Cinedelphia sat down with Robert on the eve of his Philly-area screening and discussed the lengthy process of getting the film made over seven years, his fascination with Paul, and how college prepared him for the industry…
Cinedelphia: Since I’m currently a student at SVA and I’ve been told you graduated from SVA, my first question is what do you think about the film and how did it help you in the industry?
ROBERT ORLANDO: The thing I liked most about SVA was that it was hands on, and that it was a school that prided itself on being hands on. You got to hold the paint and really figure out your craft and I remember even after I graduated I was able to get work right away.
C: Was film your focus?
C: And was directing your focus within the film program?
RO: The first year they gave you everything to sample, but by midway through the first year it became pretty clear that I was going to be the writer/director. Part of it was because I had good organizational skills to be frank, like you’d have to get a project together and you’d have three other people that you had to get together with, and I would be the one organizing and I realized I was the Writer/Director/Producer.
C: Now they have a documentary section, did they have that have that when you went to school?
RO: They didn’t have that then.
C: Was documentary something you wanted to get into?
RO: You know I didn’t make that distinction, I probably still don’t. I know why people make that distinction but I remember the first couple assignments at school were broken up into different exercises. Like TV show, documentary, film, short film, but even throughout my career I think I’ve gone both ways without even crossing over a line, meaning I’ve done other documentaries and I’ve done narratives straight through so there’s always a balance. As to why one vs the other, I think they’re different forms. They accent different things, they highlight different things, it’s interesting in this case because it’s a hybrid, it’s documentary subject matter but done in a narrative style.
C: One thing I wondered before I watched it was if it was going to be a religious film.
RO: No, this is not a religious film.
C: It’s more informational, almost like what really happened.
RO: Right, I wasn’t preaching anything, which is the hardest stigma that I’m trying to get out with all the interviews. The hardest stigma for me is to get beyond the presumption of what this is about before people see it. Is he preaching something? Am I being sensational? It’s not, I’m approaching religious matter but purely as a filmmaker and a historian. I’ve taken a lot of time to say how would this work, and tell the human story and not the supernatural.
C: Did you have a particular interest in Christianity or Paul in particular?
RO: It started with what I call my “three act life”, growing up Catholic, and having an interest when I was in my teens. There was actually a Christian club at SVA I remember, where you get to ask the big questions and I was there for a while, not to convert, but more existential questions about what to do with the art. So at first it was curiosity, then the second act was I found I was asking so many questions that it started to interfere with my life so I had to take it a little more serious and I went to classes at graduate school and started to take it apart and study all the critical scholarship, from a historical perspective. My focus was to be technical, I was a Paul scholar in the Greco-Roman setting. But after many years of that I kind of moved out of the faith and looked at it as more intellectual.
C: So would you say your faith defines your work or do you consider yourself a filmmaker first?
RO: It was a dual track. When I was at SVA I’d say I couldn’t make that choice, but now I’d say yes. My third Act is I was at Barnes and Noble and picked up a book on Paul and said “That’s not right.” So I wrote a review and researched who the authorities were on the book and met with a couple of them, and from there started talking about doing a Paul project with them. This was 2005.
C: Wow so you spent a long time on this project.
RO: Seven years, yeah.
C: When you were making the documentary did you find yourself learning as filming went along or did you have a set path on where you wanted to go and what to say?
RO: I unfortunately did it the hard way. I initially knew kind of what I was going for, when I first went out it was kind of like “Hey, isn’t this cool? Let’s talk about the sacred mysteries things” and it was more fact finding. Then on the second wave I started testing my theories against the scholars and by the third wave I was sure there was a narrative emerging and then I was going out to ask what they thought and get support for what I already had. But that was very hard from a technical standpoint because then you get to editing and you have to find in these long interviews, there was 50 hours of footage, so I had to dig into these interviews and by the end I had a narrative and had written a book. So I wasn’t setting them up but I was looking for a response that would fit into the story. So it evolved over the time. By the way, there are two ways to go from an artist point of view, if you keep things spontaneous like a painter would, and then the other way is you write everything out in advance and you express in style what you know intellectually. I’m more in the middle, whats called a loose spine, and I find there’s a freshness that you can’t get on either side from the other extremes.
C: One thing that set this apart from other documentaries was the animation. Where did the idea come from?
RO: Well I was an art minor at SVA, but over the years I started experimenting with Photoshop and realized I had a good cinematic sense and knew how to compose shots. And as you’ll learn if you haven’t started already, is that filmmaking is all about getting money and a group of people. It’s a business and you’re trying to get people all the time before you get to the creative side, that’s like the last thing. So it’s frustrating if you’re like me and you want to get working on your craft. So long story short, I searched for the right artist for over a year not because there weren’t artists, there were a ton of freelance artists out there but I wanted to find someone who had chiaroscuro, a style where they do a single light source. If you look at the way it plays out, there’s always a motivating light, it’s very cinematic to do that and doesn’t leave it to 2D graphics. So I ended up finding two Italian guys in Rome through Skype. So there were two guys on my team and there were the two guys in Rome and once I got the fine 2D art I roughed it out with them.
C: Being both a writer/director/producer, did you feel you had feel control over the project? Were there any snags along the way?
RO: It got picked up actually to be made into a Hollywood film in 2008. When it got picked up it was still a documentary work in progress so they told me to hold off on the documentary because if it was going to be put out as a film they didn’t want any exposure prior to the film getting out, so it got put on hold for 2 years. Later there was another independent financier who wanted to be an executive producer for a while who made me rewrite a lot of it, not necessarily going against my vision, but kind of bringing out a lot of things he wasn’t aware of and bringing out his own nuance. But never steering away from the center piece of it all, that Paul is the figure that started Christianity and that tension born of it. There’s a human story to be told without the supernatural.
C: I liked how down to earth it was…
RO: That’s exactly what I was trying to do. For people, believers or not, who found themselves still hungry for intellectual curiosity, I thought this would give a lot of reasons and answers that make sense from a social science point of view. My tool was a classical narrative drama, that inquiring detective mind of a writer is what got me down to these answers to make the narrative work. I don’t think it’s limited for a religious audience.
C: You intend the film more for people into the history side of things, rather than the religion.
RO: Yes, to the armchair historians, I keep saying you’ve got a film finally. I tried to take it to the next step and said what if you take all this critical scholarship and put it into a story and what would it look like. I’m just telling you the human side.
C: Strictly the facts, so to speak.
RO: As much as you can.
C: So your film is receiving a limited release, are there any plans for expansion?
RO: This is sort of my road show. I’m trying to show that it has a bigger appeal rather than a niche academic audience which I think is a first presumption of people who see it as academic fodder. I think it goes beyond that and think it has a lot of entertainment value so I’m doing these screenings to prove that it has more appeal so if it goes to a Regal Cinema I can have a track record behind me. There it is again, the business of the industry.
A Polite Bribe screens tomorrow night at the Ritz East at 7:00 PM followed by a Q&A with Robert Orlando.