'Most Christian films are bad': Howie Klausner on film and faith

Twitter: @TSHMovieinfoTim Brown (producer), Howie Klausner (writer/director), Kevin Sorbo and Jon Hartman (associate producer) on set of The Secret Handshake

Filmmaker and Hollywood veteran Howie Klausner has just wrapped up directing 'The Secret Handshake', a feature length film starring Kevin Sorbo and bestselling Christian musician Amy Grant.

Sorbo is cast as Roy, a father trying to raise his three daughters in a suburban neighbourhood, which proves difficult with increasing attention from the local boys. Grant stars as the mother of one of the troublemaking youngsters.

Best known for playing Hercules in The Legendary Journeys, Sorbo is famously vocal about his faith, and has called the script "hilarious", saying it's "about boys learning how to be men, from men who never learned themselves".

Klausner – whose previous credits include 'Space Cowboys' starring Clint Eastwood, and 'Soul Surfer' - has labelled the film as "a story of men and boys on a journey from suburbia to the deep dark woods, and back again - with adventure, laughter and maybe a even a tear or two".

In an interview with Christian Today, however, he contends that 'Christian' movies often fall below par, and is keen to promote what he calls 'mainstream-faith-friendly' films instead.

CT: You both wrote and directed The Secret Handshake. Where did the idea for this film come from?

HK: Well the whole thing started when a guy in my neighbourhood asked all the men to write his son a letter on his 13th birthday. I'm a comedy writer, so I didn't take it seriously at first, but then I saw it as an opportunity to speak to a boy about the things he should know. My dad died when I was 13, and I have daughters, so I wrote it as the things I wish someone had told me, and the things I want the guys dating/marrying my daughters to know.

The next thing I knew I was writing a script that felt like City Slickers and Wimpy Kid.  It's a mainstream comedy, but with a serious message.

CT: The Secret Handshake is about 'learning what it takes to be a man' – what would you say that entails?

HK: Well, there's a reason it's a 'Secret' Handshake... But our job is to protect, and to serve our home and the village, and provide. That's what God designed us to be, and we are at our best when we die to ourselves, and give our lives to the higher things and to others. I think men are confused in this swirling age of PC, and secular humanism - many good things have come out of these cultural revolutions, like women's equality and racial equality - but men have more or less lost the clarity and assuredness that we are okay and fine with just being men. And that's as close to the "secret" as I'm prepared to offer at this time!

CT: You've worked with Kevin before, but Amy Grant is new to the acting scene. How did the cast come together?

HK: I called Kevin and happily he loved the script. Amy and I both grew up in Christian music, she at a far higher level than me obviously, and of course I adore her as a singer and a person. When I wrote the scenes for the character she eventually agreed to play, I sat up and said quietly to myself, Amy Grant. And set about through mutual acquaintances to talk her into it.

I guess she doesn't see herself as an actress, but I was casting her as a person, and her grace and spirit. She plays a very vulnerable character, and literally brought me to tears while filming it. She was, and is, amazing.

CT: Obviously Kevin, Amy and yourself are all Christians, and no strangers to being vocal about your faith, but I read a blog you wrote a couple of years ago in which you discern between being a Christian filmmaker and a filmmaker who happens to be a Christian.  Is that something you're still wrestling with?

HK: Well, I wouldn't say it's a wrestling match - I'm actually quite at peace about it all. I am a Christian who makes mainstream stories, and doesn't apologise for it. I have made my share of evangelical work, and I was happy to do it, but I believe I am called as a storyteller to reach out with joy and affirmation and laughter and occasionally challenge and make slightly uncomfortable. That's what art is for.

I met Steven Kendrick and he put it very succinctly. He said something like, "We really make teaching tools more than 'movies'." He's right, and they are brilliant at it. That's not what I'm trained or called to do. I came of artistic age with Clint Eastwood, and that's my artistic sensibility. I love the Lord and I make big broad stories.

CT: Another thing you mentioned in that blog was the importance of meeting people where they're at, rather than 'brow-beating' them with your own ideas about faith. How have you addressed faith in The Secret Handshake? Is there an overt Christian message, or have you tried to keep it open and accessible?

HK: Yes, without watering it down or being afraid of it. Honestly, nobody ever did it better than Jesus. The fact is, his parables about life and heaven and the Father are great stories, but curiously, not all that 'evangelical'. They just make sense of our place in the universe and how to live here.

Wow. That's a pretty sweeping statement. But honestly, it is his clarity and depth and simplicity that amaze me more and more as I read his words and stories. I am in awe of him as a storyteller as well as who he really is.

For Handshake, I believe I have found my vice and my 'brand' - to use a big Americanism - I love "Faith Friendly-Mainstream". I liken this film to the Frank Capra feel and scope, as well as the love action Disney movies of 40-50 years ago. Not "Christian", but certainly friendly to the morals and faith and view of those who love the Lord. And you don't have to peel the layers back too far in Handshake to read the common sense teachings of Solomon; "Train up a child in the way he should go..."

CT: With that being said, how does The Secret Handshake fit in the cinema alongside Biblical epics such as Noah? Would you say it's a more accessible take on faith?

HK: Well, I've always said this - Hollywood is not an immoral place, it is just amoral. A very highly placed studio executive friend of mine told me after I wrote and produced the Grace Card (agonistic Jewish guy, and he liked the film), "Howie, if Jesus movies all made $100 million, that's all we'd make."

I think we get what we might expect from atheists and agnostics making stories from the Bible: good looking, technically fabulous movies that are far, far from the actual meaning and intent of the Bible's inclusion of those stories, and with perhaps an underlying agenda. I have steered clear of the "Noah" controversy, other than to say, honestly, I think it's a pretty poor film across the board, and its 'attendant controversies' are not exactly horrible to the studio - controversy always sells tickets. End of story.

Oh, and how do faith-friendly mainstream stories sit alongside? Honestly, we are faith in film's only hope for relevance. This is a subject that could get me going for a long time, but here's the bomb I'll toss into the room: most Christian films are bad. They are badly written, badly acted, and technically not fabulous - generally this comes from a tiny budget, but it's also from silly things like only hiring Christians to make the film, and having pastors inject dialogue into the script. I had a loving but slightly uncomfortable bout with a pastor on a film once, and I had to stand my ground as an artist, by saying "I promise not to rewrite your sermons, please don't rewrite my dialogue".

We must maintain the highest standards of the art, or we will be cast off into the realm of "irrelevant" and "preaching to the choir". I used to also argue, does anyone really believe Michelangelo made his army of painters and sculptors sign a statement of their faith? Or Solomon in building his Temple?" And these were two task-master artists who demanded the highest standards of all, and did it to the glory of God.

I guess I'm saying Jesus cast a wide net, and so must we. Mainstream films about the heroic and that love the creation and the Creator, do cast that wide net, but we don't need a conversion scene or a sermon.

CT: Even though Noah might be causing all the controversy and raking it in, God's Not Dead is doing really well in the box office too, so I imagine you're hoping to emulate that success?

HK: Absolutely! I am so cheering for God's Not Dead, I love Kevin to death; he is really good in it. I also should say, overt Christian or mainstream-faith friendly, this is an underserved audience with the vacuous and agnostic content coming out of Hollywood en masse. If you build it, this audience will come!

The Secret Handshake is due to hit cinemas later this year; follow the updates on Twitter @TSHMovieinfo.