On Saturday mornings in the 1980s my dad and I would stand in Union Square with our bibles and Watchtowers. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses and preached the word of God to anyone who listened to us. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was researching a story that would become a novel that would later be adapted to a film directed by Eric Stoltz.
Working on the “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk” was an intense experience. I had to write characters that were Jehovah’s Witnesses and totally committed to the belief system. It was rough because I wrote the story long after I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. After leaving there were hundreds of therapy sessions, massive depression, and even a hospital stay to come to terms with life beyond the religion. Some of the characters were based on real people and the hero, Gabe, was based on me. Diving into the project didn’t feel therapeutic; it was more like opening scars to let them bleed out again, while trying to create something that would entertain a reader if it ever got published. My goal as a writer was to not wallow in sorrow or poke fun at the belief system. I wanted to show a slice of life and convey how screwy the human condition is whether one has a strict belief system or not.
When I found out that Eric Stoltz wanted to direct the film version of the book it was dream come true. He was a veteran director for television and this would be his first feature film as a director.
He requested that I write the screenplay to keep the voice of the novel. As we worked on rewrites Stoltz was always in tune with making sure the adaptation was true on every level. It was tricky because there’s a fine balance between humor and tragedy and none of it is played as slapstick.
The bulk of the shooting was in and around Fallbrook, CA. It was a stand-in for a city similar to Millbrae of the 1980s where I grew up. The locals lent us their older cars and they were most of the hundreds of extras in the film. They let us use their restaurants, homes, mechanic garages, and airplane hangers as locations.
Most days during production I stood behind the monitor with Stoltz and our script supervisor. There were days when it was emotional to watch actors play scenes that literally happened word for word in my life. If I could only tell the 17 year old me that the horrors I was going through would later become a feature film.
There was a pivotal scene in the screenplay where Gabe, our hero, played by Sasha Feldman and his father, played by Paul Adelstein, clash after a sin Gabe committed is revealed to the elders in the congregation.
The scene was a breaking point in their relationship and it was full of raw emotions. I’m not an actor, I just wrote the scene, and I had no idea how we were going to pull it off. Eric and I stood watching at the monitor and he kept making the actors retake and retake the scene.
Feldman and Adelstein got along great during every day of production except for this scene. They both didn’t talk to each other in between takes and stayed in character when we were rolling. It kept escalating to a level where the crew actually stopped working and everyone was quiet even when the cameras weren’t rolling. It could have been take 9 or 15 and Stoltz decided Adelstein should slap Feldman during the next take. Feldman had no clue it was coming. Stoltz yelled “action” and the scene progressed and then whack, Adelstein smacked Feldman almost knocking him to the ground. Feldman, staying in character, was sobbing and shaking. There was another minute or so to the scene and Stoltz yelled “cut” and it was time to reset to do it all over again. Feldman keeping his distance from Adelstein until everything was reset to film another take.
During shooting on location it was about a 30 minute drive back to our accommodations. I wouldn’t let anyone drive in the car with me and I recorded my thoughts of each day’s shooting as an audio diary. That night I cried all the way home. I sobbed. Witnessing the scene escalate and the utter talent of Feldman and Adelstein as they stayed so committed to the story. It was horrific and beautiful all at once. I wasn’t sure I could look Feldman in the face when we got back to where we were staying, but I hugged the shit out of him that night. And we didn’t talk about it. It was too intense we had more shooting days ahead of us.
The last leg of the shoot was in San Francisco for our exterior scenes. We shot at City Lights Bookstore. The significance of shooting there was huge because not only was it the place I spent many hours in the 1990s when I found relief in literature that shifted my belief system as I started to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, City Lights was where we had the release party for the novel some years earlier.
We shot around The Mission, Pacific Heights, and North Beach. At one point our production van drove by Union Square and I made a mental note of how far things have come since my days of preaching.
The film premiered in Beverly Hills in May 2017. I sat next to my father as the lights went down and the show began. Every time there was a scene between Gabe and the father that was based on actual events between dad and me I elbowed him. It was a dream come true and looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. Even preaching and growing up a Jehovah’s Witness; it all feels like it was for a reason.
Some authors have their novels adapted to film and they don’t feel it did them justice. I couldn’t be happier with how Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk turned out. Every actor was top notch and Stoltz is an amazing director to work with. I don’t have the words to express how important it is for me that the film is doing a couple of hometown screenings. The story is kind of a love letter to my younger self as well as a love letter to the City that helped shape me.