Friday, June 26, 2009

Is DIY gem AUDIENCE OF ONE the religious movie of our time? Q&A with Mike Jacobs

God works in mysterious ways, doesn't s/he/it? Among the most mysterious of late has got to be AUDIENCE OF ONE, a documen-
tary so alternately sad and delightful, staggering and mundane, ridiculous and obvious that it will boggle your mind even as it entertains you to the max. Clearly, this one's a must for movie buffs -- and, yes, maybe for god buffs, too.

After a San Francisco-
based Christian evangelical pastor, Richard Gazowsky, sees his first movie (at something like age 40, he tells us) he gets one of those calls from god, so frequently received by men of faith (I'm still waiting for mine), telling him to make a movie. So he does. Or at least tries. When filmmaker Michael Jacobs gets wind of this news, he sets about documenting the story and comes up with a film that is almost -- but not quite -- crazy enough to defy believability. It would, of course, take a concept as crazy as god (or at least humanity's bizarre imagining that it can tap into the almighty's will at a moment's notice and immediately bring home the bacon) to fuel a story this nonsensical.

With no experience (or success) at much of anything so far (including leading his flock), our pastor sets out to make his movie -- a kind of religious epic with a Star Wars overlay (see the early mock-ups above). First he casts the thing with some rather "interesting" acting talent...

then he has the costumes readied...

and hires a generally inexperienced and (at very least) too-trusting crew....

and even jaunts off to this picturesque little town in Italy (yes -- the land of all those Hercules and Biblical epics!) to film the thing.

Our documentarian, Mike, goes right along with him, shooting whatever Pastor Gazowsky is shooting -- plus a whole lot more. And what, after all this, has god wrought? You must wait until the film's end to access the DVD extras and learn what actually exists of the finished film -- after all the time, expense, travel and much else that has gone into this venture. And don't blame the non-existent deity for the result. Blame nitwit faith. The question Audience of One implicitly asks, is this: Isn't all faith necessarily nitwit? In this case, at least, it did not lead to the the Crusades, the Inquisition, the destruction of the World Trade Center, or drinking Kool-Aid. Yet it could just as easily have done so. When you agree to follow anyone who claims to have god's ear and hear god's voice, you've already given over your reason and your rights, as have the pastor's flock. As usual, god becomes a kind of personal mirror, reflecting nothing more than the desires of the fellow (and it is, despite Mary Baker Eddy, Aimee Semple McPherson and Tammy Faye Bakker, usually a guy) claiming to channel the deity.

Audience of One is a model documentary in so many ways that Mr. Jacobs deserves congratulations on his achievement (and a bigger budget for his next film). The budget for this one has got to have been pretty small, for the movie looks homemade and shot on the fly. Yet it shows us exactly what it must, always concentrating on its subject rather than on the filmmaker. Jacobs never pushes; he doesn't need to because what happens is jaw-dropping enough. He refrains from commenting on things, as well. Like a good documentarian (I think Albert Maysles would approve), he simply shows -- and let's us decide.

You'll have questions along the way, as I and my companion certainly did. While I usually don't have enough time to watch a film again and listen to its commentary track, in this case, I did watch a good deal of it and am happy to report that my questions were answered, and in such a way that I feel convinced of the authenticity of what I saw and of the filmmaker's (I mean Mr. Jacobs, not the good Pastor) honesty and decency. Actually, I feel convinced that the pastor has a little of these qualities, too, but his stupidity and egotism run roughshod over everything else. But, hey -- as Gazowsky himself tells us with lunatic certainty -- who is he to question god's will?

As usual, if it's god who is telling you to do something, well then, you can do just about anything you please. As someone ought to have said by now (and probably has): God save us from god -- because, clearly, we're unable to manage this ourselves.


Filmmaker Mike Jacobs (shown at left) surely is an easy guy to reach. You dial the number listed on his movie's official site, and there is he, happy to speak with you, whether you liked his film or not. I certainly did, and that makes the chance to interact (mostly via email) with this smart, caring and talented DIY filmmaker ever sweeter.

TrustMovies:Do you prefer being called Michael or Mike?

Michael Jacobs: It's been either/or since I can remember. Go with your gut.

What did your film cost to make (not including its marketing)?

I'm not at liberty to disclose the specifics of the budget but it wasn't much, just enough to get us through post-production. We are still paying for music licenses with every dime that comes in from broadcast and DVD advances/revenue.

I believe it opened fairly recently here in NYC. What did that cost and who paid for it?

The film is being theatrically distributed by NY based IndiePix. They booked the screenings and did some press, but I don't know what those costs are. I was able to get myself to NYC for the opening weekend via another project so I was able to get that client to cover my travel expenses though they had no idea my film was opening.

How long were you in Italy for that portion of the filmmaking?

One week.

There were times during the Italy jaunt that I found myself thinking, gosh—this just might work. Were there ever times that you felt the same?

Yes and no. I guess I always thought they would make something, but it became painfully clear towards the end of my time in Italy that an actual movie was out of the question. But I always hoped they would complete a movie; even if it wasn't the movie the Pastor wanted or intended it to be, it would probably be such a unique Cult-Christian-Pop B movie.

Who actually wrote the script for Grabowky’s film? Did you see/meet/talk to its writers? And were you at any time able to read the entire script? If so, did it make any sense?

The script was written by Richard and his wife Sandy. At one point early on in my shooting, I read about 30 pages. It was extremely dense. And also silly and confusing but it also had incredibly strange and exciting ideas that could come only from the mind of Pastor G.

One of the questions I and my companion both had: Was there ever any real money that might have come through? I believe that you say, yes, there was, on the commentary track. But how much -- and when was it actually made available.

There was never any actual investment money that I was aware of (at least not the amount required) but there was money. Most of it culled from the congregation, the Pentecostal Church circuit, and from various wealthy families in and around the congregation.

What’s the latest on Grabowsky? Is he is jail yet? (Not that he exactly deserves to be, but golly, there is a limit, right?) Or is he still ministering?

He's still ministering, albeit from a somewhat more desperate position. I know he's still working on his opus (though I guess that depends on how you define 'working') but with zero resources. You can follow his exploits here:

Is his mom still alive? I can’t remember now. You mention on the commentary how much you like her and wished she could have been more a part of the film. We felt the same, but she wasn’t really germane, I guess.

Yes, she's still alive and kicking. And yeah, as a character (and as a person) she is one of my favorites, so I was disappointed to come to understand how marginalized she is by Richard. But as you see in the doc, she gets her licks in.

What’s your background? School, film school, etc. You’re 31, right?

I didn't go to film school but started making short films in college at the University of Vermont, where the town of Burlington and its colorful characters inspired me to pick up a camera and start shooting. I was an aspiring writer, but too lazy and not smart enough to be a writer, so the camera eventually did my writing for me.

My companion says that he found you were very respectful to your subject and yet did not shy away from showing what you had to show. We thought that this combination, as much as anything, made the film (and your commentary) work so well. Did you find this difficult to do, or more likely, maybe this is just part of your nature? Or maybe the nature of a good documentary filmmaker?

That's a very well posed question. I think its a bit of all three. It was an extremely difficult balance. Sometimes, I feel I went too far and sometimes I feel I didn't go far enough. Ultimately, the subjects of the film just put themselves out there, and I simply captured them. It's an honest and sincere portrait, and although I had fun with the folly of filmmaking, I never made fun or dramatized their religious expression.

I am guessing, with your name, that you are Jewish. I detected absolutely no sense that this mattered, either in the film or what I saw of the commentary. Do you personally subscribe to any religious faith or a belief in a deity? (I don’t, which my blog piece makes fairly clear.)

Yes, I'm Jewish but not particularly religious. I was open about this with the Pastor's church and they loved to joke with me about my eventual conversion and that I was a confused Jew, and if I spent enough time at their Church, I would eventually find myself in their promised land.

What is your next project?

I recently completed a doc web series for Sony's and a video installation for a hotel in New York. You can see the videos at The Muse Hotel (46th and 6th). Watch the entire series (about 10 minutes) on the four lobby screens and the 2 screens behind the bar. (And feel free to let the hotel know how excellent you think they are.)

My next feature doc is in development but its going to take some time to get that off the ground -- which is fine since it's pretty brutal out there for indie films just now.

Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say about you, the film or filmmaking that has not been covered well enough to suit you in the past? It‘s fine if this has nothing to do with any of my questions above. I like to leave open the chance for a filmmaker to soapbox about anything that’s on his mind, or to cover something that he’s hoped somebody would ask him but nobody has.

Making this film has changed my life -- both personally and professionally -- and I will be forever grateful to Gazowksy, his family, and the Church for welcoming me into their world and allowing me to share, celebrate and exploit their incredible story.

You are a writer. Only a good -- and honest -- writer would use those three words: share, celebrate and exploit. Particularly that last one.

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