Tonight at 8pm Eastern, one of the stranger relationships of my life will enter a new phase.
Tonight - and through January - HBO will air Hard As Nails, a documentary I directed about an incredibly charismatic and compelling Catholic lay-minister named Justin Fatica. In the film, Justin talks about how he has unequivocally "cured" his masturbation, gets slammed on the back - really hard - by a folding chair while preaching, and emphatically tells an overweight girl that she's "fat," If you want to know more about the context of those events, you're going to have to find the film on HBO. If you want to know more about the context of my relationship with Justin, all you have to do is read on.
The relationship between most documentary filmmakers and their subjects is a symbiotic one and with Justin, it was no different. We found him at a Christian Rock festival in New Hampshire called Soulfest (4 days of music with no beer or smell of sinsemilla in the air - still boggles my mind). Our filming started out pretty low-key as Justin was only going to be one character in a multi-character film I still hope to make called The Believers.
But after filming more amazing material with Justin (like proselytizing in Manhattan's 10th Avenue club district and having his efforts rejected in an extremely profane way), we realized that he would overwhelm the other characters in the film and would come across unfairly as a crazed one-dimensional cartoon character.
I wanted to spin Justin off into his own film and soon approached him and his then-pregnant wife, Mary, about documenting their lives as they built the Hard As Nails ministry. Mary, smart, sensible and skeptical asked all the tough questions: could they make changes in the final cut (No); would they get paid (again, No); and what effect would the film have on their twenty-something lives (I don't know). Justin, less skeptical and happy to have the attention, was unusually quiet. I told them there would be scenes in the film they'd like and scenes they wouldn't but either way, it would be honest and real (one of Justin's favorite words). Then I waited anxiously hoping they'd agree to cooperate.
They did and our relationship fell into a nice groove as we followed Justin around the country and he preached the Word. Justin and I spent a lot time together, in the car, over meals, even playing a particularly fierce game of one-on-one. All through out, Justin kept asking me what were we going to do with all of this great footage. What I told him was I didn't yet know; but in fact, I was in a Capote-like situation because I was having extensive conversations with HBO.
Once we signed with HBO, I told Justin about the deal, which unnerved him since he thought of HBO as the television version of Sodom and Gomorrah. He knew HBO has a certain attitude and was concerned with what the "Sex and the City" network would want to do with his life.
It was a legitimate concern but I was able to - as Justin would say - "smooth-operate" the situation and we continued to gather great material (like Justin eliciting sad and painful stories from kids). Then when we went into edit on the film, our relationship shifted. Now that I had my footage in the can, Justin had to wait anxiously, while I put together my construct of his life.
It's a weird thing to do. I genuinely care about him and his family, but we also had to tell his story the best we could and that might mean putting stuff on the screen that Justin and Mary might not like.
We were nearly finished with a cut that worked when we ran into Capote moment #2. Justin had somehow found on the Internet a pitch about Hard As Nails that we had written, for a documentary conference. Phrases like "a gauntlet of abuse," "messianic tendencies," and "a latter-day Elmer Gantry" were daggers for Justin and Mary. They felt betrayed by the people who had sat at their kitchen table and held their infant son, Joseph. Mary told me she had thought of me as a man of integrity, but no longer.
I had not gotten into this line of work to upend people's lives like this and I felt terrible. We explained that this was a "sales" document that needed to be juiced. Still, they were understandably hurt and the relationship got very tense with long, painful conversations and emails. I told them that once they saw the film, they'd feel better because what they would see would be - like I promised - real.
When we sent them an almost-finished rough cut, there was palpable relief all around as they told me that, indeed, I was a man of my word. But then, as they watched the film over and over with friends and family, they got increasingly agitated as they saw more things they didn't like. We listened to their concerns and made some changes they had that made the film better but held very fast against some they desperately wanted.
Now on the eve of the HBO premiere, it's a little intense because reviews, articles and a piece on Nightline are all coming out about the film and neither of us has any control now. Justin and Mary still have significant issues with the finished film, but happily have come to accept it, even attending screenings and taking questions afterwards.
Without the film as a focus, I am not sure what will happen to my relationship with Justin. What I hope is that it will evolve into a new kind of friendship, and that we stay in regular contact. After all, maybe I can have my own moderating influence on him as he will always be up to something interesting and unusual. And you never know, people have already asked me if I would be interested in making a sequel ...