It took Jessica Chastain about 10 years to get her adaptation of the documentary The Eyes Of Tammy Faye made, and it was worth the wait. The recently released dramatization of the documentary is eye-opening, well-acted, and compelling, all while shining a light on what life was like inside Tammy Faye Bakker’s world.
As the director, Michael Showalter was charged with putting Chastain and company’s vision on screen. A comedian and actor himself—he came up in the sketch groups The State and Stella, and co-wrote and starred in Wet Hot American Summer and its TV spin-offs—Showalter sought to highlight the movie’s performances first, while also capturing what he calls “the Bonfire Of The Vanities aspect of the way in which these two people found themselves in this maelstrom of insanity.” We talked to Showalter about how he made that happen, from his endless hours watching the PTL network to the narrative choices the movie makes surrounding Tammy’s love life.
The A.V. Club: Jessica Chastain has been working on making The Eyes Of Tammy Faye into a feature for quite some time. When did you come on board, and what was your vision?
Michael Showalter: I know the story, I know the characters, and I’m interested in stories about good intentions gone horribly wrong. I like the kind of Bonfire Of The Vanities aspect of all of it, the way in which these two people found themselves in this maelstrom of insanity and the way in which its tentacles reached so wide, even right into our current situation. There’s so much relevant stuff going on there.
There are also just larger-than-life colorful characters, so cinematically, I saw color and costumes and just bringing that world into reality.
I remember watching [The PTL Show] and there’s a show-within-the-show aspect to it. So I liked the opportunity to work on a movie about a bunch of people making a TV show.
The character of Tammy Faye Bakker is a really, really compelling central character, a kind of misunderstood character who we know in our culture as a kind of a laughing stock and a bit of a villain. I like the opportunity to show that, maybe if you peel layers back, you’ll see her in a different way. And of course, I liked the opportunity to work with Jessica Chastain, whose work I admire so much. I felt like would be really exciting to collaborate with her on this.
AVC: I read that Jessica met with Jim and Tammy Faye’s two children, and that they gave their blessing to the movie. Did you ever talk with or meet them?
MS: I did not, but I certainly talked to Jessica a lot after she did. We were getting reports from Jessica about what those conversations were.
I suppose in a sense I wanted to keep some distance for myself. I wanted to keep my focus very much in the movie, just the actual physical movie that we were making. But I definitely was always wanting to know what Jessica’s conversations with them were, and it was important to us that we were making a movie that they felt was accurate, I suppose, in some ways, without going so far as to say that we were needing them to authorize it or something like that. We were conscious of trying to be accurate in our portrayal as much as we could have [in relation to] what was going on.
AVC: The movie doesn’t vilify Jim Bakker, really. He goes to jail and it’s clear he did some very bad stuff, but it’s not a movie about what he did. It’s not a movie about the money moving around or any of that sort of stuff. It’s a Tammy Faye movie.
MS: Yes, it’s about this woman and this woman’s experiences, but it’s also about what’s surrounding her. These other things went on, and [as a viewer] you’re looking at it from a different point of view.
AVC: My understanding—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that Tammy insisted that her relationship with her producer was a platonic relationship, but that they were soul mates of a sort, which she still thought was cheating. In the movie, they actually cross the physical boundary of cheating. Why take that relationship in a different direction for the movie?
MS: That would be a great question for the screenwriter. I think that, without putting words in his mouth, maybe he would say that that’s not true.
AVC: For a lot of people, you are associated with the world of comedy, and you have been for a long time. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye isn’t really a comedy. There’s a bad joke about a leper and there are some comedic elements to it, but was that a challenge? How did you still imbue the movie with a humorous sensibility or did that even cross your mind?
MS: For me, as a director, anyway, I often treat comedy and drama the same. Whatever the scene is about, if it’s funny, then that happens. If it’s not funny, that’s sort of the same to me.
I do think that these characters in this world, there is something comedic about it without it being satire or making fun of it necessarily. The world is a little over the top. So I felt like I my sensibility could fit that. I see some of the absurdity in it or trying to find opportunities to be playful or whimsical with the approach to things.
I think the main thing for me was I really was interested in this story and these characters in this world, and so I didn’t look at it as like I needed to change the way I approach it completely. It was really the same thing I’m always doing, which is just to approach every scene the same way for what I believe the intent of the scene is, and then do my best to execute that. Every project is different, the characters are different, and each one presents new challenges in terms of how to figure out a way to hopefully tell the best version of the story, whatever that may be.
AVC: You mentioned that you remember watching PTL. Did you watch any before you made the movie, and what did you like about the network?
MS: I just like that they’re having fun. They’re enormously charismatic. They seem to be kind of unscripted and really just kind of winging it. There’s something almost improvisational about it.
Also, sort of as an aesthetic thing, there are just people everywhere. Everywhere you look, there are just random people. One thing that I always thought was so interesting was that there are always five people on the couch with Jim. You have no idea who they are.
If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see there are these scenes where Jim’s on The 700 Club or PTL, and there are just eight random people sitting there on the show with him at all times. There were just people everywhere, answering the phones, in the audience, on the stage. It was sort of like a big giant party and that fascinated me.
AVC: It does make it seem like the movement is huge. “Everyone is involved. You should be too!”
MS: Oh yeah. There’s something going on and you want to be there, which is sort of the same kind of feeling you get when you watch Saturday Night Live. There are all these cool people there and they’re backstage and all these people dropping in like, “oh, look who’s here. This random person showed up!” You want to be in that studio with them because it feels like there’s something special happening.