I recently had a chance to watch a screening of Believe Me, a new film from the team behind the documentary films, Beware of Christians and One Nation Under God. Believe Me, the group’s first venture into feature films, tracks four university students who create a fake Christian charity to pay for their college tuition.
I had a chat with Believe Me director Will Bakke about the movie, Christian stereotypes, and the problem with many faith-based films.
First, how did you get this cast together? Alex Russell, who starred in one of my favorite films of 2012, Chronicle, plays the lead. There’s also Zachary Knighton, Nick Offerman, and Christopher McDonald. It’s a pretty great group.
The cast was amazing. We were incredibly blessed to have all of these people get on board. I just feel like the story reached them in a way that they wanted to be a part of it.
I think what’s so fascinating about this group is that you’ve got actors coming from completely different spectrums of the religious sphere. We didn’t want to only hire Christian actors. We didn’t want to only hire a Christian crew. We wanted the best people for the job. Period. We’ve heard of other Christian companies and films that really want to only hire Christians to be a part of their project. For us, we felt like this was one of the ways we could differentiate ourselves. The story comes first and whoever can help us make it the best that it can be is who we want for the job.
What do you think it is about the story that catches the attention of both Christians and non-Christians? For example, Nick Offerman is pretty open about his objections to Christianity.
I think there is something very authentic about the story. I think satire really opens up individuals to considering ideas that they would normally not consider. I don’t want to speak for Nick Offerman, but I think what he saw were some writers who were very self-aware of the religious culture and the religious perception that Christians put out there. It’s clearly satire, we’re not trying to poke fun at Christians. We really feel like we’re just holding the mirror up. Saying this is what people outside of the Christian faith see. When you take a step back and look at our Christian culture, there are a lot of hilarious things we do.
To change directions slightly, how did you come up with the story behind Believe Me and what compelled you to tell it?
I’m a part of Riot Studios. I’m one of the founders with two other buddies of mine: Michael Allen and Alex Carroll. The three of us were in a documentary together several years before Believe Me called Beware of Christians. When we graduated from college, we toured the country for a year and a half doing screenings of the movie and talking to students about Jesus.
I think by doing those shows and touring for a year and half you, sadly, kind of learn what people want to hear. You learn what’s more responsive to Christians.
We just found that within the Christian culture, especially with some of the public speaking, Christians tend to be — we tend to be — a little bit more naïve. We tend to take things at a little more face value. I guess the idea stemmed from, “Well what if someone tried to infiltrate that?” The idea was a little bit wicked, but we felt like there was a story there that hasn’t been told.
Though nothing we did on tour had anything to do with stealing money.
In the film, most of the individuals who call themselves Christians are either corrupt, disingenuous, or very gullible. What were your reasons behind portraying the characters in this way?
We wrote authentic people and I think that’s been a really fun thing to talk about — especially with this movie. Many people are like, “Well who are the good guys in this movie?” We tend to reply, “Well who are the good guys in our own lives?” We’re certainly not the good guys. As Christians we believe that everyone is broken, everyone is sinful and fallen and that’s the best thing about the gospel of Jesus. He was the good guy.
We tried to write characters who were very real and authentic. We believe that they are good people making bad decisions for the right reasons. The best villains are the ones who don’t see themselves as the villain. All the characters in this movie tend to do that. We didn’t want to write Christian characters who seem to have everything put together because that’s just not the Christians we know.
Ultimately, do you think these characters — and your depiction of Christianity — will reinforce negative Christian stereotypes (e.g., greedy, disingenuous, selfish) or push individuals to reconsider them?
Our hope for this film is that it starts the discussion. We feel like this movie does a great job of separating the Christian culture from the Christian gospel. We were very particular about that — that the jokes weren’t aimed at Christ or the Christian message, but rather the culture. Could people walk out and be like, “Oh yeah, Christians are just greedy. Classic.” You know, they might. But I feel like what also comes through in this film is that there are some very genuine convictions and very genuine relationships with Christ that aren’t perfect, but are authentic. I hope people will sympathize with those characters.
Given that faith is a big issue in the story, how did you attempt to infuse your film with clear spiritual themes without getting into — for lack of a better word — the “cheesiness” we often see from some Christian filmmakers?
What we’re trying to push with this movie is that as Christians, you cannot approach making movies with an agenda in mind. Because as soon as you start making a movie thinking, “I want Christians to do this” or “I want people to know this,” you start to write characters in a way that fulfills the writer’s agenda rather than giving your characters a life of their own.
So, what we had to do was first be brave enough to write characters who weren’t Christians and who don’t subscribe to the teachings of Jesus. Meaning, some of the characters in our movie get hammered drunk. That’s real life.
At the same time, we had to be brave enough to write characters that do follow Jesus and do believe some of these things that might appear to be “cheesy” to secular culture. There’s a fine line in doing that.
I understand the complexity and baggage of this term, but how is your film different from what’s commonly referred to as a “Christian” or “faith-based” film?
We do not claim that this movie is a “Christian” film. We believe that Christianity is the backdrop to the story, but this movie is not a Christian film in the understanding that many people have. Even posting the trailer has been really interesting because a lot of comments are like, “Well if this movie doesn’t have a redeeming message at the end then I don’t want to see it.” It’s kind of a cop out because it’s like, well, if that’s your definition of a Christian film — that at the end of the movie there’s going to be an altar call and all the wrongs are going to be righted — then you will probably not like our movie. There’s a chance that you will be upset by the fact that we have very real characters and the reality of life is that not everybody ends up saved.
We know we’re going to have to combat that label because everyone has a different understanding of what a Christian film is and what that means, but more than anything, we’re just trying to tell a really good story.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers who want to create movies that push people to evaluate their faith?
I would just tell them to write better stories, write authentic characters. I think when you want to make a film, a lot of times, it starts with, “You know, I just want people to pray more. I just want people to treat others better.” That’s the wrong place to start. If you don’t start with a good climax, plot development, and character arcs, you’re better off just writing a sermon and delivering it that way.
Some of the films that taught me the most about God have nothing to do with Jesus. If we can spend more of our time learning how to tell better stories, I think the impact we hope to make will be greater.
Believe Me is set to release in theaters and on demand September 26. For more information about the film, check out the movie’s website at believemefilm.com.