by Steven Prokopy
Perhaps more than just about any of documentary filmmaker working today, director Penny Lane (NUTS!, OUR NIXON) wants her works to be boundlessly entertaining, but in the service of slipping in a profound message or two, almost without the audience realizing it. And by the end of her movies, we realize we’ve learned something from a teacher who has no interest in making our education painful and bland. Her latest work, a profile of The Satanic Temple HAIL SATAN?, is less a film about devil worship and black masses and more an examination into the colorful and controversial religious group (recently legally sanctioned as a “church” by the federal government) that advocates for religious freedom and again anytime church and state get a little too close for comfort.
While Lane does cover the early years of Satanic panic in America, which had many believing there were Satanic cults in every dark alley, waiting to sacrifice you children—a paranoia sparked by the practices of Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan and self-penned Satanic Bible. But the modern Satanist is about pure, grassroots activism and community outreach in nearly every major city in the United States, including a sizable chapter in Chicago. They have proven that with little more than a clever idea, a mischievous sense of humor, and a few rebellious friends, you can speak truth to power in some truly profound ways
We spoke to Lane shortly after the world premiere of her film at the Sundance Film Festival in January. When we met, by some divine intervention, she was in the company of Lucien Greaves, the current spokesman and co-founder of The Satanic Temple and primary focus of the movie. HAIL SATAN? opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, May 3.
Question: The first question seems obvious: why is there a question mark in the title?
Penny Lane: [laughs] Lucien Greaves thinks that’s an excellent question. The movie was always called HAIL SATAN—that was always the obvious title and the best title. In the later moments of post-production, in conversation with Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing the film quite widely, they started to be a little concerned about the potential that there might be theater owners or theater chains that would be reticent to put the title HAIL SATAN on a marquee just to avoid problems. We had a whole back and forth about alternative titles, and we came upon the idea of the question mark, and I really liked it because it maintains the integrity of the title—we still say it the same way, you can ignore the question mark if you want to. Most people forget it’s there anyway. I like the title; it was a good compromise; I actually think it’s going to look really good on marquees. It’s an an invitation rather than an emphatic claim. Most people might not be willing to say HAIL SATAN at the beginning of the movie but they might at the end. So the question mark helps bring those people in a little bit more.
And if some people forget to put in on their marquee…
PL: So be it!
What was your history with this group? What was your first exposure to them, and how did you respond?
PL: I didn’t come to this as a Satanist at all. I didn’t know anything about Satanism. I was always an atheist and pretty open and vocal about that, which is still pretty shocking and controversial thing to be in America.
Almost more so than Satanism, because Satanism actually has a belief system and atheism is about the lack of that.
PL: Yeah, the really suspect people with no morals are the atheists. I just heard about The Satanic Temple through headlines, like everyone else. It’s not that interesting a story, but I started to look deeper into it and met Lucien. It’s very clear once you have a rabble-rousing, media-pranking veneer that makes it to the Fox News audience and then encounter Lucien or anyone involved with the group, you see that there’s a vast middle between the sincerity and everyday hard work at the local level, at the grassroots level, the personal level, and the way it manifests in this sexy-headline way that always turns into a joke. Everyone of those news stories ends with “but they’re not really serious.” It was obvious that there was a missing piece of understanding between those two things.
What made you transition your curiosity into “I want to make this my next documentary”?
PL: Oh, I knew right away. As soon as I watched the Megyn Kelly interview [with Lucien], I knew I was on board. The whole interview is 10 minutes, and every minute is amazing. I would just sit and watch that, and think that was a great documentary. The minute I knew about them, I knew I wanted to make a film. You know my background, you know my work, I tend to be interested in films that allow me to not just tell an interesting and entertaining story but also explore something philosophical about the nature of reality or truth. And it was only a matter of time before religion made its way into a film of mine—I certainly didn’t know it would be Satanism.
But I was so interested in the way they challenged my ideas about religion. Frankly, I hated religion; I’m just an average dumb atheist who doesn’t know anything about religion at all, but always thought it was dumb and some kind of mental illness. But this gave me so much insight into what religion really is. Most dumb atheists think that religion is a list of beliefs that is either good or bad or true/false, but in reality, religion manifests as something you practice, it’s something you do and do with others. And now I’m really into religion; I’ve never had more respect for religion—all of it. Of course, any religion can turn into a fanatical bad thing, but I finally see that the baseline is really positive, and we all do it in different ways. For some people, environmentalism is their religion; you don’t have to get into the worship of God or something like that.
This is the first time in one of your films, I believe, where there are things unfolding like news events—you’re there when it’s happening, as opposed to going back into historical events through research. Did the energy and the immediacy of it change the way you shot the film?
PL: That’s a very astute observation; thank you for making it. All of my films to now are on historical events. In fact, this is like Documentary 101 stuff. How do you negotiate access to your subjects? How do you shoot and plan for a movie when you don’t know the outcome? And I was doing that for the first time, even though I’ve been making films for 12 years. That was all new for me—all of it. And I couldn’t have done any of it without my producer Gabriel [Sedgwick], who has all the production experience to pull together a crew and figure out how to do that. I’ve never filmed things [laughs] in a world that I wasn’t in charge of. I’d filmed studio stuff, things that I can control—interviews or other things.
Lucien, when you first got into Satanism, did you every imagine it would become so heavily involved with activism and being a permanent thorn in the side of religion and government?
Lucien Greaves: I didn’t see that becoming my role early on, but I did have this idea in my mind for Satanism way long before The Satanic Temple. Because I was interested in Satanism, I thought about it a lot and these issues of minority religions trying to get equal access. When The Satanic Temple first started doing the things we were doing, I remember talking to a podcaster who was also a Constitutional lawyer who said he’d been waiting for us for years, and I’ve heard that from several people who work in that field, who felt this challenge was a long time coming, and a group like The Satanic Temple would start taking advantage of these doors that Evangelicals were kicking down in the name of religious liberty that nobody else was taking advantage of but full well could. They got more emboldened to do it precisely because no one was challenging them, to the point where they talk about religious liberty but you know they’re only talking about their viewpoint alone. They are utterly perplexed that we’re coming along and have this solid legal precedent that they gave us, and now they don’t know what to do.
That’s the highest profile action you’re involved with. But what about the local-level work in the communities where you have a presence? Was that part of your vision?
LG: I was a consultant on this film, and one of the things I felt was important was to put together some activist footage, so people would get an idea of what you could do, and that The Satanic Temple would be this banner for an organization that didn’t really exist because it would be decentralized, but people could take on the name of The Satanic Temple kind of like Anonymous, and they would do these kind of actions. But immediately, people wanted to come to us, they wanted a leader and a spokesperson, which I didn’t really want to do.
That’s a big part of the beginning of the movie, trying to figure out who we’re going to follow through this story.
LG: The concept needs somebody to do interviews in real time, and once that happens, people start coming to you directly; that’s part of that desire for community and part of the power of The Satanic Temple. And I know that formalizing this into an organized structure that we’d be doing a great service to a good number of people for whom this resonated.
Was one of our missions with this documentary to de-stigmatize Satanists?
PL: I wouldn’t say de-stigmatize, but I wanted to show that they had a coherent worldview that was understandable. In a five-minute conversation, it can be interesting and productive when I talk about The Satanic Temple with someone who doesn’t know, and they start in one place and you can get them somewhere else. But they still walk away saying “I still don’t really get it. Why do they call themselves Satanists? Why don’t they call themselves Humanists?”
LG: Our attorney said so concisely and beautifully in a way that people could understand, he said, “It’s a sociopolitical counter-myth.” And it’s one that easily, intuitively grasped, given people’s understanding of these western religious cultural icons.
Penny, you do a great job of exploring the recent history of Satanism—maybe because the historical material is more your comfort zone. You also make the point that you want to separate what Anton LaVey was doing from what’s happening today.
PL: Certainly the historical elements of the film were my comfort zone, there’s not doubt about that. We got to do 1950s archival work or watch anticommunist propaganda to find the best images. All of that feels very comfortable to me. The challenge was that is that, of course, the Church of Satan is interesting, and we don’t have time in the film to get into it. We just set up the idea that the Church of Satan was founded, LaVey did create a watershed moment in the history of what we now call Satanism—in many ways he did invent contemporary Satanism. So we have to put The Satanic Temple in that lineage, but immediately distinguish them from the group. I would say it was very challenging to get that right because there’s so much more to say about that 50-year history.
LG: I tried to write a short essay about the philosophical differences between the two groups, and it ended up being about 7000 words, but that’s about as concise as I can make it [laughs].
PL: I started out looking at Fox News interviewing Lucien, and isn’t this funny? And then I move into this whole other layer of how Satanism is this whole deep, rich, philosophically minded tradition that I feel a kinship with and allied to, and then we’re looking at the Satanic Reformation in America. Satanism has become big enough and grounded enough where you can have splits that are significant and heated; I though that was interesting stuff to know.
You don’t shy away from the ceremony part of it, which doesn’t look that different than what LaVey was doing. And I think that part might be the thing that freaks people out the most.
PL: Absolutely. People respond to those images, but we’re working in a visual medium, and it would be crazy for us to ignore the artistic aesthetic dimension of religion in a visual medium. We wanted to do our best in a way that renders it coherent. If we were going to bring the ritual aspects into the film, which we knew we wanted to do, we wanted to have some of the Satanists really explain how thought out these images are. When you see the BDSM babies protest outside Planned Parenthood, and it’s literally like “What the hell is going on?”, I love the idea of presenting these shocking images that are also confusing and then allowing a moment to be “I see why that’s happening. Let me think for a moment why inverting the cross has meaning for a Satanist. Why would a black mass ceremony have meaning to them?” At first it seems like “Look at this shocking shit,” but it could also be a powerful expression of faith. We knew that if we were going to put the ritual in, we had to have enough context to render it coherent to a non-Satanic audience.
There’s a moment in the film where one of your leaders seemingly goes against the church’s non-violent beliefs, and she is effectively excommunicated. How did that make you feel, especially when it’s all captured by the cameras?
LG: I didn’t know how to feel about it because I’m so close to it, but I did feel it was accurate, and that’s all I could ask. But I had no idea what anybody else would feel watching it. As I thought as it played out, I thought it couldn’t have gone any other way. There’s no way we could allow this and imperil the organization. Someone is going to claim it was an artistic statement or performance art, but we don’t want to be in a situation where our entire organization is labeled a terrorist organization due to one person’s irresponsibility. But it was also very difficult because I worked with her very closely and looked at her as a friend. But it seems like audiences seem to understand.
PL: Of course we didn’t see that coming, but from the beginning, there was no doubt that there would be some element of the film that would have to do with the tensions and problems of being a volunteer organization, doing all of this work, dealing with radical and new ideas about things that are very heated and contentious. I had not doubt that something like that would happen, and I’m glad it wasn’t more dramatic because it could have been worse. The way I see that part of the film is that I see where she’s coming from and respect her, and I see where Lucien and the national counsel are coming from and respect them. Looking at how they dealt with that conflict, I really wanted it to feel accurate to both points of view; that was all I could do. I felt quite said about the whole thing, but it did feel inevitable.
What do you want people thinking and talking about when they leave this film?
PL: So many things. If people walk out thinking “If I’m wrong about what Satanism is, what else am I wrong about?” Or if they realize they never noticed all the Christian nation shit everywhere, in the air that we breathe practically. I remember at one point turning to my producer and saying “It’s fucking crazy that our national motto is ‘In God we trust.’ What the fuck?” It’s one of those things that you accept as normal and then realize “This isn’t normal.” A lot of people who may not be predisposed to think more conceptually or more historical way will feel really inspired to make change in the world. If you look at where The Satanic Temple started, very few people would think “Here’s a machine that will change the world.” If you can have a smart idea and have a few friends who are on board with that smart idea, you don’t need money and influence and lobbyists to change the world; you can do it. I find that a hopeful message in a time of deep political darkness.
LG: I just want people to see that this isn’t a story with a beginning, middle and end. This is an origin that is open ended. And these are issues that we confront and that impact us all in significant ways. People might laugh when they see us and our monument campaign, but this is no small issue—whether multiple viewpoints are allowed or if one viewpoint gains exclusive privilege is going to be a foundational in defining who we are as a nation going forward. If we allow this type of theocratic encroachment to take hold, it begins to color everything. I think you get a sense of that in the film when people hold up their money and say “It says ‘In God we trust.’” They think that means Christians have exclusive license. You see that every step is a stepping stone, they aren’t going to stop there. They aren’t just going to put up Ten Commandments monuments and say “Okay, now we’re happy.” No, they aren’t happy until abortion is illegal or we have anti-blasphemy laws or they can cause a theocratic revolution in the United States.
I also hope that if someone sees this film and this speaks to them, they have a place in The Satanic Temple too. If they desire to be a part of that community and identify with this, the fight is by no means over. It’s hardly begun, and it’s going to be going on long after I’m gone.
PL: It’s really about people who are willing to take on the social cost of being a heretic, which is not insignificant. If you’re going to stand against this really powerful, well-funded, well-lobbied organized effort to turn America into 1979. You’re not going to get a lot of thanks for it; you’re most going to get shit on and yelled at.
Did you have any hesitation about premiering this in Utah?
PL: No! What could be better?
LG: We’ve had that question a few times, and it never occurred to me that this would be a problem.
PL: It’s brilliant, and I think Sundance understood that because they gave us two screenings in Salt Lake City, which is pretty unusual. I actually think this film will be so much better any place that had any kind of thinner line between church and state than where I grew up in Massachusetts.
LG: Oh yes. Those are the places where I’m a big deal. If I go to speak in areas where that kind of fight is really prominent, that’s where I’m going to pack the house. I think you’re right; it will do well in those places.
PL: Sitting in Salt Lake last night was so exciting.
It was wonderful to meet you both. Best of luck with this.
PL: Thank you.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”