Several months ago, I came across an article on Laughing Squid about a quirky looking, new documentary called Bible Storyland. The film deals with the discovery of conceptual artwork and plans for a large, 1960s Bible-themed amusement park by one Harvey Jordan, an art-collector/dealer from Southern California. Although (or maybe because) the park was never built, Harvey's interaction with these long-forgotten artifacts send him off on a journey to learn the behind the scenes secrets of Bible Storyland. Driven by his own doubts and fears, Harvey chases after the abandoned dreams of the park's would-be-entrepreneurs to the detriment of his family and, perhaps, his own best interests.
I'll be running a review of the film in the very near future, so keep an eye out for that posting. In the meantime, Bible Storyland director Stephanie Hubbard took some time to speak to me about the film. Here's how our conversation went down:
NICK: Can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved in telling the story of Bible Storyland? Did Harvey Jordan approach you with his discovery of the design sketches, paintings, and a forgotten tale of 1960s Americana or did you stumble upon the subject matter some other way?
STEPHANIE: Harvey came to my workshop then as I worked with him on ideas of how to make the film - he suggested that I be the director. I said no at first, but he persisted, and ultimately I took on the role, and I'm glad I did.
NICK: What elements tend to be present for you to begin thinking about telling a story via a film or documentary treatment?
STEPHANIE: I'm always looking for transformation...and funding.
NICK: Your film is ostensibly about Harvey’s quest to research a biblically inspired theme park that was never built. But a fascinating thing happens as the story moves forward: the focus shifts from Harvey’s detective work to become a portrait of Harvey himself, his fears and relentless drive to solve the mystery at the heart of Bible Storyland are all laid bare.
Was there a moment during the production when you began to understand that the story was moving in a whole different direction? And, if so, was there some initial discomfort at coming to the realization that the project would be much more of a character piece than an investigation of Bible Storyland itself?
STEPHANIE: Well thank you - I'm glad you found it to be fascinating.
When I was first exposed to the material and to Harvey - I knew that Bible Storyland was a jumping off point for something more - and that more had to be there to make it a film worth making. So before production began I knew it had to be bigger than Bible Storyland. I also knew from talking to Harvey that there were issues afoot in his household - that his wife was not being supportive - in fact, before we started shooting, he came very close to quitting. So - in answer to your question: I had no discomfort at the realization that it would be more of a character piece - I knew that's what it needed to be. Fortunately Harvey and Debi trusted me and themselves to tell the story.
NICK: Obsession appears to be the main theme forwarded by the film. As we follow Harvey, he encounters what begins to feel like an endless series of dead ends to finding out the truth about Bible Storyland, none of which discourage him enough to abandon his investigation.
Far more curious is Harvey’s admission that he’s developing a sense of kinship with Nat Winecoff, the forgotten early Disney exec turned chief instigator of the Bible Storyland project, even going so far as to begin talking as if he plans to break ground on the long-abandoned Bible Storyland construction himself.
How many years did Harvey end up devoting to this project? Do you think it’s fair to say that at a certain point along the line that the quest began to take over Harvey’s life?
STEPHANIE: By the time we finished the film - Harvey had spent 10 years - now it's been eleven years.
Yes it's fair to say on the one hand that the quest took over Harvey's life. On the other hand, Harvey has a variety of interests (including his meditation - he goes on one or two ten day silent meditation retreats a year in the time I've known him) (and Debi doesn't like him to go on those either) that he finds engaging and interesting.
NICK: Do you see his particular form of obsession as pointing to a larger, societal trend or issue?
STEPHANIE: I think that it's fair to say many many people don't like everything about their daily lives, and are looking for ways to escape. A lot of folks just watch TV - and get really into a show (I have friends who both work on The Bachelorette and others who seem to live for it) or into movies - other people get into complicated hobbies - like Live Action Role Playing - or motocross - or what ever that might be.
One thing that struck me about Harvey's quest is that it was essentially very lonely. He was the only guy going after the Bible Storyland Story - and I think he really liked the uniqueness of his quest. Other people get a hold of something and it makes them part of a group and that's the appeal. That was not the case with Harvey.
NICK: Okay, so do you feel that Harvey’s compulsion becomes easier to identify with because, to a certain degree, so many of us are driven by passions that aren’t always rooted in reality?
STEPHANIE: Well, as a filmmaker - I really related to Harvey's quest.
Most of the people I know here in Los Angeles are driven by similar passions, though I'm happy to say that in my community I think my friends are increasingly rooted in reality. But to be an artist working to make art - especially an expensive and essentially speculative art form like filmmaking - the passion almost has to be detached from reality.
It's interesting - because as I was making this film about Harvey becoming unhinged in an artful quest for Bible Storyland, the protagonist of my second book (a novel) was feeling that all this time spent and dedicated to pursuit of her art form had actually been a betrayal to herself - now she was past 45 years old, still an artist, and still struggling in a rotting rent controlled apartment, seething with jealousy at anyone who had health insurance much less a pension. It was almost as if the Harvey project was success enough to free me to explore this angry aspect of the life I'd created for myself as a working artist.
I think that it's very important in my work to explore the domestic, the struggle to express oneself amid the daily constraints of paying the rent or picking up the kid. That's what I think is interesting, and what I think Bible Storyland managed to explore just a little bit.
NICK: Harvey really commits to putting himself out there as a subject, allowing the audience to see some fairly unflattering and tense moments in his domestic life, as well as more than a few confessional and crisis-driven moments along the way. I’ve got to say that it’s really inspiring to see his growth as a character from the time we meet Harvey until the point where the film reaches it’s conclusion.
Was featuring so much of Harvey’s personal life a process of negotiation between you, Harvey, and his family? Did the necessity of telling the story the way you did become more evident once you entered the editing room or were those decisions arrived at before you began cutting the film?
STEPHANIE: As I said in the beginning - I knew I wanted and needed to include Harvey's story even before we started shooting. What I didn't know was how much they'd show me. The good news was that from the very first or second shoot - they were on board. I never asked them for permission or negotiated anything. I and my cameraman would just show up with cameras and Harvey and his family lived their lives.
Once we hit the editing room then began the waltz to really hit the right mix. I felt it was really important to find that line where Debi's frustration was understandable, and where Harvey's transformation was complete. I've also done this long enough to know to edit almost to the end before we were done shooting - that way after I had screened it and gotten notes and knew where I needed to bring elements forward, I was able to have one last day of shooting to gather it all.
Too often I've seen filmmakers think that there were two discrete phases: shooting - then when that's done - cutting. It's much better for there to be a time of capturing but for that to overlap with cutting, input, more cutting - and then more shooting. Sometimes it's simply not possible, but more often then not it's entirely possible.
NICK: Congrats on bringing the film to completion. I think it’s a really solid piece.
You’ve taken Bible Storyland to a few festivals now. What’s the reception to the film been like so far? You’re currently selling the dvd on your website. Are you still looking to tour the film in various cities?
STEPHANIE: Thanks very much. I was very lucky to have a great producer who really gave me free rein with my artistic vision and really made himself available. It was a really wonderful experience which he and I have both really appreciated.
We've actually only premiered the film in July in San Antonio, and people were really engaged and really enjoyed it. The film just ran a couple of days ago at the Kingston Film Festival, but we weren't there. This upcoming week, it will be shown as part of DocUtah.
Yes we sell the DVD on the site - but it's really fun to watch in a crowded theater - lots of laughing and self recognition. And yes we are currently looking to tour the film in various cities. We'd love to bring it to Portland.
NICK: It’s kind of an uncertain time as far as distribution for independently produced films is concerned. What’s your experience of self-distributing a film in today’s crowded market been like so far?
STEPHANIE: We are not actually self distributing it YET. We are represented by Cargo Films Releasing and David Piperni. We have been making the rounds of festivals. We are currently actually (and frankly very surprising to me) in the process of pursuing a small theatrical release.
I really hope we are able to run in Portland and attend.
As far as standing out in today's crowded market: here is what I will say: I feel that Bible Storyland is the way I like documentaries to be: fun, and edgy and warm and unexpected. When I think of what has influenced my storytelling in this film, I keep coming back to "The Big Lebowski", fun and edgy and warm and unexpected - full of twists and turns - and ultimately: "The Dude Abides".
One by one - we find our viewers: people looking for documentaries that are fun, and edgy and warm and unexpected and who don't get scared by the title.
NICK: Looking to the future, do you have any projects in the works or any that you’re excited to begin developing?
STEPHANIE: Actually I have a few projects. I just completed a Kickstarter Campaign for my next film, for the time being, it's called, The Improv Movie - and it tracks a top level comedy improv team and the concept of "Group Mind" in a fun way of course.
I've also been working with my good friend Joanna Vassilatos on an album - I've written the words, she's the vocalist and doing the music and we are working together with Sasha Smith to producer it.
I have finished my second book (you can find out about my first at www.bluffislandrescueservice.com) and I'm partnering with an amazing producer on a documentary series that i can't talk about yet, but which is really cool.
In the meantime I'm story producing for folks making a documentary about BronyCon - and teaching my workshops - and writing my blog at www.thedocumentaryinsider.com. Also for the record, I have health insurance, and do not live in a rotting apartment (anymore).