Bob the Tomato Quotes Plato

PHIL VISCHER

Phil Vischer is a man who usually lets his vegetables do the talking for him. But recently Vischer talked about his new movie, "Jonah," why Christians aren't funny and why PG movies might be better for your kids.


Was it a big decision which Bible story you'd use in your first movie?


Our fans always tell us they love our slightly "off-kilter" retellings of Bible stories, often described as "Monty Python meets Sunday School." And few stories in the Bible make kids' eyes light up like Jonah and the whale. We also felt the message of Jonah — about mercy and compassion, about second chances — was a message our world was in desperate need of hearing.

Some fans assumed our first movie would have its faith elements watered down to make it more broadly appealing, but we believe many Americans are ready to see faith expressed more openly in feature films. Plus, we want our fans to see we aren't afraid to stick to our convictions, even with much more money at risk.

The movie is coming out around the one-year anniversary of 9/11. How should viewers apply the message about mercy, compassion and second chances to the current world situation?

The first draft of the script and all the songs were completed in April 1999. I think as a culture we are in love with placing blame, figuring out who's responsible, and then making sure they pay. We see this both in our litigiousness—"Aah! Hot coffee! I'll sue!" — and in our taste in films, where we seem to love to see the bad guy get what he deserves. "Gladiator." "The Patriot." All the Lethal Weapon films. It's a fine line between Darth Maul and Osama bin Laden. They're bad guys. They need to pay.

But of course, the whole message of the Bible is that, even though we all ultimately have to admit we're "bad guys," God wants to pay our debt for us. He wants to wipe the slate clean. That's huge! The story of Jonah illustrates that principal powerfully. Jonah wants to see Ninevah pay for their sins. They're the bad guys, after all! But God wants to give them a second chance.

Is the new worm character Muslim?

He never reveals his belief system in the film, but his view of God as compassionate and merciful falls in line with a Judeo-Christian worldview. Considering that the story of Jonah took place at least 1,000 years before the birth of Mohammad and 500 years before the birth of Christ, I'd say he was most likely Jewish, eh?

By the way, are you a Monty Python fan?

Not an "I can quote the whole dead parrot sketch" caliber fan, but a fan nonetheless. Particularly Terry Gilliam's work, "Time Bandits," "Brazil," "Baron von Munchausen." Gilliam, the Coen brothers and Tim Burton would probably be my biggest cinematic influences.

Even the crucifixion scene in "Life of Brian," in which they all sing, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!" as they're hanging from crosses?

I thought it was pretty hilarious, but I was afraid to play it for my family. They were still mad at me for making them sit through Brazil.

Okay, so what do you have against Disney?

Nothing my p.r. people will let me put in print. Though all the major media companies are now motivated primarily by self-interest, which, in a business which is largely the trade of ideas, is a very dangerous thing. "Whoever tells the stories shapes society." — Plato

How will someone who is not a "Judeo-Christian" like this movie? Or the VeggieTales videos for that matter?

If you're trying to raise your kids to believe in God and to live by traditional Judeo-Christian values, you'll love VeggieTales and this movie. If you don't want your kids to learn these things, your entertainment options are plentiful.

Many conscientious parents feel that if they stick to G-rated movies, their kids will be fine. What's wrong with that approach?

Movies are never rated by values or beliefs promoted, only by usage of certain words and sexual or violent content. So ratings only tell part of the story. They won't tell whether a film will make your child more or less respectful, more or less hopeful about life, more or less open to the concept of a loving God or any other concept that you might be trying to reinforce at home.

At the end of the day, a G-rated film can still undermine values that are very important to you. And a PG film might support them wonderfully. Parents need to get to know the styles of different studios and different filmmakers, so they can start to predict the values and ideas that are likely to come from their stories. Or, when in doubt, see the film first and ask, "What will my kids learn from this?"

What's an example of a G-rated film that undermined important values?

We don't name competing projects in interviews, thank you very much. My point was this: my mom took my entire church youth group to see "Ordinary People," an R-rated film. Why? Because it had great things to say about family dysfunction and healing. But the MPAA doesn't track that stuff.

You've said that "the media channels are controlled by people who have no clue about the religious core of America." What do you mean?

In one notable incident from his book, "Hollywood vs. America," Michael Medved asked a major movie-studio head to estimate the percentage of Americans who went to a religious service every week. The exec estimated four percent. The reality, of course, is that more than 40 percent of Americans attend religious services four times per month or more. In any given month, more than 60 percent attend church at least once. Almost 7 out of 10 Americans consume some form of Christian media — books, music, radio or TV — in a given month. These statistics baffle most media executives, because they are completely outside of their experience. They don't go to church. No one they know goes to church. It's a foreign concept.

What has helped me speak about spiritual matters to a very large audience was growing up in one microculture, the conservative Christian community in the Midwest, and then working for seven years in video production and advertising in downtown Chicago, a very different microculture. I went from knowing no one who didn't go to church, to knowing no one who did. The experience of learning to communicate with both cultures was instrumental in crafting the voice and style of VeggieTales.

That brings up another question: how'd you get to be so funny? Why do you think Christian entertainment has had trouble developing a sense of humor?

For some reason, certain cultures seem to be funnier than others. Many of our funniest writers and performers come from the Jewish culture. The African-American culture also produces wildly funny people. White, middle-class Christian America doesn't. Canada manages to turn out some insanely funny white people, but we're not sure how they do it. We middle-American Christians tend to be insurance salesman and administrators. Very nice people, but not very funny people. Churches are typically not funny places. So when "church people" get together to write stories, they tend to be not very funny. Good Sunday School teachers do not necessarily make good stand-up comics or screenwriters.

Perhaps since [co-director] Mike [Nawrocki] and I went to Bible college in Minnesota, which is so close to Canada... nah. That couldn't be it. It's a fluke of nature, I guess. Like platypuses.

As you continue to grow, you'll be faced with temptations to get broader acceptance. Did I read somewhere that a network offered you a regular slot if you made VeggieTales less religious?

Early on, we had several distributors interested in general market rights if we made the shows less religious. Even though we really needed the money back then, we passed. We've had broadcasters pass on us because of the spiritual content as well.

Say Beliefnet runs a big article about Veggie Tales, with the headline, "Can VeggieTales Save America?" Or is it "Phil Vischer Beats Michael Eisner"?

I'd say the first one. VeggieTales is just the opening salvo from Big Idea. For the last thirty years or so the worldview presented by mainstream American media has been almost completely secular. Big Idea, perhaps more so than any other company, has an opportunity to help return a biblical worldview to the mainstream of the "collective American consciousness."

One last question: Why vegetables?

Back in 1991, "state-of-the-art" for computer animation was the Scrubbing Bubbles commercials, with simple little bubbles running around a bathroom. At that point it was impractical to attempt complex limbed characters. Hair, limbs and clothes were tripping up just about everyone. So, rather than waiting for technology develop further, I decided to develop characters that were limbless, bald and naked.

My first attempt was a candy bar. Then my wife walked by and said, "You know, moms are going to be mad at you if you make their kids fall in love with candy bars." The next thing that popped into my head was a cucumber. The rest, as they say, is history!

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Steven Waldman. "Bob the Tomato Quotes Plato." Beliefnet.com (October, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

THE AUTHOR

Steven Waldman is Editor-in-Chief of Beliefnet.com.

Copyright © 2002 Beliefnet.com


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