In his overstuffed laptop case, Steve Taylor carries a volume as thick as a phone book. It is a storage book of plastic sleeves, filled with the DVDs he used as reference for his first film. There is 8 Mile, which he liked for its gritty texture. There is 21 Grams, which he liked for its tricky, unconventional editing. Other titles peek through the sleeves: Narc, Traffic, Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Not the influences you might expect for a Michael W. Smith feature.
But as an artist, record producer and filmmaker, Taylor has stubbornly resisted the pigeonholing that comes with working in Nashville's Christian entertainment industry. To secular pop culture, the label "Christian" means something vanilla, not edgy. It suggests something apart from the mainstream. After all, nobody refers to the "non-Christian entertainment industry."
Those are the kinds of boundaries Taylor has ignored. A minister's son whose musical epiphany came from The Clash's London Calling, he once fronted Chagall Guevara, a cerebral hard-rock band named for a Jewish artist and an Argentine revolutionary. He not only produced Sixpence None the Richer's exquisite 1997 hit "Kiss Me"the rare single by a Nashville pop act (let alone a "Christian" group) to storm MTV and the Billboard chartsbut he shot its video in Paris on locations from Jules and Jim, closing with a coda on François Truffaut's grave.
Now Taylor is in the process of editing his first feature, The Second Chance, and he wants to transcend what viewers have come to expect from Christian entertainment. The story of an associate pastor (Smith, in his lead acting debut) from an affluent suburban congregation who gets involved in an inner-city church's affairs, it sounds like typical warm-fuzzy PaxNet fare. But Taylor didn't treat it that way. A constant presence in the city's arthouses, he shot it with handheld cameras, went for a darker look and tone and attempted a level of realism he hadn't found in other movies about church life.
"It always felt like the pastor was either a heartwarming bumbler or a little bit sinister," says Taylor, rubbing his hands against the twilight chill on the deck at Bongo Java. Tall and engagingly intense, with sharp features offset by tousled graying hair, he's greeted by name wherever he goes in the coffeehouse, on the deck or at the counter. No wonder. He wrote the movie's script, with his writing partners Ben Pearson and Chip Arnold, in the shop's back rooma process that ultimately took about five years.
What really bothered Taylor was the Elmer Gantry stereotype, the evangelist as cheap hustler on the make. "People don't set out to be hypocrites," Taylor says. "I don't know, maybe Marjoe Gortner or somebodybut that's not usually the way it works." He was more taken with Robert Duvall's character in the 2000 film The Apostle, a revival preacher whose faith is as genuine as his failings are huge. He also admired the way movies like The Apostle and the 1972 John Huston boxing movie Fat City created a semi-documentary effect by mixing non-actors and professionals. "It really helps to anchor a movie," he explains.
After calling a halt to a project called Saint Gimp, a mix of drama and stop-motion animation that he says simply "didn't work," Taylor got interested in doing a movie about the divide between black and white churches. While he did research at local churches, he and his partners sat down to write. Although Taylor had never worked with Smith before professionally, he developed the script with the contemporary-Christian superstar in mind for the pastor's role. For the other lead part, that of the inner-city church's pastor, Taylor hoped to get Hollywood names Don Cheadle or Jeffrey Wright.
Instead, a chance encounter delivered the right actor to Taylor without even an audition. For a table reading of the script, someone brought jeff obafemi carr, the founder of Nashville's Amun Ra Theatre company, an actor, singer and playwright with a background in the black Baptist churches of South Nashville.
"There were two conditions going in: 'We'd like you to read, and it's just to read,' " remembers carr, who also co-hosts a Monday night radio show on WFSK-FM. "I had no expectations, except that I might get a supporting role." But as soon as carr finished the read-through, Taylor was convinced. "This is not hyperbole: he totally nailed the part on a cold reading," he recalls. "Everything I hoped the character would be, he nailed."
The missing piece of the puzzle was Smith"a great guy to have around, with no star-ego thing getting in the way," Taylor explains, but an unknown quantity as an actor. He admits he was skeptical that Smith could stay focused, given his other commitments. "I told him to go look at Glen Campbell in True Grit, to see what happens when you're not ready," Taylor says, laughing. But Smith impressed both Taylor and carr with his dedication. "Some people just rest on their personality [for acting]," carr says, "but he was really committed to getting into his character." He even spent time before filming honing his chops with carr and acting coach Bill Feehely.
Filming went smoothly, divided over a five-week shoot between locations as polarized as those in the script: the massive Brentwood Baptist Church, and the comparatively tiny Lindsay Avenue Church of Christ near the Napier Homes. Taylor says he relied on carr to spot details that might ring false. At one point, a scene called for objects to be placed on an altar table in the inner-city church. Carr said no dice. "I set my laptop down on a corner of the table we were using, and those church mothers were all over me," he remembers.
Carr laughs, but he's serious about the importance of small details. "It's the little things that make people say either, 'That's the way it is' or 'They don't know what they're talking about,' " he says. Taylor understands, because these are just the sort of details that always left him unimpressed with Hollywood depictions of churchgoing.
"This is a big generalization," Taylor says, "but generally speaking, you don't have decision-makers who go to church. So fundamentally, how do you make a movie about a topic you know nothing about? What happens is they play caricatures, like Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart [in Great Balls of Fire]. They play copies of copies. Unless they talk to people who know, like Duvall did in The Apostle. And he totally nailed Southern Pentecostalism."
And yet there remains the problem: how to get secular audiences to take a Christian-themed movie seriously, given the lousy precedent set by films such as Trinity's Omega Code knuckle-draggers. Asked if the enormous success of The Passion of the Christ has helped his cause any, Taylor smiles. "There are two schools of thought," he says. "One is, yes, it does. The other is no, it doesn't." Since Taylor's own money is riding on the projecthe mortgaged his house to help make the film, with the blessing of his wife Debbiehe needs the movie to attract the broadest audience possible.
Lucky for him, though, there's a precedent for just this sort of moviegoer: a guy sitting on the deck of a funky coffeehouse, a Christian with a copy of Kill Bill on his laptop, who sees no reason why faith and film belong apart.
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