Amen with a camera

Pub date April 10, 2007
WriterCheryl Eddy


Divine messages are tricky, particularly for true believers who have no choice but to obey whatever directive the big G passes down. "God told me to!" can lead to heroic or comical or tragic ends; really, it’s a convenient excuse to do just about anything. For Richard Gazowsky, pastor at San Francisco’s Voice of Pentecost Church, the Lord’s message was simple if extravagant: "I want you to be the Rolls Royce of filmmaking."

Given that Voice of Pentecost is situated in an old movie theater and that Gazowsky received his vision in 1994 — soon after the then-40-year-old saw his first movie, The Lion King — this decree was not as surprising as it sounds. But as Michael Jacobs’s documentary Audience of One reveals, the quixotic Gazowsky has hit endless snags in his quest to be the next Mel Gibson (or George Lucas) with his "Ten Commandments meets Star Wars" epic, Gravity: In the Shadow of Joseph. It seems unquestioning faith can only go so far before naïveté, technical inexperience, and long-overdue rent get in the way.

Intrigued by Lessley Anderson’s Jan. 5, 2005, SF Weekly article on the church’s cinematic aspirations, Jacobs (at the time a newly rooted San Franciscan by way of Colorado) headed out to Ocean Avenue to take in a service. Before long, he’d found the topic of his first feature-length documentary.

"I walked into Voice of Pentecost, and it was like stepping onto another planet. I’d never seen anything like it: singing, dancing, falling down, speaking in tongues. I was really floored," Jacobs told me over the phone from New York City, where Audience of One (which premiered at the 2007 South by Southwest film festival and is slated for the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival) screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s "New Directors/New Films" series.

Though Gazowsky’s production company, Christian WYSIWYG Filmworks (yep, it stands for "what you see is what you get"), has about 30 employees, the charismatic preacher was the natural choice for Jacobs’s primary subject. "The pastor [came] out and [updated] his congregation on the trials and tribulations of making this independent Christian blockbuster," Jacobs remembers. "I was immediately fascinated."

Having received his own calling of sorts, Jacobs asked Gazowsky and his congregants to appear in his doc. "I was really candid. I told them I’m Jewish and had no intentions of being a part of their church but that I wanted to observe their creation. I talked to Pastor Gazowsky about my philosophical approach to documentary and how I wanted to make an observational film. I wasn’t gonna use narration or come at it from a liberal or conservative perspective. I wasn’t gonna put it into the context of Christianity. I just wanted to make it as much cinéma vérité as possible."

Voice of Pentecost agreed to give Jacobs fly-on-the-wall access. For the next few months he captured WYSIWYG’s casting calls, stunt rehearsals, set-design meetings, and other bustling preproduction activities for a fast-approaching Italian location shoot. The footage comprises Audience of One‘s decidedly optimistic first half; anticipation runs sky-high among the (nearly all-volunteer) cast and crew despite several hints of challenges ahead. Gravity‘s massive wardrobe, including an abundance of Jediesque hoods, remains many stitches from completion, and the camera and sound equipment — at Gazowsky’s insistence, entirely state-of-the-art — is still being tested.

Soon before WYSIWYG uproots to Italy, one of the few pros involved in the production, cinematographer Jens Klein, tells Gazowsky he’s concerned about Gravity‘s abbreviated prep time. Something always goes wrong on the set, the experienced Klein cautions — and of course, it does.

By then Jacobs was "an inside outsider," his camera-toting presence a familiar sight. He traveled to Italy and documented WYSIWYG’s problem-plagued shoot. "I really did sort of blend into the scene," he says. "That relationship continued to grow and strengthen for about six months. When we came back from Italy, things got a little stranger. The lines got very blurry at times between subject and reality and responsibility and professionalism."

At first the blurry lines stayed off camera, and Jacobs’s cinéma vérité goals remained intact. For example, he helped the exhausted crew move stones before one of Gravity‘s outdoor scenes. "I saw them working so hard, and they weren’t getting anything done. I couldn’t not help them," he recalls. "All of a sudden, I was, like, ‘Wait a minute, what am I doing?’ That’s not my professional responsibility, but I have this personal thing here where I want to help them."

After the Gravity crew returned to the United States, they set up shop on Treasure Island, leasing an enormous film studio from the city of San Francisco. To Jacobs, and by extension the Audience of One viewer, it’s quite clear that the funding Gazowsky expects from a mysterious German source will never materialize. At one point he’s counting on $200 million — a huge amount for a Hollywood film, let alone an independent production created by unproven first-timers. Gazowsky’s faith in the Lord may be strong, but the faith he has in his investors is positively breathtaking.

His faith in Jacobs, however, wavers a bit. Midway through Audience of One, the WYSIWYG gang becomes increasingly paranoid that someone — Hollywood spies, perhaps — will try to steal its creative thunder; as a result, new security measures are introduced and Jacobs’s on-set freedom is restricted.

"It’s not in the film, but we sort of had an argument about it," Jacobs recalls. "I said to [Gazowsky], ‘If my film is about your film, what am I supposed to do?’ I remember leaving that day thinking, ‘The film’s over. I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve got all this footage, and the story’s not complete.’ I was feeling pretty low about that."

A few weeks later, though, he was reviewing his tapes and had a revelation. Though WYSIWYG’s financial woes and creative differences among the staff had grounded Gravity, all was not lost for Audience of One.

"I realized, ‘Wow, this isn’t a film about filmmaking. This is a film about these people and specifically this one character,’ " Jacobs says. "I came back to them saying, ‘I don’t really care about your film anymore. You guys are the heart of my story, and it’s really more about you.’ I figured it would be a good way to engineer this paranoia into the narrative of my documentary, because that’s what was really happening — that was the vérité. They were trying to push everybody away, particularly me. Why can’t that be a part of the story as opposed to an inhibitor of the story?"

The tone of Audience of One reflects Jacobs’s self-described "celebratory and exploitive" approach to his subjects, about whom he remained "deeply ambiguous." This proved difficult with Gazowsky, who can be charming (he’s an intensely likable guy whose dare-to-be-great moviemaking approach is nothing if not admirable) and off-putting (he’s incapable of addressing WYSIWYG’s practical problems). "What’s so fascinating about him — and so complex and so frustrating — is how quickly he can go back and forth between being completely self-aware and being this visionary dreamer who’s crazy, if you want to call him that."

Gazowsky may have irrational moments in the documentary, but if there’s ever been a zeitgeist moment for faith-based entertainment, it’s now. There’s the obvious example of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), which grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Fox Faith has distributed at least three films (including 2006’s The Ultimate Gift) in the Bay Area in the last few months. And if you think San Francisco is too godless a city to support such releases, remember this: Voice of Pentecost is here, though its members hardly resemble the Harry Potter–hating evangelicals spotlighted in Jesus Camp, a 2006 Oscar nominee that shares Audience of One‘s secular-filmmaker-documents-Christians theme.

"Because this is San Francisco, these people are extremely creative," Jacobs says, referring to the Voice of Pentecost faithful. "A lot of them have been out in the world and experimented with drugs, and that’s why they’re trying to get back on God’s plan, as they call it. Most evangelicals see things in black-and-white, but in this group there’s a large gray area. I’ve never heard them say really harsh or judgmental things about others. They would much rather get out there and celebrate God and make a film."

With that in mind, Jacobs exercised restraint in the editing room. "That was by far the most challenging part of the film, because of that balance I wanted to create: Are we laughing with them, are we laughing at them? Is this funny because they’re naive or because they’re flawed like any human being? We definitely edited for laughs, but there are no cheap shots. The laughs are based around the folly of filmmaking, not based around laughing at their god. We have fun with the material and the people, but it’s not purely ridicule — it’s as much a celebration and an inspiration at the same time. More importantly, let’s let the audience make their own decision about how they feel."

So what does Gazowsky think of the film? As evenhanded as Jacobs tried to be, Gazowsky’s portrayal is not entirely flattering. From WYSIWYG HQ, Gazowsky — who’s still awaiting funding so he can finish Gravity, among other projects — said he found the film difficult to watch but appreciated its honesty. Seeing it was quite an experience, "because you’re watching the last few years of your life going up on the screen. And, of course, I don’t have control of anything — the way it’s edited is just the way it is. And I’m looking at it, going, ‘Boy, that is a crazy guy. Do I know him? Oh, it’s me!’ It’s hard to look at yourself, I would say."

Though Gazowsky has a healthy sense of humor, he’s 100 percent serious about his filmmaking aspirations. As Audience of One shows, he dreams big — maybe too big. (A firm believer that Hollywood has abandoned good storytelling, he cites Lawrence of Arabia as his favorite movie.)

"I feel Mike [Jacobs] was very sweet, but at the same time he did not fully understand what it is we’re doing. I don’t think anyone really looking on the outside understands it. And here’s the reason: it’s because everybody’s thinking there’s an angle somewhere and never realizes we really love movies," Gazowsky says.

Though WYSIWYG’s love of movies also includes a desire to make people "feel God — and what that means to you and me might be different," Gazowsky hopes he’ll complete a project that pleases not just the holy audience of one who set him on his cinematic path in the first place but also the masses. After all he’s been through — in Audience of One and beyond — he remains steadfast. "We really want to make the biggest film ever done." *


Screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival

May 3, 6:30 p.m.; May 7, 12:45 p.m.; $10–$12

Kabuki Cinema

1881 Post, SF

(925) 866-9559