The old adage, “write what you know” served Eric Scott Johnson and Eric Machiela well. The pair recently completed Camp Manna, a coming of age film that takes place at an Evangelical Christian summer camp in the late 1980s.
Both Johnson and Machiela grew up in West Michigan within the Evangelical faith, so when they teamed up in 2004 with dreams of making a feature-length film, they naturally began thinking about their upbringing.
“We started unpacking what we’d grown up with, and from there suddenly we were making a film about a Christian camp,” Machiela said.
While the film takes a satirical look at the Evangelical faith and its community of followers, Machiela and Johnson are very clear that this is a community they still have a lot of love for.
“It was important to us, because we knew we were going to be lampooning and satirizing this culture that we grew up in – that we still love by the way – that it was a comedy, because we wanted to make sure people knew we loved it and were laughing along with us through the unpacking of the oddities of Christian subculture,” Johnson said.
When they first began writing the film, Johnson and Machiela were coming into adulthood and starting to look at the world from which they grew up with more distance and a critical eye.
“The Evangelical world is an absolutist, black & white world. Jesus tends to be a little bit of a magic wand sometimes,” Johnson said. “For us, we were coming to this point, developing as people and traveling and getting our own personalities and seeing wider viewpoints, and we had to figure out what of this world do we admire, cherish and love and what of this is hilarious nonsense that needs to be thrown out. The film provided the occasion to explore that.”
While there have been films satirizing the Evangelical faith previously, Johnson and Machiela said what sets theirs apart is this inside-out perspective.
“We thought we could make something unique and maybe different than what’s been made before, because we were willing to laugh at a thing but also not to be cynical about it. It’s good hearted and comes from a place of genuine affection.”
Johnson and Machiela described their Evangelical upbringing as akin to the “Put a bird on it,” episode of Portlandia.
“Put a Jesus on it, that was my world,” Johnson said.
He said from praying for a parking spot to keeping track of how many people you’d saved, his upbringing was very insulated within his faith community.
“It was fun to unpack a culture I grew up in. Everything was about the tenants of the subculture – everything we did, ate, breathed, slept – was about that subculture. The movie was an opportunity to take a deeper look into something that is a bit shielded from the outside world.”
In the film, the main character, Ian Fletcher (Luke Klein), is a fish out of water.
As an angsty “nonbeliever,” Ian is shipped off to a backwoods Evangelical Christian camp, where he must compete in (and survive) a Biblically-themed Olympiad known as the God Games. Under the guidance of camp director Jack “Cujo” Parish (Gary Busey), Ian is bunked up with the Passover Privates—a cabin of outcasts and misfits—and their zealous, un-cool counselor Bradley Sommers (Evan Koons).
But when Ian is introduced to Clayton Vance (Jimmy Tatro, “American Vandal”), the savvy and chiseled counselor of the Righteous Regiment, he has one focus: ditch Bradley and join up with Clayton. As the God Games approach, Ian realizes that Clayton may not be as “cool” as he claims to be, and Ian’s choice to ditch the Passover Privates and join the Righteous Regiment may end up being the worst decision of his life.
While the film is focused on a very particular subculture, Johnson and Machiela said they think it will have a universal appeal.
“It is presented in a way where you can enjoy it as an outsider looking in,” Johnson said. “That’s part of why the main character is from outside [the faith]. There are certainly Easter eggs within the movie for those like us, but it was written for a wide audience.”
He added, “It’s not just for a faith audience. It’s really a film about subcultures.”
Johnson and Machiela made the film in Michigan, taking advantage of the now-defunct Michigan film incentive program. The film was shot on location at two YMCA summer camps near Traverse City.
The pair produced the film through the entertainment arm of their production company, Gorilla Productions, which they started over a decade ago with the hope of one day making a feature-length film.
“It is crazy how long it takes,” Machiela said. “We made the original short film around this idea in 2005 and now we are releasing the feature. That’s how long it took. People told us it would be that long but we laughed at them. You have to be a bit blissfully ignorant.”
Camp Manna is available for pre-order through June 5, when it will be released for purchase and rental. A screening of the film is being held on Thursday, May 31 at 8:15 at Celebration Cinema North. In lieu of a ticket, GRLA is asking that those interested pre-order the film on iTunes and email proof of pre-order to firstname.lastname@example.org. Seating is limited.