tend to see the world through rose-colored lenses because so many have a more hopeful perspective on life than an unbeliever. With that said, however, we’d also like to distinguish the Christians in this film with all Christians. We display a few caricatures in the movie for the sake of humor and conflict, but our audience shouldn’t assume we’re trying to make mass generalizations for people wearing a certain label.
Are the characters based in any way on real people? Do you think there are Christian speakers or musicians who are deliberately deceptive like Sam and his friends?
Michael: All the characters are based on real people in some way. Most of them involve combining different characters we’ve met in our own lives. And yeah, I’m sure there are some “Christian” speakers here and there that fake the belief for money, fame, or acceptance. Just recently there was a widespread story of a well-known Christian rock band that admitted to not really believing. At the same time, you can’t make assumptions or judge. You can never really know what someone believes in his or her heart, as fake or earnest as it may seem. That’s one of the major themes in Believe Me.
What advice do you have for young Christians who want to get into film-making?
Michael: Make great films and don’t rely on a handicap because you’re young or Christian. Start making short and/or simple films right now if you haven’t (I wish I’d started younger) and use this time to discover your voice. Once you have a hold on your voice, stay true to it and don’t force it to fit a mold of what Christian artists have done in the past.
Will: Don’t wait for permission. Go make good, true art.
How can Christians work toward the goal of creating high quality art that is consistent with their belief in Jesus?
Michael: Growing up in church culture, I had this quasi-guilt about creating honest art. I thought if I didn’t write only worship songs, or make only Christian movies, I was betraying Jesus. Imagine if you applied the same concept to any other profession. For instance, imagine if all Christian architects only designed buildings shaped like crosses. There would be pretty limited use for Christian architects in culture at large. The goal of any Christian’s vocation should be to work hard, deal honestly, and bless the world with the results of his labor. We can do that without forcing a sermon into every production.
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