Screenwriter Brian Godawa is not a March 7 Oscar nominee, but he is a Christian in Hollywood who, without selling out, has made good films-most notably, To End All Wars. He has also written two fine books published by IVP, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, and Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination.
Q: How do many American Christians interact with film? I see two extremes in the church: the cultural anorexic who, because there are some bad things in movies like sex and violence, throws the baby out with the bathwater, and the person with a lack of discernment who consumes everything. We need to watch films with discernment and interact with them redemptively-which means figure out what you agree and disagree with and why. You should take the good and reject the bad.
Q: What should Christians understand about the nature of storytelling in movies? About 20 percent to 30 percent of the Bible is propositional truth, but about 70 percent to 80 percent is image, story, poetry, parable. . . . It's not just that imagination is acceptable, it's one of the dominant biblical means through which God communicates who He is. I'm not saying imagination is everything and rationality is a Greek construct that we need to cast aside. I'm saying that if, in our theology, we have no aesthetic, we are not understanding God. Beauty is a key part of understanding God.
Q: Both artistry and rationality are equally ultimate in God's eyes? I root this in the Incarnation: Christ is the Word made flesh. If you overemphasize rationality you don't understand the essence, the life. It's like dissecting a frog: You'll figure out all the parts, but you've killed the frog. By the same token, if you're awash in artistic, imaginative creativity, you can miss God's rational side. In the Incarnation, they're both equal. We should approach God through word, reason, and rationality, but also through beauty. I want people to be balanced in their faith, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other.
Q: You address in your writing the noetic effect of sin, how it undermines our minds, so we need something more than intellect. When I see Jesus appeal to pity in the parable of the Good Samaritan, I see that stressing only logical arguments doesn't touch a person's humanity. You can win an argument but lose the battle. In the arts and in rhetoric, there are means of persuasion that are not rational. That doesn't mean they're illegitimate; they appeal to something that supersedes reason. I used to scoff at Pascal and Kierkegaard, but now I understand a lot of what they said.
Q: In Hollywood Worldviews you cite dreams and visions as God's form of television and movies. Movies are basically visually dramatic stories, which God loves. First of all, God is very visual: Think of the Book of Revelation, which is in the genre of apocalyptic, epic horror fantasy. Ezekiel and Jeremiah actually engaged in performance art as prophecy: Jeremiah should be called "the Acting Prophet," because so many of his prophecies were acting. Narrative is God's dominant method for communicating His truth. That means story is very different from logical argument, but in a sense story embodies the logical argument.
Q: You write that the Bible tells R-rated stories. The Bible is full of that stuff! I challenge you to read Ezekiel chapter 16 or 23 to your grade-school Sunday school kids. You're not going to do it. You're not going to read Song of Solomon in church, are you? So many people have a double standard. The Bible even has blasphemy in there. The point is, what's the context? It's ultimately in the context of moral instruction; God is elevating goodness and condemning evil, but you have to have both of them in there to show that.
Q: Does the Bible graphically show the details of sin? No, it doesn't show everything all the time, but sometimes it does. There's sometimes a reason to do so, and usually when you're dealing with a serious moral failure or issue you have to be shocking. When God wanted to show the spiritual failure of Israel, His favorite imagery was whores, prostitutes, and sluts, and He described what they did. What punches you in the gut, that reveals spiritual evil and scares you away from it and toward holiness.
Q: What was the first screenplay you wrote? A lot of times you write something from your own life. I wrote this family drama, and of course it was terrible. No one has read it and that's good.
Q: Do you still have a copy or did you destroy it? I still have it but keep it locked up. I did a couple of versions of it, too. It was good practice. And that's what they tell you, that the first three scripts are usually terrible anyway. You just have to keep writing: That's how you get better. There are very few people who can write a really good script right out of the chute.
Q: At the time, did you understand that the first few scripts weren't going to go anywhere, or were you crushed? I'm a researcher, so whenever I want to learn or do something, I get a bunch of books. I got a bunch of books on screenwriting and that's what they all told me, and I believed it. I just said, "OK, that's fine, I'll just keep trying," because I really wanted to do it.
Q: How do you get a screenplay turned into a movie? You have to make connections with the Hollywood world: Cold-call production companies, try to get an agent, enter all the contests that you can. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are making phone calls and writing letters to LA saying, "I've got a great screenplay!" Hollywood works on connections, people they already know, or people who really stand out, so my task was to find that angle. It's salesmanship.
Q: You entered lots of screenwriting contests? For many years. It was about 10 or 11 years before I actually had a first movie made. I had been entering contests, writing about a script a year, and building up awards that became part of my resumé. Those awards became part of my pitch to producers. Some of the contests are meaningless-nowadays more and more are meaningless-but there are some big contests that make you stand out enough to producers to be considered.
Q: Some of the contests are meaningless because the competition isn't very strong, or everyone gets a blue ribbon for participation, or . . . A little of all of that. Production companies have realized that one of the ways to search for a script for free is to have a contest. You basically pay them to read your script, and the prize is-your script is produced by this company that happens to be putting on the contest. But a lot of that is a scam.
Q: As you went for a whole decade without getting anything produced, where did you get your encouragement? It's all within, because you don't get much encouragement at all. It's said that in Hollywood you have to have rhino skin, because you get rejected a lot. You just have to keep pounding and pounding. For every script I wrote, I would join 20 contests and send a query letter to a couple of hundred production companies. I'd be accepted to read the script at maybe 15 or 20 of those if I was lucky-it's usually more like 10.
Q: Were the positive responses helpful or just "nice"? You have to be tough, but on the other side they say you can die of kindness, because there's so much façade in Hollywood. Nobody wants to burn bridges because you don't know what little person will rise to fame in the future. So if you get people to read your script and they don't like it or it's not good, they won't say why, they'll just say, "Hey, good writing, but not for us." It's not that they're usually cruel, but nice in an unhelpful way.
Q: Did you keep your rejection letters? I've got hundreds of them.
To hear Marvin Olasky's interview with Brian Godawa, click here.