Critically Speaking: Michael W. Smith & Ryan Smith
- 2008 22 Aug
What do a famous Christian music singer/songwriter and a feature film company have in common? On the surface, not much.
However, veteran artist Michael W. Smith is meddling in more than just music these days. Having written the score for a few movies and starred in another (we hear there’s more where that came from), Smitty is also one-third of the innovative brains behind Seabourne Pictures, established with the “objective of creating thought-provoking and engaging feature films.”
Co-founded by Mark Cowart and Ryan Smith, Michael’s son, Seabourne is attempting to challenge the status quo and narrow the creative chasm between “Christian” film and mainstream movies by releasing C2: Giving Movies a Second Look, a DVD curriculum designed to promote discussion and critical thought about the films Christians watch. Using a straightforward study guide and original short films, small groups can connect, critique and conclude how movies comment on an accurate biblical worldview.
Sitting down with Michael and Ryan, the father/son team discusses film, its influence and its place in a broader Christian perspective.
CMP: When did you first consider developing films that would initiate discussion and critical thought?
Ryan: Mark [Cowart] had seen a clip of a movie at church. It wasn’t very good. He came in and said, “We can do this so much better.” So originally, we talked about doing clips for sermon illustrations. Then that morphed into this idea of using 20-minute short films as a way to get Christians engaged in a discussion about the arts and how to take your Christian worldview to the movies.
CMP: What were each of your roles in developing and releasing the C2 films?
Michael: I paid for it (Laughs).
Ryan: I wrote and directed Relapse, a drama I had wanted to do before we even had the idea for C2. Then we looked for something else on the opposite end of the spectrum to give C2 a real sense of variety. So I produced the comedy, Love at First Sight, and helped write the story.
Michael: It was fun playing a producer role on C2. I’ve always had an interest in film. I scored a couple of movies and did The Second Chance movie. Obviously, I saw the potential in Ryan and Mark. These guys really have it. Ryan’s directed three of my videos, and, more than likely, the next film I’ll be in might be one of his films.
But I didn’t even score these films. It was fun to say, “I’m not doing the music, but here’s recommendations of a couple [people] that would be good.” The guys who [scored the films}—Jim Daneker and David Hamilton—knocked it out of the park in my opinion.
CMP: What influence do you think film exerts on moviegoers?
Ryan: In a survey the Barna Group conducted recently “nearly one-third of adults (29 percent) contend that movies have had a substantial impact on the development of their personal morals, values and religious beliefs.”
People are impacted by what they see whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it’s subconscious. I think that’s the kind of filmmaking we’re interested in, something that’s a little more under the radar, something subtler. We’re not interested in making message movies.
Michael: Not interested in the fluff. I think these guys write stuff that requires you to make a decision. I think the two shorts really make you think.
Ryan: They’re not really “Christian” films. You could watch either of these shorts at any film festival and not automatically think, “Oh, a Christian must have made that.”
It’s not that we’re trying to be something we’re not. It’s just about telling a good story, and if in the midst of that you find out that you actually have something to say in the story, then that’s great. But if you’re starting with, “I’m gonna’ get this message across” then it’s just an advertisement.
CMP: Do you think as Christians study the C2 curriculum the films might encourage some to go watch movies they may not have otherwise because of content or rating?
Michael: I hope and think that they would.
Ryan: Somebody recently asked me, “What would you tell somebody who objected to seeing a movie because of content?” The best answer I can give is, “Everybody is different.” Certain things affect people in different ways. You have to decide for yourself where that line is.
A lot of people have made the mistake of assuming that because we are trying to encourage people to “take their Christian worldview to the movies” that means it’s about a content thing. That’s just not it. We’re not trying to teach you what not to watch. We’re not saying, “go see everything” either. It’s a broader thing. Artistically, what are you looking for when you go to the movies?
The Bible itself is full of sex and incest and crazy violence. It’s definitely an R-rated book. So if you want to tap into the human condition at all, glossing over the messier stuff is, I think, an untrue view of reality. It’s not that you have to have a lot of objectionable stuff in [the movie], but others tend to kind of sugarcoat things. It’s very black and white, “This is bad. This is right.” There’s no middle ground, no gray zone.
CMP: What kind of impact would you like to see from the C2 studies?
Ryan: We’re not real thrilled with how Christian film has turned out over the past few years. It blows me away that people go see some of this stuff, and they think it’s great. Christians especially have this habit of thinking if the message is good they can overlook the fact the movie looks terrible, the acting is horrible and the script is awful.
We hope that people would develop a better appreciation for art and film specifically.
Michael: And then go make good art.
Ryan: At least be able to learn to recognize it.
Michael: Historically, everybody looked to the Church for great art. Now it’s swapped. It’s actually pretty sad. We, as believers, should be on the cutting edge of making the best art ever, but we’ve wanted to follow instead of lead. We’d love to see that change.
CMP: What is your working relationship like, the dynamic as father and son?
Michael: I’m the cheerleader. C2 went pretty smoothly because we got a partner in Randall House. But now we are trying to start on the first feature film, and my role is to use my influence and contacts to get people interested, introduce them to Ryan and invest in the film—get everybody’s enthusiasm up.
Ryan’s been out to Ed Harris’ film company, which has been a good contact. I became friends with “Buster” from Arrested Development—what’s his name?
Ryan: Tony Hale.
Michael: Yeah, Tony Hale. He’s a believer. Initially, I try to set things up and then one thing leads to another and this person knows that person. You have to massage this stuff awhile and get somebody on your side when you’re raising millions of dollars. In this case, what is it?
Ryan: 1.4 million.
Michael: Sometimes it takes e-mailing two, three or four times. Just like the record business, you just have to get out and hit the streets. You have to really, really want it.
The tough thing is it’s your first film. Ryan is going to direct. Who’s going to invest? Who is going to give 1.4 [million] to a director who’s never directed a film before? But hey, Spielberg directed his first film. And so did [George] Lucas.
And with C2, we’ll see how they do.
For more information on C2: Giving Movies a Second Look, visit c2dvd.com. Check out seabournepictures.com for more about Ryan’s work, and to learn more about Michael W. Smith, visit his official website at michaelwsmith.com.
©2008 ChristianMusicPlanet.com. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
*This interview first published on August 22, 2008.