Job makes a movie
To guide the Israelites, God gave them stone tablets with ten commandments. But to guide the congregation of Voice of the Pentecost Church in San Francisco, He provided something a little different: 47 movie pitches.
That’s the nutshell version of the vision that drives Pastor Richard Gazowsky, who over ten years guided his church through the shooting of many short films and two features. Although their productions were humble and notably lacking in distribution, Gazowsky knew his company was ready for the big time. In 2004 he began production on an ambitious science fiction film Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, an epic retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph. With an estimated $50 million budget that eventually swelled to $200 million, Gazowsky aimed to spread the good news with a thrilling adventure story that could stand against The Lord of the Rings.
Pastor Gazowsky may have seen himself as a Moses-like figure, with plans to lead his followers into the promised land of a huge media empire, but the Gravity shoot began to resemble the book of Job. The production was beset with technical issues and financial problems, not to mention the production team’s relative lack of experience. Despite Gazowsky’s promises that the company would soon be producting 47 films a year, the funding fell through and Gravity never got off the ground.
A film, however, did emerge from the chaos: Audience of One, Michael Jacobs’s compelling, stranger-than-fiction documentary about the troubled shoot. Partly a chronicle of Gravity’s history and partly a character study of Pastor Gazowsky, Audience of One presents an unvarnished and nonjudgmental portrait, sometimes funny and sometimes uncomfortable, of the perils of movie making and what Jacobs delicately calls “the downside of faith-based thinking.”
“I tried desperately not to push an agenda or make a judgment,” Jacobs says. “Partly that’s just my personality–I’m very open minded. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to insert myself into the film in any way. I still don’t know how I feel about them, so how could I try to guide the audience?”
The young director made his own leap of faith with this film, his first feature. In fact, he had less experience and less support than his subject.
“I was very aware of the parallels,” he chuckles.
Growing up in Colorado, Jacobs was more interested in sports than movies. In college he majored in English. His senior year, he became interested in a group of homeless people living on his street and picked up a camera for the first time. “I took to it right away,” he recalls. “I really loved the process of working with real people and following their story and turning it into something visual.”
His new-found interest in movie-making led Jacobs to a development job with Warren Miller Entertainment, which gave him insight into the business side of film. He also began teaching himself camera operation and editing on the side, and produced a second short film.
“I probably should have gone to film school at that point,” he muses. “It would have been a more thorough way to work on my craft … but regardless I would have relied on storytelling instincts and character instincts, and that I learned from being an English major.”
Those instincts were on the money when, shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2005, Jacobs saw an article in the SF Weekly about Gazowsky and Gravity.
“Right away I knew it was a wonderful character driven narrative,” he recalls, still sounding enthusiastic about the story. “Before I even met the guy I saw this mythical structure about a hero setting out on a journey.”
The next Sunday, Jacobs attended a service at Voice of the Pentecost and approached Pastor Gazowsky afterwards about making a documentary.
“He said yes right away,” Jacobs marvels. “”I said from day one: I’m Jewish, I’m agnostic or atheist depending on what day it is. They accepted that.”
“I was always surprised that I was being so welcomed. Even after the documentary was out and it was an unflattering portrait of this man and his congregation – I mean I wasn’t attacking them but it wasn’t a love fest – and yet if I walked into the church tomorrow it would be all hugs. They operate so differently than the secular world of my everyday life. This I think speaks to their core Christian values of love and acceptance.
“Yes, they do go on a bit about who’s a good Christian and who’s a bad Christian, but they have homosexuals, transgender, mixed races…in that church you find the best mix of people you could imagine. It’s very San Francisco, actually a unique reflection because it’s a lower income and more mixed race reflection than you’re usually seeing.
With minimal experience and no crew to help him, Jacobs knew he was in for a learning experience. What he didn’t know was that the education would go beyond logistics and technical details. Amongst such a welcoming group, Jacobs had to continually define and maintain his role as observer.
“There was constant management of that relationship,” Jacobs says. “I was as much a part of the congregation as you can be as an outsider. At what point are you not part of a community, even when you’re filming? To this very moment there is constant management of how [Pastor Gazowsky and I] operate around each other, and how he perceives me.”
If that sounds a bit like the relationship between the Maysles and the Beales – the makers and eccentric subjects, respectively, of the landmark documentary Grey Gardens – it’s no coincidence. Jacobs cites the pioneering Maysles brothers, who helped popularize cinema verite with their intimate approach to film making, as key influences on his own approach to documentary.
“I watched Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman back to back to back,” Jacobs laughs. “And then listened to each commentary track. That was the first time I said, ‘I want to make a film like that.’ I didn’t know documentary could be like that. To observe these people and love them, but maybe exploit them. It’s a very grey area, but so rich in that grey.”
“I didn’t want to make fun of them,” he continues. “So I was really conscious about my motivations. And as I’ve learned more about myself and about this kind of film making, I still wonder how much of the time I was being my true self, or closer to my true self, and how much of the time was I a little fake and insincere? And how do those two versions of myself extend to other relationships? It gets a little heady, but it’s interesting to me to look back.”
Those heady thoughts led to a film that pleased the congregation with its fairness and integrity. Jacobs was nervous about showing any footage or rough cuts to church members; but before the film premiered at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, he gave Gazowsky a copy to watch in private.
“He called me and his voice was a little shaky,” Jacobs recalls. “He said it was tough to watch, but it was very fair and he appreciated that I didn’t make fun of God. He said he felt the hand of God in this documentary. I didn’t totally understand that but I was relieved.
“He’s always been a ‘warts and all’ kind of guy. He stands by his word, and he is who he is and he’s not afraid to be himself. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
While Gazowsky’s goofy side is none too evident in the documentary, it can be heard in a song he recorded for Jacobs as a DVD extra. “I’m almost more excited about the extras than the DVD itself,” Jacobs chuckles. The extra features on the disc, just released this week by indiepix, include a “Where are they now?” segment, Jacobs’s own audition for Gravity, and the one thing missing from Audience: actual footage from the doomed sci-fi epic.
“It’s just picture with no sound, but they’re brilliant,” Jacobs says. “They’re beautiful and bizarre, and it validates them to a certain extent.”
Audience of One is available at indiepix, and will be in theaters in Chicago and New York in May. For more information visit .