SolPix Interviews
   An Interview with Barbara Nicolosi
   by Bob Morris

Barbara Nicolosi is one of Hollywood’s Renaissance women. Five years ago she founded Act One, a non-profit incubator for screenwriters and executives with workshops from L.A. to (starting in May 2004) Washington, DC. A screenwriter herself, Barbara has written full-length feature and television scripts: her screenplay on the life of Emily Dickinson, Select Society, is being developed by Reel Life Women Productions. Moreover, she has been a director of development, a consultant on numerous film and TV projects, a frequent speaker at screenwriting conferences, and even (once upon a time) a nun. For Hollywood’s Actors Co-Op Theater, Barbara has produced award-winning performances of plays by Simon, Shaw, and Shakespeare, and, for the City of the Angels Film Festival, served on its executive committee. On the national stage, she has also served on an NEA panel and contributed columns to periodicals like Christianity and the Arts. Barbara and her views have been featured, too, in mainstream media venues like the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune as well as CNN, CBS, and NPR.

Morris: Barbara, you’ve built a reputation for frankly assessing the best and worst of Hollywood. In what ways does the movie business differ from the rest of mainstream culture—say, publishing—in how it sees inspirational tales?

Nicolosi: The movie business is distinguished by the fact that a movie is at once a work of art and a very expensive and complex entertainment product. The two sides are always in tension and it is generally a good tension because it provides a check on what we have seen in some of the other art forms – that is, totally self-indulgent artists vomiting all over the culture in the name of self-expression. That stuff generally doesn’t sell, and in the movie business it won’t get made because it won’t sell. The dark side of the tension is that the motive of having things sell can very often become the prime motivator in a discussion. Too often marketing concerns trump beauty and truth in studio offices.

The artistic side of Hollywood yearns to create important work that will offer people healing and food for thought. The business side of Hollywood is mainly concerned with mass appeal. This part of the business will produce whatever they expect millions of people will buy. It can be very cold and unethical in that no one is asking, “Yes, but is this good for people to watch?” There are not enough voices for the overall health of the audience in the business.

Morris: That said, what trends have you seen in the market for scripts touching on faith and virtue?

Nicolosi: There was a time in the mid-80’s through the mid-90’s when God was persona non grata in Hollywood. The industry wore itself out with unbelief eventually, and now the trend has swung the other way. If you can show a spirituality angle in any project, many executives will be that much happier. Interestingly, in making The Passion of the Christ such a hard R, Mel Gibson did a lot to remove the “unhip” stigma that used to get stuck on every religious project. I think it is funny how all the critics who have always been so laissez-faire about screen violence have suddenly been rendered unhip prudes by this movie about Jesus.

Morris: Which recent movies illustrate a subtle approach towards changing public attitudes?

Nicolosi: It wasn’t so long ago that a character holding a Bible was a sign that person was a societal menace. Movies like Contact, Misery, and Where the Heart Is all spewed this kind of anti-religious bigotry. In recent years, things are getting a little more fair. Movies like In The Bedroom and A Walk to Remember, as well as TV shows like Joan of Arcadia, all have featured characters who love God and who are not, say, idiots, hypocrites, or bomb-throwing terrorists.

I am more intrigued by recent projects that question some of the lies of the prevailing culture. For example, movies like The Ice Storm and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really slam the cinematic coffin on the ravages of the Sexual Revolution. In America carried a wonderfully compelling cinematic doubt about money and stuff being an essential element to human happiness. Monster trashed forty years of pop psychology by making the case that even people who have had tough breaks still have free will.

All of this is stuff religious people have been saying for thousands of years. That must be very galling to the atheistic or agnostic materialists out there. You can’t get away from human history. God wins. Over and over.

Morris: How might a less-than-subtle movie on faith like Passion of the Christ impact this trend?

Nicolosi: Gibson’s movie has pretty much obliterated the last vestiges of long-cherished Hollywood dogma that religion is a dying thing of the past clung to by some unthinking wackos on the fringe. With the movie making $400 million dollars worldwide in five weeks, you either have to accept that there are millions more wackos out there than you at first thought, or that it is actually Hollywood which is out of step with the interests of the global audience.

I think anyone can get a hearing these days in town by making the claim, “This project will appeal to the audience of The Passion.” You can get a hearing with that line, mainly because no one really knows who the audience for The Passion is, and they are open to being convinced.

The mistake a lot of Christians are making is thinking that Hollywood can just pump out more Passions without too much trouble. This project came from a devout Christian who also happened to be an Academy Award winning director and a global superstar. The Passion works as art because of Gibson’s twenty-five years of making movies. The movie works as theology because of the fact that he actually believes this stuff. The reason Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ turned off Jesus people was because it wasn’t any Jesus they knew. The Passion’s Jesus is one that tens of millions of Christians worldwide have a relationship with. The film works because, as Jesus says in the Scriptures, “My sheep know my voice and they follow me.”

You can find scores of talented directors in town to execute a vision. The problem is that there are few talented directors in town who actually believe the stuff of any religious vision.

Morris: So how and why was Act One founded—and what drew you there?

Nicolosi: Act One was founded to create a community of professionals for the entertainment industry who would be united in their commitment to artistry, professionalism, pastoral concern for the audience, and personal relationship with Christ. I was drawn to the idea of helping see some of our stories told in a way that would be competitive in the mainstream and have mass appeal. I was repelled by the movement in the Church to respond to Hollywood’s boo-boos with outrage and boycotts. The people who have power in Hollywood have every right to make the movies they want to see. We have to make the movies we want to see. Act One is a long-term, strategic way to bring a voice of hope, beauty, truth, and healing to the global audience.

Morris: Name some professionals who have taken a turn teaching in your classrooms.

Nicolosi: Act One wouldn’t exist without the generosity of the working professionals who make up our faculty. Every year the faculty changes as we make new friends and give a forum to producers and writers who are creating projects that deserve to be celebrated for their resonance with Act One’s keynotes. We have had writer/director Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers), producers Ralph Winter (X-Men, X2), Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia) and David McFadzean (Home Improvement), movie & TV writer/star Bonnie Hunt (Life With Bonnie, Return to Me), and many successful writers like Angelo Pizzo (Rudy, Hoosiers) and Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run).

Morris: What skills and ideals above all do you try to instill in your students?

Nicolosi: The month-long program really functions as a basic training initiation into the Act One community. Before we can really work with a writer, they need to master basic skills. Before they can master anything, they have to become humble so as to trust the faculty. They need to let go of their fear that the industry is just too big and competitive for one more unconnected little writer. They need to make the big step of setting their face into the wind, and committing to the long haul of a Hollywood career. Too many people show up in L.A. with a two-year deadline to make it or leave. Two years is nothing in terms of everything you have to learn to offer something to this business.

Morris: Can you share any success stories of graduates with scripts in development or ready for release?

Nicolosi: One of our alumni, Amy Snow, just won the prestigious Disney Fellowship. She was selected as one of eight writers from a broad and very competitive field of 2000 applicants. Another alum, Clare Sera, is on the writing team for Curious George, by Universal Pictures/Imagine Entertainment. We have students who are working on several TV shows—Whoopi, Bernie Mac, King of the Hill, That 70’s Show—in a variety of capacities. Another group of alums just shot a feature-length thriller called Gleam of Dawn starring James Maven.

Many of the other alums have been paid to write projects, but they are all working their way through development channels. We’ve still only had alumni out there for four years. Ask me again in a couple years. I’ll have more to say…If I don’t, I’ll quit!

Morris: Last, what advice do you offer writers with strong convictions trying to break into Hollywood?

Nicolosi: The only reason to come here is because you bring something to the table that the industry needs. Before you come, maximize your marketability by developing some kind of talent or knowledge that will help you realize your dream. Knowing a lot about movies and loving the way you feel at the movie theater doesn’t count for anything in Hollywood. It’s a given.

There is a great need for mature, articulate Christians to work in Hollywood at all levels. We need business people, attorneys, accountants, IT people, and administrators just as much as we need actors, producers, writers, and directors. The main reason any happy Christian would come here is—as St. Teresa of Avila put it—to try to bring God where He is not. Before you come to Hollywood, get your spiritual and moral act together. This can be a very seductive place to work, and we don’t need another bitter, lapsed Christian to mount the bulwarks against the Gospel. So, borrowing from what Jesus told the rich young man, ‘If you would be part of making movies and television, give away everything else that you have that won’t help you in this demanding field, and come follow us into Hollywood.’

Morris: Thanks, Barbara, for sharing your vision of a better Hollywood! We look forward to hearing more success stories about Act One alumni helping to shake and remake the culture.

--Bob Morris

Bob Morris is a screenwriter and SolPix Assistant Editor.

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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