Film Director Steve Taylor (who has also been known for his own solo music and production work on artists like Newsboys and Sixpence None The Richer over the years) brought the popular novel from Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz to life as a feature film. Taylor took time out of a busy on-the-road screening tour to talk to Jesusfreakhideout.com about his new movie, what drew him to adapt the story for the screen, and more...
This interview took place on: 3/28/12.
JFH (John DiBiase): At the screenings, you were able to give a bit of an intro or even disclaimer before people saw the movie. Given that most viewers won't have that opportunity, what would you like our readers, before seeing it, to know about the film?
First, I'd want them to know that it's rated PG-13, and it earns its rating. When I sat down to write the screenplay with Donald Miller and my longtime collaborator Ben Pearson, we decided from the beginning that if this story was worth telling, it was worth telling truthfully. And we didn't see how it was possible to tell a story set at Reed College - aka "the most godless campus in America" - without portraying the reality of campus life there. It was a challenge to keep it within the realm of a PG-13 movie, and we tried to walk that fine line between realistic and gratuitous. I'm sure there will be some viewers who may be offended at some of the content. But I'm even more sure that most of the people who will be interested in our movie would be even more offended if it was sanitized for a family audience.
JFH (John): Has personally interacting with people at these screenings changed your perception of the film at all?
I'm not sure where we got the notion that any media with Christian content must, of necessity, be "safe for the whole family." If we made a family-friendly version of the Bible, it would be a much shorter book.
Definitely. When I did music, I could play you, say, my new album, then ask you with a straight face, "So—was it great, or is it just over your head?" Listening to music is much more of a subjective experience, with a much broader range of opinions on what's good and what's not. But when it comes to filmmaking—especially when you're telling a story—I think it's a lot less subjective than we wish it was. You can tell a story well or you can tell a story poorly and all ranges in between. So, automatically, when you become a filmmaker, you have to be much more in tune with an audience. And you really don't know anything until you show it to an audience. And it's then that you find out: Is the movie paced right? Or are they getting things before we think they're getting them and, therefore, this scene should be cut out because they already know what's been going on? Are they confused in places where we didn't think they would be confused, where we might need to add a scene back in to clarify the action? So the engagement with the audience changes because you're telling a story and you don't want people to be confused. So we started doing--I guess you can call them "test screenings"--last summer, and I would sit in the room with the audience and sometimes Don [Miller] was there as well and I would take notes. I would have them fill out forms. Part of it was perception of what they thought overall, but part of it was "Does this make sense? Were there parts where you got confused?" Anything like that. And some consensus opinions might emerge about "This character is confusing me" or "I don't understand what's happening at this plot point" and those are the things we pay attention to because it's become some measure of a consensus opinion. And then you go back and take those notes and try to fix those things that might be confusing. So my very long answer to your question *laughs* -- Yes, it does affect the way the movie gets made. The other big one is, it's a comedy! But if people aren't laughing, it's not a comedy! So I'm really in tune with: Are people laughing? Are they not laughing? Why aren't they laughing if they're not laughing? Is there something we can do to change that so they do laugh? So you go back and you tweak things, you change the timing, different things like that. And some jokes just get cut! Or there are some jokes that aren't playing. There were a couple places where a joke wasn't playing, but it started off screen, so you change the off screen line and then it works great. So there's a lot that goes on. [Director] Judd Apatow talks a lot about the incredible amount of test screenings that he does, where he has a camera trained on the audience, because he's trying to make sure even that the laughter from the audience doesn't step on the next joke. So we did a lot of [test screenings] and I loved the process. You learn so much from sitting with an audience.
JFH (John): What drew you to the story of Blue Like Jazz specifically?
I read it six years ago and, even though it's not a book that you put down and go "I can see this movie in my head," I immediately wanted to make this my next movie. I felt that I understood it really well. And I experienced some measure of it while I was a youth pastor at a church in Denver while I was attending Colorado University in Boulder, which is kind of its own version of Reed College in some ways. I remember, number one, just feeling lost in this new environment, and number two, thinking that "I gotta change my approach to being a youth pastor because I'm not preparing my kids for this environment, y'know?" We talk about it a lot, how we have kids growing up in church and they go off to college and six months later they come home on break, wondering why they ever believed in Christianity in the first place. Because they weren't prepared for this radically different environment. So, from that standpoint, I thought I really understood what Don's character felt and after reading it, I felt like I'd made a friend, y'know? Like, Don was the guy I'd want to hang out with. And he'd written a book that I could give to anybody and not feel a little embarrassed or have to make excuses for it.
JFH (John): Now, how was the experience making this movie different than making The Second Chance?
A lot of what we wanted to do with the movie is we wanted to make a movie you could bring anybody to and you wouldn't have to be embarrassed and make excuses for it. *laughs*
Well, first of all, you just learn so much by doing it the first time. I tried as much as I could to do smaller projects that would kind of prepare me for a feature film, and I felt like I went in reasonably prepared--you just learn so much the first time you do it. And, y'know, I can watch Second Chance and I'm mostly happy with it. I thought it turned out well, but there are plenty of mistakes that I made; they were all my mistakes instead of someone else's. So I own them all! And my goal with this movie was to not make any of the same mistakes. I just want to make a bunch of new ones.
JFH (John): I mean, how many times have you seen [Blue Like Jazz] now?
Oh man. Just in screenings with audiences, it's got to be over a hundred times.
JFH (John): Oh my gosh.
Yeah, when you add in all the times I've watched it while just working on it, working with the editor and all that stuff, it's actually more.
JFH (John): So do you see it in your sleep now? *laughing*
I do. *laughs* Somebody sent me some quotes from the movie--they wanted to make sure they were correct--and I could correct them to the exact word. I didn't need to check anything. I could recite it to ya. I know it very well. *laughs*
JFH (John): You probably haven't even seen some of your favorite movies that many times, huh?
No! No way. I mean, there are movies that I love that I go back to all the time. That might be, y'know, ten times or... I can't imagine more than that.
JFH (John): Do you have a favorite film?
I do. And when I'm asked this question, I always stumble trying to remember them. Well, there's nothing better than seeing a perfect comedy. Tootsie is probably a perfect comedy. I'm trying to think of some recent movies. I thought The Tree of Life was fantastic. I liked it even more the second time.
JFH (John): It doesn't have to be a recent movie.
Oh, I think I got asked this once and I went back and pulled one from each decade. Bicycle Thieves, I pulled from the 50s, and maybe Lawrence of Arabia I pulled from the 60s. Barry Lyndon from the 70s, Tootsie from the 80s. Rushmore, I think, came out in the 90s? I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the last decade. Yeah, man. There's a lot of 'em.
JFH (John): What films have inspired you -- whatever comes to mind -- to want to become a filmmaker?
All of those. But every once in awhile, you see a movie that makes you want to quit. Which is kind of how I felt like with Tree Of Life. When someone is that good, what hope is there for the rest of us? *laughs* So that's why I periodically see that movie, so I can get inspired again. Y'know, we don't talk about it that much, but we don't talk about the movies that are so bad that you think, "I could do that!" That can be equally inspiring. Like, "If this could actually get released, then why not?"
JFH (John): Does something specific come to mind?
Y'know what? There was one recently. It had Alexis Bledel in it from Gilmore Girls and Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights. I think it was called Post Grad. It had Michael Keaton in it. It was one of those things where, y'know, I'm sure they had all the best intentions. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. It was fascinating, that's why I brought Ben [Pearson] to see it too. Just to study the places where it went wrong. It's easy to trash a bad movie that should have never gotten made, like, I don't know, Leprechaun 2 or something like that, but it's more interesting when you see a movie that had good people involved and had good intentions... I certainly don't watch something like that with any sense of superiority or anything, but it's really hard. I think, more than anything going into it the first time, I just had no idea how much harder it was than it looked. It's hard to make a bad movie, let alone something watchable.
JFH (John): Right. If you care enough about it, I would think it would be difficult to make a bad movie.
Right. Yeah, you would think so, but they go weird in strange ways. Casting is one of the ones that if you miscast a role, there's almost like there's nothing you can do. It doesn't matter how good everything else is, if the role's miscast, it's not going to work.
JFH (John): But sometimes they change casting after a couple of weeks. I remember hearing that for Back To The Future it was some other guy [as Marty McFly] and after 2 weeks, they switched him out for Michael J. Fox.
Right! There Will Be Blood, the same thing. Where Paul Dano's role was somebody else before they switched it out after maybe two or three weeks of production. He must have realized (I mean, I don't know this for a fact, but I'm assuming) "this movie was going to fail if I don't make this change." It's painful for everybody involved, but the alternative is even worse.
JFH (John): But it's one of those things where they can catch it early enough that they can fix it.
*laughing* Right! It's an expensive fix! But it's better than just kind of gritting your teeth and hoping things will just magically get better.
JFH (John): Right, yeah, exactly! Now, has the film Blue Like Jazz, especially after seeing it so many times now, spoken to you on a personal level at all?
Steve: Yes. And largely because of the way the actors brought these characters to life. Because there's an alchemy that happens when the actors get a hold of the material and the way it works with a great cinematographer, like Ben is, our fantastic production designer; the confession booth scene is a great example of that, because you had two actors who really know what they're doing. They came in really prepared. They were there in that confession booth and the booth was designed beautifully by our production designer and lit in a way that kept the interest going even though it's two talking heads, and Danny Seim came along with this perfect piece of score to support it without taking up too much space, y'know? And all of those elements come together and when it works that way, it's pretty fantastic. Of course, our editor, Matt Sterling, I can't say enough of good things about him. *laughs* If you wonder why directors always gush about all this stuff and never say anything bad about anybody, it's because we are truly grateful. We know how in many places things can go wrong. When everybody does their job and everything goes right, it feels like a miracle.
JFH (John): Did the filming process or story affect any of the cast, that you know of?
Steve: I feel like it did, and I also feel like the process did. And I wouldn't want to speak for anybody, but I can tell you in every situation with our lead cast, they all, at one point or another, took me aside and told me what an extraordinary set this was. And, y'know, everybody's working towards the same goal and there wasn't the kind of tension that often takes over a set with the makers fighting with each other or egos involved, and all those things, so I know that I can speak for the actors in that regard and I think they all had a really good time making it. And I think the film itself and the script and everything speaks for itself.
JFH (John): You're still very much in the thick of promoting this one, but do you have any plans for making another movie?
Steve: Yeah. Ben and Don and I are working on an idea that Ben came up with and Don really sparked to it and they told me about it and I think that it's really strong, but I know we're going to take a couple months' break after it's all done, first, and then hopefully get going on this new idea.
JFH (John): And that project that you've done with Peter Furler--
Steve: Yes! *laughs* That's not even finished. We were weeks away from having it done and then the movie got funded. In fact, we kept checking Kickstarter every five minutes while we were in the studio. We couldn't believe what was going on. And literally launched the movie once the campaign got funded, so I haven't had a spare minute. There is a track that we came up with, though, that's in the end credits of the movie, so people will get a little sneak preview of that.
JFH (John): So, there's still no light at the end of the tunnel just yet, huh?
Steve: *laughs* No. I'm ready to see the light, though.
JFH (John): You are?
Steve: Well, yeah, I'm ready to jump back in with those guys and get it done!
Blue Like Jazz hits theaters nationwide April 13th, 2012!
Click here to read our review of the film.