‘Subway Preacher’ and a Conversation with Director Dennis W. Ho

Posted June 12, 2013

Subway Preacher (T/F 2011) grants us miraculous access to a very strange place, the life of evangelist Brian Kelly. In lieu of employment, Brian, along with his wife Rose and a handful of other followers, runs a 24/7 ministry amid the daily grind of a New York City subway station. His days are spent distributing Chick Tracts and abrasively warning the uninterested passersby about the perils of hell fire. Around the time photographer, musician and first-time filmmaker Dennis W. Ho began filming, Brian attracted a new follower, a beautiful young woman named Kaitlin. The story that followed, captured by Ho’s camera, is enlightening, infuriating and darkly comedic.

Now, Dennis has made Subway Preacher available in its entirety on YouTube. You’ll find it embedded below along with an interview with Dennis discussing this gritty and oddly poetic piece of non-fiction. But be sure to watch the film first, you won’t want to spoil any of its many surprises.
-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Dennis, thanks for chatting with me.

DH: My pleasure Dan.

T/F: So, I first wanted to ask about was the amazing access you had in the film. How did you first meet Brian?

DH: I first met Brian at the Times Square Station after having passed through that station several times and seen the “ministry” and its assorted eccentrics and non-traditional New Yorkers. One day I stopped by and asked if I could take pictures of them for a photo essay. And that photo essay turned into a film.

T/F: Was he at all hesitant about you photographing him?

DH: Actually, he was very enthusiastic. Most of them were quite open to the idea.

T/F: When you first began the project, did you have any notion of the emerging love triangle story line?

DH: Not at all. Through the course of filming, there were at least three story lines I could used for the film. The love triangle turned out to be the one I captured the most completely, and also I think the story that Brian wanted to tell.

T/F: What were the alternative stories?

DH: There was a trip down to Georgia that turned out to be quite a fiasco, and there was also a whole other angle of Brian’s story involving his background as a competitive bowler.

T/F: Wow.

DH: Yeah, at one point I was thinking I might call the movie Bowling for Jesus.

T/F: How long did you film for?

DH: I spent probably about one and a half years actually filming.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DH: I think there is definitely an aspect of the story where people wonder if these guys are for real. If  they are faking something. And also the question of what aspects of the story are influenced by the filmmaker’s (my) viewpoint and perspectives. Even speculation by viewers of what my own stances and relationship were to the subjects and their world.

T/F: There is one scene in particular that stood out to me. Brian presents a bunch of his rationalizations for the divorce, and then he turns to the camera almost giddy and says “the plot thickens”. It really raised the question of how much of what he was doing was a performance. Was he noticeably different when the camera was off?

DH: You know, he really wasn’t much different when the camera was on or off. But that said, I never saw him in a context where there wasn’t a camera person in the room. Kind of like “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed”. I think there were definitely elements of what Brian gave me that were very much based on the fact that he was having his story recorded “for posterity.”

T/F: One of the most compelling scenes takes place on Rose’s birthday, when he leaves Rose and Kaitlin alone together on the sidewalk in front of the building. It’s hard for me to tell if he is aware how cruel he is being.

DH: A lot of people saw that scene and considered it a “nail in the coffin” on Brian’s likeability. Interestingly, knowing Brian as I did, and knowing in general other asshole people (including sometimes myself), I think Brian was not necessarily trying to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. Rather I think when he asks Rose to prove her birthday and then goads her for being old, he was handling the situation like a lot of people might, if they found themselves in a situation where they are the asshole. Sometimes when you are the jerk, it’s hard not to continue being a jerk and sometimes even exacerbate the situation just to pretend there’s nothing wrong. You know what I mean?

Incidentally, on the issue of forgetting Rose’s birthday, I personally always forget everyone’s birthday, including my own wife. Fortunately she does the same for me, so we are straight . . .

T/F: Ha, yeah, there a lot of times where he does something cruel, and then sort of quickly constructs a theological rationale for his behavior. But he seems like he believes his own crap.

DH: I would definitely say that is one of the biggest neuroses of Brian and people of his personality type; they actually believe everything that comes out of their own mouth. It’s how they get other people to buy it too.

T/F: My understanding is that you composed the score for the film? How did you approach that?

DH: As a matter of fact, the piano piece that bookends the film was one of the first parts that came to me. I was actually in Chinatown watching a funeral procession the day that I decided to turn the project from a photo essay into a documentary. I heard the song in my head. Throughout the rest of the film, the musical elements are much more sparse. I added those parts after I had mostly solidified the edit.

T/F: It creates a beautiful melancholy tone.

DH: Thanks. I actually added a lot of sound elements to the story that were intended to sound as though they were actual ambient sound, but are timed to add color and texture to the story.

T/F: Interesting.

DH: For instance, in the scene where Brian wakes up in the hospital, I added the sound of birds chirping to give the feeling of Brian’s carefree attitude. I also added sounds of banging and clanging in the subways, like the subways were commenting on what was happening.

T/F: Have you talked to Brian, Shawn, Rose or Kaitlin since you finished the film?

DH: I have. Actually, I see Shawn somewhat regularly in the subways as he has taken to regularly setting up at Atlantic/Pacific station in Brooklyn, which is right along my regular commute. Rose I hear from every so often. Brian went to Florida for a while after the film was finished and apparently has recently returned to town, though I haven’t heard from him much, though I have seen him a couple times. Kaitlin I have not spoken to since I finished filming.

T/F: Do you know what they think of the film?

DH: Rose and Shawn both really appreciate the film, from what I understand. Kaitlin I am not really sure since I have not heard from her. I gather it is not something she feels very positive about, especially since she is no longer with Brian. As for Brian, when he first saw the finished cut, he was a bit apprehensive, but then told me that he thought I “didn’t do such a bad job” and that I should “show the film to anyone and everyone”.

T/F: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Any thing else you want to add?

DH: One of my favorite quotes is one from Alfred Hitchcock which goes something like “in narrative films, the director is god; in documentary films, god is the director.” I am not religious, nor do I have any real place from which to really comment on anything of a theological nature. But the quote from Hitchcock very much describes the process by which this film came into being. I just showed up each day and hung out waiting for something to happen, never telling anyone to do anything for me, not even moving to where the light was better, or even to wear a mic. In a sense, I don’t feel like I directed this film at all. But in the end, the film that resulted was uncannily close to the film I envisioned that day in Chinatown watching the funeral procession, and I don’t believe that to be a coincidence.