Interview: Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi

Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi
Cleanflix has a num­ber of fest­ival screen­ings com­ing up in the com­ing months. Catch the film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, and at Cinequest in San Jose, California.

My first film at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival was Cleanflix (review), a doc­u­ment­ary which explored the issues sur­round­ing the sale and rental of edited ver­sions of R-rated movies to obser­v­ant Mormons in Utah. I knew that after see­ing the film, I wanted to ask the cre­at­ors many more ques­tions than they could have fielded dur­ing the post-screen­ing Q&A. So, thanks to David Magdael and Margot Hardy from TC:DM Associates, I was able to sit down for half an hour with the cre­at­ors of the film dur­ing what must have been a very hec­tic week for them. In addi­tion to co-dir­ect­ors Andrew James (on the left in the pic­ture above) and Joshua Ligairi (on the right), we were also joined by pro­du­cer Amber Bollinger.

Since the inter­view deals with some plot points in the film, it really makes sense to read my review first.


James McNally (JM): I’ll start by ask­ing you how dif­fi­cult it must have been to decide where to go with the film once the scan­dal around Daniel breaks. What were your dis­cus­sions like about how much of the film you wanted to give over to that story?

Andrew James (AJ): In the begin­ning, we viewed Daniel more as a resource. It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way into shoot­ing that we real­ized that there was more to this Daniel guy, that maybe he could help guide the film a little bit, so we star­ted focus­sing more on him. But it wasn’t until we star­ted edit­ing the film that we real­ized how sig­ni­fic­ant he was to the film we were mak­ing.

Joshua Ligairi (JL): We were focus­sing on a couple of other store own­ers just as prom­in­ently as him that didn’t even make it into the film.

JM: I guess the con­trast with Robert (another store owner), there was a real con­trast between them.

JL: Which was nice. It was nice to see people who were doing it sin­cerely and then someone else who was manip­u­lat­ing the audi­ence for their own bene­fit.

JM: In my opin­ion, you have about three films worth of stuff crammed into Cleanflix. One of the things I found inter­est­ing was just the explor­a­tion of Mormon film­makers. You talked to Richard Dutcher, for instance. Strangely enough, there was just an art­icle in Cinemascope magazine (here in Canada) about Richard Dutcher, and it got me won­der­ing. What I wanted to ask was if you think there is any offi­cial encour­age­ment given by the Church to Mormon film­makers, to give people an altern­at­ive to Hollywood enter­tain­ment?

JL: No. The Church self-pro­duces some films, but they’re more about the Mormon story, they’re about the found­ing story of the Church, they’re about Jesus and stuff like that. The Mormon cine­matic move­ment that’s hap­pen­ing, in Utah espe­cially, is not con­nec­ted to the Church at all, although there’s appre­ci­ation for those films from the Church lead­er­ship.

JM: I know there are some that would never break out of Utah, but for instance Jared Hess has done really well.

JL: There was a World War 2 film, Saints and Soldiers, that won an Independent Spirit Award a few years ago, and stuff like that, so there are some cros­sov­ers.

JM: But the Church doesn’t have any offi­cial stance.

Amber Bollinger (AB): No.

JL: Richard Dutcher was actu­ally very suc­cess­ful, but within the Christian evan­gel­ical cul­ture in the United States, they’re not accept­ing of Mormons as Christians, so it was dif­fi­cult to mar­ket those films to them.

JM: In the Cinemascope art­icle, he talks about that and how he’s tried to make him­self more of a spir­itual film­maker, but nobody trusts that. You’re either not spir­itual enough, or you’re too spir­itual. Why do you think that guys like Dutcher and Neil LaBute oth­ers end up leav­ing the Church? Do you think the pressure’s too much, that they can’t make films that explore spir­itu­al­ity?

JL: Both Richard and Neil have had very spe­cific run-ins with Church lead­er­ship with regard to the con­tent of their films, and I think that prob­ably has some­thing to do with it.

AJ: I also think there’s a con­stant struggle in how to recon­cile your art with the val­ues that the Church is espous­ing. Because they have very spe­cific ideas about how media affects you. It’s talked about a lot in church. So I think film­makers who are try­ing to be chal­len­ging really struggle with that. I know I do, and that’s prob­ably one reason why I don’t go to church any­more. Josh is still prac­ti­cing, and that’s great, but for me, I was hav­ing a hard time recon­cil­ing that, going to church and hear­ing people say all these things that I didn’t agree with.

JL: At Brigham Young University, in the film pro­gram, the guys there struggle with this all the time. They’re just start­ing out as film stu­dents and they’re try­ing to make these films that rep­res­ent their artistic view­points, and even in uni­ver­sity they’re not allowed to make some of the films they want to make.

JM: Just to give you a little bit of back­ground, I have about 20 years of exper­i­ence with the evan­gel­ical church, and have gone through the same pro­cess so I can feel where you’re com­ing from on a lot of these issues. I wanted to bring up that ques­tion of how work­ing on the film affected your own faith. You’re free to tell me to mind my own busi­ness, of course. Andrew, since you’ve already told me about your struggles with your faith, do you think the film has had any­thing to do with that?

AJ: I don’t think so. It’s been an ongo­ing pro­cess for me. Without giv­ing too much away, a lot of per­sonal things in my life have led me down that path.

AB: Any chance for self-explor­a­tion, too. The film talks about, you know, why not, why not ask ques­tions about what you believe? Through the film, if that’s part of it, or whatever means you can. I think media’s a great way to do that, to think about what it is you believe and why.

Daniel from Cleanflix

JM: My main cri­ti­cism of the film is that I thought Daniel’s troubles allowed the audi­ence to paint him as the vil­lain, to enjoy that irony and then to for­get about the issues that you’ve raised in the first part of the film. I was very curi­ous to see how advoc­ates of copy­right reform from one side of the polit­ical spec­trum would inter­act with people like Cleanflix from the other end of the polit­ical spec­trum who are doing kind of the same thing but for a dif­fer­ent reason.

JL: The stick­ing point for me and for those two com­munit­ies is the cen­sor­ship. I tend to come down on the side of the end user. The fact that they’re cen­sor­ing some­thing that they haven’t cre­ated is prob­lem­atic for me.

JM: But are they not just “mash­ing up” the film?

JL: I think that’s some­thing that Hollywood has to wake up to, and fig­ure out how to have a rela­tion­ship with those end users, because people are going to stop pay­ing for it if they can’t do what they want with it.

JM: I think that’s what’s star­ted to hap­pen.

AJ: That’s a very inter­est­ing point. I totally see that point of view and I actu­ally agree with that point of view. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it in terms of Cleanflix. I don’t feel like that’s what they’re try­ing to do.

JM: But aren’t we still fight­ing for the same thing?

JL: But that’s not what the mashup guys are try­ing to do either. They’re just try­ing to dance.

JM: Now we see video mashups too.

JL: We were talk­ing about “Brokeback to the Future” or the Phantom Edit, where they took Jar Jar Binks out of the Star Wars Episode 1. I think now that edit­ing tech­no­logy for films is going to become as avail­able as it is for music tech­no­logy, we’re going to see a lot more of this stuff.

JM: And we do laugh at those because they’re enter­tain­ing, but the films that Cleanflix makes are enter­tain­ing to a dif­fer­ent audi­ence. I think there’s a really good argu­ment from those guys’ per­spect­ive that they’re just doing the same thing.

AJ: I wanted to com­ment on your cri­ti­cism. I feel that, at least for me, the film is not an issue film. We’re try­ing to tell a story, and so I feel that that is why Daniel works in the film. Obviously, there are issues being explored in the film, for sure, but we feel like we’re try­ing to focus more on telling the story. I feel like you can’t tell the story of Cleanflix without telling what happened to Daniel, and I think Daniel helps inform that story, he sort of per­son­i­fies that story.

JL: And you can see where that com­munity can go wrong, where those kind of ideals can take a dark turn.

JM: I can see that but what I was dis­turbed at in my screen­ing was that the audi­ence was so very smug, like “oh, we’re lib­er­als and it just fig­ures that that guy is going to…”

AJ: They took so much joy in it.

JL: Yeah, they were laugh­ing at some really dark stuff.

AJ: We were uncom­fort­able with that as well.

JL: When we were film­ing that, Andrew was in tears.

AB: That reac­tion was abso­lutely sur­pris­ing.

JL: Our Sunday screen­ing was a dif­fer­ent story. No one laughed. Different audi­ences are always going to take some­thing dif­fer­ent from the film.

AB: And pos­sibly, the audi­ence that went to see it on the premiere night were people who expec­ted a cer­tain mes­sage from the film. Possibly the crowd men­tal­ity of the premiere night, let’s see what this film is about. Maybe those people had pre­con­ceived notions about what the film was about. As Josh was say­ing, our Sunday screen­ing was very dif­fer­ent, people did not laugh at those same parts. And when Daniel was kind of, headed down­hill, if you will, there wasn’t laughter. It was dif­fer­ent.

JM: That’s inter­est­ing to hear. I was dis­ap­poin­ted in the crowd I was with, but I just hope that it doesn’t over­whelm the film.

AB: I don’t think that it will. I really feel that it may have been a premiere type of reac­tion.

JL: I think people think they know what the movie is already. They think it’s going to be funny and quirky and mak­ing fun of Mormons or some­thing like that, and it’s not really that movie.

JM: And your soundtrack, and your edit­ing does make it feel like that a little bit. Which leads me to ask if you’re fin­ished edit­ing the film now, after see­ing the audi­ence reac­tions at the two screen­ings.

AJ: Maybe some minor changes.

JL: We’re pretty happy with the film, for the most part. Now that we’ve had some feed­back, it’s good.

AB: And see­ing it on a gigantic screen always changes things. You can watch it on your biggest 50″ screen at home but it’s just dif­fer­ent see­ing it, with a crowd, first of all, and also on a huge screen. You’re like, Oh, didn’t notice that before.

JL: Little ele­ments of pro­duc­tion value that we’re def­in­itely going to work on now.

JM: Those are things that people prob­ably didn’t notice, but you did.

AB: Yeah, see­ing it a thou­sand times.

Cleanflix

JM: I noticed that you don’t have any­one from the Church on cam­era speak­ing about this issue. Was that a con­scious decision or did no one want to talk to you?

JL: We did have someone at one point and we just realized…there were a lot of things we would have liked. I would have liked to show the diversity of the LDS com­munity, for instance, because we were just focus­sing on this one group that watches edited movies. But it wouldn’t have made the film bet­ter. It would have made for a more nuanced dis­cus­sion, and I would have appre­ci­ated that, as someone who’s from that com­munity myself and prob­ably other people of faith would have wanted to see that stuff, but it wasn’t fur­ther­ing the story aspect of it. We were get­ting bogged down in that first half, because the bal­ance was, how much do people need to under­stand about Mormons, and how much do people need to under­stand about edited movies before we can start telling the story.

AJ: We inter­viewed a guy who was like a “pseudo” rep­res­ent­at­ive of the Church.

JL: He was a media rep­res­ent­at­ive of the Church, but he wasn’t a reli­gious fig­ure.

AJ: And he sort of felt awk­ward speak­ing for the Church, but he did say some inter­est­ing things about the R rat­ing, and how it was a cul­tural sort of thing.

JL: He was kind of dis­ap­poin­ted in the idea that people would like edited movies. He had also been a pro­fessor at Brigham Young University and he said we get these stu­dents com­ing in and they don’t want to think for them­selves, they want rules. And that was really dis­heart­en­ing for him to see that, too.

JM: I think that’s human nature. People want rules.

AB: Structure.

JM: I’m curi­ous to see how Church lead­ers react to people who are so des­per­ate to fol­low the let­ter of the law but who are kind of ignor­ing the whole spirit of it. I mean tech­nic­ally they’re not break­ing the rules, but you know…

JL: The thing with the Mormon audi­ence, though, is that in their minds they’re fol­low­ing the spirit of the law because they’re try­ing to take it even fur­ther than the com­mand­ment they’ve been given. So the thing is to avoid a cer­tain rat­ing and they’re going even fur­ther. In the Mormon reli­gion, they ask you to abstain from cer­tain things like alco­hol and cof­fee, and you see that taken even fur­ther. So now we don’t drink Coke because that has caf­feine in it and maybe that’s why they said don’t drink cof­fee. So people are always try­ing to go fur­ther, and self-cen­sor­ing, and that was what was really inter­est­ing to me. Our film isn’t a doc­trinal film, it’s a cul­tural film. The Church isn’t neces­sar­ily enfor­cing this but people are tak­ing it upon them­selves to self-cen­sor and that was inter­est­ing to me.

JM: But isn’t there an audi­ence that says that even those edited films aren’t going far enough?

AJ: Absolutely.

AB: Definitely. The sample of people in the film are the ones who are com­ing to Cleanflix so it def­in­itely doesn’t rep­res­ent every Mormon.

JL: There are people on both sides. There are people who say, I don’t care, I’m going to watch R-rated movies, and that’s a big por­tion too. And then there are some for whom Cleanflix isn’t good enough, who say we shouldn’t be sup­port­ing these Hollywood movies at all. Andrew has an inter­est­ing story about that, actu­ally.

AJ: Yeah, I inter­viewed this woman who was a former employee at another edited movies store. One of the com­ments she made was “Who’s the creep in the back room watch­ing R-rated movie after R-rated movie?” I think a lot of people have a hard time with the idea of Cleanflix, that someone actu­ally has to sit through that filthy mater­ial, sort of to take one for the team. So there is a wide range of diversity on the issue. I think in a gen­eral sense, Mormons are try­ing to pro­tect their fam­il­ies from what they con­sider harm­ful or evil ele­ments.

JL: And in that respect, it’s not just Mormons. There are a lot of people through­out the world. This mar­ket is a big mar­ket, and I think people would embrace this if they knew…

JM: You guys must be read­ing my ques­tions. I was going to sug­gest that the evan­gel­ical Christian mar­ket, which must be three or four times the size of the Mormon mar­ket, would be very inter­ested.

JL: I think that’s why the Cleanflix guys tried to sep­ar­ate it from Mormonism, because they’re afraid that if it gets tagged as a Mormon thing, they can’t sell as many movies in the South.

JM: And I know that in Canada and parts of the States, there are con­ser­vat­ive Muslim audi­ences, con­ser­vat­ive Hindu audi­ences that would prob­ably go for the same sort of edited movies. Do you know if the edited movie com­pan­ies have tried to reach those mar­kets at all?

JL: They were try­ing to reach out to those audi­ences when they were stopped, and they had 80 loc­a­tions through­out the United States, they were doing online in Canada. They were spread­ing, and accord­ing to the store own­ers, everything was on the way up; they had just figured out their busi­ness model and they were about to cap­it­al­ize on it when this all happened.

AJ: We could eas­ily spec­u­late that they would have had suc­cess in these other areas.

JL: We choose to focus on Mormonism because that’s where it star­ted and that cul­ture cre­ated it.

JM: You indic­ated too that some of these com­pan­ies may still be oper­at­ing online?

JL: That’s one of those things about the digital age. There’s no con­trolling it any­more, and it’s going to hap­pen. And so if the stu­dios were smart, I think they should fig­ure out a way to handle this them­selves because oth­er­wise it’s going to hap­pen without them.

JM: Did you get any­one rep­res­ent­ing the Directors Guild of America to talk to you?

AJ: We talked to their law­yers and PR people from the DGA who were fairly friendly and inter­ested in help­ing us, but with all the big names involved and the bur­eau­cracy, it was just hard for us to get at those people.

JM: Do you think they con­sider it a dead issue now?

JL: They would like it to be a dead issue, because they’ve won and they don’t want it to con­tinue. So it’s good for them if it goes away.

JM: But you do reveal in the film that they do release edited movies for air­lines, so what is stop­ping them from just expand­ing that?

JL: No one knows. The stu­dios con­trol the copy­right and they’re not releas­ing them.

JM: I just won­der if they feel that the mar­ket is too small.

JL: They call it a small mar­ket.

JM: But it’s prob­ably a lot big­ger than they real­ize.

JL: An ABC News poll said 45% of the people in the United States would want edited movies if they could have access to them.

AJ: But the Hollywood Reporter said that the stu­dios want to con­trol this, and if people start edit­ing, and releas­ing edited ver­sions, demand would become too great and it might take away from the the­at­rical run of some of these films because people will wait for the clean ver­sion to come out on DVD.

JM: I guess they fig­ure that the rat­ing sys­tem is work­ing well enough.

JL: They like the way it’s work­ing for them.

JM: Have you seen Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated? A lot of the same issues come up in that.

JL: Yeah, that film was a big help to us as we were get­ting into this.

JM: I wondered if you’d seen another film here at TIFF, called Dogtooth (review). It’s a Greek film about a guy who keeps his fam­ily locked in their house. His chil­dren are now in their 20s and they just play games all day, they’re kind of infant­ile. The dir­ector said it was about the extremes to which people will go to pro­tect their fam­il­ies. Of course, it doesn’t end well. And I guess neither does your story. I won­der why the Church feels that keep­ing bad things from out­side is going to make us bet­ter people?

AJ: There’s a lot of fear. People are afraid. I’m not going to speak for the Church, but I think cul­tur­ally there’s a lot of fear that these things are going to get in and affect you, you know to per­vert your sexu­al­ity as someone says in the film.

JL: If you open that door…

AJ: People don’t trust them­selves. You know, if I look at this, I might have some bad thoughts and do some­thing that I might regret.

JM: But you think of it as an out­side influ­ence and never some­thing inside of us?

JL: It’s a ques­tion of pur­ity, and the idea is that these things stain you, you can’t get rid of that stain. I mean they believe in the idea of repent­ance, but it’s bet­ter if you keep your­self pure of this stuff, and that’s bet­ter for you.

JM: I mean I’m curi­ous, because the Christian doc­trine is that we’re already born sin­ful and that we need to be for­given.

JL: It is part of Mormon doc­trine that we’re here to make mis­takes and learn from them, but you avoid those mis­takes and obed­i­ence is the big thing.

JM: So they think you learn more by not mak­ing the mis­takes?

JL: I don’t know.

AJ: Totally. Yeah, that’s really weird.

AB: It’s not just the media. The Church also teaches you to sur­round your­self with good people, sur­round your­self with good things. You know, clean­li­ness is god­li­ness, there are so many things.

JM: Which is totally com­mon sense.

JL: And it’s not all avoid­ance. Within the cul­ture it becomes avoid­ance. Within the doc­trine of the Church, it’s “seek after good things.” One of the kids in the films says “I’d rather read a good clean book and watch a good clean movie.” Find the good things, but within the cul­ture it’s easier to fol­low a rule.

JM: How do you know what’s good until you dis­cover it?

AJ: One of the things that’s inter­est­ing to me about this is that I think a lot of these films could help open their eyes to some dif­fer­ent issues, help them become aware of cul­tures in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, human exper­i­ence, help them build empathy with other human beings. And so by shut­ting them­selves out from these films, when you’re liv­ing in Utah, or actu­ally, any­where. But if you’re liv­ing a sheltered life, some­times a film is the only way to expose yourselves to out­side things and I think it’s really shel­ter­ing to say no.

JM: Another film that this reminds me of is Son of Rambow. Have you seen that?

AB: Yeah. It’s the same.

JL: Yeah.

JM: It’s the same idea. You need some way to con­nect with the out­side world and unfor­tu­nately some might choose bad ones, but you can also recom­mend good ones. What are your plans for screen­ing the film in Utah?

JL: We would love to have our American premiere in Utah.

JM: But it’s going to be R-rated, isn’t it?

JL: We’ve joked about mak­ing a Cleanflix ver­sion of our movie, and it’s a joke but it would also be a great way to tar­get that audi­ence. Hopefully there are issues dis­cussed in the film that they could bene­fit from.

JM: A lot of the humour came from show­ing both the uned­ited and edited stuff, though. I was just amazed at films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski being edited. I mean, how long was the edited ver­sion of The Big Lebowski, 30 minutes? So some of that stuff adds a lot of humour to it.

JL: Yeah, that’s unfor­tu­nate, but even with The Big Lebowski and Fargo, there’s a chance we could still get a PG-13 in the United States, and keep those clips in.

JM: I also find this issue in the evan­gel­ical Christian com­munity, that viol­ence is not as bad as sex, for some reason I don’t under­stand, and swear­ing is also bad, but you can shoot some­body. Somebody’s mak­ing these rules, but…

AB: That’s def­in­itely cul­tural. That’s not doc­trine from the Church.

AJ: That goes back to the idea of pur­ity, don’t you think? Like swear­ing and sexual images.

JL: I mean if you’re not going to do that, you’re def­in­itely not going to kill someone. And that’s another thing in the Church. It’s those little things. They’re guard­ing them­selves against all those little things.

JM: I guess so. It’s a slip­pery slope. Can I ask you about what your next pro­jects will be?

AJ: We’ve each got our own sep­ar­ate pro­jects which are each excit­ing on their own terms. I’m work­ing on a doc­u­ment­ary about a guy from Peru, dur­ing the 80s strap­ping cocaine to his torso, cre­at­ing this whole oper­a­tion smug­gling drugs into the United States dis­guised as a Mormon mis­sion­ary. And he would take it to Utah and deal it him­self and then he’d go back to Peru, go to the jungle and get his cocaine. He did this for two years, made a ton of money, and then even­tu­ally gave it up and became a US cit­izen. It’s his story, this man, and how he became American and his jour­ney and ask­ing some ques­tions along the way.

JL: I’ve got two pro­jects I’m work­ing on. One is about gay Mormons, and that one is a little more Utah-cent­ric, and there’s another pro­ject I have that’s more issue-ori­ented, it’s a little big­ger in scope, it’s about people who are rob­bing Native American graves and then selling the arti­facts to big col­lect­ors and to museums and other people who don’t know that they’re get­ting stolen arti­facts. There’s a twist, that there are these guys who believe they are being cursed for rob­bing these graves. Horrible things are hap­pen­ing to these people, sui­cides, deaths, and they’re hap­pen­ing to all these people who are involved with it. And then we’re also just try­ing to enlighten people so that they’re not buy­ing the stolen arti­facts, we’re try­ing to high­light the artists and people who are doing it prop­erly and then expose the people who are doing it illeg­ally.

JM: Well I hope that all of those are suc­cess­ful. We also have Hot Docs here in the spring.

JL: Yeah, we would love to be involved with Hot Docs.

JM: Amber, are you work­ing on one of those?

AB: Yeah, I’m actu­ally work­ing on the one with Josh.

JL: It’s called The Skeleton Picnic, the Native American one.

AJ: That’s a great title.

JM: Well, they all sound good. I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing more from all of you guys. Good luck with the film and enjoy your time at TIFF!

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2 Responses to Interview: Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi

  1. Rachel says:

    This a really inter­est­ing conversation–thanks for post­ing. I’m espe­cially intrigued by your dis­cus­sion about mashups. I think there are inter­est­ing over­laps between that concept and the idea of edited movies. I can see many the­or­et­ical par­al­lels between the two, but I think they aren’t often dis­cussed in the same way because people seem to view the motives behind a com­pany like Cleanflix as more sin­is­ter. Or at least less cool. Mashups = hip. Cleanflix = square. On the other hand, per­haps medium mat­ters as much as mes­sage: if Cleanflix was doing some­thing sim­ilar with Literature (cap­ital L) as opposed to movies, that would change the dis­cus­sion too–and per­haps rightly so.

  2. Did I really say that the Mormon church’s movies are “about Jesus and stuff like that”? Cringe.

    On the topic of mashups, the one dis­tinc­tion I see, and it is an import­ant dis­tinc­tion, is cen­sor­ship. Otherwise, I have no prob­lem with the end user remix­ing and remash­ing in any way they see fit. But the cen­sor­ship aspect is a little troub­ling.

    This really is a great con­ver­sa­tion. As I told you before, this is my favor­ite inter­view that we’ve done. I really appre­ci­ate how engaged you were with the issues in our film. All the best!

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