Movies

Michael Showalter On Navigating The Rabbit Hole Of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker While Directing ‘The Eyes Of Tammy Faye’

Trying to do a movie about Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker seems difficult. Are they good people? Well, Tammy Faye (portrayed by Jessica Chastain here) certainly has sympathetic qualities. Jim (Andrew Garfield) would be hard to classify as “good,” but director Michael Showalter also can’t get himself to demonize him. Basically, in Showalter’s eyes, he’s a buffoon. But there’s so much story here – from their immensely popular variety show and their also very popular theme park, to all the scandal that followed – it’s difficult to not go down a rabbit hole. And Showalter admits he went down the rabbit hole. And there was a lot there they (he and producer Chastain) decided, for various reasons, not to use. Which he explains ahead.

Based on the documentary of the same name, Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield play Tammy Faye and Jim, from when they first meet to the highs of their success – where they were legitimately famous, even beyond the reaches of people who pay attention to Christian-themed programming. Then it all came crashing down and the scandals (there are many things going on here) became huge news. Ahead, Showalter talks about what he thought of Tammy Faye and Jim back then, before the scandal. And it’s obvious Showalter is sympathetic to Tammy Faye, but Jim… well, Jim is a much more complicated figure.

What was your relationship with these two before doing this movie? As in, did you know the show?

Yeah, I have memories of watching their show when I was a kid. It would be on, flipping through the channels, and I’d come across it and just kind of want to watch it out of kind of a fascination feeling of like, “What is this weird thing?”

Yeah, I’ve tried telling people this. I’d see it by accident and I remember it being pleasant.

Exactly, yeah. They’re fun to watch. They’re fun to watch. They’re very good entertainers. They’re good at what they do. And there was a fascination to it. Sometimes I’m this way with an infomercial or something. It’s like you’re just stuck watching it, you don’t even know why.

Yeah it was this odd variety show, then all of a sudden they’d bring up God and I was like, “Well, that’s weird.”

Definitely. No, I knew that there was the God element, but, I mean, it reminds me of Christian rock or whatever. It’s like heavy metal, but they’re singing about God.

That’s a good comparison.

That was like Metallica, but the lyrics are different. And so then, when the scandal broke, of course we were all paying attention to that as well. I’m fascinated by these stories of good intentions gone wrong. I’m sort of interested by, I don’t know, the human foible of it. It’s fascinating. And then, there’s definitely a very straight line between the televangelism and the religious right and some of the divisions that exist in our country today. It’s not something that had just started in the last, whatever, couple of years. The beginnings of this started a long time ago and so there’s something interesting there too, for me.

I remember it was a huge deal. And now, kind of looking back at it, especially what we’ve been through over the last few years, it strangely doesn’t seem as bad. Like, oh, only embezzlement?

I guess what would make it different, if you could find a more current analogy, was how big they were. What they had built was such an institution, so they had created this entire Disneyland in South Carolina and they were very, very, very, very, very famous. What I do think is that what might’ve been treated differently in the media is some of how Tammy Faye was treated. And I think that has changed – of just making fun of her for wearing makeup or making fun of her for the way that she looked. Those are things that I think, maybe, hopefully, the culture is different about. I don’t know though. I might be wishful thinking on my part.

The movie makes it very clear that you are sympathetic towards Tammy Faye. I’m less clear how you feel about Jim Bakker.

There are certain people that I have a hard time saying aren’t a good person. And I don’t think that he’s not a good person. I mean, just if you’re honestly asking me my own opinion about Jim Bakker, I don’t think he’s not a good person…

Well, last year he was trying to sell Covid cures. That’s bad.

Agreed. You’re right. And yet, for some reason, I just sort of think he’s kind of a buffoon, in a way.

Sure.

Whereas there are other people who I think know what they’re doing is wrong. If you look at Jerry Falwell, if we want to talk about who I think is a bad person, I think Jerry Falwell was kind of a bad person. Whereas Jim Bakker is more sort of…

I’d say ambitious. He’s an ambitious person who wanted to make a lot of money like a lot of people.

Yes. He’s like this nakedly ambitious person and he’s very careless. But in this weird way, I don’t know, he’s tragic, kind of. His weaknesses are kind of tragic, in a way.

Have you heard from him or his people?

No.

Is that surprising?

No, I can’t say that I think that’s surprising. I mean, his children are both still very close with him and both of these children have seen the movie. And so, we know that it’s in the ether. I mean, I’m assuming he must know about it.

It’d be weird if he didn’t. Like, just no one’s told him. “There’s a movie coming out about you this week.”

I mean, his kids definitely know about it. I know that his daughter, Tammy Sue, works with him.

I don’t know this, how did they see it?

I don’t know how Tammy Sue saw it, but I know that Jamie Charles, the son … I don’t know really deeply, specifically, but I think that they feel like this, and the documentary, are sort of the most earnest, fair tellings of the story. Versus some of the others that are more just kind of making it very black and white. Jim was always this sort of tyrant and this ambitious, greedy tyrant, and that Tammy was just like Leona Helmsley or something, just wanting coats and stuff. Which is so not true. Which is so not the case. I think she was a bit naive. I think that there were things that she just didn’t want to know. There were things that I have a feeling she didn’t fully understand and didn’t want to fully understand.

The whole aspect of Jerry Falwell possibly spreading rumors that Jim was gay. How did you approach this? The movie kind of seems to be saying those rumors might be true but we don’t know. It’s presented as “maybe.”

I mean, it’s what you said. It’s sort of “maybe.” It’s in there as a kind of maybe. It’s possible. It’s plausible. But it’s also been denied by Jim Bakker himself and so you don’t want to not honor that, that he said that. It’s interesting. It’s interesting, the thought of it. So it’s certainly, storytelling wise, something that I liked as a potential, as a sort of a possible explanation for a lot of things. And it further complicates a lot of things as well. Because especially the Jessica Hahn part of it. Which is, what were his real motives there? And I mean, that whole thing, we avoided that as well, but there’s a lot of gray areas to a lot of it that is sort of a lot of rush to judgment.

Why did you avoid some of that?

I know Jessica Chastain has felt strongly that one of the things is that Jessica Hahn was sort of portrayed as a temptress. But she says it was rape. She has a totally different version of it. It was total coercion, I think, and Jessica Chastain didn’t want to exploit that at all. One of the things that I love about this movie, and what I’ve heard some people who see it say, is they go see the movie and then they go online and Google the story. And there are all these things that you get curious about, and then people go back and learn about it.

Before doing this movie did you think you had a read on him? Or did you know it’s a never-ending rabbit hole?

Both. I think I knew it was a rabbit hole. I think I knew that it was going to take me down that path. But, in terms of taking it on, I didn’t think of it thematically. I more just thought of it visually, tone-wise. I feel like I know how to put this world upon his feet. And I just saw it visually. And then, kind of the deeper stuff, a lot of that came through working with Andrew and Jessica and the other actors and talking through the scenes and really trying to figure out what all this was about.

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