The Common Good
November 2006

God and the Red Carpet

by Bob Massey | November 2006

How does faith in Jesus enter the moving picture for Hollywood writer-producer David MacFadzean?

Hollywood is a godless, pinko pleasure dome. Or else it’s the kind of pulpit Jesus only dreamed of. The church never seems to be sure which. In the same breath, Christians denounce the entertainment industry’s degenerate influence on culture while trumpeting the impact of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

No one questions Hollywood’s reach, though. Ninety-eight percent of American households have at least one television. Americans spent $9 billion on movie tickets last year. The rest of the world knows us by our screen stars.

For Christians whose talents might lead them to the entertainment industry, Hollywood is often evaluated like an enemy force—avoid or conquer? If anyone could lead such a charge, it would be Emmy nominated writer-producer David McFadzean. But he suggests Jesus has another plan for the people of Hollywood, one in which awards and box office numbers miss the point. In a writer’s ears, it barely sidesteps cliché: Love your neighbor.

I never intended to come to Hollywood,” insists McFadzean, whose glasses and casual erudition suggest a tweedy English professor more than a purveyor of TV sitcoms. Indeed, by the mid-1980s he had parlayed his expertise as a playwright into a steady gig teaching theater at Judson College, a Baptist liberal arts institution in Elgin, Illinois. A college roommate called and asked for a rewrite on a pilot for TV. “I knew nothing about writing half-hour television,” says McFadzean, who had to be talked into it. “I read the script, and it was really like a one-act play. I didn’t know if I’d be able to write the comedy but I knew I could write the story, structure, and characters.”

That story was Roseanne, starring John Goodman and “domestic goddess” Roseanne Barr, which premiered in 1988 on ABC Television and ran for nine seasons. Based on that success, McFadzean and his producing partners pitched an idea about a handy family man, played by Tim Allen. Home Improvement became a juggernaut, running from 1991 to ’99, again on ABC. “Then,” says McFadzean, “I was in Hollywood for good, sentenced to life.”

McFadzean’s production company, Wind Dancer, has launched several other series, including Soul Man (starring Dan Ackroyd), and feature films, including Where the Heart Is (with Natalie Portman) and What Women Want (with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt). McFadzean’s stage plays include “Deep River,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Oklahoma Rigs,” which played Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.

BUT MCFADZEAN struggled through the early ’80s. He acted, worked in theaters, taught school, did odd jobs, “anything so I could write.” The take from 12 years and 20 plays? About $5,500. So the TV gig was welcome. But he is careful to separate the reality of the writer’s life from the romance.

“If you’re not writing every day,” he tells younger writers, “then you’re probably not a writer.” It doesn’t matter if much of the daily output is terrible. “If you’re not hungry for the writing process,” he says, “even if you make it, you won’t be happy.”

And if you make it, you could be miserable. Ask the spouse—or ex-spouse—of any TV writer about the working hours.

“Being married was the motor for Home Improvement and for all three of us who created it,” says McFadzean. “We all knew this crazy thing called a family—with a husband, a wife, and kids—is a very cumbersome machine that shouldn’t work. And yet it does. But the not working is very funny.”

Certainly, millions of viewers thought so. Tim Allen’s fictitious marital dysfunction paid the bills and then some. But McFadzean’s wife, Liz, “bore a lot of the burden, almost a single mom’s lot.” If it seems miraculous that a marriage could survive 120-plus-hour workweeks, well, it is. “Liz and I have talked about this and agreed: We would not still be married if we had not become Christians. There is no doubt in our minds that Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian community have held our marriage together as much as we have.”

“When my wife and I became Christians, after we were married, we sold all our worldly goods, literally, and went on the road doing Bible shows for churches, for schools, for prisons. We traveled for two years, never asking for fees, just traveling on the grace of God.” A van was their only home. “Sometimes a church would give us money, some wouldn’t. Some would give us a ham. We were always living day by day.” McFadzean confirms it was easier to honor God when they had to pray for their daily bread. “Both Liz and I would say we understood, felt, and experienced God’s presence, interaction, and protection of us more so than in the rest of our lives. But we took a bigger risk.”

Later, McFadzean’s drive to build a career and provide for a family crowded out family itself. “I missed some great years with my kids,” he says. So at the height of Home Improvement’s success, McFadzean took a tremendous professional risk—at least by Hollywood standards. He gradually cut his staff’s workweek from seven 18-hour days to five working no later than midnight. Contrary to predictions from many in the industry, the show did not run off the rails. Neither did his marriage—barely. As McFadzean began to put family ahead of career, “My life became richer, no question.” He and Liz have been married for 32 years.

McFadzean’s story recalls a certain parable about another rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus. “Risk is a real component of the Christian life,” McFadzean says. “We experience God as we properly risk ourselves.”

PERHAPS TV AUDIENCES respond to modern-day parables, but contemporary disciples often prefer a formula: Exactly how does faith in Jesus enter the (moving) picture?

First, McFadzean says, all artists create from a point of view. “One of my guilty pleasures is the movie Dodgeball. Why the hell do I like that movie?” he laughs. “I love underdog stories. Christianity is an underdog story. It’s part of my worldview that underdogs can defeat greater powers, like David and Goliath.” And, exaggerated as they are, “I know these people in life.” Laughter, he says, brings relief and perspective.

Second, sometimes artists can wield some juice on behalf of the voiceless and invisible—such as the gardeners, waiters, illegal immigrants, and other have-nots whose sweat powers Los Angeles. “It’s possible,” says McFadzean. “Some art speaks specifically to individual situations in society and in life. Some art speaks universally to the human condition.” He notes that Home Improvement’s viewership spanned class divisions. Rich, poor, and in-between tuned in to watch the comic struggles of the average, white, middle-class Taylor family.

“It’s also great when we uncover something for the world at large that’s been invisible,” McFadzean says. He cites Jean de Florette and Tender Mercies as films that explore the human condition. He also notes George Clooney’s efforts last year with Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck “to show us the invisible among us, be they people or ideas or movements. In doing so he does touch on something larger.”

While those stories resonate with a Christian worldview, they don’t necessarily require a writer who follows Jesus. So does the Christian writer play any unique role in Hollywood?

“Art,” says McFadzean, “really is not there to evangelize—nor to animate us together into some political party.” After issuing caveats about broad generalizations, McFadzean describes two predominant Christian views of art and its purpose. One camp views scripture as propositional truth, proof-text to support a doctrinal position. “It doesn’t matter what something meant in the context of the Bible,” he says. “They’re just going to take it out, put it on the wall, and say you need to live by that.” Under that reasoning, art by Christians “says ‘Jesus is Lord’ directly and clearly.” The other camp prefers a works-oriented message in which “the Christian artist needs to create some sociopolitical message that’s interwoven with Christianity but that clearly shows the evils of the world.”

“Both sides,” says McFadzean, “ignore what are the main communication tools of the Bible: metaphor, paradox, hyperbole, simile, all of these things that allow the artist to plumb the depths of the unspeakable and the unknowable.” So a writer’s work should make room for God’s mystery. “If we take poetry and literary techniques out of the Bible, we have nothing left.”

Plus, a writer’s life should make room for God. “Each of us must try to define an undefineable God. And each of us must participate in the works of God.” But what art does, says McFadzean, is “move us closer to God in some undefinable and unspeakable way—and that’s really a hard task.”

Hollywood has dozens of artist-friendly churches to help root artists in a faith community. A number of parachurch organizations also train Christians to be competitive in the cutthroat entertainment industry. But, McFadzean warns, “I get nervous when someone says ‘Get into the writers’ room and sneak Jesus into the text.’ Don’t. Instead live Jesus in the room. You don’t have to force Jesus into that. He’ll take care of it. People come to my office all the time and say ‘I hear you’re a Christian. I need to ask you something.’” It’s a mistake, he says, that in evangelism “our first step is we always go to words, but we never go to our lives.”

In first-century Jerusalem, it was widely expected that the Messiah would lead the Jews to overthrow the occupying Roman forces. Instead, Jesus sat on hillsides and told mysterious stories.

To compete in the multibillion dollar entertainment industry, the Christian writer must tell some amazing stories. But “we’re not supposed to capture Hollywood,” McFadzean says. “We’re supposed to offer to individuals our lives.”

 

Bob Massey splits his time between music-making and writing for film and print. He is in, but not of, the trendy neighborhood of Silverlake, in Los Angeles.

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