The Song: Story-Driven vs. Message-Driven, Interview With Writer/Director Richie Ramsey (Movie Interview)

Having seen The Song, I was impressed by the story, the acting, and cinematography. How were you able to achieve that level of quality in all three phases? That’s quite the trifecta.

Thank you very much! This is ultimately the result of being surrounded by a great team of very professional and gifted people. I was fortunate to have qualified outside and honest input on the script early on. That was tremendously helpful in shaping it over several drafts. Our director of photography, Kevin Bryan, is just incredible. He has a great combination of technical expertise, artistic giftedness, and an eagerness to take creative risks. As far as the acting, it was largely a matter of casting the right people, and we’re very fortunate to have found them.

Alan Powell seems to be a real revelation as the protagonist/antagonist. How did you come to select him as your leading man?

Yeah, I think the three lead actors, Alan, Ali, and Caitlin, will give the audience a sense of discovery – that they’re seeing gifted actors on the cusp of great careers. It was basically the standard audition process for all the roles. Our casting director, Regina Moore, sent out audition notices. Tapes poured in. She narrowed them down, and we watched and sifted through the dozens of actors that were left. When I saw Alan’s tape, I knew I needed to see him audition in person. He came in and nailed it and had great chemistry with both actresses. And, it’s also been tremendously helpful that he and I are philosophically like-minded. From the beginning, he really “got” the movie and believes in the story and what it ultimately communicates.

How did City on a Hill go from the episodic not a fan videos to a released-in-theater production? How did you get involved? [Were you responsible for the contextualizing of Kyle Idleman’s sermons into a fictional universe where the themes played out? If so, bravo! That’s still one of the most haunting book/studies I’ve ever lead as a pastor.]

Thanks! Yeah, I wrote the dramatic content for “not a fan.” And, I think when we sat back and watched that as a staff, we felt we were ready to take on a feature film.

How did you settle on the Song of Solomon as your ‘text’? What other sources did you look to in writing and producing the story in addition to Song and Ecclesiastes?

As you mentioned, we frequently partner with Kyle Idleman on our projects. He’d been teaching Song of Solomon for years, and he and the leadership at City on a Hill felt the time was right to undertake a project tackling its various subjects – marriage, romance, and intimacy. So, when the leadership of City approached me about it, I started researching anything affiliated with Solomon. This brought me back to Ecclesiastes, and, because of things I was going through at the time, that book deeply resonated with me. I thought it not only had a very discernible and compelling narrative – a man of means searching for meaning in all the wrong places – but, I also thought it spoke powerfully and profoundly to the human condition. So, I was determined to incorporate it as well.

A few drafts into the screenwriting process, the direct texts of Solomon – Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes – became the film’s narrative voice-over, and they just immediately elevated the whole story. There’s such power in those words.

In the visual delivery, I found myself seeing a mashup of Mumford & Sons with Johnny and June Cash. Where did you get the ideas for the way that you wanted the film to look and feel?

Having lifelong ties to Kentucky, I’ve always loved roots music. And, in recent years I’d become a fan of the Avett Brothers and other artists in the Americana genre. I’ve also noticed how God is an acceptable topic of discourse in this kind of music -one can sing about Christian themes, and mainstream audiences still dig it  (Mumford & Sons is an excellent example). So, once I settled on the idea of our modern day Solomon being a singer-songwriter, I thought this should be his genre.

When we were in story development, my wife recommended that I use Pinterest to create photo boards for all my characters and locations. We printed these out and they were made into a giant collage in our production office. For Jed, our main character, there were lots of pictures of Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, etc. For Shelby, we had Nicole Atkins, Cat Power,

(though they’re not exactly in this genre) and a few others. We even had photos of Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris (She has since joined our soundtrack, and I’m just absolutely thrilled!) to help us design Jed’s parents, who were also Country Music stars in the previous generation. This helped our art team get on the same page about what the characters, sets, and concerts should look like.

And, yeah, there’s no denying that Walk the Line was an influence.  It’s arguably the greatest music biopic ever made.  That or Coal Miner’s Daughter. Though I will say Alan’s remarkable resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix is purely coincidental. It wasn’t the reason I cast him. If there’s anyone I wanted him to resemble, it was Scott Avett. But, I also heavily studied Once, Crazy Heart, O Brother Where Art Thou and several other really good music movies.

What do you hope audiences take away from it? Did you have a target audience in mind?

I want audiences to take away from the film what Solomon wants readers to take away from Ecclesiastes: “Remember your Creator,” who is the only hope you have that life has any objective meaning, and “delight in the wife of your youth.”

Jesus ended many of His stories by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” That’s my target audience – “He who has ears to hear.” I think movie-goers will resonate with the acting and musical performances and the cautionary tale/love story. I think Christian audiences will further appreciate the frequent references and tie-ins to the lives of Solomon and David.

You’re married with four kids (snooping on your blog found that). What advice would you give to a couple setting out on the first stages of marriage? Does any of your advice change after parenthood? Ten years in?

Congratulations on asking what is by far the most difficult question I’ve been asked in an interview! I think my wife might laugh at the idea of me giving marital advice, but, hey, that’s some advice right there: make your spouse laugh. I’m certainly not a perfect husband, but I think one thing my wife and I do well is we’re best friends. Obviously, it’s important to be more than that, but it’s important to be that. And, I think it’s important to give your spouse a place in several areas of your life that no one else – especially, no one of the opposite gender – can have. And, I think it’s important to maintain that after children. Our children know they’re loved, but they know that their parents’ relationship takes top priority.

I’m intensely critical of “Christian” films, and this one strikes me as one that would transcend categories if people hear about it. What choices did you make to keep the message the main thing and yet appeal to the masses?

Yeah, we like to say The Song is descriptive rather than prescriptive, conversational rather than conversional, and story-driven rather than message-driven. The film has a controlling idea…a message, if you will…but, it’s still story-driven.

As far as deliberate choices that were made: Like I said before, the music was a deliberate choice. And, I really wanted the stakes in the story to be universal and primal. Everyone, on some level, cares about love and meaning. Often in Christian films, what’s at stake if the hero succeeds or fails are things that are only meaningful and valuable to Christians. In The Song, things that even non-Christians care about hang in the balance if our character ultimately fails.

And, finally, I think it’s really important that Christian filmmakers and audiences ultimately take to heart that Christianity is not a genre, but the truth. There have been many very successful Hollywood productions that carry a message or very big worldview idea. But, they’re successful because they’re still story-driven rather than message-driven, and the filmmakers are able to stay story-driven because they believe their worldview is actually true. So, they don’t feel they have to sacrifice story or quality to accommodate message. In their minds, they’re just keeping it real.  If Christianity is true, then it follows that everything that is true is Christian. And, everything that happens every second of every day has Christian significance. I think it’s crucial that Christian filmmakers, Christian leaders, and Christian audiences realize that the primary responsibility of a Christian artist is not to adhere to arbitrary “Christian” genre requirements or to pander to the sentiments of a subculture, but to skillfully and graciously tell the truth.

What’s your next project?

I’m in development on a film based on a true story, but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to say more than that at this time. I’d love to spill the beans, but I just can’t.

Thanks so much for your time. I watched The Song weeks ago and still find it coming to mind as I consider marriage… and God’s love for us.

Thanks so much for having me and for your encouraging words!

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About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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