Filmmaker Q&A

Religion, Science and Belief: Unearthing the Thorny Intersection

February 12, 2020 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Filmmakers Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown have long been fascinated by how science and culture mix–or don’t mix–in America. In short, that relationship is complicated.  They directed and produced the award-winning documentaries The Atom Smashers (which aired on Independent Lens), which was about the search for the Higgs boson particle, and The Believers, the story of two scientists who thought they had discovered Cold Fusion–or, a “cautionary tale of sharing science too soon,” as the Scientific American called it. 

So naturally, when they heard about a creationist museum in Kentucky building a humongous replica of Noah’s Ark, their curiosity was piqued. The resulting film We Believe in Dinosaurs goes far beyond just that story, as it unfolds through the eyes of multiple people and perspectives connected to the museum, from the character designers working on the Ark exhibit, to a former member of the Creation Museum now writing critically about it, a geologist, local storeowners who hope the exhibit will boost the economy, and an atheist group. The “entertaining documentary” is “often amusing, but never condescending towards either Ark proponents or their equally vocal opponents,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety.

We talked to Clayton and Monica (who is also a successful playwright) about the, pardon the expression, evolution for this film, how they tried to tell the story in a balanced way, and what it was like to climb a fossil-infused cliff for one key scene.

Why did you want to make this film in particular? 

We have a special interest in the intersection of science and culture in our country and a concern about the growth of science denial here in the U.S.  We have explored America’s conflicted relationship with science in two previous documentaries. The conflict between religion and science has been on our radar since then because as we were filming The Atom Smashers, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania attempted to insert Intelligent Design into the curriculum.  And although people are very familiar with climate change denial, far fewer are as aware of the little-explored “war on evolution.” 

So when we heard that a religious organization had built a Creation Museum in Kentucky, a so-called science museum dedicated to the idea that the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate, we became very curious. When we heard they were about to start building a “life-sized” Noah’s Ark theme park dedicated to proving with science that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that Noah’s Flood was a real event, we knew we’d found the story we had been looking for. We Believe in Dinosaurs explores the deeply felt conflict between religion and science that some Americans experience.  We believe the film shows that the stakes are extremely high on both sides of the question.

Filmmaker Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, with producer Amy Ellison (l-r)
Filmmaker Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, with producer Amy Ellison (l-r)

Who do you hope sees We Believe in Dinosaurs the most? And what sort of reactions and discussions would you like to see come of it?

We hope that science teachers, students, professional scientists, politicians, parents, school boards, churches, and all audiences – religious or not — will become more aware that one of the bedrocks of all of science, the theory of evolution, is under attack. We hope that audiences realize that, like Dan Phelps, a Kentucky-based geologist in our film, they can act to support the very American ideal of separation of church and state in their communities. That they can ask about the teaching of evolution in their local high schools, and that they can ask local and national candidates for office if they accept the theory of evolution. That the film’s greatest impact would be action is our greatest hope.  

And finally, we hope one of the greatest impacts of the film will be felt by young people who are struggling to reconcile their religion with science. 

David, a former creationist who is a main character in the film, poignantly describes considering for the first time that the Bible might represent something other than history, and we imagine a young person beginning a journey like David’s and being inspired to, as he says, “look at the universe and hear what it was saying.” While we don’t think the film will have much impact on those who deeply believe the theory of evolution is heretical, we do hope that they are able to view the film as representing them and their beliefs fairly.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film? 

The biggest challenge was a surprise to us:  the creationists we spoke with were enthusiastically open and candid with us, but the mainstream scientists were often guarded and unwilling or to speak on record about anything to do with creationism.  In some instances, scientists were even prohibited by their institutions from speaking on camera about the topic because they feared they would face public criticism and even lose significant donors. The topic of religion and science is a tricky one to negotiate for scientists, and it often resulted in their being unwilling to publicly defend evolution – and their lives’ work – against the aggressive attacks from creationists.  As it turns out, this challenge actually helped us to focus the story on the three main subjects and evolve through their experiences, making the film ultimately stronger.

Dan Phelps, geologist, shares a fossil find with David, a former creationist and frequent member of the Museum who now blogs critically about the beliefs he used to hold
Dan Phelps, geologist, shares a fossil find with David MacMillan, a former creationist who now blogs critically about the beliefs he used to hold

Given sensitivities around this subject, did it take awhile for all the people in the film to trust you to tell their side of the story?

We believe we gained trust by being respectful and asking good questions. Dan Phelps, the Kentucky geologist, says we became family because we showed up at his home regularly. The creationists working on the Ark Encounter were eager to explain their beliefs to us, so we kept coming back and asking more questions.  As a result, whenever we asked to film various steps and events during the construction of the Ark Encounter, they agreed, also including us in the media events they regularly held. We are grateful to them for sharing so much with us, and it is our true desire that they recognize themselves in the film as being depicted honestly and accurately.  The balance in the film comes especially from our relationship with Doug Henderson, one of the lead artisans on the Ark Encounter, and our respect for his work and beliefs. He gained our trust as much as we gained his.

And how did you get access to the Creation Museum people in the film? Were they reluctant to be filmed?

Again, the truth is, the creationists at the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter (both under the umbrella organization Answers in Genesis, or AIG) are very proud of and confident in what they believe. Not only are they not secretive, they actually have a very active and sophisticated PR and marketing department. They regularly send out press releases, inviting news outlets of all beliefs to cover their activities.  They regularly make their spokespeople available for interviews, debates, news conferences, etc. As Doug Henderson says in the film, “I don’t think I’m going to convert you as you walk out the door. But I want you to see that I’m not crazy, and that I really believe in this, and that any chance I get to talk about it, I’ll take it.” That’s a good summation of how they responded to us in general.

Tri-State Freethinker's protest on The Ark Encounter's Opening Day
Tri-State Freethinker’s protest on The Ark Encounter’s Opening Day

What else has often come up with audiences who’ve seen We Believe in Dinosaurs?

Another question we are often asked is “What about (fill in the blank: carbon dating, starlight from distant stars, the geologic record, cavemen, or other scientific concepts) that would seem to offer irrefutable evidence that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old?” What we quickly realized, and what David MacMillan the former creationist explains in the film, is that they’re called Answers in Genesis for a reason.  They have an answer to every possible scientific argument you could ever think of, from changing rates of carbon decay to God stretching the universe out as a curtain to account for the red-shift in starlight. 

Did you actually have to climb up all those rocks with the geologist in the film?

When we first meet Dan Phelps, he takes us high up a cliff face on a fossil-hunting trip.  As he says, “At times like this I wish the James Bond jet pack had been perfected.” It was a harrowing climb – and getting down was even trickier!  Clayton had a backpack camera rig that dangled the camera on a pole over his head, and climbing down required both hands, so the camera had to fend for itself.  Luckily, camera operator and camera survived the descent.

From an exhibit at the Creation Museum, a teen figure with caption "I never learned this in school"
From an exhibit at the Creation Museum

What else did you shoot for We Believe in Dinosaurs that was interesting but you had to cut out?

So many things!  When you trim over 200 hours of footage to 90 minutes, you make some very painful choices. We would have liked to include more science. More of a direct comparison between evolution and creationism and a deeper dive into both.  More politics, both local and national. More about the impact of creationist homeschooling on children. More about school boards, teachers, and parents. More about David’s journey and early life, Dan’s activism long family history in Kentucky and why he stays there. Doug’s incredible artwork and his passionate beliefs. All of these things, both conceptual and personal, illustrate the stakes for Americans who care about the impact science denial is having on education and the erosion of the separation of church and state in their own communities. But ultimately, we are telling a story, and we only have 90 minutes!

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you? 

One scene for us that is impactful takes place in Williamstown, the small town that hosts the Ark Encounter. Elmer’s General Store was a fledgling business that offers ice cream sodas and a snack counter, local crafts, and holds music shows.  As the Ark Encounter is being built, they are excited about the financial opportunities they believe will result from this tourist attraction coming to town.  They even perform a song for us about the Ark Encounter one of them has written. The expectation and excitement is palpable, representing what the town hopes will raise them out of the economic trouble they’ve been experiencing for so long. Unfortunately, it is not to be.

But perhaps most moving is the scene featuring David’s story about the moment he realizes he must leave creationism behind: he sees a beautiful image from space — evidence for the truth about how old the universe must be — that he can’t explain away.  We’re always moved when he says “This is a new world. It’s a different world than I thought it was.” Kate Simko’s beautiful score in that moment underlines the emotion involved in rejecting a worldview you’ve always known and embracing another.

man holding ape head replica

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films? 

Again, so many! But some docs that have influenced our work include Man on Wire, Capturing the Friedmans, and Jesus Camp.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.