Chris White’s ‘Electric Jesus’ screenplay is a love letter to 1980s Christian hair-metal

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Chris White’s screenplay might bear the potentially controversial title “Electric Jesus,” but the Greenville producer, actor, and writer has actually created an homage to an oft-maligned subgenre of an oft-maligned genre: the Christian hair-metal of the late 1980s, made most popular by bands like Stryper and Petra. The fictional teenage band at the center of the screenplay, which has been chosen as a finalist at this year’s Film Festival, is called 316, a group that piles on the hairspray and spandex while quoting Scripture.

The story is neither a parody like “This Is Spinal Tap,” nor a straight-ahead musical. White, who has developed the screenplay over four years with an eye on shooting the film this summer, calls it a “band movie.”

“Band movies tend to be about the joy of creation hitting a wall of disappointment or failure,” White says, “with the band ultimately either pushing through and succeeding or collapsing and realizing later that there was still intrinsic value in what they were doing.”

The story follows the band and its soundman Eric, the protagonist, as they leave a gig at a church one night in 1986 with an unexpected stowaway: the pastor’s daughter, Sarah.

“The movie starts, and we see the main character as an adult,” White says. “He’s just pulled up to a funeral and he’s about to go in, and he flashes back to the summer of ’86. We meet the band, and a girl sneaks off with the band. They’re playing at a church and they get down the road and discover that Sarah is in the van. And Eric falls for Sarah. And ultimately, we find that the story is actually about Sarah, about her life and career.”

In its fully realized form, “Electric Jesus” will feature cover songs by Stryper and original songs by Daniel Smith. “Like any kids that wanted to be a Christian hair-metal band, they have had some Stryper in their repertoire,” White says. “But there are spots in the movie for three original songs by Daniel, and I wrote lyrics. It’s not a parody, but the Christian theology of a 15-year-old writing a song in 1986 might be … sentimental and confused, let’s put it that way.”

White, who has more than 20 film and television credits as an actor, producer, director, and writer, got his inspiration from a childhood spent in a Southern Baptist church youth group in Columbia. “Part of being in that culture was listening to contemporary Christian music,” he says. “I’m not looking down on these characters, but at the same time there’s a kid with big hair with his makeup running and tight pants who’s reading Scripture, because it’s 1986.”

White’s ultimate goal is to make an independent film entirely in South Carolina, not just because it’s his home, but because he says the state’s tax incentives are tailor-made for indie films with a $2-$6 million budget.

“I’m a film artist that’s also a producer,” he says. “If you gave me a screenplay you wrote, my job is to try to figure out how to make the movie in a way that it makes money and we all get paid. And South Carolina has great film incentives. For me, for this project, the way the incentives work is perfect. You get cash rebates from the state to the tune of about 20 to 30 percent of what you spend. If your investors are from South Carolina, they get a tax credit. It’s the perfect place to make a $2-$6 million movie. And what surprises me is that the tax credit has been in existence for 10 years and no one’s ever used it. These are great incentives, and people aren’t taking advantage of them.”

White hopes that he can use the screenplay’s appearance in the Beaufort Film Festival, which began on Wednesday, Feb. 21, as part of his pitch to potential investors.

“It’s the best film festival in South Carolina, maybe in the region,” he says. “Just getting in and being a part of it is great. But if I’m doing meetings with investors and I want to persuade them that this is a viable project, this is something I want them to know about. The fact that we have the honor of being a finalist means that I can go to somebody who’s about to write a check and say, ‘This really awesome film festival thinks it’s great, too.’”

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