By Samuel Gray Anderson• Hebrews 11:13–16
A faint din of glasses chiming, being filled with ice and liquor; distant chatter echoing across a lounge. A man’s voice, nearby, asks:
Have you been writing anything?
There is a long moment of hesitation until another man’s voice, marked by an innate distance, a tinny wavering, replies:
Some. Small things. Well, they don’t feel small, but- I’ve gone back to some old ideas, tried to pick up the thread. But it’s tough knowing where to start.
Screenwriter Samuel Gray Anderson explores the theme of healing and Hebrews 11:13-16 (below) in his new script about a father attempting to reunite with his son from a past life.
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13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them , and embraced them , and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 15 And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country , that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
Samuel Gray Anderson
Distant Greetings is a potential title that has accompanied me for many years. It was inspired by Hebrews 11:13-16:
‘All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.’ (NASB)
I find these words deeply moving in their description of these heroes who glimpsed salvation from afar and held to that promise, refusing the false consolation of a return to a prior – lost or abandoned – homeland, insisting on the existence of something better, something which alone merits that name, ‘homeland.’ Yet my mind constantly seizes on the distance in this expression, ‘welcomed them from a distance.’ There is hope in this, but also a deep longing. Each time I have tried writing something with this title, my mind has gravitated toward the distance rather than the promise; or perhaps you could say that it has lost its way in that distance. I find this aspect much more palpable, but trying to articulate it, I seek a stronger sense of the promise that lies beyond it. I don’t think that I have ever succeeded in these attempts, which is perhaps why I turn to these words so often.
As I was contemplating this passage again recently, the title resonated in my mind with a story that I have wanted to tell for a long time, loosely inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, ‘Babylon Revisited’; the story of a man trying to reunite with his child, lost due to many failings that he is trying to make right, not yet finding himself capable of doing so. The central character in this story experiences it on a much different level, but he also lives in this tension between something that lies behind and a promise of life to come – in this case, embodied in his child and the potential for reconciliation. Following this basic framework while writing my own story, I sought to draw out this dynamic, making the promise of life more pronounced in certain moments while also deepening the sense of separation. Fitzgerald’s story is about a man working to convince others that he deserves to be a father; with mine, I wanted to present a man who still has to convince himself, and who struggles with the tension between coming to terms with one’s past and forgetting, never quite certain where healing lies.
Fleshing out this story, I found that I was able to inhabit it more deeply by working within a form that is new for me; a screenplay form that incorporates short story elements, or a short story form constructed in a way that points toward a film. Pasolini wrote of the screenplay as an art form that aspires to become another art form: it is not complete in itself, but always points toward another work that will fulfill it. Exaggerating this aspect of the form seemed fitting for exploring this idea of living in between a promise and its fulfillment, and for exploring the tension between forgetting the past (but possibly losing all it meant) and seeking reconciliation with it (but risking to live perpetually in its shadow). In order to live more fully in the skin of my characters, and with the hope of giving the reader a more intense, if more indirect, taste of the subsequent film that could arise from this form, I tilted the screenplay in the direction of prose. At times, the process took me much further than I expected or intended, and certain passages will clearly be impossible to recreate in a film without significant translation. But I found this to be very fruitful, as it helped me more fully to feel what was at stake in the questions driving it.
The more I ponder these questions, the more I find that they are central to my understanding of what is potential in art. Art gives us a sense of what is possible beyond the world as we know it, but often does so by deepening our sense of a wound that we have all experienced, together and individually. In this, perhaps, it offers us the strength to resist false consolation, to continue to insist that there is something more, ‘a better country,’ as the passage reads. Even when it offers us no specific promise, art gives us the sense of this country, filling us with yearning. This yearning may heighten our experience of the wound; but it also guides us toward healing, at times by insisting that true healing is possible, at others by reminding us that we have not yet experienced true healing, and perhaps haven’t even conceived what true healing would be. It helps us to welcome the promise ‘from a distance,’ perhaps; in any case, this is what, in the best moments, the act of writing and filmmaking does for me.
Samuel Gray Anderson is a writer and filmmaker living in Gardena, CA with his wife Susan and son Theodor. He was born in Latrobe, PA, grew up in South Carolina, and studied English at Yale University. He is the co-founder of the production company Almond Tree Films, with which he has written and produced the feature films Munyurangabo (2007), Lucky Life (2010), and Abigail Harm (2012). His work has participated in the Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, and Tribeca film festivals, among others.