Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Aug. 28
Blue Like Jazz Interview: Director Steve Taylor
Blue Like Jazz, which opens today, tells the story of a smart Southern Baptist kid who decides to attend Reed College, a place where his childhood (childish?) faith is not only not shared, but is viewed with open hostility. (“Every steeple holds a sleeper cell,” says one bitter ex-Christian, a mock-Pope who once spent a night hearing mock confessions and asking his fellow students, “How has God screwed you up?”) I spoke with director Steve Taylor, a man who once made Christian pop music attacking hypocritical preachers and abortion clinic bombers before going on to serve as producer for Sixpence None the Richer and the Newsboys and then moving on to film.
Full disclosure: I once owned this album.
I thought it did a mostly very fine job of presenting both Christians and those who can’t stand them as, you know, people, and of making its own sly observations about the human folly on both sides of the faith divide. (Review forthcoming.)
Okay, so the film is based on Don Miller’s memoir Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It’s huge book – 1.3 million copies sold – but good books don’t always make good movies, perhaps especially when they’re about spiritual journeys. Why did you think this story would work on screen?
The part that deals with a guy who grows up in suburban Houston in a conservative Southern Baptist church and then ends up in Portland Oregon attending classes at Reed College. That seemed very comic to me. Also, it resonated. I grew up in Denver, and my dad is a Baptist minister. Then I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and it was, in some ways, a bigger version of Reed College. I mean, it was different, but certainly equally quirky. And I just felt like I was lost; I had so little frame of reference for my college experience. I wanted to make this movie because I felt like I had lived it.
Who is the intended audience?
The book was a bestseller, and has influence even beyond its substantial sales. Many people didn’t just buy it and read it, but list it as one of the most influential books they’ve ever read. My first job was to try to make a movie that people who loved the book would respond to. I felt that if we did that, then it would find its own audience.
Why do you think the book was so influential?
I think that for a lot of people – especially younger people that have grown up in a church, and probably specifically Evangelical churches – I think they grew up in a time when Christianity and following Jesus…the lines got blurred between what that means and what American Christianity is. Specifically, political agendas and a whole host of menu items that don’t necessarily have anything to do with who Jesus is and the basic tenets of Christianity. “I believe in Jesus, I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t believe in a lot of this other stuff.” I think a lot of them were just fed up, and Don spoke to that sense of frustration.
When you watch a film based on a Christian memoir, you naturally tend to brace for the sermon. Blue Like Jazz avoided that for the longest time, but then there’s that one scene where Don is an astronaut floating through space, and he makes something approaching an argument for belief. Why include that?
We felt that if we didn’t bring certain elements over from the book, the people who loved the book would kind of feel cheated. That was one of them. In the book, that scene is a bunch of line drawings. Miller imagines himself in a space suit, circling the earth, totally unconnected. And even those crude drawings just gave this feeling of his alienation. The more he separates himself from others – the character of Penny in particular – the more alienated he becomes. And as you probably know, we’re not neutral on the idea [of belief]. There’s a point where just being true to the book required a certain amount of that.
I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a nice twist on the notion of apologetics in the film – not a defense of faith, but an actual apology. It struck me as an interesting way for a Christian character to engage a post-Christian culture, and also for you as filmmakers to present a Christian character to such a culture.
I think that [as Christians], we live in this constant tension between faith and doubt. And yet, we feel some measure of pressure, particularly at church, to almost act like that doesn’t exist. Part of the power of that confession booth scene – and that, more than any other, is the scene in the book that made me want to make the movie – is Don’s confession of where we live. That sense of, “I know you probably think that God is [deficient] because we don’t measure up. But that’s not how it is. Don’t blame God based on my bad representation of him.” That apology does wonders in allowing a conversation to take place when people are polarized. It can open up a space to talk.
Along those lines - tell me about creating the oppositional characters. Knowing that this film was made by Christians...it's easy to be suspicious of how the non-Christians will be presented.
For starters, Reed College is a real place, and we took a lot of our cues from life at Reed. The Pope is a real character; we met the 2008 version a few days ago. The academic life is really strenuous, but they do have all these oddball clubs. Part of it was trying to stay as true as we could to the spirit of Reed.
There’s a lot of talk in the film about the transcendent God, which is, I think, common when religion gets discussed in academic settings. But there’s very little talk about Jesus, and the more concrete problem he presents. That struck me as odd, given Don’s Baptist background.
When Jesus is mentioned early on, Don’s in the church wearing the armor [the sword of the spirit, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, etc.] and he’s having to say that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel. It’s a pretty embarrassing moment. I think he does what a lot of us do, which is tie in our cultural or sub-cultural baggage with the object of our faith. Part of what he has to learn at Reed College is that they’re not the same thing.
While we’re on the Baptist thing – for a story about a Southern Baptist, there are an awful lot of Catholic references. You’ve got the character of the Pope, the mock-confessional, plus references to Mother Teresa and a guy who reverts to his childhood faith and invites Don to Midnight Mass on Christmas.
It’s one of the frustrations of Evangelical culture that we’ve got so little of it, you know? What do we have, forty or fifty years since Billy Graham, maybe? So what do we draw on? I think there’s this thirst among kids who grew up Evangelical. They want some sense of ritual, some sense of mystery. They want symbols. And of course, the Catholic Church has that, and Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity has that.
Newsweek recently ran a cover with the tagline, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.” Don’s own experience of church-based religious community is a somewhat negative one, and the film’s “good” Christian is a convert, someone who didn’t grow up in a church-based community. What is the film’s view of the tension between institutionalized religion and the personal effort to follow Christ?
Our intention was not to present the church in a bad light. Yes, the youth pastor at Don’s church is a screwed-up guy. But when he’s doing his puppet show, we cut to the senior pastor rolling his eyes. And the pastor at Penny’s Anglican church is both heroic and quite forgiving. Our intention was to present a balanced view – there’s bad stuff and good stuff.
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