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An Interview with Richard Rossi, Director and Star of Canaan Land

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2021

Richard Rossi on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Canaan Land - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Canaan Land is about Brother Billy, a con man phone psychic and preacher played by me, who falls for Sister Sara, a sincere Christian woman, played by Rebecca Holden.

 

Canaan Land is based on the novel of yours by the same title - so what made you decide to adapt your book for the screen, and how closely did you remain to your own source material?

 

The novel and film are very close, the only difference is in the novel I go deeper into the thoughts and background of the characters. I was writing the novel as we were filming, and when Covid hit, it stopped our progress on the film, so I channeled my creativity into finishing the novel, both book and audiobook.  

 

What were your sources of inspiration for both the novel and the movie, and is any of it based on personal experiences?

 

I was inspired by stories of similar archetypes of the con man preacher, like Elmer Gantry. Also, watching preachers who would get away with outlandish fakery, and seeing friends of mine fall for it.I was incredulous at how people will believe anything. Brother Billy calls down gold dust he claims is from the golden streets of Heaven, when it is just gold glitter he bought from a craft store. That stunt was inspired by a real church in Northern California that did exactly that, and garnered thousands of followers who each pay thousands of dollars to attend the church's School of Supernatural Ministry in order to "get the gold dust."

 

I worked in my young adult years in the world of Pentecostal Christianity, which is a mixture of fakes and sincere believers. My time in that world of praying for the sick gave me the idea for a story that would contrast the fakes and the authentic. When Billy is alone in the church he admits he doesn't believe. His doubts stem from wondering why God would allow some of the bad things to happen to him as a boy. That came out of my own personal experience, brokenness, and doubts.

 

With religion being a central piece of Canaan Land, what can you tell us about your own religious beliefs (if that's not too personal a question)?

 

My personal beliefs are always in an ongoing state of flux, because I am constantly seeking to question and understand things better. I was raised Catholic, and that is certainly a part of my history, however, I had to really sort out the good and bad from that, because of the evils of pedophile priests and the bondage of guilt and shame. I love the art within Catholicism. One of my feature films, Sister Aimee (2008), was up for Best Film in Milan at a film festival, and while I was in Italy, I loved going to the Vatican Museum. I saw the Sistine Chapel, attended Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, and l saw Michelangelo's David sculpture in Florence. I love the reverence and art from Catholicism.The statues, stained glass, and paintings. I have good memories making my First Holy Communion, and praying the rosary with my mother as a boy.

 

In my teen years, I became a born again Christian and trained as a preacher. I was trying to save souls and warn them about the flames of Hell. I was immersed in the world of fundamentalist Christianity. The chancellor of the Bible College I attended was Jerry Falwell, a highly influential televangelist. These years gave me a sense of purpose and I wrote Christian music, started churches, and preached. I had to give up a lot of myself, however, in a way that was damaging to my own soul. Within fundamentalism, there are a lot of pitfalls. For one thing, Falwell and many other evangelicals since, wrap up the gospel in partisan politics, thereby obscuring and distorting much of the teachings of Jesus. Also, fundamentalism was very suppressive to my creative spirit. Some of the tenets did more harm than good in my life.

 

I have been making a shift that I can best describe as a shift from the outside to the inside. In other words, not looking to an outside pastor, or religious institution, but to follow what Jesus taught about the kingdom of Heaven being within us. I try to find the love in my own heart for myself, God, and others, and come from that place, following the still, small voice inside which I believe is the Holy Spirit.

 

For example, as a father to two kids, I was chastised by my fellow fundamentalist preachers for not spanking our children, Karis and Joshua. Other kids they played with from church circles had bruises on their legs from their parents brutally beating them in the name of the Lord as they quoted Bible verses about "Spare the rod and spoil the child." My own heart told me my kids would turn out better if I followed my inside instinct as their father to love them and never hit them.

 

Jesus taught God is like a loving father and gave us the prayer "Our Father, who art in Heaven...", so being a father myself has given me a father-filter to run my prior religious beliefs through. As a result, I have thrown out much of what I was taught in church because it doesn't portray God as a loving Father but as a petty and punitive judge who wants to torture humans for their imperfections. I would never treat my daughter and son that way so I no longer believe the hellfire preachers who portray God that way as a monster worse than Adolf Hitler.

 

I believe in a God of unconditional love, a love that predates the universe, and is able to save all souls. I pray a prayer from my childhood that sums this up, "Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy."

 

Despite all the drama and lofty themes, I actually found Canaan Land a pretty funny movie - would you at all agree, and if so, do talk about the film's brand of humour for a bit!

 

Yes, I'm so glad you got the humor of the film, Mike. I find Billy, and the cartoonish televangelists that inspired his character, very funny. Some of the televangelists I watched as a youth and took seriously, I now find their shows entertaining as a comedy hour. The first half of the film I meant to be campy and comedic. Hopefully, this helps the audience enjoy Billy, even though he does reprehensible things, so they will want to see him redeemed.

 

One scene that was almost hard to do because I found it so funny and hard to keep a straight face, is when Billy tells the church about a dark haired woman who tried to seduce him. Billy says he was trying to be a good boy but she had devil horns pop out of her head. The audience has seen the real incident earlier in the film in which Billy charms and seduces, yet he portrays himself as the victim. His duplicity, and the congregation's lack of cognitive skills to see through his baloney, I find it quite funny.

 

The second half of the film shifts to more dramatic when Billy is outed by the investigative reporters. Sara breaks up with him. He hits bottom and is back on the street. Then we hear my song Vagabond.

 

Through Billy, I was able to show how laughable and ludicrous religion can be. I am not attacking religion, but trying to show that the counterfeits take away from God's magnificence. There are no counterfeit three Dollar bills because there are no real three Dollar bills. A counterfeit bears evidence that the real exists. I wanted to show the contrast between Brother Billy, the fake, with Sister Sara, the sincere.  

 

What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

One actor told me he gave one of his best performances because he felt nurtured by me and safe with me. This relates back to your earlier question, Mike, about my beliefs about God. I believe God the heavenly Father and Jesus are loving and know everything about us, yet love us without question eternally. Nothing can separate us from God's love, the Bible says in the eighth chapter of Romans. I feel safe with Jesus because He is love.

 

Directorially, I tried to always affirm my actors, build them up, make them feel safe to experiment, and try different ways of doing the scenes. Recently, we had an online watch party and the actors came back together to discuss the film. Several of them said it was like a reunion of a loving family. The film set, the creative community, is just as much a church as people meeting in a stained glass building on Sundays for a formal service.

 

You also play one of the leads in Canaan Land - so what can you tell us about your character, what did you draw upon to bring him to life, and have you written him with yourself in mind for the get-go?

 

Yes, I had done this story as a play several times at the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood, Long Beach and other theaters. So I knew this character and had been working on him a long time. I had to play Billy to work out my own issues with my past as a preacher. I never faked miracles and cheated like Billy, but I had to come to grips with how a Messianic archetype was put on my shoulders as a young preacher, in which others looked at me to give them the right interpretation of the Bible, and bring them healing and deliverance. No matter how many times I said, "It's not me, it's Jesus," evangelicalism makes a personality cult by following their favorite preachers.

 

There was much good that came from my ministry, we were able to help disadvantaged people, and share God's love and power as best we could, but the heavy burden of the Messianic archetype was too heavy on my shoulders and damaging to me. I had to release it to reclaim myself, my mind, my creativity, my love for science, and many other things religion robbed from me for years. I needed to play the character as my coming out as a former fundamentalist preacher who no longer believes a lot of the things I used to.

 

Do talk about the rest of your cast, and why exactly these people?

 

Our leading lady Rebecca Holden, star of the megahit Knight Rider, was perfect casting for Sister Sara, a great actress and singer. A dozen well-known actresses wanted the part, so it was like the search for Scarlett O'Hara. She is also a woman of faith who had seen both the good and the bad from the church world, so she understood what I wanted to say.

 

I'm also grateful for the stars we had for cameos, like Louis Gossett Jr., Cindy Williams, Sally Kirkland, Kathy Garver, Ginger Alden, Kathy Coleman, Karolyn Grimes, and others. Most played talk-show guests interviewed by Billy and Sara on their religious show. We had this material because Rebecca and I had both interviewed stars in the past as hosts and had that footage and audio.

 

Dawna Lee Heising [Dawna Lee Heising interview - click here] who has a big following was perfect as Billy's girlfriend who kicks him out in the beginning. Writing the script I had an image in my mind of this Beverly Hills Jessica Rabbit type who looked just like Dawna. When I saw her in a Ted V. Mikels film, I couldn't believe it, she was perfect and looked just like the image I conceived writing it.

 

The rest of the cast is stellar including three actors up for acting awards in addition to Rebecca and I, Jozy Pollock, Rosetta Walker, and Isaac Bar-Jonah who has a powerful scene about how spiritual matters are sacred and are not meant to be exploited.  

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

We shot guerrilla style, stealing shots in public places, so it required the ability to act in character, while also keeping an eye out for security personnel who would tell us to put away the cameras. In some cases when we were busted, we finished shooting the scenes on cellphones. That was the case with the break-up scene between Billy and Sara, but I think the grittiness of shooting that way on cellphone cameras helped the shift from the comedy of the first half into the drama of the break-up.

 

The $64-question of course, where can Canaan Land seen?

 

It's currently streaming on Vimeo and in the Academy Screening Room on the Oscars site, it's one of 366 films under consideration for Best Picture. There is a Pay-Per-View deal in the works forthcoming, and it will be on Amazon later this year. Right now, Vimeo is the best place to see it.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Canaan Land?

 

The film has one of the highest IMDB ratings, a 9.4, from over 100 people who saw it and rated it. Interestingly enough, so far all the reviews are from secular press, not Christian.

 



Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Yes, I wrote a coming-of-age novel, Stick Man, and I'm currently writing the sequel to the novel and plan to shoot films based on the books.

 

What got you into the filmworld in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

When I was a pastor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I made a documentary which is on Vimeo entitled

Quest for Truth investigating if prayer for the sick is effectual with healing. A director from India, Amin Q. Chaudhri, who made features with a lot of great actors like Forest Whitaker, Sharon Stone, Sherilyn Fenn, Jim Belushi, Shelley Winters and others, told me he thought I had talent for filmmaking because he saw my religious documentary. He said it was unconventional in the secular rock music I used juxtaposed with the images of healing prayer and that the way I did it he felt would appeal to non-religious people. I moved to Los Angeles, encouraged by Amin, and started making indie films on a shoestring with no formal training. After I had a couple films under my belt, I went to Los Angeles Valley College for formal training and I earned degrees in film and theater.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Canaan Land?

 

I've made a couple prior feature dramatic films, both biopics. The first was Sister Aimee, about 1920's female faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson and the second was Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories, about my childhood  hero baseball player Roberto Clemente. I also made the documentary Saving Sister Aimee, which was Academy Award-considered, and a concert film of my music I wrote and performed, Live at Graffiti's.  

 

 

Over the years, you've filled many positions both in front of and behind the camera - so what do you enjoy the most, what could you do without?

 

I love the above-the-line roles of acting, writing and directing. The editing process is creative also, but tends to be tedious and difficult for me, and I can't wait for the film to be done.  

 

When you're not making movies you're also a musician, novelist, comic, radio show host, and I'm sure I've forgotten quite a few other jobs of yours - so do talk about all these aspects of your career for a bit, and how do you even find time for everything?

 

I believe all the arts come from the same seed, the Master Artist and Creator who gives us talents - and what we do with those talents is our gift back. So if I work on any one art form, it actually helps me improve in the other art forms. I think it's best to go with the passion of what I am excited about that day, getting back to my spiritual belief about taking direction from inside rather than outside. Earlier today, I had a melody come to me and I wrote a song on my guitar. My agent just sent me an audition, so later I will go over the lines and do some acting when I film the audition to send to casting. So it has an ebb and flow depending on the passion I feel that day and the opportunities that arise.

 

Writers, filmmakers, actors, whoever else who inspire you?

 

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My favorite actor is Marlon Brando. I'm inspired by filmmakers who like me have had to get it done on a small budget outside the studio system, so many directors have inspired me who have had to make movies guerilla style. That list includes everyone from Ed Wood [Ed Wood bio - click here] to Orson Welles.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

My favorite movies are On the Waterfront, Elmer Gantry, Plan Nine from Outer Space, 8 1/2, Mary Poppins, A Place in the Sun, The Natural, Rebel Without A Cause, Rocky, Persona, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Night of the Living Dead, and Cinema Paradiso.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Films I deplore are cheesy Christian films that are like bad Hallmark movies where the Christians are portrayed as shining, shimmering perfect people and the atheists are totally evil. I also deplore big budget films at the megaplex that are almost all CG like a glorified video game and made to exploit a bottom line profit with no soul in the film.

 

Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?

 

Canaan Land website: https://www.canaanlandmovie.com

Canaan Land Twitter & Instagram: @canaanlandmovie

Canaan Land Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CanaanLandMovie

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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