David A.R. White, Sean Paul Murphy, Timothy Ratajczak
in my dining room with a book on Scientology. Hey,
what's that doing there?
Good times, bad times, you know I had my share....
Co-writer Tim Ratajczak and I returned from LA with the sense that we had a fun, little movie on our hands. The initial edit went smoothly. I would cut sequences together, upload them for my masters, and hone them. Before long, we locked picture for the first time. Everyone was happy. Or were they?
The first hiccup came from writer/director/producer/actor David A.R. White's camp. His agent saw the movie and didn't like what he saw. If you remember, he had pushed David to play both the naive Roy and his wacky, worldly uncle Brian. He wanted David to be the next Tyler Perry and Uncle Brian to be his Medea. He felt the central relationship should be between Roy and Brian instead of Roy and his love interest Annie. Now that's a fine idea. Tim and I could have certainly written a film like that. But we didn't. And you can't decide on a change like that in post-production. Especially since Brian ends up in jail halfway through the film and stays there until the last scene. That change would entail extensive re-shoots which we were not going to be able to do. The film was now in disarray. David was now certain the relationship between Roy and Annie didn't work.
Enter Chad Kapper.
Chad Kapper is a commercial director from Ohio. I don't know how or when he became involved with Pure Flix, but he offered to do some animation and special effects for Holyman Undercover. He wanted to add a few animated bridging sequences into the film. Ultimately, we only used his opening credits and his Amish sex education film, but he did the movie a great service by convincing David that the Roy/Annie relationship worked after changing the order of a few scenes. Thanks, Chad. We would meet again. And it would be complicated. But that's another couple of blogs!
Now the picture was locked (again).
The sound mix was a blast. David A.R. White and producer Michael Scott flew into Baltimore to do the sound mix at Clean Cuts, an audio facility owned by an old friend of mine named Jack Heyrman. Tim and I, as well as executive producer Matt Richards, sat in for the sessions and added quite a few jokes. The commentary track we recorded at the end of the sessions captured the good spirits in the room. Everything was fine. Until....
The industry screening. As I related in the previous blog, a studio muckity-muck saw the film, muttered some mild praise and offered a warning about our angelic retarded boy Jake. Sadly, Jake was consigned to the cutting room floor. I wasn't happy about it -- particularly since I discovered after my last blog that the guy who played him, Josh Sussman, became a regular on the hit show "Glee." Would it be nice to have a regular from "Glee" in your film? You betcha!
Josh Sussman of "Glee," formerly of "Holyman Undercover"
Soon thereafter we decided to have a few impromptu test screenings. Our target audience was Christian 'tweens and teens. A friend of mine went to a church where the pastor's son had movie screening every week in his home. I asked if they would be interested in showing the film and filling out some questionnaires. They said yes. The next Saturday they had the screening. Twenty-five Christian youths aged thirteen-to-twenty-one. Exactly our target audience. The film starts. They start laughing. They literally laughed all the way through the film. People even requested to back some bits up to watch them again. We were in heaven. Lights up. Time to hand out the questionnaires. As we did, the pastor's son asked whether they should evaluate the film as normal people or evangelicals. I said to answer the way they felt most comfortable. They took the evangelical route.
You'd never believe that the people who filled out those questionnaires were the same people who laughed uproariously throughout the entire film. Not a single good review. They hated it. We were getting comments like: "Failed to display the entire gospel" and "Didn't show enough of God's wrath." What? I didn't even know we were supposed to show God's wrath! We wanted to give that a rest this time.
I didn't want to share the questionnaires with the folks in LA. I told them to trust the laughter, not the words, but they didn't hear the laughter. They could only see the words. The panic was starting. Some friendly gatekeepers were shown the film. They hated it. Everybody hated it. I arranged a screening at my church on a night when we had some youth events. The gatekeepers there made the youth leave the sanctuary before the screening! In other words, they prevented the people at whom it was aimed from seeing it. It was sad. Every faith-based film has a mission. "Holyman Undercover" was no exception, but it was beginning to look like it would never get to fulfill it.
David A.R. White, Fred Willard and Matt Richards
Basically, our mission was to reach the Christian teen market. Like all teenagers, Christian teens feel the pull of peer pressure and not all of their peers are Christians. In fact, most of them aren't. Therefore, the teens find themselves under enormous pressure to put aside their beliefs to become cooler and more acceptable in the eyes of the world. That's what "Holyman Undercover" is all about: A young man, who, after leaving his sheltered home, feels the need to conform to the world to gain popularity and win the girl he loves -- not realizing that it was his individuality -- including his faith -- that originally caught her interest in the first place. I believe that the original version of the film clearly made that point in a humorous and entertaining manner. Not only did we feel that this film would speak to Christian teens, we felt it was funny enough that they would be able to share it with their more jaded, secular friends without embarrassment.
Additionally, on another level, the film dealt with evangelism in our post-Christian culture. Our hero Roy's Uncle Brian considered himself to be a missionary but strictly an undercover one. He was one of God's self-appointed secret agents. Feeling the world would reject the straightforward Christian message, he wanted to spread the gospel subliminally through gimmicks. In reality, of course, in his heart Uncle Brian really only wanted fame and popularity and, although he claimed he wanted to be true to his faith, he wouldn't let it get in the way of his goals. Roy, after achieving instant success and fame, went another route and openly proclaimed the gospel, but achieved no more success more Uncle Brian because he was relying on celebrity and personal popularity to persuade people. But the press conferences and magazines covers ultimately meant nothing. The megaphone is never as important as the heart. In the end, Roy's most effective tool for evangelism turned out to be the witness of his life, which he found himself sacrificing for more worldly popularity.
So, for a goofy comedy, we felt we had covered an awful lot of theological bases. The gatekeepers disagreed.
The most important gatekeeper is The Dove Foundation. Most Christian bookstores will not carry a film unless it carries The Dove Seal of Approval. Now, if you're like "Fireproof," and you have a major studio and six million dollars in P&A money behind you, you don't need the Dove Foundation. But if you're an independent faith-based film, you need them, and they hated this film. Hated, hated, hated it. Everything about it.
I wish I had a copy of their original review. It was unbelievable. From their reaction, you would've thought we were sacrificing blonde, blue-eyed virgins to Baal on a pile of burning Bibles. Now, granted, we were the first faith-based film with prison rape in it, but come on....
The editing began. A strenuous effort was made to cut everything unacceptable in their eyes out of the film. As I mentioned in my earlier blog on "Hidden Secrets", the gatekeepers like films where people get saved, but they loathe to hear about, let alone see, what they were "saved" from. Well, I discovered one thing they liked less than seeing sin and that was "making light of it." I remember hearing a radio preacher saying that he felt he had a great sense of humor, but he could never laugh at something that Jesus died for. That doesn't leave a lot of area for comedy.
We cut version after version of the film to no avail. (I shouldn't say "we." I had already handed the film back to California by then.) Nothing we did mattered. They just hated the film. They refused to give it the benefit of the doubt or consider its audience or purpose. Ultimately, however, we discovered, it wasn't the drug references they hated most. It wasn't the implied homosexual prison rape. It wasn't the so-called violence. (They actually gave this film a higher violence rating than PureFlix's "In The Blink of an Eye" which featured numerous murders including a woman being shotgunned and leaving a graphic trail of blood as she slid down a wall.) No. It was our little Jennifer Lyons. She was just too sexy for Christian cinema.
According to the gatekeepers of various stripes, the single most objectionable scene in the film is the one where the network executives tell Roy that they want him to date Jennifer's character, Tiffany, for publicity reasons. Roy says no. Insulted, Jennifer goes over and gives him a steamy kiss thinking that it will sway him, but Roy ultimately remains unimpressed. That kiss was simply too much for them. Even a minister I met in Baltimore, who was known for watching secular movies and incorporated them into his sermons, said he had to leave the room during that kiss. Really? Folks, trust me, it wasn't that bad. The Hays Office wouldn't have blinked an eye. So, okay, we cut the kiss out of the film but it was still a no go. Jennifer was too inherently sexy for the gatekeepers.
Tim Ratajczak with the impossibly-seductive Jennifer Lyons.
David A.R. White was worried about the sexiness of the Tiffany character in the script stage. However, we needed her. We wanted to show all of the temptations that normal people, even Christians, face. With that in mind, David went out of the way to make sure that her clothing didn't reveal anything. Additionally, we tried to make her a comic seductress rather than a sexy one, by giving her a lot of goofy gestures and having her make goofy animal noises. More than once, before a take, I saw David walk over to Jennifer and ask her to zip something all the way up. Jennifer said David was the first director who asked her to put more clothes on!
This is why, generally, faith-based films are dismissed as being so phony. The gatekeepers want films about people overcoming things like sexual temptation, but, under no circumstances are we to show any sexual temptation. Why? Because they say they don't want their children exposed to it. Really? I wonder what planet they are living on. They don't seem to know that their children are exposed to things a thousand times worse than "Holyman Undercover" dozens of times a day. What do they think they are watching on TV?
Remember our first test audience I talked about earlier? As I was leaving, I asked them what they had watched the previous week. They said they were watching the DVD boxed set of the animated series "The Family Guy." Huh? Now that is a truly raunchy television show. Funny too. Could anyone who watched and laughed at that show be offended in the least bit by "Holyman Undercover?" Of course not. While they were watching "The Family Guy," I'm sure they weren't complaining that it didn't reveal the whole gospel or that it didn't show enough of God's wrath.
The key was the question the pastor's son asked before they answered the questionnaire: "Should judge the film as normal people or evangelicals?"
As normal people, they had laughed all the way through it.
As evangelicals they felt the need to judge it.
I never thought that's what it meant to be an evangelical.
They like the film in Brazil. It's doing really well there.
(BTW, there are two versions of the film available on DVD. The highly-edited Christian version and the mainstream version. I highly recommend the mainstream version. Unfortunately, nothing on the box indicates which version of the film is inside. However, generally, I believe you can get the mainstream version at secular websites like Amazon.com. The other version is available at websites like Christiancinema.com.)
Here's the trailer. (Seems innocent enough to me, but what do I know.)
Earlier blogs on the film:
Holyman Undercover Released
Holyman Undercover, Part 1, Pre-Production
Holyman Undercover, Part 2, Good Times
Read about the making of my other features:
Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God. It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.