“What makes people believe what they believe?”
An interview with Penny Lane, director of “Hail Satan?”
A wickedly funny and rousing tribute to first amendment rights, Hail Satan? chronicles The Satanic Temple, a five-year-old rabble-rousing organization that’s more like a gang of political pranksters than devil-worshipping cultists. Filmmaker Penny Lane (Nuts!, Our Nixon) charts the Temple’s fight to preserve the separation of church and state, while also maintaining their unity and righteous reputation. Combining expertly edited and a witty collection of archival footage, the film isn’t only rousing and intelligent, but confirms Lane’s status, in the words of one critic “as one of nonfiction cinema’s most fearless and unpredictable filmmakers.” Below, Lane speaks about truth, lies, belief, politics, and the ironies and pleasures of making an inspiring film about Satanists.
So let’s start off with the obvious question: Why did you choose to make a doc about The Satanic Temple?
The Satanic Temple had made their way into my social media world, because I have a lot of friends who are atheists and political, and they all thought what they do is funny and smart. What I thought I understood at first was they’re like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster: they’re poking fun at religious privilege in America. I liked them, but I don’t think I would have pursued a film about them just based on that. But then my producer Gabriel sent me another article about them that was more in depth, and it became clear to me that the story a was lot more complicated and that these people were actually sincere in their religious beliefs. And that was intriguing to me, I didn’t quite understand what that meant—to be sincere about being a Satanist. And I had been looking for a new topic for a film, and I was already interested in the “Satanic Panic,” and so it kind of partially overlapped with something that I was already interested in.
So, in looking over your past films, “Hail Satan?” actually shares a basic thematic similarity in that it’s another film that addresses these fine lines between truth and lies. You can see in your other docs, like “Our Nixon,” “Nuts!,” and “The Pain of Others,” this interest in deception or delusion. Is this something that you consciously set out to do, or does it just happen naturally?
Just a few years ago, I was struggling to find out what I am all about. For every artist, I think there is a set of preoccupations. Recently, I was rereading my teenage high school diaries, and I was obsessed with lying and truth in high school. I was wondering if I was lying more than other people, and why people lie, and the ethics of it. So apparently, I’ve always been the same person. I would add to these ideas of truth and lying, there’s something about belief and what makes people believe what they believe, and also the idea of narrative and what kinds of stories support our beliefs.
I also have a rule that I’ve come up with in terms of my work and what it takes to be successful: It’s a 60/40 rule: I feel like I need to do something that I’m about 40% confident with and the other 60% should be things I don’t know how to do, or different approaches to filmmaking that I haven’t tried. So there’s a combination of confidence and terror. Here, I felt 40% would be archival footage and interviews, and that I was confident in, but then 50% would be negotiating real-life subjects living in the world now, and following them in time, and not knowing what the story would be. I’ve never really filmed with a crew in a significant way or been on location with a crew.
Can you talk about those archival sequences? There’s such a wonderful mix of material.
This is the first film that I was funded, and I had two editors, and one of them was Aaron Wickenden [“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”] and I had long wanted to work with him because of his amazing talent for working with archival footage. I was worried about it, but it was a really organic process. The editors were doing all the heavy lifting, so I wasn’t tied to it and was very freed up on days where I wasn’t shooting to go pretty wide with my archival research. I was able to go pretty deep into everything from 1950s anticommunist propaganda to biblical epics, because of the 10 Commandments connections, and 1970s and ‘80s propaganda, and other topics that were salient to the film, like finding that Porky Pig clip. It was super fun for me, and it allowed me to say involved in the editing process.
The thing that’s different about this film from your other work is that it’s actually a kind of “social issue” film. Did you see yourself as making a political film?
I never imagined that I would come across a political movement that I was willing to put my weight behind. But it’s not like I came across on the other side believing I was a Satanist, but nevertheless, I support them in their mission to separate church and state. But I’m someone who was been so completely anti-group my whole life. There’s a Kierkegaard quote: “Where there’s a crowd, there is untruth,” and that has been my m.o. since I was a kid. I’ve always been a heretic and a skeptic. But then I found a group of people comprised of people who are just like me. I couldn’t believe that there could be a religious identity based on being a skeptic, a heretic and an outsider, so that interested me. I’m not an apolitical person, but I am very skeptical of all groups so it’s been very hard to make a political film. I couldn’t believe in the end that I had made an inspiring film about Satanism. And that makes me so happy.
Yes, I think I may have even shed a few tears.
There’s a lot of to think about. Something we didn’t hit upon that much is the idea that the Satanic Temple is trying to answer a very important question today: Which is what is religion, what it can be, and what it should be in modernity, and in the future? It turns out that human beings are religious by nature, we need communities, narratives, and frameworks to gather around together and organize our lives. It had seemed like to me, who has been an angry atheist my whole life, that it’s a stupid and archaic thing, let’s get rid of it. But I understand that we’re tribal, and we have a lot of problems, and these organized religions are starting to die. But the purpose those religions swerved is not going away, so we have to solve this problem. And I think the Satanic Temple is trying to solve that. I don’t think everybody is going to be a Satanist, but an anti-supernatural religious identity is something that we should all be thinking about.