The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Forthcoming Blue Like Jazz Movie to Paint Reed as Intellectual, Wild

Principle leads Penny (Claire Holt), Don (Marshall Allman) and director Steve Taylor prepare for a scene on the bike co-op set. Photo by Jimmy Abegg.

“Movie stories don’t live well in the middle of human experience,” he says as the camera pans over extras dressed as Renn Fayre participants, decked out in animal costumes and sparkly wigs. “When [the protagonist] goes away to [Reed] College, it’s not kind of a liberal college, it’s the most godless campus in America.”

That’s Steve Taylor, director of Blue Like Jazz: The Movie and central figure in the Nashville Christian music scene, talking about Reed in a video on the movie’s website.

The movie adapts Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz,” a book of essays on Christian spirituality that made the New York Times best-seller list in 2003, selling more than a million copies. Miller audited classes at Reed in the early 2000s, and a number of the book’s chapters are set at the college.

Blue Like Jazz has become a cult classic among young Christians, and the way the movie depicts Reed could affect the college’s image for years to come. Thirty applicants to the college mentioned it in 2008, according to Paul Marthers, then dean of admission. Yet the picture it gives—a college of outrageous fun and intellectual rigor—is more complex than Taylor’s quote suggests.

“There’s a deep appreciation and value for truth at Reed that I wish existed in the evangelical community,” Miller said. “Reed is a culture that I love and cherish and was the foundation of the way I view God.”

In the adaptation, Don, a 19-year-old student from the most conservative Southern Baptist church in Houston, transfers to Reed from junior college. The movie depicts his year at Reed, complete with scenes from a Hum 110 conference, a robot-themed protest of a corporate bookstore, and, of course, Renn Fayre.

“I guess the moral of this story is how important it is to be who you are and not project an image,” Miller said. “When [Don] meets the other students at Reed, he meets these people who have the ability to be who they really are. They don’t apologize for anything.”

Reed students will notice that liberties have been taken with the story. For one, there will not be any scenes of stressed-out students smoking in front of the library due to concern over the film’s MPAA rating.

“I’m almost certain that if I had kids smoking in front of the classroom, we would automatically get an R [rating],” Taylor said.

And while Miller asserts that the movie portrays “life at Reed as academically challenging and the students as highly intelligent,” he concedes that there is little footage of students studying. In one Hum conference that made it into the film, students engage in lively discussion that moves between mythology, archetypes and religion, Taylor said.

“The classroom discussions are intense and passionate and argumentative and extremely intelligent. [...] There are only a few of them, but you know when you come into that scene that you’re not at Ohio State,” Miller said.

Much of the material for the film is inspired by Taylor and Miller’s experience on Reed’s campus. Both of them visited Renn Fayre in 2008 along with director of photography Ben Pearson. The college’s administration did not allow the group to take photos or videos, but the group took notes and made sketches.

“I remember seeing them in the middle of thesis parade and there was just such a look of pure joy on their faces,” said Director of Public Affairs Jennifer Bates.

Everyone at Renn Fayre was really friendly, Taylor said.

“I was really touched by how welcoming the administration and staff were,” Pearson said. “I had great conversations with so many people in the administration and professors there.”

To fill in the Renn Fayre scenes, the producers called in volunteer extras from the local area to take part in a “Come as Your Own God party,” where actors should come “wearing a toga, a Greek god or goddess outfit, a devil outfit, a Moses outfit, a superhero outfit, or any other person or deity that could or might be idolized,” on Miller’s blog. About 120 people showed up, Taylor said.

A video on the movie’s website shows the filming of a Renn Fayre scene: costumed students jump up and down in front of a laser-lit stage, dancing in place while balloons fly through the air.

“If you brought cameras to Renn Fayre and watched the thesis parade, there’s not a whole lot to film,” Miller said. “People wouldn’t understand it. We had to go and take it to another realm that people understand in the media, sort of a frat party, Flaming Lips concert feel.”

The climax of the movie comes at Renn Fayre, where Don and other students have constructed a confession booth, but instead of taking confessions, like in Miller’s book, the group apologizes for atrocities committed by Christians and asks students for forgiveness.

After speaking with about thirty people, Don leaves the campus after midnight. He walks across the front lawn and, looking back at the campus writes, “It all looked so smart and old, and I could see the lights coming out of the Student Center, and I could hear the music thumping… I had been forgiven by the people I had wronged with my indifference and judgmentalism.”

Finding funding for the movie was difficult; after a year of searching for investors, Miller announced on his blog last September that the movie would not be made, citing both the recession and the fact that usual investors of Christian films found its content unpalatable.

Zach Prichard and Jonathan Frazier, who had read the book years before, approached Miller and Taylor with the idea of crowd-sourcing the project through Kickstarter, an online pledging platform. Although the goal was first set at $125,000, support swelled and the “Save Blue Like Jazz” campaign raised $345,992 from 4,495 contributors in just 30 days.

Because of the film’s small budget, most of the movie has been shot off-site in Nashville, Tenn., including Renn Fayre scenes. Blue Like Jazz has a budget of about $700,000, Taylor said, and that shooting at Reed costs at least $7,000 per day. The crew will be on Reed’s campus between January 15 and 20 to shoot a short scene in the library and get shots of the blue bridge.

The student pope looks out from a stage in Blue Like Jazz’s version of Renn Fayre. Photo by Jimmy Abegg.

“That blue bridge is stunning. We couldn’t find the equivalent of it anywhere,” Taylor said.

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie is scheduled to be released in September 2011, Taylor said. The school may organize a screening, Bates said.

“I would hope that Reed students would see the film and feel honored by it,” Miller said.

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