Friday, March 23, 2007

Michael Jacobs on His Documentary, "Audience of One"

Photo by GODLIS

Ten years ago, Richard Gazowsky, pastor of the Voice of Pentecost Church in San Francisco, received a ‘prophetic whisper’ from God to make movies. Michael Jacobs’ unique documentary shows Pastor Gazowsky and his congregation as they gear up to make “Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph,” a $50 million Biblical sci-fi epic. “Audience of One” is a fascinating study of magical thinking, an example of the “faith-based reality” sometimes alluded to in discussions of contemporary politics, and also a testament to those who sacrifice it all to be in the movies.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

How did you get into filmmaking?
I’m a self-taught filmmaker. I started during my senior year at the University of Vermont with a documentary about the homeless men who lived behind our building. It was an incredible experience of relating to people, communicating with them, and empathizing with them, and not being judgmental. I wanted to continue with it, but after graduation I went to work for a production company. When I left that job I committed myself to the craft of documentary filmmaking.

Did being an English major help the transition?
Writing proposals and treatments, the ability to see narrative arcs and devise stories, all that is made easier by my background. And in “Audience of One,” I wanted to make the narrative as strong as possible.

How did you get access to this project?
I read about the church in a San Francisco publication, and when I called the editor, he told me that the people were serious, making costumes, and doing stunt practice for their epic movie. So I went to a church service, and I’d never been to a Pentecostal church service: there was singing, and dancing, and a Christian rock band and people falling down, drunk in the Holy Spirit. At the end of the rock music, the pastor comes out and gives a sermon on the trials and tribulations of making his film, and gets everyone fired up. So I said to myself ‘Wow what an incredible character, what an opportunity.’ I told him that I wanted to make an observational film about him, that I’d be a fly on the wall, and he was hesitant at first. I was honest, and told him I didn’t want to join the church or be part of his film, and I told him they were funny and really interesting, and I kept showing up to church. I didn’t know at the time how little money they really had, because Richard pitches a big game, and he’s so magnetic.

They were very open and we developed a close relationship. Over two years, I think I penetrated a good deal and got the truest reality I could.

What about you as a spectator? Are you an adherent to Pentecostalism yourself?
No, no. I was raised Jewish in Boulder, Colorado and skew towards the agnostic side of the spiritual curve. I don’t believe in their god but I respect their god and their beliefs. The pastor says he gets his ideas from god but I don’t believe anyone can communicate with god so directly. Still, he has a spiritual connection with god and with the congregation. So in the film, I would never mock their god or their beliefs, but I could allow myself, to a certain extent, to mock their film. To have fun with some of the mistakes they were making. But when it came to their god, as ridiculous and absurd as their beliefs are in certain ways, I showed only respect. I didn’t think it would be right to make jabs at it.

Did you really follow them to Italy?
Yes. I threw down a bunch of frequent flyer miles and followed them. And I’d been watching them for months, with all their questionable prepping tactics. In such an epic endeavor, something was bound to go wrong, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. But when they said they had to go to Italy, I knew there would be great footage for my film. I had one person helping me, and we went scrambling around to capture all that great footage. Footage of a preacher making an epic film in a small Italian town doesn’t come around a lot.

Was it hard was it to toe the line between cinéma vérité and mockumentary?
Oh yes, it was a constant struggle during the editing process. Kyle Henry, my Austin, Texas based editor, came to San Francisco after he saw the trailer. We worked hard to keep the movie entertaining without becoming disrespectful towards its subjects. So much of religious faith is absurd anyways, so I thought I could get away with a good amount. Also, a lot of people see the film and don’t realize that the church members have a sense of humor about themselves and their film.

I was worried that I’d be attacked for just ridiculing these people, and some people may feel that way. But I feel secure that I did right by my subjects. Really, they made a mockery of themselves, if anything, and I just got that on tape. I never cut the film to accentuate it.

How much cutting did you do?
We had 130 hours and it’s an 88-minute film. There’s a lot of strong personal character development that I had to cut to retain the vérité and to let the narrative be driven by it.. Maybe I could have done a better job of giving a stronger voice to other people in the church. Slowly but surely the film became about Richard. At first, I though it was a film about filmmaking and faith but by the end it was a film about this one man and his vision.

His mother makes fun of him a lot.
She’s his harshest critic. She’s a really strong woman. She’s an incredible character, and she became an incredible character device, and that provided a necessary element of reality in the film.

What are the church members up to these days?
They’ve been kicked off Treasure Island, and have returned all their belongings to the church. There is no quit in these people, neither in Richard nor in his staff. So they’re regrouping, getting ready for the next project. The setbacks feed them. The church is healthy outlet for these people to organize their lives around. That’s one mantra that you hear at church all the time: “I’m just gonna keep showin’ up,” and that worked for me sometimes, when Richard would encourage me just to show up. I admire their positivity a lot, even though we have a lot of fun with them in the film. Maybe this doesn’t come through enough, but the pastor and I have great mutual respect, even if we don’t subscribe to the same god or the same filmmaking practices.

What do they think of the film?
They love it. We had a screening at the church the other night, and they cheered. They prayed for me, gave me hugs and a standing ovation, and then they took up an offering for me. Last Sunday, they gave me this bag of money which I could not refuse. It makes me feel good that they found the film fair and honest, and even ‘godly,’ they called it. They’re getting a lot of mileage out of this as well. The pastor was on NPR.

So he’s getting these opportunities to speak to much greater audiences. In fact he told me on Sunday night that my film is the only thing he’s got right now. He calls me every day. In fact, he called me as the plane to NY was about to take off to tell me that we were in the New York Times. And it’s a little much to be so close to the subject of your film, but it’s sweet, too. And then I still don’t really know who Richard is. After two years of observing him I’m farther than ever from knowing him.

-Interview by Jon Robbins

Last Saturday, the pastor was invited back to NPR.

1 comment:

Ruben said...

Thanks for the interview! I loved this movie a lot. Richard, the pastor, is a very interesting character. I recommend it to anyone who likes documentaries. I just picked up the DVD at