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Robert Jay Lifton on the Cult Aum Shinrikyo.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton is an expert on cult groups. His new book is about the Japanese cult group that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways: "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism" (Metropolitan Books).

21:12

Other segments from the episode on December 1, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 1, 1999: Interview with Robert Jay Lifton; Interview with Kevin Smith.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 01, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "Destroying the World to Save It": An interview with cult expert Robert Jay Lifton
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Japanese apocalyptic cult group Aum Shinrikyo just made its first public apology for its nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subways. In 1995, the cult group released sarin, a lethal nerve gas, on five Tokyo trains during early morning rush hour. Twelve people were killed, over 5,000 were injured.

The cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, is currently on trial for masterminding at least 17 crimes, including the sarin attack. The Japanese parliament is expected to pass a new law that would allow the government to monitor Aum Shinrikyo and other murderous cults.

My guest, Robert Jay Lifton, is the author of a new book about Aum Shinrikyo, apocalyptic violence and the new global terrorism, called "Destroying the World to Save It." Lifton is the author of previous books about Nazi doctors and the psychological impact of living in a world with nuclear weapons.

He says the sarin subway attack was just part of Aum Shinrikyo's larger plan.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON, "DESTROYING THE WORLD TO SAVE IT": The Sarin attack (audio interrupt) know about on March 20, 1995, was a kind of diversionary measure. They were trying to fool the police into thinking it was someone else, because they knew the police were closing in.

Their longer-standing plans were to create a much larger sarin release which would confuse everyone and bring America in and Japan and be the way of triggering World War Three, which would in turn bring about Armageddon.

GROSS: What was the extent of Aum Shinrikyo's weapons?

LIFTON: Well, they stockpiled bacteriological, biological weapons and chemical weapons, which they called not only "poor man's nuclear weapons," as many do, but "energy-saving nuclear weapons." Deep down, their love was for nuclear weapons, and that's why I speak of Asahara's nuclearism. In nuclearism, he resembles lots of other people throughout the world who have embraced nuclear weapons, first out of their fear of them, and then trying to take hold of their ultimate power, and depended upon them, almost deified them.

Asahara had that kind of nuclearism and sought nuclear weapons actively, but fortunately was not able to obtain them.

GROSS: Now, why did Asahara want to destroy the world, to bring on Armageddon?

LIFTON: Asahara felt that the world was hopelessly defiled, and in this sense, you need a vision of your own virtue in order to kill large numbers of people, in this case in order to destroy the world. And all this, of course, was tied in with a Christian idea of Armageddon from the Book of Revelation.

So it's a complex but fiercely held idea that in the destruction of the world comes spiritual renewal.

GROSS: We have an interesting brew of religions and prophecies that go up to create his vision. You mention the Book of Revelations. I think you say in your book that he's also really interested in the prophecies of Nostradamus. There's some Hinduism and Buddhism combined in here. Can you talk a little bit about the things that he's kind of mixed and matched to create his philosophy?

LIFTON: It's wildly eclectic, and for many disciples, that made it all the more powerful. And in the case of Asahara, he considered it a Buddhist group or a Buddhist cult, but he -- his god was Shiva, or sometimes called SHEE-va, and he's a Hindu god, but Asahara was attracted to Shiva because Shiva is the god of Yoga, and Asahara was an expert Yoga teacher. And Shiva's also famous for dancing the cosmos to its destruction and recreation, an ideal figure for Asahara.

But he also embraced Hindu and Buddhist endings, Kali, Yuga and Mapo (ph). These endings are not dramatic like Armageddon, they are gradual deterioration, the expression of gradual deterioration over centuries, but a kind of end of genuine spirituality.

Armageddon, though, was his central world-ending focus, especially during the last year or tow of the cult's viability, and really Armageddon is embraced by groups all through the world, partly because it is so absolute and dramatic.

And I should add that Nostradamus, who was so important in all of this, you know, he was a 16th century French mystic, but there were hundreds of editions of translations of Nostradamus selling millions of copies in Japan. The Japanese might have been the greatest consumers of Nostradamus anywhere.

And, of course, he was the central figure because of his prediction of the end of the world at the time of the year 2000.

All of these went into Asahara's world-ending project.

GROSS: Who was Shoko Asahara before he became the leader of Aum Shinrikyo?

LIFTON: Well, you know, I say in my book that his only real talent was being a guru. And I find that it's almost impossible to explain the emergence of a guru through any psychological interpretation of child -- of his childhood or her childhood.

But in his case, he went to a school for the blind from the age of 6 to 20 in Kyushu, southern Japan. He was from a rural area, child of a very impoverished tatami maker, and he was sent to that school -- he was sent to a school for the blind even though he had partial vision in one eye, none in the other eye, because an older brother was completely blind, and it was economically convenient for the family for him to go there.

But he always deeply resented this. He was manipulative, in a sense lording it over the other kids because he did have some sight. And he was said to be somewhat violent at that time, and a little bit paranoid, in that he blamed his teachers for bad-mouthing him and not permitting him to become class leader, whereas they told him the other students were afraid of him.

He was also very ambitious, talked about becoming prime minister of Japan, and he loved performance, plays and the like. All of these characteristics entered into his later guruism. But they don't really explain the later guruism. And I don't think anybody's childhood completely explains his or her adult self, because the self is an ongoing kind of process or entity that builds its own structures.

In any case, he had brushes with the law, and he really made his own mythology of a couple of intense religious visions around which he said he formed Aum Shinrikyo.

And the question arises, and you have to raise this question when you talk about gurus, of what this charisma entailed. Because everybody talks about charisma, but it isn't always very precise as to what we mean about it. And I think the charisma that a man like Asahara had was the capacity to invoke in people an intense life power, a sense of great vitality and meaning in their lives, and also a sense of immortality, of being part of a marvelous, unending spiritual entity.

And those are very powerful lures that people have, and I think that was the kind of charisma he had. One would have never predicted this if one simply knew his past history.

GROSS: My guest is Robert J. Lifton, and his new book is called "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism."

Now, Robert Lifton, you spent a lot of your professional life writing about the psychological impact of living in a world with nuclear weapons, and you've written about the survivors of Hiroshima, you've written about what it's like to have lived during the cold war with the possible imminence of nuclear war.

Now, Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese cult group that sounds like it was very influenced by the bombing of Hiroshima. And could you talk a little bit about the personal impact that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima had on the leader of Aum Shinrikyo?

LIFTON: Yes, Hiroshima had an enormous impact on Shoko Asahara. He often predicted that there would be many Hiroshimas, that Japan would be devastated by many Hiroshimas. And that pattern I call nuclearism, that is, first terrified of the weapons, and then embracing them, as I said before.

But he did it as a citizen, even if very alienated, of the country, the only country that has been atom-bombed. He then extended that idea to a kind of vision that Hiroshima was the symbol and the place, the locale, for World War Three. So he described a vision in which he made an astral journey to an unknown place, and he asked -- he noticed that people had terrible scars and looked decimated. And he asked them what this was, and they said it was Hiroshima.

And then he said, Has World War Three occurred? And the answer was yes.

So he was obsessed with Hiroshima, with nuclear war, with radiation, and that was at -- that was behind, really, much of his energy toward destroying the world. It's a kind of sequence of nuclearism.

And in my more recent thinking, even after writing this book, I think of a kind of trickle-down nuclearism, starting with the major countries like the United States and the Soviet Union, the major nuclear powers, and then extending to medium-sized countries who can make them or have them, as Saddam Hussein has tried to do, and now trickling down to nongovernmental cults, who can at least imagine acquiring these weapons.

And I see that the very existence of nuclear weapons in the world has an additional danger, because I can see from this study that they become a lure, an attraction, for a megalomanic guru, because such a megalomanic guru can readily feel, I alone am capable of destroying the world, if I can acquire these weapons, perhaps all by myself or with a few disciples.

And that means that the weapons enter into this psychological dynamic in a very active way.

GROSS: Shoko Asahara, the founder of Aum Shinrikyo, sounds, you know, like a megalomaniac, you know, like someone who wants to control the whole world, in fact kill everybody in the world, so that they -- so that the world could be reborn more pure. I mean, yet he must have had a lot of charisma or something, because he attracted a following.

What is it about his personality or about his recruiting techniques that engaged people into following him?

LIFTON: Yes, that's a very important question, and nobody can answer it precisely. But my sense is that a guru like Asahara has a certain kind of brilliance, maybe superficial brilliance, and that includes antennae for what people -- what conflicts people are experiencing, especially young people in Japan and the deep conflicts, often apocalyptic conflicts, that are reflected in popular culture, which Asahara was very connected to.

He was constantly interacting with popular culture, understood it, embraced it. And that's a skill that a guru like this has, as well as a capacity to envision something beyond these conflicts, in his case to sense that people wanted and needed -- or many did, anyhow -- spiritual certainties, that they were feeling that they were missing some kind of spiritual or religious component in their lives.

This could have been particularly true for scientists and people involved in technology. So this is a certain sensitivity and skill that can take him into a form of charisma, which then becomes a holding-forth to potential disciples of a new life, which is vital and has meaning, and a new sense of immortality, being part of something much larger than oneself that spiritually endures forever.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton. His new book is called "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Robert J. Lifton, author of a new book about Aum Shinrikyo called "Destroying the World to Save It."

Now, you write that you had to do a juggling act to both retain a sense of Aum's evil, while you sympathized with many of the intelligent young people whose spiritual quests had rendered them vulnerable to this guru. What were some of the reasons why, you know, smart young people became members of Aum? What did they see in Aum?

LIFTON: It's a very controlled society in relation to family and its institutions. And a growing number of young people are alienated and upset and feel themselves separate from all of this and wanting to stay separate from all this. And the young people I interviewed were of this type, so they were alienated, they were religious, spiritual seekers, they were seeking some dependency on a leader, seeking a leader or a messiah.

And all of this went into their vulnerability to Aum. And I must add that in most cases, they didn't know about the stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons, or the efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. What they did encounter in Aum were little evidences of violence at individual level, which they preferred to fend off, to numb themselves to, and not to take in.

So they were deeply confused when they came out. They understood Asahara and Aum's criminality and were shocked by it, and at the same time had difficulty extricating themselves psychologically from Asahara's influence, because they had so thrived psychologically in what they considered to be mystical experiences while they had been in Aum. And they longed for those old energies.

And some of these mystical experiences had been created by very rapid breathing, which induces deoxygenation and makes one very vulnerable for high states and what they called mystical experiences. But they can be deeply satisfying, and people can become addicted to them, as did these young people. So you can really see how much held them to Aum, and how difficult it was for them to extricate themselves from all this.

GROSS: The people of Aum Shinrikyo saw themselves not as a cult but as a religion, and initially they had religious status under Japanese law. In writing about cults over the years, have you been able to draw the line in your mind that divides religion from cult group?

LIFTON: Well, that's an active question, and it's -- there's a lot of acrimony about it. Should we call these groups new religions, which is a relatively neutral term, or should we call them cults, which is pejorative? And my way of speaking to this question is to say, I want to call a group like Aum a cult, because that says something, rather than retreating into the term "new religion." But if I'm to do that, I have to tell my criteria for assuming them to be a cult.

And the criteria I use are threefold. One is that they are totalistic, absolute in their practice, and they have a thought reform-like manipulation of a kind I've described in various work. Second, that there is a shift from large religious principles toward worshiping the person of the guru. And then third, a typical combination of genuine search, a religious or spiritual quest from below, and exploitation, economic and sexual, from above.

So with those three characteristics, I think we can call them a cult. And then the other implication of your question is that what becomes confusing is that the religious and the political and the military, or militarized, all join and merge, and that was certainly true about Aum.

So you can have what starts out as a religious cult, and it was and I guess still is a religion and a religious cult, which takes on heavy political and militarized attributes. Or you can start out as a military or paramilitary group, as are many of the right-wing cultic movements, which take on a very spiritual quality. I mean, they have certain religions, like Christian Identity, and they combine also -- they also embrace the Book of Revelation in many cases, as did Aum.

So they mix the political with the religious, with a blending and confusion of all these things. And even the greatest destroyer of all, the Nazi movement, which was primarily political as we see it, was in many ways cultic and religious even in its imagery, the thousand-year Reich, and people now, many people, look upon it as millennial and something of a vast millennial cult.

So we have to be on the lookout for the blending of all these components.

GROSS: What's one or two of the new things that you learned either about cult groups or cult leaders from studying the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo?

LIFTON: Well, I really learned in a new way. As long as I've been preoccupied, some might say, obsessed with nuclear weapons, I learned something new about the lure of these weapons for the megalomanic personality. And that's really dangerous, because Asahara's not the only megalomanic person around, the danger of the weapons, just as they exist.

And I also learned how ordinary, everyday people, like some of these young people I interviewed, can be drawn into murderous projects which are not seen as such as the beginning, as they're drawn into them. Now, in a way I have learned a similar lesson in studying Nazi doctors, none of them whom I interviewed or learned about had killed anybody prior to Auschwitz or their involvement in the so-called euthanasia program.

So an ordinary person can be drawn into a murderous movement or project and can be socialized to it, or drawn into its -- by its appeal, and then can join in murderous behavior. And that I learned in a new way from Aum Shinrikyo.

And then finally I would say, I had a really strong sense, in doing this study, that, you know, here's Japan, I've looked at some groups in the United States, I've learned about European and Canadian cults and a little bit about cults on the Indian subcontinent. There is a kind of common mindset of apocalyptic violence and cultic behavior that is worldwide.

And this kind of event, dangerous as it is, can occur anywhere, and we have to recognize that. That's why I say, incidentally, that this book is not a cry of pain or despair, it's an insistence on awareness. And in that way, an expression of hope.

GROSS: Well, Robert J. Lifton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LIFTON: Thanks very much for having me on your program.

GROSS: Robert J. Lifton's new book is called "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Robert Jay Lifton
High: Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton is an expert on cult groups. His new book is about the Japanese cult group that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways: "Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism."
Spec: Violence; Religion; World Affairs; Terrorism

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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Destroying the World to Save It": An interview with cult expert Pobert Jay Lifton

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 01, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120102NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "Dogma": An Interview With Writer/Director Kevin Smith
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new film "Dogma" is an irreverent comedy about Catholicism written and directed by a deeply committed Catholic, Kevin Smith. He also made the films "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy."

"Dogma" stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as two renegade angels exiled to live in Wisconsin but determined to somehow get back to Heaven. Their attempt to do so may inadvertently lead to the end of the world. Chris Rock, Alan Rickman, and Linda Fiorentino play a group of angels and mortals determined to prevent this accidental apocalypse.

Here's Damon and Affleck as the two exiled angels talking on a bus headed toward New Jersey, which they think will be their gateway back to Heaven.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "DOGMA")

BEN AFFLECK, ACTOR: You know, maybe you're wrong about this slaughter thing. How can you even be sure what incurs the Lord's wrath these days? Times change. I remember when eating meat on a Friday was supposed to be Hell-worthy trespass.

MATT DAMON, ACTOR: The major sins never change. And besides, you know, I can spot a commandment breaker from, like, a mile away. It's (inaudible) bet on it.

AFFLECK: That's from the guy who still owes me 10 bucks, (inaudible) which was going to be the bigger movie, "E.T." or "Crush Grew (ph)"?

DAMON: You know, (EXPLETIVE DELETED), man, because Tom's going to tell him that one.

AFFLECK: What are you, insinuating that I don't have what it takes any more?

DAMON: Insinuating? No. Flat-out telling you.

Right there, right there. There's one.

AFFLECK: So? They're kissing.

DAMON: Adultery?

AFFLECK: Adultery.

DAMON: Adultery.

AFFLECK: You are just a simple creature.

DAMON: Am I right or what?

AFFLECK: Well, I happen to know the truth, but I'm not going to tell you.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: I asked Kevin Smith to describe the premise of his film, "Dogma."

KEVIN SMITH, WRITER/DIRECTOR, "DOGMA": That God is absolutely infallible. And that's kind of the fulcrum on which the lever of the movie sits. And if you're Catholic or Christian, and I guess it's pretty much the same thing, what we then maintain in the movie that is if anything could prove God fallible, that infallibility would come to be shuttered (ph) and then up would become down, black would become white, and existence would kind of end, it would become nothingness. It's not like the whole world would end, it's not like the Apocalypse, it would just cease to be.

So there are two angels in the movie who are kind of cast out of Heaven eons ago, Bartleby and Loki, and they were cast out by God's holy decree. And they've been on Earth for ages. And they found a loophole in Catholic dogma through this concept called the plenary indulgence, that by walking through the doorway of this church at a particular time, would wipe their slate clean of all existing sin, hence giving them kind of a clean slate. And they could then die and go to Heaven.

But if they reenter Heaven, what they don't know is that it'll prove God fallible, and existence would end. So they're kind of unwittingly setting this chain of events in motion.

It's kind of convoluted, isn't it, Terry?

GROSS: (laughs) That's why I asked you to explain it.

SMITH: Yes, exactly, exactly.

GROSS: Being no fool myself.

SMITH: I'm sitting here going, Boy, that sounds dodgy at best. But yes, it's kind of the -- kind of how the movie sets itself up.

GROSS: Now, the angels and devils and prophets in the movie are kind of like characters in superhero comics.

SMITH: Yes -- uh-huh.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if, when you were a kid and learning about religion, and reading superhero comics, if the two ever came together in your mind, if angels seemed like superheroes.

SMITH: Terry, I'm 29, and angels still seem like superheroes.

GROSS: (laughs)

SMITH: Yes, I mean, I had a strong kind of a religious upbringing, and I'm still deeply rooted in my own faith, and beyond my chosen faith of Catholicism, just my faith in God in general, because they're two completely different things. Which I imagine we'll touch on later.

But I've also been raised on comic books and continue to be a big comic book aficionado, and going so far as to actually own a comic book store. And it's something that's always played a big part in my life. It's a viable medium of art that in the United States doesn't seem to get all the credit it's due.

You know, comic books are kind of wonderful, because they're the blending of two mediums, like graphic arts and literature. But most times people just dismiss comic books as, you know, something for kids, because that's what they're primarily identified with, or who they're primarily identified with.

So I'm -- I -- there's a lot of comic book kind of background to this movie in general. I mean, I've seen a few criticisms of the movie where they say that the movie's too comic-booky, or comic-booky in general. And I always think that's great, you know. I'm never, like, Wow, that's a harsh criticism. I'm, like, yes, well, that's what we were trying to do, make a living comic book.

GROSS: Did you particularly like the iconography of Catholicism, you know, the angels and the saints and all the imagery of Christ on the cross? I mean, Catholicism is really rich in imagery.

SMITH: It's very ornate, to say the least. Of all the faiths, it's probably the most ornate and most ritualistic, and very much like going to a Broadway show, you know, when you go to Mass.

GROSS: (laughs)

SMITH: It's a lot of costumes, you know, great lighting, wonderful speeches, and (inaudible) -- it's like dinner theater, because you get to eat in the middle of the Mass as well, to some degree, if you take part in Communion.

But I don't know, it's -- that's kind of where I later grew up and started looking at Catholicism a little more seriously, or a little deeply and started looking at how people invest so much in those symbols, and less in the kind of mindset or the philosophy that Christ had, upon which we built our faith.

It seems like a lot of people would kind of break their necks to stop a crucifix from falling, you know, on the floor, than they would to cross the street and give some guy a buck, you know, who's got no sandwich or no money or something like that.

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed the new film "Dogma." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed the new film "Dogma," a comedy about faith and Catholicism.

As someone now who is very, you know, visually oriented through, you know, comic books and making movies, I'm wondering if there were images of, like, Christian paintings or Bible drawings or stained glass that really stuck with you from when you were a kid, and if any of them particularly frightened you or seemed particularly beautiful.

SMITH: Not really, because if you look at the flicks I've done so far, I'm not a very visual person. I'd go so far as to say I'm something of an inept director. My aesthetic is really bad. There's not much of a difference between our first, second, and third film. The fourth film looks a little better than the first three, and I do love comic books, but I'm always about the substance and kind of not the style.

So I'm the last guy in the world to ask, is there anything that visually kind of did anything for you? My stuff is kind of weak visually. But there's a lot of things that I heard and learned growing up that stuck with me and wound up in "Dogma," something like the plenary indulgence.

When I was in Catholic school when I was a kid, our parish had its centennial, its hundredth anniversary, and there was a papal decree granting us a day of plenary indulgence, where if you walked through the front doors on that day, you know, you got a clean slate. And it was -- what a notion it was! It stuck with me forever. I mean, it's -- I was so -- Wait, wait, wait, if we walk through the door, anything I've done is gone? They were, like, Oh, yes.

So I guess it just kind of -- it was more for the kids, right, because how bad could anything we have done at that point have been? I mean, I've since learned that some plenary indulgences, depending on how deep they are, or how official they are, don't wipe away all your sins, mostly venial-type sins.

GROSS: So did you walk through the church door and get your sins wiped away?

SMITH: You better believe it. And I was one of those guys politicking for it to be a weekly event, you know, let's do it every week, let's wipe the slate clean.

GROSS: Tell me if this is too personal, but what was your idea back then of a terrible sin?

SMITH: Oh, when I was a kid, I guess stealing was pretty bad. I mean, because, you know, shoplifting was a big thing when I was something of a kid. When you get to my age -- when you got to my age then, when I was about 10 or 11, you know, you'd skip down to the candy store, Katz's convenience store in town and, you know, try to pinch comic books or some candy that you didn't have the money for.

Or I remember once I felt incredibly guilty about taking $5 out of my mother's wallet and going to play Centipede, the video game, for hours at the local convenience store. And that was pretty bad, as bad as it got. A few years later it would be masturbation for a little while. You know, that became very guilt-inducing for about a week. And then you get over it because you like it so much.

GROSS: Now, did you find a way to stay Catholic and absolve yourself of masturbation at the same time? (laughs)

SMITH: I think every Catholic does to some degree. We're a very litigious bunch, because we're always looking for the ways around the rules. I mean, you have Ten Commandments, right? And you're always looking for the language between them. We're very kind of legalistic. We're like lawyers, because these are the rules, and we're always trying to find our ways around the rules, so you can exist and still be a child of God, or still not sin too badly.

Which is why a lot of kids who went to Catholic school were -- with me were always asking questions when we got into our preteens and early teens, about, like, OK, so petting, you know, where does that stand? Is that considered adultery? Or, you know, there's -- doesn't -- no commandment says, "Thou shalt not feel up" or "go to second base," or something like that.

So we were always trying to find ways around that kind of thing. I must have found ways to settle with masturbation.

GROSS: Well, there's at least one group that's saying you broke the rules and broke them in a very evil way, and I'm thinking of the Catholic League, which condemned your film.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: And as a matter of fact, let me quote the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue (ph). I read this in a newspaper, so I'm assuming he actually said it. He said, "I don't care if Kevin Smith goes to Mass every day. He's a self-hating Catholic who probably had a bad experience in the sixth grade when Sister Mary rapped him over the knuckles, and he's never gotten over it. My advice to him is to seek therapy and to stop living in the past. I don't take on people for criticizing the Catholic Church, I take them on when they cross over the line from dissent to disdain."

SMITH: And he sets the line, I guess? I mean, this -- read that statement back to yourself, and just think, like, this came from a so-called Christian, like a guy who's sitting there telling me that I need therapy, or hypothesizing that the only reason I would make a movie like this is because I was abused by a sister, propagating yet another stereotype of Catholicism, that we all got rapped across the knuckles in Catholic school.

That dude is as guilty as the people he points out. And Bill Donahue -- or Old Bill, as we call him around the office, because we're familiar with him now after six, seven months of persecution at his hands -- occurs to me is no less than a Pharisee or a Sadducee, you know, the kind of high priest that Christ wouldn't waste his time with when he was here.

Because he so piously points out the faults of others, and really -- who made him the guy? Who gave him the yardstick? You know, who told him he could put the line in the sand?

Catholic Church, Terry, has never said anything about this movie, and I would imagine they'd be the authorities in this case. Bill Donahue and his Catholic League are self-appointed media watchdogs who watch everything, TV and movies -- or don't watch everything, as was the case in this movie; for six, seven months he went after us without having seen a frame of film -- and go after them for being anti-Catholic and maintain that there is this Catholic-bashing that exists that's not fair because you can't bash Jews.

I mean, one of his arguments is, if -- I can't wait for the day somebody makes a movie bashing Jews, or, What would happen if somebody made a movie bashing Jews? You know, you would see the outcry then.

And it's kind of like, what kind of Christian approach is that that you're, like, All right, well, if we have to get bashed, I want to see someone else get bashed and see how they feel about it. Whatever happened to turning the other cheek? I mean, you want to talk about disdain, the man is filled with disdain and contempt, and those aren't really the values of a Christian. That's not really following the example of Christ.

GROSS: Well, were you expecting that your movie was going to be controversial?

SMITH: No, not at all. I thought -- since we were staying away from, like, the central figure or icon of Christianity, that being Christ, we'd be OK. I mean, of course, I saw what happened to Mr. Scorsese in "The Last Temptation of Christ," and to me, as sad as that was -- because, boy, is that movie a pro-faith film -- it kind of made somewhat sense, because all people ever heard about that movie was, That's the movie where Christ has sex. You know, and people get up in arms about it, because you're attributing behavior to Christ that normally isn't attributed to him.

However, they leave out the context, right, whether it's, like, Wow, that's the movie in which Christ is dying on the cross and has a delusion about what he had -- what his life would have been like if he had been a man who had lived a normal life of a man, and not, you know, the life of the son of God, and got married and had chil -- had sex and had children, and then comes out of his delusion and dies on the cross like you're supposed to.

No, all they ever feed you is the one line, like, Christ has sex.

And I saw what happened with that movie, and I was, like, Well, look, as long as we don't have Jesus in our movie, I think we're OK, because we don't really have any biblical characters, so to speak, with the exception of God, and nobody could really say that our portrayal of God is blasphemous, unless you think falling down in the middle of a handstand is the utter, you know, contempt of blasphemy or something.

So I thought we were all right. I thought the real controversy would come from people who had seen our other flicks, like "Clerks" and "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy," coming out of this movie going, God, what happened to the "Clerks" guy? He used to be funny, and now all he wants to do is talk about church and Jesus.

GROSS: Disney dropped its plans to distribute "Dogma." Was that a result of the Catholic League's protest?

SMITH: Absolutely. But, I mean, it -- to be fair, it wasn't Disney -- Disney didn't -- any -- nobody from Disney called us up and said, We're dumping your movie. There was a moment where, when the protesting started initially, and there was an article in "Premiere" magazine about it, and the Catholic League -- and this was back in, I think, March of '99, earlier this year -- and the Catholic League controversy started kicking in, or they started talking about the movie more and demanding answers and calling for protests, that Disney suddenly was alerted to the existence of the movie, and asked Harvey Weinstein, the chairman of Miramax, to send them a copy so they can watch.

And Harvey sent a copy over to Joe Roth, who's the chairman of the movie division there, and we heard back from Harvey that Joe had said he liked the movie, but he thought it was the most subversive movie he'd ever seen. And so I said to Harvey, "Well, what does that mean?" And Harvey said, "It doesn't mean anything. As long as it's not an NC-17 movie, Miramax can release this."

And then we started having this discussion about how good it was to be a Disney movie at this point, because it seemed like they were attracting undue attention to us, as much as we were attracting undue attention to them. And it wasn't helping the movie to be a Disney movie, because that's what made us the focus on the Catholic League attack.

So Harvey said, "Well, there's a few options, and one starts with me buying the movie back, and we can take it somewhere else. And I've been involved with some studios" -- he'd done "Shakespeare in Love" with Universal and he'd done "Sliding Doors" with Paramount, and "All the Pretty Horses," a movie that Matt Damon is in that's coming out later next year, with Columbia. And he said, "Well, we can probably take it to one of these studios."

And I said, "Great, let's get as far away from Disney as possible," because we were a target around their neck, and they were a target around ours.

But once we got away from Miramax and Disney, I mean, the same problem came up with every studio, you know, it's just like they're all corporate power structures, and none of them really want to take a bullet from the religious right or from the Catholic League, not over this movie.

So everyone pretty much passed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Smith, and he wrote and directed the current comedy "Dogma."

There's -- one of the characters in "Dogma" is Cardinal Glick, who's played by George Carlin. And he's trying to make Catholicism more, like, upbeat and appealing through a new P.R. campaign. So instead of depressing images of Jesus crucified, one of his slogans is, "Our buddy, Jesus," and his other slogan is, "Catholicism -- Wow!"

Was there something in particular that inspired that satire?

SMITH: Well, I had -- when I had written this back i '94, the first draft of it, there was really nothing that I was satirizing short of myself, because I realized, well, here I am making a movie about faith, and making a movie about Catholicism particularly. And I'm kind of coming down on the side of it. You know, I believe in Catholicism. But I just happen to think church is good, but God is better.

But inasmuch I saw myself as something of a salesman for the whole thing, because I'm trying to put forward the idea of faith to an audience that maybe hasn't thought about faith since their parents stopped dragging them to church. So I kind of felt like I had to satirize myself, and that's where Cardinal Glick comes from.

But cut to a few years later, and I heard at one point that there was a Jerry Falwell -- I don't know if it was Jerry Falwell or for -- no, not Jerry Falwell, what's his name -- Pat Robertson, is that his name? One of these guys who was starting a campaign, a multimillion-dollar campaign, advertising campaign, to turn the Bible into something a little more hip called The Book. And they were going to try to sell it to the youth as something a little more manageable, something they could swallow a little more.

And I thought that was kind of funny, I thought it was kind of in keeping with what we were talking about in the movie.

GROSS: One of the characters in your film says, "Look, people only know Bible history that's been in movies." And it strikes me, you missed out on the biblical epic era, too young for that.

SMITH: Yes, I was...

GROSS: Did you go back and watch it all on video?

SMITH: I mean, I watched a lot of it when I was a kid. Every year they'd rerun both "The Wizard of Oz" and "The"...

GROSS: "Ten Commandments."

SMITH: ... "Ten Commandments." And I guess the movie is kind of a cross between the two, if you look at it. "Dogma"'s not that far removed from both of those flicks. I guess it's a lifetime growing up watching those two flicks back to back that might have resulted in a movie like "Dogma."

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed the new film "Dogma." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Smith. He wrote and directed the new film "Dogma," a comedy about faith and Catholicism.

Now, in "Dogma," you play Silent Bob again, as is a recurring character in your films.

SMITH: Right.

GROSS: Describe Silent Bob.

SMITH: Silent Bob is -- essentially the only way to describe him is to describe the character Jay, who he's constantly partnered with. He's the antithesis of the Jay character, and Jay basically is wiry, always moving, and constantly, constantly yammering. So Silent Bob is the exact opposite on every front. He's kind of the quiet muscle, sober Ying to Jay's raging Yang.

And they kind of make up this little duo of pure id, I guess, you know, just constantly speaking without thinking, the Jay character does. Silent Bob's a little more thoughtful.

GROSS: And in "Dogma" they play, would you say prophets?

SMITH: Yes, they're supposed to be prophets in the movie, kind of unwitting prophets. They don't really understand it or get it. But those characters, I think, are the common person's way into a movie that's kind of steeped in theology, or particularly Catholic history or Catholic theology or even Catholic mythology, which some people call it, but I don't, of course, because it's all true, right? I was raised in the faith.

But they're kind of the -- Everyman's way into it, because there are people who don't think about faith, don't think about God, don't think about their own religion, and Jay and Silent Bob represent those two characters in this movie, two guys who -- all they really think about is living, breathing, sleeping, eating, you know, having sex, that's it, just the real basic kind of stuff.

And they're the comic relief in the movie, and thank God they're there, because otherwise the movie might get too full of itself or too full of hot air, and they're kind of the pin that you kind of press into the balloon to deflate some of that hot air.

GROSS: Now, now, now, Jason Mewes, who plays Jay, the real talkative one, the opposite of Silent Bob, he's someone who's, you know, every other word is "Dude."

SMITH: Yes, right.

GROSS: Now, he's a real friend of yours, right?

SMITH: Yes, he's a guy I've known for about 10 years now. And kind of -- the character he plays is kind of who he was when he was 15. It's kind of a romanticized version of who he was when he was about 15 years old. And he's a great guy, and just one of those people that other people come up to you and say, I knew a guy just like Jay. You know, which is kind of -- always works in the favor of the movies we've done, because there's this identity factor. People see the -- see themselves or their friends in the characters that are -- that we kind of put out there.

GROSS: Do you channel his 15-year-old voice when you write for him?

SMITH: I have to. Yes, pretty much. And it's funny, because I'll write to his inflections and his mannerisms and who he was when he was then, and I -- I'll give him a script, and invariably he always says the same thing, I'm, like, "What do you think?" He's, like, "I don't know if I can do it." And I say, "Do it, it's you. How can you not?

And then we spend a month rehearsing, you know, trying to teach Jay to be Jay. And then people see the movie and they go, God, he's such a natural. I'm, like, Yeah, he's a real natural.

But this time around, he actually blew me out of the water, he was so good. We'd been preparing him for so long for this movie, because he has more screen time than he ever had before. And I was saying, you know, "You got to be serious this time around. I can't hold your hand for this movie. And we got major stars in the movie now, and we got Alan Rickman in the movie."

And he's, like, "Who's that?" And I said, "Alan Rickman, you know, he's a British actor, he was in "Die Hard," "Yippee Ki Yay (ph)." And he goes, "Oh, yeah, I know that guy." And I said, "Yes, but more than that movie, he's a British actor, and they invented acting. And he'll chew you up and spit you out, man, I mean, this guy -- he doesn't stand for any of your snootchy-bootchy nonsense. So you got to be -- stand tall and be more professional this time around, or else Rickman's going to be real ticked."

So when it came to time to start rehearsing, and I usually kind of start with him a few weeks earlier than anybody else, we were sitting in a room together, and I said, "Where's your script?" And he said, "I didn't bring it." And I said, "Oh, this ought to be great." And he said, "No, I memorized my lines." I said, "You did not." And he said, "Try me."

So I would do the lines opposite his lines and then he would do his lines, and he memorized them. And I was blown away. I was, like, "Oh, my God, you memorized your lines already?" And he said, "Yeah, everyone else's too." I said, "You memorized the whole script?" He said, "Yeah, and I do other people's lines." And he knew their lines as well.

And I said, "Why on earth would you memorize the whole script?" And he's, like, "I didn't want to tick off that Rickman dude."

And it was really great, because he had this kind of vision of Alan Rickman as a drill sergeant of sorts. And then the day he actually met him, you know, he was kind of leery of him, and then you meet Alan, and Alan's a real sweetheart. And he's not nearly this vicious Shakespearean actor that Mewes had pictured in his head, I guess.

GROSS: Yes, but your little ruse worked well.

SMITH: It did, it worked really well, because he gave a banner performance in this movie and broke through whatever ceiling it was he was under.

GROSS: You still own a comic book store. What's it like in your store now that you're, you know, a pretty well known movie director? Do people come in looking for you?

SMITH: Yes, most times people come in thinking that I'm actually working the register, and I like to go in there and hang out, because my friends work there, my friend Walter runs the place, and my friend Brian can be there sometimes, and my friend Vincent runs the place sometimes. So I'll go and hang out with them and talk to them and what not.

But the store is great. We've kind of turned it into this kind of little museum showcase as well. When we first moved into it, we'd picked it up from a guy who had it in town, but he was moving, and asked if we wanted to buy the store, and I said yes. So we put a new coat of paint on it, and changed the name of the store to Jane, Sal, and Bob's (ph) Secret Stash. And we started getting out-of-town traffic, then out-of-state traffic, and then cross-country traffic, and then international traffic, because they'd seen the movies, and they would come down to the store.

And I felt bad for them, because there was really nothing of any interest or import at the store. So we got a bigger location up the block and really decked it out. We had our art director, Raffes (ph), did the store up really sweet, and we have a bunch of movie memorabilia hanging around. So it's kind of like Planet Hollywood, but hopefully it won't go into bankruptcy court any time soon.

But it's like this Planet Hollywood kind of thing, where there's props from the movies, like the Buddy Christ statue's there, Jane, Sal, and Bob costumes from some of the movies are up there, little things that you've seen, and all the movies are kind of hanging up around. And people dig it, you know, they come by and really appreciate the whole thing.

GROSS: Since your movie is about trying to prevent the end of the world, and since a lot of people think that the apocalypse might coincide with the end of the millennium, I'm wondering what you're doing New Year's Eve.

SMITH: Me, I would just love to sit home and watch TV, but that's just me. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my social calendar, I got married this year, and my wife is not a big, Let's sit around and watch TV on New Year's Eve type of person. So the wife is looking for something really special to go down, particularly because it's the end of the millennium, if you will, and turn of the century.

And so we're trying to figure it out. And I may actually wind up doing something for a change. And she's talking about maybe going on a cruise. Or I'm a huge Prince fan, or the artist formerly known as Prince, and I heard that he's actually playing at Paisley Park and doing this pay-per-view concert. And that's definitely something I would really mark -- if I can get to, I would go to that, I would definitely spend New Year's in Minneapolis to see the artist, particularly performing like 1999 on -- in 1999, be kind of cool, wouldn't it?

So we're going to do something like that. But we also have got a little bundle of joy in the mix, like we had a baby, so that kind of tempers, I guess, what our plans may be for New Year's Eve, because, you know, can't leave the baby at home by herself.

GROSS: You raising your baby in the faith?

SMITH: Yes, I just had her baptized about, what, two, three weeks ago, had her baptized, which was a -- I guess, traumatizing for her. I mean, they -- we stripped her bare naked and immersed her completely three times in the water in front of a crowd full of people, so I can understand she'll probably have Catholic issues when she grows up as well.

GROSS: Hey, it's nothing compared to circumcision.

SMITH: No, not in the least. I mean, (inaudible), I'm not going to tell her that for a few years, but...

GROSS: (laughs) Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SMITH: Thanks for having me back, man, it's great.

GROSS: Kevin Smith wrote and directed the new film "Dogma."

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Amy Sallett (ph), Phyllis Meyers (ph), Naomi Person, Monique Nazareth, and Joan Toohey Westman (ph), with Anne Marie Baldonado and Patty Leswing (ph).

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Kevin Smith
High: Film writer and director Kevin Smith's controversial new independent film "Dogma" is a comedy/parable about faith and the Catholic Church, starring Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, Alan Rickman and George Carlin. Smith also wrote and directed the films "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; "Dogma"; Religion

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Dogma": An Interview With Writer/Director Kevin Smith
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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