Michael Stipe explores religion as producer of Saved!
He's the singer in a famous rock band. She's a squeaky-clean pop starlet. From opposite sides of the musical spectrum, R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe and fresh-faced youngster Mandy Moore have joined forces to find religion. Or, more precisely, Stipe has produced a high-school comedy feature called Saved! starring Moore as a zealous Christian whose idea of Halloween fun is to distribute religious tracts instead of candy. The film offers an alternative view of the well-worn teen genre from the perspective of "Jesus-centric" kids at a Christian school in suburban Baltimore. When a "good girl," played by Jena Malone, gets pregnant during an ill-fated attempt to cure her boyfriend of his homosexuality, it sets in motion a chain of events that causes the protagonists to question the inflexible moral values laid on them by their parents and teachers.
For maybe the first time in her 20 years, Moore plays a villain, driven to increasingly desperate measures to defend her faith. It's not a pretty depiction, but everyone associated with the film is careful to say that the film is primarily a comedy and does not ridicule religion. "I would not work on a film that I thought might insult the people in my life," says the out Stipe, who comes from a long line of church ministers. "I think it challenges certain ideas that are put forward. But anyone, Christian or otherwise, I believe, who is secure enough in their beliefs, who can laugh at themselves, they will like this movie."
Besides Moore and Malone, the young ensemble cast includes former child star Macaulay Culkin as the wheelchair-bound brother of Moore's character; Eva Amurri as his hell-raising girlfriend, the sole Jew at American Eagle Christian High School; and Patrick Fugit as a holy skateboarder who falls for Malone's character. Stipe produced the $5 million movie with Sandy Stern, his partner in Single Cell Pictures. Together, they produced the 1999 cult hit Being John Malkovich. Saved! was shot almost two years ago in Vancouver by out director Brian Dannelly, who wrote the script with Michael Urban. It is being released by United Artists, the art house arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the film had a strong opening weekend in limited markets, averaging $22,969 on 20 screens. (In terms of per-screen averages, Saved! came in second only to The Day After Tomorrow, which grossed $25,053 on 3,425 screens.) Jesus has had a good year at the box office, thanks to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Teen movies come and go with numbing regularity, but the latest entrant, Mean Girls, has been a big hit. Throw in such pre-election issues as same-sex marriage and media indecency, and "if there was ever a time for this movie to be launched into the world, it's kinda perfect that it's right now," says Stern.
It's also good timing for Moore, who previously played nice girls in studio efforts like A Walk to Remember, Chasing Liberty, and How to Deal. Now she's rather cheerfully starting out with a clean slate. She recently changed record labels, split with her U.S. Open tennis champ boyfriend, Andy Roddick, and discovered the joys of independent cinema. She has just finished shooting a musical for actor-director John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes, with a cast including James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, and Steve Buscemi. Moore says teens are sick of "cookie-cutter, vanilla films that are saying the same things over and over again. We really want something a little edgier and smarter and darker." Not to mention funny. To the delight of the filmmakers, Moore injected her character, Hilary Faye, with enough humanity to make her sympathetic, even when she angrily tosses a Bible at Malone's character after a failed kidnapping-intervention, and declares, "I am filled with Christ's love!" Director Dannelly says, "She has great comic timing. She's just incredible at improv." But Moore credits the script for making it easy for her to play such an unpleasant person. "I don't know what that says about me, because it wasn't that hard. What does that mean? Am I really a bad person?"