Watching Movies Well: an interview with Sophie Lister, part 1
You’ll find occasional movie reviews on this blog as we do our best to engage with the visual storytelling of our culture. But this time, let’s talk with a pro: Sophie Lister, who writes about film on a weekly basis. Sophie (right) works for the Damaris Trust, creating reviews, discussion guides and podcasts which appear on Culturewatch for ‘exploring the message behind the media’.
Sophie’s articles are a fantastic model of Christian thinking, and I regularly recommend Culturewatch as an outstanding online resource. In this two-part interview, I’ve asked Sophie to reflect on her creative work and her perspective on watching movies and understanding culture.
To start with, let’s meet Sophie and hear what it’s like to work as a writer. Let’s continue talking in the comments, too: What grabs you about the movies? What do you do with the stories you find there?
I think I was only five years old when I first went to the movies. My mum took me to Milo and Otis only to take me home in tears — it was all a bit overwhelming for me! What do you first remember on film?
SL: Films were never my first love — I was an avid reader as a child (avid in the sense of, reading novels under my school desk when I was supposed to be doing work), so my passion for stories started that way. I would just read anything I could get my hands on, and this included film reviews. We’d get the Radio Times (British TV magazine) in our house every week and I’d sneak it up to my room and read the film reviews obsessively. Most of the time I hadn’t even seen the films, but I just loved getting those little snippets of stories.
I was in my teenage years just as the Lord of the Rings film mania was at its height, and being swept up in that was my first experience of getting really excited by the power of what was on screen.
One of my most memorable film adventures was the first time I saw Terrence Malick’s The New World — I’d never seen anything quite like it and was absolutely enthralled. What’s exciting for you about the experience of film?
SL: Isn’t The New World just wonderful? I’m fascinated by that era of history, and Terrence Malick did something so beautiful and poetic with it. I came away from that film feeling like I’d had a really refreshing, genuinely spiritual experience, as though I’d been walking outside rather than sitting in front of a screen.
I’ve pretty much realised through my time working on Culturewatch that it’s the execution of a story I’m interested in, not the concept, so pinning down any particular genre as my favourite isn’t very helpful. I think that just about any story concept can be executed well or terribly. For example, look at The Island and Never Let Me Go — effectively the same story (people come to realise they’re clones, destined for early death), but Michael Bay’s film is an excuse for blowing things up, while Mark Romanek’s film is a haunting examination of the human condition. You can barely call it sci-fi because it’s so personal and understated.
With a few exceptions, action sequences tend to bore me to tears, and plot-focused films leave me cold. I’m in it for the characters, for the quality of the writing (more so than the visuals), and for the atmosphere. I will by and large like any film that does those things well, regardless of genre or who directed it. I’m no expert when it comes to the technicalities of filmmaking — my background is in literature and creative writing — so regardless of how good the direction and performances are I struggle to enjoy anything if the writing’s poor.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has always been a particular favourite, I think because it transcends genre (is it romance, sci-fi, fantasy?) just to tell an honest human story. I’ve always loved Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, which is a film that I don’t think really gets the love it deserves, because people went into it expecting an action extravaganza and got a quiet character drama. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain has really stuck with me – even though it’s deeply flawed, it’s so different and so ambitious. Then there’s Terrence Malick, of course, who just seems to be in another league.
What excites me about film is the same thing that excites me about literature: the power of stories to inspire, frighten, move and change us. We were made to be part of a story, and this is echoed in the way that we respond to culture. I’m continually astonished at how deeply stories can make people think and feel.
What first got you going as a writer? And how did your focus on culture emerge?
SL: My original passion — and long-term goal — has always been to write fiction, and my interest in culture flows out of that. I love to tell stories, and so I love to experience the stories that other people tell, too.
When my Christian faith became personal to me at university, one of the first things that changed was the way I looked at culture. Studying a literature degree, you’re presented with so many different philosophical frameworks for looking at the world and looking at art, and the Christian framework was the only one that truly made sense to me. I started to see stories as expressions of our deepest human questions, and ultimately, our need for God. In many ways I think narrative is one of the best apologetics we have — our sense of how stories ‘ought’ to be speaks volumes about the bigger story we’re part of.
What does a week with the Damaris Trust look like for you?
SL: A typical week will usually involve putting together one or two magazine pieces (I write for various UK faith-based publications), and doing some work on Tools for Talks, which is a resource for Christian speakers. Damaris are regularly contracted by film companies to produce resources which help church and community groups engage with films, such as the digitally remastered Chariots of Fire, so if we’ve got one of these projects on the go I’ll be involved with that. Then there’s my Culturewatch work, which will generally involve seeing one of the main new releases and writing an article/discussion guide, as well as working with the other Culturewatch writers to edit their material and maintain the site. I also do regular spots with UCB UK radio, so I keep up to date with what’s being released in cinemas and what’s current in culture generally.
From first seeing a film through to writing an article, what is the creative process like for you as a writer? Tell us a bit about your routines.
SL: I try not to read too many reviews/interviews before seeing a film, so that I’m going in with as few preconceptions as possible. Taking notes in a darkened cinema is tricky, but I find it very useful having a few key lines of dialogue to hang my article around, so I’ll scribble down anything significant. I try to write as soon after seeing the film as possible, so that things are fresh in my mind — a lot of the way that I process ideas seems to happen at quite an unconscious level, so there’s no particular plan or structure. Thankfully things tend to pour out in a fairly logical order, and often I’ll find myself writing something that I wasn’t aware of having thought about! Sometimes the ideas are a bit more tangled and I do have to take a step back and take a more ‘manual’ approach to what’s going in which paragraph.
Often the hardest part is bringing the article round to a biblical perspective without it being forced, or false to the source material — I don’t like the idea of just imposing Christian parallels on culture, and I don’t think that’s what Culturewatch is there to do. I think it’s about listening to what the film is actually saying, and then picking out the truths which resonate.