A conversation with filmmaker Brian Dannelly about satirical film, ‘Saved!’

Brian Dannelly, director of 'Saved!'
Brian Dannelly, director of ‘Saved!’

Ah, election year! A time for breast-baring, contentious films about crucifixion, the naïve promotion of abstinence, and mind-boggling constitutional amendments to ban the recognition of love in order to preserve the sanctity of a “purer” form of love.

And yes, a time to ask who will save your soul during this epic war being fought on two fronts – the war on terrorism and the war on immorality, the wars on the streets of Baghdad and the culture wars waged by the media, wars fought in the name of Christ and wars fought in the name of mutual respect and genuine tolerance and compassion.

As filmmaker Brian Dannelly aptly puts it, we’re living in “very George Bushian” times. Times when many of us vacillate between seeking refuge in Canada and watching cheesy, seemingly mindless films about high school life. For now, I’ve resigned myself to the latter, hoping that I’ll get a good laugh at a time when contemporary political culture is so rarely a laughing matter.

I’m also willing to sit through mindless high school flicks in hopes of being reminded of simpler times. Times when deciding which lunch table to sit at was considered a life-altering choice. Times frequently characterized by a level of pettiness and intolerance that even our nation’s leaders have yet to sink to. But as I was reminded by Brian Dannelly’s film Saved! – which, based on the trailer, appears to be another cheesy teenage flick with a religious twist – high school can teach us an awful lot about the “real world.” In fact, after watching Saved!, I’d even venture to say that high school is the “real world,” a metaphor for an increasingly asphyxiating political culture.

Although Dannelly and Michael Urban completed the screenplay for Saved! in 1999 – prior to the onslaught of the Bush administration and the ensuing culture wars – Saved! has incited controversy from the beginning. Citing their refusal to be associated with an “anti-Christian” message, 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.

But as Dannelly emphasized when I spoke with him, Saved! doesn’t promote intolerance. Rather, his satire – which could be described as “evangelical Christianity goes to high school” – provides thought-provoking and amusing commentary on socio-political circumstances that extend far beyond high school. That is, through its refusal to embrace the unquestioning devotion and silence of religious fundamentalism, Saved! encourages dialogue regarding the contradictions of religious fundamentalism and what it means to be human.

Saved! — Jena Malone

Saved! is the story of “good girl” Mary (Jena Malone), a student at American Eagle Christian High School who becomes pregnant when she sleeps with her boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). She slept with him in a desperate attempt to “save” him from becoming – er, being – queer. Through this story, Dannelly puts forth timely questions about the existence of queerness in Christian (and human) culture, abstinence, and the contradictions and dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Saved! — Mandy Moore

And through the character of Hillary Faye (Mandy Moore), Mary’s former best friend who is on a mission to save Dean for his “sin” of being gay and Mary for her “sins” – premarital sex, having a gay boyfriend, getting pregnant, and falling for the minister’s son Patrick (Patrick Fugit) – Dannelly questions why a materialistic, holier-than-thou aura working in the name of Christ to “save” so-called sinners gets conflated with a “good, pure” Christian soul. Add in Hillary’s attempt to “save” – and convert – Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a rebellious Jewish student who dates her wheelchair-bound brother, Roland (Macaulay Culkin).

Saved! — Macaulay Culkin

Put all the pieces together and you’ve got a story that the Bush administration should be all too familiar with.

Coming on the heels of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and election year politics that have inspired unprecedented cultural polarization, the timing of the release of Saved! is impeccable. One can only hope that moviegoers don’t dismiss the film as just another high school flick or as anti-Christian. For at a time when so many people have been denied an easy way into various communities at both the local and global level, disregard would be the easy way out.

With intolerance increasing by the day, we can ill afford to turn a blind eye to a cinematic metaphor that so eloquently (and humorously) underscores that all of us – politicians included – can act “so high school,” even long after we’ve graduated. But this isn’t a lesson that we should simply archive in our memories. After all, as Dannelly suggests, both skeptics and believers have a vested interest in discussing the ways in which the politics of religion impacts our lives, for better or for worse, for inclusion and for exclusion.

Tail Slate: 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 [shooting] incident. I had attended a Christian high school, and [seeing the drama surrounding 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.”

TS: Because the characters in the movie are high school students, the film has a high propensity for attracting a younger audience. But the issues that the film deals with are much more universal. Who did you envision to be your target audience? Who is it that 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 [Saved!] across the board.

TS: 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 [with the poster], and she said, “Well, I guess I got the part!” [Laughs]

TS: Tell me a little bit about working with Mandy [Moore] and Jena Malone, two young women who are the contemporaries of their characters. Could they relate to the characters in Saved! in one way or another?

Saved! — On Set with Mandy Moore and Brian Dannelly

BD: … You know, [I don’t think the story and the characters they played] were things they could relate to at all really. 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.

TS: Is there something you would hope other filmmakers would take from seeing your film? 

BD: Hmm, that’s a good question; 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. I think it’s within my grasp. The only filmmaker issue I can think of is when you set out to do a satire, 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, people we are, people the audience could connect with. And I think that’s important for making a meaningful movie, [for telling a story that viewers can relate to].

TS: You attended a Christian high school, but that was sometime 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.

TS: 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.

TS: This is one of several recent [independent] films concerning sexuality and sexual taboos. Do you think that the number of films addressing these issues at this time is a response to [President George W.] Bush’s [pro-abstinence, pro-heterosexuality agenda]? Are filmmakers more concerned about – and more willing to unravel the silence on – these issues [of sex, sexuality, queerness, gay marriage]?

Saved! — On Set with Brian Dannelly

BD: I suspect it’s very organic. You’re almost unconsciously in part the flow, you’re sucked into the mainstream, whether you want to [be] or not. So those ideas
I did an interview for the Associated Press comparing [Saved!] to [Mel Gibson’s] 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 [of the Christ] is a Christian journey film. But there are all different kinds of journey films right now trying to get people to ask questions.

TS: As you mentioned earlier, religion is very important to many people, but religious institutions are obviously rife with contradictions. There are many aspects of organized religion where the words don’t match up with reality. In fact, your critique of Christian institutions is obviously very timely given the number of scandals surrounding the Catholic Church recently. Is there something you hope to contribute to the dialogue surrounding the Church’s inability to practice what it preaches? Or do you see your timing as coincidental and your film as more of an artistic project than a political and religious statement? 

BD: I think that we’re all divinely flawed. I mean, this young woman [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, who [is the son of a minister], 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 [in spite of their actions]. There are lots of people just like that [in the world].

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, [that it will get people] asking questions like what would I do in that situation? What if [my] boyfriend was gay? How would I respond to that? And what if I did get pregnant?

TS: Saved! suggests that the contradictions of the Church and its followers are not as committed to the notion of love as they claim to be. Mandy Moore’s character, for instance, is obviously very materialistic. She talks about how she wanted a more expensive car. Do you think that these contradictory tendencies boil down to basic human nature, or do you think they reflect a more complex phenomenon, one that is unique to our culture?

BD: Anytime 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 really mirrors pop culture; it really reflects pop culture. And everyone sort of adapts to it and identifies with it in [his or her] own way. [The characters in the film] 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.

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