Summertime is almost over and every year, as August begins to slowly fade into history, I get nostalgic for summers passed. As I screened Camp Manna, a new film about Christian summer camp, I was flooded with both positive and negative memories of lanyard weaving, hiking through a lightning-struck boulder, way too many competition sports, and, of course, weird double standards for teenage girls. (But that’s a story for another time.)
Camp Manna is the story about Ian, a young orphaned boy who doesn’t believe in Jesus. He is sent to Camp Manna, a Christian camp led by Jack “Cujo” Parrish (Gary Busey). Once there, he’s placed in a cabin of misfits and forced to participate in the God Games, a camp-wide competition. Antics invariably ensue.
I had the opportunity to speak with Camp Manna’s filmmakers, Eric Scott Johnson and Eric Machiela. We talked about mountaintop experiences, weird (and sometimes toxic) Christian culture, and how to tell a good story.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Juliet Vedral, Sojourners: It’s obvious from watching this movie that either one of you or both of you have gone to Christian camp. So, do you want to tell me about your experiences with that?
Eric Machiela, Camp Manna: I went to a camp on Lake Michigan called Camp Geneva where you called your counselor "uncle" and, if you were a girl, you called your counselor "aunt." Uncle Matthew was my counselor and he was an awesome dude but yeah, a lot of the early motivation for Camp Manna came from that first camp experience at Camp Geneva. The Clayton Vance character that Jimmy Tatro plays is directly inspired by a counselor there named Uncle Josh who walked around “bro tapping” everybody and saying, “Word, word, word.” And this was 1990/1991 and I had never heard the phrase, “word” and I didn’t quite get it then…still don't entirely get it. But I remember thinking how cool he was and I wanted to be in his cabin, which is probably one of the early motivations for Ian trying to get out of the Passover Privates and into the cool cabin. That was my desire as a child; to be with the cool kids. In Christian subculture of course there’s the cool kid, you definitely recognize them right away and they know how to play guitar.
Eric Scott Johnson, Camp Manna: Today it’s Justin Bieber.
Vedral: I attended Christian camp from the age of 9 until my last year when I was 16 and I had to go because my dad is a pastor, so he was one of the speakers or one of the directors and I hated it. I was like Ian. I was definitely like, “I don't buy this and you're not selling it well.” I mean, I still have very close friends from Christian camp, but the reason why I'm a Christian is not because of Christian camp.
Machiela: I feel like the Christian summer camp experience is almost like a flu shot, where you get a jolt of the Holy Spirit in your arm for about two weeks and then it kind of wears off. It is like a short-term remedy and I think a lot of parents like it when their kids come back from Christian summer camp and suddenly can read their Bible. But after a week and a half, that Bible starts to collect dust again, you know. There's something about that Christian summer camp experience…that blast of energy.
Scott Johnson: But you get all that energy right, that collective energy. When you're at camp you can move a mountain, you know? At camp for the most part, you can escape your real life and have that camp life. Unfortunately, for some people, that isn’t a positive experience.
Machiela: I mean, my camp experience was only at faith-based camps, so I don't know particularly what it’s like at a more traditional camp, but you're just surrounded by everybody else who thinks like you and talks like you and quite frankly, unfortunately, usually looks like you. So, it's pretty easy to assimilate and say the right things and catch the fire for a couple weeks. But once you come back to the real world, it sort of goes away.
Scott Johnson: That’s the reason it was so important to us that Ian be an outsider, so that we could explore what that would look like from the lens of someone who really had no idea what anyone was talking about and couldn’t naturally just fake their way through it.
Machiela: Especially with the Gordo character who, when they’re in the canoeing scene and they're like, "What about you, Gordo?" is like, “I was baptized. I'm pure as a dove, Ian.” He says what you say growing up. And how much of it is actually coming from a place of truth? That’s what the summer camp experience was like primarily, you’re just surrounded by other cultural Christians.
Scott Johnson: I think that's why camp seemed like a really great format to tell the story. We wanted to explore that idea of cultural Christianity. I think growing up in it and being in this position where you get to that point in your life, and I don't want to speak for you, but it sounds like something similar if your dad was a pastor, you get to this point in your life where you say, “OK, what of this do I identify with and what of this is sort of layers of culture that has been handed to me that I have been told to accept?” Maybe it's been doing more harm than good. So, doing this in the camp world, is sort of like this microcosm of all of that all at once.
Vedral: You guys do a great job at poking fun at a lot of stereotypes and tropes and even like innocent things that Christians say that come off as creepy or even like a double entendre.
Scott Johnson: Anything having to do with blood.
Vedral: Yes! I started laughing when Clayton was doing his viJournal. And I was like, “That's brilliant.” The movie also seems to call out some negative aspects. I didn't know if you were doing that intentionally. In this case, it's an all-male camp, so some of the ways that Christianity or Christian culture for men tends to be a lot of military, army, “Wild at Heart”-type things. I would just love your comments on that because it was clear for the Passover Privates that they didn't fit into that mold and they were ostracized for that reason.
Scott Johnson: Absolutely, 100 percent. I'm really glad that you’re asking that question because I think that is one of the things that people are trying to sort out. It's satire, so what we’re trying to do is touch on that kind of perspective. So certainly from a gender perspective, the camp being this all-male place, there’s criticism in that. Also, just the way that minority characters tend to be tropes a little bit. They’re tokenized in that there’s always one or two, the outsider that is sort of welcomed but doesn’t belong. I think we’re teasing it out with that and it's kind of explicit because in a way, we’re just sort of painting a picture of a world that we know. I think by painting a picture, it ultimately leads to the question, “Why is that?”
Machiela: We were just with Tripp Fuller with Homebrewed Christianity and we were talking a bit about this. It’s a very similar experience that men had growing up in the Christian culture, which is it’s super hypermasculine and there’s still very much a way you should look and a way you should act and a confidence you should have in your faith and we’ve talked about the militaristic viewpoint. All the cabins, are named after militaristic terms: Passover Privates, Disciple Division, Samaritan Squad, Righteous Regiment. It was very particular. The thing that we wanted to touch on and kind of satirize and bring up to the forefront, was the Christian subculture craziness. There were versions of the film, and earlier scripts had it be a co-ed camp and the film became more of that purity culture and stuff like that. It was just a different cross section of the culture, you know. If you introduce sort of a co-ed culture, we would have spent a lot of the movie having to satirize that, which would have been fun in its own right. It’s just a different story. I think if you have an all-male cast, what I think you're doing is you’re making a statement about the danger in that culture without having to then spend the film picking it apart.
Vedral: I went to co-ed Christian camps. I was in one camp where we were broken up into two teams called the Judahs and the Gideons and you had to compete, which I always felt was unfair because Judah was an actual tribe and Gideon was just a guy, so it felt inherently inferior. So, you had to compete against another cabin group throughout the week with all these physical challenges, which of course all the teenage girls are like, “I really would rather die. You're making me play tug-of-war in the mud and this is only fun for the boys.” And there was the six inch rule where you couldn’t sit less than six inches away from someone of the opposite sex and you had to wear a T-shirt over your bathing suit if you went in the water.
Machiela: OK, now we're getting into my world, that’s for sure.
Machiela: Pretty hardcore.
Vedral: Yeah, and people were measuring your shorts to make sure they were modest enough.
Scott Johnson: Hilarious.
Machiela: This is exactly why we had to make it a boys camp because you are describing my childhood. If we had made it a co-ed camp the movie would have to be about that. I grew up in a culture where there’s a lot of, in my opinion, pretty harmful repression that was influenced from the top down and if you start unpacking that stuff, it’s going to be a very different kind of movie. It’s going to deal with a lot of different issues. It’d still be satire, but you're definitely starting to quickly head more toward American Pie for Christians than Heavyweights and it wasn’t the type of story that we wanted to tell. I think a big part of it is that we’ve seen so many films try to do something like this and at the end of the day, we really love this audience. These are our family members and our friends. We didn’t want to make a film that alienated everyone. I think if we had started to go in that sort of public culture sort of realm, it would have been a very different kind of film and really limited who that film would have been for. I don’t think it would have been a film that could sort of laugh at something and embrace it at the same time in the same way because there is this hypersensitivity when you get into anything that has to do with gender roles and sexuality and stuff like that. I would love to make a film about that. I think it would be a better documentary than narrative at this point.
Scott Johnson: Oh yeah. Our tagline right now on the posters is, “And on the eighth day, God created summer camp.” If we had had it be the gender things, it totally would have been like, "Leave room for the Holy Spirit."
Vedral: How do you hope the movie is received?
Machiela: I mean, in reality, there will be people who don't like the film. I remember watching Saved!, I was about 23, and I remember watching it and for me, it was really helpful at a certain time of my life. I’d grown up working at a church in the youth department. Watching that movie, it sort of helped me give myself permission to unpack some stuff. For me, it wasn’t anger. It was really healing for me. It helped me process my faith and determine some things. I could blow off what was kind of burdensome inside. What I remember, was a lot of people watched it and it wasn’t for them. It was too much, it pushed them away and I remember thinking, “If this movie offends you, I think it’s about you.”
Machiela: I think the ideal response that we want is for someone to receive it in a way that’s like, “Wow, that was funny. It pushed the boundaries of what I’m comfortable with, but at the end, I can see the heart in it and so it works for me.”
Scott Johnson: I think that for the faith-based audience, it’s really an encouragement to say, “Hey, it’s OK, we can laugh at ourselves. We need to learn to be vulnerable.” But then there’s the other audience that’s looking at this going, “What the hell is going on in there?” It’s all a way for them to say, “Hey, we’re willing to step back and recognize that some of this is funny and also there’s good in here. There’s still something meaningful.” Until we can laugh at ourselves and be vulnerable and say we don’t have it all figured out, that's OK, because there's truth and hope in here.