Donald Miller Goes to the Movies
By Cameron Strang
April 13, 2012
Almost ten years ago, Donald Miller released a book about the time he spent at Reed College, a free-thinking liberal arts school in Portland. The challenging, artistic environment of Reed brought Miller to a broader understanding of his faith—and, in time, his essays of "nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality" did the same for millions of other people. Now that book has become a movie, and Blue Like Jazz makes its way into theaters today. RELEVANT founder Cameron Strang recently sat down with Miller to discuss the process of turning the beloved book into a real film, how his faith has evolved over the years—and, of course, software development.
How did you get this script made into a film?
Well, we had a tight script. We just needed to raise the money to make the movie. I have hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, but that goes to yachts and loose women and cocaine. [laughs] No, there's no money in books, and the money was tied up in my mortgage ... So, we needed to raise millions of dollars, and we kind of let a firm try to raise that money for us. They worked very hard, but they didn't really understand the spirit of the movie, and they didn't understand the love that went into it, and we were in a recession. So after two years, we had nothing. I talked to [director] Steve Taylor and just said, “You know, we told a really great story in the movie itself. We told a really great story in the creation of the movie. But we haven't told a great story in the raising of the funds ... It just feels like God hasn't been involved in this process of raising money.” He agreed, but it was sad. Steve had been so devoted to this project. It was five years of his life. And he has $50,000, at least, of his own money put into the movie. He was paying for everything. So I needed to write a blog that basically said. “The movie's dead, and we've been talking about this for a long time. I wrote [A Million Miles in a Thousand Years] about this process, that hit the New York Times, so many people have read about it—and yet the movie will never be made.” And two twentysomethings in Nashville who were fans of the book said, “Well, we think we can raise the money to make the movie.” And I'm thinking, “You have no idea what you're getting into.” They started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $350,000, a little under that, which was shocking to all of us. Even the founder and creator of Kickstarter flew out to Portland to see us and have dinner because he wanted to know, “What the heck are you guys about?” That gained the interest of other investors because we needed more money than $350,000, and we got a lot more money than that to make a really quality film.
Reed College and the area is almost like a character in the film.
I'm so proud of that, because I love Reed College. It's a transformation place for me in my journey where I realized that the truth of who God is and who Jesus is, is relevant in any circumstance or any context. I think before, my faith was lived inside of church culture, and after Reed College, my faith lives everywhere. It lives in church, and it lives anywhere else, so to capture the essence of what Reed is about in the film I think is part of the fun of the movie. I just think it's a unique place, and I feel like Reed College is one of my most charming, interesting friends. I get to introduce him to the world, and I love that. Whether Reed appreciates that, I don't know.
It seems like a protective culture there. How did you get Reed to give you permission to use their name and campus in the film?
The faculty and the students are very different. Reed is a unique environment in that it's actually a very conservative education; a lot of people don't understand that about Reed. They believe in absolute truth; they believe absolute truth is contextual. So that's what's interesting about Reed. What makes Reed unique is that there are no rules. The students are not governed by the faculty at all. At no point will a faculty member at Reed tell a student what to do. And that creates a very unique environment. There's no authoritarian structure at Reed College, but the education is conservative. So what you have is a lot of students who are very authentically looking for truth. What you have at the average seminary is a group of students who are memorizing truth, and that's very, very different. And that's one of the reasons I love Reed College. I loved it. It was one of the most amazing experience of my life to spend three years at Reed looking for truth with people who had a truly objective view of life rather than a subjective view of life. I've never found that in the Church. I found dogmatism in the Church—[in] some more than others.
This college experience happened to you, and years later you write about it, and then 10 years later you're making a movie about it. Those “Dons” are three very different people. How is your faith different now?
Faith is so much more incorporated in my life now that it's hard to differentiate between my life and faith. My life is not as compartmentalized as it used to be. It's almost like life is just faith now. Man, if I can ever write a book that explains that, I'll be doing great. I was trying to figure out faith when I wrote Blue, and maybe the book before Blue and after Blue, when I was trying to figure out the Gospel. And now it just feels like I am extremely comfortable with who I understand God to be, which is informed by the Bible. I don't doubt, and yet I'm completely open to the idea that I don't understand everything. I'm extremely skeptical around people who do understand everything. I hope I've evolved in some way, but I hope my heart is more loving than it was then. I think that's the true litmus test for someone who has become closer to Jesus: their heart is more loving, accepting, childlike, less believing that they have all the answers and more believing in Him.
You're someone who is famously trying to live your life as a story. Give me a sneak peek of how this chapter ends.
I want to change the world—and I want to do it really quietly. There's things that I'm working on that occupy my time, and they would be peculiar to a lot of people—it's software development. I'm working on content for software for major corporations, which sounds weird. That's been occupying the last couple of years. Basically, I'm working on a life-planning system that uses the elements of story to help people achieve a sense of meaning that is based on Viktor Frankl's logotherapy that is talked about in a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I think self-awareness is an antidote for a lot of cancerous disease in our thinking. So what I'm working on is a piece of software, with an outfit in Chicago that's helping me make it, where people go through about 12 modules and they actually become much more self-aware about why they want what they want.
[And] I'm working on a book called The Diary of God. It's a creative, fun outlet for me. It is a fictional project—I have not discovered God's diary. It's a fictional account of God's diary from the creation of the angels to the fall of man. So essentially, it's God's journal as He interacts with Satan. It's a very C.S. Lewis–y kind of book. So that will be my contribution to Christian literature over the next few years. But my primary focus is still this piece of software.
Writing software, releasing movies about your life, writing books about God's diary ...
And eating a lot of ice cream and sitting around in my boxers.