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Putting faith in writing

A program guides aspiring screenwriters who attempt to present a Christian worldview as well as entertain.

October 26, 2003|Carl Kozlowski | Special to The Times

Nicolosi learned the difference between didacticism and diversion through her background as a master of arts graduate of the Northwestern University film program and a varied career as a director of development, project consultant and reader for the prestigious Humanitas Prize competition, which honors work that explores the human condition. She felt that "Hollywood writers often made films that were superficial and that were, at best, good saccharine."

According to Gilbert, the former Warner Bros. Writers Workshop director, the key to the program's effectively combating the sticky-sweet bromides of fare like "Touched by an Angel" or the heavy-handed hellfire-and-brimstone approach of films like "Left Behind" is that "we teach that you have to approach both the artistry and the spirituality of what you do at 100% each, not half and half.

"When you have a dual total commitment to your craft and your relationship to God, the quality of stories really improves and their palette of ideas moves far beyond just evangelistic stories," Gilbert said.

"Before, movies and TV were treated as merely means to an end of spreading salvation by Christians, but today you could say a movie like 'Lord of the Rings' has a right to exist for its own sake," although many Christians interpret the tale as a Christian allegory.

Value in the struggle

THE success that Act One is enjoying doesn't mean its faculty is immune to criticism -- particularly from the Christian right, which might ask a person like Dean Batali what he's doing on "That '70s Show," in which teen characters often smoke pot and engage in premarital sex. Yet it is in the midst of these shows, which some might perceive as the sort of "problem programs" Act One should criticize, that Batali finds the struggle is even more important.

"On television, we don't usually choose the shows we're on, we're offered very little, and a person of faith's point of view is not needed on 'Touched' or '7th Heaven' but it's more valued on a show like ' '70s,' " he said. "I tend not to suggest stories that center around the sex and drugs of our show; I find the themes that are a little richer, and I'm proud of the things that people often overlook, that our characters really care about each other and that our main family is an intact one.

"It's less about the specific stories that I write or suggest," he added, "and more about the tone in which I choose to write them."

In the end, Act One associate director Zena Dell Schroeder believes that as Christians learn to "raise the bar" artistically, they will meet with more success at the box office and in television ratings and earn a more influential position in Hollywood and popular culture. And that, in turn, should help the Christian church at large have a greater understanding of their efforts to find a place in the modern world.

"Why has this program taken off? Because the church is finally catching on to what this is -- that there's strength in numbers and that we're establishing a community that gives support and counseling, career strategy, spiritual formation to each other and that's made all the difference," said Dell Schroeder.

"They're finally realizing that they can't just leave the field of entertainment alone, that they'll have to embrace it and work in it in order to see any changes at all."

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