Meeting God Halfway
More than 80 percent of people worldwide identify as religious. Yet for those who work within the American film industry, being of faith is talked about in hushed tones—or not at all. Some are bothered by the presence of religion in films; filmmaker Joseph Holmes is bothered by the absence of it.
“I can only talk about one of two things: I can talk about God, or I can talk about something He’s made,” Holmes says. “And if I talk about something He’s made without giving Him credit for it in some way in the story, I always feel like I’m committing a kind of cosmic plagiarism.”
Described by friends as approachable, thought-provoking, and having “the dorky charm of an 80’s cartoon hero,” Holmes seems to have nothing short of a wall of praise around him, and God on his side.
But life hardly ever has a smooth run. The son of two ordained ministers, Holmes quietly began to struggle with his faith as a teenager, a time in life he describes as one of becoming more independent and skeptical. He began to wonder if the world might be more easily explained without assuming miracles and other unseen wonders that religion demands belief in.
“It was very much about the fear that I might be being conned by the whole Christian enterprise,” Holmes says. “And you have a lot of really smart-sounding people—both writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and peers—who are very confident that Christianity is false. So I got scared that it might actually be a made up thing after all.”
Holmes sat alone in his bedroom one day and prayed in silence: “God, if you're real... please show me. If not...forget I said anything.”
Within a few weeks, Holmes’ parents incidentally introduced him to Christian apologetics, including writers like Josh McDowell.
“I took to them instantly, like a starving man to water,” Holmes says.
McDowell was monumental in restoring the young boy’s faith--a “dramatic and life-giving reversal,” as Holmes calls it.
“I spent months in research,” McDowell writes in his memoir, More Than a Carpenter. “I even dropped out of school for a time to study in the historically rich libraries of Europe. And I found evidence. Evidence in abundance. Evidence I would not have believed had I not seen it with my own eyes. Finally I could come to only one conclusion: If I were to remain intellectually honest, I had to admit that the Old and New Testament documents were some of the most reliable writings in all of antiquity.”
Working through passages such as this, Holmes eventually came to terms with his doubts about whether Christianity could be true, and realized that, in fact, it was very reasonable to believe in it.
Between teenage struggles with faith and personal failures in college, Holmes seems like an ordinary guy. In fact, for the first two years of his time as a student at The King’s College, he went by the name “Normal Guy,” which was quickly picked up by other students.
But perhaps it’s precisely because of his humility and undying passion for film that Holmes has met unprecedented success.
Watching movies with his family and debating theology was natural to Holmes from an early age. He was captivated by the notion of the enchanted universe, “where it’s cosmic, it’s beautiful, there’s something worth exploring and worshipping in it.” For Holmes, that process is life, and movies have a special way of capturing that.
Watching Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” Holmes suddenly became enamored with a film’s ability to prompt one to worship--in a way that he didn’t think was possible outside of church.
Actually, films prompt one to worship regardless of what the object of worship is, Holmes realized.
“That was such a bigger purpose of film than either entertainment or a message,” he says. “I wanted to be able to make films that prompted in people, both believers and non-believers, worship of God and celebration of His Kingdom.”
When Holmes came to The King’s College in 2012, he immediately noticed the intensely intellectual and culturally-diverse student community. Lots of students were interested in film, too.
Holmes wrote a short script to “beta-test” the idea of founding a filmmaking club and was able to get together a cast for “Kelly Vs. The Philosophers.”
“It was totally disorganized, but people just kind of stuck with it. People came [to watch on opening night] and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so awkward.’ And then everyone really liked it,” he says.
Directing was something Holmes could actually put into practice. Thus, King’s Image Films was born.
“When I first met him, I was mildly intimidated by his gigantic personality,” recalls Deryka Tso (TKC ‘17), who took over as president of King’s Image Films (now known as King’s Cinema Society) after Holmes. “He was wearing a geeky superhero t-shirt and a Sherlock Holmes hat with a tweed jacket, none of which matched anything else—but somehow it worked for him.”
Many share Tso’s sentiments about “Joe.”
“My first impressions were that he was bright, ambitious for the Lord, and that he had a great sense of humor. All of those impressions have proven true,” says actor Rich Swingle, who played a major role in Holmes’ short film “All God’s Children” and was later nominated for Best Lead Actor at the International Christian Film Festival.
Kyle Trivanovich (TKC ‘17), who also acted in one of Holmes’ later films, comments, “I was visiting King's at an Inviso in the spring of 2013, just before I graduated high school. After talking with one of the student ambassadors for a while, she said she had to go find someone she wanted me to meet...and told [Holmes] something like, ‘I've met your twin!’ before introducing us. In short, we were both similar-looking, outgoing, opinionated nerds. Eventually, he became one of my closest friends.”
Holmes remembers his junior year as a “crisis,” when nearly all the members of the groundbreaking film club left.
“It was a combination of ‘creative differences’ and a very stressful semester for everyone. At the end of the day, I had only one person left in the club with me and no way to make our next film. So I thought perhaps that was it.”
After such a successful launch, the prospect of the club dissolving was stunning.
But God met Holmes halfway, it seems.
“Hope [Ann White (TKC ‘17)] walks up to me and says ‘Hey! When are you doing that film you told me about? I want to be in it. And I've convinced a friend to be in it too,’” Holmes recalls. “So I said to myself... okay... you have to think of how to make this work. So I prayed to God and I reached out to a [director of photography] I knew and he said he would love to make a film with us...we crammed it in three days, but it worked! That’s how it always seems...with making films. Everything will go wrong but somehow it will still get done.”
That film became “Happy Never After.” Holmes calls it a defining moment.
“I put myself out there and gained enough friends and people who believed in me along the way that I could always find people to support me in my projects after. If I hadn't learned how to find people who believed in me and prioritize those people I wouldn't be able to do what I do now.”
White affirms Holmes’ go-getter attitude.
“Everyone has a part of them that wants to just go for it—to do that thing they always wanted to do through it seems crazy,” she says. “Normal Guy mirrors that passion in all of us. He goes for it, no matter how bizarre it seems. He will always be the guy that tries no matter what.”
Since graduating college, Holmes has chosen the independent filmmaking route. This means having a day job working as a Development Associate at the National Association of Scholars and making short films on the weekends/submitting them to festivals, as well as working on a longer feature script.
“There isn’t really a market for short films,” Holmes says. “There's a market for TV and movies. So what I do with my short films is get attention and recognition and network so I can get investors interested in my TV show or movie script.”
Holmes has not made any money from his films yet. In fact, he has spent over $1,000 out of pocket to produce just one of them. This included paying for cinematography and audio, editing, and one actor—it pays to have friends who are willing to act for free, Holmes jokes.
Holmes’ dream is to emulate a cross between Steven Spielberg, C.S. Lewis and Walt Disney. In other words, “A film director and screenwriter who has a Christian imagination that can create vivid, beautiful stories that can then not only make those stories but then leave a legacy that can live on after.” But, according to film critic Alissa Wilkinson, explicitly Christian films are not only considered niche in the industry, they are less likely to be funded by big studios.
“They just want to make the most money they can, and thus the larger the budget, the broader the film,” she says.
About 25-30 percent of independent films have explicitly religious plots, Wilkinson estimates. That drops down to 5-10 percent for studio movies. That’s not to say that big films don’t at times incorporate religious imagery or in some way allude to religious ideas, she says. But Holmes’ dream is more than an uphill battle.
“I want to tell stories that are explicitly glorifying the God of the Bible, celebrating him and celebrating the ways that we as humans get to participate in his love and glory,” Holmes says. “There are very few movies that tell a story about why what God has given us is beautiful, that give God the praise He deserves for all that He's done, and show how we can be a part of the heroic task of participating in His plan.”
Nevertheless, to Holmes, the entire filmmaking experience is rewarding. And this year, “All God’s Children” was accepted into the International Christian Film Festival, as well as the Hollywood Divine International Film Festival. Holmes calls it “one of the most exciting moments of the past few years.”
Besides the large-scale industry ambitions, Holmes admits a more modest goal.
“Seinfeld said, ‘What’s making it? You either love what you’re doing, or you don’t.’ If I can continue to do that process [of worship], that is ‘making it.’”
Holmes recently launched a blog. Check it out here: www.overthinkingfilms.com