LOGLINE –A funny thing happened on the way to the Culture Wars...a conversation broke out.
150 Word Synopsis
Nine out of ten Americans claim a belief in God, but the civil discourse on the hot button social issues has devolved into dueling bumper stickers that further widen the cultural divide every day. Has this country lost the art of conversation? Writer/Director Dan Merchant had to do something…and desperate times call for desperate measures.
A follower of Jesus himself, Merchant, became fed up with the strident, divisive posturing that has come to represent the Christian faith and set out through his documentary film, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, to discover why the “Gospel of Love” is dividing America.
With exclusive interviews with comedian/Senator Al Franken, former senator and religious right ally Rick Santorum, New York Times Best Selling Author William Paul Young (The Shack) noted liberal evangelical Tony Campolo and many others, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers leaves no stone unturned in presenting an engaging, unpredictable and challenging look at the conflict over religion in America.
300 Word Synopsis
Nine out of ten Americans claim a belief in God, but the civil discourse on the hot button social issues has devolved into a dueling bumper stickers that further widen the culture divide every day. Has this country lost the art of conversation? Writer/Director Dan Merchant had to do something…and desperate times call for desperate measures.
A follower of Jesus himself, Merchant, became fed up with the strident, divisive posturing that has come to represent the Christian faith and set out through his documentary film, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, to discover why the “Gospel of Love” is dividing America.
In the tradition of entertaining documentaries like Super Size Me, Bowling for Columbine and What the Bleep Do We Know?, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers employs the language of pop culture to create a provocative, funny and redemptive film-going experience. From the man-on-the-street blitz of “Bumpersticker Man” to a “Culture Wars” game show, from Merchant’s proclamation drive to re-name St. Paul to New Leningrad to the moving “Confession Booth” at a gay pride event, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers delves into all the hot button issues with candor, humor and balance.
FAITH MEET CULTURE, CULTURE MEET FAITH
What we have here is a failure to communicate. According to the 2000 census, 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. However, in recent years, for many Americans the word “Christian” has become synonymous with hypocrisy, close-mindedness, partisan politics and judgementalism.
“Whether we like it or not, this is how we look to many people,” Merchant said. “In America, Christians are increasingly known for divisive, strident political rhetoric. We like controversy. Outrage is more exciting than humility. I wonder if the gospel of love is being turned into the gospel of being right?”
Lord Save Us… traces its genesis to Spring 2004 when Dan Merchant, Executive Producer Jeff Martin and Director of Photography James Standridge traveled to Ethiopia to produce a short film for the State Department. There they met Christians from around the world doing relief work among the desperately poor, saw Muslim and Christian Africans living and working together and they met Ethiopian Christians who demonstrating a deep and moving faith.
This profound encounter with content believers living in daily hardship stood in stark contrast to the polarizing, politically focused and highly visible Christians predominant in the mass media. The seeds were the film were planted on that trip and when Martin suggested that a humble examination of the collision of faith and culture was a project they were expertly prepared for, the idea galvanized in Merchant’s head.
“The goal was not to make a polemic, but a film that invited everyone into the conversation. I wanted to know ‘Why the Gospel of Love was Dividing America?’ Were we the only ones struggling with the friction? Was everyone else okay with the US versus Them mentality? Was it just me?” asked Merchant.
The guiding parameter behind the production was to break from the recent documentary tradition of presenting one side of the story and calling it good. This film set out to accomplish a rare feat: “I knew Lord, Save Us… had to be able to play in a church and an art house theater. If the film could do that – speak to the range of people who frequent those two very different establishments – then I know I was doing all I could to be balanced in the storytelling.”
Roughly five years since the first frame was shot in Africa, Merchant stood before a packed house in at the Sedona International Film Festival following a screening. The first of several folks approach Merchant and offer congratulations with, “I’m an atheist, but I loved your movie.” Merchant can’t help but smile recalling a recent conservative church screening where a congregant had announced, “Every Christian in America must see this movie.”
“I was wishing those two people, the artsy atheist and the exuberant Christian, could sit down and have a cup of coffee together. They hold such misguided stereotypes about each other and those barriers need to come down. In its small way this movie is helping do that - because it all starts with a conversation.”
THE LONG HAUL
Production began in 2005, after Martin had reached into his own pocket to raise the funds needed to launch the project.
To raise the budget, Martin and Merchant turned to friends and their friends’ friends -- people who were willing to invest their money in a project by two relatively unknown filmmakers.
Over the next two years money came in fits and starts, and the last of the budget -- all raised in the Northwest -- was not corralled until close to the end of filming. As Martin said, “The good thing about a documentary is you can make it as you raise the money.”
Besides raising the necessary funds, making the documentary entailed a challenge Merchant had not faced before, despite his years of experience in commercials and TV production.
“A documentary tells you what it’s going to be after you commit to it,” he said. “Everything else I’ve been involved with started with a script, but this one started with a question and you had to go where the question led you.
In a way that made it really simple because I wasn’t trying to make the movie be a certain thing, I was just following the trail. The journey of the film became my personal journey of discovery about myself. And, as things tend to go with journeys, you don’t write them, they write you.”
That trail would take Merchant and Standridge, also the film’s editor, back and forth across the country including stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Biloxi, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon), New York, Virginia, and Philadelphia.
A couple of key early interviews established the depth and complexity of the subjects that Lord, Save Us would tackle, as well as representing opposite ends of the political spectrum: Sen. Rick Santorum and senator to be Al Franken.
Much to the surprise of many movie-goers, both the conservative Santorum and the liberal Franken, share candidly and openly on the complex, hot button social issues in a way that belied the broad strokes with which they are usually painted.
A common refrain has been heard at advance screenings, “I really don’t like Santorum/Franken, but I love them in your movie.” Even from those early interviews, Merchant could tell that the conversation had more depth than the sound bites we’d become accustomed to and it was the conversation that had been missing in these polarized, highly politicized times.
The trust awarded to Merchant by Franken and Santorum is rewarded, though he regrets being unable to persuade George Carlin and Dr. Jerry Falwell to sit for interviewers before their passing during production of the film. Merchant and Martin speculated that many of the figures couldn’t get past the title, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
“Michael Moore has left the documentary world a complex legacy. He’s taught us that docs can be relevant and fun to watch. And he’s also taught us not to trust the director because he’ll probably make you look stupid,” laughs Merchant. “But you had to sit down with me in order to see I was sincere.”
But from the first moments of the film Merchant is determined that everybody will get their say. A rousing opening title sequence features a cacophony of famous voices including Bill Maher, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, talk show host Laura Ingraham, Jon Stewart, The Church Lady and even Stewie from Family Guy.
Fortunately several prominent religious figures, both conservative and liberal, also step forward to be interviewed, including Ron Luce, founder and president of the youth ministry Battle Cry; liberal pastor and author Tony Campolo, racial reconciliation activist and author Dr. John Perkins, New York Times Best Selling author William Paul Young (The Shack), TBN host Matt Crouch and talk show host Michael Reagan, among others.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
But Lord Save Us… is much more than a collection of interviews, as insightful as they are. In order to provoke conversation with both sides of the culture war, Merchant came up with some highly creative ideas, notably his Bumpersticker Man, a table-turning confessional booth and a game show pitting liberals against conservatives.
Donning a white jump suit covered in bumper stickers and Christian (and counter-Christian) fish symbols, Merchant took to the streets in New York’s Time Square, Los Angeles’ Venice Beach and elsewhere for lively man- (and woman-)-in-the-street interviews.
The bumper stickers represented all sides of the culture wars and ranged from “God is a conservative” to “Who would Jesus bomb” to “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and nearly two dozen other slogans.
People who might otherwise rush past would do a double take when they saw the messages and stop to talk. “It was a way to get the conversation going,” Merchant said, noting that most people don’t like to be interviewed on the street. “It was a way for me to communicate as quickly as possible to strangers that I didn’t want to tell them what to think, I just wanted to hear what they thought.”
Also adorning his suit were the fish symbol for Christianity, its counterpart, the Darwin fish, which has little feet growing out of its body, and several other variations on the theme, which became characters in an amusing animated sequence in the film.
For Merchant, one of the most rewarding as well as the most difficult sequences to film was the table-turning confession booth he set up at a gay pride weekend event in Portland, Oregon.
He didn’t take his seat in the booth to hear confessions but to engage in confession himself. Speaking one-on-one to nearly two dozen gay participants at the event, Merchant apologized for himself and on behalf of other Christians for failing to show the love and concern for gay people that as children of God they deserved. It was a moving experience both for Merchant and for those he confessed to.
“Showing vulnerability in front of strangers is not an easy thing to do,” Merchant said, “but it was remarkable, it was unbelievable how powerful the experience was.”
The experience carried extra weight for Merchant after earlier interviewing and becoming friends with San Francisco based gay nun, Sister Mary Timothy, a member of the Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Sister Mary Timothy is one of the most colorful and poignant characters in the film and his humanity left an impact on Merchant.
Merchant really went to town with Culture Wars, a game show he created to see how well conservatives and liberals could think like the other guy. Inspired by Family Feud, it asked the two sides to guess what 100 randomly surveyed Americans thought about hot-button issues such as abortion and evolution.
Matching wits were the Liberal Media Elite vs. the Young Conservatives teams and the Agnostic Scholars vs. Young Believers college teams. In both cases the liberals won, demonstrating that they were more in touch with the culture at large than their opponents and causing some soul-searching among their conservative counterparts.
As one of the conservative contestants said, “We could not get outside of the world we live in.”
“We know what we think,” Merchant said of his fellow Christians, “and we often think that’s good enough, but if you don’t understand anybody else, how can you have a real conversation? How can you share your beliefs with them in a way that makes sense?”
But the real highlight of the game show was the revelation of the surprising and lengthy conversation that took place in the green room after the taping.
When the opposing teams “took off their jerseys” they found more in common than they expected. They discovered that their positions on issues were on a gradual spectrum rather than starkly polarized as the game show indicated.
Conservative Christians aren’t, however, the only ones to fall under Merchant’s bemused gaze in Lord Save Us… He turns the lens on Christmas decorations that have morphed into “holiday” decorations and the religious and political implications of the Easter bunny.
He also pokes fun at diehard secularists who object to the slightest whiff of religion in the public square, proposing to rename any city starting with “Saint” or having a name derived from the Bible.
GROUNDS FOR HOPE
Despite the stridency of many conservative Christians and their liberal critics, Merchant comes to the conclusion that it’s not the gospel of love itself that is dividing America, “it’s our inability or unwillingness to demonstrate to one another the love that the Christian gospel preaches.”
He sees grounds for hope, however, in the charitable work of rock star/humanitarian Bono and others, many of whom he saw on his travels around the country making this film. He found inspiration in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where volunteers, primarily Christian church folk (interestingly enough) had come from all over the country to help that city rebuild.
He hears a news director of a Portland rock radio station, a non-believer, share her beautiful insights about World Vision’s startling request to partner with a secular radio station in an effort to sponsor more AIDS orphans in impoverished regions around the globe.
And He also took his camera to a remarkable ongoing project in Portland called Bridgetown. Gathering under the city’s Burnside Bridge every week, members of up to 14 different churches reach out to the city’s homeless. There they wash the feet and hair of homeless people, give them clean clothes and toiletries, and perhaps most important, give them hugs and emotionally connect with them as individuals in need of simple kindness.
“Christians have to remember that we’re all image bearers of God and we’re not allowed to make up excuses why we don’t have to love somebody else,” Merchant said in conclusion. “Jesus’ gospel is the gospel of love, not the gospel of being right. I can find very little justification for any of us to stand on our side of the barricade and scream at the other guy. But the good news there are more reasons to be encouraged than depressed, that there are lots of people -- believers and non-believers -- who are doing things that are all about forgiveness and reconciliation and redemption and self-sacrifice, all the things that remind of me Jesus.”
THE CONVERSATION STARTS NOW
In February 2009, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers was nominated as Best Spiritual Documentary by Beliefnet.com for their 2009 BELIEFNET FILM AWARDS. Despite facing stiff competition from U2:3D and three Oscar nominated films, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers swept the awards winning both the People’s Award and the Judges Award.
The Lord, Save Us companion book released by Thomas Nelson in Spring 2008 was nominated by Outreach magazine as a Resource of the Year in the Culture category and shipped 50,000 units.
The September 2009 theatrical release is the culmination of a year of touring colleges and churches with the film to start a national conversation. Merchant has appeared at secular universities such as Lewis & Clark, Reed, the University of Oregon, Yale and Eastern Washington and at religious universities including Baylor University, Spring Arbor, Corban College, Cedarville University and Howard Payne University.
A newly edited update of Lord, Save Us has just been completed and is ready for the theatrical run. The theatrical version of the film also includes two new songs, “The Pope Song” by Nashville singer/songwriter Evie Nicole and “We Are All the Same” by EMI-CMG artist SAMM. This new single from SAMM will be released to radio this summer in advance of the fall release of Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
Dan: Dan Merchant makes his debut as a documentary director (and jumpsuit-wearing bumper-sticker man) in Lord, Save Us From Your Followers—the product of an amazing four-year journey to the front lines of America’s so-called Culture Wars. The film is (finally) scheduled for theatrical release in September 2009. Dan has (somehow) made a living by writing, producing, directing, and talking people into his ideas. Dan’s creative brain rarely slows down and he’s currently applying his unique vision to a heartwarming, web-of-life ensemble drama about grace, fittingly titled Grace Finds Beauty. Dan is also developing The Armor, an exciting, supernatural action-adventure tale inspired by the biblical battle between the “seen and the unseen worlds.” He recently optioned the screenplay You Make Me Sick, (co-written with James Melkonian), a raucous teen comedy about a high schooler who fakes a terminal illness to improve his social standing. Dan has had the privilege of speaking about Lord, Save Us at colleges, churches, conferences, and summer camps from coast to coast. Dan enjoys the gift of engaging directly with an audience and hopes to do more (hint, hint). He is represented by the Ambassador Agency. Ambassador Speakers Bureau, 615-370-4700, info@ambassadorSpeakers.com, http://www.ambassadorspeakers.com.
In Dan’s spare he has started work on his latest novel, Greetings From Nashvegas, the story of a young singer/songwriter chasing her big dream … but who discovers that sometimes the dream ends up chasing you. On deck is Take Me to the River, the story of a bitter, ailing man making a cross-country journey home to die—accompanied by his pugnacious young grandson and a lifetime of regrets.
But enough about Dan—let’s talk about his most recent book, the wildly successful Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, the companion book to the documentary that was released by Thomas Nelson in March 2008. A follow-up book, Loving Kindness Actually Works, is underway. Previously, Dan published The Great American Stay At Home Wives Conspiracy (MPress). Dan also likes television. He was executive producer/writer of VH1’s critically acclaimed anthology series, Strange Frequency, hosted by The Who’s Roger Daltrey. He was the creator of Soccer Moms, an hour-long drama pilot script for CBS/Warner Bros. He also contributed scripts to Seattle’s classic regional Emmy-winning sketch comedy show Almost Live! Dan began his career at CBS affiliate KOIN-TV (Portland, Ore.) were he won an IRIS award for We’re Makin’ Movies, and three Northwest Region Emmys for writing/producing The Dr. Wilderness Show and the original Bill Nye the Science Guy pilot. Dan, a self-described expert on the loom, has been happily married for twenty-one years (in a row, to the same woman) and is the father of two teenage boys who are both better looking and smarter than him. Merchant and his family live in the rainy woods near Portland, Oregon (it’s really dreary, so don’t move here; seriously, you wouldn’t like it).
Jim: Every single frame of Lord, Save Us From Your Followers was in some form shot, edited, manipulated, or adapted by Jim Standridge. His cinematography for this film took him to Ethiopia, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Dallas, Minnesota, Oregon, and a whole lot of other places. All the footage found its way to his No Middleman Productions editing studios where his magic as an editor and graphics producer was performed. Jim is a seasoned pro with more than 27 years of experience in film and video production and has an extensive range of skills. He has won several awards for cinematography and editing. His eye for nuance and creative flair make him an invaluable team member and throughout the process. Jim’s career highlights span the globe, including corporate film/videos and commercials for Sears, Pepsi, Intel, Weyerhaeuser, Consolidated Freightways, Warn Ind., Hollywood Entertainment, Nike, and many more. Prior to his work on Lord Save Us, Jim served as a one-man studio as Director, Cinematographer, Editor and Graphic Artist for the Bibleman series.
Jeff: In the summer of 2005, Jeff set out to put together the talent and funds to produce Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. (He’s wondered why many times since.) Over the next four years, he focused his life and commitments to achieve the goal of getting this film made and distributed. Jeff is currently developing a new documentary project entitled, The Wrong Side of Right, another “guaranteed” conversation-starting project that examines conservative politics. Jeff also produced Nellie, A Life Worth Living, an uplifting story of a quadriplegic college football coach. It won the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival, Best Short Documentary at the International Family Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Award at the New York International Independent Film Festival. He also was Executive Producer of the award-winning short film, Quinn. Jeff has a long career in the creative business in both New York City and Portland, Oregon. From 1985-2001, he helped build Creative Media Development (CMD), into one of the world’s largest corporate creative firms. He sold his share of the business in 1999 and left CMD in 2001. (They are still looking for him.)
Tim: Tim Abare is a relentless builder of people and organizations. Whether in a boardroom or leading an important project, he is a well-received and highly trusted leader, ideator, and strategist with more than two decades of hands-on experience. Tim facilitates meaningful growth as he works closely with many of today’s most respected leaders and companies in business, entertainment, and ministry. Through the creation and leading of strategic growth initiatives, developing mass audiences, building brands, and leading projects that have the potential to change lives and shift culture, Tim has mobilized tens of thousands of churches, millions of people, and generated nearly $500 million in client revenue. Tim is an idea-generator, action-leader, and consensus-builder who is constantly developing new and innovative approaches to the most vexing challenges faced by his clients, which include filmmakers, studios, television networks, universities, seminaries, event planners, promoters, publishers, and non-profit organizations
Norm: With a background in documentary films, Mr. Miles has worked with The National Geographic Channel’s docu-drama A Treasure Ship's Tragedy and the series Mysteries of the Deep. This docu-drama, a CineNova Productions Inc. production, in association with the National Geographic Channel, brokered by Miles, features the shipwreck of the Auguste, a one-of-a-kind project Miles has been involved with for a many years. Additionally, Norm is the executive producer Jesus: The Lost Years, a documentary based on New York Times best-selling author Paul Perry's Jesus in Egypt along with investigative archeologist and accomplished paleographer John deBry. This documentary enjoys worldwide television distribution and has sold more than 300,000 DVDs. Norm is Co-Executive Producer on Lord Save Us.
Stephen and Tim P.: Composer/songwriters Stephen R. Phillips and Tim P. joined forces in early 200 to create Bosshouse Music- a unique and versatile composing and songwriting house catering to the ever-changing needs of film, television and new media. As composers, Stephen and Tim have scored such critically acclaimed series as Reno 911! And Lewis Black’s The Root of All Evil for Comedy Central and USA’s The 4400- for which they won a BMI Award in 2005. In addition they have gone on to write over 14 main title theses- on both network and cable television. Film score credits include the smash Lion’s Gate comedies Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Bill Engval’s Bait Shop, and the soon to be released Lord Save us From Your Followers.
INTERVIEW with Dan:
- “When did you realize that the culture wars and this problem with Christianity were worth a book and a movie?”
- “How do you know that how Christians are perceived isn’t actually the way they are supposed to be perceived according to the scripture?”
- “What is the Religious Right? Who are they and what is their impact?”
- “What about the other media heads, Jon Stewart--Tony Campolo made an interesting statement about him being the Prophet of God.”
- “Talk about the booth that you set up in Portland during a gay pride event to apologize on behalf of Christians.”
- “How are churches receiving this documentary?”
- “What is your favorite bumper sticker on your jumpsuit of bumper stickers?”
- “So how do you think that we can get back to the gospel of love rather than the gospel of being right?”
- “Who are the people you want to touch most with this film?”
- “How has this documentary changed your life?”
- “What is the idea behind the bumpersticker-suit?”
- “Talk about the game show featured in the movie”
- “What role do the media play in the Culture War?”
Lord Save Us Cast List
Al Franken (himself)
Michael Reagan (himself)
William Paul Young (himself)
Dr. Tony Campolo (himself)
Sen. Rick Santorum (himself)
Dan Merchant (Host, Narrator)
Marshall Snider (himself)
Dr. John Perkins (himself)
Sheila Hamilton (herself)
Tom Krattenmaker (himself)
Sister Mary Timothy (himself)
Lars Larson (himself)
George W. Bush (archival)
Barack Obama (archival)
Stephen Colbert (archival)
Ann Coulter (archival)
James C. Dobson (archival)
Bill Maher (archival)
Pope John Paul II (archival)
Jon Stewart (archival)
Tony Perkins (archival)
Rick Warren (archival)
Lord Save Us Crew List
Dan Merchant director/writer/producer
Jeff Martin ... executive producer
James Standridge editor/cinematographer
Tim Abare…co-executive producer
Norm Miles…co-executive producer
Matt Miadich ... associate producer
Stephen Phillips (music score by)
Tim P. (music score by)
Jon Manning ... producer
Alec Knox ... animation director
James Standridge ... animator
Matt Connors ... assistant editor
Matt Miadich ... assistant editor
Sam Martin ... composer: additional music: "Come Home Sweet Child", “We Are All the Same”
Liz Dugger ... composer: additional music: "Want Me Rich?"
Evie Nicole…composer: additional music: “The Pope Song”
Jose Solis art director
Nick Merchant ... research director
Corey Brunish ... special thanks
Tim Larson ... special thanks
Bill Marquart ... special thanks
Jonathon Komack Martin ... special thanks
James Melkonian ... special thanks
For interview opportunities please contact:
Lesley Burbridge-Bates/Tracy Cole
Rogers & Cowan