Hail Satan? has gotten more attention than any of the other four feature-length documentaries and 15 shorts directed by Penny Lane. While its very title and the fact that it’s a profile of the Satanic Temple are guaranteed to draw curious spectators, it opens a larger window into the intersection of religion and politics in American life.
The Satanic Temple formed six years ago as a Yes Men-style group of activists and developed into a genuine religious organization, although their version of Satanism doesn’t involve literal worship of Satan or belief in him (or any other supernatural figure.) With great wit, Hail Satan? depicts the Satanic Temple’s expansion from stunts like a “pink mass” on the grave of Westboro Baptist Church Minister Fred Phelps’ mother to a larger organization whose leader, Lucien Greaves, feels it needs to expel member Jex Blackmore after her hyperbolically violent rant about Donald Trump at a performance.
Lane’s other films show a wide range of interests and styles, from Richard Nixon to The Bachelor to women making YouTube vlogs about a mysterious disease they suffer from. Many of her shorts are online at vimeo.com/lennypane.
StudioDaily: How do you think Hail Satan? fits into the history of cultural depictions of Satanism?
Penny Lane: There’s never been a movie that accurately depicts Satanism before. I suppose there was one movie about the Church of Satan in the ’70s that did. It’s a weird interjection into a pretty settled concept about what a Satanist is and what they do that comes totally out of fiction and never had any relationship to reality whatsoever.
Your film Nuts! is about a con man. For the first two thirds, it puts forth his lies and then reveals the truth. You took a very public stand against the Tribeca Film Festival showing Vaxxed, an anti-vaccine documentary. How do you think documentaries can play a role in the current political climate where the left and right have alternate sources of truth and information?
I don’t know about documentaries as a whole, but for me, I’m always interested in confronting my viewer and challenging them to consider what makes them believe whatever it is they do. In the case of Nuts!, I wanted them to wonder, “What makes me think this is a miracle cure or this particular guy is a hero?” In this film, it has a lot more to do with what makes everyone so certain they know what a Satanist is when all their evidence comes from Hollywood movies and Geraldo. There aren’t any actual facts at the core of those beliefs. I definitely didn’t know what a Satanist was before I made this film. When you have a longform film as opposed to a quick-hit news piece, you can ask the viewer to think about these things as long as you’re entertained. This film asks the viewer to consider and maybe overturn a lot of beliefs they think are facts.
How long did the shoot last, and how much travel did it require?
We filmed for about a year, and we edited it concurrently. Boy, there was a lot of travel! We went to Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, Arkansas, New York City, L.A., Detroit, Chicago, and London. We had to. There’s one part of the story you get from talking to the leadership and another you get from the community level. It’s not these big sexy lawsuits that get Fox News outraged. The bulk of what they’re doing is adopting a highway and working at that micro-level.
You start out with home movie footage from the very early days of the Satanic Temple. I assume you didn’t shoot that yourself. How did you get access to it?
They were media-savvy enough that they filmed every step of the way, whether they were making YouTube videos or media packages. It was a bit of a hassle, but it just involved contacting people who were likely to have that stuff and negotiating permission. Luckily, there were a lot of people who had that stuff.
At the very beginning, it seems like they were just using Satanism as a way to troll people. You see someone going to a costume shop and buying a black robe. But at this point, Lucien Greaves has a fairly complex idea of what Satanism means.
At the beginning, there were three collaborators, who are in silhouette and using pseudonyms. They’re still involved, but they’re not the spokesman and they’re not Lucien Greaves. The point at which Greaves steps forward and assumes the role of spokesperson is the founding role of the organization. Then it has to become everything he believes and stands for, because his face is associated with it from then on. Before that, the three of them had overlapping but not identical goals. They all wanted to do political actions using Satanism to point out the hypocrisy of Christian lawmakers. But I would say there was not complete agreement among the founders about whether they really were Satanists. Lucien already was a Satanist at that point.
If you look at the founding of any religion, there’s a lot of chicanery. You could call miracles PR stunts. Joseph Smith pretended to discover magical plates in the woods. There’s always wacky lying at the beginning of every religion I’ve studied. I’m not surprised the Satanic Temple was similar, with attention-grabbing stunts. Then once people come to you, what do you have to offer? The Satanic Temple actually had a lot to offer. Most people come for the trolling and stay for the deeply held religious conviction. If you ask the question “Is the Satanic Temple kidding or are they a serious religion?,” the answer is both. Religious identity demands that negotiation between performance and authentic self. You put the clothes on, you eat the cracker. You have to perform. The complexity of that answer is the whole reason we made the movie.
You also use interviews with scholars like Kevin Kruse and Jay Wexler to provide background, as well as talking to Satanic Temple members about their memories of the Satanic panic. Was the film’s structure always planned, as far as inserting that information?
I think so. I would say we always knew we’d have some reference to the Satanic panic. We would always have a religious scholar and discussion of the history of religion, because we wanted to talk about whether the Satanic Temple meets the definition of a religion. That was not a definition I was qualified to answer. We had a lot more expert interviews we weren’t able to use. It ended up being a bulky film in terms of information.
In addition to your four features, you’ve made quite a few shorts. What do you think you’ve been able to express differently with them than your longer films?
First of all, they don’t cost anything, so you can just make something without having to raise money and ask for permission. I’ve been making shorts since 2002. It’s a space for experimentation. If you’re using someone else’s money, you can’t do that on the same scale. I don’t have a larger answer except that I like doing both and will continue to do both.
Out of all your films, my favorite is “Normal Appearances.” I really like the way the editing brings out the anxiety in the images from The Bachelor. What was your starting point for it?
My starting point was a conversation I had with someone about a particular feeling I have when I stop onto a stage and become aware that everyone’s looking at me. I suddenly adjust my clothing and hair and get very self-conscious. I would need to do something. I started thinking about that weird moment where you’re walking onstage because you obviously want people to look at you but feel discomfort. I knew I could find lots of examples in The Bachelor. I’ve been watching that show from the beginning, and I love it. I know the women on it are in this heightened state of self-consciousness, knowing they’re not only being looked at by the men on the show but by all of America at home. I had my assistant editor try and find as many of those moments as possible, women adjusting their hair and clothes. We crafted this loose narrative of the pursuit of the ring and starting over the next day. We also got to do the foley work, stripping out the sound and replacing it with super-close-up body sounds. It was really fun to make.
You worked exclusively with found footage on two of your features and many shorts. How did those demands differ from Hail Satan?
When you start out as a filmmaker, you tailor your projects to what you’re good at it and try to stay away from things you don’t enjoy. Early on, I didn’t have self-confidence to go out with a crew and try and negotiate access to spaces. All of that was too intimidating to me. I love research, being alone at home, editing. So all of it lends itself really well to archival filmmaking, As I developed more confidence, I did more and more filmmaking, The demands of Hail Satan?required that I learn how to work with a crew on a set. I’ve been making films for a long time, but I made a lot of mistakes. When you make mistakes on an archival film, no one knows, but I made mistakes in front of people.
Over the past year, the Satanic Temple and Lucien Greaves have gotten a lot of criticism from the left for hiring Mark Grandazza, a lawyer associated with the alt-right. I was curious why Hail Satan? never mentions this.
We filmed a lot around it. We did an interview with him, people who were mad about it and people who defended him. It was super-boring. It felt very 2019. Grandazza would say, “I’m not associated with the alt-right, I’m a normal First Amendment lawyer; some of my clients belong to the alt-right but others are Muslim mothers.” He has his point of view. Lucien would say “I don’t care who the lawyer’s other clients are. We don’t get a lot of offers for pro bono support so I said yes to him.” And members would say “It’s 2019, and freedom of speech is a less important issue than opposing Nazis.” I was very thrilled to realize no one would care about it in 10 years. We did build scenes around it, but compared to the other subjects in the film, it felt like rolling around in the dirt. There’s constant conflict. A lot of the people in my film are no longer in the Satanic Temple. That’s not surprising that a Satanic institution would have a lot of dissent in the ranks. The religion of Satanism will continue whether or not the Satanic Temple crumbles. I was making a movie about the ideas that are present in Satanism, not the institution of the Satanic Temple.
One thing that’s occurred to me is that in some ways, the Satanic Temple has become a more conventional religious institution, which you can see from the way they treated Jex Blackmore. At the same time, you can see from people who call themselves Satanists on-line that the version of Satanism they’re espousing has taken on a life of its own among people with no connection to the Satanic Temple.
Absolutely. That’s a huge part of the story. They’ve inspired so many other people. Most of them have no interest in joining the Satanic Temple, because Satanists hate institutions, authority and groups. At the core, there’s an irony we knew would be in the movie. We didn’t know it would be expressed through Jex.
Were you surprised at how positive the reaction to the film has been?
On one hand, no, because we did test screenings and the audience loved it. On the other, we’re asking a lot of an audience where most people in the room know nothing of Satanism. They start out here [gesturing] and end up here [gesturing much further away]. In order to wind up there, you have to incorporate a lot of new ideas and facts. You’re asking a huge amount of labor of the audience. I have been pleased, if not totally shocked, that we’ve mostly been successful. But we’ve only played film festivals so far. We’ll see what happens when it plays theaters.
One common thread in the reviews so far has been “I thought Satanism was about teenagers on drugs spray-painting 666 on the wall while listening to Slayer, and this film shows that it’s really about something positive and politically progressive.”
That’s accurate. We were delighted to discover that we were making this remarkably uplifting film about people with little money and organizing experience making a difference in support of this country’s foundational ideas. They’re quite conservative in a way. They’re saying “We believe in the ideals that are laid out in the founding documents, and we’d be a lot better if we actually lived out by those ideals.” Whatever preconceived idea audiences have, they’re not expecting a movie that’s really pro-America in the end.
Hail Satan? opens today at the IFC Center in New York and at The Landmark in Los Angeles April 19, with a national rollout to follow.
Did you enjoy this article? Sign up to receive the StudioDaily Fix eletter containing the latest stories, including news, videos, interviews, reviews and more.