As I was walking up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.
Los Angeles native Brian Flemming is doing just fine without a distributor. As part of a strategy to get his films seen, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered auteur charges nothing to community centers willing or offering to screen his 2005 documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. (Locally, the Center for Inquiry–West showed the film last August as part of its metaphysics program, inviting Flemming to participate in a post-screening discussion.) Flemming earns his income from the sale of DVDs at these events — a take that’s supporting his simple lifestyle as a bachelor in West Hollywood. (He only recently started driving.) That, and royalties from amateur productions of his hit off-Broadway stage parody, Bat Boy: The Musical, co-written with Keythe Farley, which did well in L.A. and New York, before being crucified on London’s West End.
“It’s much easier to make a film than ?put on a play,” Flemming says. (Bat Boy opened in 1997, produced by the Actors’ Gang amid warring camps and contract disputes.) And, he adds, it’s only getting easier. “All you need now is a digital camera and some editing equipment. . . . I know there’s an audience out there, and I know how to reach it.”
Screenings of The God Who Wasn’t There and subsequent DVD sales have ?been brisk, thanks in large part to the movie’s unique thesis: Christ probably ?never walked the Earth. With support from cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, and Snopes.com’s Barbara and David Mikkelson, the film’s core ideas come from the scholar Robert M. Price, who notes that of Christ’s peers who wrote considerably about their own lives and the people around them, none mentions Christ’s daily life or what are now regarded as the most popular Bible stories — Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the miracles, Pontius Pilate, the Crucifixion and, of course, the Resurrection. Rather, those accounts started arriving decades later, in the Gospels. As Flemming puts it, in order to take the Bible stories at their word, you have to accept the unlikelihood that “Jesus lived, people forgot, and then they remembered.”
Flemming was born in Sylmar and attended Village Christian Schools in Sun Valley, California, where he says he was born again three different times, and the oppression of that upbringing (“You live with the conviction that almost ?any natural impulse or questioning thought is going to land you in eternal damnation”) has fueled a small body of work that tweaks authority where it hurts. Amid a philosophical investigation that persuades by the sheer force of its fastidious research, the movie’s one petulant scene has Flemming interviewing VCS superintendent Ronald Sipus about the ethics of indoctrinating 1,800 students with a terrifying fiction dressed up as fact. Trapped in his own web, Sipus walks out midinterview.
Flemming first stirred the cultural pot with the release of Nothing So Strange, an inverted version of The God Who Wasn’t There, in which rather than questioning the empirical validity of a myth, he invented his own. Purporting to be a documentary about the assassination of Bill Gates — by a gunman who hopes to trigger a class war — Nothing So Strange analyzes the shooting, and the citizens’ brigade ?that tries to get to the bottom of a possible cover-up by the LAPD, armed with a plethora of experts and scrupulous ?detail. Needless to say, Gates was livid, but Flemming stuck ?to his guns, so to speak, which is among the reasons his fans are so loyal.
Making movies has its dangers. Flemming was roughed up by Bruce Willis’ bodyguard when the filmmaker attempted to film a building in Hailey, Idaho, for a 1999 segment on the Independent Film Channel’s Split Screen program, about Willis’ troubled relations with the town. (Flemming says that IFC, caving to pressure from Willis, never aired the segment.) Flemming also beefed up his personal security after receiving death threats for The God Who Wasn’t There. He says he can’t imagine the consequences of making a similar documentary about Muhammad, but that Christians are generally very nice people: Ninety percent of the mail he receives offers him salvation. Some hope.