A Talk With Michael Jacobs
Films, Faith, Dreams...

Michael Jacob’s highly entertaining feature documentary Audience of One has been on the mainstream festival circuit for more than a year now, garnering rave reviews and awards—and yet failing to snare a distribution deal. The film traces the efforts of San Francisco pastor Richard Gazowsky to fulfill his calling from God: to write, produce, and direct a $200 million sci-fi Bible epic called Gravity—the “Best Film Ever Made”and thereby establish a film studio that will crank out forty-seven feature films a year.

I screened the film on DVD recently, courtesy of the film’s producer, and found it to be engaging, witty, and cautionary.

In fact, I was so taken with the film that I felt you ought to know about it even though you still don’t have the chance to see it either in theaters or at home. To help Audience of One get more exposure, I arranged to speak with the film’s director, Michael Jacobs, over the phone for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Michael Jacobs, the director of Audience of OneFirst question for you right off the bat, since there’s not a lot of official information available on the Internet about you or the production—though there is just a ton of press that you’ve gotten as the result of the film’s appearance at festivals: What is your personal background with issues of faith, and how is it that you became interested in Gazowsky’s particular spin on spirituality?

Michael Jacobs: Sure, sure. I guess I would have to say that, you know, I grew up Jewish. I guess I’m what you might call a poorly practicing Jew. But I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality, and I think that’s just an extension of the household that I grew up in. Both of my parents are interested in that, and one of them is actually a college professor and she teaches a lot of courses on religion—more from a women’s perspective (she’s a Women’s Studies professor). But she’s done a lot of work and research on faith. So it’s always just been present for me, and when I first came across this story I was first and foremost attracted to its character-driven elements; but also to the fact that, in addition to these people being wonderful and interesting characters for a documentary, [those elements] were a religious exploration. I thought that was a really unique mix. Here were these filmmakers, here are these really silly funky crazy kooky characters, and they’re also Pentecostals. So it was the perfect mix for me of touching on all the things that I find really interesting: faith, comedy, creativity, all coming together in this wonderful story.

Well, even within the larger Christian community, the Pentecostal sub-community is seen as a very unique and interesting community all on its own. How familiar were you with the Pentecostal movement prior to studying Gazowsky and his church?

MJ: You know, I had absolutely no experience. I have a lot of Christian friends, a lot of Catholic friends, a lot of Buddhist friends; but I’d never really come across Pentecostals before. So this was really—I think that’s what helped make the film so strong. Everything was still so fresh and new to me. You know, all the nuances, all the little idiosyncrasies of their belief systems and the way that they celebrate God, were all really fresh and new. And like you said, for most mainstream Christians, Pentecostals are a little on the out-there fringe; and I experienced that first-hand. But I really had no idea about Pentecostals; I had no idea that they were so creatively inclined and so performance-oriented. And I found that really compelling. Their way of celebrating God was really unlike any religious experience I’d seen—when they chose to celebrate God. And not just in their filmmaking, but in their daily lives. And I do have to say this: other Pentecostals have seen the film and say, “Well, that’s not like my Pentecostal church.”

And that’s always going to be the case.

MJ: Right.

Because you can’t pigeonhole anybody.

MJ: Fair enough.

Not to the extent where any one experience is prototypical.

MJ: Right.

So you haven’t encountered any kind of community like that within Judaism? Because that’s a world I’m not familiar with.

MJ: No. I would have to say that the temple I went to growing up was pretty conservative. It was pretty straightforward. You know, you go in there for services, you sit there, you’re quiet, there’s nothing like rock ‘n’ roll; there’s very little singing, no dancing, no rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got a much more serious tone to it. And this was in Boulder, Colorado. So it wasn’t like this was an ultra-conservative place. I grew up in a very liberal place. But that being said, it definitely didn’t mirror any of the experiences— When I first walked into [Gazowsky’s] church here, not only did I not have any personal experience with anything like that, I’ve done some extensive traveling and I’ve never seen that kind of intense religious celebration. It was almost more comparable to what I’d seen in India. That kind of visceral intensity. And again, that attracted me to the project, too, just from a visual aesthetic.

And that’s kind of where the Pentecostal movement comes out of—black and racially integrated churches: the Azusa Street church in Los Angeles around the turn of the 20th Century.

MJ: Exactly. Revivalism.

Revivalism, yes. And even purely white versions of revivalism from the 19th Century—as in the movement I come out of, which is now extremely conservative—had people barking like dogs and doing laughing exercises and other sorts of weird things. So that kind of extreme emotionalism is not at all cornered by black or Pentecostal populations. But today, if you go to, say, India or Africa, there’s a lot more of that kind of hyper-emotionalism involved in worship. It’s just not characteristic of the West.

MJ: Right. And I find it incredibly beautiful. I do.

Now, what I find very interesting about your film, from an ironic film-business perspective, is that Gazowsky goes into this kind of naïvely thinking that all he has to do is make this movie and apparently God will provide the market for it.

MJ: Right.

And yet, on the same hand, it seems the same thing is happening with Audience of One as well.

MJ: Oh, absolutely. Now, I have to say that Gazowsky and I are friends. It’s a strange relationship, but we have continued a very strong and mutually respectful relationship throughout all of this. And we compare notes all the time about the struggle of the independent filmmaker. Our approaches are vastly different, but our goals are similar and the process is similar. You know, there were days when I was exasperated, tired of begging people for money, tired of telling people about my documentary that was never going to get finished; and it was Richard Gazowsky who would say, “Hey, you know everything is going to be all right. You’re going to complete this film, and it’s going to be totally successful beyond your wildest dreams.” He was very sweet and optimistic, as [he and his congregation] always are. And I took that with me, and during the last run of festivals, that’s always been there too, with Richard always championing it from the sidelines and sharing his experiences with the trials and tribulations of independent Christian filmmaking. Compared to the trials and tribulations of independent documentary filmmaking, there are more similarities than people would like to think.

I think I ran across mention of your film for the first time in an Entertainment Weekly or Christianity Today article sometime early in 2007. So I thought for sure that, given that the film had been on the festival circuit for a while, Audience of One would have hit theatrical distribution by now—or at least come out on DVD.

MJ: You and me both.

So did it feel like, somewhere along the way, the project lost momentum, or that a moment of opportunity had passed?

MJ: You know, that’s a really, really good question. And I’m not sure I know the answer. I think the easy answer is that there are a tremendous number of documentaries hitting the marketplace, and there are only so many slots. And while there are a lot of aspects to our film that people liked, and that I think are commercially viable, the film just didn’t connect with the larger distributors in the right way, where they thought they could make money on it. So it’s still a mystery to me. We had a conference call this morning with our sales rep, and everybody’s scratching their heads over why we haven’t been picked up yet. It’s one of these weird situations, and I don’t know the answer. I do think that, sure, we lost momentum. I mean, here we are a year after our premiere and the film hasn’t been picked up yet. We’re already yesterday’s news. You’ve already had a whole new crop of films out there vying for attention, vying for distribution—and we’re just among the clutter now. I can see that very self-critically, and still I think, “That’s fine.” I still very much believe in the film and in its opportunity and ability to get out there in some shape or form. But in May through June of last year, everyone thought this thing was going to happen; but then weeks turned into months and months have turned into a year. Independent distribution is weird.

Yes, it is.

MJ: So what’s your own religious background?

I’m an ordained minister in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ—what’s known as the Restoration Movement.

MJ: And did you find the film insulting or insensitive?

No, not at all. I found it very balanced. I think it’s absolutely, accurately reflective of both the naiveté and the hubris involved in most large-scale ministry operations. Like Gazowsky, most pastors of large churches—which, you know, are corporations—are not people who have experience in business. And so they do get this very strong sense of calling from God, but they have nothing in the way of experience or knowledge or training in how to go about doing the things that they feel they’re called to do. So Gazowsky’s experience is just kind of a special case—and in kind of a bizarre circumstance—of the kinds of problems that are besetting most pastors who end up getting involved with large sums of money and yet really have no business getting involved with large sums of money.

MJ: Sure, sure.

So I didn’t find it insulting at all. You know, I wouldn’t call it a loving portrait at all, but—

MJ: Right, right.

I don’t think anybody needs that, either.

MJ: Well, that’s good to hear—and I’ve thought that the whole time.

So it opens up the question: Let’s presume that you are getting a calling from God to do something. What do you do with that? What’s the next responsible step? Let’s presume that you’re Gazowsky and you get the mission from God to build the best car ever built. Would you go out to your shop and just start throwing things together? Or would you go to get some training as an engineer? What would your first step be? Maybe, just maybe, get some training. So Audience of One represents a major teaching opportunity.

If you are interested in learning more about Audience of One, check out the trailer on the film’s MySpace page; you can also contact the producers there about your interest in the film. And if you’d like to recommend Audience of One to Outreach Cinema for your church through their direct-distribution network, please do contact them. It might help Audience of One finally get the distribution deal it has been looking for. And who knows? The additional exposure might one day help Gazowsky get Gravity made, too!