How to Make a Christian Movie (Part I)

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How to Make a Christian Movie (Part I)

Below is a list I’ve compiled of tendencies in Christian film-making that make for an officially Christian film. Originally I lumped it all together, but, at the behest of my wife, I’ve decided to split it into a Part I and Part II. Part I will deal specifically with making Bible films, that is, films inspired from stories and events in the narratives of the Old and New Testaments.

WARNING: Yes, this is my attempt at satire. If you don’t find yourself laughing, read it to a second grader. My humor is about at that level.

I love movies. I like to watch them, quote them, critique them, and make them. Granted that the ones I make consist of family videos put to joyful music from Amy Grant and Cher, I still find myself in a good position to give advice on movie-making to others much more talented than myself.

No true evangelical would have a movie collection without a good quantity of Christian flicks both for encouragement and impression. How embarrassing it is when you invite the pastor over for dinner and a movie and he begins browsing your movie catalog which includes, Apocalypto, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Napoleon Dynamite. (Actually, it is embarrassing if anyone sees that you own Napoleon Dynamite). But that is what happens if you don’t have a good Christian movie cued in the DVD player and a tote under your bed with all of your questionable flicks, far from the prying eyes of our dominical companions.

 Fortunately, not all of your movies have to be Christian when you invite people over from church. There exists a sub-culture in evangelicalism that allows and even praises certain movies despite their secular nature. It is for that reason I don’t have to be ashamed of The Princess Bride, Miracle (the hockey movie), or Pirates of the Caribbean, though it is preferable that you own the secular movies found at your local Christian bookstore, like The Blindside, Prince Caspian, and anything starring Charlton Heston, preferably ones without apes. You take an unnecessary risk by keeping movies out in the open that don’t have a Dove approval rating sticker somewhere on the box.

So trust me, you can’t go wrong by having a bunch of Christian movies in your collection. Not only will people just assume you are spiritual, they may believe you are quite knowledgeable about the end times if you have the Left Behind movies and the bonus DVD from Tim LaHaye about the Book of Daniel.

One complaint I hear all the time is that Christian movies tend not to be that good. They lack some quality that says, “I want to watch this one again sometime.” Phooey! That’s a bunch of bologna. After doing extensive research spending hours in front of the TV watching Christian movies, I’ve discovered that Christians are willing to put up with some sub-par film-making decisions as long as the film is Christian. Actually, I’d have to doubt if a film really was Christian if it didn’t have some sub-par tendencies. What are those sub-par tendencies that ought to be present in a Christian film? Glad you asked.

Tendency #1: Cast Kirk Cameron as the Leading Role.

The poster child of the pinnacle of Christian acting ability, Kirk Cameron, must appear in the leading role, or at least asked to perform the leading role, if the movie is going to be a “good” Christian film. It doesn’t matter if the movie is about Ruth, you have to ask him to star as Ruth before you can ask him to star as Boaz, and then continue on down the list until he says no to every role. If he accepts, you have to alter the script so as to make his character the lead, even if he is cast as Sheave Gatherer #3. So far, Mr. Cameron hasn’t starred in any Bible films (Left Behind does not count), but I eagerly await the day. More on him in Part II.

Tendency #2: Spice up the Story.

You need to keep this in mind for movies based on the Bible (which we all know is boring). Part of the blame belongs to Sunday school teachers. Christian film-goers already know how it really happened. The baby floats down a river. The river runs red. The water splits in two. Pharaoh’s army drowns…

Christian film-makers need to reinterpret the movie by adding an extra fight or love triangle that wasn’t in the original. Would the original Ten Commandments have been as good if Joshua didn’t have a love interest who just happened to be in danger of being killed by the Angel of Death? The Prince of Egypt would have been pretty boring without a wicked awesome (i.e. “cool”) chariot race through downtown Cairo. I know it and you know it. But by embellishing the story a little, you don’t have to explicitly say the Bible is boring. It’s more subtle and therefore more acceptable as a Christian film.

Tendency #8: Don’t follow Chronology.

Right along with Tendency #2, you need to be aware that chronology is in the eye of the beholder. Even our Bibles aren’t laid out in chronological order, so there is some precedent. It might even be biblical, which is really the main goal of creating Bible films. If you are a little wary about spicing up the story by adding things in, another strategy is to spice up the story by rearranging events. Or by cutting things out. See Tendency #6: Cut out the Boring Parts.

Tendency #3: Show Satan Somewhere.

Satan is in the Bible and even if he isn’t specifically mentioned as being involved in a specific event, you can squeeze him in somewhere. Think Tendency #2. A red devil with a trident is not the best way to portray Satan unless you’re watching a black and white Christian film (which, technically speaking, would portray Satan as a gray devil). So, when you really need a bad guy because the plot is obnoxiously slow (remember, all stories in the Bible are pretty much boring), simply add him in somewhere.

Since portraying Satan as a skinny white guy with a penciled on French mustache is no longer in vogue, a dark hooded figure works just as well, especially if he vaguely resembles a Catholic monk. Or a woman. You kill two birds with one stone that way. Of course, the more subtle approach, and the one I recommend especially for Bible-based movies, is to use a snake. Both The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story add the snake element to spice up the otherwise dull action of putting the Bible on screen. And neither Satan nor a snake were mentioned in the accounts those movies were drawn from, so they nailed Tendency #2 as well.

Tendency #4: Find a Hippie Jesus and a Creepy John the Baptist.

Everyone knows that the best person to play Jesus in a Christian film is a hippie. I’m talking about someone with a headband, long hair, highlights, and the whole “communing with nature” aura. Mark Driscoll says that no one wants to worship a Jesus they can beat up, which is why the hippie Jesus has been so popular. We don’t, after all, want to promote idol worship. Casting a hippie in the role of Jesus is actually a service to your fellowman.

The Jesus film, which has been translated into countless languages and seen millions of times around the world, shows Jesus as a happy guy with blond highlights. If their film has been seen and reproduced that many times, just imagine what Sherwood Baptist Church could do with their upcoming film Courageous if they have a hippie-looking Jesus.

Once you’ve got that role settled, you need a creepy John the Baptist. For one, film-makers don’t want people thinking that the SBC has its roots in John the Baptist, so they have to portray him as someone the Baptists won’t want to identify with and who will not be confused for Johnny Hunt.

So when I say you need a creepy John the Baptist, I’m talking about crazy eyes and a nervous twitch. And a tendency to shout, even in normal conversations. Add a blank stare off into the distance and a chewing motion made with his lower jaw. That kind of creepy.

Tendency #5: Use White People.

Last time I checked, the Jesus in my childhood picture Bible was not Jewish. He was somewhat Germanic and had a fairly short and well-kept beard. And that’s how Jesus has been in almost all of the Christian films I’ve ever seen. So by now it would confuse people to see dark-skinned people in the roles of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, or Paul.

Fortunately, I’ve seen a few films come out that were either voiced by or starred white British people from a Shakespearean theatre in England. This is what I’m talking about, especially if they are speaking in Shakespearean English. If they are going to sound like dead white guys they might as well look like dead white guys. Or like Kirk Cameron. I think the next movie based on the gospels (with a few embellishments to keep the plot moving) will star Kirk Cameron as a hippie Jesus. I’m waiting. It’s coming. And it’s going to be BIG.

Tendency #7: Keep it Corny.

This should probably be #1 because you probably won’t have a genuinely Christian film without it. The acting must be slightly better than a children’s Christmas play, but not much better. If you follow all the sub-par tendencies listed so far, you should be well on your way to hitting this one as well.

But another way to achieve a corny Christian film is to keep the budget low. It’s poor stewardship to spend a million dollars on one Christian movie, unless Fox or Disney is making it. But then you might just end up with a secular movie Christian bookstores carry in stock and not a bona fide Christian movie. (Spending millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl ad is different: it’s not a movie).

Since most mega churches have better VBS props than the average Christian film, you might be tempted to borrow their props or at least match their quality in your movie. This is a bad idea. For one, most Christians couldn’t tell the difference between a first-century robe and a cut up burlap sack. Secondly, authentic looking props don’t look corny. But if you’ve already spent the money or if that mega-church has donated their VBS props from last year, you can still pull off corny in your acting. And most Christian films won’t let you down there.


Concluding thoughts

If you follow these tendencies, you should be able to produce a Bible film that merits space on any self-respecting Christian’s shelf, proudly displayed for the pastor and all other visitors to see.

Any other tendencies in Bible films?

Any Christian movies you love, like, or can’t stand?

Let’s share!