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Movies Aren’t for Proselytizing: An Interview with Linda Seger

Linda Seger is likely the most well-known script consultant in the world. She counsels literally thousands of screenwriters, producers and filmmakers. Her clients have included Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451”), Tony Bill (“The Sting”), William Kelley (“Witness”), ABC, CBS and the “MacGyver” series.

She conducts seminars across the globe and has written six books about the art and craft of screenwriting, her latest being Making a Good Writer Great: A Creativity Workbook for Screenwriters, in which she devotes a chapter to the relationship between creativity and spirituality.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
A Quaker, Seger grew up Lutheran in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Wisconsin, where her grandfather was a Lutheran minister. She has explored various Christian traditions, including Southern Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian. She has been a Quaker since 1970.
Seger spoke with the Baptist Center for Ethics about the intersection of Christianity, movies and writing.
On movies as proselytizing tools . . .
Many Christians are moved to write movies because they have something they want to communicate. And sometimes they use their scripts for proselytizing. Sermons are fine for proselytizing. Movies are not.
Because they are moved to write scripts out of good intentions, they think, “How can I best accomplish my agenda? Well, I’ll do it through movies because a lot of people go to movies.” As opposed to, “I love movies. I love writing screenplays. I’m going to learn how to become a really good screenplay writer. And then I’m going to use it to express my feelings, my stories, my characters, life’s transformation.”
If your agenda is greater than your love of writing and your love of storytelling and your love of characters as real people, the agenda gets in the way. And so you would do better being a preacher or an essayist or a columnist or a non-fiction writer because those are forms that are meant to carry ideas. And screenplay writing is meant to carry stories and characters and images.
On fundamentalism and literalness . . .
There’s another difficulty that is particularly true with fundamentalist Christians. A fundamentalist tends to be extremely literal. Movies are not meant to be literal. They’re meant to have images. And images are meant to resonate.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in a wonderful poem, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” You can’t capture shining from shook foil. You can only feel it and see it and take it inside yourself and let it resonate. But you can’t put a word around it or make it too literal. And so that sense of things having to be literal keeps the writer from being able to deal with images.
There’s definitely a place for belief. There’s no question about it. But if it’s only belief and if it’s not movement and journeys and experiences and feeling the presence of God and experiencing God, it’s too limited. Instead we can ask, “Where’s the presence of God here? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the leading? Where’s something that is much bigger than that?”
Most of this is happening out of very good intentions. People truly want to find a way to share their faith. They truly want to express it and communicate it. They want their movies to have real values. Those are just terrific intentions. But they get confused over the vehicle and how you use the vehicle.
On literalism versus theology . . .
You can get so into the literal that you’re grabbing a Bible verse here and a Bible verse there and a Bible verse someplace else and you don’t see an overriding theology. Just like you can get into all the little details of a scene, and you don’t see the overall arc of the character, the overall arc of the story.
Let me give you an example of the difference between a theological interpretation and a literal interpretation—”The Associate,” with Whoopi Goldberg.
A lot of Christians came down very hard on this movie. The movie is about forming a community of outcasts to solve a problem. Whoopi Goldberg’s character formed a group of people around her who would be considered outcasts of society. I believe one person was a transvestite, ordinarily a type of person a Christian would not associate with. These people were very loving and very caring. And they actually were able to solve a problem without revenge.
So theologically, one could say this is the kind of community Jesus formed. All these outcasts—the tax collectors, the prostitutes. He loved and he cared about them and he found the best in them. There was a tremendous amount of love and care between them. They solved problems and were redeemed, etc. through this process. They were not excluded. They were in a sense embraced.
So theologically one could say, “If your theology is about community and love and embracing, then it can’t be about exclusion.” But if you took the literal approach, you would say, “We mustn’t associate with those people because of these Bible verses.” And so you can have a conflict between being literal, because of certain Bible verses, and an overriding theology of acceptance. You can end up with movies where Christians have totally different viewpoints on whether a film is Christian or not.
On Jesus’ parables . . .
What’s interesting is that the disciples always had to say, “What did you mean by that?” Jesus’ use of parables was like quicksilver or “shining from shook foil.” You couldn’t quite grasp it. You had to think about it. You had to let it get inside you. And you say, “I see. Okay.” Jesus was using images and metaphor. And that’s what we must do as screenwriters.
On tolerance . . .
There’s a very funny thing in Christianity about judgment, self-righteousness and intolerance. On one hand, parts of the Bible say, “Judge not that you be not judged. Deal with yourself first. Don’t start making judgments.” On the other hand, there are plenty of verses in the Bible about “Be ye separate” and about discerning evil. The Christians can feel they’re on one side and the rest of the world lives on the other side. There’s a great deal of judgment and intolerance about the people who are on the other side so you have to somehow bring them over to your side.
What begins to happen then is a judgment on character. And it’s often said that you cannot create a character that you don’t love and that in some way you don’t find redeemable. But in order to love the character, one has to make sure the character is on your side because there’s this intolerance of characters who are on the other side. That means that in order to love the character, they just have to be nicer and nicer and nicer.
It’s a difficult thing because writers, in a way, to create characters, have to be very very tolerant. They have to be very open to people who are unlike themselves. I think that a really good writer doesn’t have a choice about this. I think a really good writer cannot say, “I keep to my own.” You can’t keep to your own and be a very good writer. You have to be out there in the midst of life and very involved.
That’s why theologically, when I look at Jesus, I say, “He was in the midst of everybody.” I think you have to know who you are to be able to do that. You can’t just withdraw. In fact, one of the things I love about Christianity as a religion is that Christianity is an extremely involved religion. You are in the midst of life. You don’t go off on a hill and spend all your time meditating and getting enlightened. You go right in the middle of what’s going on. Now people who really know Buddhism say you are really supposed to be in the middle. Other religions are very big on compassion too. But there’s something about the character of Jesus that I find so intrinsically involved in life, and in the puss of life. The struggle of life. The blood and the gore of life, even.
On the commercial viability of religion . . .
I don’t think there’s a problem with being specific and really communicating a certain religious community. Look at how specific “Witness” is in terms of the Amish. There are some Jewish films that have been very specific, such as “The Chosen”.
Think of all those great Catholic shows, like “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” or “Sister Act,” with all those fun nuns.
I think it’s a matter of intention. Are you using your film in order to proselytize? Or are you using it in order to express and develop and explore and show a journey. Are you really showing rather than telling? Again, if you really want to tell something and talk about and discuss, don’t be a screenwriter. Be a preacher and write essays and non-fiction books and teach.
But if you want to express and tell stories, if what’s pushing at you is stories and you want to bring characters to life and you want to show their struggles and their overcoming of struggles and you want to deal with images and emotions and dimensionality, then be a screenplay writer. That’s what screenplay writing is about.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.