Updated: Jul 18, 2019
I caught up with screenwriting duo Sean Paul Murphy and Jennifer Healy Gloeb on the heels of their new script, Romy, about a young woman on the verge of divorce who comes to grips with her troubled past on an impulsive trip to visit her family's ancestral home in Italy. The two decided to collaborate during an impromptu breakfast in October at Churches Making Movies where Gloeb won the 2018 screenwriting contest.
“It was my first time collaborating with a writer, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the process was seamless from beginning to end,” said Gloeb. “Sean is such a talented writer and is regarded as the ‘structure king,’ so as a new-ish screenwriter, I was able to glean much, much, more working with him than I ever did from a book. The experience was invaluable and a lot of fun."
Murphy says Gloeb had great energy during the writing process. “She is very talented and shows a real strength in characterization. She is also very fast. Once she starts writing, she doesn’t want to stop. Usually, when I work with another writer, I am the one who pushes the project along. I don’t have to do that with Jenna. She’s always pushing me,” said Murphy.
Gloeb capitalizes on her background as a TV News Producer when she's dealing with characterization in her scripts. “Foremost, as a producer you write the entire show and you have to learn to break it down for the anchor to read. I wrote about forty stories a day. I’ve written about some wacky, crazy stories. I had to figure out what's their story and what does the audience need to know,” she said.
While both Murphy and Gloeb are Christians, and Murphy has had a long career writing and producing Christian movies, Romy is not a Christian film—at least not in the traditional sense.
“I came to the sad realization that I was making films for Christians only. If we are really going to change the culture, we need to move to secular films that still reflect our faith,” said Murphy. “Nowadays, when people make a Christian film, they label it as a Christian film. If I’m not a Christian, why would I want to go to see a Christian film. Just make good movies and people will come to them.”
Murphy adds that not all Christian films alienate non-Christians. “I have been encouraged by films like I Can Only Imagine and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, which I believe screened at Churches Making Movies. Those were both films that were true to their values, but were presented in a way that didn’t needlessly alienate non-believers. I think that is the goal, otherwise we will preaching to the choir only. On the other hand, I have been less enthusiastic about Christian films that espouse political themes. I am more interested in souls than politics.”
Gloeb believes that people want to go to the movies to see something that will not only entertain them, but also encourage and engage their soul. “My goal is to write stories that people will feel better after seeing. Each script I’ve written is different, but they all have a redemptive theme and point towards God,” she said.
Christian Movie Propaganda
In a recent article, Jared Wilson argues that “Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art.” While Murphy believes that Christian filmmakers shouldn’t “preach to the choir,” he questions Wilson’s position.
“Propaganda, by definition, is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature used to promote a political cause or point of view. Obviously, Christian films tend to be biased toward Christian beliefs. Does that make it propaganda? Depends on your point of view. Generally, people who agree with the beliefs of a work of art do not consider it propaganda,” said Murphy. “Michael Moore fans wouldn’t consider Fahrenheit 9/11 propaganda, but they would certainly consider Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016 Obama’s America to be so and vice versa. I would also question Mr. Wilson’s proposition that something can either be art or propaganda. If you are an atheist, you might consider Michelangelo’s Pieta propaganda for the Christian faith, but it is certainly art,” he said.
Challenges for Christian Filmmakers
Murphy believes that the death of the DVD market is a challenge for filmmakers who make Christian films. “Streaming income has not replaced the income from DVDs, which was the bread and butter of independent filmmakers. To be successful, you have to aim for theatrical, which means bigger budgets and less room for error. Essentially, everyone has to up their game now,” he said.
“Because of the HD revolution, more films than ever are being made. However, it is more difficult to get your movie seen by a wider audience, particularly if you want to do something new. Many young filmmakers want to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Christian films. However, the success of the theatrical releases remains reliant on the support of churches around the country. As a result, it is difficult to push those boundaries.”
Another challenge he sees is the way subject matter is expected to be handled in a Christian film. “I was told early in my career that Christian films could only show things a pastor would be comfortable showing in his sanctuary. I think that rule generally applies, which often prevents filmmakers from pushing the boundaries and making the films more realistic in their depictions of the world.”
Hollywood increasingly making movie to attract Christians isn’t necessarily damaging for independent Christian filmmakers according to Murphy.
“I am very encouraged by Hollywood’s renewed interest in the Bible. I think we should encourage them to continue doing so, even if films like Noah and Exodus take liberties we as believers may not like. Christ didn’t delegate movies to evangelize the world, he delegated the church to do so,” said Murphy. “Movies are, at best, a conversation starter. If Hollywood wants to spend a hundred million dollars making a flawed film about Noah, that is okay with me. There was a huge increase of people seeking out the book of Genesis online after the movie came out.," he added.
“I would ask believers whether they spent their time trashing that movie when it came out, or used the release as a way to get people to consider the true story of Noah? Use everything! Don’t wait for something to be perfect."
On the Horizon for Gloeb
A self-taught screenwriter, Gloeb moved to Los Angeles in the nineties to be an actress, so she read a lot of scripts, but she never once thought about becoming a screenwriter until the Spring of 2014. "I got Final Draft and The Screenwriter’s Bible, and away I went," said Gloeb. Nowadays, in addition to screenwriting, Gloeb is a busy wife and mom of two elementary-age kids. When her children are in school and she’s not volunteering there, she works on whatever new spec script she’s writing. She is also a creative producer for her Emmy winning husband’s production company in Minneapolis. In addition, Gloeb is currently looking for an agent. “I am also expecting great things from the script Sean and I wrote. We've also spoken about the next script we’d like to collaborate on, which I hope to start writing in the near future. In addition, I am currently working on a new script.”
On the Horizon for Murphy
"Most importantly, I am preparing to start pitching Romy, the script Jenna and I wrote together.” Murphy is also looking for a literary agent for his new novel “Chapel Street.” He has a script called I. John in development, and he is pitching an animated series called Life Like to a streaming service.