Penny Lane had long successfully avoided situations, but she was faced with a common conundrum for documentary filmmakers while making her latest “Hail Satan?” when one of the members of the Satanic Temple asked to remain anonymous for his interview. The anonymity itself was never an issue, but likely having seen far too many dully composed and backlit interviews in other films, making it interesting was another concern for the filmmaker entirely.
“He wanted to be anonymous and I said to my producer, ‘Can we get away with putting him in horns? Would that be too silly? Will he be irritated that this is my concept?’” recalls Lane, who soon was handing her subject a devilish helmet. “And instead, he thought it was the greatest thing ever, so we were all very happy.”
It was one of many happy surprises Lane had on the film, which may appear on the surface to be a departure for the filmmaker who usually hasn’t had to do on-camera interviews at all for archival-based films such as “Our Nixon,” “Nuts!” and “The Pain of Others,” yet finds opportunities to shrewdly poke fun at stylistic conventions of nonfiction films as she observes the Satanic Temple’s crusade against a cultural monolith of its own, valiantly reasserting the notion of religious freedom in a country where Christians seek to erase any distinction between church and state. Often revealing something dark about our national character in lighthearted ways, Lane finds reason to be hopeful in “Hail Satan?” as she joins what seem at first to be a merry band of pranksters as they troll politicians and zealots such as the Westboro Baptist Church by using their media-grabbing tactics against them, organizing under an easily identifiable figure in Satan for brand awareness. Likewise, a reluctant leader emerges in this egalitarian organization for the same reason in Lucien Greaves, who serves himself up as a villain on Fox News and other conservative media outlets to both play into the worst fears of their viewers but also secure equal time for their cause that could ultimately lead to winning their hearts and minds.
Ironically, with more success comes a greater need for infrastructure, particularly when the Satanic Temple begins investing in a bronze statue of Baphomet, the goat monster, to place alongside Ten Commandments monument in front of the state capital of Arkansas, and as the group is threatened with becoming an organized religion itself, “Hail Satan?” brilliantly considers how collective action and personal freedom is intertwined in the U.S. and celebrates a group that connected through their shared sense of being disempowered and becomes a force for good in the world. With the film opening in theaters this week following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, one of our favorite filmmakers took a few minutes out of a whirlwind press tour to talk about becoming a believer in the Satanic Temple and making her first film that unfolded right before her eyes.
Well, many moments, but I’ll point to one from the film because it’s very, very traumatic – in the room with Lucien Greaves as he’s very reluctantly putting on a bulletproof vest in Little Rock, Arkansas [preparing to unveil the Baphomet statue to counter a statute of the Ten Commandments]. It’s 112 degrees, he doesn’t want to put this thing on and everyone around him is arguing with him that there have been weeks of online threats by white supremacists groups that have been calling for his assassination. Meanwhile, all the politicians around us are in their air conditioned offices, smugly telling the news cameras that Lucien Greaves is just a troll and just a bully and he just wants to annoy people. It’s a pretty dramatic moment for me and the whole notion for me that this would be for fun or just to irritate people is maddeningly incorrect.
Beyond following Lucien, what was it like getting to know the members of the Satanic Temple at the ground level? I understand it had a pretty profound impact on the film.
It changed the film completely because at the beginning of the project, we very much sensed a lot of our energy focusing on the national campaigns — the big headlines, the reproductive rights lawsuit and obviously the Baphomet campaign that was then going to Little Rock. [And we were] spending time getting to know the leadership of the Satanic Temple, but also members of the National Council, who really actually govern the Satanic Temple, but getting out onto the street level in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Seattle, Texas, Florida, Los Angeles, New York and Boston, it was totally different because here was the day-to-day work of private individuals who were organizing themselves in their local religious fellowship, getting together socially, but also getting together to organize their good works, gathering on a Saturday morning to clean up a highway or organizing a blood drive and collecting socks for the homeless. It was like a 180° of what people get from the Satanic Temple if they’re watching Fox News.
It was extremely emotionally affecting for me to meet people who, one after another, say things to me like, “I’ve had a feeling of otherness my whole life. I never felt welcome in any group, certainly never in any religious group, and never knew I could do something greater than myself because no group would have me.” There was no questioning their sincerity at that level. There’s nothing funny about it — there’s something funny about it in the sense that even at the local level, there’s still inherent shock value in seeing the “Adopt a Highway” sign with the words “The Satanic Temple” [underneath] – but but [these are] every day Americans organizing to make change in their community, which is just beautiful.
You pull off this amazing feat, which is preserving the individuality of the members while presenting them as a group in those fun interviews montages. How did that idea come about?
None of them really wanted the film to be their personal biography. For them, what happened to you in your childhood is not the most [interesting aspect of the Satanic Temple], so we thought of those scenes as like a chorus and we were able to create a kind of composite character in all of the Satanists, but also in that composite character show all of the diversity of experiences and personalities. It was a delicate balancing act because I agreed with them that the movie would be really boring if essentially the pitch was “Satanists, they’re just like you and me! Let’s watch them play with their kids and butter their English muffins in the morning.” I hated that idea and they hated it more than I did – there was just no way, so trying to find a way to personalize the Satanic Temple without turning it into a biographical sketch was I think one of the challenges of the film.
Yeah, it wasn’t so different because it’s not like I was on the ground at the Rick Scott rally in 2013 [at the start of the film]. There’s three years [the Satanic Temple had filmed themselves] at origin point, so I already had a pretty good sense of what act one [would be], and thematically, I knew the story would trace this evolution of an idea into something quite serious — from a prank into a legitimate religion — so whatever happened in the second half of the story, it would follow that premise, so that was the same as any other process. But I was very nervous going into it. Like what will happen? How do you make this kind of movie? And what I came to discover is that being a good director is the same in every context. You have to have the same skills and the same abilities and you have to rabidly stick to the plan while also being open to new ideas. These are all things that I already learned. It’s not really all that different from archival storytelling, it turns out. [laughs] Which by the way is a huge revelation for me. I didn’t know if I could do this type of filmmaking [since] I’d just never done it before. I think I was quite cautious in the films I got to make because I was very much trying to play to what were my strengths. And it was hilarious how silly that fear really was. It completely changes my sense of what’s possible.