Thursday, March 16, 2006

The proper care and filming of an American Messiah

The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah is Hansen's first feature-length films. He made a couple of shorts in graduate school and before coming to teach at Baylor he worked on instructional films, dramatized cases studies for classroom use, but looking back the difference between his earlier directorial efforts and directing his first full-length film that still strikes him is the high quality of the acting talent he now had to work with.

"Having good actors and seeing them create the character from the ground up wasn't really a shock," Hansen says, "But it was a pleasant surprise."

"I felt---I think the word is blessed that with the three significant roles that the acting was really seamless."

Those three roles, the an American messiah himself, Brian B., his long-suffering sister Miriam, and their lost soul of a brother Aaron, are played by Dustin Olson, Ellen Dolan, and Joseph Frost. Olson and Dolan work out of New York. Hansen was shooting An American Messiah in and around Waco. Dolan, who does stand up comedy and improv along with her regular acting gigs and is from Texas originally, through her Lone Star State connections saw the casting call and auditioned by phone and videotaped.

She had worked with Olson before and brought him to the attention of Hansen and his co-producer Brian Elliott.

Olson had to audition long-distance too, but in his audtion tape, Hansen says, "Which I still have on the bookshelf here in my office, because I'm hoping to keep that for posterity, he just nailed it. He nailed the character and he really nailed the style of mock documentary acting."

Hansen calls Olson an actor's actor's. It's fascinating, and sometimes painful, as Brian is stunned into silence by what seem like the simplest and most obvious questions from the interviewer about being a messiah, questions that you would think he'd have answered for himself long ago but which have apparently never occured to him before, to watch Olson show Brian thinking on camera and show the desperation and suspicion as he tries to decide in what way the interviewer is trying to trick him with what are really harmless questions. Here, you say to yourself, is a truly paranoid personality.

Olson was younger than Hanson had envisioned Brian B., "So we had to age him." Aging him meant attacking his hair. With a combination of Nair and razors, the make-up artists made Olson completely, glowingly, hysterically bald on top, leaving him just a comical wreath of hair on the sides that gives him the kind of shiny chrome-domeyness that is usually only seen on film in the work of Hanna Barbera and Bugs Bunny.

For the character of Brian's brother Aaron, Hansen was looking for a child-like innocence, but something of a damaged child. Although it remains mostly subtext, there are hints throughout the film that Brian and his siblings were not raised in the most functional of families. "My mother was strange," is all Brian will say about his parents, and Aaron runs crying from the room when the interviewer asks him about his childhood. To get that quality out of Aaron, Hansen says, "This was not an actual history of the character...but I asked Joe to perform it almost as if Aaron had abused drugs for years and years and years and this was what was left of him."

Joe Frost isn't from New York. He's an old friend of Hanson's from grad school and he teaches screenwriting and acting these days. He was nervous about taking on the part, Hansen says.

"All through the shooting, he did not think he was doing a good job, and I could not explain to him, like in the scenes when he's just in the background staring at the ceiling, how effective that is and how hard that is for an actor to do nothing in that way. He does it so well! I constantly hear compliments on his performance. Dustin's is such a showy part that it allows him to do a lot of stuff and people do focus on him. But I think true afficianados of acting tend ot look at Joe and think, 'Wow! How does he do that?'"

A big chunk of the funding for An American Messiah was provided by Hansen and Elliott's employer, Baylor Univeristy. Baylor also provided equipment, studio space, and most of Hansen's crew, who were paid in course credits.

For their director of photography, Hansen and Elliott brought on board an experienced professional, Damon Crump. Almost everyone else who worked behind the scenes was a Baylor Universtity student. The film was shot in about three weeks during the summer of 2005. Students who worked on the film earned the equivalent of two course credits.

Having a student crew caused fewer problems than might have been anticipated, Hansen says. There were times when the students' inexperience resulted in some mishaps, but their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn more than made up for their few mistakes.

It made a little more work for the director.

"When it's students on the crew you really have to keep your eye on everything," Hansen says, "If you hired a professional production designer and art director, you know they're going to do (the job). I had a great production designer who was a graduating senior and she did great work, but I knew I had to keep my eyes on certain things all the way."

He had to be a little more vigilant and directing his first feature was perhaps extra-tiring for that reason. Still, he says, "I felt---and I say this not to sound good in an interview because I like my students---I felt really blessed by...our choices for most of the top positions that went to students."

The film was shot on location and watching it I was struck by the absence of churches in the background. Very odd for a movie that's about religion. I didn't see a steeple, a spire, a stained glass window, a cross, or a converted storefront anywhere. It's hard to walk through anyplace in the United States without coming upon a church on every other block. That's even more true the farther into the Midwest and South you go and Hansen says the Waco area is not an exception proving the rule.

He wasn't consciously trying to exclude churches from the picture. When he scouted locations he looked for backgrounds he considered interesting and churches, because they have as he says "a generic churchy look," didn't draw his eye.

But I liked the missing houses of worship. I think their absence helps emphasize Brian B's essential loneliness. He is truly cut-off from the world, not in the sense of being cut off from reality, but in being cut off from a feeling of community, of belonging. Brian's isolation, and his alienation, make his search for a higher purpose a more universal quest. Brian B. is not only a Christian seeking God.

Hansen, a believing Christian who did his undergraduate and graduate work at Christian schools, Lee University and then Regent University, set out to make a movie that would say some things about the nature of faith and the proper role of a Christian in the world.

The character of Brian B. was created for a script Hansen's friend, David Lovic, was working on, which wasn't going to be a mock documentary, but a straight-forward narrative film about a couple of losers who kidnap the head of a religious cult in order to ransom him back to his followers only to find out that he doesn't have any followers.

Lovic had written about half that script when Hansen read it and, Hansen says, "I loved the character, and I thought the character wasn't getting enough time. I said, let's take the character out of this story and follow him around and learn more about him."

“When I approached writing this I wanted it to be funny and entertaining, and then it went from funny and entertaining to wanting to be a character piece about one man’s search for meaning.”

Hansen agrees that Brian’s search isn’t an exclusively Christian endeavor. He was amused, though, when I told him that Brian, in his vanity, his certainty in the face of all evidence to the contrary that he is special, that he has been picked out for greatness, and his self-centered willingness to neglect all his responsibilities to pursue his calling, and the ways he manipulates everyone around him into subordinating their interests and egos to his own, made me think that the film was really a satire about being an artist.

He was amused but, although that wasn’t his intention, he wasn’t surprised, he said, because he based a lot of Brian’s character on some of the less appealing aspects of himself.

“I’ve had that clash in my own mind and in my own life of balancing family—because I have a wife and three kids—balancing family with career, whether it be art or now as teacher as well, wanting success, and neglecting family to get it. I think Brian represents the worst I could be possibly in pursuing it.”

Hansen thought about this and wrote in a follow-up email, "Brian as a character (specifically his desire to have some big special purpose and needing to NOT neglect the rest of his life) was built on my own belief in my calling as an artist (and my endless self-doubt about it) and my need to, at the same time as I nurture my artistic side, to care for my family and give them the time and attention they deserve. In other words — my need to be an artist balanced against my need to be a good human being.

"So in some ways, it’s a very personal film. Of course, I’m giving myself a kick in the pants (or, at least, I’m kicking that part of myself that often makes the selfish choice to focus on my own personal ‘special purpose’)."

A bunch of people have inquired about DVD sales of The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah. Hansen and Elliott have been submitting the film to film festivals across the country, hoping to attact interest from a theatrical distributor. While that's happening, they won't be selling any copies for home viewing. But keep checking the film's website and Chris's blog for more information and updates.


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