Take One: Master’s Program for Christians at Regent University
By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Barbara Nicolosi has been actively training Christians who work in the film industry in Hollywood for the past twenty-three years. In August 2020, she saw the theatrical release of a script she wrote – Fatima.
Now, for the first time, Christians can learn the art of screenwriting tailored specifically to tell our story through a MA screenwriting program Barbara has created. Regent University is hosting the program which is set to begin in January 2022. Barbara Nicolosi spoke with Vatican News about why such a program is necessary for Christians and what the program has to offer.
Why screenwriting for Christians?
In answer to that question, Barbara says, “Storytelling is one of the most powerful mediums to have people confront themselves, to look at the world. So much is connected to story – our definition of heroes, our sense of what our values are. It makes no sense that Christians wouldn't have a prominent voice in that conversation. But the problem has been that the medium today that's the most beloved and popular and successful – film, cinema – is very complex. And sadly, Christians have lagged behind in learning how to exploit those complexities for the stories we want to tell”.
After working in Hollywood, both as a screenwriter and as the director of Act One, Barbara discovered that a “long-term foundational training program” was necessary. “You can’t take for granted”, Barbara explains, “that just because someone is a committed Christian, that they will also have … a philosophical understanding of where we are as a culture right now and what the problems indicate, and then the symptoms, and then what remedies would be in terms of story…. I needed a longer time with my writers”.
That’s what brought Barbara to the point of “creating a graduate-level program at a real university where I'd have infrastructure”.
About Regent University’s film program
The MFA or MA program in screenwriting is set to begin in January 2022. Students can attend either completely online or on campus. There are perks to those who choose to attend the program on campus, however. Like – “a $35 million film building here, sound stage studio, green screen cameras, we have 117 cameras. We can put you right in the middle of producing stuff here”, Barbara says.
In addition to providing the equipment, Barbara’s screenwriting component is “philosophically smart”, she says. “At the same time, its rigorous”. She has recruited five professionals from Hollywood to form part of the faculty, including screenwriters and television writers. “I don't know too many other programs out there in Christendom that offer that same thing”, she states.
Regent University, a prominent, non-denominational, evangelical school provides a Christian atmosphere for students as well. Catholics, however, will also feel at home, Barbara assures. “There are a lot of Catholics here. Two of my direct Deans right over me are both Catholic. Pat Robertson's wife is a Catholic. So, we have Mass here on campus. It's a very welcoming community for people who are serious about Christianity, regardless of denomination”.
Back to the classics or to the future?
The golden age of Catholic cinema brings back so many memories from Baby Boomers to Generation Xers: Bing Crosby, Jennifer Jones’ Oscar for her role in The Song of Bernadette, Ben The Ten Commandments, and the list goes on and on. When asked if she hopes to recover the height of success those films garnered, Barbara replies, “The Bing Crosby days, I think, are gone. That kind of film came out of a whole cultural and societal culture, as well as an ecclesial culture. It was a less cynical time and it was a less complex time in a lot of ways than where we are”.
‘Whopping good stories’
But, “It's doable. We can do it”, Barbara insists. She herself saw the theatrical release of Fatima, a film she wrote the script for. “But even that movie doesn't look like the Bells of St. Mary's. Today's audiences want a lot more psychological complexity. The first thing we really need is going to be people with talent and training who know how to do it. We need people who[m] God has gifted and who can then actually a tell a good story, tell a whopping good tale at the level of complexity where the industry is now. And if you write a script like the Bells of St. Mary's, it’s just not going to even play because the audience is so much more complex, the medium is so much more complex. It's not where the medium is right now. And so, I deal with Catholics all the time…writing a movie for sixty years ago. We need you to write a movie for today. But we need to be training people now to be making movies five, ten years from now”.
The vocation of a storyteller
The curriculum Barbara has now created comes on the heels of her experience training Christians for Hollywood through the Act One program she founded in 1999. This program was designed to train, as well as to mentor, Christians aspiring to become film producers, screenwriters and directors. Over the years, she realized that working with people who were already professionals was too late in the process. “We would give them the technical skills, but they would go, and they would lose themselves spiritually”.
A different type of training was needed, training that Barbara has built into her new program based on what she calls “vocational spirituality”. Her prior training with the Daughters of St Paul , founded by Blessed James Alberione, “played a huge part in creating these classes for writers”, Barbara explains. The “media spirituality” she was steeped in while she was a member of this community of women religious taught her “how to use the media and how to think of it as a means to holiness”.
‘When you come out, you’ll be ready’
“I have two classes: ‘Christian artist: mission and vision’, and another one ‘Screenwriting as vocation’. It’s all about the specific spiritual challenges of working as a storyteller, both in terms of the creativity itself – we use John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, we use Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners, we use Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking Water – and what are the particular challenges of trying to be creative and trying to be a storyteller – depression, insufficiency, isolation, all these things. And then you take it to the business side and going into a highly secular sphere, what are the challenges there? And how do I prepare for those? How do I see those as God inviting me to go deeper and become more configured to Him in this weird world because that's the truth – if God's given you this gift, then you're meant to become holy by using it”.
Accompanying the vocational element is “rigorous training in beauty and the beautiful and what beauty looks like not just in the movie hole, but all the different elements – in dialogue writing, in cinematography, in character creation, in plot – all these have a beautiful aspect and you have to know what that is in order to execute”.
“So, rigor, smartness, spirituality—we’ll put you through your paces. But when you come out, you’ll be ready”, she concludes.