I find my influences to be difficult to track. I've been inspired by many writers and thinkers. Some philosophers, a few theologians, a couple of novelists, and now . . . lots of scientists. Filmmakers, however, have made the largest impact on my work. The filmmakers from the late 60's and 70's continue to inspire me. Their work remains compelling and relevant, because of their commitment to telling the truth regardless of the consequences.
Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves is a masterpiece that every atheist and Christian should see. Scorsese constantly inspires me to make bolder movies. Roger Ebert's review of Bringing Out the Dead changed the way I thought about making films.
For As It Is in Heaven, in particular, I have to mention Bergman and Tarkovsky. Both were major discoveries for me in film school. After watching Stalker, I became obsessed with Tarkovsky, mostly because I couldn't fully grasp what he was doing, but also because there was also something ineffable in his work: a spirit in it I couldn't pinpoint. As a committed Orthodox Christian, he approached filmmaking much like an iconographer would an icon: prayerfully and with deep respect for the materials. I believe it's what gave infused his work with such transcendence.
I was also influenced by Bergman's "Faith trilogy," primarily Winter Light. His portrait of a priest on the brink of losing his faith is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and authentic depiction of Christian spirituality in cinema. The voice of the priest becomes Bergman's voice, and I find this vulnerable style of filmmaking beautiful. Faith, in Bergman's hands, becomes a mechanism for examining the human condition, which (in my opinion) is what cinema was built for.
Regarding our aesthetic choices, there were a few specific films that we referenced as we shot the movie. By "we," I'm referring to Isaac Pletcher, who produced and served as the cinematographer of the film. He and I have worked together since film school. We talked frequently about The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, Apocalypse Now, "Winter Light, The White Ribbon, and The Apostle.
What advice would you give to a young filmmaker today who wants to make "Christian" movies?
After teaching at an evangelical college for four years, two things have become very clear to me about potential Christian filmmakers: First, most of them hate faith-based films. Yes, "hate" is a strong word, but I think it's true to their emotions. And second, they have big questions, lots of wonder, and many doubts.
And yet, most of them feel that there's no space in their work for their wonder or their doubts.
I think this is because they've only witnessed two types of expression of faith in film: the "heavy-handed sermon" kind and the "promotion of family values" kind. In neither space is there true freedom to explore spiritual/existential questions. The former disallows the exploration of the darker side of our condition, while the later prohibits a more overt examination of faith. But there's a long, more obscure, tradition of filmmaking which creates a space for genuine spiritual reflection and exploration.
I would encourage young Christian filmmakers to watch the work of Bergman, Scorsese, Tarkovsky, Malick, Dreyer, and others. Then, take a long look within. Be painfully honest in your self-examination. And from this space, begin your work.
I believe there are many filmmakers out there who want to discuss their faith, but are afraid of being perceived as "faith-based" propagandistic filmmakers. And I would like to challenge them to resist this temptation. Be honest and be prophetic: afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.