2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival: ‘J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius’
What started out as an inside joke among two self-proclaimed weirdos in Ft. Worth, Texas soon becomes much more than they bargained for when they decide to turn their conservative Southern ideology on its head and invent a new religion all their own. Today we’re looking at the genius behind J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius in advance of its screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
We were also very lucky to speak with director and producer Sandy K. Boone, who began making films in Austin in the 1980s with her late husband, cult filmmaker David Boone (Invasion of the Aluminium People).
In recent years Sandy, has cofounded several Austin-based film companies with a shared mission to encourage local indie filmmakers, foster creative talent, and perpetuate a sense of community through filmmaking.
Sandy served as associate producer on Dream is Destiny by Richard Linklater and executive producer on Blaze Tower, The Honor Farm, and Bodies of Water. She makes her directorial debut with J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius: a look inside the Church of the SubGenius, of which her late husband was an early disciple.
Frustrated by a rising consumer-driven culture, out-of-work pals Douglass St. Clair Smith and Steve Wilcox decide to turn conservative Southern ideology on its head and invent a new religion all their own.
Spurred on by the overreach of religion and zealous televangelists of the day, the pair concocts religious monikers (Reverend Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond), a newly minted prophet (J.R. “Bob” Dobbs), and devises a crusade to expose the conspiracy of normalcy using humor as the ultimate weapon.
With their counterculture-driven doctrine in place, St. Clair Smith & Wilcox take to the underground masses to proclaim their message and set others on the path to Slack, the ineffable state of transcendence.
In the months that follow, Stang and Drummond, with the help of their wives, brainstorm what becomes perhaps the single most significant marketing effort made at the inception of the Church of the SubGenius: the writing, design, printing, and distribution of Pamphlet #1.
Seizing on the zeitgeist of the day, the doctrine of the Church quickly spreads. This fringe cult religion strikes a nerve amid a deadening consumer culture, the evisceration of basic social services, and the worship of wealth that occurred during the Reagan/Thatcher years.
As Pamphlet #1 continues to circulate, the emergent punk publishing scene and new wave comic writers embrace the irreverent humor and cultural critique of the Church’s tenets. Creatives and artists find inspiration in the Church and SubGenius thought began to influence the work of musicians David Byrne, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Jerry Casale as well as filmmakers Richard Linklater, David Boone, and Jonathan Demme.
Outsiders, misfits, and weirdos soon follow, reveling in the sense of community they find in the Church. The movement gains momentum through conventions, “devivals”, and publicity runs on the talk show circuit.
But as membership numbers grow, Stang & Drummond find they have less and less control over these newcomers, not all of whom grasp the tongue-in-cheek sensibility of the religion and threaten to take the joke too far.
The Church’s popularity continues to ebb and flow through the decades, set against the backdrop of economic boom and bust, multiple presidential terms, the birth of the internet, and pivotal national tragedies. Through it all, the core of ideas within the SubGenius ethos continues to endure.
Now, nearly forty years after its conception, founders Stang & Drummond drop character for the first time and reveal the deep truths behind the Church of the SubGenius to director Sandy K. Boone, whose late husband David Boone was an early disciple of the Church of the SubGenius.
A born-again Christian who found herself married to one of the original SubGeniuses, she witnessed firsthand the creativity and independent thought sparked by this phenomenon, while never allowing herself to be swept up in it.
As a person of faith she finds herself confronted with the need for a resolution. Is the Church of the SubGenius’s rebellious humor and think-for-yourself messaging the perfect antidote?
Read on for our great interview with Sandy K. Boone.
Where did you get the idea for J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius?
In a way, J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is a film nearly forty years in the making. This film is a tribute to my late husband and early member of the Church of the SubGenius, David Boone, a.k.a. Roperto de la Rosa, and to his film style. We made Invasion of the Aluminum People in the early 80s, which went on to be presented by Jonathan Demme in New York as a part of his “Made In Texas” showcase.
After my husband passed, I focused on raising our two daughters – but in recent years I have begun pursuing my love of film again. When it came time to direct my first feature, of course I thought of the SubGenius.
My perspective is unique in that I am a woman making a doc about what was originally a “boys’ club” and a “Normal” – which SubGeniuses pretend to despise – a liberal Christian, and yet they respect and appreciate me anyway.
The SubGenius – for all their “yak about Slack” – are some of the hardest-working, clever, creative, witty, accepting people you will ever meet! It has been so special for me to reconnect with the founding and early members of the Church of the SubGenius again after all these years. I’m honored they have entrusted me to tell their story.
When did you begin production on J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius?
We began production in 2017.
Did you have access to relevant archive materials?
Yes! This film would not be what it is without the treasure trove of archival materials entrusted to us by Doug Smith (Rev. Ivan Stang) and other early SubGenius members. Our team sifted through boxes upon boxes of old pamphlets, past newsletters, and artwork – not to mention the hundreds of hours of tape. Lucky for us, the SubGeniuses have done quite well at documenting their activity over the years.
Why is it important that the Church of the SubGenius’s story is told now?
The Church of the SubGenius is a path to speak out about the absurdity of our political situation, which in reality, is far more absurd than the Church of the SubGenius was or ever has been.
Our world and government are using cult tactics to separate and divide us with fear. My hope would be that through the SubGenius, we might find creative ways to make civility, truth, thoughtfulness, and empathy popular again. I believe the Church of the SubGenius, and this film specifically, can be used as a vehicle to approach serious topics in a humorous way.
A conversation about our different political views does not always have to be hostile. The SubGeniuses are such an example of how you can be on opposite sides of an issue, engage in some good-natured debate, but at the end of the day remain friends based on the things you have in common.
My hope is that by deconstructing the way SubGeniuses have used cult tactics and an “us vs. them” mentality (though often in jest), viewers of the film will be more aware of how others in power harness these same tactics to encourage isolation and devastation across humanity.
I would love to see a resurgence in Church of the SubGenius membership and its “think for yourself” mentality as this film makes its way around the world. The best days of the Church may still be ahead of us!
Tell us about your involvement in MDFF.
I’m honored and excited for J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius to be screening at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. We can’t wait to screen this film in front of an Australian audience.
What’s your experience of the indie film scene in Australia at the moment?
I must admit I’m very new to the Australian indie film scene. But I can’t wait to experience it! I also want to encourage women in the film industry, in Australia and beyond, to share their stories with the world.
What’s your next project?
I have two new projects in the works: a narrative feature and an episodic, both of which are set in Austin, TX.
Midnight Taco is an Austin-based supernatural comedy about a guy named Geater, a chef who runs The Midnight Taco food truck, and his drug-dealing partner Tate who must battle evil spirits, a rival food truck owner named Johnny, and Etta – a voluptuous woman who wants more than just a good man – as they go in search of the Holy Grail of Vinyl, Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words Blues.
The Alt is a one-hour dramedy series about a group of writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists who work at a weekly newspaper and inspire the liberal, progressive activists around town to unite behind them as they take on the conservative political stronghold in this Southern capital in the late 80s.
Frankie Stein is from Italy, but lives in Ingolstadt, Germany. Her hobbies are: reading about science, doing experiments, and travelling. She's been all around Europe and loves Scotland, London, and Russia. Her boyfriend is called Victor and they both love listening to The Cure, reading Byron, and gazing upon William Blake prints.