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‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ Director Michael John Warren Interview, Part II

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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)

After screening the superb Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, directed by Michael John Warren, press colleagues and I had the opportunity to discuss the Hillsong United band and Hillsong Church, which are the subjects of his documentary elucidating how and why Hillsong has become a global phenomenon. The interview was held at Langham Place in early August in advance of the film’s opening on September 16.

If you could bring back the golden days of Double Features, what are some narrative films that would make a good pair with this one. I can think of a few that relate.

I’m glad you can, because I have no idea.

They have the same idea of the healing power of music. There are a lot of films that deal with that. One of my loves is, The Music Never Stopped. Remember J.K. Simmons? It’s about family and music healing. There’s no wrong answer. I mean you can say Caligula. (laughter)

Sure. (laughter). I think one of my favorite healing docs is Genghis Blues (Director: Roko Belic, 1999). It’s an indie doc from a long time ago about a blues musician, blind, doing radio in his basement. He’s doing little ham radios and he discovers Tuvian throat-singing and he takes up Tuvian throat-singing. Then he becomes a World Champion at Tuvian throat-singing. Here’s a guy who’s living in a basement and becomes a world champion of a form of music that he didn’t know existed beforehand.

It’s an amazing movie. It’s also really poorly made. But it’s disarming. The sound guy is in the movie. The crew is in the movie all the time. It’s low budget. They show the crew getting him on the plane … I don’t remember. I haven’t seen it in years. But that’s a movie to me where you see the repair. I’m sure there are others.

I actually made a film last year. I made a Nicki Minaj doc, the second one I made on her, where she basically got divorced … she wasn’t really married, but she had been together with this guy for years … since they were kids. And they were in a rap band together. Then she became Nicki Minaj but they were still together. In my first film about her, we weren’t allowed to talk about them being a couple. And the next time I got with her, the second film, they were in the process of breaking up. She’s in shambles now. That film is a moment in time about “This is what’s happening for her right now.” But she writes a song about The Crying Game in that film and she’s in the process … of healing from it. I like to think I’m making a trilogy on her and in five years, I’ll make the third one. But the second film is the one where she’s right in the shit, right now.

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

JD (Jonathon Douglass), member of Hillsong United, wailing for and about The Lord (Courtesy of Hillsong website)

Would Hillsong: Let Hope Rise work as a Hollywood narrative? Which actors would you imagine portraying these roles? We asked the band and they actually had their own suggestions. I believe Meryl Streep for everyone. (laughter)

I feel like I’m not clever enough. I’m not super into the Hollywood thing. I don’t think about that very much. I don’t think I can give you a good enough answer as they gave you, frankly. Sorry.

Were there any difficulties that you imagined would happen on the shoot and then found they didn’t? In other words how easy was the process? You explained how you were drawn in and then you had to approach them. How did that work.

The biggest difficulty I saw in this film is how nice they are. Every film has conflict. Or any film that’s worth it has conflict, some form of conflict. As a storyteller, you know at that one hour mark, you’re at the point of no return. When you get into the second hour that’s where, everything unfolds … roughly. I’m being technical. For me, I thought these people are too nice. No one’s going to get mad, no one’s going to throw a plate, no one’s going to cheat on his wife. None of that’s going to happen here so what are we doing?

And I ultimately found solace in that their mission is so righteous, that we could actually go there about finding God and how people find God. That has conflict in itself. The church story has conflict. They’ve gotten some negative press in the past, and so that stuff was out there to be included as well and felt good to use. Well, not good, but you know what I mean regarding conflict … compelling as a story. As you guys know seeing the film, Joel’s dramatic delivery of Joel’s lyrics played really well into my hands. In the moments it was happening, we were freaking out. We didn’t know if some of those songs were going to happen. So that’s conflict that might happen, but you don’t know until it does happen.

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

Photo from ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’ (Courtesy of the movie website, directed by Michael John Warren)

When did you add about their personal lives, like the death of the sister? That was an important element. They were very open about it.

I think it’s what about they’re good at. What helps people feel really included is that they’re really big on, “No one’s perfect,” and “God loves you as you are.” They always talk about that. So in order to help profile that and in order to make that idea resonate in the film, we had to talk about the cracks in their own life. And they all have them. Baby Eliot almost died while we were filming.

Yeah, that was unbelievable.

Yeah. Matt’s sister killed herself. Joel’s family’s complicated. Jad and JD live away from their family in small condos that you wouldn’t think someone who does sold out nights in the forum would live in. JD lives with his in-laws. He’s on stage every night. He played at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn which sold out three nights in a row this week. So that’s how those things came into play. It’s not, “I have Jesus, everything is perfect.”

It’s organic, visceral.

It’s a journey and they’re on a journey still and they’re going to have hard parts of their lives come out.

What was your process like to come up with the questions to ask and not ask and what boundaries could you not go over?

I could ask them whatever I wanted. There’s nothing I can’t ask them. They were open. It was like, “Why not?” No one’s sitting in my ear while I’m interviewing them saying, “No.” (reference to canned news shows on mainstream media that are heavily scripted and tailored to advertisers). But the back part of your question is how do you get the vibe, because you can’t screw the vibe up? Hopefully that’s part of something I’m good at and something that they’re good at. You don’t work with the people I’ve worked with to not be able to get kicked out of the room.

Frankly, with them it’s very easy. They’re very open. For them it was like fun to have me around. They can talk about it, but I loved them and was happy to be with them. And I think it was kind of fun for them to have a non-Christian around. You know, I’m listening to gangsta rap as I roll up into the house and I swear and they’re like, “Oh this guy. He’s crazy.” And my DP on the job is an incredible photographer as you can tell from the film. You know me and Cam walk in there and we’re like some darker souls walking in and for them that was sort of fun to have us around. But we’re also respectful and open and collaborators with them.

Taya Smith, Jad Gillies, Joel Houston, Hillsong United, Hillsong Church, Michael John Warren, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

Left-Jad Gillies, Center-Taya Smith, Right-Joel Houston (Courtesy of film website, ‘Hillsong: Let Hope Rise’)

You mentioned earlier that when you initially went to the church you were cynical. Do you hope audiences take away the same kind of experience or think they will still be cynical?

That’s the question in my own mind. There are people who didn’t work on this film with me. Collaborators of mine who said, “I’m not doing that.” And I respect that. I understand it. And there’s part of me that’s like, “Am I perpetuating religious propaganda?” I’ve thought about that. And the truth of the matter is that I trust them. I trust them. Like I said, I’m open to people being happy and free, however they can get there. As long as they’re not hurting someone, that’s all.

I think these people are experts in love. That sounds weird and crazy but it’s actually not. And their love is centered around Jesus. I actually made a decision personally to try to make all my films about love on some level, like some conversation about it because I actually think it’s the secret to happiness on some level. These guys are experts in love. So part of me thinks that, “Oh, by putting something out there that I don’t believe in, am I doing something wrong?” But I trust them, like I said. I actually think that if someone finds what they need from watching this film, I’m happy about it. If someone gets converted because of this film, and goes from a dark period of their life into something good? Great. Whether I believe what they believe is irrelevant. I would be honored if someone saw something I was a part of and their life got better as a result of it. I’d love that.

Festivals … SXSW?

This is a producer’s question, but no.

What were your friend’s objections? Were they afraid for their credibility? Was it going to be a boring experience?

My friends are like scumbag musicians. For them it was a moral decision. They’re not going to perpetuate something that they don’t believe. They’re angry at the church for various reasons. Why would we do that? What would we be making propaganda for the Catho … for Christianity?

What surprised me was how they didn’t talk about the touchstones that bother me about Christianity. They didn’t talk about going to hell, they didn’t talk about abortion, they didn’t talk about homosexuals. It seemed that the audience I saw last night was a very mixed race audience.

I think they capture that group. I think that’s part of what we said, they let go of a lot of baggage. There are a lot of people there who are really happy.

That’s who they are.

Exactly. That’s who they are.

The film opens in NYC September 15 and in wider release, 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.