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Interview with Hail Satan? director Penny Lane

Interview with Hail Satan? director Penny Lane

Hail Satan? was a film I was lucky enough to see at Sundance this year, and it was not only one of my favorite experiences at the festival, but it is easily one of my top 2019 films. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to speak with director Penny Lane (Nuts!Our Nixon) about her incredible documentary. 

Cinema76: I was actually at Sundance this year, and I was so excited to be able to see Hail Satan? there.

Penny Lane: Good! That's the best place to see a new movie. You really can't compare [...] it to anything else—the energy at Sundance is like nothing else. It's really hard to explain to people who have never been there.

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C: I thought it was really interesting, you mentioned in the Q&A that Jex was actually in attendance. What was that like for you, to have her there, and what was it like for her?

PL: Well, of course I would not want to speak for her, but for me I was tremendously concerned in the final months of the edit that Jex—both Jex and The Satanic Temple leadership—would think that my handling of her departure was accurate. I mean, that was the goal, right? Like I just wanted to be accurate about it. So, I think that everyone involved in The Satanic Temple, including Jex, was kind of a dream in terms of being film subjects, because they had a tremendous amount of respect for the fact that I was an independent filmmaker and that I was making a film...it isn't the whole story, you know? Like no one in their right mind, who lived any of these events would be like, "Yeah, sure, every single thing that I thought was important is in this movie." I bring that up because Jex and Lucien, and other people who were kind of involved in that particular departure and the events surrounding it, obviously I was quite concerned most of all that they would think that was accurate. And I think that they would all say that is accurate. There's no misrepresentations that were made.

So backstory to say that, yeah, Jex came to Sundance—it was awesome to have her there. I lobbied for her to come, I got the Sundance Institution to put her on a panel, [made sure] that they would cover her travel. I really wanted her to be there. And I'm really glad she was there, because I think that, again from what she said to me, it was a really awesome experience for her [...] she's incredibly proud of the work she did that's represented in the film, and she was a huge part of making The Satanic Temple the success that it is. I think despite all the bad feelings and all the complications that have come in the wake of her departure—and she's had a lot more to say about that publically online—despite all of that, it doesn't take away from the work that she did [...] and she said to me that it felt really moving for her to be [...] in a big theater full of people who were responding that way to her work, and she met a lot of people at the festival who said that her work and her words were inspiring to them. That's, I think, really all she wants. Like, she wants to empower individuals to take action and be inspired to do what they can to make the world a better place in their own community. So, long answer, but yeah I think it was really great. I was so happy. I was really happy with the way it all turned out. And we made sure that Lucien and Jex—they didn't overlap in terms of their attendance at Sundance, and so, you know, not trying to force any kind of on-stage reconciliation. It's not up to me. I remain a huge fan of Jex, as an artist and as a person. She's just an amazing person and has inspired me a huge amount.

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C: I obviously didn't know she was there during the movie, so when you mentioned that at the end during the Q&A I was just like, that is really fucking awesome of her to be so invested in all of those principles you were kind of talking about, that she would be able to come. Because certainly I know a lot of people would be like, well fuck that, I'm not going.

PL: Yeah, I totally agree with you. Honestly, like a lesser person would probably go on the rampage and try to trash the film. Because the film is sort of so...[it] paints such a rosy picture of The Satanic Temple. I don't even know if I would say it in those terms, but you know what I mean. The film is not like an investigative expose of the inner workings of The Satanic Temple ... it doesn't go into detail about all the problems that have existed amongst members and amongst leadership—and there have been real problems. So because the film doesn't do that it would be super easy for a lesser person than Jex to just go online and be like, this film is propaganda or lies, because there are people who say that. There are people who hate The Satanic Temple and would go online and make comments about how I'm like "in the pocket" of Lucien, and this film was made like propaganda, blah blah blah ... Everyone is angry about a documentary leaving out their "thing" [so they'll] call the documentary propaganda. But Jex is too smart and fair of a human being to do that, so I count my blessings in that way. Because, you know, she does not like these people anymore [...] the extent to which she sort of hates The Satanic Temple is not fully covered in the film. There's a lot more, of course, there's a lot more to the story than what you saw, right? Like a lot more. Years of things I did not talk about.

C: Right, I mean, you can only do so much.

PL: Yeah, I mean there's already so much in that movie [...] I'm really impressed that we were able to cover the amount of ground that we were able to cover, frankly, it was a lot.

C: Yeah, that's totally true. And you were kind of on the frontline for a lot of big events and moments.

PL: Yeah, just trying to cover the broad strokes of like "What happened?" and "This is what happened" is already most of the movie.

C: So your first introduction to The Satanic Temple, you've talked about in the past, is sort of like those catchy headlines online, those "pranks" if you will. So what was the turning point for you from seeing those headlines and being like "Oh my god that's hilarious" to "Wait, there's something bigger going on here?"

PL: Yeah, I know exactly what that was. Because I definitely thought from just reading headlines that I understood what was going on. Like many people, I thought that The Satanic Temple, you know, sort of—the whole story was that it was kind of a—like, I didn't think there was such a thing as The Satanic Temple. I thought The Satanic Temple was essentially a prank. You know, a kind of political point. Like a "Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" type situation. And I was like, "Oh, I get it. That's funny." But it didn't inspire me to want to make a feature film, you know? What would you do with that? That's the first four minutes of my film. By then it's over. So it was really when my producer Gabriel sent me a longer article, the Village Voice article [which] went into a lot more detail about what The Satanic Temple was really up to, and it just left me feeling like, "Oh! This is so much richer and more complicated than I knew and so it's not just a bunch of people making fun of religion. It is a religion." That just kind of blew my mind, and frankly confused me. So I was like, "Well I want to know more."

I'm always looking for the feeling where I was wrong about something I thought I knew, and immediately I was like, well I thought these guys were just the yes men basically, and then I was like, "Oh, I'm wrong." And then it was like, well wait. What does it mean to say you're a Satanist? And then I was like, I'm wrong about this too. How did I get these ideas in my head? Where did these ideas come from? You know, to me there was no "Satanic Panic," and you're like "I was wrong about some things with that." And then, how did this country become kind of Christian? Where does this come from? Oh, I was wrong about that too. So there were a lot of things that I thought I knew that I was wrong about. So I thought: That would be a fun film. Because other people will come along on this ride and also find out that they were wrong about a bunch of things. So that's really what the movie is about. How many deeply held misconceptions can I overturn in one movie? [Laughing] That's kind of the goal. So for different people, they experience it differently. For some people, they know some of the things but not all of the things. But there's something to challenge everybody at the end of the day, I think.

C: I mean, yeah, I felt that was going into it as well. Anything I thought I knew, I definitely didn't know, it turns out.

PL: Yeah! And that's really fun, right? Like they're learning. Learning is fun! That's my goal in life, to prove that learning is fun. It doesn't need to be boring or painful. But I could be wrong.

C: Right. I imagine it must be fascinating to get reception from this from, I'm sure, all different backgrounds of people who are seeing this. I don't know that it's necessarily "changed" anyone, you know? For me, I'm an atheist and I went into it as an atheist going, you know, "I'm open minded I want to know what [The Satanic Temple] is about. I'd be curious to know as someone who is devoutly, let's say Christian of Catholic, if they've had a strong reaction. I'm pretty sure, if I remember correctly, someone was in that Q&A that was like, "I'm Christian, and this was really interesting."

PL: Yeah, I think that's right. And again, I don't like to speak for other people very much, but I think that it does—I think that there's no question from my perspective, standing outside that theater after screening and listening to the kind of chatter as people are leaving. Like, the number of people who say "I think I might be a Satanist" is astonishing. I mean, it's really astonishing. I didn't really—that's not what I expected, honestly. My goal was to render this world view that I thought was really interesting—coherently and accurately. It's really hard to explain in five minutes, like I've tried many times [...] "No, they really are Satanists! But no! It does make sense! Let me explain some more." It's really hard to explain. If you try to drop the seven tenets in there, it's just like, forget it. People are like, "What the fuck are you even talking about? How could Satanists have that as their text. That doesn't make any sense." So anyway, my goal is just to make it coherent to people. But, I think I also made it very appealing to people, which is great! It's really not surprising, because there's a reason The Satanic Temple have been as successful as it has. And that's because their worldview represents something incredibly important. I think on the first level, people understand the political implications of what they're doing. They understand that their activism is quite effective in various ways, right? So if you care about having a secular society, you can appreciate what they're doing. But, what I think is really interesting at the end of the day, and really inspiring, is the way that The Satanic Temple is trying to reimagine what religion can and should be in modernity. They're like a laboratory where they're trying to work through some hugely important issues facing the human race going into the future. Because we've always been—humans have always been quote unquote religious. Like that's not going to go away. But, there's a kind of anti-modern, archaic, oppressive way that organized religion has come to be in the world. Like it's really a horrible thing at this point. You have fundamentalist religion all around the world that are kind of actively fighting progress, and actively fighting an expanded version of human rights. I mean, whatever, you don't have to go far to find examples of this. So I don't think we're going to get less "religious" as humans, but we need better religion. And I don't think The Satanic Temple is the answer that most people are going to want to have, because most people would rather die than be a Satanist.

But the idea of religion that's based on enlightenment values of truth speaking and fairness and justice—why can't we have a religion based on that? Why do we have to have religions based on blind obedience to authoritarian institutions? We don't have to. That's not built into the concept of religion. So, say you think that they're trying to solve like really important problems it's—it's a deeper thing that I think a lot of people who are attracted to The Satanic Temple or the Satanic statements that they see in this film—they don't realize that that was appealing to them about it but I think that it really is. Like, they don't quite know how to articulate it, but I think that it speaks to this issue that we all have where—you're an atheist, I'm an atheist—being an atheist is not, like, an organized system of beliefs. It's just an erasure—like, something else. There are no rules, you know? Saying you're an atheist doesn't make you a part of a community. It doesn't give you rules for living. It just makes you feel alone and cranky. [Laughs]—but you, we, still need someone to say that religion has traditionally provided unicity.

C: Yeah, and I think it's kind of the idea of reprocessing and reprogramming what quote unquote religion means. Because I hear that, and I'm like, "Ugh no, please no!" But...that's not religion has to mean.

PL: Yeah, I like to...laugh and say, "This will be a fun movie, because it will allow you to make fun of religious people." And then I was like, "Oh! Actually, I'm making a movie about religious people." And I didn't totally get it from the beginning. Like, I didn't totally understand at the beginning that that was happening. But I had my own kind of revolutionary thought, and it really was a surprising one, cause it left me more open to the idea of religion, more interested in it, more understanding of why it exists. I used to think, "Why are people...religious?" Now I'm like, "Oh, like, I get it. I get why." 

C:  Yeah, I definitely got sucked into the world of The Satanic Temple. Did you feel like you were, sort of, getting swept up in it, or were you just like, "This isn't necessarily for me, but I'm interested in it?"

PL: I don't think I was swept up in it, no. I didn't, like, join the movement, you know? But, I was swept up in making a film. And again, I was kind of a fan of the work they do. I don't think of myself as being, like, "one of them," in a sense. I feel a great deal of kinship with [The Satanic Temple]. I mean, I'm a perfect person for this project because I feel like I understand them in a very intuitive way—just personality wise. I'm like...Yeah, I totally understand the type of person who always finds themselves, kind of, the skeptic in any group they find themselves in. I've always been that person. So if I find myself in any group of people I find that I'm the person who's like "Well, what about this though?" I hate it, but I feel like—Kierkegaard wrote something a million years ago: "Where there is a crowd there is untruth." And I feel like this kind of deep skepticism—a group thing, and a deep skepticism of, like, "going along with the program," is something I totally get on a personality level. Totally get it. That's my whole life. I remember in third grade being ostracized because I was like, "I don't think New Kids on the Block" is that good. And this was like, total heresy in my third grade class, saying that New Kids on the Block was not that good. And I remember thinking, "But they're not that good. Am I supposed to just say they're good because people will like me?" And that was a really foundational experience for me. So, I totally "get them," but I don't think I'm one of them.

C: Yeah, that makes sense.

PL: So, the aesthetics aren't mine. You know, at the end of the day, it is a religious identity and it doesn't quite resonate with—our, what we atheists think a "soul" is. But, because, doesn't work for me. But maybe there's somebody else out there that it could work for me—so it's  really inspired me to want to, like, find my own religion. I mean, who doesn't want to, like, believe in something? Who wants to be just an Atheist, sceptic individual who doesn't believe in anything? I'd like to find a group to join. And this is the first group I ever identified with and could even imagine wanting to join.

C: Yeah, just seeing the film—you know, I don't have the background you have. I wasn't immersed in what you were, but just seeing it I was sort of...it kind of blew my mind a little bit. As someone who has been an atheist for a little while now I do feel like I could not have previously imagined a scenario where a religion would resonate with me. So I was just sort of like, "Oh wow."

PL: I know! And I just love that. I think it's a really important thing, and you know, many atheists already know—Alain de Botton wrote a really amazing book called "Religion for Atheists" where he tries to imagine...what would be the architecture of atheism? What would be the places of worship for atheists? If you were trying to develop a religion that was for atheists, what would it look like? And it was kind of speculative, but The Satanic Temple is actually trying to answer that question. Which I think is really, really interesting. And it's the future. I have no doubt. Do I think that The Satanic Temple will become the world religion? No. But, the idea of religion for atheists has got to be the future. More and more people that call themselves Methodists or Muslims or whatever, who really don't believe the foundational things, and they're not so sure about God, and they're not so sure that the bible is the "word of God"—but they want the community, and the stories, and the art, and the traditions, you know? And that contradiction just seems impossible to maintain forever. I mean, think about the phenomenon of what you call secular Jews. This is an idea that ... seems normal to us. But it's actually quite astounding—that something like 40% of the population of Israel says that they are religious but they are secular Jews. That's mind-blowing. [...] The very notion of what it means to be Jewish is already so complicated and—I was just looking at this the other day, and I was like, "Oh, like half of Jews say that 'I am a Jew, that is my religion, and my religion is that I'm a secular Jew.'" Like, whoa. This is mind-blowing. They don't necessarily believe in God but they totally still think that Judaism is their faith. Like, let's figure this out. Let's have a conversation.

C: One last thing. You've spoken a lot about "normalizing" vs [the notion of] "respecting" The Satanic Temple, and I think that's a really important distinction to be made. 

PL: Yeah, this is something we agreed about when I initially met with Lucien Greaves. He was very adamant that he didn't want to be—the word he used was "humanize" And I don't really think that that would mean the same thing ... but I think what he meant was normalizing. In other words, they don't need to be "normal" to be respected. They don't need to be "just like you and me" in order for their rights to matter. They're not just like you and me. They're not normal. It's literally the opposite of "normal." That is to say, I'm going to take the ultimate "bad guy" from the dominant religions of the world and make it my mascot and organize my religion around it. Like, you're not trying to be normal if you do that. You're literally trying to the opposite of normal. So [...] what I saw was a coherent and worthwhile worldview that deserves to be taken seriously, and explained in a respectful way that is accurate. That's all I was trying to do, but a lot of people—you know, at the end of the day are like, "Oh wow! The Satanists are really just like you and me!" And I'm like, "No! They're not!" To the extent that you think that, I've failed as a filmmaker, because they're really not like normal people. They're exceptional people. They really love to read books, they're extremely educated and literate, and really into knowledge—like way more than your average person, so yeah. They're not "normal" and they're not trying to be normal. 

Hail Satan? opens in Philly this Friday.

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