An Interview with Screenwriter and Teacher Barbara Nicolosi
Some time ago, I did an interview with Barbara Nicolosi, founder of the Act One Program in Hollywood. Barbara created a remarkable program in screenwriting that’s gained the respect of writers and producers across the country. Now, she’s writing, consulting, and teaching on her own. I asked her about the program and where it’s going:
Phil: Tell me a little about the Act One workshop and your background teaching screenwriting:
Barbara: When I first arrived in Hollywood, my belief was that the entertainment industry was minimally anti-God, and certainly anti-Christian. Armed with a background in marketing, and a graduate degree in cinema, I landed a job at a production company that was known for wanting to develop projects that reflected a Christian worldview. After having read hundreds of scripts mainly from believers, it became very clear to me that Christians in Hollywood were not being persecuted. We were committing suicide. The level of the writing that comes from the Church into the mainstream media is generally pathetic. First of all, there just aren’t enough projects coming from people who have God in their framework. Those that do suffer from being so desperately earnest that they make for terrible entertainment. Christian productions tend to be marred by an absence of creativity, thoughtfulness and professionalism. I became convinced that if we were going to make any inroads into mainstream entertainment, we were going to need to seriously train a new generation of writers. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit inspired several Christians working in the industry with the same insight. At the invitation of Inter-Mission, we came together to create a program that would be an exhaustive experience of the screenwriter’s life and craft, as well as provide spiritual and ethical formation. Now heading into our fourth year, we have over 75 professional writers and producers on our faculty, and are beginning to see our alumni sell projects to the broad industry.
Phil: How important is the ability to tell a story?
Barbara: It is the absolutely critical first decision that a writer makes. Far too many writers start writing before they have really hashed out a story that is worth working on. There are so many things to consider before you start. From a Hollywood perspective you have to understand the elements that make any story suspenseful and entertaining. Is this story compelling, relevant, commercial and affordable? Is the story’s arena intriguing? Is my plot clever and fun? Are there roles here that will give actors something to sink their teeth into? From a Christian perspective, will this project draw people toward the good? Are my characterizations respectful of human dignity? Will my viewers feel violated by this project or inspired?
Phil: Can storytelling techniques be learned?
Barbara: Yes. There are definitely rules and devices that can be mastered that provide a framework for solid storytelling. Once a writer has mastered these and has a proficiency in the craft, then there is scope for individual artistry and talent to come in and play with the boundaries and formulas of good storytelling.
Too many new screenwriters do not respect what works in the art of storytelling. They haven’t read enough great literature and analyzed enough classic fictional characters to be able to detect that patterns that are present there.
Phil: Shouldn’t we as Christians be more concerned about “facts” rather than telling stories?
Barbara: It depends on where we are. If we are in a church, than, yes, facts should be an important part of what is communicated. But in the realm of entertainment, doing a good job will not be in how many facts you communicate, but rather if you take people on a journey that in holding their attention, allows them to stretch their creative muscles and glean out some new understanding along the way. Human recreation should literally be an occasion for re-creating ourselves through expanding our possibilities and vision. The real power in entertainment is in modeling for viewers what a way of life looks like and allow a viewer to cleave to it or not. If you come out and preach you abdicate your real power in the forum of popular culture. We will always need churches. We will always need recreation. They are not the same thing and neither should they aspire to be.
Phil: Christian television doesn’t have many story based programs – should that change?
Barbara: Without a doubt. It’s a matter of being smart fiscally and getting the most cultural bang for our bucks. There are so many levels of communication possible in a screen production. Just on the level of visual impact, a production can create images that speaks a thousand words. Then, decisions about the way those images are composed and juxtaposed add deeper levels of meaning. On an aural level, clever dialogue, contrasting ambient sound, and of course the musical score can all add more textures and layers to a production. Most Christian scripts exclusively depend on dialogue driven narratives to achieve an emotional effect. They feel flat and boring to the viewing audience which has so many more tantalizing projects to consume from secular producers. Christian television tends to remind me of a painter, who has forty different shades on his palette, but elects to only use blue.
Phil: What will it take to really make an impact in the media for Christ?
Barbara: We need to stop sucking our thumbs and whining like victims. We need to commit ourselves to excellence and artistry and the highest standards of professionalism in entertainment. We need to support those Christians who are working in the media mission field, with prayer and training. We need to stop elevating mediocrity, just because mediocre projects are the only thing coming out of the Church these days in entertainment.
We need to banish fear and commit ourselves to working side by side with the secular people in the industry so that we can learn from them and eventually become their friends so we can witness to them. The Church has a very outsider mentality when it comes to Hollywood which is bad strategy. There is no need to reinvent the wheels of popular culture. We just have to take them over.
Phil: Jesus was a master storyteller. But why don’t more pastors and ministry leaders tell stories today?
Barbara: My experience is that people of faith have very little faith in people. They don’t think people will “get it” if they don’t splay out their message in ten foot high neon lights. Also, coming up with parables is hard work. It is one of the hardest activities a person can undertake. Christians tend to be lazy and not willing to do for God what secular people are willing to do for money.