From: John Horn (Associated Press), "Theological Hollywood: Two Movies Explore Religious Issues", published 23 August 1996 (http://www.s-t.com/daily/08-96/08-23-96/l01ae004.htm; viewed 19 October 2005):
Religion in Hollywood? You're a lot more likely to find Jim Carrey reciting Shakespeare or Sony Pictures releasing a profitable film.
"A movie about faith" is as welcome a show-business phrase as "Something's terribly wrong with your BMW." And yet two new films with solid spiritual underpinnings -- one produced by Roman Catholic missionaries and one about a Roman Catholic missionary -- will debut within the next two months.
"The Spitfire Grill" and "Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story" are fully different films. Both nonetheless explore similar theological questions of redemption and selflessness.
Due partly to such "uncommercial" themes, the movies faced long odds -- neither was financed by the major studios, and "Dorothy Day" took more than a decade to make. Not surprisingly, both films were made on minuscule budgets of around $6 million.
The stories behind the two films dramatize Hollywood's queasiness over religion even as some moviegoers and political leaders say they want less violence and more kindness.
At the same time, "The Spitfire Grill" and "Dorothy Day" demonstrate that well-intentioned filmmakers can bypass the system and create movies focused more on prophecy than profits.
"No, Hollywood doesn't do that a lot, probably because it's hard to make human, emotional movies," says Lee David Zlotoff, the writer-director of "Spitfire Grill." "It's a lot easier to make romantic comedies and thrillers."
"Dorothy Day" comes from Paulist Productions, the makers of 1989's "Romero," about El Salvador's slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. The production company is headed by the Rev. Ellwood Kieser, a Paulist priest who presides over the Humanitas Prizes, cash awards given to television shows and movies celebrating positive human values.
Ms. Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker social action movement, died in 1980. The movie explores her unusual journey to feeding the hungry and challenging the church, an ultimately triumphant odyssey marked by personal challenges and self-doubt. The movie was funded by donors.
"It's not your typical studio film," says Moira Kelly ("Chaplin"), who stars as Dorothy Day. "There are no car chases or sex scenes. It's a film with a very strong message. But it's not a Catholic film. It's a film about being human."
In contemporary Hollywood thinking -- where guns and natural disasters typically trump ideals and character-driven fables -- Ms. Day's story is anathema. "It's just such a very different picture -- it's saying something the American public is not interested in hearing from the mass media," says Rev. Kieser, who won six Emmys for his old "Insight" daytime serial TV show.
"This picture says the meaning of life is in loving, sharing and giving to the point where it hurts," Rev. Kieser says.
"What motion picture can you name besides 'Dead Man Walking' whose main character transcends her ego in the loving service of another person?"
Rev. Kieser showed "Dorothy Day" to all of the major studios, and all passed because they didn't think it would make money. "The powers that be in Hollywood do not think spiritual enrichment can be entertaining for a mass audience," he says.
Disappointed but undefeated, Rev. Kieser decided to distribute the film himself, an arduous task that occasionally has succeeded in the past.
"Dorothy Day" was invited to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8 and will debut in New York and Los Angeles theaters in late September or early October.
If "Dorothy Day" is filled with "God talk," "Spitfire Grill" (opening nationally today) is just the opposite: Its moral message is subtle, between the lines.
"I would call them human themes, not religious themes," says Mr. Zlotoff, who labels John Travolta's "Phenomenon" more tangibly religious.
The movie, winner of the audience award at January's Sundance Film Festival, was produced by Gregory Productions, a wing of Mississippi's Sacred Heart League. The Catholic charity ministers to the Deep South, and part of its mission is to use media -- including film -- to teach faith, compassion, charity and other Christian values.
When the league set out to make a movie to spread its message, Roger Courts, the organization's direct-mail fund-raiser, looked over more than 200 submitted screenplays.
"If it didn't have the oomph -- the sparkle and the magic -- I just said, 'This isn't it,' " Mr. Courts says.
After two years of unproductive searching, Mr. Courts received a script from the creator of TV's "MacGyver." The story by Lee David Zlotoff chronicled Percy Talbott, a young parolee trying to make a new start in a diner in a small Maine town. Over the course of the film, Percy reveals why she went to jail, while the town, and the diner's owner (Ellen Burstyn), confront their own prejudices and mistrust.
Mr. Courts immediately said yes.
"I think it's a redemption story," he says. "It's also about hospitality vs. inhospitality, respect for creation, love for one another, decency and the beauty of self-sacrifice."
The Sacred Heart League was particularly interested in Percy's relationship with a homeless person, and her decision to try to protect him.
"That's the purest form of self-sacrifice," Mr. Courts says. "And I think audiences do want to see films that have those kind of redeeming aspects to them."
Mr. Zlotoff, an Orthodox Jew, says he enjoyed working with the league and was astonished when The New York Times suggested the film had some sort of a religious agenda.
"I thought it was so absurd as to be almost laughable," he says of the news article. "To think that this story was somehow proselytizing -- I just went, 'Huh?' "
Soon after the movie premiered at the Sundance festival, Castle Rock Entertainment paid a staggering $10 million for "Spitfire Grill." The Sacred Heart League will use the profits to build a school.
What's the last movie that did that?