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In 1995, Gazowsky launched a variety show called WYSIWYG that aired over several small local stations and tried to make it more entertaining than the usual preacher-at-the-pulpit religious programming. He showed music videos (even -- shockingly enough -- some secular ones) and original comedy sketches based on biblical parables. He now admits the sketches were atrocious. "We didn't get funny right," Gazowsky says.
Pentecostals are comfortable with the idea that believers can receive personal messages from God. Later that year, Gazowsky received a very long one while praying on top of a mountain in Palm Springs.
"You will smite the Earth with seven arrows," Gazowsky remembers the Lord telling him. "These seven arrows are seven Christian television networks that will be launched simultaneously over the direct broadcast satellite system." God also told Gazowsky that he was to make "47 film projects a year," the first four of which would be feature films "for movie theaters" that would later be shown on the seven channels. Gazowsky's prophecy was confirmed a few weeks later when a visiting Swedish hockey player attended a service at VOP and "out of the blue" (according to Gazowsky) said that the Lord wanted Gazowsky to work in television.
Gazowsky incorporated WYSIWYG and leased a crumbling television studio in downtown San Francisco, from which he would broadcast the shows WYSIWYG planned to make. Gazowsky and family sold their house and slept in hotels so they could pump money into the venture, anticipating a multimillion-dollar investment from a donor in Texas whom Gazowsky refuses to name. But before a single show could be produced, Gazowsky says, the investor's check bounced.
Gazowsky, his wife, and their son and two daughters, then aged 10, 11, and 14, hit the road in the family Ford to raise money to pay off creditors. For two years, they slept in the homes of good Samaritans across the country, while Gazowsky asked for donations during local church services.
Four years later, Gazowsky had finally managed to pull VOP, WYSIWYG, and his own family back into the black. But rather than let the WYSIWYG dream die, he just shifted his efforts to the films part of the prophecy. "Movies take a tremendous amount of work, but there's some downtime, unlike TV," explains Doug Lanza, WYSIWYG's accountant and VOP's musical director.
In 1999, even though it had yet to release a film of its own, WYSIWYG started holding its Christian version of a Sundance Film Festival. The WYSIWYG Film Festival, which began at a time when there were few events like it for Christian filmmakers, has been a success. Last year's drew more than 900 people.
Meanwhile, WYSIWYG solicited donations from VOP's congregation and built a modest movie studio at the church. The film company also started an unaccredited "university" to teach college-age kids and adults basic filmmaking techniques. Instead of moving away and going to college when they graduated from VOP's K-12 church school, Gazowsky's children stayed at home and began working full time on the films. His wife, Sandy, and his middle daughter, Misty Dejavu, 21, sew all the costumes. (Misty's whimsical name is a reference to her birth: She emerged from the womb covered as her grandmother had been -- thus, Dejavu -- by the caul membrane, which made her look "misty.") Her sister, 24-year-old Rocki Starr, acts, sings in, and scores the films. Her brother, 20-year-old Sunny, works as a camera grip and choreographs fight scenes.
WYSIWYG's most recently completed film, The Roman Trilogy, is a drama about the life of the Apostle Paul while he was imprisoned in Emperor Nero's castle. It features Associate Pastor Chris Rossetti as Nero, Rocki Starr as the biblical scribe's harlot handmaiden, and Sunny as Nero's brother, Brittanicus.
Though the production values are impressive (including a digitally rendered fight scene, à la The Lord of the Rings, in which humans battle spectral soldiers), The Roman Trilogy does not appear to be the work of a great talent. The acting is stilted. Characters pause patiently when the script calls for one to interrupt another. Every scene is lit in half-shadow. Music swells dramatically through much of the film, yet the story never builds to a climax.
Plans to make two other movies to complete the "Trilogy" have been put on hold. (I had to plead before WYSIWYG would let me view The Roman Trilogy.) "[The Lord of the Ringsdirector] Peter Jackson made two movies he's embarrassed about," says Gazowsky good-naturedly.
Still, WYSIWYG is determined to take its filmmaking operation to the next level with Gravity. In addition to a cast of thousands of actors and a setting in the sci-fi future, the company wants the film to have state-of-the-art production values. WYSIWYG has commissioned a super-high-resolution digital camera from a company that develops such technology for the military. To finance the purchase, the Gazowskys have again sold their house, and Richard Gazowsky, his wife, and their now-grown children are living with Gazowsky's mother.
Christians have long used movies as a way to spread the Gospel. Brice Fennig, executive director of International Christian Visual Media, a trade organization for the Christian film industry, estimates that there are hundreds of independent Christian production companies operating in the United States, ranging, he says, from one-man shops to multimillion-dollar operations. Traditionally, though, Christian films have been low-budget affairs distributed well below the radar of mainstream Hollywood.
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