Amen with a camera

Audience of One doc looks at an SF pastor who says God wants him to make a $200 million sci-fi movie

Divine messages are tricky, particularly for true believers who have no choice but to obey whatever directive the big G passes down. "God told me to!" can lead to heroic or comical or tragic ends; really, it's a convenient excuse to do just about anything. For Richard Gazowsky, pastor at San Francisco's Voice of Pentecost Church, the Lord's message was simple if extravagant: "I want you to be the Rolls Royce of filmmaking."

Given that Voice of Pentecost is situated in an old movie theater and that Gazowsky received his vision in 1994 — soon after the then-40-year-old saw his first movie, The Lion King — this decree was not as surprising as it sounds. But as Michael Jacobs's documentary Audience of One reveals, the quixotic Gazowsky has hit endless snags in his quest to be the next Mel Gibson (or George Lucas) with his "Ten Commandments meets Star Wars" epic, Gravity: In the Shadow of Joseph. It seems unquestioning faith can only go so far before naïveté, technical inexperience, and long-overdue rent get in the way.

Intrigued by Lessley Anderson's Jan. 5, 2005, SF Weekly article on the church's cinematic aspirations, Jacobs (at the time a newly rooted San Franciscan by way of Colorado) headed out to Ocean Avenue to take in a service. Before long, he'd found the topic of his first feature-length documentary.

"I walked into Voice of Pentecost, and it was like stepping onto another planet. I'd never seen anything like it: singing, dancing, falling down, speaking in tongues. I was really floored," Jacobs told me over the phone from New York City, where Audience of One (which premiered at the 2007 South by Southwest film festival and is slated for the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival) screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "New Directors/New Films" series.

Though Gazowsky's production company, Christian WYSIWYG Filmworks (yep, it stands for "what you see is what you get"), has about 30 employees, the charismatic preacher was the natural choice for Jacobs's primary subject. "The pastor [came] out and [updated] his congregation on the trials and tribulations of making this independent Christian blockbuster," Jacobs remembers. "I was immediately fascinated."

Having received his own calling of sorts, Jacobs asked Gazowsky and his congregants to appear in his doc. "I was really candid. I told them I'm Jewish and had no intentions of being a part of their church but that I wanted to observe their creation. I talked to Pastor Gazowsky about my philosophical approach to documentary and how I wanted to make an observational film. I wasn't gonna use narration or come at it from a liberal or conservative perspective. I wasn't gonna put it into the context of Christianity. I just wanted to make it as much cinéma vérité as possible."

Voice of Pentecost agreed to give Jacobs fly-on-the-wall access. For the next few months he captured WYSIWYG's casting calls, stunt rehearsals, set-design meetings, and other bustling preproduction activities for a fast-approaching Italian location shoot. The footage comprises Audience of One's decidedly optimistic first half; anticipation runs sky-high among the (nearly all-volunteer) cast and crew despite several hints of challenges ahead. Gravity's massive wardrobe, including an abundance of Jediesque hoods, remains many stitches from completion, and the camera and sound equipment — at Gazowsky's insistence, entirely state-of-the-art — is still being tested.

Soon before WYSIWYG uproots to Italy, one of the few pros involved in the production, cinematographer Jens Klein, tells Gazowsky he's concerned about Gravity's abbreviated prep time.

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