Behind-the-Scenes Interview: “Nate” in The Fellows Hip

Two summers ago, I shot my first feature film lead role as “Nate”, one of four teenage Lord of the Rings Online gamers and Tolkien geeks in the comedy feature film The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers. As the film nears the end of post-production, you can now watch my behind-the-scenes interview, shot on set:

(Btw, I realize I misspoke and said that Estel was Quenya for “hope”. It’s actually Sindarin. Goheno nin, Elvish linguists!)

A fan has suggested I attend this year’s Tolkien Society Oxonmoot in Oxford in September, as well as the Tolkien Society Return of the Ring event at Loughborough University in August 2012. Is anyone interested in learning more about the film and talking Tolkien at either of those events, especially if I can wrangle some other members of the film to join me?

Thanks for watching!

Other Fellows Hip-related links:

The Fellows Hip Movie @ Facebook (#1 place to keep up with current news – new posters, videos, & updates posted regularly)

Opening Act Productions (with Fellows Hip posters & production sample videos!)

TheFellowsHipMovie.com (pre-order the DVD, request local screenings, & watch production samples!)

The Fellows Hip @ IMDB

Opening Act Productions @ Twitter

Opening Act Productions @ YouTube (with more behind-the-scenes videos!)

Is Tolkien Useless?

This week’s post is actually a guest post at Transpositions, the student blog of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (which has been added to the blogroll on the right). They’re kicking off a series of responses to last week’s ITIA conference on David Brown, which I attended. I answer a statement made by one of the keynote speakers that fantasy literature is not of any use to living the Christian life.

So, Is Tolkien Useless?

Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,” supervised by Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and Acting Chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford. I’ve finished my primary research, which included reading all C.S. Lewis’ work that has been published in book form, including his collections of essays, poetry, letters, and diary. I’m now working on the secondary reading, and should have that done by the end of the week, which will finish up my research, except for a few bits and bobs that I can access elsewhere. I drive to D.C. this weekend to do ADR for The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, and then a one-day shoot of an educational video that I just booked, for a guy I worked with a couple summers ago. So I will make a (little) money acting this summer, not just spend it on research trips! (I have some good news about The Fellows Hip, too, but that will have to wait until I’m given the go-ahead.)

And now for a continuation of our series on a Benedictine theatre company:

Prologue – Day 2

Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
“Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep” (Rom. 13:11).
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
“Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts” (Ps. 94[95]:8).
And again,
“Whoever has ears to hear,
hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).
And what does He say?
“Come, My children, listen to Me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 33[34]:12).
“Run while you have the light of life,
lest the darkness of death overtake you” (John 12:35).

***

The Rule of St Benedict is meant to be read daily to the monks, and therefore there is a section assigned for each day, such that the entire Rule is read three times in a year. The Prologue is accordingly divided up into several sections. Today’s section is the second of the Prologue, for Jan 2 / May 3 / Sept 2.

It doesn’t give us much meat for our purpose, but is rather a call for the hearer to take notice, and begin the task of following God. We are back at the beginning of the Rule – a time for fresh starts, no matter how inert or unsuccessful we have been in the past.

This call to action reminds me of a blog post I read recently, on a “post-evangelical” Christian blog called the Internet Monk. In this blog post, blogger Jeff Dunn outlines a calling he has to start an artists’ “retreat/school/monastery,” a place where Christian artists can come “not to work on their art, but on their spirit,” as he said to me when I spoke to him via phone this past Saturday. Jeff and I both agree that Christian artists don’t have to make art that is explicitly Christian – that art is not merely an evangelism tool, but is in itself a way to glorify God. As he says in his post:

I love to help set artists free from the little Christian art box we like to put them in. You know—if you are a Christian painter, then you can only paint pictures of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door, or of cottages in gardens with unusual light coming from their windows. If you are a Christian songwriter, you have to write plastic lyrics that portray Jesus as your girlfriend. And if you are a Christian novelist, you have to create fake characters acting in unrealistic ways in an unreal world. None of this brings glory to the Lord. It is simply an attempt to make money from people who need to feel good about themselves.

What’s different about Jeff is that he is right now starting his artists’ monastery. He’s got a plot of land lined up in Ohio, ready for purchase and renovation. You can find more info at his follow-up post.

I’ve let Jeff know that I’d like to help in whatever way possible. Right now that way is prayer. So if you all would please keep Jeff and this artists’ monastery in prayer, we would appreciate it. (And if you’d like to help, especially with funding, why not contact him?)

This past week I also met with Dan Roche, a professional actor/director who’s unusual in that he left Syracuse’s BFA program to study theatre at Wheaton, a college without even a theatre major, but with a close-knit theatre community and an opportunity to do plays more meaningful than the postmodern cynicism subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged at many of our professional undergraduate training programs. After starting Stone Table Theatre Company, which came out of a drama ministry started at his church, he worked in the Nylachi market for several years, before returning to Wheaton. He basically picked up where he left off, and recently started the Bird and Baby Theatre Company, which has as part of its mission the mandate to produce at least one play a season by or about one of the Inklings or related authors (C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, etc.). (You’ll see that I’ve added Bird & Baby to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page.) Their most recent production was a stage version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Jeff and Dan have risen from sleep and started to run. I know of other folks, like the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver and Cambiare Productions in Austin. Who else do you know that’s running? I’m thinking of doing a tour in the future of theatres that either have a Christian mandate, or are run by Christians, to talk about their approach to creating theatre for general audiences. Who should I visit?

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

All-Out Geekery

As I’m writing this I’m watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for at least the third time. I’m also a regular viewer of Felicia Day’s The Guild. My most major film project to date has been set in the world of Lord of the Rings fandom. And I’ve even done a vampire movie.

(Speaking of which, on my international red-eye flight last night, I finally sampled the Twilight universe in the form of the Twilight: New Moon flick. I did not become a fan. Though I am definitely on Team Jacob.)

One of the many question an actor thinks about is his brand. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t like a lot of the theatre I’ve seen, and most of what’s on T.V. I have a better hit rate with movies because I’m better able to screen what I see ahead of time. But I’m picky. A story may be skillfully executed, but if I don’t fall head-over-heels in love with the story itself, I don’t care about the execution. And besides the story, there must also be at least one character (preferably more!) whom I can love as well.

In theatre, I fall in love with plays like The World Over, A Man for All Seasons, The Crucible, and musicals like Les Misérables. In film, I fall in love with movies like The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Last Unicorn. In both, there tend to be intense tests of a person’s moral character set within an epic tale of good-vs-evil, often with fantastic elements.

This love of fantasy intersects with the less serious, more “squee!” fanboy side of my personality to produce an all-out love of geekery. And after watching clips about an hour ago from the Secretary of Geek Affairs Wil Wheaton‘s appearance on the T.V. show The Big Bang Theory (eliciting Khan after Khan reference), I have come to a major and freeing decision about my brand as an actor.

I’m gonna forget about “brand.” I’m just gonna be a geek.

I’m gonna go after the types of shows that make me laugh out loud with glee. Doing The FellowsHip reminded me of many of the fandoms and geek kibble I’ve been a part of and devoured, to greater or lesser degrees. Among them, in no particular order:

-Tolkien
-Narnia
-Harry Potter
-Star Trek (Picard pwns Kirk)
-Star Wars
-Monty Python
-musical theatre
-superhero movies (Batman, X-Men, Spiderman)
-Dr. Horrible
-The Guild
-games (LOTRO, M:tG, a brief trial of WoW, old school Nintendo, X-Wing flight simulators)
-performers like Wil Wheaton, Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Patrick Stewart
-Renn faires (esp. jousting)
Society for Creative Anachronism

I’m going for all-out geekery. And also for an Inklings-tinged vision of religious theatre. Because by Jove, I love them both.

Let’s see where they take me.

What Should a Professional (Christian) Theatre Look Like?

I’ve just finished reading two important books:

1) God Off-Broadway: The Blackfriars Theatre of New York (Matthew Powell, O.P.) – A history of the only professional theatre in the U.S. run by a religious order (the Dominicans)

2) Tribes (Seth Godin) – Thoughts on how to create and lead a tribe

The first got me thinking about what a Christian theatre should look like. The Blackfriars Theatre had two artistic directors in its approximately 30-year history, both of whom were Dominican priests. The first artistic director believed that the theatre should explore “the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny” in a way that did not conflict with Catholic moral values (e.g. a show that presented abortion as a valid option for women would be unacceptable), but that it did not have to restrict itself to religious subjects, and could even present characters who were morally imperfect (as long as poor moral choices weren’t promoted). During this time, the first 12 years of the theatre’s existence, the theatre was generally well-respected by the major critics, and did excellent work that was hailed as more risk-taking than that of the secular commercial theatre, especially Broadway. For example, Blackfriars took a morally courageous stance against racism with several productions during the forties and early fifties, well before the civil rights movement.

Unfortunately, the first artistic director was re-assigned, and the second artistic director, who had previously only handled the business aspects of the theatre, felt that the theatre should only put on shows that were explicitly Catholic, and that commissioning and producing dramatizations of the lives of the saints for purely parochial audiences sufficiently fulfilled the mission of the theatre. This second artistic director’s focus was not on creating excellent art, but on didactic moral teaching and evangelization through drama. Of course, when you put on shows only for Christians, only Christians come, and therefore the shows become completely useless for evangelization, since you’re only preaching to the choir. And if the focus is on the quality of the moral instead of the quality of the play, even the Christians stop coming, except out of a sense of duty.

And that’s exactly what happened to Blackfriars. I’ve worked with an actor who was a volunteer at Blackfriars as a teenager, during its later years, and what he remembers is bad writing and very obvious sermonizing. The rest of the professional theatrical and critical community sadly came to the same opinion, and not even its supporters were passionate enough about its work to save the theatre when the artistic director passed away.

I’ve had several conversation with other Christian artists both online and offline about both the status of Christian theatre and the challenges of being a Christian in theatre. The problem with the first? Too often it’s mediocre, as the focus is generally on “does this show clearly preach the Word?” rather than “is this show good?” The problem with the second? If you work for any length of time in the professional theatre you’re going to be faced with the dilemma of being asked to compromise your faith for a job, or be uncomfortable with the moral ramifications of the artistic interpretation of your director, or be ridiculed for being prudish or closed-minded if you oppose certain pieces of art.

In both cases, the Christian artist is asked to put his faith and his art in different boxes, and then to choose between them. The producer of Christian theatre who believes the moral is all asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his artistic standards to his Christianity. The producer of modern secular theatre who believes in taking artistic risks asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his Christianity to artistic achievement.

My contention? It’s not either/or. A Christian owes obedience to Christ above all things, that’s clear, but one of the ways the Christian artist lives that obedience is by giving his best to his vocation. He becomes the best Christian he can be partly by being the best artist he can be.

A couple C.S. Lewis quotes are appropriate here:

[Christ] wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim… The proper motto is not ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever,’ but ‘Be good, sweet maid, and don’t forget that this involves being as clever as you can.’ God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. – Mere Christianity

We do not need more Christian writers. We need more writers who are Christian. – paraphrase (I’m having trouble finding the exact source)

One could re-phrase that last sentence from the Mere Christianity quote to say, “God is no fonder of artistic slackers than of any other slackers.” And the second quote makes me wonder if Christian artists should even be focusing on making Christian theatre at all, or if we should be working only within the mainstream theatre world, but in such a way that we maintain our integrity and make art that reflects our understanding of “man’s spiritual nature and his eternal destiny.”

Which brings me to the second book, Tribes. I think we have a tribe here, of theatre artists who are Christian and who want to make art that is both: 1) of excellent quality, and 2) compatible with their Christian commitment. We may differ as to whether we each want to work completely in the mainstream theatre world while holding ourselves to a particular code of integrity, or work completely in church drama ministry, or work somewhere on the spectrum in between. My personal professional history ranges from gospel plays to corporate training videos with absolutely nothing to do with religion, but for myself, I tend to favor a combination of the Tolkien and Lewis models. I see the Tolkien model as telling a great story that deals deeply with the themes of faith, but does not explicitly touch on religion (or only barely), and is directed toward a general audience. I see the Lewis model as also telling a great story, but “showing one’s Christian colours” a bit more, and is either directed toward a general audience or towards a Christian-friendly audience (i.e. an audience that will not be put off by clearly Christian references in a story). The theatre and films I’ve done that I’ve been most passionate about have both addressed questions of faith directly (A Man for All Seasons) or have touched on religious faith barely, if at all, but have celebrated virtues in line with the Christian worldview, such as courage, loyalty, and integrity (The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers). The common characteristics, however, have been excellent stories that are worth telling in themselves (aside from any perceived spiritual value), executed to a high standard, and targeted to a general audience. Spiritual themes excite me, but if I’m going to explore them theatrically, the resulting production must share these characteristics, at least in my own career.

So where do we go from here? Would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to perform in and produce theatre that is clearly Christian, but that is of the highest professional standard, in order to erase the association of the phrase “Christian theatre” with the word “mediocre”? Or would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to bring their artistic sensibilities and standards of conduct into the mainstream theatre world, and prove that you don’t have to be profane, intentionally offensive, or willing to compromise your religious faith in order to make great art?

And if our tribe were to start a professional theatre company, what should it look like? Should it call itself Christian, or not?

P.S. – While writing this post, I came across this open letter to Fox Faith from Dr. Marc Newman, the president of MovieMinistry.com. He addresses many of the challenges discussed above, and I highly recommend reading it, especially as it’s not too long. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

One of your biggest marketing battles is to convince Christians to see “Christian films,” a label which, over the years, has come to be nearly synonymous with “bad movie.” […] The job of preachers (and Christians everywhere) is evangelism. The job of movies is to tell great stories.

Great stories can move us, affect our world view, cause us to consider ideas that we had never entertained before, and lead to open doors for spiritual conversations; but they cannot substitute for them. When films push too hard to preach or moralize, they tend to fail miserably. C.S. Lewis, when asked whether the world needs more Christian writers, replied, “No, we need more writers who are Christian.” What Lewis meant was that Christians who want to be writers need to hone their craft so that their stories are compelling to anyone who might read them. He was not interested in ghettoizing a narrow niche of minor, or outright bad, literature written by Christians, for Christians. May God bless you in the search for great new screenwriters and filmmakers who are Christians, and may the Church recognize the need to raise up and support committed, creative artists.

Filming “The FellowsHip”

I see it’s been about a month since my last post. Sorry! About a month ago was when I got a call saying that I had been offered a lead role in the feature film The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers (known at that time as The Fellowship), instead of the two-line day player role I had been offered earlier. I subsequently went into a whirlwind of rehearsals, finishing up my job at the Baltimore Theatre Alliance a few weeks early (thanks to the understanding of a boss who’s also an actor), and completing my student visa application.

We started shooting at various state parks in northern Virginia on August 10th, and have been shooting 12 hours a day, 6 days a week since then. I’ve therefore had limited computer access. Today is actually the first shooting day in which we’ve had wifi at the location, seeing as we’re shooting at our director of photography’s house.

I have had an amazing time shooting, even though it’s all been happening at the same time as my preparations for Oxford and moving out of my apartment (which happened this past weekend on my day off). The chance to do this type of movie is exactly why I became an actor. It’s an homage to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, especially as portrayed in the Peter Jackson film trilogy. (I know that sentiments about these films among Tolkien fans are, shall we say, mixed, but I admit that I love them, not as the definitive version of the story, but as a great fanboy re-telling of the story.) There are many Easter eggs in our film for fans of the movies. And the director has managed to assemble a group of passionate geeks, many of whom are Tolkien fans, including our married D.P. and production manager, whose wedding rings read, “Two rings under summer’s dawn / the union of Halfling and Elf,” in Elvish script. It’s a fantastically fun set. The film, as well, is funny, well-written, and greatly entertaining without resorting to crude or profane content or language – an increasingly rare phenomenon, especially in movies aimed at the teenage male market.

Today we’re filming our “escape from the Shire.” A couple hours ago, I was sitting on the couch waiting to be called to set. Our production manager’s year-old Beagle was lying curled up against my side with her head on my lap, having finally decided to trust me after a day spent running the other way. (She’s a very shy puppy, especially when the house is filled with dozens of strange people.) I had my eyes closed and my head against the pillow, resting as I lightly scratched the dog’s side. I heard one of our crew members start to play “In Dreams,” one of the songs that played at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, on the piano in the next room. I sat thinking:

“I have a warm dog lying on my side. I’m listening to beautiful music inspired by Tolkien. I’m working on a film set, and when I’m done with this I’m going to go study theology at Oxford and live in C.S. Lewis’ house. All the stress, trouble, and anxiety in my life – it’s worth it for moments like this.”

It’s a sign of the goodness of God that He gives us moments like this, where we’re truly, truly, content, as happy as we can be on Earth. I’m in awe when I think about how even this will be nothing compared to the Beatific Vision, and eternal joy in Christ.

I should be back posting regularly in a week or so when we’re done filming. If all goes well with my visa (please pray!), I should be shipping out September 8th, and writing to you from Oxford after that point.

In the meantime, here’s some sample footage from The FellowsHip for you to enjoy! I’m the slightly chubby one with glasses.

P.S. – You can follow our producer Scott Matthias’ daily updates from the set by joining the group “The Fellowship Movie” on Facebook.

Why I’m Becoming Catholic – C.S. Lewis & the Catholic Church

During the Ignatian Silent Retreat I attended in January 2007, I found a book called C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, by Joseph Pearce. An excellent book, it takes a look at the similarities between Lewis’ theology and Roman Catholic theology. Pearce also examines possible reasons why Lewis never became a Catholic, as J.R.R. Tolkien (a devout Catholic) hoped he would.  The two primary reasons he points out are leftover unconscious prejudice from his childhood in Belfast – where he had “been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist” (Surprised by Joy) – and actual theological differences, for example about the importance of Mary.

Now, I had noticed that Lewis used expressions that we never used in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I hadn’t really thought of them as Catholic before. For example, in the essay “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis says,

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

We Presbyterians, for whom the Lord’s Supper is a memorial rather than the mystical Real Presence, don’t use the phrase “Blessed Sacrament,” and I would never have considered pieces of food as holier than my fellow human being.

Lewis also referred to the Mother of God as the “Blessed Virgin,” a title which you will not hear at many Protestant churches. The most glorious title I’d ever heard for her growing up was “the Virgin Mary,” which was more a term of distinction (“Which Mary?” “The Virgin Mary”) than a term of honor.

I also remember a letter that Lewis wrote to “Inkling-by-association” (i.e. not an official Inkling, but a like-minded friend) Dorothy Sayers on the subject of the ordination of women, in which he argued against female ordination because it

wd. cut us off so sharply from all the rest of Christendom, and…wd. be the very triumph of what they call ‘practical’ and ‘enlightened’ principles over the far deeper need that the Priest at the Altar must represent the Bridegroom to whom we are all, in a sense, feminine.

Sayers replied

If I were cornered, and asked point-blank whether Christ Himself is the representative of male humanity or all humanity, I should be obliged to answer ‘of all humanity’

but that

It would be a pity to fly in the face of all the Apostolic Church, especially just now when we are at last seeing some prospect of understanding with the Eastern Church – and so on…

You can find the full part of Lewis’ side of the conversation, and more of Sayers’ side, in the second volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper.

The reasoning both Lewis and Sayers used – that a church should take into account “the rest of Christendom,” throughout time and space, when making decisions about its ecclesiology – was unfamiliar to me. As a Protestant, I had not been raised to temper my interpretation of Scripture according to the great body of Church teaching over the past 2,000 years, or to feel hesitant to separate myself from other denominations when they were united in a particular (opposing) view. (Besides, in the world in which I grew up, I thought Protestantism was the prevailing view.) My church was not arrogant enough to teach that one’s own interpretation of Scripture, if one felt it to be Spirit-filled, was always right. However, the Tradition of the Church was just not emphasized, much less explicitly offered as a corrective to too much solitary Bible reading and interpretation. It may have been so among the older, wiser, or more educated in my denomination, but as a young person growing up in Protestantism I felt that “the Tradition of the Church” was seen as a set of out-dated beliefs and practices that we were slowly starting to outgrow and “make relevant to today’s world.” (Needless to say, as a child raised on King Arthur and C.S. Lewis at home, I didn’t necessarily see Tradition as a bad thing.)

The sense of the sacramental; the use of seemingly archaic terms of reverence and devotion; the willingness to humble oneself before the Authority of Christ’s Church – all these were new experiences that I found in Lewis, and later came to find in the Catholic Church. They awakened me to the old desire for Camelot, the sehnsucht of my childhood – similar to the longings for “the North” that Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy. And as in Arthur’s court long ago the knights briefly gazed upon what they most desired, turning towards Rome I glimpsed the Grail.

Next up: Charles Williams, Taliessin, and the Grail.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series on my journey to the Catholic Church.