Across the Board

Interview with Brian Dannelly

by Laura Nathan


Ah, election year! The occasion for yet another round of broadly declared “wars,” against terror and immorality, in Iraq and in the media. Though Brian Dannelly’s new movie, Saved!, is set in high school—seemingly some distance from such urgent “adult” concerns—it makes high school into a metaphor for an increasingly contentious political culture.

Dannelly and Michael Urban completed the screenplay for Saved! in 1999, before the current religious battles began. And while they claim it is not “anti-Christian,” a Christian rock band and several production sites with evangelical Christian ties backed out of agreements to work with the Universal Artists and the rest of the Saved! team at the last minute. Yet, as Dannelly emphasized when I spoke with him, Saved! doesn’t promote intolerance, and offers amusing commentary on socio-political circumstances that extend far beyond high school. Refusing to embrace the unquestioning devotion and silence of religious fundamentalism, Saved! instead encourages dialogue regarding the contradictions of religious fundamentalism.

PopMatters: Tell me a little bit about what inspired Saved!

Brian Dannelly: Part of it relates back to the fact that I began writing the film around the time of the Columbine incident. I had attended a Christian high school, and [the controversy over Columbine] took me back to my roots, to when I was in high school. I thought, “Wow, some of these kids are really Christian, and they’re not in a Christian high school. They’re in a very mainstream place. What is this?” I think religion is this weird, sort of amazing thing that a lot of people need, and when I started doing research, I thought, “We live in these very weird times right now. It’s very George Bushian.” And I thought, “Well, there’s got to be a way to look at this movement in a way that encourages people to have a dialogue afterwards.”

PM: Because the characters are high school students, the film will likely attract a younger audience. But the issues it deals with are “universal.” Whom did you envision as a target audience? Whom do you want to engage in this dialogue?

BD: Honestly, when I set out to make the film, the target audience wasn’t really an indie audience. It wasn’t really about certain groups. It was really about reaching the mainstream. But there are a lot of sub-groups within that mainstream that [Saved!] appeals to. You’ve got your high school audience, you’ve got your gay audience, you’ve got your Christian audience, you’ve got your indie audience. There’s kind of a diverse mix there, and I think it’s a great thing that people seem to like it across the board.

PM: When you wrote the script, did you have particular actors and actresses in mind?

BD: Only Jena Malone. She always tells this story about when I met with her. When I finished up writing, I had a poster of the movie so I could see the end of the movie, and on the poster was Jena… I was showing her this book of photographs and stuff for the movie, and I had that posted in there, and then she got to that page, and she said, “Well, I guess I got the part!” [Laughs]

PM: Tell me about working with Mandy Moore and Jena Malone, who are the same ages as their characters.

BD: I think what they could relate to is having really major life-changing experiences at a young age. And I think those sorts of things are hard to adjust to. We were definitely looking at those sorts of things when casting.

PM: Is there something you would hope other filmmakers might take away from seeing your film?

BD: I’ve never been asked that one before. I guess the thing is, when I see other films, if I think I could make that film, it’s not that interesting to me… Most satires don’t allow viewers to really connect with the characters. And I think that’s something I really tried to do with the movie; I thought it was important to try and make my audience care about the people in the movie. And you can only do that by making the characters seem very real, very human, like people you know.

PM: You attended a Christian high school, but that was some time ago. Did you have to visit Christian high schools to get a better feel for the film’s setting, the types of people your characters should be playing, and the social dynamics of these schools?

BD: Yes, I did. I did a lot of research. I went to tons of Christian schools, Christian rock concerts, Christian rallies… And I brought the cast along, too.

PM: Did you get the sense that a lot had changed since you were in school?

BD: Well, actually, my school was really, really strict. You couldn’t dance. You couldn’t talk to the opposite sex. Those restrictions were a little weird. But I found that the schools I visited were more open and more embracing.

PM: Do you think that the increasing number of recent films addressing sex and sexual restrictions are responding to Bush’s pro-abstinence, pro-heterosexuality agenda?

BD: I suspect it’s very organic. You’re almost unconsciously part of the flow, you’re sucked into the mainstream, whether you want to or not. Those ideas are there, and you’re going to explore them. I did an interview for the Associated Press comparing Saved! to The Passion of the Christ, Judas, and all of those other movies. I kind of realized that there are lots of journey films out there. These filmmakers aren’t always necessarily trying to provide the answers. But at the very least, they’re trying to pose a question; they get you asking more questions. Obviously, ours is a Christian journey film; The Passion is a Christian journey film. But there are all different kinds of journey films right now trying to get people to ask questions.

PM: In organized religion, traditional language doesn’t always match up with contemporary reality. In fact, your critique is timely, given the recent scandals emerging from the Catholic Church. Is there something you hope to contribute to the dialogue about the Church’s inability to practice what it preaches? Or do you see your timing as coincidental?

BD: I think that we’re all divinely flawed. I mean, this young woman [Mary, played by Malone, gets pregnant], and people ask whether she’s still a Christian. And there’s also the Patrick Fugit character who is just a really cool person, and who doesn’t think less of Jena’s character for what she does. But then there are people like Mandy Moore’s character who say they’re Christian and do things in the name of Jesus, but you can’t help but ask whether they are really Christian. There are lots of people just like that. What I like about the film is that the characters often [find themselves] in situations where they’re like, “Oh no, we’re in deep shit,” and they have to figure out what their options are. I guess my hope is that the film will open up a dialogue, asking questions like, What would do in that situation? What if [my] boyfriend was gay? How would respond to that? And what if did get pregnant?

PM: Saved! suggests that Church followers are not as committed to the notion of love as they claim to be. Moore’s character, for instance, is very materialistic. Do you think that these contradictory tendencies boil down to basic human nature or does U.S. culture produce particular complexities?

BD: Any time you kind of look at something under the microscope and it sort of scans into the popular culture, everything feels more pronounced. What’s interesting about the movie is that it mirrors pop culture. And everyone sort of adapts to it and identifies with it in [his or her] own way. The characters do not do anything worse than what anyone else does. But Jesus [is involved], so it seems a little bit weirder, a bit more shocking, and more pronounced… But if you look, it’s all around you.

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