Home / Culture and Society / Arts / ‘Fade to Black’ Director Michael John Warren Chats up ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise,’ Part I

‘Fade to Black’ Director Michael John Warren Chats up ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise,’ Part I

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Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, Michael John Warren, Hillsong Church, Hillsong United, Christian rock band, Australia

Michael John Warren, director of ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ at a press conference, Langham Place, NYC (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

Like director Michael John Warren, (Jay-Z’s Fade to Black, Heavy: The Story of Metal, Nicki Minaj: My Time Now), upon hearing the name of the rock band, Hillsong United, I too, had never heard of the globally touring band which has sold more than 16 million albums (an equivalent to Beyoncé, and beyond Lady Gaga’s Antebellum {13 million}). But unlike Warren, who admits to having had a prejudice about anything related to religion until he decided as an “open-minded” person he needed to be more open-minded, I am a spiritual Christian. I just don’t go to church.

When I was contacted to review his film about the Australian Christian rock band, I wasn’t going to screen it until I shared the fact with Christian churchgoing friends who were overwhelmed and enthusiastically encouraged me to attend the press screening of Warren’s Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, which opens on September 16.

I went, I saw, I am convinced that they’re a great band, and I don’t listen to Christian rock music. They are worth listening to and even better experiencing live, which Warren masterfully captures in his documentary about Hillsong United Band and Hillsong Church.

I had the opportunity to sit down with journalist colleagues at Langham Place in August after screening Warren’s film Hillsong: Let Hope Rise. During the press conference with Mr. Warren, who had been completely turned off to religious Christianity and still remains a non-religious person, I was interested to hear what this documentarian, an obvious music secularist, had to say about why he decided to film the story of Hillsong United and the global rise of Hillsong Church.

Hillsong United, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, Hillsong Church

Hillsong United, Christian rock band from Australia at a press conference for the film they are in ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

Michael, could you talk about your experience when you first met the band? How did that happen with your friend?

I got a phone call. I was finishing a project and looking for the next thing. In the phone call they said, big band, huge band … tens of millions of albums sold, sold out performances in arenas around the world. This was right up my alley. Who are we talking about, Coldplay? And my friend and colleague Andrew Fried, who does Chef’s Table and all that stuff, said, “No, it’s Hillsong United.”

And I said, “I have no idea who that is, absolutely not.” And he said, “Yeah, they’re a Christian rock band.” And I said, “Why would I ever make a Christian rock film? I have street credibility to worry about here.” And he said, “Well, whatever. Think about it.” I said, “OK” And I thought about it. I thought it’s funny. You want me to make a film about ISIS or Satan worshippers or whatever and I would have said, sounds edgy and cool. But make a film about Jesus and I’m like EWWWW.

This goes back to how I was raised, super Catholic and having to reject that as a teenager. I realized I actually am prejudiced. I think I’m open minded but if I am open-minded, then I need to get over my prejudice. So I decided to put my baggage away and open my mind. And then I met Brian and Joel and all of them. Actually, they said, go to a service in NYC. They were in Irving Plaza. I forget, some club downtown. They were doing five services a day … cycling them through. And when you first get there, the place still smells from the drugs and booze that were there two hours before. I’m not even joking. You walk in and you think, oh, this smells like not even a church.

Hillsong United, Hillsong Church, Jad Gillies

Jad Gillies, member of Hillsong United Christian rock band (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

I was greeted by people which at first, I’m like all right, all right, stop greeting me. You’re creeping me out. (laughter) But I was immediately struck by how young it was and how multi-cultural it was. I thought a church was like all white people and services half in Latin. So this is totally not what I expected. And then the lights go down, the fog machine starts, the band comes out, the song is good. And all the guys put their arms around their girlfriends. And I’m like, “What’s happening here?”

As someone who is not a believer, I’m cynical, of course. As someone who hopefully is open-minded, I was like … I started to realize that this is the presence of love. I’m not sure it is the presence of the Holy Spirit or anything like that, but this is love happening in this room right here and now and that was interesting for me. I thought, there’s emotion here. As a storyteller one is always looking for emotion. And certainly as a filmmaker who’s made a lot of music docs, you think that the plot is crucial. With this, what’s the plot going to be? It’s not a sports doc about winning the championship or not which is a viable story.

But when you make a music doc, you say, well is the album going to be good? That’s kind of a story. And hopefully there are big personalities who make that kind of soft story good. And here, I was like … this is a totally unique story. They’re not just trying to just sell records, they’re not trying to be rock stars. They’re trying to help people discover something that they believe so deeply in and not just to be right. They’re trying to save souls for eternity. Crocker (a musician/singer who is part of the Hillsong United Band), says at the end of the film, “We want you to come on that journey with us.” He believes that the “End Times” are going to come and some people are going to heaven and some are not. And they are desperate to bring as many people with them as possible. So as a storyteller that is a really interesting story.

Taya Smith, Hillsong United, Hillsong Church, Michael John Warren, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

Taya Smith, member of Hillsong United Band in the film ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise,’ by Michael John Warren (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

That has impact and passion.

That has impact. And for the cold-hearted person looking to see if there’s a story there or not, the story has legs. There is emotion there. Whether I believe all these things doesn’t matter. When you see what happens at their events, it’s like emotional. So I considered that it’s a unique story and there’s a lot of emotion. And for me there’s the music. I am a music nerd. I don’t love film as much as I’m in love with music. I’m desperately in love with music. And I heard the music and I thought, these songs are way better than I thought they’d be. I heard “Oceans” and played it. It was great. And I didn’t stop playing it. I have a nice listening room in my house. Played it, listened to it, played it again. And I was like, they got me. I think all these other things were helping me get there but the songs are good. I was like, OK. Let’s go.

One of the things I noticed last night and in the movie is how you managed to show the younger audience. Besides the songs relating in a contemporary way, there seems to be something else. They’re not like condemnatory. Their lyrics are not talking about burning in hell; they’re not anti-abortion. Hillsong United somehow seems to hit something that is universal.

That’s exactly it, I think. That is part of what helped me get there. One of their big things is come as you are. And they mean that. You see it. I just think of the things I heard coming up in church. The Sisters of Mercy taught my high school. I had nuns who were…

JD, Jonathon Douglass, Hillsong United, Hillsong Church, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

JD (Jonathon Douglass), member of Hillsong United, at NYC press conference for ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

We get it. (laughing)

…rapping on me with a ruler. (laughter) And I actually think that Hillsong let go of the garbage that has been sort of picked up through politics and religion, certainly in this country. They’ve let go of a lot of that. And the criticism is, “Well, they’re light on their gospel.” Well, maybe, I guess, but it’s not really my place to say that or not. But what they do is effective. Jesus was hanging out with prostitutes and down in the gutter with everyone else, too. That’s actually what he was doing. He wasn’t wearing a frigging hat with a pole, you know? That’s NOT what he was up to. So I think they’ve distilled the message … and gotten rid of a lot of baggage.

Obviously, they’re very good at presentation. They’re doing this because they sincerely believe that it helps people find what they need to find. But from a cold-hearted cynic’s perspective, the light show is good. They’re all good looking and fashionable. The songs are good. They make it easy to be like, “Ok we’re with you.”

And JD and Taya are great onstage live. He knows how to use that guitar; she knows how to bounce. That gave you a lot of opportunities for camera angles.

Yeah. And her voice is incredible.

Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, Hillsong United, Dylan Thomas, Michael John Warren, Hillsong Church, Christian rock band

Dylan Thomas, member of Hillsong United at press conference in NYC for ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ by Michael John Warren (Photo by Carole Di Tosti)

Also, they’re not pretentious. They’re very authentic.

Yeah. They’re self-deprecating. They make more fun of themselves. You can’t make fun of them because they’re too busy making fun of each other. So you’re like, OK, I’ll make fun of you later.

Can you talk about the positioning of the camera?

Absolutely. So I feel that as an editor … I don’t know if you guys know, I was an editor forever. I’m informed as a director by being a doc editor, so while I’m filming, I’m editing in my head all the time. Somewhere I have an hour version of the film in my head … and I’m thinking, you have to chip things down. Now, regarding the concert stuff? I feel that most concert films are very poorly edited and very poorly shot. Especially these days, they’re overly edited and overly tight.

My touchstone, like what I watched probably two or three times, was Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984). That was for me THE concert film. There is no film better, as far as photography goes. And the music’s incredible. I love Talking Heads. But in film the elements adhere … all the lenses … deep in the house … eye level. You can see the proscenium really well. The performance is phenomenal. There are never fast cuts. And there’s never a point in the movie where I’m like cut here. I’m not bored and he shows a brilliant performance in that film. But the way Demme put that film together, all the edits make perfect sense. And he does a good job with the fake shots. I finally spotted some fake shots.

The last time I watched it, I said, “Oh, that’s a fake shot.” I finally saw it. I said, “There it is.” He did a really good job of hiding it. I mean, normally fake shots really stick out to me. To prepare, I also watched the U2 doc that I think is brilliant. (From the Sky Down, 2011)

Part II of the interview follows. The film opens in NYC on September 15 and in wider release on September 16.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.