Penny Lane pushes boundaries, finds humor in ‘Hail Satan?’

Boldly daring filmmaker Penny Lane returns to Sundance with her third feature-length documentary Hail Satan? The title itself is certainly eye-catching.  And quite surprisingly, after seeing this film, I was shocked by my changed perspective about the topic.  In fact, I dare you not to have a different outlook, too. Lane, a self-proclaimed rebel herself, delves into the principles of the Satanic Temple, its founder, and its followers. Using comedy as a medium, what she reveals about politics and religion is extraordinarily enlightening.

I had a chance to sit down with Lane at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered to packed venues whose uproarious laughter echoed through the halls of the theaters.  Lane explained why and how she tackled this topic as well as her own nature in telling this story in such a unique way.

HAIL SATAN? director Penny Lane (Photo credit Pam Powell)

Lane is naturally drawn to concepts and issues regarding beliefs and said, “…my artistic personality has to do with belief.  Like why do we believe the things we believe? … I felt like it was only a matter of time before a religious topic suggested itself to me as an interesting one.”  After seeing The Satanic Temple in the headlines, she said, “”I thought it was like these brilliant, satirical trolling political activists making a really important political point about separation of Church and State, but also doing it in a way that had humor and performance…”  But there was much more to the story of a group of organized rebels and Lane tells it thoroughly and entertainingly.

An art school graduate, Lane recalled her own rebellious nature as far back as third grade when she dared to dislike the boy band New Kids on the Block.  It was, as she said, “… the heresy of third grade. You weren’t allowed to not like [this band].” She continued, “I thought it was strange [that] everyone was so upset with me…”  This rebellious nature, she said, “ …has always been a part of my character.” From her first feature film R. Nixon, where she created an entire film from archival footage only (a style that had never been done before) to Nuts! and now Hail Satan?, Lane loves to push the envelope of what’s expected and what’s “normal.”

This understanding of being an outsider inadvertently ingratiated her to Lucien Greaves, the founder of The Satanic Temple.  After numerous documentarians who hadn’t done their research were reportedly turned away from Greaves, Lane took the time to put all the pieces of information together to understand this group of outsiders. She recalled, “I had no interest in trying to make them look normal and I think that he (Greaves) loved that because they don’t want to be normal.”  She added, “I wanted to take them seriously, but I wasn’t trying to make them seem normal.”

Humor is a huge part of the film, but it doesn’t make fun of the group.  In fact, the humor comes naturally as we view our own political and judicial systems, particularly regarding separation of Church and State and for you lawyers out there, The Establishment Clause.  Finding the comedic element in an otherwise very serious topic stems from her education or, in actuality, rebelling against it. In art school, Lane said, “They tried to indoctrinate me…into this idea that a smart film had to be really serious and a fun film was stupid … I was like, that’s just not true!  You can be smart and fun!”

Lane said, “My goal was to prove that you could be a serious, intelligent artist and not always take yourself seriously all the time. …  I think it’s an underused tactic … If you’re laughing, it’s a little bit easier. You loosen up. And you’re more open.” She added, “It’s not like my film’s a recruitment tool for the Satanic Temple, but the idea that somehow this little movie just in 90 minutes gets someone from assuming that Satanists are evil to thinking they might want to be one is pretty gratifying.”

However, there are some very grave issues associated with this film.  Everyone in the film, by virtue of being a part of it, will be forever marked by it.  Members of the group receive death threats and Lane lightly added that she has as well.  She also remarked that the religious Twitter buzz from the Catholic and Evangelical press is quite angry, but as the film has only had a handful of screenings only at Sundance, these groups have judged the film and Lane without having seen it.  She said, “It’s all extremely predictable.”

Taking on an unpopular topic takes courage as Lane pitched her idea to Magnolia Pictures who funded the film and ironically will be releasing it Easter weekend. Topic education was a necessity as it was met with skepticism, but Lane takes this reluctance as a vote of confidence as it affirms that she is pushing the envelope of genuine creativity.  Her confidence fuels her, particularly as a female in this industry. She said, “You cannot expect anyone to believe in you. You have to believe in yourself long before anyone else does [and] that’s very hard work.” She continued, “So if you want to make films that are genuinely new, you will get pushback. That’s not a sign that you’re doing something wrong, that a very good sign.” The final sign is the question mark in the title. Lane said, “That’s an invitation!”  

Watch for the release of the film in April, 2019.

© Pamela Powell (2/11/19) FF2 Media

PHOTO CREDIT: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

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