Coming to OWN: Greenleaf, A Soapy Drama About a Mega-Church Preacher’s Family

Posted on June 18, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Coming to OWN: “Greenleaf” is the story of a megachurch preacher’s dysfunctional family. Estranged daughter and disillusioned preacher Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge, “The Night Shift”) returns home after 20 years after the death of her sister, Faith. As she reenters the world of Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, the Memphis megachurch run by her powerful parents Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David, “Enlisted” and “Community”) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield, “The Josephine Baker Story”), it becomes evident that the family’s outward display of faith hides secrets and abuse.

Winfrey, who also stars in the series, told TV Guide that the show deals with serious issues but is fun to watch. “It has substance and soul, but we’re not knocking you over the head. We’re here to entertain.”

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‘Louder than a Bomb’ — Poetry Slam Documentary Tonight on OWN

Posted on January 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m delighted that the brilliant documentary “Louder than a Bomb,” from director Jon Siskel, will be broadcast tonight on Oprah’s OWN network at 9/8 Central.  Every family with teenagers and everyone who loves words should be sure to tune in.  “Louder Than A Bomb” goes behind the scenes as four Chicago high school teams compete in the Chicago area teen poetry slam. Hopeful and heartbreaking, the film captures the young poets’ hopes, obstacles, and longing for a way to tell their stories and the way the very act of turing their stories into poetry transforms their world.  The result is electrifying and inspiring. Highly recommended.

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Documentary High School Teenagers Television

Interview: Tom Shadyac on the DVD Release of ‘I Am’

Posted on January 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I spoke to Tom Shadyac last March about shifting from big Hollywood films like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Nutty Professor II” to a small and very personal documentary about just about everything called “I Am.”   Shadyac was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood when bicycle accident left him in terrible pain, physical and spiritual.  He began to think about the emptiness of his form of success and he began to study two questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better?  He documented his own journey, including fascinating encounters with people who are questioning some of our most fundamental assumptions about the way we interact with each other and the universe, from cutting-edge scientists to people who study history, culture, and theology.

It’s my DVD Pick of the Week and I am delighted to have a copy to give away.  Send me an email at with I AM in the subject line and don’t forget your address.  I’ll pick a winner at random on January 8.

Good to talk to you again!  Tell me what the reception to the film has been since we spoke in March.

We went on a little show called “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with her audience of 20 million.  So that changed the awareness of “I Am” and we began to get a lot of requests for seeing the film because it wasn’t available in every city.  We’re finally meeting that request with the release of the DVD on January 3.  She’s such a powerful voice in media and such a supporter of the film that we decided to have the broadcast debut on her network, OWN.  We’ve continued touring the country and doing Q&A’s and trying to start the conversation wherever we could.

What are some of the questions you get asked by people who have seen the film?

Are you crazy? That’s one I get asked a lot.  No, the most common questions are things like “What do your show business friends think of this?”  As though that’s an indictment!  What do you do when people don’t see what you see?  How do you change those people?  It’s not my job to change anyone.  It’s my job to share what I know and feel passionate about.  Are you a communist?  Are you a socialist?  Those are some of the questions I get asked.  Many people take exception because they think my ideas are utopian and not grounded in reality.  But I did a film about the ultimate reality.  I call it the ultimate reality show.

Have people brought their own stories to you?

Of course!  I hear all the time from people whose lives and perspectives are changed by the film.  Some meet the film by brain injury so they tell me they were suffering from something similar or some other life challenge physically.  I hear from people who are simplifying their life or stepping more into their passion, people who are leaving money for meaning.   There are also some schools creating curriculums around “I Am.”

That’s great!  I especially like exposing students to your integrated approach of looking at issues from the molecular level up to the cosmic level.

It’s all the same.  When I began to explore different disciplines I realized that the academics, the poets, the mystics, the scientists, the spiritualists are all saying the same thing, telling the same story.  Life is life.  Life shows up everywhere, science and poetry.  The truths that undergird life transcend all boundaries.

What are you reading now?

Thomas Merton‘s philosophy was that you can read every book or you can read a handful of books and become those books.  I continue to read the people who light up my soul are writers like Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz and Rumi — Coleman Barks’ translation, Mary Oliver, Emerson, Rilke, I just hover in those worlds.  I do dust jacket reading on a lot of things but I keep going back to those.

And what about music?

I’m not the hippest cat in the room, but I love music.  One of my favorite parts of the movie business is scoring — it’s just an opportunity to add a beautiful piece of music to the world.  I even listen to what the young folks are listening to!

What was it like for you, after directing supremely confident performers like Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy, to step in front of the camera for the first time — as yourself?

It was really awkward at first.  My 20-year history in show business had always been talking to that person in front of the camera.  But we worked so quickly, shooting and then editing, that it was surprising how quickly I could look at that long-haired freak in the film and see him as a character.  Not “I have to protect something here,” but let’s let him be flawed, be unsure, like any character.  Like Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy minus the brilliant comedic gifts!

Last time we spoke, you talk about the pleasures of filming with a three-person crew.  How has that experience affected you as a director?

I have yet to direct again in the 200-person-crew world but it is very freeing to know you don’t need all the bells and whistles.  You can go out with a couple of people like in film school and do something that has dramatic, comedic, emotional value.  How we make movies in show business is very inflated.  One crew member can move a plant and one can water the plant and one can light the plant.  But when you’re a student the director is doing all of that.  It’s less weighted, more improvisational.

What’s next?

We’ll see.  Let some more people into the conversation.  I’m writing a book, I have a deal with Hay House, and I am deep into that, and we continue to pursue a talk show possibility.  And I’ve got a couple of film comedies and a drama we’re getting up off their feet.  I think a sequel will happen in one form or another, maybe through the book or the talk show rather than a movie.  Of course there were people I wanted to get to talk to that we did not get to include but I don’t think they would have revealed any essentially new or additional points.  But I wanted more color, more diversity, more feminine energy. I wanted to interview Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver and Vandana Shiva and the Dalai Lama.  I tried to talk to all of them but for one reason or another they were not available at the time.  They are all people who have seen something and what they see parallels very closely what you see in the film.

What do you want families who see this film to talk about afterwards?

Every family will see it from where they are.  Maybe there’s a conversation about possessions, let’s think about where these toys come from, or finding a wealth in sharing, what it means to have enough.  Maybe a conversation about including the greater good in how we do business, about how the family includes all of life.  Love is not an idea but a force.  I don’t see it as okay but essential.  We’re getting there but we haven’t gotten there yet.

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Behind the Scenes Contests and Giveaways Directors Interview

Becoming Santa: Tonight on OWN

Posted on December 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Hank Stuever has an excellent piece in today’s Washington Post that addresses an issue that has really been bugging me.  But first, he recommends a documentary premiering tonight on Oprah’s OWN station called “Becoming Santa.”  It is the story of Jack Sanderson.

Sanderson, a single Los Angeles man in his mid-40s, decides to learn everything he can about the men who dress as Santa Claus every November and December to work in malls or at other paying gigs or who volunteer for charity appearances. While going through old family photos, Sanderson discovers a picture of his recently deceased father dressed as Santa Claus, taken not long after the death of Sanderson’s mother. Was his father finding some mysterious comfort in donning the red suit and white beard? Would doing so help Sanderson cope with his own feelings of loss and mortality?

Santas and historians provide background as Sanderson attends Santa school, rings a bell on a street corner, listens to children’s wishes, and leads a parade.  Stuever likes the show a lot.

“Becoming Santa” would have quickly become hokey and glib in someone else’s hands, but Myers and Sanderson approach the project with an earnest and searching tone. The result is both happy and melancholy, and admirably real, as we learn more about the icon’s complicated history — a mashup of religion, superstition and marketing. The act of being Santa is far from perfect, Sanderson discovers, but something about it remains magical. “Becoming Santa” is filled with a fresh take on hope.

What I especially like about Stuever’s piece is the way he contrasts the sincerity of this film with the ugliness of some of the Christmas shopping ads on television this season.  Ever since those awful Black Friday ads with the woman in training for shopping at Target it has seemed to me that commercials have been harsher than usual and off-key with current economic conditions and sensibilities.

Best Buy, in particular, is running a terribly callous series of commercials called “Game On, Santa,” in which obsessed female shoppers purchase the gifts that their loved ones really want at Best Buy and then wait up on Christmas Eve to accost Santa Claus in their living rooms and gloat that they’ve already beat him to the punch. In your face, you outdated fat man with your outdated presents!

“Awk-ward,” a woman mock-hisses at a baffled, sweet Santa caught standing at her tree, ready to lay out his gifts to her family. She points out that she’s already filled her children’s stockings with Best Buy junk, offering him a chance to fill her dog’s stocking instead. No one can watch this ad and feel at all good about its message, or about a society that would become so fixated on transactions that it viciously turns on Santa.

His description of these and other commercials in the context of this program’s sweet reminder that playing Santa can keep alive the spirit of giving is well worth reading.



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