Michael Showalter knows camp.
The creator of the cult series Search Party cut his teeth in the sketch comedy series The State before tiptoeing into feature films with the camp-set movie Wet Hot American Summer. He’s since gravitated towards directing movies with the comedies The Big Sick, My Name is Doris and The Lovebirds.
Now Showalter dips back into camp by reviving a camp icon: televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. The Eyes of Tammy Faye follows the life and ministry of its titular TV hostess (played by Jessica Chastain) and her sometime husband, Rev. Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Bakkers built up a massive television network empire built on Christian programming, and became important leaders alongside Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) in the alliance between the Republican Party and Christian fundamentalism. Tammy Faye attracted controversy for her embrace and advocacy of the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS crisis before falling victim to an even bigger scandal. Reporters exposed Jim Bakker for bilking followers out of millions of dollars and channeling the funds into his personal bank account. Tammy Faye’s career imploded overnight, though she continued to preach and advocate for queer people until her death in 2007.
We snagged time with Showalter to chat about the film, Jessica Chastain’s much-discussed performance, and the woman inspired who inspired it all at the Toronto Film Festival. The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in theatres September 17.
So this is your fourth film. How do you go from a murder mystery to a biopic of a televangelist?
That’s funny. I mean…if I really answered that question, we’d take up our entire time. In this weird way, I just like what I like. So it’s all the same to me. If I like a story and see it in my head, I think I could do that. It could be a Western, it could be a comedy, a smaller movie. If I see it in my head, and I feel like there’s a connection, it’s all the same. So that’s my answer.
Now, this is an adaptation of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary of the same name. It’s also the first biopic I can think of which follows the story of a doc. How does that affect your approach to storytelling? Is it more constrained? How much did you consult with Fenton & Randy?
I came in pretty late in development. Jessica Chastain and [writer] Abe Sylvia had been working together way before I entered the picture. I loved the documentary, and there were aspects of it that were really inspiring to me. I loved seeing Tammy Faye in her real environment being a normal person. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are in the 1990s when she’s in her apartment watching TV with her dog. Just seeing her where all the glitz and glamour is gone, you just see a human being. She’s just existing. I found those scenes in the documentary really interesting, so those scenes in the movie are some of my favorite stuff. When she pitches her TV shows—do you remember the scenes I’m talking about?
And I knew from reading the script that this wasn’t the documentary, this was its own thing. I just loved the character, the mission of taking this character we have all these preconceived notions of—she’s sort of this laughing stock—and peeling the layers back to show you a real person there. She’s done incredible things her life, and she’s brave. The deeper I went the more interested I became.
Related: Did Tammy Faye Plan Her Death?
One thing that’s present in the film that is not in the doc is the hint that Jim Bakker—who is very much alive and still working—is bisexual. I know several aides of his swore to a grand jury that they’d had affairs with him. Was it always a foregone conclusion that you wanted to include that? Did that pose legal challenges?
We really don’t go there enough to where it would. It’s plausible deniability. There’s no question Jerry Fallwell said that in a press conference. That’s public record.
Yes he did.
And there have certainly been people over the years who have said those things. Is it true? It’s possible. It’s interesting from a thematic standpoint. We talked about it a lot, how that would affect Tammy. How it would affect Jim. As far as what I think—all I know is that Jim Bakker has denied it. If he says it’s not true, he says it’s not true.
There is a sense of mystery to these characters. That also raises a question about how conscious was Jim in the fact that he was running this donation scam?
Well, the other thing is everybody has a different opinion of her—that she knew more or less than she let on. For me, ultimately, I like the ambiguity. I want people to talk about these things—did she know? How is it possible she couldn’t have? And I agree with you: Jessica has this smarter than she lets on quality to her. There’s a moment in the film where Jim says he got a letter from the President, and Tammy asks if it was addressed to both of them. That’s a moment of her knowing everything. That tells the audience she gets all of it. But I think one thing Jessica does brilliantly in this movie is that she commits to not making Tammy too smart in a way. She commits to Tammy’s obtuseness. And that’s frustrating—we want Tammy to be more clear and articulate about certain things. But Jessica and Andrew both were really committed to these characters’ setbacks in their ability to communicate and understand each other.
That brings me to Tammy Faye herself. Jessica is absolutely astonishing in the movie. That said, Tammy Faye seems like she could easily become a caricature, a drag performance. How do you work with an actor to make sure she’s not going too far?
In my experience, first of all: so much of it is just all about the actor and the actor’s ability. You hold your breath in hopes they find the character. I’m in awe of it often. The commitment level—you can’t not commit 10,000% or you fail. You take a big risk. So you watch the performance and just make sure it’s always an authentic feeling. It’s like did we get it? So there’s a lot of checking in with each other, asking “Did it feel ok to you? Was it too much? Do we need to do it again?” The character came together in this sort of slow-motion way.
We recorded the songs months before we shot the movie. So Jessica had a chance to be in character before we even shot. The scary part was with the prosthetics—there were a few false starts where they didn’t look right. Those were scary; it wouldn’t work if it looked wrong. It needed to look like Tammy Faye. Once the prosthetics and the wardrobe and the makeup were on and we started to create this thing the character would start to come out of all that.
I was thrilled to learn you created Search Party, and in a way, that’s a great precursor to this. There are many scenes here that are horrifying and awful and hilarious. Here, you walk the line between camp and Greek tragedy. How do you walk that fine line of tone?
For me, I have a point of view and a tone I’m trying to achieve. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s in my head, whatever it is. So when you ask how do I keep it from going too far—it’s not separate from me.
What do you mean?
It’s not a separate thing that if I didn’t hold on to it, it would fall. It’s more if the tone isn’t right, it won’t be [what I want it to be]. It can’t be too campy because I couldn’t even do that if I tried. Does that make sense?
On some level. It just means your work is personal. It reminds me of something Jackson Pollack said about expressionism and his drip technique—you just know when it’s right.
Yeah, it’s true. When I like something I feel like I know how to do it. I know how to tell the story. I connect to it on an aesthetic level. I have a vision. I might read another script and have no idea how to do it.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye opens in theaters September 17.