With her curious mind and sharp wit, Penny Lane has made a name for herself in documentary filmmaking with critically acclaimed films such as Nuts! and Our Nixon. Her latest feature, Hail Satan?, is a humorous and stirring portrait of the role of The Satanic Temple in the country’s political arena.
Our own Brian Thompson had the pleasure of sitting down with Lane to talk about her slick, new film.
TYF: Thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Lane: No problem! Thank you for doing this.
Congratulations on the film. One of the things that has really impressed me about your work, not just this film, is how you are able to get at some uncomfortable truths while still framing the narrative in a way that’s really funny. Why is humor important to you as a storytelling device?
Well, you may have noticed that when you laugh, you can physically feel yourself opening up. You sort of open up to new ideas. You open up to new people, you know? So, I think humor is a very under-theorized tool of social change, you know what I mean? To be very clear, this is a funny subject. So, it’s not like I was like, “How do I bring humor to The Satanic Temple?” But at the same time, knowing that the humor element of it would only be a great secret weapon and the utterly subversive nature of the project was a good match.
That was certainly my experience. I’m originally from Arkansas, so I had followed some of this stuff.
Hey, we’re opening in Little Rock soon!
That’s great. Just this past week, I saw that the film played at festivals in Atlanta and Chattanooga. Have you found that the response to the film has been any different when it plays in the Bible Belt?
Yeah, it’s totally better in the Bible Belt. It’s so much better. You know, New York, Chicago, L.A. — look, the movie’s been very well-received everywhere, but the tenor of the response in places where the theocratic impulse has been more effectively instantiated in their governments is much more extreme, right? So, it’s much more cathartic laughter in Chattanooga and Atlanta. Because if you’re a lifelong New Yorker or something, you can look at a figure like Jason Rapert and sort of think he’s a bumpkin or something. You almost might feel like you’re laughing down at him. But if he’s making fucking laws that govern your actual life, it’s a whole other story.
Religion can be a very touchy subject. Have you received any blowback from religious or political groups?
Not yet. Not worth mentioning, in the sense that it’s just average nutty people on the internet who can’t spell. And everything I’ve ever made I’ve had people coming after me with that type of response anyway. Those people aren’t worth mentioning. Nobody in person and nobody in real life, not yet. Maybe never, we’ll see. It might just be as self-selecting as it seems. But again, it’s not out yet. So, let’s find out when it’s out in theaters.
What has it been like moving from primarily using archival footage to also conducting on-camera interviews?
Interviews I felt very comfortable doing. It was more the going out into the world with a camera and capturing reality as it unfolds that was new for me. That’s the thing that I had never done. And it was a combination of awful and cool. There’s a reason I never did it before. The challenges that are associated with it are just kinda less interesting to me. Like, “How are you going to get access to this public space?” or whatever. My producer took care of all that stuff, so I never had to learn any of it, which was great. And it made me feel really happy to realize that, even though I learned a lot and I made a lot of mistakes along the way, at the end of the day, being a good director is the same no matter what situation you’re in and I was fine. I was so scared, like, “You don’t know how to do that!” but yeah, you do. It’s not that complicated.
Ninety minutes feel like such a short time to tell the story of this movement, and I’m sure a lot of great stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. Was there any particular narrative thread that you were a bit sad to see not make it into the final cut?
There was so much great stuff! I would say two things that were felt as a huge loss — no, three things! One was really getting into the sort of Satanic Reformation, this moment where The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple are each representing very different takes on what modern Satanism is. There’s a huge amount of continuity in the Satanic philosophy as laid out by Anton LaVey in 1966 and what The Satanic Temple is doing now. Mostly continuity, I would say. But then the breaks in terms of what is different and how The Church of Satan now hates The Satanic Temple and they say they’re not really Satanists. Because they’re basically Ayn Rand type of people. “Might is right,” you know? “The cream will rise to the top.” Social Darwinism. Like, that’s kind of their thing. So for, The Satanic Temple to come along and take a lot of Satanism as explained by them and then add, like, “No, that’s all wrong. That Social Darwinism part is stupid and incorrect and science doesn’t support that after all. And we should all be more collaborative, more communal, more equal.” But as you can see, it’s a long topic and that’s why we didn’t get into it.
And then I also initially thought that probably the Satanic Panic would have been a bigger part of the movie. It ended up being one scene.
Why is that?
Because it’s huge! It’s a huge topic and it’s utterly fascinating. Full of crazy stories, full of shocking, jaw-dropping events. And it hasn’t really been dealt with by our culture. We just haven’t fully come to terms with just how terribly awry we went in the 80s and 90s and how many thousands of people had their lives destroyed. And to this day, how many people still believe that there were these Satanic cults running around doing all these terrible things. It just hasn’t been dealt with yet. So, I was disappointed that we couldn’t jam more of that in.
And then, ultimately, the third thing would be just kind of really wanting to connect the dots a little more for people to understand that what’s going on at the Phoenix City Council and in Little Rock at the State Capitol with the Ten Commandments and in Missouri with the anti-abortion laws — that they’re all actually deeply connected. And they’re actually very much a part of — I mean, this is not a paranoid conspiracy theory. These are actually all part of a well-funded, well-organized conservative lobbying effort that’s been going on now for 50 years — the highest levels of government — to instantiate a Christian, nationalist agenda at every level of government in every way they can. And again, in a longer movie, we could have maybe helped to push that story a little further. We kind of hint at it and then hope people will look it up.
In that vein, you discuss the evangelical right, but, for the most part, you stay away from contextualizing this story within the current presidential administration. Why did you choose to leave Trump out of it?
We had him in, we had him out. We had him in, we had him out. And then it was just like, ugh, he just sucked up all the air in the room. And he’s a distraction. When it comes to the Christian nationalist story in America, Donald Trump is not actually an important part of it. He’s a willing participant, but it’s not like his goal was to get into office and make us a Christian nation, you know what I mean? If it was, he’d be in the movie. Mike Pence gets a little cameo, because that really is his goal. Trump is a different story altogether.
Throughout the film, you seem more like a fan of the movement than an investigative journalist. Was that how you wanted to come across?
Yeah, I’m not an investigative journalist. And I’m not sure what to investigate. Like, I suppose another filmmaker could have done a story about “How do the finances of the Satanic Temple work? How many t-shirts do they have to sell to hire a lawyer?” Not that it’s not interesting or important, but when you compare it to what they’re doing, it’s less interesting. But I am a fan. I was very inspired by these people. I felt that my goal was to take this group of people who are fighting for all of us everyday with their lives on the line, reputations and actual lives on the line. And they’re out there fighting for the constitutional values that make this country worth living in, for all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what our religion is. And I wanted to elevate them to the heroic status that I thought they really were in. Typically, they get nothing for this work but hatred and death threats. Gentle mockery seems to be the best they can hope for. But I just took them really seriously and I think they deserve to be taken seriously because I think that they have an extremely coherent and well thought out worldview that is an interesting attempt to solve and reconcile conflicts that are at the heart of the American project in modernity. We have to deal with these things, you know? We can’t just keep going saying we are both a Christian nation and not. We have to deal with these contradictions.
Also, I just thought, even on a more general level, that the personality type is an underappreciated role in society. Like, the people that are willing to be the outsiders, the skeptics, the heretics. Every community has one person who’s like, “Well, I don’t know, guys. What about this?” Those people who can’t go along with the program. The minute any kind of consensus is reached, they have to rebel. I think that’s a really important role, and most of the time we don’t like those people. We think they’re annoying. Because everyone says they’re a rebel and says they care about these important values and everyone says that they want to stand up for what’s right, but really at the end of the day, 99% of us just want to get along with people and get to the next day. Most people are not willing to take on the mantle of the Satanist.
Right, well so many people are going to see this movie and say, “Here are my people.”
People do say that, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that over the past few months. I think they’re going to think about it for about ten more minutes and realize they’re not willing to take that on. Are you really willing to be a Satanist? Think about your real life. Do you really want to have to talk about this with your mother? Do you really want to worry about what people at your kid’s school are going to think if you’re wearing the pentagram? Almost nobody is willing to do that.
Yeah, I don’t know that you’re converting anyone, but you’re certainly building an alliance.
Right, I think many people who don’t know it are aligned with The Satanic Temple and that’s great. But I think very few people actually want to be Satanists. They just temporarily think they do.
Have you kept up with The Satanic Temple? Have they received a wave of new interest since the film started having screenings?
Oh, yeah. They’ve had pretty consistent steady growth from the beginning, but I think the film is bringing them to a whole new population of people, which is very cool. And they’re all figuring out how they’re going to handle all the new attention.
Hail Satan? opens theatrically April 19th.