When San Francisco pastor Richard Gazowksy got a mission from God to produce a big budget, biblical science fiction movie from the ground up, his family and a dedicated team of church members, employees and volunteers wrote a script, raised money, bought equipment, crafted sets and costumes, and traveled to a small town in Italy to shoot. Audience of One follows this inexperienced, untrained group as they get, in some ways, closer than anyone expected to actually pulling it off. But “closer than expected” is a very, very wide window.
Director Michael Jacobs’s first full-length film, this documentary has won multiple awards and will be screening all this week at the Roxie. The Appeal had a chance to talk with Jacobs last week about his experiences making Audience of One.
How did you get into filmmaking?
My senior year of college I met these homeless people living in a dumpster in my building and I just was like man, this is quite a story. I was an English major in college and I’m not a very good writer. I was never able to feel confident and comfortable writing about life and people and ideas so I grabbed a video camera and started making a film about them and I took to the process right away. I guess you can say I’m self taught in that sense. I didn’t go to film school. So my execution is sloppy but my process is more about ideas and story telling.
Why this story?
When I moved here I read an article about the church in SF Weekly and I knew if I was going to make my first real film, this would be it. Right away it was an incredible story, then I met the characters and I was like okay, it’s got the characters, then I found out they were going on this quest to Italy, so it’s got the narrative structure. Then it was close to my apartment and I owned the video camera so I was like, this seems very accessible. I can chip away at the film for a relatively low cost for as long as it takes in order to figure out if I can make a career out of it.
Can you explain the timeline a little bit?
From when I started shooting until I was done shooting it was about a year and a half. I got really lucky that such an incredible amount of narrative hooks and progress took place in a relatively condensed period of time, especially for a documentary. I started shooting in February of 2005 and then in April of 05 they told me they were going to Italy, so right away I was thrust into the story. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for it to evolve or percolate for me because it was like, this is happening next week.
Do you think there was a lot of time for the story to evolve or percolate for them?
I mean they would say no, but yeah, to me and I’m sure to you, it seems very abrupt. I was under the impression that they’d been hammering away at this script for years and doing pre-production for months. Part of that’s true and it was just incompetent and confused and disorganized, and part of it is that yes, it was really rushed.
I shot this pretty much on my own with one camera and one microphone on top of the camera like a one man band. I was so focused, especially at the beginning, on trying to get good looking and good sounding footage that I wasn’t contextualizing everything. I was practicing ideas and thinking about the narrative, especially at the end of the day, but as things were taking place on camera I had my head down looking at the little LCD screen making sure everything was in focus and that we could hear it. And it really wasn’t until the edit that I was like, oh my god, these people are so disorganized.
And of course, there’s the obvious disorganization that i saw from the first time I walked into the church and they said they were making a 50 million dollar movie. I knew enough about filmmaking to know that was unlikely. Yet there was this level of sincerity and these nuggets of truth, like that they were going to italy, like that they hired this photography director, like that they got this film stock. So I focused in on making sure I was getting good enough footage and figured I’d worry later about how ridiculous it was.
What if they were staging a play or like building a boat or something instead of shooting a movie. How much would that have changed the story?
They would have been far more successful.
When Richard’s mother was running the church they would put on plays, theatrical performances, musicals, all biblical based song and dance stuff, and they were wildly successful. I talked to people who used to go by the church in the 70s and 80s to watch those performances, non Christians, just to get a kick out of it because they were so well produced. And Richard, at the time, was the head of the church choir and producer of the plays and that was much more manageable for him and it was very successful. At a certain point, according to him it was God, according to someone like me it was just an idea he had, filmmaking came in, and it just completely complicated their entire process and it put it all, unfortunately, out of reach.
How much of a star is Richard?
He’s larger than life, no doubt about it. I would define him as a cult of personality, a larger than life character, a charismatic leader, he’s a real father, he’s a spiritual father, he’s a producer, he’s a director, in a weird way I would even say he’s a visionary. He’s completely forward thinking. A lot of the things that, unfortunately to his detriment, got cut out of the documentary for the sake of clarity and staying on point, don’t do him any justice in that he was very ahead of the curve with this whole digital, ultra high resolution camera thing. Right now there’s a very popular camera being used to shoot ultra high resolution slow motion. He wanted that for his movie 3-5 years ago. It’s just now coming into use for commercial production companies. So there were things like that that would have led my audience astray because just what I described would have taken like 10 minutes to lay out in the documentary. But he is a visionary in certain ways. So yeah, he’s is a big star. If you ever meet him in person, he’s very engaging, hypnotizing even.
This didn’t get too much attention in the movie, but I don’t even go on week long vacations with my family. There’s a family amid this crew. How did that work out?
It’s very interesting. They all live together at the grandmother’s house, they all work together. It was shocking, the kids especially. They’re ambitious, they’re good looking, they’re smart, and they choose to stay within the family structure when most kids would be dying to get out. It had sort of a family circus vibe for that reason.
We chose to show that scene on the beach towards the end where I asked him, “If God showed you this wasn’t working out, wouldn’t you stop?” And we kept a scene in there, which I think a lot of people don’t fully understand, of Richard saying, “We can’t change. You guys can’t leave me. You kids have gotta stay kids.” To me that’s a very powerful scene. It shows just how needy he is and it’s consciously projected in that scene. You kids have gotta stay kids and help me out of this situation or be there for me because this is not going well.
Since finishing the movie, Michael has directed short films for Current TV, the American Dreamers series on Crackle, and is now working on a video installation project for a hotel in New York City. Some day soon, he would love to direct an independent-level fiction film.
Audience of One is a unique and fascinating story with plenty of nods to the city of San Francisco. It plays all week at the Roxie.