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If runaway success carries anything with it, it’s the satire and criticism that almost preternaturally follow. So with mega-churches and religious communities achieving sizes and followings that were heretofore unheard of (see anything relating to Joel Osteen), it only makes sense that some sort of movie satire would soon follow. But what’s interesting about George Ratliff’s latest, Salvation Boulevard, is that it’s hardly an easy-pickings onslaught of making fun of the devout. Rather, it’s a zany comedy—less than an out-and-out satire—that centers on a sort of Hitchcock-esque wrong man scenario that unfolds in the midst of one such religious community. To Ratliff’s credit, the film doesn’t seem to be directly making fun of nonbelievers, which would have been the easy pitfall for this sort of material.
Our protagonist, Carl (Greg Kinnear), is a born-again Christian who lives in a planned community centered around the Church of the Third Millennium, headed by Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan, beautifully smarmy). When Carl witnesses Dan accidentally shoot a college professor (Ed Harris) in the head, things begin to get complicated. Jennifer Connelly plays Carl’s wife, and Marisa Tomei shows up as, believe it or not, a pot-smoking college security guard, in the film’s most inspired bit of casting.
I had the chance to speak recently with Ratliff—who previously made both the acclaimed horror flick Joshua and the equally creepy documentary Hell House—about his religious beliefs and the star-studded cast he assembled.
Tribeca: I thought the way you dealt with satire, or the lack thereof, was interesting in the film. You didn’t take the easy route and simply poke fun at the more religious characters. What was your process like in terms of depicting the community in the film?
George Ratliff: It was always very important to me that Dan is a believer. One point of contention between Pierce and me was, well, I don’t think there’s a character there unless he’s an actual believer. That’s where a lot of the comedy comes from: believing one thing so deeply and then having that turn out to be completely wrong. We kind of watched that process go on with Dan—he takes a phone call that he believes is from Satan, but that’s not the case.
To me, it’s more about finding the comedy within the culture. It’s such a rich culture; you could do so much with that world, but everyone’s afraid to touch it because it can be so explosive. That’s why this is an independent film.
Tribeca: The film does show the religious characters as real people though.
George Ratliff: Absolutely. Most of the people I love in this world actually believe in this, and at some point I’m going to have to sit and watch it with them.
Tribeca: [Laughs] What do you anticipate their reactions will be?
George Ratliff: I’d love for them to change their mind in regard to what they base so much of their life around, but you can’t really debate it. My experience of talking about it is that it always devolves into an argument. So the point of this movie is more of an icebreaker, to get people talking about it. We didn’t want to make some sort of pep rally movie for atheists. This is a very important piece of American culture.
Tribeca: Now, you mentioned contention with Pierce about his character—was he thinking that perhaps it turns out the character is actually exploiting his parishioners, as opposed to being truly religious?
George Ratliff: Yeah. I think the reaction of most people in the world who don’t live in America, or don’t live in the flyover states, [is] they look at these big pastors and all they see are con men. But that’s definitely not true. Rick Warren really believes. That’s much more interesting, and scarier, in my mind. Pierce’s first reaction was: “What a great opportunity to play a larger than life con man preacher,” and that was a point of contention early on, because that’s not what the character is.
Tribeca: Brosnan does smug and smarmy really well. It sort of lends itself to a kind of cynical character. So when you realize he really is this religious, it’s a clever bit of against-type casting.
George Ratliff: Well, and the other thing that every pastor has to have is a certain charm. Pierce Brosnan is just about the most charming motherfucker ever. You can’t not like the guy. That’s what sold him to me as far as casting. You could just watch him talk all day.
Tribeca: The film has a very impressive ensemble cast. How did it all come together?
George Ratliff: Everyone asks me that. God knows. It’s such a whimsically silly romp of a movie, and yet everyone wanted to do it. And it’s not like this was a big movie—this was tiny, we shot this in 26 days. There was nothing glamorous about it. I just think that they’re all fun characters, and there’s something interesting for them to do. It’s an ensemble.
We got Pierce first, then Greg, and they just sort of piled on. I didn’t even want a bunch of names for the movie. I knew we had to get one or two for financing—that’s just the way of the world—but when I was faced with Marisa Tomei as the security guard, I was like, “Are you kidding? Of course!” Or Jennifer Connelly, or Ed Harris, for God’s sake. It just kind of snowballed. For better or for worse, it was wonderful to have them. They were all great to work with, although things became a bit unruly because everyone has tough schedules, and there’s a different perception of the film now, because there are so many big names in it.
Tribeca: Tomei was such an inspired choice as a stoner. She was hilarious.
George Ratliff: Yeah, she was hilarious. And Jennifer Connelly was a real leap of faith as this very Church-y woman, but she has such an intense personality, and she’s such a method actor, that I could see it. And she brought a lot of humor to the role that wasn’t there before. If you offer a great actor a role that they don’t usually get offered, it’s interesting to them.
Tribeca: What was your experience with religion like growing up? You mentioned earlier that you have a lot of religious people in your family.
George Ratliff: I had a very intense history with Christianity growing up. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and I was very caught up in it. There was a point where, for me, I realized—I fell away from it in a very hard way. There was one point where I would have questions, and a leader would tell me, “Believe and be satisfied,” and every question I had, he just said that, with this ethereal smile on his face. That’s a dangerous thing to tell anyone. I believed at the time, but it’s really stuck with me how crazy and dangerous it was, and how all my questions were valid, and they had no answers. Now I base my life on what I think is provable and true.
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