CNS Photo from CBS
Joan of Arcadia, a CBS primetime TV show, is in its second season. The show and its able cast have garnered Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, nods from the Television Critics Association, and secured a Humanitas Prize for Joan’s producer, Barbara Hall.
Recognition has been rolling in from other fronts as well: “Top TV Series,” from ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and “Favorite New Dramatic Series,” from the 2004 People’s Choice Awards. While the show has fallen from its ratings share last season, it’s still competitive in its Friday evening time slot.
I interviewed Barbara Hall last summer at a Los Angeles gathering sponsored by Open Call. The late Rev. Ellwood (“Bud”) Kieser, C.S.P. (1929-2000), founded Open Call in 1989 to offer opportunities for personal, professional and spiritual growth for creative and business people in the entertainment community. Father Kieser also started the Humanitas Prize, which has honored Barbara Hall twice, including her work on Joan of Arcadia’s pilot episode.
The Producer's Early Years
Hall, who created Joan of Arcadia, grew up in Chatham, Virginia, the youngest of three children. Her sister is television writer Karen Hall. Barbara began writing at an early age and went on to obtain a B.A. in English from James Madison University.
Although she has had seven novels published by Simon and Schuster in addition to Bantam, Hall is best known for an impressive television résumé that includes her work as an executive producer, producer and/or writer for programs such as Newhart, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, I’ll Fly Away, Chicago Hope, ER and Judging Amy.
Hall has won numerous awards, including an earlier Humanitas Prize for I’ll Fly Away in 1993. She has also won Catholics in Media Awards for both I’ll Fly Away and Joan. Since Hall is now Catholic herself, these awards bear special significance.
The producer has a life beyond television. Hall sings and plays guitar in her own band, “The Enablers,” on Sunday nights at the Hard Rock Café in Universal City, California. She lives with her daughter, Faith, in Pacific Palisades.
During our interview I asked Hall these questions:
What is the story of your journey to the Catholic faith? Was the experience like Paul’s on the road to Damascus, with horses and a bright light?
No. One of the things about my experience is that I didn’t have a conversion moment. I don’t recall when it began because I’d been falling off my horse my whole life. When I started working on Joan of Arcadia, I was already in the midst of it.
I was the victim of a violent crime about seven years ago, and I had a kind of near-death experience that gave me an understanding of something bigger than myself.
This was a journey of discovery during which I studied every world religion. It didn’t take the form of coming to the Catholic Church or any particular religion for a really long time.
Joan of Arcadia reflects a keen awareness of science. Why?
During the time I was searching, I developed this inexplicable fascination with physics. I read everything I could get my hands on about physics and theology. At the end of that search, I decided I wanted to go back to the life of faith.
I was brought up Methodist in the South, but I began attending the Episcopal Church instead. There I fell in love with the ceremony. But someone said to me, “If you like this, you’ll really like the Catholic Church.”
Then I went to Mass and was stunned. I had this sense of being completely at home. The experience I had of ritual was actually not unrelated to physics because it had something to do with the manipulation of energy. This spoke to me.
So, in terms of my conversion, I credit science more than anything with my becoming a Catholic. My favorite book on physics right now is one by Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith [University of Notre Dame Press, 2003]. He explains how ludicrous it is to think that science and God are enemies.
Where is God in your writing?
I go through the same ebb and flow that everyone else does. There are just days when you’re aware of God everywhere and days when you ask: “Where did you go, God?”
This is the idea behind last season’s final episode. It’s about feeling the absence so you can appreciate the presence. I know there’ll be times when I’m not happy with God!
Why this program—Joan of Arcadia? Why now? How does it relate to your life?
When I look back on how I got to the point of creating Joan of Arcadia, I see how all things are connected, how every action has a consequence. It’s hard to single out specific moments because everything in my life has led up to doing Joan of Arcadia, including producing and writing Judging Amy.
My fascination with Joan of Arc goes back to childhood. You may know that my sister also converted to Catholicism a few years before I did. We were both intrigued by Catholic imagery growing up. And, believe me, it wasn’t available or encouraged in our home.
As a girl I was obsessed with Joan of Arc. She was the girl icon that I identified with. The most important idea in Joan of Arcadia is that everyone is here to fulfill his or her true nature. This has everything to do with my own beliefs.
When I was a young girl, I looked around at Cinderella and Snow White and all those girl icons and could not find myself anywhere. The only place I did find myself was with the form of Joan, the girl warrior. She continues to fascinate me.
When my daughter was about to come of age, I began to wonder what it would look like if God tried to grab the attention of a teenager today. What would that process look like, and would a modern teenager be able to have the fortitude to follow that calling? Then I sort of pictured what my daughter would do if God ever talked to her, and I knew she would be the type to argue with God, getting snippy.
What factors or experiences influenced your creative life?
I’ve been interested in literature and all things about storytelling since I discovered it as a little girl. I grew up in a home without books and music because my parents were not fans of either. But I found books and music on my own and became passionate about them.
I also discovered poetry early on. Even though I did not understand it, I fell in love with its cadence. Then I found music and that became everything to me.
When I was in college, I had this singular moment when I knew my life was going to change. I discovered Bruce Springsteen and his song “The River” . I wish I had gotten that insight when I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but I didn’t.
This song combined music and poetry. It spoke to my sense that I had been shut out of the party my whole life. Springsteen wrote the way I did. He was working-class but with a poetic view of things—like me.
I grew up kind of poor in the middle of nowhere. I had all this stuff to say but no venue or ability to say it. I was trying to decide if I should become a teacher when I wanted to be a writer, but so far I was making all these safe choices.
The fragment of Springsteen’s final verse, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse/that sends me down to the river/though I know the river is dry,” completely changed my life. I decided then that I wanted to fulfill my true nature.
What do the other writers and producers of Joan of Arcadia think of the show?
Every single interview for Joan lasted an hour because, when the potential writers would come in, we’d immediately start talking about intense things and sharing life experiences. It wasn’t a requirement for the writers that they had a spiritual life, only that they be open to it.
I can work with doubt and confusion all day long, but not with writers or directors who are completely shut down to the possibility of spirituality. Everyone who ended up working on the show did so in large part because of his or her own spiritual journeys or questions.
In the first episode, Joan says she’s afraid of clowns. In the season finale, it’s the mother who sees the clowns. Why is this? And why was the last episode of Season One so dark?
I think that the series is dark, but not in a way that is depressing. I want the series to be realistic, to show that there are moments of darkness.
By the final episode, I felt that the audience knew what to expect. So I wanted to completely turn the show on its head because, to me, that’s what life is like. For myself, as soon as I figure out what my spiritual journey is, it gets blown up and I don’t know what I am doing. I wanted to show what that state of desolation looked like to me.
I was living a sense of desolation as I was writing the script. People I cared for moved away and I was feeling sad. All three of my dogs got bitten by rattlesnakes and almost died. My car broke down. So I wanted to give Joan a genuine crisis of faith, to show her being disconnected from the flow of life, in a dreamlike state.
What about those clowns?
Two things are going on in Helen’s dreams in the last episode. The clowns are kind of a psychic connection with her daughter where she is experiencing what Joan is experiencing. It’s a mother thing—like when my daughter is sick, I’ll feel her symptoms even though I don’t know she’s sick.
I also wanted to show that God is available to everybody, which is a major premise of Joan of Arcadia. God talks to people in different ways at different times.
The clowns are scary because they are so confusing—funny and scary at the same time. To me, they represent moral confusion. You want to move toward a clown and then move away at the same time. I wanted to put the clowns in a bleak situation, which is how they show up in Helen’s dream in the season finale. They add that strange, uncertain quality that we sometimes experience in life.
Mary Steenburgen [the actress who plays Helen] asked me, “How did you write Helen’s speech about consolation and desolation?” I think I turned on my computer and the words just came out.
How did Joan of Arcadia come about? What were some of the challenges?
The show was both jinxed and unstoppable from the very beginning. This gave the show a special quality the whole time it was in development. When CBS heard about the idea for the show, they had me in. They said, “Yeah, we want that.” That’s not exactly how I pictured it going down. When I was halfway through writing the show, I actually called up the network to say, “I can’t do this because I don’t know what this is.”
Then I decided it was none of my business if I didn’t know what was going to happen with Joan. It was my business to finish it. The show died a thousand deaths, but then Joe Mantegna [who plays Joan’s father] read the script and liked it.
Next we had all these disasters on the pilot shoot. We went through three directors of photography—one of them had a heart attack. Six or seven cameras broke, but the show was completely unstoppable.
Did you see the Joan of Arc miniseries that was on TV a couple of years ago?
I’ve never seen a movie or TV show about Joan of Arc. I know Joan through my favorite books.
The main literary influence that prepared me for this show was The Lovely Bones [Alice Sebold, 2002]. Reading that book influenced me very much.
Sometimes people think it’s inappropriate to be informal with God. But you have given us a character who calls God “snippy.” Why?
It’s probably because of my background. I went through every stage of a relationship with God from atheism to who I am now. My relationship with God is always informal because this is how I talk. This is who I am. I know that there’s absolutely no hiding that from a Supreme Being.
In Joan, I want to show this informality between God and us. Some think that God is stuck in some sort of place where we can’t communicate with him, that he doesn’t understand what’s going on with us. I wanted to destroy that model in Joan. I felt a teenager was the best vehicle for doing that.
There is a certain dualism about the existence of God and between good and evil in Joan of Arcadia. Why?
It is very clear in the show that good and evil exist. It’s one of the tenets of my belief because that’s how I experience the world.
When Joan first aired, critics tried to lump it with other shows that dealt with spirituality, but these shows never really defined what they were doing. Wonderfalls premiered in March 2004 on FOX, and I thought it was very clever. But in an interview, the producers said that they don’t know if there’s a God or not, and they don’t know who it is.
In Joan I say who God is. Joan of Arc knew exactly who and what her voices were. I don’t know if she liked hearing them all the time, but she knew exactly who it was that was speaking to her. There was no murkiness about that.
One of the reasons I put Will [Joe Mantegna] in the job of being a cop is because I wanted him to be dealing with clear-cut cases of good and evil, so there’s no middle ground for people who kill children. I mean there are moral gray areas in life, but to me the God we have to contend with knows the difference.
If we were to articulate in one sentence the theology, the “faith seeking understanding,” that underpins the show, what would it be?
The show is mainly about questions. It’s not about answers. The key reasons I wanted to do the show were to get people talking about the questions and to come to understand that we are here to fulfill our true nature.
There’s a movement in modern self-help psychology that says our eccentricities and quirks are undesirable and can be driven out of us, but I believe they are essential to who we are as persons. They help us develop character. I also think that depression and alienation are the results of being separated from our true nature.
The idea from physics that everything is interrelated, interconnected, like the butterfly effect—for example, you can’t take a bottle of water from any lake without affecting the weather in Mexico—is also relevant to the subject of God in our lives.
There are consequences to actions. Joan gets to see this interconnectedness and the consequences of her actions. Finally, there is the most controversial idea in the show: that God is available to everybody all the time. This may not be everyone’s idea of God, but I want to celebrate this idea in the show because I believe it to be true.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what book and movie would you want to have with you?
I would have said this even before I converted—the Bible. It’s a fascinating book and I’ll never understand it all and you cannot read it enough. It’s a given.
This is kind of cheating on the premise of your question, but I’d also bring the Complete Works of Shakespeare because it would take the rest of my life to completely understand his writings. And if I was disqualified from either one of these, I’d take Ulysses by James Joyce for the same reasons—I’ll never understand that book!
Movie? I think I’d get tired of just one film, but my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia. There’s an ongoing theme in my life and it must have something to do with my nature. I love the concept of righteous warriors and people following a call. I love the figure of Lawrence of Arabia because his was a righteous calling.
And I’d take The Sopranos with me.
What will you say to God at the pearly gates?
I can explain.
An online study guide for Joan of Arcadia episodes, prepared for the Presbyterians by Teresa Blythe, can be found at www.pcusa.org/today/joan/index.htm.