If the mark of authentic faith is being a light in the darkness, filmmakers Will Bakke, Michael Allen and Alex Carroll have flipped on a searchlight. When these twenty-something friends decided that what they “knew” about Jesus just wasn’t enough anymore, they set out to find answers to some tough questions, documenting the journey as they went. We caught up with Beware of Christians director Will Bakke to discuss their two illuminating films, how Riot Studios came to be, and what he believes is the hope for America…
John: To start us out, could you give us a brief synopsis about (your production company) Riot Studios?
Will Bakke: We actually formed Riot Studios shortly after completion of our film Beware Of Christians. Once we finished the film we didn’t really know where it was going to take us – we [had actually] made it just for our friends and families, the community we’d grown up in and the colleges we were at, not having [realized] that there was such a unique voice in the movie – something that we were kind of gaining ground with. So we decided to start a production company called Riot Studios to basically funnel all of our projects through and to have a brand name behind it all. Riot was kinda the brainchild of Alex Carroll, Michael Allen and myself. We really wanted to create a platform where all different types of media could be showcased and people could see what Jesus was doing in our hearts; what He was bringing out of that passion for Him, whether it be in film-making or music or whatever it was that we were doing. That all kind of came out of our relationship with Christ.
JOHN: That’s fantastic. So now, what led your decision to make this film?
Will: It all started the summer before that actually with our first film that we made called One Nation Under God. So [that movie] was really the launch point for us to realize, “hey, ok, Will has the skill set to actually be able to make a film” and “I think we have an interesting enough topic to discuss” and really, we’d never seen a film like the one we wanted to make. We’d never seen a movie that didn’t try to paint the way life should be but rather painted life the way that it is. And so that’s kind of what we wanted to do, just put all of these topics that we struggled with in college and [in] following Christ out on the table and say, “what can we learn? How can we get past our own justifications to the way we want to live, and really look at Biblically how Jesus is calling us to live?”
JOHN: So how did you decide to take this journey in Europe?
Will: It all kind of came about when we were first talking about doing this movie (I forget which one of us said), “ya know, it’s hard to solve a problem when you’re sitting right in the middle of it.” And so that was kind of the idea: getting out of our comfort zone, getting out of our Christian routines, taking a step outside of that in order to look back and really see it from a new perspective. The movie was about the study of Christian habit and the way that we might have been saying one thing and then acting out a way that was completely contrary to the Gospel we were claiming. So Europe just happened to be our choice because (as the director) there was that journey aspect – we were going to be traveling from country to country. It really could have been anywhere in the world but Europe stuck out to us because they have a great train system. It’s very accessible to get through multiple countries, and that’s something that we wanted for the film, to experience a lot of different cultures and different perspectives. So Europe was the obvious choice in that sense.
JOHN: Some would say that the sort of post-modern Christian culture in Europe is kind of the parent of Christian culture the in U.S. As followers of Jesus, how did you adjust to the differences in the way they approach or live out faith?
Will: I think the word that sticks out to me (to be very honest) is refreshing. I had grown up in a Christian culture where everyone tends to stay comfortable on the surface-level of conversation when it comes to Jesus. No one likes to have the tough issues put in their face for them to deal with. So going to Europe, I mean, it’s like you said – it’s very post-Christian. People are much more willing to tell you flat-out that you’re an idiot for believing in Jesus if that’s what they believe. So we didn’t have try so hard to get past the layers down to what someone believed, they were very up-front about it from the beginning. Yeah, it’s scary how many people are not following Christ over there – a lot of them do not believe Jesus. But at the same time, the people we met who were claiming to follow Christ; you could see it in all parts of their lives because there was nothing in it for them to say that unless they truly meant it. So it’s scary at one point and then at the other it’s just very refreshing to see people be very honest about what they believe. I think it’s just easy for us in America to say one thing and maybe convince ourselves that that’s enough and totally live the opposite of the Gospel that we’re claiming. Then at the end of our lives we die and then, ya know, we never really got it. We’ve got this empty shell of a faith that doesn’t really cut it… isn’t very substantial.
JOHN: In the trailer for Beware of Christians there is a phrase that flashes across the screen that says “we are churched out.” What did you mean with that statement?
Will: I think church for us at that point in our lives had become almost another source of entertainment, or just an event. And I think especially in this culture with so many amazing speakers and authors, it’s like we go in order to be entertained or just to be fed information. For a lot of us, it all [just] stays up in our heads. We can think one thing, but the biggest problem in America is that we aren’t doing anything about it. We’re simply going to hear a nice sermon, agree with it, maybe feel some sort of conviction that day but we don’t ever put it into practice. So when we made this movie that’s how we felt, like we were being poured into mentally and had all these great questions, but our lives and our actions didn’t reflect that. And so I think that was the moment that we said we need to do something about that, we don’t want to just hear about Jesus but let it have zero effect on the way that we live out our lives.
JOHN: As a result of making this film you guys are now traveling around the U.S. to churches and universities playing this documentary for people. How are they responding to it?
Will: I think one of the coolest quotes is by a writer/activist named Ann Lamont who said “the most powerful sermon in the world is two words: me too.” And what’s cool about that is I feel like we share this movie with a lot of people who have never heard about it, what it’s about. They come in, they watch the film and it’s almost like this deep-exhale-breath-of-fresh-air at the very end where a lot of times they say, thank you so much, you put on film what I feel like I’ve been thinking for such a long time – as if it was frowned upon to ask these tough questions and to admit that we don’t have all the answers. And so with college students especially, we meet others just like us who were raised with the answers without ever really asking the questions themselves. So what’s cool is we begin a discussion with them to say, these are the most important questions you’ll ask yourself in your lifetime. We should be willing to seek after those answers and be willing to figure out what we truly believe about Jesus. So I think the words real, raw and refreshing all come to mind because they’re just seeing honesty and truth in a way that hasn’t been presented before. It’s somewhat because of the unique medium. Ya know, documentaries tend to not do so well at the box office or on DVD, but I feel like because the subject matter is so crucial, so serious, [and it’s] taken in sort of a light-hearted comedic way, I think people just love grabbing on to that because they realize that it is a discussion. It is tough, but there’s so much grace that’s extended when you’re willing to ask those questions. So the response has been overwhelming and incredible.
JOHN: When you guys are at a secular college or university, what would you say is the percentage of believers versus unbelievers in the audience?
Will: I would say probably somewhere around 75-85% are believers. I mean, obviously I can’t have any idea, but just from the amount of conversations that I’ve been able to have it seems about like that. I think most Christians are drawn to [the film] because of the subject matter whereas maybe a lot of non-Christians may be drawn to it by the title alone (laughs) or by the discussion they see coming afterward. We have plenty of atheist groups that come out to our screenings who want to debate with us and it’s actually kind of fun because I think they all have this perception of what we’re going to be like, then they see the movie and realize that we’re probably not the people they’re most mad at. We’re just willing to have a conversation; we don’t want to have an argument. We refuse to be enemies with anybody. Our calling is just to love other people and I think they see that through this film. That’s our agenda. Not to win an argument or force any sort of doctrine down anyone’s throats. We’re just simply here to talk about Jesus.
JOHN: So as Riot Studios, what is your end goal? What do you hope to accomplish through this?
Will: I think for us we want to begin the discussion and the thought-process that maybe the way Jesus called us to live our lives does not look like the American Christianity that we’ve been raised to know and maybe even love. I think that’s the biggest point that we can get out there, that Jesus calls us to something that’s so much bigger and so much better. And to be willing to ask those questions. I think that would probably be the second thing we would say is that we really, really just encourage kids to ask the tough questions and make those decisions for themselves. Don’t let this faith be your mom’s or your dad’s or pastor’s or anybody else’s other than your own because it’s just not going to mean as much (if anything at all) if you’re just believing it for any other reason than to truly yearn for that.
JOHN: Will, do you personally think that the church here in the West is in trouble?
Will: (sigh) Man that’s a good question. I… I think if I were to look at the trends of what has happened in Europe and then what happens in the United States… Well, I’ll say this, because the United States has seemed to take a similar path to Europe we’re just some years behind it, decades behind it, I’d say based on the evidence, yes – we’re in trouble. But I think especially from this generation with the amount of communication and connectivity there’s a different path that America’s churches are going to take. I think the word is going to get out fast enough that says, hey we’re not about a religion, we’re simply not about routine, we’re about a relationship with Jesus – and that’s what is going to turn the tide. I think in Europe it became so much about religion and routines that when life didn’t work out at times people were just giving up on religion because it didn’t follow through on what it promised – happiness or security or comfort or whatever. I think this generation and churches today, especially in America, are starting to learn how to push that it’s about Jesus and not about our own level of comfort. I hope that’s not too vague of an answer, but it’s a tough question so… (laughs).
JOHN: That’s what we’re here to do Will, make you cry and sweat. Kidding. So based on that (and maybe this question will help you summarize your last thought), in your estimation, what is the hope for our churches in the West?
Will: The hope is Jesus. In summing up that last question I’m not as worried about it because I believe that based on this generation and the new level of communication and connectivity, I think there’s so much hope – the name of Jesus and the grace of Jesus is spreading at a much faster rate than in generations before…
JOHN: That’s a great answer – actually both of them. So we’d like to talk a little about your other film, One Nation Under God. But let’s back up a second, just for reference, when did you create these films?
Will: We shot One Nation Under God in the summer of 2008 and premiered it just in Texas (just a couple showings) in the spring of 2009. And then we immediately left to film Beware of Christians in the summer of 2009 and premiered/released it in 2010.
JOHN: Ok that helps. So, One Nation Under God sounds like it could be a political film. Is it?
Will: I don’t think it’s a political film. The idea was to say we’re one nation under God, but which “god” are we talking about here? Let’s go see what other people believe, and see which god they would say it was. In that film four of us (Michael Allen and myself from Beware of Christians are in it and actually two other buddies of ours) road trip around the United States in order to ask people just two basic questions: “What do you think happens when you die?” And, “who do you think Jesus Christ was?” And so those questions ultimately lead to more questions… but a lot of it was about trying to figure out what do people believe in, (because everyone puts their faith in something) and that’s what we really wanted to get to. Is it the Christian God that we’ve been told is the God of America? And so the movie is pretty funny (laughs), we’re obviously more immature at this point (I think only 20 at the time we made this movie) and we end up crashing on peoples’ couches all over the country, which is amazing because it lends us to staying with Mormons, with Muslims, atheists, some hippies out in Portland, plenty of different religions and plenty of different people that put their faith in something other than what we have put our faith in. And so it debunks some stereotypes and gets the conversation rolling about why we believe the things we believe.
JOHN: So who is the god of the United States, or do we need to watch the film to find out?
Will: (laughs) I think by the end of the film you begin to realize the importance of asking the questions. Because as you see the movie go on, there are plenty of people that say that they believe in Jesus and then when we ask “how do you get to Heaven?” they say “I don’t really know, just be a good person and you get there.” So the movie kind of turns into this open discussion about the importance of asking those tough questions. If I had to answer your question about the god of America, I honestly couldn’t tell you (laugh). The interesting thing about the movie is, there wasn’t one person that we interviewed around the United States that didn’t know who Jesus claimed to have been – which is pretty cool. The bummer part about that is when asked how we get to Heaven, about 95% of those people said “just be a good person.” So there’s this disconnect about what people claim to believe, and then at the core what they actually believe and live out. So, not sure who the “god” is actually.
JOHN: Ok, three part question: In either one of these adventures, did you ever feel like you were in a risky situation – physically, spiritually or potentially embarrassing?
Will: Wow, great question. Ok, physical harm – ya know, we were driving my buddy’s Tahoe across the country and crossed 100,000 miles in it (laughs), so there was always an element of harm to our safety. Also, we used this website to basically find the place we were going to stay at every night. Real quick story, the first night we ended up staying with a stranger – this guy out of Huntington Beach who was Mormon. He gave us surfboards to go surfing that day, bought us pizza that night and that whole experience was amazing. The next night in Long Beach (and this is all in the movie) we ended up finding this lady who let us stay at her house. Turns out she was a sadomasochist and also a lesbian, so when we got into her house there was pornography all over the walls and it was like all this inappropriate stuff that freaked us out – so we really did fear for our safety at that point, what we just walked into. So that is probably the only moment we feared for our physical safety.
Spiritually, I think for me the night that sticks out (and it might be different for the guys) was this one night in North Carolina were we stayed with a family that was Muslim. When we got there (this is in the film as well), they ended up cooking us dinner and then we sat around their living room for about 4-5 hours just talking about the differences of what they believed and the Christian faith. At this point all I really knew about Jesus was what was told me growing up in the church so I had all these “ready-to-fire answers to some of life’s tough questions” but when I was actually put on the spot about how I knew they were true, I really didn’t have a response for them. It was great because they just totally debunked what the Muslims believe and what they stand for. At that point in my life (laughs sheepishly) the only exposure I had to them were the events of 9/11. So [in the film you see] their compassion as they walk us through what their beliefs are, just so kind and hospitable that I couldn’t help but honestly be shaken a little bit in what I believed. They seemed to have so much more knowledge about what they believed and seemed to have asked those tough questions for themselves, whereas I was at a point in my life where I hadn’t. So that was a moment for me. I don’t think that it really shook my faith enough to be able to leave God, but it definitely encouraged me to ask those tough questions for myself and really take my faith more seriously.
So embarrassing moment… I guess that it was that same time. When they asked me why I believed Jesus did all those things He said He did and I didn’t have any evidence for them other than the Bible – that was somewhat embarrassing – because I hadn’t really studied Scripture or what other religions even believed.
JOHN: Will, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us… one last question for you… How much coffee did it take for you to pull these adventures off? Didn’t you have a train ride in the movie that was like 17 days or something…?
Will: Oh, well none of us were really obsessed with coffee at that point but we really did consider calling up Red Bull to tell them how thankful we were that they existed. We’re the biggest Red Bull supporters solely because they got us through Europe (laughs). Even in the studio footage in Beware of Christians, when we’re sitting there with coffee mugs I’m pretty sure we’re drinking either Red Bull or Dr. Pepper, just to keep ourselves awake.
JOHN: Will, thank you again for your time, we really appreciate it a lot. We’re looking forward to see how Beware of Christians continues to do at Family and obviously One Nation Under God as well.
Will: Thank you so much, we love you guys, what you’re doing. Anytime we can connect we really do appreciate it - it means a lot to us.