by Valerie Striker
The following is an interview with screenwriter, author, and professor Barbara Nicolosi around the time of her visit to Franciscan University of Steubenville on March 1, 2007.
Barbara Nicolosi is a partner at Origin Entertainment, a Santa Monica-based production company, and the founding director of Act One, Inc., a non-profit training and formation program for Hollywood writers and executives. A screenwriter herself, Nicolosi has just completed a feature-length adaptation of a Jane Austen novel for IMMI Pictures in Beverly Hills, California. Nicolosi has been a media columnist for the National Catholic Register, Liguorian Magazine, and Christian Single and she received Catholic Press Awards in 2000 and 2002. She is the coeditor with Spencer Lewerenz of Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture (Baker Books, 2005), and has served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. She has also been featured in a variety of mainstream media, including CBS, NBC, NPR, Newsweek, and The New York Times. Nicolosi writes a popular cultural commentary blog at www.churchofthemasses.blogspot.com.
Tell us about the topic of your presentation tonight: “The Real Patron of the Arts: Hollywood or the Church?”
I was talking to my undergrads at a college in Los Angeles—Christian kids, there are 60 of them from colleges all over the country—and I mentioned the phrase “patron of the arts.” One of the kids in the front row raised his hand and said, “And who’s that?”
And I realized, looking at these 18-year-olds, that they didn’t know the phrase “patron of the arts.” So I said to them, “Well, who do you think the patron of the arts is? Talk about it among yourselves and then tell me what you think.” And so they came back five minutes later and they had two things that they had decided. One was Hugh Hefner of Playboy Magazine, and the other one was the Bravo channel.
And when I said to them, “No—the patron of the arts is the Church,” they looked at me and they were like, “What art, and what Church?”
And I have to say, they’re right. They’re right. Hugh Hefner spent more on the arts in the last month than the Church probably spent in the last year, and maybe even the last decade. He hired hundreds of actors and models and photographers and writers and designers and directors, etc. And we wonder why people like Hefner have cultural power, and we in the Church have been relegated to cultural irrelevance? Who is the real “leaven in the lump of the world” here? We’ve so lost the value of beauty and art and storytelling in the Church that we don’t deserve the moniker anymore—“patron of the arts.” We’re not.
Why is it important for the Church to regain that?
This is a huge question. Let me point to a couple things that would help. One thing to read is Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” that he issued in 1999, where he talks about the epiphanies of beauty through which God speaks to human hearts, and how the arts are a medium of revelation in the world, and how a sacred artist, or someone who’s prayerful, is absolutely a way for God to speak to the world today.
I read an essay that Pope Benedict XVI wrote before he was pope called The Beauty and the Truth of Christ in which he says that if the Churchm could have the knowledge that comes through beauty or the knowledge that comes through theological texts, She would prefer the knowledge that comes through beauty because the knowledge that comes through beauty brings to people the conviction of their own smallness and humility, and also the sense of the grandeur and order and intelligence of the cosmos. And that these two awarenesses are the beginning of real prayer.
So when people experience the beautiful, the problem of the Garden of Eden is fixed. You know, the Garden’s temptation in Genesis was “You will be like God.” And this is still the paramount temptation for human beings. Well, when you experience beauty, you know you’re not God and you also feel that that’s OK. You feel good about your life and your very “un-Godness” because you’re filled with awe and gratitude. So, Pope Benedict makes the case that you can know everything in a book of theology and make a prayer that is proud and cold. Or, you can know almost nothing of theology but respond to a sunset and feel God’s presence there and it can be a prayer that is holy and that will be heard.
So just briefly, there are many, many, many goods that come to the Church through the arts, but the idea of the beautiful is the main one.
Was there a time when the Church just stopped caring about the arts?
I’m not an art historian, but I am sure it is all connected to the fact that the community of artists went with social Darwinism and began to attack belief in the transcendent, and so the community of faith and the community of arts ended up at odds with each other for the first time in human history.
On a national level, America became the most influential country in the world and was dominated by Protestants. And Protestantism is, of course, touched by Jansenism, so they are not a people of the arts. The only art form that Protestants are comfortable with is music, for reasons I don’t understand.
The interesting thing is, in the United States the national Catholic Church became the Irish Church, which was the one European Church that did not have a vibrant artistic tradition. There is a fascinating book called Why Catholics Don’t Sing by Thomas Day, in which he makes the case that because the Irish Church was a persecuted Church, it had no artistic expression. They used to huddle in a field and say Mass because they weren’t even allowed to have churches while they were persecuted by the British. So the Irish clergy came to America and didn’t bring a sense of visual or musical aesthetics with them, and they became the national Church here. How else to explain the embrace of the awful music in Glory and Praise.
I don’t know what they’re problem in Europe was, except maybe they just reached the point of saturation where they were surrounded by sacred art. You know, there’s a church on every block in Italy, and it’s stuffed with stuff. So at a certain point, they had so much that they couldn’t even see it anymore, and in this country, we had so little that we had nothing to see.
But what happened, of course, too, was a huge movement after Vatican II for everybody to become like Thomas Merton in the Abbey of Gethsemane. Rip out all the statuary and lose the colors and symbols and just have white walls. Well, that’s probably OK for Cistercian monks who live in complete silence and have no distractions, but we lay people really need the sensory helps to stay focused at Church! Somebody should have thought it through better before allowing the terrible iconoclasm of the 1970’s and ’80s to eviscerate our beautiful churches.
The other day I was in a really old beautiful church in the South, in Baton Rouge, and there was something beautiful in every corner. And when I started to get distracted from the homily, my eye over here caught this beautiful shrine to St. Joseph. And then I paid attention again, and then I got a little distracted again and I was looking at the beautiful station of the Cross right next to me. And then I was back. But it was the beautiful things that kept pulling me back into the Mass. If you have white walls, your people are just going to substitute their own images from their workaday and family worlds.
Also, the zeitgeist of the Baby Boomer heyday was egalitarianism. Anything that smacked of elitism or tradition was perceived as a negative. And the arts became a tool to make people feel a sense of belonging. So, any art that required mastery of craft was suppressed in favor of whatever was easily accessible by the masses. It was stupid thinking, actually, because nothing makes you feel a sense of belonging like experiencing the beautiful.
So where the Church used to have a strong sense of there being specific roles for various people to play at the liturgy—choir, celebrant, faithful—after Vatican II it became a goal to have as many parts of the liturgy as possible be done by everybody in common. Anything that required practice and artistry had to go. We can’t have them singing Mozart’s Ave Verum because only a choir can do that well. But they catch on real quick to like, Barney
music. And, the thing is, you get what you pay for. So if you’re singing Barney, then you’re getting all the emotional power of that. If you’re singing the Anima Christi, which takes a lot more work, you get a result that’s much more powerful.
So the arts can absolutely harness the focus of people, especially music. I think it’s a demonic plot that the music in the Church has been so bad these last 40 years. The music is not only badly written—but most of the time it’s also badly performed. If only we could just have bad music done well! But let’s face it—what is that song they’re singing now for Lent? “Hosea” is a great example. It’s just a lame, stupid song. “Trees do bend though straight and tall, so must we to others call”? Catholics all over this country are singing that for Lent. It’s lame! It’s bad poetry that means nothing to people.
It’s a sin what we have been doing with the arts in the Church for the last few decades. I get really mad when people criticize Hollywood and say, “Why doesn’t Hollywood make better movies?” And I respond, “Excuse me, why doesn’t St. Mary’s have better music at the 10 o’clock Mass? When you get your act together, we can talk about Hollywood.”
How do you find a balance between Christians who want to separate themselves from the secular media and, on the other end of the spectrum, Christians who aren’t any different from their secular neighbors?
On the darkest side, the refusal of Christians to have a voice in the mainstream culture comes from fear and ignorance and laziness. We haven’t experienced the love of God enough to send us surging into the culture to express our joy. We don’t really care about our neighbors who are languishing amidst the messages of a culture of death.
The best spin I can put on Christians ducking down in caves of their own making today is the desire to protect their kids from negative influences. However, from a pastoral standpoint, the emphasis needs to be not on protecting our children. The emphasis needs to be on preparing our children. The fact is, your little kid is not going to become a disciple when he’s 18. He’s a disciple when he’s 6 to his kindergarten class. And he needs to be comfortable in his moment, which is a 24-hour news cycle, visual image dominated Internet world.
We need to be people who are disciples of 2007. As John Paul II called for over and over and over, we need to “Throw open the doors of the media to Christ.” Imagine that! Throw open the doors of the media to Christ! That is not dwell in the cave and shut it out, whining that, “It’s all garbage.” That is saying that we need to infuse these means that God has given us to fill the world with tidings of goodness and truth and beauty.
Now, the question is, if you’ve been raised in a cave, are you going to become a film director? Are you going to ever be on the Today show as an actor talking to Katie Couric and saying, “Oh yeah, and I go to church on Sunday,” if you’ve been raised in a cave? No.
So by raising Christian kids in a “safe” cave by shutting out the culture in the hope that they’re going to be unscathed, what we actually do is we create useless, impotent disciples for this modern time. They would be great disciples for 1827. But the fact is, they cannot enter into this moment. They can’t read and enter into dialogue with the signs of their own times.
Now it’s an interesting question to say, “Well, how far do you need to plunge into the signs of the times in order to be able to use them as a means of evangelization?” For example, the 2006 Academy Awards. Do people need to see all five films so that they can go into the workplace and say, “Yeah, I saw The Departed and I thought it was depraved barbarity”? I think you need to know what is out there enough to be able to talk about it. You better not start talking about it if you don’t know what it is. If you hear everyone around you talking about The Departed, and that’s where your 18-year-old peer group is, I think you have to watch enough of that movie to come and say to them, “OK, let’s talk about this movie. Let’s talk about what it’s saying here about being a hero.”
For example, the hero in The Departed was sleeping with another man’s fiancée. And the movie worldview suggested by default, “It doesn’t matter. The main thing is he was standing up to the mob.” You see, that would be something for Catholics to talk about with this age and say, “No, you can’t be living an impure life in one area and expect to be able to make heroic choices in another area.” That would be something we could say, but we can’t say anything if we haven’t seen it.
And the fact is, the movie made $120 million. So a lot of people saw it. And the Church isn’t responding. My sense of the Church in these last 30–40 years has been zero response to the culture and the marketplace of ideas.
A great example is the gay culture. Homosexuality made an absolute intentional movement forward to get on the media and in peoples’ faces. They were going to change the way America thinks about gays by using the media. This actually happened. They had a meeting in LA with some very influential homosexuals and they sat down and they made a list of things they were going to do—a gay character in every television show, a gay character in every movie. They were going to read the scripts from the studios and give notes and screen them for anything that was “homophobic.” The book The Homosexualization of America by Dennis Altman documents this moment and the strategy.
Fifteen years later would you ever have believed that we’d have five states with same-sex civil unions and one with gay marriage and last year 11 referendums on same-sex marriage? I was in Washington, DC, a couple years ago, and some conservative staffers on the Hill said to me about this issue, “Where did all this come from?” And I said, “Are you kidding me? This was decided 12 years ago with Roseanne kissing her girlfriend, and then Ellen coming out, and then ER having a lesbian doctor!” We are too late now because for too many years we made no response in the culture.
So there’s the problem. We should be engaged in the media not as fans, but as storytellers and interpreters, looking for the signs of the times out of which to speak to people about Jesus and the Gospel. And making our own signs of the times!
The good news is, lately there is some wonderful stuff out there to be seen in the movies and on television. It’s not all garbage, by any means. For example, there is Extreme Home Makeover. A beautiful show! They find a deserving poor family every week and build them a new home. It makes you cry every week in a good way. It’s about generosity, it’s about heroes. And what’s not to like about mastery of craft shows like Iron Chef America, Project Runway, Design on a Dime and What Not to Wear? There’s some amazing work being done in series television too, as for example, Pushing Daisies, and the new Battlestar Galactica, and how about that great John Adams production on HBO?
The point is, the easiest way to live today is to try to shut it all out. That’s easy. We were not called to live easy. We were called to be martyrs. And we have a white martyrdom. White martyrdom is the daily discernment, engaging the world every day, looking for the wisps of the Holy Spirit, looking for the signs of the times.
What does it take? What kind of person are you looking for to participate in Act One?
Well, the first thing we’re looking for on the writing side is people who can spell! I wish I was kidding! I get people all the time that come to me and they want to be writers but they can barely write two sentences that are clear. It’s very rare to find somebody who actually has a good writing style.
And then we need people who have been reasonably well educated in storytelling. We give our writers a list of the hundred most influential novels ever written. And we ask them to check off how many they’ve read—not how many they’ve seen in the movies, but how many they’ve read. The young people coming to us on the average have read only seven of the hundred most influential stories ever written. And these people are top of their classes! We’re not talking obscure stuff here. I’m talking Hemingway and Hawthorne and Austen and the Greeks. So we have a huge problem. This a particular challenge for these two up-and-coming generations—the Gen-Xers and the Millennials—they’ve been completely cut off from their cultural heritage.
And then they need to be somewhat culturally savvy. They ought to have a sense of what is the best work that is out there and why. Often, the real conservative Christian kids that come to us have seen every movie done in the Golden Age but they haven’t seen anything since Star Wars. And it’s the same problem because if you haven’t seen The Matrix, you don’t know your audience today.
On the executive side, we want people from top schools, top undergraduate programs, and even grad programs, who are primarily law and finance oriented. So we want lawyers, law students, MBAs, people with finance degrees and any other people with corporate or business experience. We’re preparing people there for the executive suites of Hollywood, and that’s the talent pool the industry draws from.
I would say the next thing we want is committed Christians. We have all denominations. I’m very sad that we have had so few Catholics go through the program. I have gone to these schools—the Catholic schools, the special Catholic schools—I’ve gone to them all several times and spoken there and pleaded, and what I find there is that kids do not have any apostolic drive. After getting these great Great Books educations, what they want to be is maybe a DRE in a small country parish in the backwoods where nobody will notice them and they can just shut the world down and out. You know, there’s nothing apostolic in that. St. Paul could’ve done that—the Church would be nothing if we had done that. We have not received a mandate to head for the hills.
There is something wrong in a Church in which we are preparing kids to only play in the Catholic subculture. [whispers] There was never supposed to be a Catholic subculture! You know what disciples do in the Catholic subculture? They have personality fights and power struggles. Well, I’d rather be martyred by the world and the devil than be killed by a fellow Catholic because they don’t like the way I say the Rosary or something.
How do you develop pastoral urgency and cultural discernment in your children?
You show them the best. I think it was Plato who said, “If you want people to give up sugar, offer them honey.” My parents were very good about showing us the best movies when we were children. We used to watch [Charlie] Chaplin with Dad, and Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. And we were raised to be familiar with the whole canon of classic Hollywood films and genres.
Mom and Dad watched great movies with us. Rear Window and Giant and On the Waterfront and Camelot. And they talked to us about them. I remember when my mother had us watch Doctor Zhivago. I was about 14, my sister was 16. And my mother said, “Now, this is a movie about adultery. But it’s a very beautifully made movie. It’s about art and it’s about sin and it’s about communism.” And she said, “We’re going to watch it
together because I want you to see this beautiful film and then we’re going to talk about it.” And it was great, because I learned about sin in a way that was not an occasion of sin.
I saw wonderful movies, and then when I was in high school and college when my friends were seeing garbage, I had no interest in it—or I could see it right away, “Oh, this is just stupid,” or, “This is lame,” or, “This is so barbaric.”
Also, you have to give kids arts training. My parents had us all take music lessons. I had six years of piano lessons. Another sister also had painting lessons, another dance lessons. Now two of my sisters have music related-careers. So we had arts education. We were very much in the arts, so we knew about good work and bad work.
There are gifts that come through the arts that you don’t get in sports or anything else. Sports can stretch you physically and teach you about socials and morals and things like that. The arts can refine your soul. They make you a person of decorum. They make you a person of detail and sensitivity. And we need ladies and gentlemen again. We’re so surrounded by vulgarity and crassness and barbarism.
Pope John Paul II says in his “Letter to Artists” that the way to save the soul of an artist is that they really commit themselves to beauty. Because if you find beauty you will find God. Real beauty. But the problem I find with a lot of people who come to me who wanting careers in music is not that they want to write beautiful music, but that they want to be a star in a band, and famous! Or the ones who say they want to work in Hollywood have spent more time writing out their future Academy Awards speech then they have working on their scripts.
People think that because the products of culture are easy to consume, that they are easy to make. They aren’t. Edgar Allen Poe said every good sonnet is built on the bones of 14 others that had to be born and die first. My students want to write a great song in a weekend. Um, sorry, but nothing gets great until you rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it.
Even naturally talented writers need to write 1,000 pages before they really start to get good at screenwriting. That’s seven screenplays. Most of the young people who come to us quit after one and a half. They say, “Hmph! Well, what is God doing?! I wrote one and nothing happened to it!” And I want to say to them, “Yeah, but it wasn’t that good. And you’ll know it’s not that good when you write five more and you look back at that first one and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I was so bad when I started!’” But they get discouraged and they drop out.
Briefly, what are some of the biggest challenges Christians face in Hollywood?
Well, the biggest challenge Christians face in Hollywood is the challenge pagans face in Hollywood in that it’s an extremely competitive, very difficult business. It’s really hard to write a good movie. That’s why people write so many bad ones. And it’s very hard to wait and be poor while you’re trying to get good. It takes five years to break a writer in Hollywood—if they’re writing. If they’re not writing, it takes a decade. So that’s the main
My sense is Christians outside the business think we folks in the entertainment business are wrestling with real scale-covered, slimy demons every day! I would say in my 12 years out here I’ve had two or three moments when I was forced to say, “Wow, this is really going to ask me to compromise my faith,” and I had to step away. But figure 12 years, only three times. Working here isn’t what most people think.
Now, I would say that actors face many more ethical challenges. They may be asked to compromise weekly. Actors need to have a deep spirituality and a lot of good friends to help them not lose themselves.
As a writer or director or editor or producer, the kind of projects you work on has a lot to do with the kinds of dilemmas you face. I write movies that have spiritual themes to them, so I don’t get into morally problematic waters very often. If I were writing horror films, I would probably be having a lot more dilemmas.
More people in Hollywood fall into sin from discouragement and despair than from sex and drugs and rock and roll because it’s very hard, and they get discouraged. I hear many more Christians sin by saying “Why has God not given me a screenplay sale?” or “Why have I done all these auditions and I haven’t gotten work?” That’s a much more common and dangerous sin than Christians going in and doing sex scenes in movies.
A few years ago you came to Franciscan and you spoke on how there’s been a trend to focus more on the meaning of scenes in a movie with a sexual reference than on the acts themselves. Is that still true?
It’s very true. The scenes have gotten much less graphic. It’s considered pedestrian to just show a sex scene now. If you do it, it has to be done in a kind of stylistic way. They had a sex scene in The Departed, but it was truncated. You got one look at her torso, and she had her underwear on. I was kind of marveling that they could have gone much farther but didn’t. There was this heyday of graphic sex scenes in the ’80s and ’90s, and that trend
has really faded now. What we have now is a kind of barbaric brutality that is probably more disturbing to me. At least sex is natural. The kinds of violence that they can show now because of special effects and the creativity that they’re using to show violence is really, really bad.
There’s a difference between a consumer and someone who wants to go in and make a change in the industry. How can a Catholic consumer make a positive impact on the arts?
The consumer needs to talk back to the industry, for one thing. And the second thing the consumer needs to do is to breed up artists. Those are the two focuses.
So, talk back to the industry: When you go to a movie and you don’t like the trailer they run ahead of time—you know, it’s a trailer for a bad movie that you weren’t going to go see—you should go out after the movie and say to somebody at the theater, “Is the manager here?” “No, I don’t know where he is.” “Well, I’d like to talk to the manager.” (Don’t talk to the person selling popcorn.) “Well, the assistant manager is here.” “Good, I’ll talk to the assistant manager.”
Just go up and say, “Hi, you know, we love this theater. It’s so cool, and everybody here is always so nice. But I gotta tell you, when I come to see a happy little movie and you show me an R-rated trailer, it just makes me not want to come here anymore.” And he’ll be like, “Oh, that happened? That’s not supposed to happen,” and you respond, “Yeah, I knew it must have been an accident, but you know, I just wanted to let you know.”
See, that’s talking back to the industry. Or else, if you see a bad movie, you go home and you find the website for the studio that’s distributing it, and you go to the website and say, “What are you people smoking? This was vile and crass and insulting!”
If it’s a television show, every television show has a website, and the writers read them. Every day they pour over their website. You say, “We love your show, it’s so well-written, really makes us laugh. But I gotta tell you, last week’s episode with the Catholic priest was so unfair, and it wasn’t worthy of your show. We know you’re gonna do better the next time.”
Never tell them, “We’re never going to watch your show again,” because then they will say to themselves, “Alright, well they’re gone.” The approach is to talk to these people in a loving, civil, humane way and praise them and then express kindly your concerns. You won’t get anywhere by sending them a message that starts with, “You spawns of Satan!”
(We have a book called Behind the Screen and that book has chapters on talking back to the industry. People can get it off of Amazon. But it’s very good for that.)
And the second thing we can do to impact the arts is to breed up artists. Have your kids become discerning consumers. So no, I’m sorry. I know if you have six kids, it’s going to be really hard to watch with them all the stuff, to kind of go with each one, to figure out what movie they’re ready for, to watch it with them, to talk about it—it’s really hard to do. But you know what? Hard is your martyrdom. This is what we’re up for. They have to be articulate and comfortable in their own time.
You know what you get when you raise kids in caves? You get kids who are either haughty or afraid. Haughtiness is the conservative kids who have been told their whole life that they’re better than this age and all the other people around them. Then they go out there and they have a few encounters and they’re like, “I’m really not better.” Or else, there are the kids who’ve been told everything out there is dangerous. And they are paralyzed with fear; they’re useless. So we don’t want either for the Gospel. These times are too urgent. We don’t have time for this.