George Ratliff: Hell House is a high-tech fire and brimstone
sermon. This is a church that puts on their own haunted house
every Halloween. They've
been doing it since 1990 and now they draw something like 13,000
annual visitors. But instead of ghouls and goblins they have
what they consider "contemporary sin."
It's the Trinity Assembly of God in North Texas near Dallas.
Assembly of God is basically a branch of the Pentecostal Church.
The Pentecostal is only a hundred year-old church. It started
in Los Angeles in 1908. Basically they're known for speaking
in tongues. It comes from 2nd Corinthians, where during Pentecost
the apostles are sitting around and they're filled with the
spirit and they start speaking in tongues. Apparently they
started speaking in tongues in Los Angles and that's when
they started the Pentecostal Church and they went out thinking
the Second Coming was coming any minute now and they've been
doing that ever since, but of course it hasn't happened. But
that's where it started.
And the guy who started it in Los Angeles was black, African-American.
Assembly of God is basically a white-washed
Pentecostal Church. It started in Arkansas and they basically
did their own white version of it. It's kind of an oddball
church. It's not too different than a lot of America. In fact,
(U.S. Attorney General) John Ashcroft is the son of an Assembly
of God minister and is an Assembly of God person himself.
Anyway, Pentecostals are also known for being entertainers.
They're huge entertainers. The first televangelists were Pentecostals,
like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Pentecostals were the first
ones who had electric guitars in the service. They're big
into tapping into contemporary culture to spread their message
Pentecostals certainly aren't the only ones out there doing
it. But they're really tuned into being on the edge and being
good at putting on a show. And they're really making huge
headway. It's the fastest growing Christian church in the
world right now.
Five-O: How'd you locate this
George: I read about it in
the New York Times. I read about it October 29th, 1999. I
did a big story about the Columbine Massacre, which was featured
as a scene in that year's Hell House. I made five phone calls
that day. The Hell House people were being
bombarded by media so they said it was fine if I came on down
and shot some video. My cinematographer and I flew there the
next morning. We shot on the 30th and Halloween and the day
after, which was Sunday. So we got to church and we did a
lot of interviews. The TV people, they went, they shot the
Columbine scene for two minutes and they left, because they
had their 30-second blast of footage. I was more interested
in the theology that thought this was a good idea. I was working
for a TV show at the time and I thought it would be a good
seven-minute piece. So I cut the video together and
it didn't work out as a TV piece, but I cut it together as
a 10-minute short and used that to get financing to do a full
feature. That came from Mixed Greens Ð they're amazing.
It's run by a woman named Paige West, who's kind of a Peggy
Guggenheim-type character. They support artists and also love
documentary films, which they produce and finance. So it was
a dream scenario. They put up the money and let me do it the
way I wanted to do it. They gave me the freedom and they were
really supportive. That same 10-minute tape that Mixed Greens
got and liked also went to the church, and it was the first
time anyone had let them speak at all. So they were happy
with it. And they agreed to let me come in for months into
their lives and wherever I wanted to go and shoot the feature
Five-O: Now are they like,
this Christian filmmaker from New York is coming here to Texas
to make a film about us because he agrees with us? How was
that addressed? because the folks in the film are so
outspokenly concerned with everyone's qualifications spiritually.
George: I gave them my word
there would be no voice-over narration and that
I would sit with them and watch it with them when it was done.
I certainly didn't pretend to be a Christian, which I'm not.
Five-O: Did the cast ask you
George: Yeah, they asked about
it and I said that my spiritual beliefs are off limits for
this movie, that I and my crew would go by a documentary code
of ethics, but we don't want to talk about our spiritual lives,
we don't want to be saved and they agreed. And for
the most part, they were really good about that. They for
whatever reason wanted me to do this. And I stayed true to
my word. And you know, I could have creamed them.
Five-O: It's so good the other
way, with the neutrality.
George: I think so too. I
think it's a much better documentary. I think it's more true
to the form. There are a lot of viewers who watch it and don't
like it because they think I need
to be more judgmental of them. But I think that's so stupid.
For the most part, critically, people have been really positive.
And we're doing really well theatrically too, so it turned
out for the best. But you know, it was really tempting because
you saw the documentary, you can imagine being there
for months. It was really hard not to just crush them.
Five-O: However, I gotta say,
there is a lot of empathy to be had with the single father.
The fact that you guys were rolling when his toddler had an
George: Unbelievable. That
was one of the first days of shooting. But it's not as if
we tracked down that father because his life was a mess. John's
one of the guys I followed in 1999. His daughter, Alex, was
in Hell House in 1999, because she went to the school. He
couldn't get her into a Catholic school so she joined Trinity
School and she became part of the church she sort of
converted. And her father was all distressed about it and
everything because he's a Catholic. He volunteered with Hell
just to kind of watch over her and he kind of thought they
were nutty. As we were going through it, I was seeing him
as a character being our tour guide, as an outsider into this
world. I didn't know in the year that followed that his life
would enter a hell of its own. He had the split with his wife...
Five-O: Who left the family
for a romance with a guy she found on the internet. John's
so candid about it, it's painful.
George: Yeah. Really. The
guy wears it all on his sleeve. And part of the reason I followed
him in 1999 is, he's a ham for the camera. When you're making
a documentary, it sounds silly, but you cast a documentary
like you would a film. Because you have to have your characters.
One of the things we knew we had to get was an empathetic
character for the people who don't like these people at all
to sit and watch them for 90 minutes.
I went to Dallas, moved there in July 2000, and spent most
of July just figuring
out who was who and who could work. People have to like the
camera. And this worked because everyone involved with Hell
House was basically a performer in their own mind anyway,
so they were OK with the camera.
Five-O: What about your own
George: I grew up in Amarillo,
Texas, which is incredibly conservative. It's like your hometown
Duncanville, a little bit bigger, except there's no other
city of any size in a 200-mile radius. It's very fundamentalist
and conservative so I was very familiar with this culture.
Although my parents weren't like that at all. But I went to
public school and I was bombarded by it every step of the
way. I went to University of Texas, graduated in 1992 with
an English degree and a film degree in 1993.
I made a feature documentary called "Plutonium Circus"
in Texas and then I moved to New York and worked for a TV
show, "Split Screen," here before doing "Hell
House." "Plutonium Circus" you can get on Amazon
or rent it at the crazier video stores. It's about
do you know Errol Morris's work at all? It's sort of styled
like "Vernon, Florida" or "Gates of Heaven."
It's about a nuclear bomb plant which is the largest employer
in Amarillo, and the
people who work in or live around that bomb plant. Actually
it won South-By-Southwest Film Festival in Austin and did
pretty well on the festival circuit and had a small theatrical
release. "Plutonium Circus" was my first film but
I'm happy with it. I like it, but "Hell House" is
a much better movie.
Five-O: You must have a trunk
full of Hell House anecdotes I mean, the irony is just
George: I'll tell you the
scenes that I can't believe we cut out will be on the DVD.
You're not going to believe this but after Hell House every
year, they have their own Oscar award night. It's their prom
and awards ceremony merged into one. It's a huge night of
the year because they don't really have a dance or prom
they have this. So they get dressed up to the nines, their
best clothes, buy dresses, rent tuxes. It's a seated formal
dinner in the church and they have awards layed out for, you
know, "Best Rape Girl," "Best Abortion Girl"
and so forth. And it's a full ceremony with the screens and
clips. It's huge, huge deal for them. So we of course filmed
it. And I thought it would be my closing with the credits
and everything. The cut didn't work out that way but
we will have that on the DVD in May 2003.
Five-O: OK, what about the
kids playing a Grateful Dead-style jam while actual tongues
are being spoken? These guys are a pretty good psychedelic
George: That was pretty crazy.
They were kind of iffy about first of all, they would
never speak in tongues oncommand
for us, you know? But that day it just kind of erupted, the
tongues. And we were just lucky enough to capture it. We had
been around it before when it was just too dark or just didn't
look right. Also it was hard to get sound when they're playing
music behind the tongues, which they always are.
We actually shot on film, 16 millimeter. We were doing it
as an old school, '70s-style, down and dirty verité
documentary. That's why we had all those zooms and finding
focus moments. Plus so much happened at night black
on video looks like shit.
Five-O: When you sat down
with the church members and screened the film, what was the
George: They all liked the
film. John was a little wigged out by it. Because he opened
up so much. But he was fine with it. It's always strange with
documentary characters how they're going to react to seeing
themselves on film. But the reality of it is, if they like
who they are, they're going to like the film. Unless you completely
screw them over which we didn't. We layed it out the
way they were.
We finished a year and a half ago. The agreement was I would
sit with them and watch it with them when it was done.
They had no editorial say, but I just agreed it's a
biggerleap than you would think to sit with your subject and
watch the film with them. Because they could hate it. I showed
up and there were 400 people there in the huge cafeteria they
were showing it in. Two weeks earlier we showed it for the
first time in New York, sort of a friends and family screening,
and everyone laughed hysterically. So we came to Dallas not
knowing how they were going to take it. And in Dallas, they
also laughed hysterically at completely different parts.
They laughed at each other. But they liked it. They thought
it was great.
Five-O: What can I say? That's
a holographic sensation you've created there.
George: It's true. It's out
on DVD in May. The Sundance Channel is playing
it starting the end of December 2002. It played for three
weeks in New York. It got a big half-page article in the New
York Times. It was ridiculous.
Five-O: How do you account
for all this?
George: I personally look
at what we're going through in the world right now as an absolute
fanatical period. This is every religion is fanatical
now. They're all over the top. They're all going through this
high point. I don't know it it's the millennium; I don't know
what the hell it is. It's crazy. But I like the idea
I've always wanted to document fundamentalist Christianity
correctly because it's never been done, I don't think. They're
always judging them, or it's pro-Christian. So I hope this
is something that can stand the test of time to say, this
is what it was like. This is what these people believed. This
is why they believed it. I mean, I think in watching it, I
think you have empathy for why they need this. It's more a
sense of community than anything else. They need it like they
each other. They need answers. They don't have therapy. They
have this. This system of beliefs. So all "Hell House"
did is afford a structure to document this culture.
Five-O: Do you find that there's
a kinship to the medieval morality and miracle plays?
George: Absolutely. It's the
same thing being replayed with music and video.
Five-O: What's next on your
George: I started a couple
documentaries and abandoned them. Now I'm trying to do a narrative
feature, a regular movie, called "End Zone."
Five-O: Where do you stand
on the subject of Preacher Bob Tilton, the televangelist who
was busted by Diane Sawyer and ABC and run out of Dallas only
to relocate to Florida for more TV fund-raising?
George: Man, the farting Tilton
video? I think there should be a documentary
just tracking the history of that. Because I saw a version
of that in, like, 1986. And since then I've seen probably
six versions they've been evolving. I want to know
who's been putting them out. They're constantly being recut
with new sound effects. It's too much.
Five-O: And as for speaking
in tongues, Tilton will do it on command.
George: Yeah. His tongues
are great. Matter of fact, the minister in "Hell House"
kinda sounds like Tilton. Tilton-tongues. He sounded like
Interviewed by Nate Nichols,