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As producer of 'Saved!,' R.E.M's Stipe returns to religion theme

MIAMI -- Michael Stipe is best known as the lead singer of the enduring, ever-evolving rock band R.E.M, which in turn is best known for the 13-year-old hit song "Losing My Religion." Now, in the first of three movies he produced that will be released this year, Stipe is again tackling the subject of faith.

In "Saved!," a barbed comedy set at a Christian high school that opened last Friday, an idealistic teenage girl named Mary (Jena Malone) is forced to question her beliefs when her "perfect Christian boyfriend" (Chad Faust) confesses he might be gay.

One of the most interesting things about "Saved!," the debut of writer-director Brian Dannelly, is that it is ultimately a straightforward high school movie. And Stipe, who also served as a producer on films, including "Being John Malkovich" and "Our Song," confesses that was part of what drew him to the script.

"The industry of film is one that's not very open to new ideas," Stipe, 44, said during a recent interview in a North Miami recording studio, where he's putting finishing touches on the forthcoming R.E.M. album. "Part of my attraction as a producer to this film is it does shoot right down the middle. It's a genre of film that we all know; it climaxes at the senior prom. I mean, it is that high school movie. I think what makes it different is, number one, it's very, very funny, like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" or like "Heathers." But it's set in a Christian high school, and it's taking on a couple of things that some of those other films maybe touched on or maybe ignored altogether, but things that . . . are questions that each of us has to face at some point."

Despite the fears of mockery that many Christians may have had upon learning of the subject matter, "Saved!" is actually a fairly balanced portrayal of the faith, ultimately preaching tolerance and kindness.

But not everyone feels that way. The deeply conservative Jerry Falwell blasted the movie, which he had yet to see, on CNN, hopefully predicting that it would "crash and burn." Christian Film & Television Commission founder Ted Baehr derided it as "a sad, bigoted, anti-Christian movie."

On the other hand, the publication Christianity Today, while griping that some of the characters are excessively two-dimensional, does allow that "the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals."

Regardless of your feelings about the movie, Stipe, who says he "comes from a long line of Methodist ministers," is optimistic that "Saved!" will get people talking and "create a little bit of a dialogue between people who are very extreme in their faith and people who just have faith. Or don't have faith."

So far, audiences seem to be responding. As of Saturday, after a few weeks of limited release and a single day of wide release, "Saved!" had already raked in an estimated $2.14 million -- nearly half its production budget.

Certainly, in a year in which Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has blown away the box office, so far grossing an astounding $370 million (and another $238 million overseas), the culture is ready for movies addressing the always-incendiary topic of faith.

Stipe -- who, despite his Methodist background, has been identified as an atheist by Dannelly -- credits "The Passion" with providing "this climate where belief-based films are more acceptable." Consider that in the past few years, the closest thing we've had to a thoughtful look at religion was the Jim Carrey comedy "Bruce Almighty," or the far-from-mainstream, apocalypse-themed "Left Behind" series of books.

"I think that where we are right now, the 21st century . . . is going to prove a very difficult testing ground for organized religion and for people of faith," Stipe says. "A lot of the ideas that are still being held onto -- I call them `hangovers' -- seem to be mid-century or even earlier. (They are) 19th-century, 20th-century ideas that are almost anachronistic in 2004.

"And so, if organized religion and people of faith want to continue into the 21st century, I think they kind of have to live in the times that we're living. You have to understand that the holy scripture is a very important part of my life, and my upbringing, and the culture that I came up through -- but it's allegory."

Stipe characterizes contemporary American society as "facing a civil war." "We're living in a time where stem cell research is very, very key, and the idea of cloning is not some science fiction writer's dream of the future," he says, opining that people need to "start to talk, and discuss, and provoke thought about these things, and recognize that the time we're living in is not the same as it was 2,000 years ago. You can't take (scripture) literally. You can't be that literal with anything."

But as troubled as Stipe is by the state of the world, it has also instilled in him a creative renaissance. "I feel more confident about this group of songs than I think I have in years and years," he says of the new, still-untitled R.E.M album, which will be released this fall. In fact, Stipe is so bold as to say that he feels the record is the band's best work since 1992's "Automatic for the People." "I feel very confident that people are going to be surprised and shocked by what we have to offer." 

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