10 Q’s With Paul Asay
Author and Writer/Movie Reviewer for Plugged In
1. Can you explain how your movie reviewing process works?
Depending on the movie, it can begin well before we even see it. We might do a little bit of research on what the movie is about or, as was the case with The Hunger Games, we’ll brush up on the books before we go. We usually have a pretty good idea of what sort of film we’ll be seeing before we see it. And if we know a movie is going to be pretty harsh, we pray for a little spiritual protection before we even enter the theater. Once there, we’ll take some pretty copious notes. Some of my fellow reviewers use a regular pen and a tiny flashlight, but I use a really cool light-up pen that shines a sliver of green light across my notebooks. We count the obligatory profanities and document all the other problematic content, as well as snag as many relevant quotes as we can. We never really have a chance to sit back and enjoy a movie like regular people. But we still are often moved by them regardless. But maybe the most important element of reviewing a movie actually happens after the credits roll. The next morning, we tend to talk about what we saw. Through that process of talking—and for me, through writing—we’re able to really drill down to what the movie is about. What was good and worthy, what was back and icky, how we felt about it, and what we need to say about it.
2. What are several movies you’ve had to review that made you want to quit your job?
I’m a bit of an odd duck in my department. I sometimes like watching bad movies as much as I like watching the good ones. (Bad movies can make for really fun movie reviews.) Still, there have been movies that made me feel like I was underpaid. A Haunted House 2 from earlier this year was miserable. Project X, which came out in 2012, might’ve been the least morally redemptive movie I’ve ever seen. There’ve been Transformers movies that had me praying a fire alarm would go off and we could all mercifully leave. I briefly thought about blinding myself while watching Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.
3. What are your three favorite movies of all time?
Another tricky question, actually: Schindler’s List might’ve been the best movie I’ve ever seen, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to watch it again. Let me dip into my childhood and say Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was about 12 when I saw it for the first time, and it was absolutely mesmerizing. For months, nay, years, I’d run around the house using a terrycloth bathrobe tie as a whip. A part of me turns 12 again whenever I rewatch the thing. I love the old classics, too. Singin’ in the Rain is a really fun movie—truly an all-ages gem. More recently, I was blown away by Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—a strange, artsy, and beautifully rendered meditation on life and death and God. Not a flick for everyone, I’d say, but it definitely hit home for me.
4. When reviewing a Christian movie, do you ever worry about how the public will respond if you aren’t a fan of the quality of the film?
Reviewing Christian movies can be tricky. Many readers will love any Christian film that supports their beliefs and theology, regardless of its artistic merit. Lots of folks believe that when films like, say, God’s Not Dead, aren’t considered shoo-ins for a Best Picture Oscar, it is proof of Hollywood’s anti-Christian bias. Honestly, we sometimes do review a Christian film more kindly than we would a secular film of equal quality—both because the messages can be so great and because, frankly, we know their heart is in the right place. And yet, we still have to be as truthful as we can be about not just the movie’s messages, but how well the movie conveys those messages. It’s a delicate task, and one we don’t always do as well as we should. But here’s the good news: Christian movies are getting better all the time. I see the improvement every year. Our Christian filmmakers still have a ways to go to equal Hollywood’s best, of course, but the gap is not so wide as it was.
5. You review all types of Hollywood movies for Plugged In. How do you deal with criticism from those who say you shouldn’t even be seeing certain movies?
Very carefully. Every month or so, we get a letter or e-mail from someone taking us to task for going to see R-rated movies. “You know they’re going to be horrible,” they say. “Why see them? Why expose yourself to all that gunk?” The short answer is pretty simple: We watch them because our readers watch them. National studies suggest that Christians actually go to R-rated fare slightly more frequently than secular moviegoers, and even our informal polls indicate that at least 80 percent of our readers have been known to see an R-rated film on occasion. It’s our job to talk into the lives of these folks—to let them know what they’re getting into, for better or for worse.
6. Do you have a go-to theater snack?
7. Your reviews for Plugged In have quick turnaround times. Do you have any advice for writers who face short and immediate deadlines?
Before I began reviewing movies, I spent some time as a sportswriter, where sometimes you were asked to turn around stories ten minutes after the game was done. Crazy pressure. The only way you could make deadline was to write the story as the game was going on; then, when you knew the final score, tack a paragraph or two up on the top and send it in.
Unfortunately, we can’t take laptops into movie screenings with us. But I do find myself “writing” as the movie runs. If someone says something particularly profound, I’ll make a note that it’d be just the thing to include in my conclusion. I’ll juggle words in the back of my brain, playing with possible puns or inane witticisms. On the way home, I often try to plot out my introduction.
Now, a lot of times all this planning seems to go for naught. I’ll get in front of my computer and realize all the great ideas I had driving around are actually complete garbage. But even just the process of thinking about the story—even if nothing really comes of all those thoughts—helps make the actual writing go more quickly.
8. Your book, God on the Streets of Gotham, examines what Batman can teach us about God and ourselves. Out of all of the superheroes, what was it about Batman that you found so appealing?
I loved the fact that, in a way, he’s like us. Oh, he has some advantages to be sure: Most of us were not born in a massive mansion with a convenient cave right underneath. But his bank account aside, he’s a self-made superhero—no superpowers to speak of, no extra boost of mutant power to get him going. He’s like us in another way, too: He’s flawed. He broods. He sulks. To paraphrase Bruce Wayne himself, anyone who dresses up like a bat is bound to have a few issues. And yet, despite those flaws and failings, he has his eyes set on a higher calling—just as all of us flawed sinners should. To me, that’s incredibly inspiring.
9. What is your favorite Batman (movie and actor)?
I really loved what Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy, and his masterpiece is unquestionably the middle movie, The Dark Knight. Batman Begins is more hopeful; The Dark Knight Rises is far more redemptive; and yet The Dark Knight plays with the fears I think we all wrestle with in our blackest of nights—that no matter how good we are, no matter how heroic we long to be, the universe is a cold and heartless place and the Joker really is, as he says, ahead of the curve. But ultimately, the message is still one of sacrifice, conviction, and hope.
But when it comes to my favorite Batman actor, I have to go with Adam West from the old 1960s TV show. Bam! Pow!
10. Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, Burning Bush 2.0?
One of the things I’ve always loved about my job is having the opportunity to search for meaning—God’s fingerprints, if you will—in unlikely places. As such I think we can sometimes find Him in pop culture—the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, the games we play.
The entertainment I deal with here isn’t perfect. In fact, sometimes it can be quite flawed. But God has used donkeys, fingers on the wall, and burning bushes to make His wishes known, and I think He can make use of our pop culture stories, too. It’s not an excuse for us to engage with everything I talk about . . . but if people do engage, there’s still some worth to find there.
It’s almost like the flip side of Philippians 4:8: At Plugged In, we encourage people to honor God with their entertainment choices—to engage with stuff that is honorable and pure and worthy. Burning Bush 2.0 suggests that, even in the context of our flawed and fallen pop culture, we can find and concentrate on messages that are also honorable and worthy.
All that sounds pretty heavy, but the book itself, I hope, is a pretty fun read. I know it was fun to write.