The YouTube videos of Brad Jones couldn’t have come into my life at a more crucial time. It was 2014, the year where Harold Cronk’s deplorable yet hugely profitable propaganda picture, “God’s Not Dead,” was released in mainstream theaters a day before my birthday. It labeled itself as a “Christian movie,” but it proved to be as in line with Christian values as Paul Ryan’s views on health care, dividing its characters into devout role models and godless monsters. The immense success of this unlikely blockbuster kicked off a tidal wave of equally repellant pictures that I ended up covering on this site, including Daniel Lusko’s hate-mongering “Persecuted” and Darren Doane’s stupefyingly awful “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas.” I was so traumatized by these films that I found myself in need of therapy, and Jones’ uproariously entertaining videos did the trick. On his web series “Midnight Screenings” and “The Cinema Snob,” Jones eviscerated these films with satirical ingenuity and rigorous insight into their shortcomings, illustrating how they offend the very ideology they are supposedly championing.
So when I heard that Jones was executive producing, co-writing and co-starring in his own feature-length parody of these “Christiansploitation” films, I was over the moon. The finished product directed by Ryan Mitchelle and entitled “Jesus, Bro!” does not disappoint. It stars Jones’ longtime friend and collaborator David Gobble as Rick Whitehead, a popular internet atheist who undergoes a forced spiritual awakening in order to win back his religious girlfriend (Allison Pregler). There are plentiful cameos from Jones’ fellow reviewers on “Midnight Screenings” as well as the stars of the “Nostalgia Critic” series on ChannelAwesome.com, including Doug Walker (whom I interviewed in 2013), Fard Muhammad, Malcolm Ray, Tamara Lynn Chambers and Rob Walker, who steals the picture every time he materializes as Santa Christ. Jones recently spoke with me about winning over a religious audience with his new movie, creating his beloved persona of the Cinema Snob and making movies in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
I’d like to start by asking about the origins of your company, Stoned Gremlin Productions, which extends back to your early directorial efforts, such as 2005’s “Cheap” and 2007’s “Midnight Heat.”
My friends and I used to make short movies together, and none of them had a script. We would ad lib and shoot them in a night during the late ’90s. There was one called “Stairwell” where one of us died after accidentally falling down the stairs, and the rest of us had to bury the body. [laughs] After that, we figured we should come up with a production company name. David Gobble, who’s in all of our movies, also happens to be an artist and had made a papier-mâché stoned gremlin. Our friend Mike Rudolph said, “Well how about Stoned Gremlin?”, and the name just stuck ever since. Dave gave me the papier-mâché stoned gremlin, and it still sits on my computer desk where I edit my videos. Everything kind of progressed from there. We made short movies as friends with cameras having a sleepover usually do, and I started giving them scripts that were sophomoric and goofy.
Once it got into the early 2000s, I wanted to make my own exploitation movie—the kind that doesn’t get made much anymore. So I made “Freak Out,” a disco thriller about a serial killer, and followed that up with “Cheap,” a snuff thriller inspired by movies like “Last House on Dead End Street.” After that came “Midnight Heat,” which I made in the style of a gritty ’80s cop movie. I’m not going to lie, I was on a lot of drugs back then, and those scripts were long. [laughs] They were as long as the frickin’ Bible. If I had put everything in “Cheap” that was shot or in the script, it would’ve been a three-hour movie. It’s interesting for me to go back and look at those films because they were micro-budgeted, and I was certainly a different person at the time. They were easy to make and in terms of other films shot on Hi-8 tapes, I know I’m biased, but I think these are some of the better ones that you could find.
The Cinema Snob appears to have emerged around the time of “Midnight Heat,” and the films he reviews are often similar to the ones you’ve emulated in your own features—the ones that have been “lost to time.”
The Cinema Snob came about because I wanted to try something different. YouTube was getting big at the time and there wasn’t a lot in the way of satirical reviews about exploitation movies, which I had grown up on. I knew that I could make a lot of references and have fun with this character, considering these films weren’t really made for him, so he could just be snarky about them. It was done as a lark. I had a lot of free time then because I was working a part-time job, and I only had to be there a few hours out of the day. I thought it would be something fun to do in between making the movies, and it turned into my full-time job after a couple of years of doing it. The series had a little bit of an audience at the beginning, but I wasn’t making money off of it because there was no monetization back then. As fun as it was to play that character, it was also a challenge because I was used to acting in films that were really heavy. I played crazed killers in films like “Midnight Heat,” and all the stuff that I had done before was pretty serious and dark. It was interesting to find my comedic voice as the Cinema Snob and it’s true what they say: comedy is harder.
How much of Brad Jones is in the Snob persona?
I feel like there is a big difference, though there are some Snob episodes where you can see more of me in them. The Cinema Snob is a highbrow pretentious art critic, and he’s much more cynical than I am. I don’t really consider myself to be that much of a cynical person—he’s a bit more bitter and volatile. At the beginning, it was night and day between his personality and my own. There are some reviews that are a bit more analytical, such as “Wired” or “Mommie Dearest” or even the Christian film, “Old-Fashioned.” I’m conveying my own particular thoughts about the movies, but in a snarkier and shoutier way. What you see of me in “Midnight Screenings” is much closer to how I am normally. I’m pretty chill and laid-back in real life. A lot of people in the comments assume that I’m high on pot in that series and I’m always like, “No, I’m not. If I was, I wouldn’t be saying anything.” [laughs]
Amidst all the snark, there is a great deal of sincerity in your videos. The friendship between you and the other reviewers on “Midnight Screenings” is readily apparent, and for viewers who may have seen a particular film on their own, that series is as close as you can get to shooting the s—t about it with your friends.
That’s exactly what “Midnight Screenings” is and that’s why it’s my favorite show to do on the site. It’s just two people objectively talking about a movie and their own personal feelings toward it. It’s what my friends and I have done for decades since we’ve known each other. We watch a movie and we shoot the s—t about it afterwards. What’s interesting about “Midnight Screenings” is how our conversation occurs directly after we’ve seen the movie. We walk from the theater to our car, and then start talking about the film in the parking lot. Though we often know whether the other person liked it or not, we don’t know what the other person will specifically say about it. We save the commentary for when we are in front of the camera.
The show illustrates how YouTube can connect people in ways that are positive and, in some cases, therapeutic. That is certainly true of your amazing video where you open up about a past suicide attempt.
I like to tackle serious topics with a sense of humor both on camera and off camera as well. A lot of the stuff that I talk about in that specific video, I’ve discussed onstage during my stand-up act. I feel that if you talk about something like that and you throw some jokes in there, people are more akin to listen to what you have to say, and the same could be said for some “Midnight Screenings” episodes too. In the “Trainspotting 2” episode, Dave and I spend a lot of time talking about addiction, particularly my past addiction to drugs, along with some funny memories about being in our 20s. I have a sense of humor about the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and I’ve always been very open about them. I have no shame about any of it.
Your Cinema Snob episode of “Miss Velma’s Most Incredibly Magnificent Christmas Week” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, in part because of how you juxtapose the mind-boggling footage with your reaction shots. How do you approach the process of editing?
Every decision in the editing is based on what feels right, whether it’s cutting to a facial expression or a particular mannerism. I write the episode first and then I go back through it and put in “bold” I want to be on camera. Usually when a clip is played without me talking over it, it will cut back to me in the chair, while my narration will occur in the middle of the clips. Sometimes I’ll be putting my own words in the character’s mouth. It’s all an intuitive process, and you get used to it over time. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, and a lot of things just feel natural. As hard as it was to play the Cinema Snob at the beginning, nowadays I feel like I can do it in my sleep.
When did you first become aware of “Christiansploitation” films?
I grew up going to Christian schools. I wasn’t raised religious but I went to a private school because I preferred it to a big public school. The theology courses that I took for 12 years were fascinating. I never considered myself to be all that religious, but I loved all of the classes that I took about Christianity and theology and comparative religions. I don’t remember seeing “Second Glance”—the film where David A.R. White exclaims, “Jesus, Man!”—at the school, but we saw plenty of other films and programs like it, such as “Colby’s Clubhouse.” You could tell their heart was often in the right place, but they were really cheesy and corny. “Made-for-TV” doesn’t even begin to describe their quality. They reminded me of “Special Delivery” on Nickelodeon. In terms of the modern stuff from companies like Pure Flix, the first one of its kind was “God’s Not Dead.” It wasn’t the first one that was made, but it was very mainstream and did very well at the box office. That film really feels like the beginning of the modern wave of religious movies. I don’t remember a lot of them coming theatrically to Springfield before “God’s Not Dead.”
In college, I interviewed someone from the short-lived Fox Faith distribution arm, which attempted to profit off the success of “The Passion of the Christ” with films like “The Ultimate Gift” or “The Last Sin Eater.” They had big names, but they couldn’t find an audience. “God’s Not Dead” was the first post-“Passion” Christian film to turn a profit in a big way.
It made $62 million on a $2 million budget. That money will fund their movies for the next couple of decades. A difference that I see in a movie like “God’s Not Dead” or “Last Ounce of Courage” versus some of the ones that I saw in school is the fact that these new films have a victim complex. They are made for people who want to feel like they’re being persecuted even though they’re not. These films need to have an enemy. Everyone else is the enemy and you—the Christian audience—are the hero. You’re the one who is wholesome and good and moral, and everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe thinks you’re the scum of the earth. They also happen to verbally abuse their wives, beat their children and are hellbent on destroying you.
In “God’s Not Dead 2,” Ray Wise is the evil ACLU guy who wants to prove that God is dead. It’s a film for people who have a fetish for feeling persecuted, and that to me is where the exploitation comes in. The filmmakers are exploiting this audience by making them feel like this persecution is a reality, and that everyone who isn’t a Christian wants to take away everything that they believe in. That’s just not true. It’s easy to laugh at films like “God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead 2,” since they are wildly over-the-top and have many parts that are unintentionally humorous. But at the same time, there’s nothing funny about that sort of exploitation.
It’s harder to laugh at these films after the Trump election, since the call to arms for a government takeover in “War Room” essentially foreshadows his administration, leading to the president’s Religious Freedom Executive Order attempting to decimate the separation between church and state. Even a seemingly harmless film like “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” encourages believers to distort reality by creating their own alternative facts.
It feels like alternative Christianity, honestly. When I give a negative review to a film like “God’s Not Dead” or “War Room” and point out what’s wrong with it, I’m not bashing Christianity. Reviews that I’ve done of those movies aren’t mocking Christianity, and our movie, “Jesus, Bro!”, also isn’t mocking Christianity. There is a difference between pointing out the flaws in something like this and just bashing religion. “War Room” ends with that militaristic call to arms you mentioned, where it cuts from Washington D.C. to the title, with the “o” in the shape of crosshairs. That is not the kind of Christianity that I grew up studying.
Tell me about how you and director Ryan Mitchelle went about recreating the aesthetic of modern “fanaticism” films. The restaurant scene in “Jesus, Bro!” looks identical to the one in “God’s Not Dead,” where a woman reveals that she’s dying of cancer and her evil liberal boyfriend whines, “This couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?”
We had an amazing cinematographer, AJ Young, who studied all of these films. We told him what movies we were aiming to mimic, and he did his homework. He watched movies like “God’s Not Dead,” “Old-Fashioned,” “War Room” and “Saving Christmas” in order to narrow down and pinpoint the aesthetics of them—how their scenes are framed and lit. When we were in preproduction, he told us, “This is some of the hardest homework that I’ve ever had. I had no idea until taking on this project just how many of these movies existed.” Mimicking the aesthetic was easy, it was actually sitting down and watching these films that proved to be hard for him. [laughs]
While writing the script, it was so much fun for me to emulate the style of these films. It gave me permission to write the corniest dialogue that I could come up with while going after scenes like the one in “Do You Believe?” where Sean Astin is mad about the family praying next to him and his wife at a restaurant. Our film plays with the stereotypes of the “evil atheist” and the “super-moral Christian,” played here by Allison, who speaks purely in exposition. A lot of the cornier lines in the movie are a nod to films from the ’80s and early ’90s, such as “The Pretender,” which has the line, “If I ever come to Jesus, I’m gonna come all the way!”, or the line from “Second Glance” where the dad goes, “You’re not missing the fun, you’re missing the sin!” In “Jesus, Bro!”, we have lines like, “You do have a sickness, Rick. You’re struck down with Hepatitis G-O-D!”, or, “That is Vlasic Jesus!”, after Jesus takes the form of a pickle.
It fits the good-natured tone of films like “Dogma” or “Saved!” Nothing about this movie feels mean-spirited, which is one of the biggest differences between “Jesus, Bro!” and many of the films that it is satirizing.
We wanted to make a movie that people of all faiths could enjoy, and that people who have a sense of humor about these kinds of movies could enjoy. We’ve gotten tons of positive feedback from Christians and conservatives who have seen and loved the movie, because we really wanted to go after a lot of the clichés and tropes of those movies while at same time, make our own religious film. It’s sort of like how “Young Frankenstein” plays with old monster movies. People who love old monster movies could watch “Young Frankenstein” and really have a laugh about it. The same is true of how “Blazing Saddles” satirizes classic westerns and “High Anxiety” satirizes Hitchcock movies. Of course, classic westerns and Hitchcock movies are way better films than the ones we’re tackling, but that being said, we really wanted people who are religious to enjoy “Jesus, Bro!”
The film’s call for unity is especially welcome at a time of such dramatic disunity in our country.
Election Day occurred right in the middle of production. The movie took eight days to make. We had one day off in between those eight days, and that was Election Day. When we arrived back onset, the vibe was not good. We were all like, “Thank god we’re making a comedy.” We were shooting scenes with Malcolm as the Devil and Rob as Santa Christ, and when we were running through some lines, Malcolm paused and said, “This movie is oddly more relevant now after yesterday.” [laughs]
You manage to integrate the Channel Awesome universe within this story, while still finding a legitimate reason for characters like Santa Christ to be in there. And it must be said, Rob Walker is insanely funny in this movie.
Oh god, he’s so good in “Jesus, Bro!” I’ve just always loved his character of Santa Christ. He consistently cracks me up. I like incorporating Channel Awesome people in our movies, and I like using preexisting characters. The lead character in our film is Rick Whitehead, and that character comes from a series we did called “The Reviewers.” You don’t need to have seen an episode of “The Reviewers” in order to see “Jesus, Bro!”, but if you have seen the show, there are little nods that you’ll be able to get. When I was in my notes stage for “Jesus, Bro!”, I realized that I wanted the main character to be an internet atheist type, and since I already had a character like that—the Rickhead—I figured that I might as well make him the lead. If it hadn’t been the Rickhead, it just would’ve been the same character twice. Incorporating the character of Santa Christ also came along in the notes stage. I was like, “What if Rick compares Jesus to Santa Claus on his internet show, so when he gets to Heaven, Jesus takes the form of Santa Christ?”
David Gobble and Sarah Gobble—who I hadn’t realized were a couple until I saw they had the same last name—are both very good in this. I really enjoyed Sarah’s nonchalance as God.
They are both fantastic actors, and we’ve done several movies together. Sarah starred in a movie I did called “The Hooker with a Heart of Gold,” and she’s amazing in that. Dave played a character named Max Force in “Cheap” and all of his characters are played genuinely, even when they deliver corny lines. This film is written to be a Mel Brooks-style parody as opposed to a modern-day parody, which has cultural references in place of characters. You’ll have a scene with Iron Man and then Willy Wonka will suddenly show up. That’s not what I wanted to do here. I wanted the film to have very genuine performances.
I also loved the titular theme song orchestrated by the composers of “Sharknado.”
It was so great having them onboard. Anthony C. Ferrante, who’s the director of “Sharknado,” and Robbie Rist, who’s in the first “Sharknado,” both make music as well and they’ve helped us out a lot in the past—Anthony especially. He helped us in the promotion of other movies that we’ve done, including one from 2011 called “Paranoia.” He and Ryan are super-super close and have collaborated on many projects, including the upcoming “Sharknado” movie. In “Jesus, Bro!”, we wanted some catchy music in there that could emulate the music that the Newsboys perform at the end of “God’s Not Dead.” They put together that song in a heartbeat.
The modern “Christiansploitation” films aren’t about loving your neighbor but about controlling them. “Jesus, Bro!” suggests that love may be able to transcend religious beliefs if acceptance is valued over judgment.
When the Rickhead tries controlling the situation by converting to Christianity—while using his War Room to destroy his enemies—it fails for him. He just wants to get his ex-girlfriend back, and his scheme completely blows up in his face, kind of literally. [laughs] That is a reference, of course, to “War Room,” where the married couple is having problems in their relationship. The husband verbally abuses his wife and is about to cheat on her, so she uses her War Room to ask God to stop him from doing evil things. And so what does God do? He gives the guy food poisoning. The husband doesn’t cheat on his wife because he had some sort of moral awakening. It’s because he got food poisoning! [laughs]
l was overjoyed when you mentioned my RogerEbert.com review of “War Room” in your Cinema Snob episode on the film, while pointing out that many of the angry commenters were chastising Roger Ebert for the review. Their failure to check the byline proves they aren’t looking at the details.
You’re exactly right. I can always tell in the feedback on my Cinema Snob episodes or “Jesus, Bro!” when a commenter hasn’t seen the review or seen the movie. They think I’m just bashing religion baselessly because they never bother to actually watch the video. I’m seriously pointing out severe flaws that are in these films. “Jesus, Bro!” is making fun of bad religious movies that actually do harm to the religion they are portraying. Whenever someone in feedback says, “You’re just choosing an easy target to bad-mouth religion,” I’m like, “You clearly haven’t seen the movie and you have no intent on seeing it either.”
What’s up next for you, film-wise?
I am in pre-production right now on a political slasher film that I’ll be writing and directing myself. It’ll have the aesthetics of my past exploitation movies, especially “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.” We’re looking to shoot it sometime in the summer on a really quick shooting schedule, with a release date not long after that. Our next big project on the level of “Jesus, Bro” will be a satire on Hallmark Christmas movies, and will likely shoot next year. I also made a movie called “Shot on Shitteo” that still needs a little more work. It’s similar to films from the ’80s like “Woodchipper Massacre” where you find yourself laughing along with the movie. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama during the production, and I have no idea when it will be released, but I kind of like the fact that I’ve got my own “Day the Clown Cried.” [laughs]