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Hillsong Goes Hollywood

June 1st, 2015 Posted in Artist Spotlight

“I was holding onto a lot of old prejudices about organized religion,” he says. “Some other organized religions where ‘You can’t do this’ and ‘If you do that, Jesus isn’t going to love you’ come from a negative, disciplined place. Hillsong is the opposite of that. They’re like, ‘Jesus loves you no matter what. Come as you are.’ I thought that was a version of organized religion that I could stay open to and that I felt good about.”Words from the non-Christian Director of the new Hillsong United documentary. When you encounter true believers who live out their faith the way Jesus intended, you can’t help but be changed.

They’ve sold millions of albums and toured the world. Is Hillsong United ready for the big screen?“I walk in the door and there’s all these cameras and I’m just like ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening?’”

Taya Smith is recounting a time she walked into the studios at Sony where she was recording with the rest of her band, Hillsong United. Smith is the voice behind “Oceans”—yes, that “Oceans,” the song that, as of this writing, is America’s fourth most popular worship song, despite being released in 2013. In person, Smith crackles with energy, positively bursting with a charming sense of being gung-ho for just about anything.

Still, finding your music studio flooded with cameras would set just about anyone back. Including her. She approached Hillsong United’s guitarist, Michael Guy Chislett, and asked him what exactly was going on.

“And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah. You know that movie thing? It’s happening.’”

“That movie thing” is Let Hope Rise, a big-budget documentary coming to theaters this fall. Smith had heard rumors about a movie—most of the band had—but they had all considered it a distant pipe dream. When asked about their initial reaction to having a big-budget documentary released about their band, each member of Hillsong United says the exact same thing: “Who would want to watch a movie about us?” It seemed like an incredible longshot.

But, remember, this is Hillsong United. Their last album, Zion, debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. Their last tour sold out the world’s biggest and most iconic arenas. They were described on the front page of The New York Times as a “phenomenon.” They are, by almost any measurable standard, the most successful Christian act in the modern recording industry.

They’ve been dealing in longshots for the entirety of their career.

But still. A movie?

A Different Direction

The band wasn’t the only one who met all this with skepticism. It was also the first reaction of Michael John Warren, who was approached with the task of directing the documentary by a friend. According to Warren, the idea of a Hillsong United movie had been “kicking around in Hollywood for a few years,” but nobody could decide on a director. Warren’s name was put on the list, and even he’s not entirely sure why.

“A friend of mine called me up and said, ‘Hey, have you heard of Hillsong?’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Nope. Never heard of them.’

“I was raised very Catholic, actually,” he explains. “I was an altar boy and went to Catholic high school and got confirmed. Then, when I was a teenager, I told my parents ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ I hadn’t really thought about religion actually for, like, 20 years. So when this came across, I was like, ‘Oh, this is something I never would have even thought of doing.’”

Philosophically, Warren may not seem like the obvious fit to document a praise and worship act. But professionally, he’s almost overqualified. He made his name as a hip-hop-centric filmmaker, having crafted compelling, intimate documentaries about everyone from Nicki Minaj to Drake. His film about Jay-Z, Fade to Black, is considered a classic of the genre.

Warren is a gifted storyteller and a fearless interviewer. He speaks in vivid, full sentences, clearly a crafter of compelling narratives. But one thing he is not—and he’s very clear on this point—he’s not a Christian. He uses the term “searcher.”

“I don’t necessarily believe, but I also don’t necessarily not believe,” he explains. “My point is that I’m not so sure. I’m just open to it all.”

Being spiritually skeptical, it’s no surprise he didn’t exactly jump at the chance to direct a movie about a church worship band, no matter how successful. It’s hard to say why he decided to even give Hillsong United a shot in the first place, but once he did, he was all but sold.

“Once I realized the music was actually good, it was a big step in the right direction for me,” he says.

“Then I went to one of the services in New York and I was really impressed at how multicultural the attendance was and how warm the vibe was. Then the service started and it started with about 20 minutes of music.”

To people familiar with Hillsong’s brand of worship, it’s easy to forget just how unusual it all is to an outsider. But unusual doesn’t mean off-putting, and, in Warren’s case, it piqued his interest.

“It was hands in the air, people singing every word,” Warren says. “It was a very moving environment, and that’s when I first started thinking that this was going to be a pretty compelling movie. You start to understand the church and what the band has done and you realize that there’s a lot of story here. That was critical for me: making sure there was going to be a plot more than just music. That started to reveal itself to me.”

Warren set up a meeting with Hillsong’s leadership team, including Hillsong United frontman Joel Houston. Houston remembers the meeting well.

“He didn’t understand anything about us or really about faith or Jesus,” Houston says, laughing. “I just told him we’re going to share a lot and he was all about it. He said he’s just going to be a fly on the wall and I said, ‘That’s great. Except the problem with the fly on the wall is that it’s a six-person production team with a giant camera.’ It was hard to ignore it.”

Be Yourself

Taya Smith had a different reaction.

“I know this sounds really rude, but I just ignored them,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to be someone I’m not. Whether you have cameras on you or whether you’re on platform or off platform, what I believe in is what I’m living all the time. I felt like the guys were themselves as well, and hopefully that’s part of the appealing nature of the film. We’re just ordinary everyday people.”

She pauses, and laughs for a second. “I trip over things all the time, so hopefully that’s in there.”

Smith refers to the rest of the band as her older brothers (“whether they like it or not”) and, in truth, that is very much their dynamic. Smith is the carefree little sister, who took to the documentary crew with ease, despite her initial surprise. Houston played the part of a more protective older brother. When asked if he had any hesitations about the film, Houston answers with a firm, immediate, “absolutely.”

“I think we started off and we were like, ‘This is not going to happen,’” he says. “You know, we didn’t make the movie so we didn’t really control the narrative or how it was going to be depicted, and that is a scary thing in some respects. Because in the same way, whenever we do CNN or whatever, they’ll take whatever they want from it, and we were aware that could happen on this scale.”

“But the more we talked to the producers about the ideas they wanted the film to present, we realized it presented some opportunities that were fully in line and consistent with what we’re about and trying to get the message of Jesus out, and His grace and His desire—His plan for all people regardless of where they’re from or what their path as been.

“If the film can bridge that gap and humanize us in a way that makes God and the way He works more evident, then I thought it was certainly something we could entertain. Over time, our excuses were trumped by the opportunity of it all. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

“Interesting” is the same word Warren uses to describe the movie and his role in it.


“I think that was an interesting choice by the church and by the producers—to put someone like me at the helm,” he says. “Because they could have gotten someone who would have toed the company line without blinking. That would have been great, I guess, but it wouldn’t have been the movie we came up with.”

About the movie itself, neither Warren nor the band want to give too much away (Houston himself hasn’t watched the final cut, and says he has no plans to.) But Warren is genuinely excited about it.

“The movie we came up with is really compelling,” he says. “I think the fact that it’s told through my lens almost opens this film up to a bigger audience than just people who have heard of Hillsong. Because you can hear my questions. We’re very real with each other about all that. The way they’re explaining stuff to me is basically like explaining stuff to a non-believer.

“You could play this film in New York City where the nucleus of jaded American culture exists and I think half the people would maybe stop and think a little bit—and I think the other half would stand up and praise.

“I find that really compelling, and I’m really excited about that element of it. It sort of dances this line, and I think the film has landed in this really interesting position where a non-believer can watch it and walk away being like, ‘Maybe I don’t believe everything they believe, but I really respect their mission and what they’re after.’”

This could all sound like the words of a director trying to sell people on his movie but for one very key fact: Warren himself.

“I was holding onto a lot of old prejudices about organized religion,” he says. “Some other organized religions where ‘You can’t do this’ and ‘If you do that, Jesus isn’t going to love you’ come from a negative, disciplined place. Hillsong is the opposite of that. They’re like, ‘Jesus loves you no matter what. Come as you are.’ I thought that was a version of organized religion that I could stay open to and that I felt good about.”

Take What You Want

If you’re thinking this all ends with Warren praying the prayer of salvation while tears stream down his face, well, you’re not alone.

“People’s first question is, ‘Have you been saved?’” Warren laughs. “And they ask optimistically. Kind of like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ I tell them, ‘No, I haven’t been saved, but I have learned a lot this year.’”

Warren admits some of his colleagues are “a bit weirded out” by the movie. In fact, on the way to our interview, he says a friend stopped him to ask about what he’s been working on lately. Warren told him about the movie and asked if he was interested in watching it.

“He said, ‘No, I’m not,’” Warren says. “I’m like, ‘I think you should! Look, believe what you believe, but there are lessons in this film on how to have a better life. Whether you take these lessons as Jesus taught it to us, or humankind has lived long enough to come up with some set of rules on how to love and how to serve other people and how that leads to happiness—take what you want and leave the rest behind.’”

Warren’s take on the film is that it is not terribly evangelistic (although he readily acknowledges that watching the movie could cause someone to, in his words, “get saved”) but Hillsong United sees the film as an opportunity to not only showcase the greatness of their God, but their own flaws.


“I guess what appealed to me the most about doing the whole thing was that we could present what it means to be absolutely passionate about Jesus and who He is and what His grace looks like, and we can just kind of avoid all the pretenses and the illusions,” Houston says.

“Christians, I think, look at people sometimes who are in ministry and feel like you have to be a super Christian,” he continues. “My experience is that God touches very ordinary people and He loves to operate most through very broken vessels. I think [the movie] can amplify the fact that He’s going to use anybody who would make themselves available.

“For God, it’s not about how good we are or how good we aren’t. That’s not what God’s after. God is not looking for perfect. He’s not looking for a flawless performance. He’s just looking for a broken spirit and people who are willing to allow God to do whatever He wants to do. And I think that’s what the story has been for us over many years, our church, and many other churches and Christians around the world and that’s all God’s looking for. At some point we just have to go, ‘Look, we look stupid and we’re making mistakes and that’s OK.’”

On this point, Houston and Smith are in total agreement.

“To be there with Hillsong United and how they are as individuals, it’s kind of nice that people actually get to see them be themselves and see them be real,” Smith says. “They struggle with some things and they’re not perfect. They’ve got kids to look after, and still maintain marriages and all this stuff. Watching it just made me love them more.”

Warren takes a higher view of the band.

“Yeah, sure, on some level, they want to sell albums and they want to be applauded. It’s human nature,” he says. “But the real, real, real thing they’re after, when you really get after it and you talk to Joel and all of them, you realize this is because they believe in heaven and hell and that everyone needs to know that Jesus loves them, so when the end times come they’re bringing as many people as possible to eternity to sit by Jesus. They are trying to save souls for eternity.”


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