‘Hail Satan?’: interview with documentary filmmaker Penny Lane

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“Hail Satan?” (2019) is not only an eye-catching title, the content is eye-opening! The upbeat, energetic, and talented documentary filmmaker Penny Lane gave Sundance audiences food for thought in this hilarious new film that reveals the truth about The Satanic Temple and our own country’s issues with separation of Church and State.

I had the opportunity to not only see this creative and provocative new film, but to sit down with Lane to find out her motivation in telling this story as well as what it’s like to be a female in the film industry. Her keen insight into documentary filmmaking and her newest subject connected me to her rebellious and intellectually humorous style.

PAMELA POWELL: I loved “Nuts!” (2016), which was bizarre and very educational, so I had to see “Hail Satan?” (2019). Why this particular topic?

Penny Lane, director of “Hail Satan?”

PENNY LANE: …my artistic personality has to do with belief. Like why do we believe the things we believe … and convincing people of things. I feel like it was only a matter of time before like a religious topic suggested itself to me as an interesting one.

POWELL: I hadn’t heard of this group before.

LANE: I kept seeing The Satanic Temple in the headlines, in my world. … I thought I understood what was going on. I thought it was like these brilliant, satirical trolling political activists making this really important political point about separation of Church and State, but also doing it in a way that had humor and performance so I was already interested. But … when I realized how much more there was to it, it obviously became a good film. … There are people for whom this is a religious identity.

POWELL: You must have done a lot of research prior to approaching Lucien Greaves (the founder of The Satanic Temple).

LANE: Tons. I think one of the reasons he was willing to work with me is that he had a sense that I had actually done some homework whereas a lot of documentarians had come knocking on his door and had immediately shown that they didn’t know what they were talking about and that they hadn’t bothered to do the most basic research. I do a lot. If anything, I suffer from over researching. … Why would a religion with those seven tenets which are such perfect enlightenment values … why is that tied to Satan? What I saw upon doing the research was a coherent worldview that made sense to me.

POWELL: Tell me about first speaking with Greaves.

LANE: I said that I felt that they deserved a more serious consideration than they were being given. … I also said to him, which later I realized was very important to him, … is that I had no interest in trying to make them look normal. And I think that he loved that because they don’t want to be normal.

POWELL: You have a wonderful comedic element to all of your films and somehow you stitch this serious story together with humor. It’s, to me, your artistic signature. Tell me about developing that.

LANE: …in art school, they tried to indoctrinate me into this idea that … a smart film had to be really serious. And a fun film was stupid. … Anything popular was obviously stupid. Anything that was accessible was selling out. I was like, that’s just not true! You can be smart and fun. [It’s] so much more work, but it’s possible. And it’s possible to make smart films that are accessible to the general public. People are not mindless sheep. People are intelligent if you treat your audience like they’re intelligent. … My goal was to prove that you could be a serious, intelligent artist and not always take yourself seriously all the time. I want people to have fun. I think it’s an underused tactic. Like my film, as you know, takes a typical audience member to overturn about, oh, I don’t know, like ten deeply held beliefs in ninety minutes. That’s hard to do. If you’re laughing it’s a little bit easier. You loosen up. And you’re more open.

POWELL: You sound like a bit of a rebel as well. What created that in you?

LANE: I have no idea!

POWELL: Were you always like that?

LANE: Yes! I remember in … third grade, having very unpopular opinions and expressing them and dealing with feeling like an outcast for [not liking] New Kids On The Block, which was the heresy of third grade. … I thought it was strange. I didn’t know why everyone was so upset with me for not liking New Kids On The Block. I don’t know, but that’s always been a part of my character.

POWELL: And now, pushing the boundaries in filmmaking is also a part of who you are.

LANE: When it came to doing my first feature, which was called “Our Nixon” (2013), it was an all-archival film. When I started pitching it, it was vaguely weird. People had never seen a film like that or most people hadn’t. And now, we’re at Sundance right now, I think there’s three or four all-archival films in the documentary competition and a few more in the premiere section. It’s now like normal. You have to somehow say, well I think it could work even if no one else does.

POWELL: What would you tell young women getting into this profession?

LANE: You cannot expect anyone to believe in you. You have to believe in yourself long before anyone else does. That’s very hard work. … 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.

POWELL: Do you feel like things have changed for women in filmmaking over the last couple of years?

LANE: I do think there’s been a big change in the environment … especially in positions of power and authority, the gatekeepers of the world, the financiers, the production companies that have actual resources. [They] are very keen to diversify, especially their director rosters. I’ve never experienced anything that felt like discrimination, but I’ve also noticed a very marked push in the other direction.

POWELL: Did you experience roadblocks with “Hail Satan?”

LANE: Imagine walking into your pitch meeting and explaining what your movie is about. “Well, it’s about the Satanists.” “Oh! Satanists are evil.” “Well, they’re not evil.” … There was a lot of education in the beginning and a lot of skepticism about what it was that I was trying to do, but that’s normal, by the way. When you’re trying to do something new, it’s always going to be met with skepticism. It doesn’t matter. … Everything that I do is like starting from scratch, trying to convince people that my weird idea is a good one.

This weird and brilliant film is set to be released by Magnolia Pictures on … are you ready? Easter weekend this year.

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