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 A Variety of Religious Experiences

Catholic Elementary School

My first encounter with the wrath of the baby Jesus came when I was kicked out of Catholic school in the first grade. What could have possibly gone wrong? Nuns, plaid uniforms, chocolate milk, anointed wafers…sounds safe enough, right? Not quite, after committing some egregious act on the playground, I was forced to stand against the wall with my eyes closed and arms sticking straight from my body. If I so much as wiggled an eyelash, the nun in charge would smack my knuckles with a ruler. After this went on a few times, I hit her back. BAM! Kicked out of first grade.
My parents weren't very proud. I suspect neither was baby Jesus.

Baptist High School

My next encounter with Jesus, or in this case "Jeay-Sus!," happened while attending a strict Southern Baptist high school. Each week we endured a fanatical assembly designed to put the fear of God in us. One week the preacher told a cautionary tale about a wayward girl who had acne. Of course the audience was filled with complexion-challenged teens, myself included. The preacher spoke of a particular point on the face where if you squeeze a zit, it’s lethal. Of course this girl found the deadly spot, squeezed and died. Worse yet, she failed to accept Jesus into her heart before doing so and was thus condemned to an afterlife burning in the eternal hell fires of damnation. "Wow," I thought, "this Jesus isn't messing around!"

Jewish Summer Camp

My third encounter actually was more about the absence of Jesus. I was working as a camp counselor at a Jewish summer camp where I headed up a group of eight-year-olds in bunk Herzl. (Okay, I should explain. Catholic Elementary, Baptist High School, Jewish Summer camp? All I can say is my parents had their hands full with me and were willing to try anything.) I'd teach the kids wonderful little Jewish songs like "Shabot Shalom." Here I was, working with non-Christians and loving it. And yet I was taught, these people were not going to make it to heaven. Why would Jesus send these kids to Hell? They were no different from the Catholic kids or the Baptist kids I had known. Could the path really be that narrow? I wondered, "sure, they can't all be right, but they can't all be wrong, right?"

My First Feature

I find it fitting that my first feature, Saved!, would be all about the baby Jesus. After years of attending various universities and studying everything from painting to international studies, it was a Film 101 class that changed everything and, eventually restored my faith in...Well, suffice it to say, it restored my faith in all things.

As a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute (AFI) I had to write a feature length script as part of my graduation requirements. I was trying to come up with a subject around the time of the tragic Columbine incident and was struck by the role religion played in the shootings. The evangelical youth movement, somewhat fringe and obscure in my time, had become mainstream and nationwide. It had grown to incorporate the music, clothes and attitude of mainstream culture. It was, with fellow AFI graduate Michael Urban, that I set out to write the script.

Our goal in writing the film was to take the teen genre film and include ideas that one would never find in, say, a John Hughes film. In order to achieve that, we felt it was important to anchor the film with iconic elements such as the prom, the gym glass, and to drive the film with characters who would be recognizable to a mainstream audience. That was the first part, the second part was to give the movie subversive undertones, including ideas about faith, sexuality and religion. In order to sell the second part, we had to sell the first.

All the conventions of modern society, politics and culture can be filtered through the prism of high school thus setting up the perfect microcosm for this evangelical society (for whom the youth market is its primary target). In addition to the daunting task of making a teen comedy about religion, it was important that we didn't adopt a purely satirical take on the subject. For the film to work, it had to be accessible to a wider audience. For the film to work for me, it had to respect the religious choices that people make. We're all on a journey here, right?

One of the most important visual elements of the film centers on a fifty-foot billboard of Jesus. In the beginning of the film, we show our characters painting a billboard that reflects their idea of who Jesus is. At the conclusion of the film, one of the characters literally crashes into it and the head of Jesus falls to her windshield forcing her to come face to face with the image she created. To me, this symbolically represents the journey of faith. You begin with one construct of what you believe in, and as time passes, you tear that down and reconstruct it based on the experiences life offers you.

In a lot of ways I’m like the main character of the film. I had a firm idea of who God was when I started out, but along the way that got clouded. My faith could best be described as T.B.A. I will say this though, in order to make an independent teen comedy about religion I had to pray every day.


Mary (Jena Malone) and her popular best friend, Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), start their senior year of high school atop the social structure. But when Mary finds out she's pregnant, Hilary Faye turns the entire school against her. As an outcast, however, Mary finds true friends—other students the school doesn't quite know what to do with. In director/co-writer Brian Dannelly's subversive comedy debut, this group of strangers band together and navigate the treacherous halls to make it to graduation. Co-starring Macaulay Culkin, Eva Amurri, Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker.