This documentary may make you a believer.
It may be hard to believe, but all religion is political, or at the very least, used for political gain. As “In God We Trust” adorns our cash and “God Bless America” plays before every national sporting event, religion can be used to push agendas and create legislature. It’s also used to narrow the playing field: could someone be elected President of the United States if they claimed to be an atheist?
Penny Lane’s expertly crafted, sincerely told Hail Satan? is a documentary that’s as funny as its politics are necessary. Following The Satanic Temple (TST) and its outspoken leader Lucien Greaves, the film makes a case for the basic beliefs of Satanism, that is, the need for religious plurality and a separation between church and state.
Satanism isn’t inherently a political party, but it does call out the necessary hypocrisy running rampant within our government officials’ rhetoric. When a Republican senator’s quest to get a statue of the Ten Commandments displayed proudly outside of the Arkansas State Capital is met with opposition from TST (who propose a statue of its choosing in its place), the viewer begins to realize just how important the Satanists’ beliefs are. They’re even pro-science and pro-women’s rights…crazy! Presented like a non-profit grassroots organization in devil’s clothes, The Satanic Temple is tempting indeed.
As Hail Satan? premieres at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Lane about her own religious beliefs, mining archival material for religious propaganda, and how she would define the role of a nonfiction filmmaker.
No Film School: You recently mentioned growing up without a religious background. Was religion a topic offbase in your family or were you free to follow whatever you chose?
Penny Lane: I felt like it wasn’t an issue. I think my mom went to Catholic church as a kid, but she didn’t keep going. It just wasn’t part of our family. Nobody in my family had any particular hatred of it or anything. It just wasn’t an issue. When I was like six, seven, eight years old, I would sleepover at my friends’ houses, and they would go to church on Sunday morning, but I would just go home, because I was like, “What?” So I never even went. I mean, I just know nothing at all. It was completely outside my world. Like I said in the Q&A after the film’s first screening, it just seemed like some weird exotic thing that I didn’t understand.
“I left that talk understanding that there was a huge gulf between what I thought they were and what they seemed to be, and that definitely peaked my curiosity.”
NFS: How did you first find out about The Satanic Temple (TST)? What was it about its ideas that seemed most important to you?
Lane: Mostly through headlines and friends in my little secular atheist bubble sharing stories about TST on my timeline. I was aware of them in my social media world. I thought they were great, and I thought they were like The Yes Men, and I didn’t know that they were anything but that. They were great in that way, you know? And it was only when I happened to be in Boston for a different reason that Lucien Greaves showed up and did a talk at this event that I was at, a very brief talk, like 10 minutes long. I thought, “Oh, I’m missing something.” I left that talk understanding that there was a huge gulf between what I thought they were and what they seemed to be, and that definitely peaked my curiosity.
NFS: Was Lucien Greaves’s participation in the story a dealbreaker for you? Could there have been other ways to tell this story without its founder?
Lane: I could’ve maybe done something with all archival material. It would’ve been a short probably, but just to show their media appearances is pretty fun. I was interested in doing something, and Gabriel Sedgwick, who’s my producer, wanted to work on something together. We had a few coffee dates talking through ideas, and we just knew we were going to be a match, in filmmaking terms.
I don’t have a lot of production background, which is a hilarious thing to say for an accomplished documentary filmmaker, but I don’t. I mean, I’ve done mostly archival and animation work. The shooting I’ve done has been very controlled, interviews, studio type stuff. None of the “Let’s go follow stuff and see what happens” variety. I had no experience in that. Without Gabriel’s experience on that side of the work, I would never have even considered doing this film.
NFS: For our Sundance Filmmaker Survey, your advice to first-time filmmakers was that “You have to stay extremely aware of what the movie is (and is not), and be ready to answer decisively the one million questions you will be asked every day about what to do next. That’s the actual job of director, and I find it’s shockingly easy to forget.” What did you discover about the role of a nonfiction filmmaker while working on this film?
Lane: I think I always imagined this shooting process to be quite different from the things I was more used to, which were more archival research. Now I think they’re actually really similar. You go into it with a vision, with an idea, and you have to have just the right balance to stick to it, stick to the vision, stick to the idea, and having an openness to be led in a different direction. Now that I’ve done a lot of shooting, I can see how it’s not that different from what I already knew. It seemed very different to me in the beginning. Now I see that it’s not.
“The surprise for me was about how emotional and warm and inspiring it all turned out. That was a surprise.”
NFS: Satanism (and in effect, your film) keep coming back to this idea of religious plurality and the need for a separation between church and state. How conscious of that theme were you while making the film and what ways did you find to shine a spotlight on it?
Lane: It was definitely there at the beginning. Everything that’s in this film was what I wanted to do at the beginning. It just always looks different and feels different than you think, you know?
The surprise for me was about how emotional and warm and inspiring it all turned out. That was a surprise. But the denser intellectual stuff was always in the plan and it always going to be a big undertaking and pretty ambitious. How do you make one movie that can cover all of this ground? From the theological perspective, like, what is a religion? That’s actually a really hard question to answer. It’s a big topic, so how do you bring that in?
There was also the particularly American angle, the specifics around if America was founded as a Christian nation. It’s a pretty complex topic. Many dissertations have been written on this, so how do you bring that in, in a way that’s accessible? People don’t know what the Constitution says, and so how do you bring that in? People have no idea what the Establishment Clause is. If you say those words, they’re like, “What is that?” And I’m like, it’s literally a clause in the First Amendment! And then there’s the question of “What is Satanism?”
Trying to figure out how to get all of that stuff in the movie was super challenging, but we knew all along that it had to be about American politics. It had to be about what a religion is. It had to be about these philosophical ideas about sincerity and authenticity and what that actually looks like in a religious context. We knew that was going to be pretty challenging.
NFS: Documenting the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and 90s provides the film with a chance to display some pretty crazy archival material. What was the process like of finding and selecting that material?
Lane: In actuality, one of the reasons that I wanted to do this film was because I knew a lot about the Satanic Panic. I had done a lot of reading about it, and I knew a lot more than the average person, and had wanted to do something filmic-ly, with that topic for a while, and was searching in the back burner area of my brain for an angle. I never had one.
We have this interesting world where we have super canonical documentaries like Capturing The Friedmans and Paradise Lost. These are big top 100 documentaries of all time movies, but they’re both about individual cases and there’s surprisingly little national context there. You would watch those films and not understand that this was part of a national epidemic of this hysteria that puts the Salem Witch Trials to shame. I mean, the Salem Witch Trials was like eight people. Here we’re talking about hundreds of people whose lives were destroyed, thousands really, because once you start thinking about all the children who were convinced that they had been fucking raped by the devil, you’re talking about like thousands of people here.
Long story short, that was something that I was very interested in and passionate about. I was always very surprised by how little people knew about this, because it happened in our lifetime. Most people either assumed that it was true, i.e. “Well, of course there were satanic cults sacrificing babies, or whatever,” and then I’d say, “Are you sure?” And then they say, “Well, maybe there was only a couple.” And I’m like, “No, there were none. There was zero.” And then people are like, “Are you sure?” And I’m like, “Jesus Christ…..”
This has never been dealt with. It just went away, went into the memory hole, because it’s so embarrassing. It’s just too embarrassing to talk about. We don’t ever debunk it. We just let it disappear.
I always had that in my mind, and I thought, young people, like my students (I’m a college professor) have no idea that this ever happened at all. They’ve never heard of it. And when they hear of it, it’s in this very amusing way, that’s like hilarious, like Dungeons & Dragons stuff, etc. It was very important to me, and obviously, to The Satanic Temple, that we don’t even bring it into the movie if we weren’t going to explain that it was a seriously bad thing that happened, and not just a hilarious YouTube playlist of funny ’80s documentaries from TV.
“We wanted to bring your average viewer into contact with the Satanists in a way that they’d recognize as feeling religious. If I used the music the Satanists use, that’s not what would happen.”
NFS: In addition to showing the unity on display between the various chapters of The Satanic Temple, it also shows what happens when certain chapter members (like the chapter head in Detroit) go to extremes and create their own rules of Satanism (advocating for the execution of the President, for example). Was it important for you to show dissension in the ranks?
Lane: In actuality, we knew there’d be dissension in the ranks, because there always was. We could’ve had that element of the movie come out in so many different ways. And again, your readers can Google it, and find out about all the fighting [from within]. It’s not surprising at all. The only surprise was the specifics of it and it being what happened was so dramatic. But the idea from the very beginning of a satanic organization was that we knew it would contain a lot of tensions and ironies because Satanists are not into groups, they’re not joiners. They hate authority. So what’s gonna happen when you have a group with authority in it? We knew from the beginning that there’d be some kind of tension there. You can even say “irony.”
NFS: The score by composer Brian McOmber mirrors religious music that may sound familiar to churchgoers’ ears, but often with a twist. What were the discussions like between yourself and him about creating a sonic identity for the film?
Lane: Oh, I love this question. It was such a fun process working with Brian on the score, and I love our score so much. There’s essentially two textures to the score (well, there’s really three, but two main ones), and one of those is what you were just talking about, this kind of choral music that really has a kind of reference. It’s so interesting what that does to you emotionally, to have a reference to a feeling of religious music. We wanted to bring your average viewer into contact with the Satanists in a way that they’d recognize as feeling religious. If I used the music the Satanists use, that’s not what would happen.
It’s just not what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to be like, “Here’s the really loud black metal that’s going to make most of my audience be putting their fingers in their ears.” We wanted it to feel beautiful and understandable as a religion.
The other world was more like a kind of marching band, slightly comedic, patriotic, circus-y, kind of funny, marching music sort of vibe. And then the last texture was more metal and more dark and we only used that for Christians. We inverted that. The only places in the film where you hear [the metal] is during scenes about the growth of the evangelical movement, and so that kind of inversion came into play a lot for us. That was what we wanted to do, i.e. “Let’s try to think about the topic and how can we formally mirror these ideas,” and for us, it had to be something inverted. Let’s invert that pentagram. It’s very spiritual.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.