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Up Front

MPAA Rating
June 27, 2011
Adam R. Holz
Faith, Film and … Dean Batali

Faith, Film and … Dean Batali

Fox's raunchy sitcom That '70s Show and the WB's undead teen drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer might seem unlikely places to find a Christian behind the scenes. But after coming to Hollywood and working his way up through the television system, Dean Batali found himself producing the former and working as a screenwriter for the latter. More recently he's written for Disney's Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil. He also contributed a chapter to the 2005 book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.

I recently talked with Dean about how he ended up in those unexpected places, what his influence there looked like, and what aspiring Christians looking to break into the entertainment business need to consider.

Adam R. Holz: Dean, we occasionally get letters from Christians who want to pursue a career in Hollywood. Could you tell us about your journey in the entertainment business?

Dean Batali: Well, first off it's striking that you get letters from people who want to pursue a career in Hollywood. We have to pause and realize how radical that is from where the Christian community was 20 years ago. We now have a generation of people who are considering Hollywood as a mission field, as a place that God wants them to be.

As for my own journey, I grew up in the Seattle area as a social churchgoer. But I didn't take religion very seriously until I had a Damascus road experience of sorts when I was 18. After that, I decided I wanted to try writing. I wrote some plays. I worked for a Christian theater company. And in 1990, I moved to Hollywood.

I looked at Hollywood and wondered why I wasn't seeing more Christian characters on television and in film. And the ones that I was seeing weren't good representations of Christians. So I came here thinking, "Well, maybe I can be a sitcom writer." Lo and behold, 21 years later, I've had a pretty good career as a sitcom writer.

Holz: How did you break into the business once you landed in L.A.?

Batali: Within three months of moving to Hollywood, I got a job in the mailroom at MGM, where they had done Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and Gilligan's Island. Eventually I met writers, became an assistant, started writing scripts, then landed a writing job.

Holz: Is that still the way people today might get started in the entertainment industry?

Batali: Yeah, I think so. With That 70's Show, for example, by the end of the series, half of the writing staff consisted of writer's assistants. I'd say probably 75% of the people who get jobs writing in Hollywood do so by working as an assistant first. In the end, though, you've also got to have a script that's good. All in all, it takes talent, access and opportunity.

Lots of people send me scripts and say, "I wrote a pilot. Can you produce it?" But that's not how it works. You've got to have a certain reputation in order to get meetings in Hollywood. And you get that by working in these entry-level jobs. So I tell people, get as much production experience as you can before you come to Hollywood. Fill up your résumé working at theater companies and TV stations and radio stations. I don't care if you have a film degree. What I care about is if you know how to roll up a cable!

And by the way, your first job is most likely going to be making copies of scripts … and making coffee!

Holz: That sounds like an episode of Mad Men!

Batali: That's correct. If your job in Hollywood is to fill up the coffee pot, just do it better than anybody else, and you'll get promoted.

Holz: Dean, Christians sometimes paint Hollywood with a broad brush, describing it as a pagan playground that's hostile to our faith. As a Christian and an insider in Hollywood, how do you respond to that generalization?

Batali: I'm in the middle, because it's not completely false and it's not completely true. I don't think Hollywood's actively hostile to Christianity so much as it doesn't understand Christianity.

Holz: Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Batali: Most of the writers I know in Hollywood have heard about Jesus. And they have gone beyond rejecting Him. They have actually declared Him irrelevant. That's my take on Hollywood. Hollywood thinks Jesus is irrelevant. And if Jesus is irrelevant, then Christians are also irrelevant. So there's this assumption that these people are foolish, that they aren't very smart and that they're politically driven. I think that Hollywood is more afraid of the politics of Christians, in fact, than their actual faith.

Holz: That's pretty interesting.

Batali: Yeah, people often assume all Christians are right-wing Republicans with a political agenda. They are more afraid of the laws we want to pass than whether or not we want to convert them. They can reject our requests to have them accept Christ, but they fear that we actually want them to follow certain laws. So any hostility we notice tends to be based on their perception of Christians' political views.

I will argue with the people who believe there's some sort of anti-Christian agenda in Hollywood. It's just not true. People don't sit around asking, "How do we get Christian values off the air?" Occasionally someone might talk about how to get an environmental cause on TV, or things like that. But there's no active conspiracy against Christians. It's simply lack of understanding.

Look, I've worked with about 65 writers on 10 different shows, and I've only found about five other writers who go to church. And they are, for the most part, social churchgoers. None of those writers would describe themselves as evangelical or seriously Christian. (Now, I should say, there are a lot of other Christian writers in Hollywood; I've just never worked with them.) One of the writers I worked with said to me, "Dean, I'm so glad I know you because now I know that all Christians aren't freaks!" That's her perception, and it's most people's perception in Hollywood.

Holz: I suppose that's not surprising, but it is pretty sobering.

Batali: I once spoke to an executive who ran a major network. I was pitching some ideas to her about a show with religious characters. She responded, "Yeah, the religious community is really tough to please. It's kind of scary sometimes—especially when they get your home address." And I realized she was saying she'd had people at her home, picketing her house.

Do you think this network president is ever going to air any show about religion in a positive light? She's not even going to touch religious themes, based on the experience she had. That's what we're dealing with.

Holz: Dean, the success of The Passion of the Christ in 2004 was a watershed moment in terms of a modern, Christian-themed film that was both well-produced and embraced broadly by the mainstream. Have you seen more openness in Hollywood since then with regard to creating content that keeps the Christian audience in mind?

Batali: There is some openness in the film world, but not so much in the TV world. We have yet to have our Passion of the Christ moment on TV. Still, what that film did was announce to Hollywood that Christians exist as a market share, just like teen girls are a market share, the African-American community is a market share, just like the gay audience is a market share.

That said, even the film folks still don't really understand that Christians are such a large percentage of the community—a big market share. For example a few companies have a faith division. Sony has a faith division; Fox has a faith division where they're trying to make films specifically for Christians. But they aren't spending much money. They're making these movies for 1 million, 2 million dollars. And none of the major studios have a dedicated development executive for Christian films, someone who's solely devoted to developing movies for Christians.

Holz: You mentioned that television has yet to really have its Passion moment. Can you say more about that?

Batali: Yeah. Like I said, television really is in a different place than the movie world. I've pitched shows to networks about youth groups—something virtually every Christian knows about—and the executives say to me, "What's a youth group?"

That's how much distance we're talking about between our two cultures, you know? The show 7th Heaven was about a churchgoing family. But it wasn't really created to be about a churchgoing family. I don't know if you know the history of it. It was actually pitched as a show about a functional family. At the time there were not any shows about functional families on TV. And one of the executives said, "Hey, make it a minister."

Holz: So the spiritual context was kind of a happy accident?

Batali: That's right. And 7th Heaven was the No. 1 rated show on the WB. It was bigger than Buffy. It was bigger than Dawson's Creek. It was the No. 1 show among teen girls on all of network television. But it never got the attention Buffy did or Dawson's Creek did because Buffy and Dawson were sexier shows. I'll argue that—and I am convinced this is true—no executive ever went to a party in Hollywood and heard these words: "Oh, I love 7th Heaven. My family and I watch it all the time." They went and heard things like, "Oh, I loved that lesbian kiss on Dawson's Creek. That show is hot. You guys got the cover of Entertainment Weekly."

That's what Hollywood is all about. It's like high school with rich, angry, smart people, in my opinion. They want the attention that we longed for in high school. So you tend to see shows that are on the cutting edge. Since so few people in Hollywood even know anybody who would watch a show like 7th Heaven or Touched by an Angel, they don't make more shows like them. This is where television is not as market-driven as film. It's more popularity driven. Now, yes, sometimes you'll put shows on that appeal to a demographic that you don't personally watch. You might try to appeal to an African-American audience, for example. But generally you're going after a younger audience, a hipper audience. And Hollywood doesn't think Christians are hip.

But the tide is changing, slowly. Ten years ago, when I was talking about characters of faith, I couldn't point to many in the history of television, other than the ones we saw on 7th Heaven. Now I can point to characters that have been on shows like Friday Night Lights, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, even The Simpsons' Ned Flanders. Characters of faith are also starting to crop up even on darker cable shows such as DexterDamages and Justified. Christians have become sort of like what the wacky, gay neighbor once was. It used to be you'd have a gay neighbor on every show, and now it's Christians. You know, they're not all great portrayals, I'll admit that. But at least now they're present.

Holz: Let's go back to Buffy and That '70s Show for a moment. In the chapter you wrote for Behind the Screen, you said, "I sympathize with viewers who are disgusted with the foul language and sexual content on many television shows. That's one of the reasons I came to Hollywood. To try to influence the content of those shows." With that in mind, how can a Christian work on shows like Buffy or That '70s Show, given the signficant content issues on both.

Batali: Well first of all, those people, viewers and readers should be concerned. They should wonder about me, and they should ask questions, and they should challenge me. Because that's how we grow as a church. Some of the stuff on both of those shows really bothered me. On That '70s Show, we had kids smoking pot at age 12 and people having sex as young as 15. I think That '70s Show, and I've said it before, was actually damaging to our culture.

Holz: So the obvious question is: Why were you there?

Batali: My feeling is, that's where God put me. As a television writer, yes, I could have turned down the job. But we don't get to just pick whatever show we want to work on. We go where the work is. And I felt called in Hollywood to go wherever they wanted me to come. I was invited into that room because of my skills as a comedy writer, or as a drama writer, in the case of Buffy. That's what they hired me to do. So it was my job to go there and do the job as well as possible.

And they certainly knew about my faith. I became known in the room as the guy who could turn any dirty joke clean. I would try to affect the storyline and the scripts however I could. Now, it usually wasn't major, but I was actually able to slip in some moments of goodness or truth here and there. Occasionally, I got language changed or a dirty joke changed to become a sillier joke. Still, these are not things that I can go into a church and show clips of.

A lot of times, it was a scene that was cut or a storyline that we didn't do. And that's kind of the struggle when it comes to identifying what Christians are doing in Hollywood. We're not going to get plaques or awards saying, "Congratulations for keeping this scene off the air. Now let's see the scene that didn't make it on the air." I can't point to episodes and say, "This is what I'm so proud of."

But what I feel I was called to do was to sit in a room where no other Christians were, to love the people in a way that maybe they haven't been loved before. And to pray for them because I don't know if anyone else was praying for those 12 people. But I did, regularly. And also, you know, I did what I could to inject a little salt and light into episodes that I think could have been damaging to our culture.

Holz: So it sounds like you had small but real opportunities to influence those shows in terms of making them less bad than they might have been otherwise. Is that a fair characterization?

Batali: That's correct. Here's one thing I've said before, and it puts it in perspective. That '70s Show was always rated as one of the worst three shows on TV by the Parents Television Council. I would argue that if I hadn't been there, we would have been the No. 1 worst show.

There is a line. And I am very conscious of that line. I think that God sends us to different places based on where he wants us to be just like He sends different soldiers on the battlefield, some on the front lines, some driving the trucks. So I am sensitive to that. If there are some who say Christians should not go there at all, I understand that argument. I don't agree with it. But I do respect it, and I understand where it comes from.

Where are we supposed to take salt and light? This is where I felt God called me to go. And daily I tried to be faithful to that, and I was certainly aware of the fact that God had placed me there.

A lot of Christians compare Hollywood to Sodom and Gomorrah, but I'd argue it's more like Nineveh. Now, Nineveh was a pretty awful place. But Jonah, being obedient to God, went there and did what God told him to do (eventually). Because he was faithful, the entire city changed, from the king on down. I'm foolish enough to think that if we are obedient to God, we can actually change this entire town in a positive way.

But it's going to take another generation, because this is a place that's declared Jesus irrelevant. It's going to take time to make Him relevant again. We can do that, but I think it will take prayer and loving people the way Christ loves people.