For the past six years, Penny Lane has been on a back-to-back-to-back tear of near-perfect documentary filmmaking — gripping, hilarious, informative, considerate, and significant films, including Our Nixon (2013), Nuts! (2016), and The Pain of Others (2018). But these six years only mark mass culture’s awareness of Lane. She’s been hard at work since 2002 with 13 short films covering a wide range of stylistic, tonal, and thematic concepts under her belt before she ever made her debut feature.
Lane is as much a thinker as she is a documentarian, in the same sense that we use the word “thinker” for philosophers and academics, open and experimental in thought. With a master’s degree and teaching credits at Colgate University and Bard College, among others, to her name, she’s that rare combination of hyper-intelligent and down-to-Earth, masterful in her craft and charitable in conversation. You get the feeling she could talk right over your head at any point, but she’d rather just have an interesting, mutually understood conversation.
Since 2004, Lane has written incredible essays on topics like the post-truth era, bad documentaries, and what it means to be an American artist. She’s interviewed influential filmmakers like Sam Green and Vanessa Renwick. She co-wrote an open rebuttal to Ben Stein’s comments about Our Nixon. Hell, she even wrote a review of Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt? because why wouldn’t she? In short, she’s the kind of person that has something to say, and she’s the kind of person you want to hear from.
Her 2019 film Hail Satan? is very much in line with her academic, comedic, humanist, approachable style. She focuses her cameras on the oft-maligned Satanic Temple, a group of popularly misunderstood political outcasts who are more like a social activist group than a religion. Befriended talking heads like co-founder Lucien Greaves or the more extreme Jex Blackmore detail the young and rich history of The Satanic Temple, and usher us into the group’s 2019 conflicts both inside and outside of the Satanist community. I doubt anyone is a more perfect fit for the subject.
Her aim is to humanize and celebrate The Satanic Temple, as they’ve spent all too much energy deflecting and shaking off the shit thrown at them by popular media. Their aim is not to worship Satan. That’s more of a placeholder for the categorical imperative to achieve equality. It’s laid out quite clearly in their seven “fundamental tenets,” which — before you start guessing wrong –include golden rules like “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason” and “People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.”
Yet, tenets two and four capture what might set The Satanic Temple apart most clearly in their objectives. Two reads, “The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions,” and four states, “The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.” What other justice- and compassion-seeking organizations are truly willing to disobey the law or deeply offend their neighbor for the sake of dismantling oppressive institutional norms and the still thriving marriage between church and state?
Perhaps Greaves sets the organization up to be taken the wrong way when he rubs his balls on the graves of Westboro Baptist Church members to declare them post-mortem queers, or organizes an anti-mass on Harvard’s campus that ignites the rage of the Catholic Church, or even accepts an invite to the hot seat on Fox News with Megyn Kelly, of all thoughtless people. But, everything he and The Satanic Temple do has a reason, and, as Lane brilliantly shows us, a fucking good reason at that. And Greaves is a mastermind in his own right in his careful, calculated, and ethical leadership of the group.
I called Lane to talk about her wildly educational, genuinely funny, and deeply human mural of the vilified, misconceived organization that inspires such a rich and inclusive community in their wake, contrary to popular opinion.
Nonfics: What’s your religious background? Where are you coming from in approaching this movie?
Penny Lane: Well, the simplest answer is that where I’m coming from is just a straight kind of New Atheist orthodoxy almost. I never had any connection to any religion at all. I never went to any church. My family wasn’t religious. It never came up. It didn’t ever come up with any of my friends. Growing up, I knew I was surrounded by Catholics. It was a very Irish and Italian community. But it didn’t come up in any way that I noticed. My friends certainly weren’t talking about their Catholic faith all day. Like, it never came up. Ever. And I always thought that religious people — I mean, to be totally frank — were dumb and/or mentally ill. Totally confused, mystified by the entire thing. I couldn’t fathom the idea that most of the world had religious background. I couldn’t even begin to understand that. It just seemed bizarre. And in a way, I always kind of thought I would probably make, at some point, a documentary about some sort of religious faith because I think it’s so weird.
But I definitely started the project — sort of part of the appeal was thinking that I would make fun of religious people. But, in doing the film I came to understand that I was making a film about religious people that I had a huge amount of respect for and that now I could understand religion totally differently. I’ve never had more understanding, empathy, sympathy, and comprehension of the value that religion provides people and the reasons that it’s so empowering. So this film didn’t make me a believer, but it definitely made me far, far, far more empathetic and understanding of religion and what value it gives people.
I noticed that empathy in the film. I think one of the most significant sequences, for me, at least, whenever I got to the community gathering in LA, I just started tearing up. I couldn’t hold it back. There is something really, really beautiful, fresh, and genuine about all these people getting together kind of regardless—well, I get the point of Satanism, but you know what I mean—of why they’re getting together. Can you speak a little to the concept of community, how it played out in the film, and how it influenced what you wanted to shoot?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that evolution of my own understanding of what was actually interesting about this story. It became much more important to me that we spend time not just with the leadership, but with the, let’s say, congregation, those at the street level. It was incredibly moving for me to get to know all these everyday people. I don’t like to call them “normal” everyday people because they’re not “normal.” They aren’t trying to be “normal” and they don’t have to be “normal” for us to protect them. And they don’t have to be just like you and me to have the same basic rights. But at the same time, they’re people that I can certainly identify with to a certain extent because of their almost universal attribute of having spent their entire lives being and feeling like an outsider.
And that’s such a profound feeling. You know, it’s a profound change in someone’s identity to go from feeling like there is no one to accept you, there is no one like you, there is no one who thinks like you, to discovering that there is. And I feel like everyone understands that feeling to some extent. Regardless of their background, everyone feels like an outsider in one way or another. So you know, that kind of revelation that you’re not alone is so profound.
So, it’s funny, I look back, and I just had a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, and they showed everything I’ve ever made. And one of the first things I made was called The Abortion Diaries, and looking back on it it’s like, “Wow, here it all is!” It’s about this sort of profoundly isolating experience of having an abortion and kind of the discovery that everyone I knew that had had an abortion would go from feeling like they don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion—because no one ever talks about it—to opening about it and discovering everyone they know had had an abortion. And that change from profound isolation to discovering that you are understood by people around you, that you aren’t alone. It was one of the first films I ever made. And I hadn’t realized that I was just coming back to that theme in a funny way, you know?
Definitely. I mean, that’s also interesting to me just because that very same concept is also—I imagine you would agree—why we have a dipshit of a president.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
That people can be surrounded by all of these other people that think what they think and experience what they experience in a post-truth sense. I just read your essay “Notes on Truth [(Or, Documentary in the Post-Truth Era)]” and you reference Bill Nichols, “epistephilia,” seeking truth, love as knowledge, etc., and I wonder, where do we draw the line? Where do we draw the line as far as finding community with people who think the way we think?
Yeah, like, how do we draw the line when finding people who think what we think while also remaining skeptical of those thoughts?
And how do we remain open to actual truth?
That’s such a huge challenge. And I think that’s one of the interesting things about the idea of doing a film like this about Satanism, specifically, and not just any religious belief system. Typically, we tend to think of religious people as people who are, essentially, the ideal of “blind faith.” Like, you’re supposed to believe these things because you’re supposed to believe these things. I mean, obviously, someone like me would think that religion is stupid if that’s the pre-requisite. Um, nope! Moving on! You know what I mean?
But I don’t think religion in and of itself is guilty of that. That’s also true of political parties and all kinds of ideologies that I can’t get behind because I will always find myself being like, “What about this?” to any orthodoxy or dogma. But Satanism is in a very interesting place because the core values of Satanism are things like: change your mind if new evidence arises that dictates it; or question your own beliefs; or don’t blindly accept what’s told to you. Also, don’t have any specific reverence for authority. I mean, authority isn’t any special source of truth, right?
So, I think that Satanists as a group are extremely—well, I just relate to them! Like it really honestly is a religion for people like me. And, you know, how does that play out in the long run? How do you deal with the conflicts that are inherent in having a “satanic institution” or an “organized satanic religion”? Does it just become corrupt over time? Well yeah, it might. I don’t know. But at least you can question it.
Along those lines, do you have any thoughts on the extremism of Jex Blackmore versus Lucien Greaves?
I want to say that, first of all, I have a huge amount of respect for Jex. I actually think that her ideas about what is effective political advocacy are legitimate. I think she has this kind of — I don’t know if she’d mind me saying this — but I think of her as basically an anarchist. She’s all about kind of injecting chaos. I don’t know if she would agree with that characterization, but that’s one way that I think about that conflict.
I just think she’s better off being this individual, autonomous person who essentially just acts as her own person. She didn’t want to be a part of an organized institution anymore, and I can’t say that I blame her. It’s just a difference in tactic, I think. Satanic Temple values are very similar to Jex’s values, and that’s why she was so instrumental and so involved for so long, but at the end of the day, she wants to be a Satanist. She wants to be a radical.
And the institution of the Satanic Temple, regardless of the personality makeup of its members, wants to achieve certain goals, you know? And they don’t want to burn it all down. They want to, basically, I don’t know…obey the constitution? [Laughs]. So, it’s just a very different outlook. I had a great deal of empa — no, not empathy. I just felt that everyone in that conflict had a completely legitimate point of view, and they were just in conflict, you know?
I think you communicated that well because I felt the same way. I can totally see why Jex wants to uproot the system without using any sort of normative values or understandings. But, I don’t know. Our lives are driven by how we understand the world. And I also saw what Lucien was going for. It’s complicated, and that came through well.
Yeah, for sure. Thank you.
Okay, your comment about the constitution, though. The idea that Satanists want to follow the constitution just sounds funny. But it made me think of Kevin Kruse. Kevin Kruse is in your movie and he just won a Guggenheim Fellowship—
Ah, I know! Isn’t that wonderful?
How did that go down? Did you just e-mail him or did y’all already know each other?
Yeah, I did. Honestly, I knew him a little bit from Twitter just because I was already following him.
That’s where I figured out who he was, too.
Ha! He’s got a lot of followers. It wasn’t like, you know, I’d had any concept that he’d written this awesome book called In God We Trust. I just knew him as the Twitter historian kind of battling it out with Dinesh D’Souza all the time — who is the worst. But yeah, I actually was literally googling “history of Christian Nationalism” or something, and I realized that he’d written this book, and I read the book. It was incredible, and I was like, yeah, I gotta get Kevin. He’s perfect for this. And he really had a really fantastic perspective.
Being in documentary circles, have you ever ended up in the same room as D’Souza?
No, I have not [laughs].
Okay, cool. Just curious. I imagine there’s probably not a person you could pose more opposite of yourself as a documentarian.
Yeah, no. There’s nothing more—what’s the word—depressing, I think, is the word. Nothing more depressing than the fact that Dinesh D’Souza is, like, the most successful documentary filmmaker of our time, or something, you know?
[Laughs] Absolutely. It’s an awful thing. Have you gotten many reductive criticisms that your film is “anti-Christian” or that that’s the thesis of your film? Or have the responses so far been pretty good?
So far, the responses have been pretty good. But, as you know, it hasn’t actually been released yet for general audiences, so we’ll see. I would say the criticisms that I’ve gotten so far might be something like that I’m too on their side. Like I was supposed to go and spend equal time with people that hate them and get their point of view across. And I just thought that was totally idiotic. If you want to know what most people think about Satan/Satanists/Satanism, it’s everywhere, every day, all the time. You already know. So I’m not sure why anyone would need me to repeat these things that they definitely already know when here I am with access to people and ideas that you don’t already know. I think I’m gonna go ahead and focus on them.
Your movies are funny. Your documentaries are much funnier than most. I know that’s not novel — a lot of people say that. But I found myself so impressed with the comedic timing of so many things. Like, at the beginning when they’re at the Rick Scott thing and Brian McComber’s score is like a “Rainy Day Woman” Bob Dylan score. That was hilarious. I was laughing out loud for the first three minutes of the movie. With this moment specifically, is that something you dreamt up? Or how did it come together?
[Laughs] That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t really have a great answer. You know, comedy is like anything else. You do test screenings, and you feel out what’s working and what’s not. But also, I work with great editors and they did all the really hard work in terms of making sure the jokes land and finding test music that would make it work, and then transferring that to my incredible composer, who, you know, is a genius. So, I can’t take all the credit. It’s a team effort.