Mike Rimmer spoke to some of the people behind the new feature film JESUS PEOPLE
In a small Nashville cinema, it feels as though a great many of the industry have gathered with journalists like me to watch the first showing of a new movie called Jesus People which tells the story of a Christian pop group, Cross My Heart, and how they fare in the Christian music world. Jesus People has a fascinating history. It started as a web series on FunnyorDie.com with the tag "Spinal Tap set in the world of Christian dance-pop." The web series eventually found half a million viewers. In 2008 production started on the feature film with the same six lead actors. Although Jesus People takes numerous pot shots at the Nashville scene I have to confess to not really even cracking a smile throughout the entire movie. I leave disappointed and start having a rant outside to an American blogger I've just met. While expressing my displeasure in a loud voice, I suddenly realise that the lead actor, the film's writers and director are all standing next to me on the pavement. Whoops!
The next afternoon I am talking to the three writers/producers behind the film, Rajeev Sigamoney, Jason Naumann and Dan Ewald. Sigamoney explains, "Both Dan and I were developing just story ideas. It probably started more along the lines of: what would Spinal Tap look like in the world of really bad Christian pop? There's plenty of good Christian pop also!" he laughs, "and so yeah, that was kind of the seed that started us developing it. Dan has done a lot of writing for Christian music magazines and so he's had a lot of experiences and run-ins and so it was that meld of, okay, how can we develop this world? We looked around and saw actors that we knew; we knew that Jason was the perfect director. We definitely wanted to walk a line that we were comfortable with where we were making fun of cultural things that we thought needed to be brought up but obviously not touch any of the sacred truths of the doctrine that we hold dear. So we kind of argued amongst ourselves to try to make sure that we were all on the same page, knowing full well that not everybody else might be on the same page."
In the beginning some of the ideas were brought to life on the internet, as Sigamoney explains. "We did a web series first that really allowed us to fine tune the characters, figure out exactly how far we were gonna go and let the actors kind of settle into their characters. And then after that did well - the first episode was on the front page of YouTube for probably about three days. It got maybe half a million hits. Some people loved us, some people thought we were one of the worst things they'd ever seen! But either way it started a conversation and that was obviously one of the things we wanted to do with the film. A lot of the times I think we think that Christians have a reputation, at least here in America, of taking themselves way too seriously and Christians and comedy definitely do not go together in a lot of respects, so the fact that it was starting people talking along those lines, I just felt like it was a very positive thing."
Cross My Heart really are the worst Christian band ever; and that's one of the several things that didn't ring true for me about the movie. A band that bad wouldn't be that successful because in the movie they do have a hit single, which was dreadful, and that would never happen in real life. Ewald responds, "Yeah. The single that you see in the movie is the remix that becomes popular on the mainstream club stations. You never hear the Christian ballad that takes off - I mean other then when they perform it a capella for the pastor - so you never really hear the mix of the thing. But the version of the song that plays on Christian radio and does really well on Christian radio is very similar to many of the pop songs that frankly I like, but they're formulaic, sort of the same expressions, talking about 'healing rain' and things coming down from heaven, sky parting, all the standard sort of go-to phrases, which every industry has; pop music has its standard phrases, rock music has its standard phrases, everybody uses way too many rain and sunshine metaphors in music in general. So yeah, you heard the remix."
He continues, "In the movie, without giving away too much, the manager goes ahead without the band's permission and remixes the song into a club version and so we tried to not have the stakes go too high. They're not up for a Grammy, they're up for like a Techno/Industrial American Music Honour Award, which is not a big award. It's a sort of cable TV level award show. Even the performance that they get to do in front of an audience, it's sort of a mid-level Hollywood event, it's not prime time network television by any means."
Jason Naumann is the film maker responsible for how it looks. "It was definitely a choice to keep it a documentary," he explains. "Even one of the main characters is the woman making the documentary/film. It's interesting having the main characters off-camera so much but we see it through her eyes. It was fun to make it look sloppy in some places. We have mics dip in and usually you try and avoid all that stuff and for us we're trying to make it look like that and planning out shots to block important moments - having someone walk in front of the camera. Yeah, it was the choice for telling the story. It makes it feel more real and in places it's, 'Is this real? Is it not real?' Because if you make it too obviously over the top.like what Dan was saying about even the level where they go it's, 'Is there an award show called the AMHs?!' It's all like, 'Is this?! Could it be?!' Not really, you know?"
Having watched the movie, I wondered what the challenges were when working with the actors because there's nobody well known in there. So did they have an opportunity to help them develop their characters? Jason Naumann responds, "Yeah, that was a huge pull for the cast. Our leads aren't well known right now but they will be and for them it's a chance to be a lead in a movie and for all of our guest stars who are very established in all sorts of movies and TV shows, for them it's a chance to show up on our set for two or three hours and play with their other acting friends and just improvise characters that they want to do. They're in and out, we don't beat them up! They come in and they do what they want to do and they're all brilliant."
Dan Ewald jumps in and comments, "A lot of these actors - other than Pastor Jerry who is played by Joel McCrary, who's a very popular character actor in features and television - the actual band, the four band members, aren't well known outside of LA. But what's exciting for us is what we experienced with the web series - people believing Cross My Heart were a real band and it was a real documentary of a real band they were watching. So if we'd put somebody too famous in those roles it wouldn't work. Plus I like discovering new people. The first time I saw Waiting For Guffman, I don't think I knew any of the actors outside of Parker Posey and I'm pretty in-the-know. But a movie goes back and that movie made those actors who they are so a lot of times when it comes to casting I get excited about discovering talent and breaking new talent, and then supporting them with the really established comedic supportive cast that people do know from lots of hit shows and movies and stuff like that. So we used the same business model, where our leads could almost be mistaken for a real band and then the people that surround them, you start to see the trailer and you start to see people from Reno 911 and Austin Powers and you're like, okay, so, it clearly IS a mockumentary!" he laughs. "But, you know, you fooled an awful lot of people. There's an awful lot of people out there that still think that Cross My Heart is going to be coming to their radio station soon."
So have they been tempted to get the fictitious band Cross My Heart to record a soundtrack album? "We've had a lot of producers offering to produce the soundtrack for us! Yeah!" Ewald laughs. "I have more numbers than I know what to do with of people who are saying, 'I can't believe you didn't call me!' And it's like, 'Well we haven't done it yet!' Almost all of them have come from Christian music and they're like, 'I'm dying to make this record! Please let me make this record! I will write all the songs! I will produce it!' It's like, 'Maybe.' I think we would like to do that when the movie comes out to have a companion. Just something over the top is the way we'd want to go with it too because if it's too close to an exact record then it's just another Christian pop record."
So who are they hoping to have as an audience for this film? Who are they hoping will come along and watch it? "Fans of comedy," Sigamoney responds simply. "Definitely the primary audience when we were writing it were people who like the Christopher Guest movies, that style of mockumentary, definitely The Office; we're huge fans of the British and the American Office!" Ewald throws in some suggestions, "Garry Shandling, Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen. It's fans of subversive comedians. I don't break it up into their religious beliefs, it's just that the spectrum of people that have been into this project, going back to the web series, has been from the farthest of the left to surprisingly some in the far right, so anybody in between. It has more to do with what your comedy sensibilities are than any other prejudice you might bring to the table."
Jason Naumann makes an interesting observation, "Because the title is Jesus People, people think it's a Christian film but it's not so it throws people off as to who the intended audience is. Because usually when you have something like that title, Jesus People, it's either extreme right or extreme left and it's either hateful or extremely biased. What drew me to the script is that it's neither one, it's just funny and it's good characters and it's called Jesus People."
When I watched the preview, it was in Nashville during Gospel Music Week with a whole load of Christian music industry people - artists, publicists - who were all in there laughing away, But for somebody who comes to see this film who's not into Christian music, isn't it a bit like hearing a "Weird Al" Yankovic record without ever having heard the original song? I suggested that many people are not going to "get it" because they haven't got the cultural references to better deal with it. Ewald responds, "What I've learned from being in LA for almost 10 years is everyone in America has been surrounded by Christianity. Even in Los Angeles, it's filled with people who've moved from other parts of the States; everybody's been witnessed to, everybody's had that zealous Christian friend, everybody's heard Amy Grant! I mean our age group! Younger than that there's other singers that are more in-the-moment! People don't need that much schooling. We absolutely have references that are specifically for the Christian community and we want that in there because I like.like in A Mighty Wind, I loved the specific folk music references that I don't understand. Doesn't make me not want to watch it, it just means that maybe I'll do a little research. When I watch Frasier, they make a million references on Frasier that are very educated references that'll go right over my head but Frasier was a Top 10 show in America even in the middle of the country. So to me it's okay to have specific references within something.
"I mean, last night at the screening you were at, a whole huge group of atheists came that planned a whole evening around it and then they came to dinner with us afterwards and they wanted to talk about the movie. And they loved it! They tracked every part of it, because our movie is just about characters. It's set in the world of the evangelical American sub culture bubble that's been created but the movie is just about people. It's about a diva who has an inflated sense of self, it's about a guy who just gets stuck in it and who's really a genuine Christian character - Ty - who just really kind of falls into it. It's about a blonde girl who isn't even a Christian and really just gets discovered and goes along for the ride because, what else is she doing? She cuts hair for a living, might as well go along for the ride! And it's about this former star who is now a has-been. Those are all just prototypes of society, you know? People with egos, people who are clueless, people with different backgrounds that will take advantage of an opportunity."
Ewald continues, "So last night, yeah, you were surrounded by.I would say at least 70 percent was the Christian music industry but there were lots of atheists and the gay community turned out in droves, so we really did have a diverse crowd last night. I get more excited by people outside of the industry because a lot of people within the industry are already familiar with the project just because of the web series, because we get a lot of emails from Christian musicians that PRIVATELY tell us how much it reflects their lives! And then I think people are always relieved when they hear that I've been writing and interviewing Christian bands for 15 years because then they start to go, 'Oh, okay. So these are real moments that you've lifted right out of our lives.' And it's like, 'Yes.' Or there's even been moments of, 'I've actually encountered it! I've certainly run into the egotistical diva Christian star!'"
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