SATANIC PANIC: Q&A With Director Penny Lane



Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Recently Phawker had the opportunity to chat with documentarian Penny Lane, whose strangely feel good portrait of The Satanic Temple, Hail Satan? opens in Philadelphia this week. Lane got her big break with her oddly humane and hilarious political portrait Our Nixon, which was comprised of Super 8 home movies confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation. It’s this intimate portrait of Richard Nixon that really set the bar for the Lane’s cinematic style going forward. After Nixon, she tackled John Romulus Brinkley, a doctor who attempted to cure impotence via goat testicle transplantation, and after that she made Just Add Water, arguably the darkest doc you will ever see on Sea Monkeys. For Hail Satan? she once again combines new and archival footage, to present the very humble beginnings of the Satanic Temple, which evolved from simply trolling local elections in Halloween costumes to lobbying on behalf of women’s reproductive rights and championing the first amendment. It was a pleasure to discuss Penny’s latest, as she tackles her approach to her subjects and some of the themes in the film such as tolerance and religious pluralism in our current political climate and even our own personal theologies.

PHAWKER: So, you often pick interesting subjects for your docs. How did you land on the Satanic Temple?

PENNY LANE: I first heard about the Satanic Temple, just like a lot of people did, through various ultra-entertaining headlines. Mostly at that point around Baphomet, like Baphomet had just had a big success in Oklahoma at the time that I sort of first heard about them. But I was also hearing some things about their reproductive rights lawsuit in Missouri at that point. So, I was like, sort of just interested. It was an amazing story, I was like, this is interesting, I think I’ll look into it? It became more and more interesting the more I looked into it, which is usually the opposite of what happens when I look into something as a potential subject of a film, you know? So, you’re looking for something that you think the more I look at this, the weirder it gets.

PHAWKER: Yeah, just like your sea monkeys doc. Which was like, wow, that went dark!

PENNY LANE: Yes. The more you look at it the more interesting it gets.

PHAWKER: That brings me to my next question. How long were you in production? Because you had footage of them even before their first appearance, did they already have that shot?

PENNY LANE: Yeah, so I would say the story is like six years long. I showed up year three. So, a lot of what you see, especially in the first third of the film is archival. So, it’s like personal archival from various members of the Temple or it’s like local news footage or its stuff we ended up licensing from other news outlets that were around at the time. Yeah, so we create the impression that we were there all along, but we really weren’t.

PHAWKER: It does a great job at doing of giving you that impression that you were there from the inception.

PENNY LANE: Thank you. Yeah, I wasn’t really expecting it. I think my cinematographer was like ‘people are gonna think I filmed this and it’s bad.’ I was like, I don’t think anyone’s going to notice, it’s fine.

PHAWKER: No, I didn’t notice. In fact, it’s the rare documentary where you really get a complete picture. You see it from beginning to where it is now, which normally you kind of start out in the middle and then you have to play catch up with interviews. Whereas this one you get to see the awkward steps of the organization in the beginning.

PENNY LANE: Yeah, it’s exactly the issue with documentaries that I always tell my students: in a narrative zone film, you’re writing the story out in this screen play and you start with everyday life before things start, and then you show the inciting incident. But in a documentary you’re never there for that, like almost never because by the time you get interested, the inciting incident is in the past. So, you’ve missed the whole beginning of the story, you’re totally right. When we realized they had filmed so much before and around the Rick Scott rally, I like lost my mind with joy because that is exactly the kind of stuff that you never get to see in the documentary.

PHAWKER: Yeah, because you get to see Lucien Greaves kind of come from the background into the foreground with that appearance.

PENNY LANE: It’s so good. Yeah, I love it.

PHAWKER: While the doc does kind of flirt with some of the more ridiculous members of the Satanic Temple, when did you know this was going to be more about political activism than focusing on the kitsch-ier aspects, which would also have made an interesting doc as well.

PENNY LANE: Well, I think that the sum total of the doc you described might be 20 minutes in length — it’s a bit of a kind of one liner. Oh, like ‘People look how scared people are of Satanists! Ha Ha. Like religious tolerance. Blah, blah, whatever.’ I think that the first layer of interest for me was how effective this political activist strategy really was. I was like ‘This is really clever.’ So that kind of made me think that there was more to look at. But then the ultimate kicker for me — and I still don’t know if that would have been enough to be a feature length doc, to be honest — was really to understand that the Satanic Temple was not just making fun of religious people, but that they were themselves religious people who were engaged in a process of redefining what religion could be going into the future. And I was like, ‘Now, that’s a feature length story.’

PHAWKER: Given how media savvy the Satanists are, were you ever worried about them sort of coming off as insincere or that you were possibly being trolled by them as well?

PENNY LANE: I would say at the very, very beginning, my producer and I kind of joked around nervously that maybe, we were pawns in their bigger story. But honestly that fear went away pretty quickly. I just felt like it was just very clear from the beginning, that as far as where I was as an artist and a filmmaker and what they were up to, there was so much synchronicity and so much mutual respect. There was no lying or deception and everyone was being very honest and it felt very clear to me that was the case.

PHAWKER: Do you think you got lucky with Lucien as the voice of the Satanic Temple? Because the more you watch him on screen, the more sincere he comes off and he’s a really great spokesperson. Stereotypically you’d probably expect a maniac to be in charge of a group like this and he always seems very thoughtful, and sincere when discussing his views or those he doesn’t agree with.

PENNY LANE: Yeah, exactly. I mean I am not sure I got lucky. It was more like we met him in person a few times before we committed to making this film. So you sort of had a sense of how he might come across in the film, which was very serious. He’s a very serious person and also a little bit goofy and just really smart and knows this stuff. People really have no choice but to respect him on some level because he’s really serious and obviously really sincere. He’s not just like a troll, you know? He didn’t even smile that much. I think if he was just a troll, he’d be laughing a lot more.

PHAWKER: I mean, I’m a Christian, and I pretty much agreed with everything he was saying. It all made sense to me about fighting for religious pluralism and everybody being able to have their voice heard. America is supposed to be a melting pot and a country compromised of immigrants so it makes sense that should be better reflected if we are going to mix church and state.

PENNY LANE: Yeah, exactly. So you don’t have to be Satanist or to be on board with Satanic religious thought to be on onboard with their mission. It’s making America be true to its word. Are we who we say we are, or not? We can change our minds if we really do want to be a Christian nation. That’s fine, too. But we can be honest about it.

PHAWKER: Exactly. So that leads me to my next question. Do you think Trump and his sort of weaponizing of Christianity makes the doc’s message even more urgent than ever right now?

PENNY LANE: Yeah, no doubt, Trump makes everything more urgent, right? Like it’s kind of intense. I mean I think we had someone who is the chief executive of the nation who clearly has no idea what the first amendment says or just doesn’t care? That’s very troubling. Hopefully he’ll be gone soon and this will all be a weird footnote in our long and illustrious history. I mean Mike Pence as his VP, you know Mike Pence is like essentially, openly a theocrat by nature. He would really like to see the Bible replace the Constitution. Everything’s a lot more in intense right now. There’s no doubt.

PHAWKER: You really echo that message when you have a white man, who’s a member of the Satanic Temple, say he’s never known discrimination in his life until he was a member, which was really profound to me. It was the best way you could have illustrated this point of discrimination in our country by using someone that has ultimate privilege admit to finally understanding what discrimination is like.

PENNY LANE: Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s the case for a lot of the Satanists, many of them are attracted to the topic or to that group for the same reasons that a lot of people are. ‘Oh, this is funny, this is smart. You know, it’s clever, I get it.’ But then once they get involved, they haven’t had an experience like this where they’re willingly taking on the identity of the outsider, the most hated kind of outsider you can be. It’s like a real wake up call to them about what it’s really like to be an outsider. What it’s really like to be a minority.

PHAWKER: And that’s something you really can’t explain to somebody. It’s something they have to experience firsthand for their eyes to be really opened.

PENNY LANE: I agree.

PHAWKER: Has Trump’s election helped increase their membership?

PENNY LANE: Yeah. Actually Lucien said that like literally right after the election their membership spiked. Also, in a lot of the interviews that I did with people, they mentioned Trump’s election as a pretty important factor in their decision to go ahead and join the group.

PHAWKER: I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of people because documentaries are really big right now thanks to Netflix. But there are all kind of these stories of human suffering. This doc is like the first feel good doc I’ve seen this year and I keep urging people to see it because it does leave you with a sense of hope at the end. Was that your intent from the get go?

PENNY LANE: It kind of blew my mind, when we are getting into this final stage of the edit and we started doing test screenings. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, did I make an inspiring, uplifting, feel good movie about Satanism?’ It was just as much of a surprise to me as it was anyone else. You know, and I do think it’s a huge challenge in terms of marketing the movie because I think people are going to be like, ‘Wait, what do you mean? I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ Well, you’ll have to see it to find out, I guess.

PHAWKER: On the flip side of that though, it could be almost be viewed as propaganda and that came up when some friends and I were discussing it afterwards. The documentary just works so well that one friend literally went out of the theater and signed up to be a member.

PENNY LANE: It’s kind of mind blowing. I think the reason that it speaks to so many people is that we understand that religion is actually a really important part of human nature. It seems to be the case that people are religious by default and that we need this kind of narrative cohesion. We need group membership and we need art and moral rules, and all these things. It’s just something that’s going to be more and more of a problem in this world that we have these secular values that are about scientific rationalism and all the things that are supposed to come from The Enlightenment. Those two things are in conflict and have been for hundreds of years. No big surprise, but this dream that many atheists have that ‘the world would be so much better once everyone just let go of the idea of religion, once we just stop being religious, everything will be great.’ It’s not a good idea and it doesn’t seem to work at all. The kind of like prolific tribalism that we see in our world today is not going anywhere and we have to figure it out. It’s not that like most people are going to pick Satanism as their solution personally, but it is a really interesting attempt to solve that problem.

PHAWKER: You have to fill that void in people’s lives.

PENNY LANE: Exactly. And that’s how I felt as an atheist. Like my whole life, I’ve always been anti group, you know? Kind of just very suspicious of any kind of group membership and always felt like I’m a skeptic. I’m a heretic. I mean I’m the person who is on the outside of all this stuff and it’s an incredibly long way and not actually an easy way to live. So, it kind of inspired me to ask ‘What kind of group would I want to join?’ It offers up a really interesting possibility to a lot of people. I think a lot of people respond to this film in that way. Like on some level they feel like I do. Like they secretly have been needing and longing for religion their whole lives and haven’t found it yet.

PHAWKER: What kind of impact did the film have on you personally once you wrapped production? Did you join the Satanic Temple?

PENNY LANE: I did join the Satanic Temple, but I think of myself as more like an ally than to say I am a Satanist, myself. I think there are a lot of people that join the Satanic Temple who think of themselves that way. I think I’m Satanically-aligned, but I don’t think that the Satanic Temple or State religion in general provide my solutions. So, I’m kind of still searching. I would say the whole process did make me realize how important religion is and it did make me want to think about that in my own life.