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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “For the Bible Tells Me So” Director Daniel Karslake

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "For the Bible Tells Me So" Director Daniel Karslake

Director Daniel Karslake‘s doc “For the Bible Tells Me So” revolves around the stories of of five conservative Christian families and explores how the religious right has used its interpretation of the Bible to support its agenda of stigmatizing the gay community and eroding the separation between church and state. The film explores the confrontation between religion and homosexuality Through the experiences of five Christian American families, including those of former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson and others. The Sundance ’07 film has taken audience prizes in Seattle, Milwaukee and Outfest. First Run Features opens the film theatrically in limited release Friday, October 5.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?

I grew up outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and when I was 11 years old, I became a child actor. It started with children’s theater and progressed into playing kid roles in plays and musicals in professional productions around the state. That early experience really wet my appetite for communication via show business.

The challenge was that though all of the actors with whom I was working were professionals from New York, they were all working in Pennsylvania (rather on Broadway) so none of them seemed very happy. As a result, I quickly realized that if I wanted to be happy, then I should NOT be an actor… I should find something else to do in show business.

For a period, that became producing segments on a news magazine on PBS about gay and lesbian issues called “In the Life.” That work was very much my training ground for what I do now. I loved working for a show that had a mission which was to introduce the country to the stories of every day gay and lesbian people thereby breaking down negative stereotypes. I loved that my work seemed to be making a small difference in the world.

But eventually I got frustrated with “In the Life” because it had a very limited audience and was incredibly hard to find on PBS. So ultimately, I decided to leave the show in order to make a film about the issue from my work on the show that most resonated for me: the intersection of religion and homosexuality.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

Now that I’ve made my first documentary, it’s hard to imagine working in any other filmic form. Docs have such an incredible power to inform and enlighten, and there are so many issues that need closer examination.

That said, I would like, at some point, to try my hand at a narrative feature. I can’t imagine what it would be like to start primary photography on a project with an actual script in hand! It must be very exciting to have that kind of guidance.

How did the idea for “For the Bible Tells Me So” come about…

“Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. Last night I happened to see your program on PBS and just knowing that someday I may be able to go back into my church holding my head high, I dropped the gun into the river. My mom never hast to know.”

This email message, which I received from a gay kid in Iowa back in 1998, was what inspired me to make “For the Bible Tells Me So.” I had produced a segment for “In the Life” about an African American woman at the Harvard Divinity School who was a woman of deep faith and who also happened to be a lesbian. Because there had been so few examples of faithful gay people in the media, her open expression of her faith and her sexuality during the piece was a revelation for many, including the gay kid from Iowa who sent the email. It was clear to me that something more had to be done.

The last respectable discrimination in America is homophobia (think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’), and that discrimination is, at its core, based on religious dogma. We live in a society where it is a given that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and that message leads young kids who are just realizing that they are gay to serious thoughts of suicide.

Unfortunately, the religious right has been so effective at defining this debate that few people know that there are major theologians and Biblical scholars who say something very different about God and gays. I made the film specifically to expose the world to these other Christians, the ones who believe their religion is about love, not hate and separation.

The Gephardt family in a scene from Daniel Karslake’s “For the Bible Tells Me So.” Image courtesy of First Run Features.

It’s my hope that “For the Bible Tells Me So” will open this conversation up to an even broader audience, so minds can be changed and lives can be saved.

How did the financing for the film come together?

Undoubtedly, the most difficult thing about making the film was finding the funding. Early on, it was very challenging to make a case to people that they should financially support a movie which had a completely untested production team. But as Gene Robinson and others came on board, the project gained legitimacy and the funding started to come in.

How did you go about finding your subjects?

As I cast and made the film, I very much wanted to make a movie for the “movable middle” in America. For the first time in our history, almost everyone across the country knows a gay person–either in their family, their workplace or just on television. But even with the growing awareness of the gay people around them, most Americans are still convinced that religion and the Bible roundly condemn homosexuals. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the media, when booking “religious figures” for discussion, always looks to the religious “stars” like [the late] Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who have a very condemning view of gay people. My goal with this movie was to cast both families and major clergy who read the Bible differently–not as a book of exclusion and condemnation but rather a book of inclusion and love.

What other subjects or genres would you like to explore in the future?

Having concentrated on issues of homosexuality and religion for so many years now, I will be stepping away from both topics for my next film by focusing on extreme poverty around the world. One person dies every three seconds in extreme poverty somewhere around the world. That’s 30,000 a day–300,000 every ten days–and we all barely notice their passing. Shockingly, for the first time in human history, it is clear that we have the technology and knowledge to completely eradicate extreme poverty from this planet, yet we are choosing not to do so. What is that about? That’s the subject of my next film.

What are your interests outside of film?

My other passion in life is producing live theater. Before I got deeply entrenched in making “For the Bible Tells Me So” a couple of years back, I had the great good fortune to produce two shows on Broadway of which I am very proud. The first was an incredibly beautiful production of Puccini‘s classic opera “La Boheme” directed by the brilliant film director Baz Luhrmann. Baz and his wife Catherine won two Tony Awards for their stunning reinvention of opera which introduced the genre to a whole new, and much younger, audience.

The other show I produced was a new, very innovative production of the classic American musical “Big River.” It was a co-production with Deaf West Players out of Los Angeles and featured a cast of deaf and hearing-impaired actors. It completely redefined theater for both hearing and deaf audiences and went on to have a very successful national tour. I am very proud of both productions.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

The most important advice I would offer to emerging filmmakers is produce your passion. This is a very challenging business, but if you really care about what you are doing, anything is possible.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…

I think I am still most proud of the fact that the very first segment I produced for “In the Life” on PBS about the African American lesbian at Harvard so resonated with that gay teen in Iowa that he decided not to take his own life. I can’t imagine anything more important or meaningful than that.

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