After several delays, Saved! finally hits theaters this Friday, May 28. The movie, depicting life at a Christian high school, stars Mandy Moore, whom Christians embraced a few years ago for her role in A Walk to Remember. But in Saved!, Moore plays Hillary Faye, an overzealous, self-righteous Christian. When her best friend Mary (Jena Malone) gets pregnant, Hillary launches into hellfire-and-brimstone mode, labeling Mary an outcast. Christianity Today Movies critic Stefan Ulstein and his wife, Jeanne, interviewed Saved! writer/director Brian Dannelly—product of a Catholic elementary school, Jewish summer camp, and a Christian High school—at the Seattle International Film Festival. Ulstein, who teaches a film class at nearby Bellevue Christian High School, was joined at the interview by Chelsea Hamilton, a Bellevue senior who, interestingly, thought Dannelly at times "nailed it" in his portrayal of Christian school culture.

Brian Dannelly (L) and others on the set of Saved!

Brian Dannelly (L) and others on the set of Saved!

Evangelical Christians are a pretty big group, but in Saved! you don't see that self-referential humor that you often see with Jewish or Catholic films.

Brian Dannelly: It's so funny because that's one of the current arguments that's going on. People are saying, "They should make a film about Jewish people in the same situation and see how they like it," but you know, Jewish people have a sense of humor about themselves. Well, I think Christians do have a sense of humor about themselves. I mean, you can't look at Jan on TBN … the one with the pink hair. I mean, there's stuff that's funny.

How do you expect Christians to react to the movie?

Dannelly: It's really interesting how different factions see it. The Chicago Sun-Times religion writer said the movie is a love letter to faith and it reminds us of how we ought to be. And Jerry Falwell said it's the most hateful movie about Christians that ever came out of Hollywood. Relevant magazine said it was a great movie and a great teaching tool for teens. So, it's the same movie but very, very different perceptions.

How does that affect you when you get attacked by someone like Falwell?

Dannelly: It's funny. A lot of people like it, but Falwell hates it! It doesn't exactly hurt, but you feel disappointed.

Did you test market the film to a particular target audience?

Dannelly: We had religious screenings. We invited anywhere from Buddhists, to Fundamentalists to Catholics.

How was their response?

Mandy Moore, Patrick Fugit, and Dannelly on the set

Mandy Moore, Patrick Fugit, and Dannelly on the set

Dannelly: The Fundamentalists are always the tricky ones. To me, a lot of the movie is about missing the message. Some are saying that Jesus tells Mary [Jena Malone] to have sex with her gay boyfriend, but it doesn't say that in the film. Jesus says, "Dean needs you now. You must do everything you can to help him." They're two very different takes on the film.

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I get some flack about Hillary Faye [Mandy Moore] crashing the van into the statue of Jesus, but it's in there for a reason. The kids start the film with this idea of what Jesus is, and at the end of the film they have to kind of tear that down and start over with the new information that they have gotten. When the head of the statue falls off, I wanted to have that moment of Hillary Fay just looking at it. You can think of it as this thing that she has created, or as it [the statue] looking at her saying, "Come on, Girl. Get it together."

[Laughs] I don't know what I was thinking when I made a film about teenagers and religion. But when I was researching it, I went undercover into some Christian teenage chat rooms, and I think I got a more honest sense of what these kids are going through. They go through the same thing everybody else goes through.

(Question from Chelsea Hamilton): As I watched the film, I thought you must have put a lot of your own experience into the film: "How did he do that? He just nailed it!" A lot of it was just how I felt a couple of years ago, before I was reborn in my faith.

Dannelly: Well, thank you. I tried really hard. Everything in the movie, I can tell you why it's there and where it came from. I went to a Christian high school and there was one Jewish girl. And there was one girl who got pregnant, and there was a pastor that was having an affair. But in the movie he doesn't have an affair, they just kiss.

When you observed those things in your Christian school, how did that affect your faith?

Dannelly: That's funny; nobody's asked me that question. When stuff like that happens, it feels like you've been lied to or cheated. Sort of like Tammy Faye Bakker. That's the obvious example, but you hold people up to such high ideals that the fall is really great, and then it makes you suspect everything else. So it felt really scandalous because the girl in my school was more like the Hillary Faye character: she was perfect, and then she got pregnant. I once heard about a Christian youth group that had the highest rate of either syphilis or gonorrhea ever, because they were all sleeping with each other.

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So, what's your take on all that—the pastor having an affair, the perfect girl gets pregnant, the youth group sleeping with each other?

Dannelly: My take is, honestly, Jesus loves you. You make mistakes. I think the point is to get through those mistakes. There's something shocking or scandalous about every character in the movie, and the thing is for you as an audience to ask, where do they go from here?

I don't know what will happen to Hillary Faye, or if Pastor Skip will ever go into that hotel room or what happens to Mary and Dean and the baby. They are all trying to reach an understanding of God. It's part of their journey, but they had to go through all of this other stuff.

Why did you leave the Christian school you attended?

Dannelly: For demerits. It was one of the strictest schools in the nation. You got a demerit if you didn't bring your red pen to school. So I got lots of demerits.

Faith is a journey. I'm always in conscious contact, even during a period when I didn't believe anything. You know what? I said I'm just not going to believe in anything. I'm going to start with personal responsibility and kindness. There's not going to be any reward system or punishment system. That's going to be my system. Not God. But when you're not believing in God, you're talking to him all the time! So it's a great journey.

Do you sense that you need to "define" your faith for the discussion about the movie, or do you just feel that the movie is the statement?

Dannelly: I have responded. I just did an hour and a half interview that was very, very personal. But I came out thinking: I'm a director. Is anyone asking John Hughes what his personal religious beliefs are? I understand there's a difference because I made a movie about faith, but it's very tricky.

Since this interview is for Christianity Today Movies, are you being more elusive about your faith journey?

Dannelly: I don't mind talking about the journey. I just don't want to be listed as this or that kind of a believer. That's our right as Americans. If this film does anything, I hope it will encourage dialogue about the journey.

I could see that someday, Christian schools will use this film in their curriculum to help explore the journey.

Dannelly: You know what? They won't. I'm talking about Fundamentalists. The stuff I read from them, I was really down. It was hard. The point of humor is that it opens you up and makes you look at yourself.

Do you think Fundamentalists may feel they are being ridiculed, so they can't watch the film without feeling that they are the joke?

Dannelly: At a screening, a Christian woman said she had a very hard time with the movie until the assembly scene, and then she thought, Oh, it's going to be okay.

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The part where Cassandra, the Jewish girl, begins speaking in tongues?

Dannelly: Yeah. If you can make it past that scene, you're going to be okay.

The humor is broader in the beginning, but it was very important that those characters became real. I love those characters. I loved the way that Mandy Moore handles that scene where she has to swear to God. She's being dishonest and she says, "There, are you happy?" But then later she says, "Do you think Jesus still loves me?" Roland [Macaulay Culkin] makes a joke but then he says, "Yeah, he does." I love that scene.

(Question from Chelsea Hamilton): When I was really angry and cynical a few years ago, I'd be in chapel and I could see through some of my friends. I was like, "What are you doing?"

Dannelly: Sure. I got "saved" a couple of times in my Christian high school just to be popular. It's a very slippery slope, especially when you have all these other things to contend with in high school, and this is your soul.

Was it your choice to go to the Christian school?

Dannelly: No. My parents were friends with the principal. I was more excited that it was a private school. But it was really fascinating. I was constantly getting spanked—in 10th grade! There was no dancing. For our prom, the entertainment was a puppet show. But in this movie, there's no difference really between the Christian world and the secular world. I would think it would be confusing as a young Christian to go to a Christian concert and you're not supposed to idolize, but you're screaming for the band. I just found that stuff confusing. But that's human nature I guess.

What do you wish people would ask you in these interviews that they don't ask?

Dannelly: These kinds of questions. I hate some of the questions I get like, "What was it like to work with Mandy Moore?" "This is your first film. Was it hard?" I want to say, "Hey, did you watch the film?" There's so many questions you could ask. I've never seen a film like this …

Neither have we. We have all these Left Behind kind of movies …

Dannelly: The Christian movies are so dorky. They're just so bad. I talked to one religious writer who said he hoped that Saved! would open the door to more of this kind of religious movie.

Did you expect this level of dialogue about the movie?

Dannelly: Not at all. I just saw a segment on CNN: Shrek 2 and Saved! That's just weird.

Do you wonder if all the buzz might boost ticket sales, like it did for Mel Gibson's The Passion?

Dannelly: Well, you wonder, but then again maybe they'll all protest it and nobody will go. Thinking about it will make you crazy. I'm just glad I made the movie and I'm glad that people are all talking about it.