Director Michael John Warren on Faith and Filming "Hillsong: Let Hope Rise"
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Filmmaker Michael John Warren's known for his music movies. He's the guy behind Jay-Z's Fade to Black and Nicki Minaj's My Time Now. So, naturally, his upcoming music documentary is about a Christian worship band from Australia.
That may seem odd to you, and it was for Warren too, at first. A self-proclaimed non-believer (but searcher), he had no idea Hillsong UNITED even existed. So when producers from Hollywood called him up to pitch the idea of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, he wasn't really on board.
"'Why would I make a Christian rock film?'", Warren remembers asking. "Then I realized that was like a left over prejudice from my childhood growing up as a Roman Catholic in New England. You could have told me that I was making a film about ISIS or Satan worshippers and I would have been like, 'Cool, that sounds edgy'."
The filmmaker's reluctance to explore Hillsong and worship culture didn't last long. In fact, one of the band's songs helped convince him to go "all in."
"The thing that [had me] like, 'I'm doing this', was probably sitting there hearing 'Oceans' for the first time. As soon as it ended, playing it again. Then, playing it again…. There's a reason why 'Oceans' became so big. Of course, it was big because of the meaning of the song, but that song is just really good. I think that someone like Coldplay hears that song, they're like, 'I wish we wrote that one'."
Hillsong UNITED performs "Oceans" on the Sea of Galilee:
Warren experienced Hillsong for the first time when he showed up at a service at the global church's New York City campus.
"I walked in and was greeted immediately. I was really taken by how young everybody was and how multicultural it was. It was a lot of basically non-white kids there and I found that encouraging," he says.
"I didn't really know what to expect. The house band came out. Immediately, I realized that this was not like the church that I grew up with. I grew up a Catholic altar boy, Catholic high school, got rid of all that in my life as soon as I was old enough to tell my parents 'no' and hadn't really thought about it much."
"It was really cool to see…. Boyfriends had their arms around their girlfriends. There's like a lot of love in the room. The music was really good. I was very surprised. I was just taken back with how effective it was, creating that mood and creating a lot of positive energy."
These years later, and with the documentary filmed and edited for release this week, Warren remembers getting to know the band and their story as a real pleasure. He misses being around them now that the movie is done. And that's not happened to him before.
"They're really nice people," he says, "some of the nicest people I've had the good fortune of documenting. Also for me, getting to do a worship experience, never been done before, so the ability to make something that hasn't existed until now, as a filmmaker is exciting. The story is amazing as well. Obviously, I'm a storyteller and there's a lot of interesting story there."
While documenting Hillsong UNITED's story, Warren began to see a special bond between the bandmates and their apparent love for music and for God. He was moved by it and by them.
"The truth of the matter is they're so nice to each other that, as a storyteller, it was a little nerve wracking. I'm like, 'Well who's going to yell at who in this movie? Who is going to throw a plate at someone in this movie?' The answer's no one. But we didn't need sort of that immediate drama because I thought that the underpinnings, the larger mission they are on was interesting enough. I don't think that's really been explored."
"Their sole mission is to help people connect to Heaven. I thought that was really cool. It's different from all the other work I've done. Everyone else I've made a film about is trying to be the best rapper or be famous, or whatever they're doing. And there's nothing wrong with that. I love that music. But for me, I was like, 'Well, this is going to be massive. This is something new. It's an interesting story."
Warren couldn't be prouder of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise or more convinced it has something to say to believers and non-believers alike.
"Even though I don't necessarily believe everything they believe, I do believe that they are righteous and good people who are helping a lot of people find what they need in life. Whether you believe or not, love is a hard thing to argue against and that's really what they're about."
Even after filming was finished and Hillsong UNITED had moved on, Warren hadn't. The self-ascribed music nerd New Yorker still listens to the worship band's music. His favorite is "No Other Name" and it makes a big, powerful appearance in Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, which opens in theaters nationwide on September 16.
Official trailer for Hillsong: Let Hope Rise
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