Rob Vanalkemade‘s doc “What Would Jesus Buy?” takes a hard examination at the center of the religion of materialism. No one has ever consumed as much as Americans today, the film argues. And at no time does society consume more than at Christmas-time. As the holiday shopping season grows longer, and the malls open earlier, the film argues that there’s something greater that is being lost. Performance activist Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are on a mission to save Christmas from the “Shopocalypse.” Backed by his Gospel Choir, the Reverend travels coast to coast to address the shopping addictions. The Church saves souls through parking lot revivals, cash register exorcisms, and more. “What Would Jesus Buy?,” a Morgan Spurlock Presents production, opens in limited release Friday, November 16.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I love walks in the park, democracy, and ice cream. And I recently directed “What Would Jesus Buy,” a feature documentary about the commercialization of Christmas in America, and a cross-country trip by Rev Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping to Save us from the Shopocalypse.
Like most little kids I was a journalist and storyteller from the start. I think filmmaking first occurred to me at around age nine or ten when I was taken to see a movie that was so profoundly awful that it finally sunk in…clearly this business was not run solely by the qualified, and I shouldn’t rule out giving it a try. Of course I wish I could remember the film that was so bad it inspired me to make films, but it’s been spared by my memory. The potential for films to inspire social change came a short while later and is now a permanent priority, so then the challenge of course is how to stay entertaining, funny and meaningful all at once, and we seem to have done it in WWJB.
How the idea for “What Would Jesus Buy?” come about?
WWJB was a collaboration developed with Morgan Spurlock, Rev Billy, Church of Stop Shopping Director Savitri Durkee, co-producer Jeremy Chilnick and myself.
My involvement with the Stop Shopping Project started In 2004. I was shooting mostly inane TV stuff at the time and was intensely anxious to go deeper into debt working on something personal in my spare moments. I figured I’d cover the Republican Convention coming to New York in some way, so early on in the political season I started attending meetings and protests. Through blatant exaggeration and bluffing, I also acquired press credentials for both political conventions. Throughout that season, I’d periodically bump into the Church of Stop Shopping singing soulfully in an otherwise fairly monotonous march, or exorcising a Fifth Avenue cash register, or performing a forbidden wedding in Central Park.
Over time I became more disillusioned with the political scene and more enchanted by the Church, until I was invited on a Stop Big Boxes revival tour across California. That ten day road trip became the bulk of a 16 minute short I made called “Preacher With an Unknown God.” After a full year on the festival circuit, “Preacher” won a Jury award at Sundance. At that point we were well into pre-production at the “What Would Jesus Buy” lair, where I eventually clocked around 65 eighty-hour weeks in a row from pre-through-post, along with a very brave and tireless crew including, to the bitter end, editor Gavin Coleman and assistant editor Katrina Mann.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I tend to prefer being an invisible observational shooter in most situations, and was leaning in that Maysles Bros’ direction initially for our field production since we were embedding with 30 moderately self-conscious performance activists who needed to forget about the cameras just a little before they could have a more genuine and enjoyable experience together. But we also needed a fast-paced, funny and compelling story, not pure intellectual actuality. So there was a significant dance involved. I think we were just starting to get the hang of it when we were hit by a fully loaded semi-truck, and nearly killed. Then we had to start over, but we did so very well.
The overall goal for the project is to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse. And together I think we will actually do that. Crazier things have happened.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project or making and securing distribution, and how did the financing come together?
Clearly, it wasn’t going to be the easiest business venture possible to finance, make, and sell a movie about stopping your shopping. (Which by the way is code for “slowing down and examining your consumption”, so please don’t get overwhelmed). Throughout our final weeks of mind numbing pre-production, I personally witnessed countless, agonizing negotiations between tireless (what does he put in that juice?) producer Morgan Spurlock and understandably petrified individuals with money. Some investors held out until the last possible moment, when taking our cross-country Shopocalypse Tour as planned would simply no longer be possible if we didn’t start packing immediately. But we did at last win the trust of enough investors to take on the feature with a formidable crew, including producer Stacey Offman, associate producer Andie Grace, field coordinators Joanna Chejade-Bloom and Lisa Seargant and ace shooters Alan Deutsch, Daniel Marracino, Alex Stikich and Martin Palafox. To properly complete the edit, mix, and film transfer, Morgan had to step up with an additional pile of his own loot, but by then it was evident that we had a gem well worth the extra risk. Even if it wasn’t entirely evident to a single major distributor.
We had a few screenings for the big buyers, and heard reports of consistent laughter and applause from jaded executives who were known to sit like marble at such events. Perhaps since they knew they’d never be able to back it, they could just relax and enjoy themselves? I even heard from a fairly reliable source that a couple of execs admitted right away that they’d love to distribute the film, but that it would be professional suicide to piss off giants like Disney by doing so. Other distributors confided that if they carried the film they fully expected to be blacklisted from Wal-Mart‘s 40% share of the DVD market…maybe not immediately, for fear of bad press, but definitely on their next deal, and from then on. We also had a curious experience with Starbucks at our East Coast premiere at Silverdocs. They were a sponsor of the fest, and made a call to the festival director to “express discomfort with the movie and raise security issues” if a Rev Billy film were screened there.
The Reverend has conducted cash register exorcisms at Starbucks across the country since 1999, resulting in many arrests and a court order banning him from coming within 200 feet of any branch in California… which technically would prevent him from landing at LAX. Fortunately, the festival organizers made it clear that they would be screening the film regardless of awkward feelings, so Starbucks left their money with the fest, but removed their logo! It’ll be interesting to see if they remain a sponsor at Silverdocs next year.
The irony is, we don’t even deal with Starbucks in the film for more than a few seconds. But since they brought it up, a few of the Rev’s beefs with Starbucks would include their well proven method of surrounding and poaching independent coffee shops into the dust; compulsive crimes of fake bohemianism; contributing to a sea of identical details until a consumer no longer knows what town they live in, and perfecting the art of “green washing”…wherein a company appears to be ecologically and socially exemplary through elaborate PR efforts and luscious graphic design, while refusing to participate in more than symbolic efforts on many less visible fronts such as fair compensation for farmers…while the price for a cup of burnt foam approaches $5.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
No, I’ve pretty much seen it all, and am ready to retire. Actually, I’m kidding. In addition to staying loyal to independent doc production and striving to some day make a living at it, I’d love to try writing a bit, and to possibly direct a humble little narrative. And if that worked out well, then maybe a less humble one, but still probably without explosions. And I’d love to get back to helping with friends’ projects as needed.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
It sure does depend on what you mean by “independent” doesn’t it? Sort of like the word “reality” these days. We ended up funded solely by courageous individuals, rather than gigantic corporations, which inevitably, through their sheer mass, would likely be complicit in some of the crimes we raise concerns about. But it was very rough, and of course potentially somewhat limiting on the distribution side, to remain quite so independent. We are passionate about moving well beyond a “preaching to the choir” model with this film, and to do that, I suspect that we’ll need to use at least some of The Devil’s own tools to get there. Just this evening, for example, our theatrical trailer was posted on the front page at http://movies.aol.com/ to the immediate disdain of at least two purists. One of them comments:
“Although the film looks interesting and fresh, part of your mandate should have been to find a new way to get it out in the public eye. You pretty much failed by using mainstream corporations to advertise.”
Hot dammit I love a good independent debate, paid for unwittingly by AOL. Changelujah!
What general advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?
I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t kept trying. Maybe a far more reliable and relaxing career, or quite honestly maybe suicide. If you try the field for awhile and clearly no longer feel the calling at a certain point, congratulate yourself for fighting a good fight and do move on to a happier life. But if the compulsion never relents, then I’d simply encourage folks to keep making your art whenever and however you can, especially by collaborating with good friends whose work you respect and admire.
And if it takes much longer than you expected, I’d say keep trying some more. And if it becomes apparent that you’re likely going to eventually die completely broke and alone with a canon of work that has had no measurable impact on anyone anywhere…but you don’t especially mind that quite as much as not trying…then you’ve already won the biggest battle, and are probably not going to commit suicide over it, and should definitely still keep trying. Oh, and please enjoy yourself while doing so! It’s much better that way.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
I was invited to visit an ad-hoc, zero-budget video journalism production class for mostly minority 6 to 10 year old girls in a depressed area of Brooklyn a few years ago. The students were planning some muckraking about very high asthma rates in their neighborhood, and many seemed nervous and skeptical about asserting themselves in this way. I mentioned that if they went out there and started asking serious questions, that this in itself would technically, constitutionally, make them real journalists. (I’d recently had a very hard time getting my own NYPD-issued press credentials renewed, since that system is carefully designed to filter out independent media, so I probably said all this with some intensity). And I could see that I’d actually reached some of these girls. Bodies straightened up in seats, and some very smart young eyes seriously lit up, and that was a fantastic moment.