Friday, June 1, 2012

Monica Macer and Steve Taylor Interview

What follows is a transcript of the May 5, 2012 Biola Media Conference General Session interview with Monica Macer and Steve Taylor by Stan Williams.

STAN WILLIAMS: Welcome to the Great Conversation in Cinema. You're here today to find your next creative breakthrough, whether you're an experienced filmmaker or media producer or you're just starting out. The reason you're doing that is so you can participate in the historic Great Conversation about who we are, why we are here, and what we are supposed to do about it. And hopefully, in the process of doing that, you'll be able to communicate to society as a whole what is good, true and beautiful -- and help society find its breakthrough hopefully to God.

To help me do that today, let me introduce two esteemed and prolific and wonderful media creators.

Monica Macer graduated from Vassar College, spent time in New York City as a playwright and director, then moved to Los Angeles. She has worked as an assistant at Nickelodeon Movies, a Creative Executive with the Walt Disney Company, a writer's assistant on Fox's "24," a staff writer on ABC's LOST, Fox’s "Prison Break,” NBC's "Knight Rider" and MTV's "Teen Wolf, and as co-producer on NBC's "The Playboy Club." Monica is married to actor/filmmaker Sterling Macer, Jr. and they are the proud parents of daughter Dylan Soon-Marie Macer. Please help me welcome Monica Macer.

(Applause as Monica walks out, is greeted by Stan, and sits in a her chair.)

STAN WILLIAMS: Steve Taylor graduated from Colorado University, then spent 12-years as a songwriter, artist, and producer winning multiple Grammy nominations. In 1997 he founded record label Squint Entertainment. His debut feature film, THE SECOND CHANCE, was distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Releasing in 2006. His second feature as director/co-writer is BLUE LIKE JAZZ, released by Roadside Attractions. Steve lives in Nashville with his wife, the artist D.L. Taylor, and their daughter Sarah. Please welcome, Steve Taylor.

(Applause as Steve walks out, is greeted by Stan, and sits next to Monica. Stan sits facing them.)

STAN WILLIAMS: Monica and Steve, the two of you represent an incredible variety of creative talent and successful experience in music, theater, movies, network television, from New York to Nashville and Los Angeles. Let's talk about your creative breakthroughs and some of the things that motivate you. What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What's important? Monica, let's start with you?

MONICA MACER: I would definitely say my faith motivates me. I first want to give a shout out to Faithful Central (Bible Church). That was my first church as an adult believer. They helped me establish my walk. (Cheers from the audience.) While I was at Faithful Central I was a writer but I wasn't sure where I fit. And it was through a lot of prayers and a lot of friends who prayed for me ... that really helped me figure out where I fit. I'd have to say my faith is the biggest thing that inspires me. So, I see every job that I get as a spiritual assignment.

STEVE TAYLOR: I have to say, first of all, that I'm a little self conscious. I came out here from Nashville last night and I was told that nobody in South California, wears socks. (Steve stares down at his feet.) And I'm walking around here and all I see is a sea of socks everywhere I look. (Laughter from the audience.) I feel practically naked. So, anyway, sorry about that.

So, yes, what inspires me. It's the point where my Christian convictions intersects with my creative pursuits is the thing that inspires me and motivates me, both going back to music and now with film. It's that intersection that makes me what to make stuff. As I work with other artists, I always encourage them in that same direction because I think that's the place where we find our greatest fulfillment as artists.

STAN WILLIAMS: By fulfillment do you mean taking where you're at in your spiritual walk and somehow communicating that in your art? 

STEVE TAYLOR: It can work itself out in all sorts of different ways. It starts with who I am as a Christian and what my convictions are. Then, maybe it's something that makes me very angry, if our convictions as Christians are not lining up with what we're doing as the church. So that's what motivates me to write a song or write a screenplay. Or, sometimes it's in the bigger picture that strikes me as odd, or good, or a great story. But ultimately it comes back to that intersection of Christian conviction and creative pursuits.

STAN WILLIAMS: Monica, one of your favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 16:18 that in one translation it says, "A man's gift (or a woman's gift, excuse me) makes room for (her), and brings (her) before great men (and women.)" Another version puts it: "A person’s gift clears his way and gives him access to the great." Can you break for us a little bit, and tell us what that means to you?

MONICA MACER: When I first started in the business that Scripture really ministered to me because I thought it was my gifts and talents as a writer that God has deposited in me, that will bring me before great men, and I'll tell these great stories that will have to do with the human condition. But later as I grew up in the industry, the Lord showed me that it was really my spiritual gift — I'm an intercessor and an encourager.

The Lord showed me that those gifts were going to open doors for me. I would be put on staff where the gifts of intercessory prayer and encouragement were needed. On a lot of shows I've been on I felt that the Holy Spirit was telling me that I needed to pray over the contact sheet. For those of you who work on production or are in the studio on features, the contact sheet has hundreds and sometimes thousands of names on them. I'd say, "Really, Lord? I'm suppose to pray over all these names?" So, I'd diligently pray over them.

Now, five to seven years later, to the present, while I still pray over the contact sheet once a week, I feel the Lord has taken me deeper to intercede on behalf of the writing staff. That doesn't mean to pray these pretty prayers about salvation and all that great stuff, which is needed and part of the assignment, but He's told me, "I want you to intercede for them, the way you'd want someone to intercede for you." I've had experiences that have confirmed this.

In the writers room you share really intimate things. I've had people tell me deep things about what's going on in their marriage and what's going on in their family life. And the Lord has said to me, "I've created this relationship so you could intercede for them. They've shared that with you because they need prayer covering." Sometimes I'll tell them I'm praying for them if I feel led. And sometimes I'll just pray. So that's what the Scripture means to me.

STAN WILLIAMS: Steve, your critics know you for your sarcasm. Reviewers say that you've been known to ask them, "So, did you like it, or was it just over your head?" You've also said that film is probably a little bit different. Would you comment a little about sarcasm, particularly how you see your ministry in media, and a little bit about how film is different from music?

STEVE TAYLOR: Yes, in music that was the joke. I could sit any of you down and play you my new album and at the end look at you with a straight face and say, "did you like it or was it over your head?" But in filmmaking I don't get that luxury. Because music is so subjective, people process it all kinds of different ways and there are all kinds of mini-genres. But in filmmaking you're ultimately telling a story.

So, I didn't have the luxury of finishing it and BOOM it's done. In film, all of a sudden I have to show it to audiences. The old saying is that a movie is made three times: first when you write it, second when you film it, and third when you edit it. But there's a fourth time, when you show it to any kind of an audience because you learn so much more at that point about what's working and what's not working, where have you lost them, and where are they one step ahead of you. I had not experienced this before.

STAN WILLIAMS: Is that why you say that film is more participative?

STEVE TAYLOR: Definitely. Right. You just don't have the luxury of spending multiple years of making a movie and then sitting back and saying, "Well, that's it. I hope you like it because ultimately you're trying to tell a story, and if you're confusing an audience you're not telling the story. Filmmaking, ultimately, is a lot less subjective than making music and that's what makes the bigger challenge I think.

STAN WILLIAMS: Let me ask both of you for those attending today, how can we best be involved in the Great Conversation? What is the one thing you'd say to everyone here, including myself, what's the best way to find our creative break-through. Monica?

MONICA MACER: I'd say, prioritize your relationship with the Lord. I know that sounds sort of pat, but whenever I get so focused on -- "Oh, I need a breakthrough on the script." or "I need to be excellent on the job." Whenever I seem to get my eyes off the real purpose is, that's when I get kind of getting the most frustrated and the most stuck. When I give it over to God and stay focused on him, that's when I get the breakthroughs. It's like He says to me, "Ah, okay, now I've got your attention again." So, I know it sounds really, almost trite. But that's what it's been for me — worship, or praising God, or connecting with friends who can intercede on my behalf— that is what has always led me to a breakthrough.

STAN WILLIAMS: In terms of craft, though, like right now you're entertaining several different proposals, how do you choose which one of these shows you're going to work on? There's something you said to me that seems important, something about identifying with the character? 

MONICA MACER: Yes, yes. Thank you. So, it's staffing season right now in Hollywood for T.V. writers. It means all the new shows are coming up and we're all running around town meeting with network and studio execs; and you have to say what you like about a script and you have to pitch yourself for these different projects. Reading for NBC alone I think there are twelve scripts.

For me, it's not just what I think I would be good at, for there are a lot of things in my wheelhouse as a writer that would allow me to execute a project excellently. But to me the question is, "Does the character speak to me?" If the characters don't speak to me it's probably not the best fit for me. It's like, do I identify with the characters? Am I excited to tell their stories? Am I excited to tell their struggles? Do I want to live with them, best case scenario, five seasons or more? So, it's really about that depth of personal connection.

STAN WILLIAMS: It's about writing what you know. It's about meeting your craft with your passion. And Steve I know that you don't do what Monica does in terms of reading twelve different scripts for a studio, you seek out your own projects. So, you have to find your own passion, like you were saying earlier, someplace where that intersection between spirituality and entertainment meet. But you said something to me really interesting about finding your breakthrough in terms of making something. 

STEVE TAYLOR: Some of you may have heard that I had a little run-in with the Executive Producer of Sherwood Baptist movies. Which was unfortunate because even though I'm not a huge fan of everything they do, I really admire that they took the resources that they had, and they went and made something. And while so many of us talk about making stuff, or imagine the perfect cast, or the perfect scenario, or what are we ever going to do if we get a studio's money, they took the resources they had, hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of millions, and they made something. And each time they make something they get better at it.

So, I think for a lot us, even though you're living in Los Angeles and you're surrounded by studios and money is being thrown everywhere, and while it's good to think about grandiose ideas and what you could accomplish if you had access to all of that - - - in the meantime you should be making something. You know? Get together with your friends and shoot something. And that's really how you get better and how the craft works.

I'm taking the personally. Don't talk about it. Just do it.  Make something. Monica, let me ask you something, and this relates to Steve, too. Monica, why tell stories about werewolves and bunnies? And Steve, when she's done, I want you to think about, why are you telling stories about Christian losers in secular universities. Monica, why werewolves and bunnies?

MONICA MACER: Why werewolves and bunnies? Okay, so from the bio, most of you know that I was on the Playboy Club this past season. And, actually, there were three Christians on the writer's staff, including me, which is the most I've ever worked with before. Clearly, there was a spiritual assignment there. Not a lot of people saw it, only three episodes were aired before it was cancelled. But it was a period piece set in 1961 in Chicago about the cocktail waitresses that worked at the club. It wasn't about the girls that posed nude in the magazines.

So, basically through the guise of history we can tell stories that deal with issues that people are struggling with today without hitting people over the head, without being didactic. The same with werewolves. I love genre because it's world-building.  I love Star Trek just because of all the themes you can deal with that people are struggling with today but you don't hit them over the head. So, people can take what they want and what they need from the story rather than you telling a story that you think people need to hear. You weave [the meaning] in. It's like a parable. So, that's why I think bunnies and werewolves are important.

STAN WILLIAMS: So, Steve, why's is it important to tell stories about guys who lost their faith in secular universities?

STEVE TAYLOR: I think you called them guys who lost their faith in secular universities? It's important because I was one. Not all of you know this, but I actually went to Biola as a freshman. I was on a President's scholarship. I promptly lost it due to academic, ah, concerns. And I couldn't afford going to Biola, so I went back to Colorado and went to Colorado University in Bolder, which was I can't imagine a more different than my experience at Biola, which I loved. But there was very little at Biola that prepared me for life at Colorado University at Bolder.

So, when I read [Don Miller's book] Blue Like Jazz about a kid who grew up in a Southern Baptist suburban Houston and goes to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which was called in the Princeton Review the campus in America mostly like to ignore God, I wanted to make that movie because I felt I had lived it. It's that personal connection which you've got to find in your material because, in this case, it was a six-year tour of duty before we got to make it. So, you're going to need some type of personal connection because that is what you're going to need to get through it.

STAN WILLIAMS: Definitely writing what you know. That's great.


STAN WILLIAMS: So, let's now talk about commercial failure. Because you've both just experienced that. The Playboy Club is cancelled after a pilot and two episodes although you produced six, and, Steve, BLUE LIKE JAZZ, although I think it's going to become a cult classic in Christendom, but the box office... well, there are some distribution issues there. Bu what have the two of you learned from those two commercial failures and others? What does that tell you as Christians? Does that give you some motivation? Does that depress you? Where do you go from here? Monica?

MONICA MACER: It was really a bummer when Playboy got cancelled because it was probably one of the best jobs I ever had, just in terms of my bosses and the creative vision and getting to tell a period piece on network television. My episode was the last one to get shot. It was about the African American bunny that saves all her tips and bought a house in a white neighborhood. So, we dealt with all of that, and there was interracial tension. So, it was really heartbreaking.

And yet I know, like I said earlier, every job I have is an assignment; and when the assignment is over, kind-of like a soldier, I get R&R time. T.V. writing is so stressful and all consuming, and I have very little time for my family. You're kind of like a soldier. It takes a lot to launch a new show because you're competing for all those viewers in the fall. And in the fall they announce so many new shows on all the networks, so we're all competing for your eyeballs. I try not to take the cancellation personally, although I cried and I was, "O God, what's next?" And when we got cancelled it's not at a time where there are lots of jobs left. So, I just thought, this is down time, time to prioritize my family. I get to pick my daughter up from school at three-o'clock and make dinner for my husband. I get the downtime to recharge, so when I get called up for duty again I'm ready to go. 

STAN WILLIAMS: Steve, you talked about a term I want everyone to hear.

STEVE TAYLOR: Yes, there's a term that's often used in technology called "the bleeding edge." Fundamentally, [these kind of projects] involves risk, and you're going places where there's a lack of consensus, there's a lack of testing during the development process, and you're working in an industry resistant to change. I've always been comfortable with those three ideas. If you're ultimately motivated by something besides money or commercial success, then that's a comfortable place to be in. It's a good place for Christians to be.

In the music world there was a band called The Velvet Underground, which some of you may have heard of. The word on The Velvet Underground was that they only sold about 40,000 albums. But everybody that bought one of those albums was inspired to create their own band.

So, I would like to think that a project like BLUE LIKE JAZZ with its frankly disappointing box office return, although we hope for the best for what's to come. But, when you live a life on the bleeding edge, what you do will sometimes succeed, and sometimes it will fail, but what you hope is that it will inspire other people to come along and try things. BLUE LIKE JAZZ was certainly not the first project to do that, it was inspired by many things in the past, and we wanted it to be part of that tradition. We knew we were going where there was a lack of consensus, and a lack of testing, and we knew it was risky. But we made the movie that we got to make and ultimately we're happy.

STAN WILLIAMS (to audience): So, how many have seen BLUE LIKE JAZZ? (several dozen raised their hands. Steve, there are all your competitors. They're all going to go out and make movies like you did.

STEVE TAYLOR: That's great, I want to shake all of your hands. (Applause) I'll tell this story really quickly. The only reason we got to make it, after we couldn't find people to fund it, was because some fans of the book started a Kickstarter campaign. (some hoots from the audience) (to the audience) We're some of you involved in the Kickstarter Campaign?

What happens when you start a Kickstarter campaign is that you offer incentives. Send us $50 and we'll send you a t-shirt and a poster, send us $100 and we'll put your name in the credits. We had 1,600 associate producers at the end of the movie. (laughter) Ultimately we had 4,500 people give us $345,000 which was an all-time record on Kickstarter at the time for film. But I didn't think it was going to work, so I said, give us $10 and I will call you and thank you personally. I ended up with a call sheet of 3,500 names. So, if any of you were part of that project, hopefully you got your call and it would be nice to meet you in person and put the face with the voice.

STAN WILLIAMS (to audience): And if you've seen the film, it's worth staying through the credits, because listing the associate producers takes longer than a regular movie credits. And you know how long those are. (to Steve) That's really great.

Monica and Steve, I want to thank you so much for the generous amount of time to gave us today and your great ideas. (to audience) Let's give them a round of applause to show our appreciation. 

(Applause as Monica and Steve leave the stage.)

(Stan to the audience) Please consider subscribing to the Great Conversation in Cinema blog where we'll post this and other great interviews, and where the longer version of the trailer is available. In closing, good luck [God's providential blessing] in finding your creative breakthroughs so you can help society find its breakthrough to God.

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