"It's a record about looking for some kind of transcendence as well as trash."
-- Bono, on Pop
Behind The Scenes: More From Bono & Friends On The Psalms
May 13, 2016
As I talked with David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary and director of Fuller’s Brehm Texas, for my preview of the film he made for Fuller Studio, Bono & Eugene Peterson: The Psalms, he kept coming back to friendship and honesty, themes he thought were woven through the whole project. The film would not have happened, Taylor said, without the help of friends. And as Bono, Peterson and Taylor all said in their own ways, the Psalms challenge us with their honesty. Taylor also mentioned that after their initial filming in Montana, Bono asked to meet again in New York City to continue the conversation. Naturally, I wanted to come back to that and ask Taylor what else Bono had on his mind. I also reached out to those friends who helped Taylor from behind the scenes -- Charlie Peacock, Nathan Clarke and Makoto Fujimura -- to ask about their roles in making this film. Keeping in mind, too, that the film is a work of art about artists who strive for honesty, I asked them to share how they have been influenced by Bono and Peterson.
From left, David Taylor, Bono, Jan and Eugene Peterson at Flathead Lake, Montana (Photo by Taylor Martyn)
With A Little Help From My Friends
In October 2014, Taylor received his inspiration. He approached Charlie Peacock, legendary musician, producer, and Grammy and Dove Award-winning artist -- and friend of Bono’s -- to ask for advice and help. As Taylor explained in his Brehm Center conversation with Nate Ridson, Peacock thought it was 50/50 that Bono would be up for having a public conversation with Eugene Peterson about the Psalms, and he offered to contact Bono. Of course, Bono and Peterson said yes and we now have the film, but Taylor told me, “It goes without saying, we wouldn't have a project if Charlie had not generously offered to make the introduction.”
I asked Peacock why he thought it was worth a shot. “The Psalms have been a thread through Bono's entire musical career and it's a fact that he values Eugene Peterson and [his book] The Message,” Peacock said. “Given those two things alone, it just made sense to imagine that Bono would likely want to do it. The scheduling was the bigger question.”
After several attempts to find a time when Bono and Peterson could meet, it turned out that right in the middle of U2’s rehearsals for its impending Innocence + Experience tour was a good time for Bono. He left rehearsals in Vancouver to fly to Montana on April 19, 2015, intending to fly back to Vancouver that same day. Taylor said that after some off-camera greetings and private conversations between Bono and Peterson, they only had an hour for the on-camera conversation. Taylor said, “I spent a third of the time asking them questions about their friendship over the years. That left only 40 minutes for us to talk about the Psalms. We barely scratched the surface.” The final cut of the film was a little under 22 minutes.
Taylor asked his friend Nathan Clarke of Fourth Line Films to direct the film because Taylor admired his previous short-documentary storytelling work. Also, Clarke is a U2 fan.
As a U2 fan and filmmaker, Clarke prepared for this project by watching Davis Guggenheim’s From The Sky Down and listening to a lot of U2’s music. Later, while still working on the project, he caught the Innocence + Experience tour at Madison Square Garden and called it “quite a transcendent moment for me. Sure the music was great, but I was really taken by how they brought us into the narrative that they wove throughout the concert.”
Clarke and his crew arrived at Flathead Lake, Montana, a day before the shoot to get the lay of the land and spend some time with the Petersons.
“Beyond addressing the technical questions we had, this time was so important to creating a comfortable vibe not just for the Petersons, but for us,” Clarke said. “You are always a little wary when you invade someone’s house like this. We moved quite a bit of furniture but Jan and Eugene were more than accommodating and this really put us at ease. I hope it also helped them relax just a little bit.”
Moving furniture in the Petersons' home (Photo courtesy Fourth Line Films)
In the film, that sense of ease comes through in the scene where Eugene makes coffee and Jan bakes cookies to prepare for their guest. “There is a comfort in those moments that, to me, are my favorite shots in the film,” Clarke said.
Clarke told me his and cinematographer John Harrison’s main motivation was to capture the essence of a relationship for this film.
From left, the Fourth Line Films crew : Nathan Clarke, John Harrison and Chris Payne (Photo courtesy Fourth Line Films)
After Bono had left to return to Vancouver, Taylor, Clarke and the crew packed up and returned home. A few days later, Taylor got a note from Bono, “requesting that we do a follow-up interview,” he said. “Bono felt that we had more things to talk about and I knew that we did too, so I was grateful and pleased to hear that we’d have a second chance to plumb the Psalter.”
That second interview took place July 29, 2015, at the International Arts Movement gallery in mid-Manhattan.
“Knowing that Bono had a special appreciation for visual art, I wanted to see if we could find a gallery in which the conversation took place. I called my friend Makoto Fujimura and asked for his advice,” Taylor said. As the founder of the IAM and a member of the board of directors, the internationally renowned artist and writer Fujimura offered the space.
Fujimura, a longtime fan of U2, told me he has played U2’s music in his studio as he’s worked and is thankful that the band has been “an oasis of sanity in the desert of popular culture for a long time.”
When Bono arrived for the interview, Fujimura showed his painting “Splendor-Ghost" to him. “Bono really liked the painting, and I am glad that he felt comfortable in our space as it became one of the last events there before we closed the gallery,” Fujimura said.
“The whole thing felt rather providential for me,” Taylor reflected. “A beautiful space, connected to a remarkable artist, run by a hospitable group of artists, a mere handful of blocks from where Bono would be staying. It was perfect.”
From left, at the International Arts Movement Gallery, Joshua Stratton-Rayner, Deborah Fung, Makoto Fujimura, Bono, David Taylor and Heidi Duncan pose in front of Fujimura’s “Splendor-Ghost” (Courtesy of the Ty, Clayton and Lydia Fujimura Trust) (Photo by John Harrison)
'More Things To Talk About'
Taylor’s two meetings with Bono left him thinking Bono was “frightfully intelligent when it came to the matter of the Psalms. He is a serious student of them -- their history, their poetry, their themes, their various uses. I was thoroughly impressed.” Knowing Taylor is an associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, I asked him what impressed him so much.
When they met again in July, “it was patently evident Bono had more to say,” Taylor remarked.
The rest of the conversation in New York City came back to themes they had talked about with Peterson in Montana, Taylor said. They explored their understanding of the relationship between the arts, on the one hand, and the experiences of suffering, growing older, mortality and death, on the other hand. “It was a fascinating part of our conversation, it goes without saying,” Taylor admitted.
In Taylor and Clarke's film, as Peterson and Bono discussed the role of honesty in life and art, especially when Peterson talked about not wanting to escape from or avoid real-world problems, I was reminded of how he ended a conversation with me in 2006, when we talked about U2’s music. I had asked all my questions and thought we might be finished, but then I asked Peterson if he wanted to offer any more comments. He did, and he wanted to talk about honesty.
Bono’s comments in the film about honesty and the sometimes lack thereof in the lives and art of Christians fueled -- apropos Bono -- about a week’s worth of Internet responses, primarily from fans of Christian music championing songs that they thought met the criteria of "honest.”
What Bono said was this:
The online reactions culminated, one could say, in Contemporary Christian Music magazine asking singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson (no relation to Eugene) to weigh in on the matter after Peterson tweeted, “I get where Bono is coming from, but the fact is, there’s TONS of honest Christian art. It just isn’t mainstream.” For CCM magazine, Peterson elaborated with an even-tempered defense of artists he knows while lamenting that “[t]he problem, you see, isn’t that Christian artists lack honesty. It’s that the masses seem to prefer something else, and that something else casts a long shadow.” Still, Peterson asserted, “It’s clear that Bono, for whom I have a lot of respect, is shooting from the hip, and while it’s tempting to criticize and parse every word he’s saying … [i]t’s important to keep the context in mind, and to recognize the spirit of what he’s saying.”
The spirit of the Psalms prompting Bono to ask for more honesty in Christian art, and from the artists themselves, is a hip-shot Bono’s loaded and launched before, most notably in his 1999 Introduction to Selections From The Book Of Psalms, in his 2006 Leadership Summit interview with Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels, and in his 2013 interview with Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly. Also, although he hasn't made public comments that are archived and searchable about the subject, I would think Bono's been surveying the contemporary Christian music scene and talking about wanting more honesty from Christian artists since the early 1980s, when U2 intentionally navigated a course away from being labeled a contemporary Christian music act itself.
Taylor noted he could see how U2 has followed a career path that intersects with the worlds of Johnny Cash and Beyoncé, as seemingly diverse as they are, but who are, in fact, “part of a musical tradition with explicit tethers to church music, social ties to a particular religious subculture and lyrical allusions to the biblical narrative.”
For Peacock, he told me he is aware of having the benefit of U2 and Eugene Peterson in his life when he reads the Psalms: “I think I do approach the Psalms differently due to the Bono/Eugene influence. Both men have emphasized the honesty and grittiness of the songs and the place lament has in human experience. To shake your fist at God and ask why is evidence of the presence of grace. I think both these characters get this and live it.”
As Clarke worked on the film, he heard in Bono’s comments an admonition to consider the Psalms as a model for art-making, which he said “gave him language for things he intuitively felt.” He also picked up on the value of exploration:
In Fujimura’s estimation, “Bono has created a new category of being a servant rock star/activist that is unusual, and without equal in my mind. Perhaps Georges Rouault is similar in his influence over Modernist Parisian culture. Eugene's work is a work of a poet exegeting Scripture, and Bono is carrying that prophetic work into popular culture. They are both ‘north stars’ for me.”
© @U2/Calhoun, 2016