The Priesthood Experience: One Critic’s Day Behind the Scenes of “God’s Land”

By Glenn Kenny

Even the most uncelebrated humans are not immune to self-mythologizing to some extent, so I hope that I can be forgiven for the following. When I think of working on Preston Miller’s God’s Land in the summer of 2009, and when I think of working on Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience in October of 2008, and on those very infrequent occasions when I am obliged to look at myself in those films, I almost invariably recall what John Lennon said about writing the song “Help!” and working on the Richard Lester film of the same name: “When Help! came out in 1965, I was actually crying out for help. I didn’t realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I was really crying out for help. It was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: He…I…is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself.” Fat Elvis to Fat John isn’t such a stretch, but Fat John to…well, you get the idea. And still, for all that…you get the idea.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun during the hour or so of shooting I did on Preston’s latest film (nor, it should go without saying, is it to say that I’m not pleased with/proud of the work I did on either film).  I had been unable to attend the initial gathering that Preston and his producer Jeremiah Kipp had set up for one scene, a press conference wherein all the reporters would be played by film critics. It had sounded like fun, too: a barbecue with lots of beer, just the sort of event I couldn’t get enough of at the time. (I now look at the e-mail invite to that day’s shoot thinking, “How many bridges have I napalmed since then?” “then” being April of 2009…and I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed to note there’s only one person on the CC list with whom I currently enjoy toxic relations.) My inability to make that day’s shoot naturally inhibits me from giving any account of it. But Preston remained hell-bent on including me in his film, and concocted a very special role for me…that of a priest who was taking a meeting with the leader of an Asian religious cult that had installed itself in the vicinity of his parish.

Preston had assured me, however, that the role was going to be teensy indeed, and that I would only be seen as a picture in picture, that is, as part of a television news report that other characters would be watching. The playful part of myself figured that playing a priest who wasn’t some kind of pervert would be a nice way of showing my “range” after portraying a super-skeevy internet pimp in Girlfriend Experience, but given how little Preston had been asking of me I figured even thinking along those lines was making too big a deal of it, so when the time came to show up outside a church in Cobble Hill and don the black shirt and white plastic front collar attachment that made up my costume, I thought little of it aside from that I was doing a favor for a pal and a good filmmaker.

It was a reasonably hot summer day and initially the whole thing seemed very simple. I was met by white-clad actors Jackson Ning (who plays the kindly cult leader Teacher Chen) and Wayne Chang (who plays his somewhat smarmy assistant/translator Richard Liu), a cameraman, a sound man and Preston. Ning, Chang and I were to stand outside the church courtyard and shake hands as if posing for cameras. But soon Preston was asking for some more active footage with dialogue. I attempted to concoct something like a Texas accent (the film is set in that state). Preston informed me that part of the film’s storyline hinged on the notion that the local community is concerned that the cult might commit mass suicide; I made up some deliberately inane comments about how this was of some concern to my character because suicide is “against church doctrine.”

I was pretty impressed by the way Ning and Chang seemed very much in character; there wasn’t any joking around or comparing notes with Ning between takes (I’m still not sure if the actor speaks any English or not), and Chang was smilingly enigmatic throughout the process in an unnerving yes-I-probably-AM-making-fun-of-you-in-my-head sort of way. Preston was ever encouraging, and when we were through he told me I could keep my costume. I considered sitting outside at my local, ordering a dozen Jagermeister shots and bellowing “The power of Christ compels you!” before downing each of them, but soon thought better of it; mine is an old-school Italian-Catholic neighborhood, at least partially. So I changed my shirt before I got hammered.

In the final version of “God’s Land,” I am not seen as a picture within a picture, and my soundbites are heard, invented Texas accent and all, so I suppose I gave Preston something he wanted, and more. But when I watched God’s Land for the first time in April of this year I recoiled at my bloat, my dingy teeth, and what I saw as my vague evasive eyes. It was uncomfortable, although it was a solace that my lines got the laughs that I was aiming for. I’m not sure just how I fit in to the film’s larger scheme, which is large indeed, and I’m tickled by the name Preston gave my character, which I’ll leave you to discover by seeing the film. I hope, though, that this is not just my last screen appearance, but the final manifestation of “Fat Glenn.”

Glenn Kenny is the lead film critic for MSN Movies and is about 70 pounds lighter than the person who appeared in God’s Land.

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