Opening a film called Hail Satan? during Holy Week is just the kind of provocative stunt to warm the cockles of Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves’ black heart. Director Penny (Our Nixon) Lane’s documentary, which comes out this month from Magnolia, follows the religious group and its leader as they wage a series of evening-news publicity stunts to call attention to the battles over Constitutional rights and religious freedom.
In the following exclusive interview, Lane talks about the making of her hilarious and enlightening Sundance hit, and how Hail Satan? completely turned her preconceptions upside down, a reaction felt by early audiences as well. (You can learn more about the film here.)
Q: After I saw your inspiring film, my friend and I turned to each other and screamed, “Hail Satan!” Is this a common reaction with audiences?
PENNY LANE: It is, yeah. It’s quite something. And the meaning of those words really seems to change from the beginning of the movie to the end for many people.
Q: Why do you think that is?
PL: Well, it’s the whole idea of the film, really, like how the meaning of these symbols, these words, is not static. If you’re open to it, the Satanic Temple would very much like for the words “Hail Satan” to mean something quite different than, “I love evil, let’s go kill some babies.” Maybe it could mean something different, like, “Fuck theocracy. I believe in the First Amendment.” I’m like that. It’s a really funny thing because a lot of people say that they were surprised to find themselves yelling, “Hail Satan!” at the end of the film, and I just think that’s pretty delightful.
Q: Is it any coincidence that Magnolia is opening the film on Good Friday?
PL: Technically they changed the opening date to the 17th, which is Wednesday, because they were afraid that that was too offensive. It wasn’t my idea, because I thought [the original date] was great.
Q: Have any religious groups protested your festival screenings or called for boycotts or anything like that?
PL: No, not yet. It’s only been at film festivals, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with the actual release.
Q: What attracted you to the subject in the first place?
PL: I just saw right away that you have this amazing story with this small group of people essentially pulling a prank in Florida at Governor Rick Scott’s expense in 2013. And then, within a month, that joke had manifested into a church with members, religious tenets and an affirmative set of values moving forward. That’s an amazing story, having a joke turned into a real religion. I never heard that story before. I was really excited about it.
Q: What other preconceived notions did your research and filming dispel?
PL: So many. The experience of watching it is probably very similar to the experience of making it, where there’s just a series of things you think you know, and then you realize you’re wrong about. Starting with, “What is a Satanist and what do they believe?” But also, what is the definition of religion? What’s required to call something a religion? Do you really have to have supernatural pseudo-scientific ideas about people who live in the sky or are invisible? Or could you have religion based on other ideas? And then there’s the whole idea of whether America is a Christian nation, and what are we actually asking when we ask that question? There were just so many different things along the way that were a revelation to me.
Q: Unlike your previous documentaries, you say you didn’t know how the story would end when you started. How so?
PL: Well, we knew the first act. The first act had already happened in the world. [The rest was] manifesting from idea into reality or from a joke to something serious. But we didn’t know whether they would continue to do the work they were doing or what would happen. We filmed a lot of different events, some of which made it into the film and a lot that didn’t. So, we just didn’t know what was gonna happen when we started rolling.
Q: Do [Satanic Temple leader] Lucien Greaves and the others hope that the film will be a rallying cry for defending constitutional rights or serve more as a recruitment film?
PL: Oh, definitely the former. They have no interest in recruiting at all. You do not become a Satanist because you’re trying to be the majority religion. It’s a distinctly anti-evangelical religion. They have no interest in trying to recruit new members. But they do like allies. They would love it if people out there who had similar values in terms of protecting constitutional values would join them in their fight. That’s hugely, hugely beneficial to them.
Q: Were there any initial fears that the Satanists were self-promoting charlatans and attention seekers?
PL: Once I had any contact with any of them, not really. They really had no interest in talking to me at all. They really were not eager to be in a film whatsoever. It took quite a lot of convincing for me. So, if anything, it was the opposite of attention-seeking. Once they came to understand what my mission was and what kind of film I was trying to make and probably even more importantly, what kind of film I wasn’t trying to make, they were pretty open with me and gave us a lot of help and access in making the film.
Q: Was it difficult not to over-sensationalize the material?
PL: I don’t know exactly what it would mean to sensationalize it. We knew we weren’t going to show, for example, the ritual-type images without providing context as to what those rituals really mean to the people who are participating in them. That was a foundational idea. We wouldn’t just show you upside down crosses and not explain why, for a Satanist, blasphemy is a sort of tool, a personal liberation. Why they take these images from Christianity and destroy or subvert them.
Q: Why does your title have a question mark?
PL: Question mark is there because, for many people, before they watch this film, the declarative statement “Hail Satan!” is quite offensive or even frightening. And I’m putting a question mark on it as a way of inviting people into the movie who might feel that way, who might think that Hail Satan with the exclamation point is just way too out there for them.
Q: Were you surprised how much humor came out of the material?
PL: Oh, no, not at all. That was part of the appeal. We knew it would be very funny. I would say it was much more surprising that it was moving. The big surprise was how emotionally engaged I was by the Satanists and what this religion has meant to them personally and how important it’s been for their personal development as humans and how meaningful it is to them. That’s what really was surprising. Not the jokes. The jokes are pretty evident from the outside.
Q: Why do you think the Satanic Temple is thriving right now?
PL: They’ve really caught something in the zeitgeist. There’s something about the current political moment that has made a lot of people more open to new ideas than maybe they have been before. And more and more, if you look at something like Pew Research Polling, there are more and more people, particularly young people, who have no identification with an organized religion at all. They are running away from the churches of the past in droves. And along with that, when you leave these institutions of organized religion, you do lose something. You lose all the value of religion, you lose the community, you lose the meaning-making apparatus, you lose the affirmative mythologies, art, aesthetics, literature and all this music that actually makes life worth living.
So, the question of what will happen to these now-religiously-unidentified young people in the future is a very important one. And the Satanic Temple is not trying to be the answer for everyone. Like I said, most people don’t want to be a Satanist. And that’s the point of Satanism. They are providing an idea for a lot of people that is very compelling. Could you have religious identification based on enlightenment values? Could you have all the good things about religion without any of the bad things? It is a very important question that a lot of young people really want to find answers to.
Q: How does the Satanic Temple differ from past Satanist groups, like Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan?
PL: It’s a really interesting and complicated question, which is why we left it out of the film, because it deserves its own attention. But essentially, the Satanic Temple wouldn’t exist without the Church of Satan. The Church of Satan codified the idea of Satanism in the first place. Before the Church of Satan, there were no Satanists. So many of the things about the Church of Satan, the ideology and belief system, were still very appealing to members of the Satanic Temple. But then you have a huge point of departure and a satanic Reformation moment where the Satanic Temple’s beliefs are sufficiently different from the Church of Satan, where they all hate each other now, like deep, deep, deep, deep hatred. And as far as the Church of Satan is concerned, the Satanic Temple are not even Satanists at all. And they’re wrong if they think they are. Period.
So anyway, the Church of Satan, in a very brief nutshell, and this is again going to be slightly unfairly overly simplified, is a lot more into a kind of Ayn Rand “might is right” authoritarian idea, and the Satanic Temple is frankly more social justice-oriented. And the Church of Satan would say activism is not satanic. For the Satanic Temple, activism is a core part of their satanic identity.
Q: If they are really more concerned with social justice, why don’t they adopt a less provocative organizational name?
PL: It’d be like saying, “Don’t Jewish people know that some people hate Jews? Why don’t they stop being Jewish?” They’re Satanists, that’s what they are. So, there’s no other name for it. They don’t care if you don’t like it. That’s their religion. And for many of them, their religion is just very central to who they are as humans. If there are people out there who don’t want to be Satanists and want to call themselves humanists, there are already a lot of organizations that exist for that purpose.
Q: So, the religion comes first, the social justice issues come second?
PL: Its social justice issues are a part of the religion. The kind of activism they’re doing is quite specifically only available to you if you’re religious because they’re trying to put themselves on an equal footing with other religious groups. You can’t do that if you’re just an atheist. You don’t have the same types of protections in the constitution.
Q: What is the main thing you hope audiences will take away from your film?
PL: It’s just a really inspiring film for a lot of people. And the reason it’s inspiring is that the assumption is this would be a story about a bunch of anarchists who want to burn it all down and start over. But, in fact, you discover that what we’re talking about here is a group of people who are deeply patriotic and who deeply believe in the promise of the American project. And they would love to see Americans live the values that we set out to live in the constitution. And that’s really hopeful and a breath of fresh air in the current moment, which seems so depressing and horrible, and how are we going to get out of it? And they’re like, “We think we should just live by the values that are in the Constitution. What do you think?” That’s such a nice, surprising message that people are not expecting when they go to see a movie called Hail Satan?
Q: What’s next for you?
PL: I’m just very, very busy with the release right now. My producer [Gabriel Sedgwick] and I are daydreaming up many, many ideas for things we might do next, but we don’t know what it’s going to be yet.