Vancouver-based director/screenwriter Kevin Miller (No Intelligence Allowed, with Ben Stein; Sex+Money, spOILed, With God On Our Side) is back with HELLBOUND?, a whole new documentary that explores today’s highly contentious debate over the Christian doctrine of hell.
HELLBOUND? features interviews with an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators, musicians, exorcists and other high profile participants in the debate.
“Throughout history, Christians have disagreed about pretty much everything,” says Miller. “With every debate, particular doctrines become a litmus test to determine ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ That’s certainly the case right now regarding the doctrine of hell. HELLBOUND? is my attempt to get to the bottom of the current debate, to find out why challenges to the traditional ‘fire and brimstone view’ are so contentious and to discover the implications of this dispute for Christians as well as those watching from a distance.”
Miller has no illusions about the controversy this film might cause. “No matter what you believe about hell, this film is definitely going to push your buttons. But I see that as a healthy thing. Rather than just stir people up though, I hope HELLBOUND? will provoke informed discussion and get people to take a second look at the impact their religious beliefs have on the world at large.”
I had the chance to speak with Kevin Miller to find out more about HELLBOUND?
Felix: Tell us about HELLBOUND?: what inspired you to make this film?
Kevin: Hellbound? is a feature-length documentary that takes a critical look at the traditional Christian doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked. Far from an abstract theological discussion, the film seeks to understand why Christians who challenge the establishment view get into so much hot water, and how our view of hell affects the kind of world we create.
I was inspired to make the film back in the fall of 2008 when I edited a book called Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem by Abbotsford author Brad Jersak. That experience opened me up to the fascinating conversation the church has been having about this issue over the past two millennia. Some people would have you believe that the Bible teaches one and only one thing about hell, and that the church has been united around this view from the beginning. This is a total misrepresentation of church history. The fact is, there has always been three main interpretations of hell: 1) Infernalism, eternal torment for the wicked, 2) Annihilationism, the idea that the wicked won’t be punished forever but rather extinguished for eternity and 3) Universalism, the idea that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God—even though some or all of us will have to “go through hell” to get there. Clearly, at some point in history Infernalism became the dominant view within the Western Church. But a growing number of Christians are questioning whether that pride of place is deserved. Hellbound? documents this debate to see if a case can be made for a form of Christianity that doesn’t include hell—at least not in the way hell is popularly conceived.
Felix: Are you a religious person yourself? Is there a message behind the film?
Kevin: Yes, I would consider myself a Christian. However, whenever I take on that label I feel an increasing need to qualify it somehow, because the word “Christian” is like a suitcase—you can pack anything into it you like. So I will say this: To me the term “Christian” doesn’t mean being part of an exclusivist tribe. Rather, it means emulating the life and teachings of Jesus. The core of that is loving God, loving my neighbor—and my enemy—as myself, and a complete abdication of violence.
In terms of the film’s message, I would say it’s a call away from a rigid, fear-driven form of religion, because I think this form of belief—often called “fundamentalism”—is one of the most significant problems we face in the world today. Instead, we are calling people into humble dialogue with each other. Rather than demonizing or ostracizing those who disagree with us, we encourage people to adopt an open, listening stance. None of us has the corner on the truth, so we all benefit when we tackle such issues from a variety of perspectives.
Felix: Any challenges or surprises that occurred while the film was being shot?
Kevin: Making a documentary is always tremendously challenging, because unlike a feature film, nothing is scripted. You are always capturing events as they happen, and the outcome is always in question. Even in a sit-down interview situation where you can control a number of variables, the one thing you can’t control is how the subject responds to your questions, so you have to be on your toes at all times recognizing opportunities and capturing them as they occur.
That said, probably the most challenging shoot for us was filming the tenth anniversary memorial of the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Due to terrorist threats, the city was in total lockdown mode, so maneuvering around the city was almost impossible. At one point I thought that entire shoot would be in jeopardy. But somehow we found a way past the bomb-sniffing dogs, armored personnel carriers and machine gun-wielding police and into a spot where we could capture the raw emotion of that day. It was a very powerful experience.
Felix: Most of your films are documentaries. Is there any other genres of film you would be interested in developing?
Kevin: I actually started out like a lot of screenwriters do, dreaming of one day landing a job on a big studio film. So I spent many years chasing that dream. And I still think about it sometimes. But when the top jobs in Hollywood including adapting popular board games into big budget action movies, I have to say my enthusiasm has waned considerably. Also, now that I’ve had a taste of directing—and, more importantly, producing—I think I’d like to pursue opportunities to write and produce some of my own indie features. Possibly direct as well, but I know too many people who are way more qualified for that job than I am. That said, I enjoy making documentaries, so I will continue to do that as well.
Felix: What kind of feedback have you received from HELLBOUND? Have you received any “threats” from religious radicals?
Kevin: No threats, thankfully, although that possibility has been raised in several interviews. Overall, the reaction has been very positive. Perhaps our most significant negative review came from the bastion of the Protestant Christian establishment, Christianity Today. But that’s expected when you make a movie that questions the status quo. As I’ve traveled across the US doing Q&A screenings in various cities, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far. The same goes for reviews. I’ve been surprised and delighted by positive reviews in Variety, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Huffington Post and even the horror movie web site shockya.com. It’s encouraging to see the film touching a nerve across a vast cross-section of people.
Felix: Being from Abbotsford, BC. When you are not writing or directing, what’s your favorite thing to do in BC?
Kevin: I travel a lot, so when I’m home, I love spending time with my wife Heidi and our four kids. However, I also make hockey a regular part of my weekly schedule. And the ultimate thing for me to do in BC is hike in our lovely mountains during the summer and snowshoe them in the winter. One of my favorite spots is the series of peaks near where the Coquihalla tollbooth used to be.
Felix: If you weren’t making movies, what do you think you would be doing for a career instead?
Kevin: I would be teaching at a university, likely in the area of philosophy or theology. I love big ideas, and I love talking and writing about them even more. So that would have been an ideal alternate career path for me.
Felix: Is there any advice you can give to aspiring directors/screenwriters?
Kevin: Don’t give up. The fall of 2008 when I edited Brad Jersak’s book was a very dark time for me. Two film projects had fallen through one after the other, and literally overnight, I found myself unemployed for the first time in my adult life. I thought my fledgling film career was already over, and I scrambled to find any sort of work to pay the bills. At the same time, I kept putting my name out there, hoping that something would come through. Believe it or not, six months later I found myself involved in not one but five film projects all at once. In fact, I was so busy I thought I was going to lose my mind. So when they say it’s always darkest before the dawn, I have to agree. If I had given up that fall, there’s no way I’d be doing what I am today.
Felix: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
HELLBOUND?, is now playing at participating theatres. Check your local listings.
Follow Felix on Twitter: @TheFelixKay