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SXSW '07 Interview: "Fall From Grace" Director K. Ryan Jones

by William Goss

The "Fall From Grace" Pitch: "The first documentary to explore the hate-filled world of Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS."

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
"Fall From Grace" is the first in-depth documentary on Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. The congregation is notorious around the country and even the world for their anti-homosexual crusade, the picketing of military funerals, and signs that say things like 'God hates fags,' 'Thank God for 9/11,' and 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers.'

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience?
This is my first trip to SXSW and also my first film festival.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up, I want to be a..." what?
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an actor. I can't remember ever wanting to be anything other than that.

Not including your backyard and your dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?
I got my first non-linear digital editing system when I was 12 and I was hooked from that point on. As far as a real start, I'm not sure. I guess this film is really my first foray into the big time.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"
Maybe a little. It's really great to get validation after you've put so much of yourself into a project, and being invited to screen at a festival definitely provides affirmation. It's one thing for your friends and family to say they like your film, but when a group of people you don't know says, "We like this and we want to help you share it with people," that means a lot.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
This is a great question, because I feel really stumped by it. I like Snuffleupagus. He seems very pensive and deep. There's a certain bit of mystery to Snuffie and I like to project a certain air of mystery, as well. I think that he spends a lot of time, as do I, contemplating why many of the Muppets seem to be so androgynous.

During production, did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
My film started out as a class project at the University of Kansas, so my only aspiration was that the film be the best in the class. Everything beyond that has been a totally pleasant surprise.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I was in an intermediate video production class at KU in the Fall of 2005 and we were charged to use the semester to make any kind of film we wanted (documentary, narrative, short, long, etc.). I chose the Phelpses because they were nearby, dramatic, and nobody had ever done anything more than a news report on them before. I called down to see if they'd be willing to cooperate, and they were. Originally, it was only going to be a 15-20 minute profile, but then they started picketing military funerals and my planned production time of 1 month turned to three months, then six. After 12 months, I finally had a final cut that I was satisfied with. Last night, I started designing the web site for the film.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
I chose to treat a deplorable subject as objectively as I could. I knew it would be easy to make spectacle out of these people, but I wanted to do a film with some dignity. Michael Moore did a segment on his TV show about the same subjects a number of years ago, but he brought in an RV full of flamboyant homosexuals and parked it outside the church. It was entertaining, but did anyone learn anything from that segment? I've learned that people want to be entertained, yes, but they also really appreciate when they see something that isn't ramming a message down their throat.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
With respect to documentary, Errol Morris is huge. "The Thin Blue Line" was one of the first real documentaries I ever saw, and I was blown away by it. Also, Andrew Jarecki. "Capturing the Friedmans" is, hands-down, the best documentary I've ever seen. It definitely had a direct effect on the way in which I made my film and approached my subject. Anytime I'm at the video store and see people hovering around the documentary section, I always go up to them, remove "Friedmans" from the shelf and say, "If you want to watch a documentary, get this. It will change your life."

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell "This! I want something JUST like this, only different."?
Once again, "Friedmans" was something I watched several times throughout production.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
If I could bring him back from the dead, Brando. What a Homer he would make. He'd just be thankful that he didn't have to put cotton balls in his cheeks to achieve the character.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
"In Cold Blood." I know there's been a lot on Capote recently, but I've always loved that book. I've read it four times and never felt like the movie adaptations did it justice.

Name an actor in your film that's absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Since the majority of the people in the film are very frightening people, I hope none of them are destined for the big-time. There is a minister that I interviewed that I was very impressed with, so I guess I would hope he could make it to the big time from a ministerial perspective. I don't know what that would be. Heaven, I guess.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...
A minister. When I was in high school, I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do, but I couldn't shake the passion I had for filmmaking, so I pursued it.

Who's an actor you'd kill a small dog to work with? (Don't worry; nobody would know.)
Paul Newman! That guy is the best. No comparison.

Have you 'made it' yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"?
I don't think so. When I have a home in the Hollywood hills, and the security guard at the studio gate knows my name because I thanked him for his support in my Oscar acceptance speech, maybe then I'll be able to say I've made it.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
I haven't ever thought about it. There are a couple that I like, people whose reviews I read and almost always agree with. I like Roger Ebert. All the other film critics could disappear tomorrow, but as long as Ebert were still around, I'd be fine. That is a man that genuinely loves the cinema. He can intellectualize it, but he can also go from the gut. Not many other critics I've read can do this.

You're told that your next movie must have one product placement on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
An Apple computer product of some kind. I am almost as passionate about that company as I am about filmmaking. It's ridiculous.

You're contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that's absolutely integral to the film or you're getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
First, I'd watch Kirby Dick's "This Film is Not Yet Rated" for research purposes, then I guess I'd try to recut the sex scene so that the arbitrary MPAA might find it more 'acceptable.' If it's integral to the film, I'm not going to cut it altogether, though.

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film - or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
I've heard a lot of talk about this recently. Truthfully, I used "A film by K. Ryan Jones" in my credits because I actually did do it mostly by myself. Obviously, I had the support and feedback from a variety of people and the cooperation of my subjects, but I researched, wrote, shot, interviewed, and edited the thing on my own, so I felt justified, I guess. I did have a friend design my poster, though. Maybe I should rethink this.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
"Fall From Grace" gives the viewer the rare opportunity to see the inner workings of a hate group and what many consider to be a cult. A lot of people have seen these people picketing, but why are they doing it and what are they like outside that arena? The film tries to answer some of these questions, but it also forces us to ask ourselves some tough questions about gay rights, freedom of speech, and the war in Iraq. I can promise you that this is a film that is going to stay with you. In a time when Hollywood is producing remakes and sequels, "Fall From Grace" offers the viewer the rare opportunity of seeing something they've never seen before.


K. Ryan Jones' Fall From Grace will play as part of the 2007 South By Southwest's "Emerging Visions" slate. For more information, click here. And check out BSide.com for even more info!

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2077
originally posted: 02/15/07 15:03:19
last updated: 03/06/07 17:45:30
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