Salvation Boulevard is a tongue-in-cheek look at a charismatic, larger-than-life evangelical preacher, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), whose charm and real estate developments have captivated a small western American town. Carl (Greg Kinnear), a reformed Deadhead who has found salvation in Dan’s Evangelical community, serves as one of the preacher’s great examples of spiritual and moral transformation – that is until a late night confrontation with a best-selling atheist professor (Ed Harris) turns his new belief system upside down.
We sat down last week at a round table interview with director George Ratliff to talk about the movie. Loosely based on Larry Beinhart’s comic novel of the same name, Salvation Boulevard is part devilish satire and part irreverent parable that pokes fun at religious hypocrisy. Ratliff told us how he set out to make a divinely wicked comedy about good people who do bad things in the name of God, why the project quickly attracted an A-List roster of actors, and what surprised him most about shooting on location in Michigan. He also explained how his documentary experience informed his approach to a narrative feature and updated us on his next project, an untitled thriller that he hopes to start working on this fall. Hit the jump for the full interview:
What it was like riding that fine line of comedy where it’s funny but you’re not making fun of your characters?
GEORGE RATLIFF: It was pretty easy, well it wasn’t easy, but for me, almost all of my family are evangelical Christians so I know I’m going to have to sit there and watch this movie with them at some time. There was that fine line. It feels like every movie I’ve ever done, I always expected to have rocks thrown through my windows or have people protesting and it never happens and so I wasn’t really ever that worried just so long as it wasn’t mean spirited. The comedy gets into this idea of belief and faith in something that you don’t see and can’t prove and then putting them in a dramatic situation based on that and there’s a lot of fun to be had. I think that culture is the biggest, most influential culture in America in my day and no one touches anything. There could be great thrillers or great dramas or great comedies made in that world but everyone’s afraid of it. So you have to do them as these crazy little independent movies.
Do you ever think “When I go to Amarillo for Christmas, this is something I should bring back for everybody to watch with me”?
RATLIFF: Honestly, I grew up in Amarillo so that’s what I know, but my experience as far as the Evangelical world is that it’s not that different once you get off the coasts. The culture is similar and pervasive and massive. I’ve lived in New York. I just moved here six months ago but I lived in New York for 14 years, and the first 4 years I would just ruin dinner parties by talking about this movement that was happening. It’s real and these people actually believe this and they’re in politics and this is going to affect things, and I was just thought of as a paranoid kind of guy. And actually, I made the documentary Hell House because of that, more as a documentation. Hell House is done more like an ethnographic documentary of people that exist and it’s a culture that’s real. But then, by 2002, everyone realized that it was real.
I think you did more to promote Hell House with that documentary than anything they could have done on their own. You made them very wealthy people.
RATLIFF: Oh no, I didn’t.
That thing was licensed all over the country after that documentary came out.
RATLIFF: That’s not true. Certainly, a lot of people who didn’t know about Hell House heard about it because of that documentary. But also, right after Hell House, there’s Hollywood Hell House and then there’s the Brooklyn Hell House. I had so many people looking to make a fictionalized feature of Hell House after that and I would tell them that you could actually buy a franchise kit from Colorado for two hundred bucks. But, I mean, I didn’t start the franchise. That didn’t come out of Hell House. There was a pastor in Colorado that was franchising Hell House kits way before I came around. I can’t believe that we’re in the position to say that you shouldn’t or you can’t believe in this. I think that what we can do is try to influence people to self-examine what they believe in and they have to base it on some kind of truth. The danger comes in, in my opinion, when you believe someone because they’re the leader of your church and supposedly they have an ear to God without examining what they’re doing. One of the premises of the script is this idea that good people do good and evil people do evil, but the only way a good person can do evil is if they have God on their side. That’s just been the history of our civilization.
I enjoyed how you made Greg Kinnear’s character a former Dead Head because the cult of The Dead is similar to an evangelical group. If they weren’t so stoned, they’d be much more strident.
RATLIFF: Well that’s a parallel culture.
Did you have to clear the use of the Grateful Dead’s name?
RATLIFF: We didn’t have to clear using the name but we certainly had to clear using their music which was very, very difficult. That was not an easy hurdle to clear.
For religious reasons or just money-wise?
RATLIFF: Well, the Grateful Dead, it’s funny. In the past, people could use their music because there are these bootlegs floating around that were supposedly public domain but they weren’t, and now they’ve locked everything up and it’s become really near impossible to use their music in movies. We went to the eleventh hour not knowing if we were going to be able to use them in the movie, and in the very end, they allowed us to.
Was there any concern on your part that this film might not get distribution and were you surprised?
RATLIFF: Absolutely. During the entire process I was chuckling that I can’t believe everyone’s doing this movie. For one thing, it’s a silly comedy and it’s an explosive issue that everyone’s afraid of. But it’s clearly something that people want to talk about even thought they’re afraid to and that’s why I think everyone sort of piled in for support. But you don’t see studios making movies about this world. You either see them slamming it or doing a faith-based movie because they know they have a demographic with a huge audience built in and I didn’t want to do either of those things.
When did studios get fearful of that? Was it as far back as Elmer Gantry or Marjoe, the Marjoe Gortner documentary?
RATLIFF: It’s just bad manners. You don’t talk about politics and you don’t talk about religion. They don’t want to do it. If it’s just about making that feel good movie for money, you don’t go near religion. What are the examples of studio movies that have?
Elmer Gantry comes to mind as specifically evangelical and the documentary that won so many awards about Marjoe Gortner’s being brought up as an evangelical and then going into showbiz.
RATLIFF: But that was the 70s and that was a documentary. I don’t think that was necessarily a mistake.
You just dismissed the 70s.
RATLIFF: But Marjoe was an amazing documentary. It won an Oscar.
What about putting this fantastic cast together? Did you get everybody you wanted?
RATLIFF: I still don’t really understand how that happened because I just thought, given the practicalities of financing an independent movie, you have to have some names. That’s just the way it works. You have to have a name that can get you foreign pre-sales. That drives the whole thing. We went to Pierce Brosnan first and he jumped on board and wanted Greg Kinnear and I thought we were done, but the producers and the casting director would keep proposing other people, other names, and I would shoot them all down unless they came up with someone that was so much fun like how could I not want to do that. And then, I’d find myself in a meeting with them and they wouldn’t want to do the movie. It just kept happening. I don’t know. In the end, it’s wonderful because they’re all so amazing. I am such a fan of all of them. But it became a very unruly thing because it was still an independent movie that we had to shoot in 26 days and we had all these giant movie stars that are used to having a lot of [amenities]. I mean, they all knew what they were getting into but it didn’t make it easy. They were all good sports about it, but it became sort of a beast and still is. At the end of the day, it’s a plucky independent film. That was the intention from the beginning. It’s been a struggle because we have this caliber of talent. It was not an obvious Sundance movie. I went to Sundance with Joshua that had Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. That’s like two good working actors. This was not what people at Sundance were used to or ready for but they all had a great time. I think they all clocked in great performances and they were fun to work with.
Did anyone you went after choose not to do it because of the religious theme?
RATLIFF: Absolutely. We were going after someone and had them commit to doing it and then she realized that it could ostracize her public.
What about the character of Jerry? You never see the conversation between Pastor Dan and him, yet he obviously takes his word for it and with blind zeal goes after Carl. Was that intentional on your part?
RATLIFF: As far as not showing that conversation? A couple of ideas when something like this happens, a scandal, the people at the church deal with it as individuals, and they all deal with it differently. My personal experience is that I’ve known a lot of people that are the blind zealots of whatever this guy says is right and he’s the mouthpiece of God and it’s correct. And then, you have the full spectrum to Ciaran Hinds’ character, Jim, who realizes he’s lying and everything changes. Once he realizes the guy’s a liar, then it throws everything on its ear and then everyone in between. We tried to take all the examples of people once they realize this person they put all their faith into is essentially very human and very much lying and how they cope with it. But the Jerry character, I’ve certainly known the type.
There’s a great little moment where Ed Harris’ character thanks Pierce Brosnan’s character for the show and the showbiz. Pastor Dan never acknowledges that it’s a show but the look they exchange shows he gets it. Was that part of the book?
RATLIFF: I have to confess that the book is very, very different. In fact, there’s no debate in the book. The book begins as sort of a whodunit mystery about an atheist professor that is dead. So, no, but for me, it’s very important. It’s what Pierce and I talked about every minute that we were together. It’s very important that Dan Day believes, that he’s actually a believer, and he does these things but he never stops believing. He just turns the belief into this was somehow Satan coming in to undo all of his work, and he used Carl, the person I would never expect. I mean, power corrupts, but power corrupts these mega-pastors so much more thoroughly because they are the mouthpiece. They are in tune with God. It’s not just power, but it’s power and ‘He’s on my side.’ But the idea is that Dan is finding truths in everything that he looks at, like on the TV. It’s a communication going on that’s going to guide him through this and that’s why. The phone is clearly part of it, the TV is clearly part of it, and it all becomes a part of it. But as far as the show, I think that they realize what they are doing is a show. All the bigger churches in the Pentecostal movement, which was what Hell House was, are really good at putting on a show and that’s how they have such a big audience. It’s because they’ve discovered that. That’s why they have music. It is a show.
Do you think this is a good time for this film, especially in light of the whole Crystal Cathedral/Robert Schuller scandal that’s been in the news recently?
RATLIFF: The trick on all this is timing and I can never [time something like this]. Like with Hell House, which I keep bringing up, I shot that in 2000 and we premiered it in Toronto in 2001. The premiere date in Toronto was September 11th, 2001 and, of course, that didn’t happen. The day before that we had offers on the table from distributors and then September 11th happened and there were much bigger problems than the fact that my little movie premiere was broken. When it played two days later, that movie was different. That movie played very differently and the timing was horrible for that movie to come out. So I don’t know. I feel like it’s a fine time for this movie, but I never can tell.
Are the characters in the film very different from the book? How much did they translate from book to screen?
RATLIFF: A lot of the names are the same. The book is very good and Larry Beinhart is a very good writer, but it’s just a different animal, and we went and did something completely different. Larry wrote the book that Wag the Dog was based on as well, and if you read the book that Wag the Dog was based on, not even the names are the same. It’s a different plot. It’s a different period. It’s a different setting.
Larry just can’t get a break, can he?
RATLIFF: Larry is doing wonderfully and Larry actually loves the movie. He’s been a big supporter and definitely the spirit of Larry’s book is in the movie. A lot of the things that happen in the book happen in the movie. It’s just set up very differently. It is absolutely an adaptation of the book, but I need to be clear that we did change a lot.
You said people had come to you about making things out of Hell House. Are you protective of your original creations or has it been a challenge?
RATLIFF: I mean, I am, but I don’t consider Hell House like my creation. I feel like it was a documentary. When St. Ann’s wanted to do the final Hell House, they called me and said you can do whatever you want. They offered me Satan to play for a day or two and I said no. I think that we’re all influenced by everything, and if someone takes something of mine, I’d be probably more flattered than anything else.
Have your siblings seen your film and how did they respond?
RATLIFF: They have. I watched it with my sister and her husband and my parents. They all really liked it. And every time I’m in a screening, I always ask at the Q&A, “Who here is an Evangelical, who is a Christian, and what did you think?” I’m not surprised anymore, but I was always surprised at the beginning that they always liked it and they thought it was funny, sometimes uncomfortable, but they thought it was funny. My favorite comment was when someone said he was pleasantly uncomfortable the whole time.
What was the attitude of your folks? Do they ever get a little irritated with you?
RATLIFF: I’m sure they do but like I said, I always thought people would be furious about the things I do but they’re not. When I did Hell House, my brother would come up and say “Those Pentecostals are nuts!” When I did Hell House, I actually went to the church and showed it to them and they liked it. For them, it was a whole movie. And it’s the same with this. Every movie, all the documentaries that I do, it’s the same. Even if it’s about that person, they still like themselves.
What are you working on next?
RATLIFF: I can’t really talk about it specifically, but it’s more in the vein of Joshua. It’s an elevated thriller. I’m a fan of the European style, naturalistic thriller. We have not cast anyone and we’re not in pre-production but it’s looking to be happening in the Fall.
Is there a thriller to be had in Hell House?
RATLIFF: Oh yeah, there’s definitely a dozen thrillers that could be had in Hell House.
How does making a documentary compare to a narrative feature and has your documentary experience helped you?
RATLIFF: Hell House was a verite style documentary which is so much harder than doing any sort of narrative film because when you’re doing a verite style documentary, you have to go into a room, you have to figure out how you get into the scene, how you get out of the scene, and what the coverage is of the scene, and you have to do it with one camera. If there’s a cutaway, you need to get it then because it’s only going to last [a few moments]. You have to edit the movie as you’re shooting it in your head and communicate with your crew about how it’s going to work. While making a movie, you have the luxury of storyboards and a script and a bigger crew and actors. I mean, it’s so much easier. I’ve always intended to eventually make films. I’ve always been very aware of tone and shots. But documentaries are a great proving ground for me.
Were there any surprises making this film? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
RATLIFF: I didn’t expect to shoot in Michigan and initially I thought that was going to be real difficult. I didn’t expect it to be able to feel like it does in some ways and look like Middle America or the Southwest which was my real intention. I wanted it to be anywhere in America but have kind of a desert feel which I thought is very biblical and was important to me. I didn’t think I could achieve that in Michigan and I did. I was surprised at how nice it was to shoot in Michigan. We were based essentially out of Detroit which I thought would just be a nightmare and it was fun. It was great.
Salvation Boulevard opens in theaters on July 15th.