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Smithville, Texas, already baked with heat and buzzed with mosquitoes in late May. John Schneider, Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazard and Jonathan Kent from Smallville, sat in a hot, empty house near the set of his upcoming movie Doonby, fielding calls from his young adult children, swatting at flies, and explaining why the movie is not a "Christian film" despite the professed faith of most of the cast.
"A lot of times when you work on 'faith-based films,' it's kind of squeaky clean and feels more like you're in a Bible study every day," he explained. "And while you're at a Bible study, you're making a movie. I don't get that vibe here at all. People are here to make a movie. There's certainly time for Bible study. That's why God made Wednesday. (He laughs.) But I don't think that's necessarily conducive to making a good movie."
Schneider stars as Doonby, a drifter who comes into a small town and makes it better. However, a menacing force stalks him. "It's It's a Wonderful Life without the wonderful part," Schneider explains. "'Reach down into the throat of It's a Wonderful Life, pull it inside out and make a movie out of it."
The film, due out next spring and also starring Jenn Gotzon (Frost/Nixon), Will Wallace (The Thin Red Line), and Robert Davi (The Profiler), is directed by Peter Mackenzie. All come to their art from a perspective of faith but want to distinguish their work from saccharine and simplistic movies often made for and marketed to the faith community.
Robert Davi, an actor with decades of Hollywood credits as well as a passionate Sinatra fan, plays a sheriff in the film tasked with figuring out the mystery of Doonby. Davi grew up Catholic and credits a saint with healing him as a teen. "In spite of temptations in life, you have a moral compass that gives you that center. I am as prone to the temptations of the flesh as any guy or woman. You battle that. Hollywood is a place where you can absolutely run wild."
Catholics are more comfortable making movies than evangelicals traditionally have been. Davi theorizes that this might be a result of the ritual in the church itself. "I grew up with the mass in Latin. It was a theatrical event. There was a history surrounding it. There was a mystery surrounding it," he said. "I think the theatrical experience of ritual engages the subconscious in the archetype of life [and] connects you to the forces of good and evil."
For Will Wallace, who plays the villain, integrating his Christian faith is as simple as asking God to move through him. "Generally, if I pray for a role and I try always to pray before a role, a general prayer for strength and turn it over to God and to guide me and please speak through me." As a violent evildoer in the film, he doesn't see his role as instructive, but he does believe that playing a bad guy well can be pleasing to God.
Director Peter Mackenzie, who works out of the United Kingdom, quotes C.S. Lewis. "We don't need more Christian movies, we need more Christians making movies." England is much more of a post-Christian culture than America, he says, and the same marketing divisions don't apply. In fact, the market for faith-based films doesn't exist in England. Without faith in God or anything, he feels that great numbers of people are hopeless. He believes the job of a Christian filmmaker is to highlight hope.
Schneider agrees and adds that films with a faith element are becoming more authentic stateside. "They don't have to be preachy and browbeating anymore. [Or] so damn nice. The most attractive Christian examples I've ever met are not nice people running through fields of daisies and throwing candy to children. These are real people held together by their belief in God. They do wonderful things and they do horrible things and they're sorry when they do them."