So many people say they are sick and tired of what is coming out of Hollywood. Well, there are good, faithful Catholics who are stepping into the eye of that Hollywood storm to try to make a difference while at the same time producing good art.
I sat down with Julian Curi, Writer/Director (pictured on right), and Rocco Ambrosio, Director (pictured on left), to talk about how their faith informs their lives as young filmmakers in Hollywood and how that faith has inspired their latest project Shock Value. They are stepping out in faith and others can join them in making a difference with a paypal donation.
Q: So what are some of the challenges to living your faith in LA?
Rocco: For me, more than feeling like the secular world or Hollywood is against me, it’s more the division within the Christian community. I feel like there’s no singular vision, or no singular opinion of “this is a good film, and this is not”. What should a moral movie be? There’s so much division in that, and I feel like nothing is really getting off the ground. What people need to realize, as Christians and Catholics, is that you don’t have to love every piece of art that’s out there. Even if you personally don’t want to watch a movie that goes to dark, but true, places, it still can be good and can still serve a good, and it’s worth supporting true, beautiful films, not just preachy films. Recognizing that truth can take many forms is really important, but I feel like that doesn’t happen. The secular world is much better at recognizing the beauty in a film even if they don’t necessarily like the film. That’s the problem, and we as Catholics don’t support the arts in the way that we used to. The Church used to be the biggest patron of the arts. Why are we not now? The Church needs art. It’s a different way of relating to people, and I would say one of the most effective ways.
Julian: In trying to access both secular and religious audiences, it’s really hard to please a religious audience, because I find that they’re only open to movies that affirm what they already believe. Nothing is new, and it’s repeated back to you, like a running poster that says “Keep going!”
Rocco: It doesn’t challenge, and there are bad challenges, but I think that many people are afraid of any challenge. But that’s how we grow in our faith, by being challenged in a good way, in a healthy way. That’s the type of films we want to make, the films that challenge you, in a good way.
Julian: I think that’s the difference between a holy card of the Holy Family and a painting by a Dutch master where a maid is holding her baby in between shifts at her job, standing in the pantry next to a window. The same themes can be communicated of service and love, despite what the world is doing to you.
Rocco: But even a painting of the Holy Family can be done in such a way as to present the anguish that’s there, and not be a holy card.
Q: What kind of sacrifices do you feel are required to be a young artist here in LA?
Rocco: Two come to mind. Especially when trying to make good art, there is the need to turn things down, for whatever reason. Basically, holding yourself to a standard is a sacrifice. In the long run it’s beneficial, but it is a sacrifice. The other is stability. It’s just a different lifestyle. When I talk to people who aren’t artists or who aren’t in LA, the idea of living without stability blows their mind. It generally does require a certain amount of faith and trust on your part, and there are certain elements of the stable life that are appealing, but I think for me there’s something more necessary about the sacrifices and ultimately they’re worth it because I see a purpose in what I’m doing and a meaning.
Julian: I’m eating ramen, and ran out of gas on the 5 [freeway] the other day. Anything over 99 cents I give a second thought to.
Rocco: Also time, another sacrifice is the time that’s required.
Q. So tell me about Shock Value.
Julian: Shock Value is an independent feature film that we are trying to fundraise for at the moment. It’s about an actress that moves to LA, trying to make it, and while struggling to find the meaning and purpose of her own life, she gets recruited by a company that helps its clients find their meaning and purpose by taking them dangerously close to the moment of their death.
Q. So where did the inspiration come from?
Julian: The idea started when I was a senior in college at Franciscan University. I had some spare credits, and I took a Science Fiction/Fantasy writing class. It actually really pushed my creativity a lot, to think outside the box, and gave me to think of things in a narrative context I might not have seen before. Amidst all the other stories I was writing in the class, one kept resurfacing. Two years and a lot of research later, we have Shock Value. It has a granule of the previous story, but it’s much more developed and now anchored in Viktor Frankl’s philosophy from his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Being a survivor of Auschwitz, he’s all about shock value, finding meaning despite brutal surroundings that you’ve found yourself in. So taking that, putting a fictional spin on it, I thought it’d be very intriguing, something I would want to watch, and something cathartic for me to write.
Q. Do you feel like our surroundings are brutal?
Julian: I think that life is brutal, and art is reflecting that too often. I don’t think that very much art these days helps us with the brutality of life. We’re in the Information Age, where there’s so little mythology, there’s so little good fiction, there aren’t as many fables or mysteries. You don’t look up at the stars anymore and think of heaven, you think of NASA and science. Not that science is bad or anything, but the Information Age I feel has made us cynical and hardened. The main character of this story, the more she becomes involved in the company, the more she learns about people and how to profile them, analyzing body language using neurolinguistic programming, and she essentially becomes the metaphor for youth today, who have so much information at their disposal and yet are so unhappy and find themselves in a quarter-life crisis.
Rocco: With that unhappiness, and what Frankl talks about, is you shouldn’t pursue happiness, but that happiness should result from the purpose of your life. A lot of people today are pursuing happiness, but missing what makes them happy. When you find that purpose, then you become happy, because you’ve found meaning for yourself.
Julian: Life seems to, all to easily, become a transition from one distraction to another, as opposed to a meaning that you’re living out.
Q. It sounds like this has been influenced in part by your faith. How would you describe that influence on your work in general or your process?
Rocco: Well, for me, I was very influenced by Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, which I read in Theory of Theater at Franciscan with Dr. Monica Anderson. It basically talks about the responsibility of the artist. For me, my faith kind of gives me a “why” to my work, to creating, to art. I think the purpose of art is to engage people, to lead them into themselves, but in a good way, a self-examining way, and really engage with them.
Q. So beyond selfies?
Rocco: Yeah. Truth-based art shows them truth and gets them to recognize truth about themselves. And I don’t want to get that mixed up with telling Bible stories, because that’s something else that Saint Pope John Paul II mentions. Looking at the truth, even in the most dark, evil places, is not something that he shies away from, because that is the reality of our human condition. With the context of the faith, we’re able to look at the whole spectrum of life and the whole spectrum of truth, and that helps us to create art that engages not just a Catholic audience but the world.
Julian: For me, I’d say that my faith plays a very important role in my work because religion has been, for me, a consolation, almost like a respite from the brutality of life. I know that sounds very dramatic, but I’m prone to receive life very dramatically. I need something outside of what’s around me to, as Rocco said, give me a “why”. And religion is such a great model for me as an artist because it is the best example, or at least it used to be, of good propaganda. It really mastered the art of communicating ideas. How do you teach people that don’t know how to read the messages of the Bible? You create beautiful stained glass windows. The way that religion communicates ideas is extremely effective. Art should be an invitation; it shouldn’t be like, I don’t know, a parking ticket.
Rocco: It shouldn’t be didactic, which I feel like a lot of especially Christian/Catholic art is. It’s didactic and preachy, but that’s not how it used to be, and it’s not what art is supposed to be. Good, true, and beautiful, I don’t know if that art really fulfills that, which is a shame.
Q: Going back to your movie, is it influenced at all by a reaction to the Culture of Death?
Julian: Yeah. It’s not so much a reaction to headlines as much as a reaction to my own life. I’ve struggled with depression before and survived a few suicide attempts, and art is the only thing that allowed me to push through that. So at the beginning of this story, the company only does suicidals. They’re a front for a suicide hotline, and that’s how they find their clients, and they do it pro bono. But, they’re forced to go public, and they say “Look, you’ve gotta turn a profit, or else we’re shutting you guys down.” And therefore they see that a lot of modern people need the same services as the people who are calling saying they don’t want to live anymore. The same existential crisis exists with the 25-year-old sitting at home on Sunday night wondering why they’re going to the job that they don’t love, as the person with a shotgun in his lap, divorced with three kids and an alcoholic. And it’s terrifying that that crisis is coming to us younger and younger. But it’s not as much about the service as the employees there. What does it do to them? What is their view on people? The tragedy is that they’re facing that same conflict even though that’s their job. They work there every day and they’re damn good at what they do, saving people’s souls, but they’re facing the same distractions and addictions their clients are. So it is a reaction to what’s going on.
Q: But it ends up affirming life in the end?
Julian: Yes, it’s an innocence lost and re-gained tale, because that’s kind of the tale of my life. And I love knowing that there’s hope for that. You can mess up so bad, but there’s hope. That hope is going to look different for everyone, just like meaning and purpose, but hopefully when people leave the theater having seen the movie, the experience will invite that discussion. What revelations would I come to if I was near my moment of death today?
Q: Why did you decide to do a Kickstarter?
Rocco: Apart from not having the funds, we wanted to get people involved in the process of making the film, and, as we were talking about before, to unite people behind something that’s worthwhile. With our incentives we’ve tried to do that, because a lot of our incentives are interactive. You can be a part of the process, whether it’s naming a character or being the voice that’s on the radio or having your face on screen, stuff like that. Offering people the opportunity to be involved with good art in a more tangible way. That’s an element to our Kickstarter that’s unique. We’re not just selling DVDs. We want the donor to participate in the movie, because they deserve to be part of it.
Q: Anything else you all want to say?
Julian: This will not happen without the support of many people. We had a great start to our campaign, and this is a story that needs to be told. It’s going to be really entertaining, with cool visuals borrowed from pop art and street art, an intricate and complex narrative, dark humor. It’s something that you haven’t seen yet. But that’s why we need people’s help to get it done.
We would appreciate any contribution to our film. Contact us at ShockValue@AlabasterFilms.com.
We are praying that there are enough people who want to be a part of something good and make a difference, who will help us on the frontlines to make that difference.