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Off Color

Filmmaker Brian Dannelly Hit a Nun And Look Where He Ended Up

Playing God: Brian Dannelly on the Saved! set

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 6/9/2004

"I don't think I make dark comedies," quips Saved! co-writer and director Brian Dannelly, "more like gray or light brown." Over a crépe outside the Charles Theatre during May's Maryland Film Festival, Dannelly, 40, spoke gregariously about his upbringing, the political climate of our country today, and the reason there's no humping in his movie.

With Saved!, [reviewed here] first-time feature director Dannelly, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate who spent much of his formative years in the Baltimore area, has delivered a sly, knowing satire of a Christian high school packed with romance, laughs, and a healthy dose of social commentary. It's a teen movie with teeth, and that's intentional.

The writing of Saved! began "right around the time that Bush was getting elected," Dannelly remembers. "I started thinking about the Christian right and the 'Jesus Rocks' movement. Plus I love teen movies, so I thought, let's make a movie like John Hughes, but have subversive stuff running through it that you would never see in those movies.

"Did you see that PBS documentary on Bush, The Jesus Factor?" he continues. "They were saying about 40 percent of the population considers themselves fundamentalist now. Which is frightening! You can win elections on the fundamentalist vote alone. So . . . we're pretty much for the other 60 percent."

Dannelly's no stranger to the religious education experience. Growing up he attended no less than three in the area--a Catholic school ("I got kicked out of the first grade for hitting a nun"), a Baptist school, and a Jewish summer camp. Based on some of Saved!'s content, one might surmise these experiences proved less than ideal for Dannelly.

In fact, one of his first inspirations as a filmmaker came in reaction to this schooling. "I remember I ran away from home and I was living in a trailer park in Delaware, watching Pink Flamingos," he recalls. "The whole notion that you could make movies with your friends--and actually make good movies that say something--really stuck with me."

Still, as much as John Waters' influence may inform the satire in Saved!, Dannelly's film strikes a gentler tone more in line with the teen movies he adores. (His recent favorites include She's All That and the recent Freaky Friday remake.) Indeed, Dannelly stresses that his film is neither anti-religious nor anti-Christian. "No one turns their back on their faith," he muses. "They just go on these journeys where their faith is tested. It's not about religion, it's about the people in the religion . . . in any subculture there are people who are zealots or over the top.

"If you're not a fundamentalist, you'll get it. And if you are pissed off by the movie, you should be. The more mainstream the audience, the better the film plays--it's just edgy enough for them to go 'Ooh!' and just sweet enough for them to go 'Aww!'"

Dannelly does concede that a little of Saved!'s edginess may have ended up on the cutting-room floor. "We wanted a PG-13--that was very important, because we wanted it to be accessible to teenagers--so we couldn't have any humping, we could only have one 'fuck.' We had to carefully place that 'fuck!'"

Once can easily imagine Dannelly having similar content issues with his next script, another light-brown comedy, titled Runner-Up. "It's about a beauty pageant that takes place in a women's prison," he says. "I'd love to shoot it here."

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