It might be too on-the-nose to call Saved! a minor miracle of a movie, but how else would you describe Brian Dannelly’s faith-centric satire? Since it was released in arthouses and multiplexes 20 years ago this week, it’s remained one of the few teenage comedies brave enough to explore and critique the contemporary Christian high school experience without relying on broad fundamentalist humor, cheap caricatures, or treacly after-school messaging. Within modern Hollywood, it felt––and still feels––like a true outlier, a nuanced slice of religious life with a surprisingly deep roster of young indie talents that its creator still can’t believe was even made. 

Set at a Christian high school, Saved! stars Jena Malone as 17-year-old Mary, a born-again believer who offers up her virginity to convert her gay boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust). The plan ultimately fails––Dean is sent to conversion therapy and Mary gets pregnant, ostracizing her from the Christian Jewels, the school’s popular worship girl band led by its intimidating and faux-righteous alpha Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore). Over the ensuing year, Mary falls in with a variety of misfits (Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, and Eva Amurri), questioning the school’s dogmatic axioms and grappling with her religion’s apparent hypocrisies. 

The script, which Dannelly directed and co-wrote with Michael Urban, began as a graduation project at the American Film Institute in 1998. Over time, Dannelly mined his personal high school history, later seizing upon the rise of religious youth movements and the degradation of the separation of church and state. After a delayed release, Saved! eventually earned acclaim at Sundance, polarized alt-right leaders during its nationwide release, and ultimately doubled its low budget at the box office. As religion and politics continue to blur across the country, it’s no surprise why the movie’s smart, specific, and nuanced perspective still feels so relevant two decades later.

In honor of its anniversary, Dannelly reflected on his directorial debut, provided insights into its creation, and extensively detailed a sequel idea he recently pitched and hopes to make one day.

The Film Stage: You’ve mentioned a lot of the script came from your personal experiences at your Christian high school. What are your clearest memories there? 

Brian Dannelly: My high school was really strict––like, way stricter than the fictional school I wrote about. You couldn’t dance, our prom was a puppet show at the Peter Pan Inn, you had to be within 10 inches away from the students of the opposite sex. I got spanked. It was a nightmare.

Oh, gosh.

Yeah, it was crazy.

Is that still a traumatic memory of yours?

As I’ve gotten older and moved through life I realized that those voices in my head––those evangelical voices––did not go away. They hung around for a very long time. It was very cathartic to make the movie. But it took years for those voices to get out of my head. I definitely still have to address them. 

What was your impression of the kids there? 

I grew up in Europe until I was 11. When I moved back here, you just sort of imagine that everyone is somewhere in the proximity of how you feel about life. The bad kids at that school were people who didn’t know a Bible verse. I went in not expecting it could be so intense; it was harsher than I imagined.

Was it hard to square just how confident kids were in their beliefs at such a young age?

I have to admit that, deep down inside, I kind of thought it was fucked-up. We would go to assemblies every Wednesday or Thursday and they would talk about this kid who’d went to pop his pimple, but it was on some part of his face that hit a nerve, which caused him to die and he went to hell––it was like, “You better get saved now.” There was a whole lot of extra levels of stuff to contend with.

Did that eventually inspire Hilary Faye’s pimple?

I’m sure it did. [Laughs]

Hilary Faye seemed to embody kids who couldn’t really practice what they preached so adamantly. 

Yeah, I mean, Hilary Faye just sort of represented all the bad stuff at the school because most of the people were decent. They were peers. You had people that were from that world and they sort of understood the rules. You had people who thought it was all bullshit. You had people who were super into it, but I felt like Hilary Faye was sort of a mixture of all the worst of everybody in one person. 

I love the name Hilary Faye.

Thank you. It’s sort of like Tammy Faye and my friend Hilary. It was a whole combination of people. 

As a first-time helmer of a feature film, how daunting was it to get funding for a movie like this?

You know what’s hilarious? When we wrote it, we would go out with Michael Stipe, who was one of the producers, and I just thought it was a movie. They’re always asking: “Who’s the audience?” And I’m like,  “Everybody.” Like, it never even occurred to me that it was a big deal until last year, when I watched the trailer. I thought “Oh, my God, I cannot imagine that they made this movie. There’s just no way.”

How did you get hooked up with Michael Stipe? 

Well, Michael Stipe’s a producing partner with Sandy Stern and they had a company called Single Cell and they had just done Being John Malkovich. They were pretty awesome and Sandy was a fantastic producer. That’s how Michael Stipe came on board.

Did he influence anything with the movie? 

Here’s the thing about Michael Stipe that was so beautiful: he is so about the artist. When you’re new and you’re going into these meetings, you can feel intimidated or you’re trying to gauge what you need to do to make this movie and what they want. He was just very much like, “Brian has got a vision for this film. I don’t know how you expect anyone to pitch in a room like this with these bright lights.” He was very much supportive of the creative. He even did the closing song.

What was it like writing the script? 

I think the most important thing was that everything was grounded in truth. I could point to pretty much anything in the script and know where it came from because I didn’t want to make stuff up. I think it was a way of saying, “This is my side of the story and maybe some kid who saw this might ask a question.” In terms of it being cathartic, I didn’t really have that experience. I think I had to distance myself from it. I didn’t throw myself into it as much. I think that Dean is the closest related to me, but it was very peripheral. I was not sent away. I was in school the whole time. But I wanted to make sure that it had a different protagonist. The most important thing that Dean says is that “it’s all a gray area.” The one thing I know about writing is: write about what you know in your experience, and then you just have to lie a lot so you have some distance to tell the true story as opposed to trying to keep it all correct.

Macaulay Culkin had mentioned during the initial press run that you had this journal that you filled with notes and magazine cutouts of actors to prepare you. What else was in it?

Newsweek was starting to do articles about this Christian youth movement. It was every single thing I could find, every single band––Jena Malone was someone who I wanted to cast from the very beginning, so there was a poster of her. I knew I wanted her as the lead. It was just my research that I shared with them. In addition to the articles that I found––it took a lot longer in the old days––I had also storyboarded the whole movie so I could show them, “Here’s this whole movie.”

Did that help your directorial process?

Honestly, it was just me being terrified and thinking if I knew every instant, I would be safe. If there was a problem that came up I would be able to handle it, so I tried to make sure I could get everything that I could think of handled before I went on set. When those problems came up, I could deal with them. It was just a way of making me feel comfortable and a way to communicate with the cinematographer and production designer.

I also saw you had gone into some Christian AOL chat rooms. What did you discover there?

Yeah. That these kids mostly were questioning things. I asked them questions that were related to the script, a way to relate to the characters in the script––it was a blurry ethical situation, but it helped me. It was so important to be able to find out what people think without them knowing that I was a filmmaker, a writer––that I was just someone who’s asking questions. We did other research by taking the cast to Christian East concerts and all stuff like that.

Yeah, you had mentioned going to the Angel Stadium to see the Christian rock bands perform and it was packed. What insight did you gain from that?

It was packed, and then we went to another one in Vancouver. So we packed everybody up in the van and went to that concert. Macaulay was making-out with his girlfriend during this concert. All these Christian kids were huge fans of Mandy Moore. They were, like, literally chasing us to the van because at the time she had just made A Walk to Remember. But when I went on my own, things that jumped out were these girls in tube tops at church. It was a dichotomy where if I put it in the script you wouldn’t necessarily believe it. I don’t know if Christian rock music is as big now.

Looking back, you had so many soon-to-be-famous actors. What was the casting process like? Did you get everyone you wanted?

It was super-easy, honestly. I can’t remember if Macaulay was cast first or Jena Malone. Patrick was the only person we wanted for the Patrick character. Anne Hathaway was originally going to be Hilary Faye. She did a great audition, came in-character with wigs and stuff. But she had a conflict and couldn’t do it––then Heather Matarazzo got the script to Mandy Moore because they had just done The Princess Diaries. Mandy was very nervous, but said yes. We weren’t sure what to think of her at the time and then she just killed it at the table read.

There really was a Princess Diaries crossover here. 


You’ve mentioned previously that this movie was about “missing the message.” In the opening pool scene, Mary thinks that Jesus is telling her to have a baby with Dean, when all she hears is “Dean needs you.” Was it important to start with that moment to explain the way people so often misinterpret biblical text?

1,000%. That’s a great observation. I don’t think that message can be any clearer. It makes me crazy the way Christians go after trans people––it’s the exact opposite of my understanding of what the Bible is all about. I understand they all refer to the darkness and “God is angry”––all of that shit––but I just find that very hard to believe.

It’s a very blurry Old Testament vs. New Testament debate.

I think they draw stuff out of the readings and then interpret it in a way that works to their advantage. Even when I went to my Evangelical high school, the big thing was to keep religion and politics separate––not because it hurts politics, but because it damages religion. Which is something that has gotten so lost. It is the exact opposite now. And it has real damage. Let’s say 30% of the population is fundamentalist Christian Nationalist––that’s not that many. If this election doesn’t work out for them, they have done such damage to their religion.

How much were you thinking about including politics into Saved!?

My big regret.

Because there’s really only one moment where Pastor Skip comes out on stage and asks everyone to “pray for our President.”

There’s that moment, which is fine. But there’s also a moment where we have just a little flash of George Bush, a picture on the wall, and I hate it because it dates the movie so hard. I was so frustrated, but it was really important to me at the time.

If Al Gore had been president while you made this movie, would Pastor Skip have prayed for “our President”?

I think they’re praying for Presidents to leave or praying for them to stay. It’s probably of the same importance. 

During that same opening assembly, Cassandra starts speaking in tongues as a joke. Eva Amurri is such a great balancing force in this movie.

We saw everybody for Cassandra––Natasha Lyonne, Jessica Biel, everybody. And someone mentioned that Susan Sarandon’s daughter was an actor and I saw the picture and I thought “Oh, that’s good.” And then she came in and she was so good, and just kind of dangerous and new.

Did you ever experience someone speaking in tongues like that in school? 

We did have people speaking in tongues at our school. It was sort of the fringe element, and then when I was doing research… these kids were talking about how when they were in class or when they were in assembly and they spoke in tongues, they would make up things just so they could do it. One of the phrases was like “untie my bow tie,” and the other was “I bought a Hyundai.” [Laughs] They would just say these things over and over again.

I also love when Mary and her mom watch the fake Lifetime movie together, Bitter Harvest. How did you get Valerie Bertinelli onboard with that?

We had written it for Meredith Baxter who was the person in all those movies back then and she said “no.” I don’t know how I don’t know how Valerie Bertinelli came up. I think I was just like, “What about Valerie Bertinelli?” She was like an obvious second choice to me. I sent her the script and it still said “Meredith Baxter” in it. I hadn’t changed it, but she was great. We shot it at her house. She cut her hair. She could not be more helpful and enthusiastic and supportive.

I’m trying to figure out what would be the equivalent today.

It would have to be Lori Loughlin. [Laughs]

What was your first directorial experience like with only 16 days of shooting?

Great! Because I’d gone to AFI and I was so well-prepared. I think the stuff that I’ve learned being on set were things like, “Oh, you can build a closet right in the driveway of her house, you don’t have to go to a whole new location.” We also did all of Hilary Faye’s driving scenes where she crashes into Jesus in a driveway and just shook the car. I learned you can get away with a lot.

Can you watch the movie today and feel good about it? Or do you wince?

I used to watch it and I could only see the mistakes. But I watched it at some point when I was writing the sequel and I thought “Oh, it’s OK.” It seemed like it held up pretty good. It didn’t feel incredibly dated.

Was the ending, in which Mary gives birth on prom night, controversial to the studio or certain audiences?

No, I don’t think there’s any controversy around it. Originally the film opened with Hilary Faye bringing a gun to prom. This was a year before Columbine, and when Columbine happened we were like “there’s no way.” So we rewrote it and she crashed her van into Jesus instead. She needed to do something that was really disruptive.

This movie hit theaters a few months after The Passion of the Christ.

One of my favorite things. I went to The Passion of the Christ just to see Saved!‘s trailer. That made me so happy. I couldn’t get through the movie, but I did get through the trailer. I think our tagline was “Got passion? Get Saved!” It was amazing at the time.

Jerry Falwell called Saved! “the most hateful movie about Christians that ever came out of Hollywood,” which seems like an extreme take for a movie like this.

I know! And I always remember: I got slapped at a film festival by a mother whose son came up to me after a screening. It was very low-key and sketchy. He said, “Thank you so much for this movie.” And then his mom came outside afterward and slapped me. She was like, “Don’t talk to my son.” That was rare.

Did you feel as though you got the response that you wanted, either from critics or audiences? Did you feel like you had connected with people in a certain way?

It’s hard to say. I think there’s been a resurgence of people interested in it. In the past two years I think all of the kids that saw the movie when they were in high school are now writers at studios. So it kind of has come back in the zeitgeist. I think the reviews now––and the way people respond to it now––are more of what I hoped for, and what I got a lot after the movie was made was that it wasn’t mean enough to Christians. There was no middle ground. I don’t think I realized that I was never going to win.

It does seem like most movies about faith are reserved for horror or are funded by Christian studios that don’t cater to the casual moviegoer. There’s not a middle ground for Saved!

I don’t think there was ever a place for Saved! to be honest with you. I was very naive at the time. It just seemed like a movie about my life and there’s a lot of people that have this experience and it’s funny. In fact, we just went to pitch the sequel to Orion, but it was the exact same experience. They just couldn’t understand that these issues are still relevant today. I think their note was that they didn’t think people had an appetite for this. I’m like, “Well, that’s why I’ll make it funny!”

Wait, what is your vision for a sequel?

Oh, my God, it was so good. It essentially involves Jena’s character Mary, who went to San Francisco after she had the baby at the end of the film. Cut to 17 years later and Mary has to fly back to Cherry Hill, her hometown, to take care of her mother, Lillian, played by Mary Louise Parker. Her daughter, Dylan, has to enroll in a new public school and the evangelical movement is encroaching into the school now. Dylan is a failed influencer and comes into the world very shallow. Mary is a weirdo mom, but Dylan gradually finds her voice.

We do deal with politics. Heather Matarazzo’s character Tia plays a Marjorie Taylor-Green character coming to the public high school and trying to bring it down, which is so perfect. We never talk about MAGA Christian Nationalism explicitly. It’s all built in there without being too heavy-handed. And then Hilary Faye is a Christian mom. She does this Christian roundtable on YouTube––she’s very positive, even with gay people. And we find out that her son is trans and it’s this one thing that she can’t get over. She’s been homeschooling her son but lets him go to public school so that he can experience the world because she’s grooming him to take over the church. Eventually the whole school comes together and everyone dresses in clothing that’s opposite of their gender to support him. It all culminates at the prom again.

When did this idea happen? Had you always wanted to do a sequel? 

No, I never even thought of a sequel until Mandy Moore did an interview with Us Weekly. They asked her where they thought Hilary Faye would be. It got me thinking about the same question. That’s why we took on the trans issue, which was very scary to even consider. I spoke to a bunch of my trans friends and really talked about what was important about this moment and how to do it right. 

Did you end up writing the whole script for this? 

No, but I’m a very intense outliner. I could go write the sequel in a month, easily. It will take me months to do an outline because that’s where I do all my work. 

It seems like these topics are something that you feel passionate about.

I feel the same way. It’s really bad right now. Without going into too much much detail, I think this Christian Nationalist movement is really dangerous. I say that, but I always look back at these high schoolers that I’ve met and taught with and they’re just, like, completely fine with people’s pronouns and if they transition or not. They’re not carrying the same baggage that I think people over 50 are carrying when it comes to this. You’ve got this new generation coming up and I don’t think they will stand for this.

So you pitched the sequel to Orion and they passed and it’s in limbo? 

Orion is part of MGM, which is part of Amazon. After seven years, the film rights went to them. There is nothing I can do. Sometimes new people in the company will take it over. It’s like it’s a nostalgia piece from the early aughts with a returning cast that would appeal to people. 

Do you think the original cast would return? 

Everyone I’ve talked to has been very into it. The most important thing is how they feel about where the characters are now. We have contingencies if someone doesn’t come back. 

Do you have a proposed title?

Yes! Saved! — Born Again. Credit to my friend Nate. He and his sister are the creators of the show School Spirits that I direct. They came up with it. 

I really want to see this movie.

I know. I know. I have a little bit of hope. I have, like, 10%.

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