Tell the Lie.
I have a rule that I don’t allow anyone to sit in on my editorial sessions. For starters, I hate having people hover over me, looking over my shoulder while I’m working. I’ve been doing this work since I was 14, professionally since age 19. I don’t need to be managed. Add to that, the editorial process is where at least 50% of directing really lies, and I can’t stand directing by committee. That, in fact, is one of the primary reasons I stopped working with ad agencies altogether, and clients who try to micromanage my process. I don’t have time for people who don’t do what I do feeling like they have some authority to tell me how to do my job. Add to that, I just feel like my personal space is being invaded.
Many years ago, I had gotten myself into a terrible business deal which required me to produce content of the lowest caliber for clientele of questionable integrity. This arrangement had already put me in several compromising situations, and on this particular morning, I found myself with one of these clients taking joy in ordering me around in my own edit suite, like I was some sort of cheap circus act that he had paid for and was now determined to get his money’s worth. This guy stood over my shoulder, pacing back and forth through the entire edit session. About halfway through it, he started adding things that he wanted highlighted in the spot. I stopped and looked at him, “Do you really want to say it like that? That seems a bit misleading.” He stopped and gave me the once over, then smiled and sort of chuckled with his gravel-sounding smoker’s voice.
Dirtbag doesn’t even describe this individual, and I’m being kind. The series of TV spots that he had become known for over the prior years, to which I was now a reluctant contributor, were so bad and so on the edge of even being broadcast acceptable that he and his commercials had become the laughing stock of the production community. Anyone who was known to be producing or shooting them was classified by most as having sold out their soul to Satan himself, and now here I was, regretting the very day I had taken on this project that enslaved me to produce content for this clown.
“It’s fine, just put it in.” He turned and walked back to the couch at the back of the edit suite and sat down. I sat for a moment and pondered my response. I spun around in my chair at the main edit console and chose my words carefully.
“But it’s not true,” I told him again, “if you say it like that, it’s not true. We should re-phrase it.”
“Listen,” he said as he pulled out a cigarette, “this is the way we’ve always done it. This is the way I want it. You go ahead and make those changes, like I said, and let me worry about it.” And with that, he walked out the door to go smoke. I sat there and pondered for a moment what I was being asked to do. It wasn’t that he was asking me to do anything illegal, but it was the principle of it that bothered me. I knew what he was claiming in this copy was misleading at best…which is pretty much a lie. So did he.
But, by my own doing, I was stuck in a bad situation. If I refused his request, I would lose the job, not get paid, and create a huge problem for my larger business arangement that had gotten me into this mess in the first place. There was even a very real possibility of me getting sued from my other business deal for not servicing this client. I was contractually obligated, and had very little leverage.
In what would prove to be a pivotal moment in my life and career, I went ahead and made the changes he asked for and then washed my hands of it. More than being concerned for the moral implications, I was certain I would be sued if I didn’t.
“Not my business,” I reasoned to myself. “I’ve spoken my opinion. I don’t think it’s right, but it’s not my business that has to deal with the fallout.” I consoled myself with the belief that the best thing to do at this point was to just get as far away from this guy as I could.
After I delivered his spot to him and the television stations, I stopped taking his phone calls and scrubbed him from my files. As bad as the content was, I had done such a good job taking his tv spots to the next level and beyond that he kept calling me for the next month, leaving me endless messages about how good my quality was, and that he really wanted to do more work with me. But I refused to go back to that muck, and I told my then business partner, who I then knew would just as soon stab me in the back as anything else, that I was too busy to do any more production for this guy. I knew it branded me as “not a team player”, but that ship had sailed a long time ago. I was on my way out of this deal as soon as my contract allowed, so I really didn’t care what he thought of me for trying to hold to my morals and move forward with my life.
I had fulfilled my one-time obligation to him to comply with my contract. I knew I could not continue on with clients like that if it meant that I was going to be forced to be a knowing participant in telling lies.
I know a lot of guys in my business who’ve gotten themselves into bad deals like that, only to get drawn into even deeper troubles later. For so many years, I found myself motivated by money over content, and the work that I produced during that stretch reflected it. “It’s good enough to sell” becomes the mantra of a producer, editor, director or cinematographer who has sold out their morals for a paycheck. It’s the reason so many in the film business find it so easy to slip into producing pornography. Once you’ve cleared that obstacle of morality, it only requires a minor step to the side and you’re no longer hindered by what you’ve always known to be wrong. You go along with it, because you want the money.
When I produced my first movie, “In the Company of Men”, at the age of 23, I was not concerned about the moral implications of some of its content. I only cared about making my mark on the world. I only cared about doing whatever it took to make the film succeed. As long as it wasn’t “hard core”, I was pretty much okay with it. “Hey, it’s how life really is,” I would reason. “If we’re going to be truthful in storytelling, we have to show the whole truth, no matter how brutal.” That mentality made it okay for me to be on-set as we filmed scenes of implied sex and nudity for the movie. “It’s not hard-core, we’re not showing anything. It’s not graphic, it’s just implied. It’s just life. It’s just totally what this character would do. We have to tell the truth.”
That mentality, shared by everyone on our cast and crew, is the predominant mindset in Hollywood, which is why they have such an easy target in mocking Christians and their films. “You’re in some alternate reality,” they’ll say. “I don’t know anyone who talks like that or lives like that. You’re writing total fiction, and it’s bull.” They’re speaking, of course, of the characters and storylines in the majority of Christian films that are weak to begin with. Add to that, because they’re usually technically executed with terrible cinematic quality, nobody buys into the story. They can’t get over how bad everything else about the film is, and it becomes laughable. And, the truth is, the majority of people can’t identify with “churchy” characters, so they’re not going to watch them or believe what they say. To them, they’re more fictional than fictional characters. They’d sooner believe Batman is real than pretty much any character Kirk Cameron is playing.
But brutal characters, those people can identify with. “I hate that Chad character,” people would tell me of Aaron Eckhart’s character in “In the Company of Men”. “He’s such a jerk, and I know a guy just like him. That’s an authentic character, for sure.” And we all said that same thing as we produced the film, because we knew it was true. Like the characters and the story or don’t, but nobody could ever argue that we portrayed characters and a storyline that wasn’t authentic. That’s why we won Sundance with it and sold it to Sony Pictures. Even though we were immoral in our approach to telling the story, our end result was a connection with our audience, which left people talking about it for days and sometimes weeks after.
So what did I learn from my experience as a 23 year-old movie producer?
Go further. Make them squirm. That’s how you get paid.
And that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are as a society. We’re a society that has two faces, one face that loves the violence, the horror, the nudity, the brutality – and so we
consume it. The other face decries the lack of standards, the rampant immorality in the media and Hollywood, the corruption of our children. But, do we turn it off? Obviously not. Producers don’t produce content unless they know it will sell. If we really want to know how things got this way, we should start by looking in the mirror.
And when morality is removed, you have producers who really do nothing but respond to an audience and what they like. More violence. More brutality. More nudity. “Sex sells, and we’re buying,” I used to tell actresses when they would question things like how much skin to show in a scene. Without morality as a hindrance, we’re all just looking for the quickest draw to pull in an audience, and those dollars. And it becomes easier and easier to tell the lie.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened in that situation in my editing suite if I would have refused to comply with his orders. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have been sued by my business partner for breach of contract, but would that have been so tragic? It’s not like I had anything for him to take. If I did, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into business with such a band of morally corrupt losers to begin with.
Having gone full circle now, where the ultimate manifestation of years of that type of “let it slide” decisions in business led me to total apathy and quitting filmmaking for over 3 years, I can say with confidence that my price for selling out does not exist. I don’t care how badly I might need the work at the time, or how much it may damage an existing relationship, I won’t sell out my morals to anyone – for any price. And, if it’s down to taking a job that requires me to sell out to get paid or losing everything, I’ll go back to driving a delivery truck and I’ll keep my integrity. At least my conscience before the Lord will be clean.
I believe the Lord when he says that he honors those who are faithful to him in their work. There’s not a single scene, a single shot, a single interview that I don’t filter through the lens of my faith in Jesus Christ, and whether it is truthful and ultimately honoring to him. Not everything I produce is going to be about scripture and Christianity, in fact most of it never even makes mention of Christ, Christianity or even scripture. But, when my work is done with him as my focus, every other decision becomes easy, including who I will and won’t work for.
So, who’s really telling the bigger lie, the content producers or the content consumers?
If we really want our entertainment options to be better, we should pray that the crisis of conscience that happened to me, breaking me completely to bring me back 100% on fire for the Lord, will happen to thousands in the film and television industry. Pray for a revival to sweep not just the church and the nation, but to explode in the Hollywood hills and everywhere else content is being created. And please, always remember that those people we so easily throw under the bus are people too, and they need Jesus, and they need prayer.
Pray for those people in the film and television industry that don’t have Christ. Pray for those of us in the film and television industry who do have Christ. If we can’t get that right, we should stop calling ourselves Christians.