Chat about the Fred Phelps documentary with K. Ryan Jones

February 15, 2007

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Join Lawrence filmmaker K. Ryan Jones, who will chat at 1:30 p.m. today about his documentary, "Fall From Grace," in which he is granted unrestricted access to Topeka's infamous Pastor Fred Phelps. Jones' cinematic debut was just accepted to the prestigious South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.


Greetings. I'm Jon Niccum, entertainment editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, and I'll be moderating this chat. Please welcome K. Ryan Jones, director of the documentary film "Fall From Grace." His project takes a behind-the-scenes look at controversial Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.

K. Ryan Jones:

Hey everyone. I want to thank the Journal World for having me out this afternoon and for all of you who are participating. I'm really excited to chat with all of you.


Do you at all feel you're contributing to the perpetuating problem of glorifying Fred's messages of hate? It seems he and his ilk have been granted far too many attention-grabbing opportunities in the local and national media. Aren't you just feeding into his desires and taking this to the next level?

K. Ryan Jones:

This is the issue that I come up against the most. It is also one I struggled with personally while making the film. My thoughts are that I think that the way in which we will be best equipped to combat the Phelpses and other groups like them is to know everything we can about them. My goal is to show everything that the Phelpses are about, so that, hopefully, people can understand the true depths of their madness and be better able to dismiss them, to see that they're not worth our anger and frustration.


What was it like to attend Mr. Phelps' sermons?

K. Ryan Jones:

It was intense, to say the least. At the pickets there is a certain energy that is pretty overwhelming, but the church services, and Fred's sermons specifically, are exponentially worse than any picket I attended. He rants for about 45 minutes straight and he also liked to make eye contact with the camera. I think he thought it was somehow effective, but it was really frightening to look into the viewfinder and see those eyes locking indirectly with yours.


Many have speculated that the reason Rev. Phelps has chosen to attack homosexuality harder then he does any other type of sin is that there was something in his past or family that caused such extreme focus on that one topic. For example, one rumor was that one of his off-spring (estranged and living in California) is gay. Did you bring that issue up with him in your film, or detect anything that would indicate if this is true or just an urban myth?

K. Ryan Jones:

I can't speak with absolute certainty on this subject, but my belief is there isn't anything to the rumors about Fred being a closet homosexual or anything of that nature. As to his past, as far as my research is concerned, I never unearthed anything that would explain why he chooses homosexuality as his focus except for the fact that he has just always been passionate and outspoken about his religious convictions. The offspring issue is another I have to answer a lot, and the unromantic truth of the matter is that none of Fred's kids are gay. I know that that would be nice poetic justice but it's just not true. I spoke with both sons that are no longer associated with the church and neither of them are homosexual.


Sometimes documentary filmmakers or biographers -- people who spend a lot of time with one subject -- can become sympathetic to that person, despite their faults. Did you ever find that happening to you when making this film?

K. Ryan Jones:

I don't know if I would say sympathetic. I definitely see them differently than I did when I started the project. It's hard to spend a lot of time with someone and not find redeeming qualities about them. I guess I just see them as more human, and that's important, I think. Often, I would hear people calling them demons or saying that Fred was the devil in carnate, but these are just flawed human beings taking part in a long tradition of people misinterpreting the word of God.


Ryan, can you speak a little about the challenges you've faced being a full-time KU student while dealing with a movie that is gaining national attention?

K. Ryan Jones:

I'm not having a problem yet about losing focus on my studies, but it is stressful because I have all these things I have to do, now. I will spend hours on creating a press kit and coding a web site and then I remember I have to read some Shakespeare or watch La Dolce Vita before class the next day. It's become way more exhausting in recent months than it ever was during production.


I have not seen the documentary. Did you go to the Phelps church and residences when you filmed this documentary? I have heard that there are caverns and such under the church and houses. Did you see any of that? Or is that just a myth?

K. Ryan Jones:

Wow! part of my job has become responding to the mythology that surrounds this group, but I haven't ever heard that one before. I spent time mostly in the main house/church building, Shirley's home, and Tim's house, but I never went into any of their basements, so I don't really have any idea. Sorry. I'll ask them about that, though.


I haven't seen your film (even though I really want to), but in the trailer I saw that one man came up to the picketers and started yelling at them. From your experiences with them, did they get this reaction a lot from people?

K. Ryan Jones:

Oh yes! Many people engage them verbally and sometimes physically. In Deleware, last year, they were pelted with rocks and other such things and driven away from where they were picketing. People think they are going to somehow outsmart them in a verbal debate. It just won't ever happen because they've heard it all before and they have twisted the scripture to support whatever they do.


What do you feel is the most interesting or best scene in your film?

K. Ryan Jones:

For me, it's the interviews with the estranged children. They really provide the best insight into this group and also the only viable theory I've heard to answer the question of why Fred is the way he is. Other people feel that the interviews I did with the young children of the church are the most interesting. I like this, as well, because it gives you a glimpse into the future of this group, but I really have to say I am most proud of the interviews with the estranged children.


What do you think will happen to Westboro Baptist Church down the road when Fred Phelps dies? Do the other members seem committed to keeping it going?

K. Ryan Jones:

History would tell us that when the charismatic leader dies, the cult usually whithers for one reason or another. My personal belief is that this is not going to stop. One of the Phelpses told me that, if anything, they're going to be even stronger if Fred dies, because they were raised from day-one to believe what they believe. Notice that I said "if" Fred dies. They don't really believe that he will die before Christ returns, so it's not something they really worry about. It seems to me that Tim Phelps is a prime candidate to take over, but they don't dismiss the notion that someone from outside Westboro could come in. They believe God will provide a minister, though. So, no, I don't really think it will all go away when Fred dies.


Your film is making its national debut at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin this March. Do you think people from other parts of the country will react to it differently than Kansans?

K. Ryan Jones:

I don't know. I think that we in Kansas have an obvious interest in this group because, whether we like it or not, they are travelling around representing our state. They really are nationally known, though, and I think that the people of Kansas now more about them than most other people because we've been dealing with them for so long. We have some foundational knowledge of the group, but I think people who see them for the first time on the screen are going to be even more shocked than those of us who are familiar with them.


I used to work with Becky quite some time ago and it always seemed to me as if a part of her wanted to "leave" the family but she was afraid to. Did you have any sense of that from any of the kids or grandkids?

K. Ryan Jones:

Well, fear is a big theme that runs throughout the identity of this group: fear of God, fear of Fred, fear of Hell, etc. The children who have left the church talk about how there was a lot of fear associated with that decision because to be outside of Westboro's fold is to be outside of the grace of God. They are taught that if they aren't at that church, they are going to go to Hell. The fear isn't an earthly issue. They aren't afraid of Fred tracking them down and murdering them. To leave would be risking their eternal life.


Ryan, thanks for spending time with Journal-World readers. And good luck in Austin.

K. Ryan Jones:

Thanks for having me.


Linda Aikins 11 years, 2 months ago

Nicely done, Mr. Jones! Congratulations!

Jamesaust 11 years, 2 months ago

My God! At first I thought this read "Chat with Fred Phelps." Gasp.

kj 11 years, 2 months ago

I thought the same thing when I read it. I thought, I can't miss this one.

cellogrl 11 years, 2 months ago

At first I thought, "Why would I want to read about these people. I abhor their views". I did find this chat interesting though and I'm even kind of interested in seeing the documentary now, even though I know parts of it will piss me off.

KSChick1 11 years, 2 months ago

I would love to see his documentary. I've seen another article on Ryan and he said that he tried to just present what was happening, not whether he agreed with it or not. I think that objectivity is pretty level-headed for a college-aged kid.

armyguy 11 years, 2 months ago

Chat with Fred Phelps, now that would be the best chat ever. LJW get with it and Fred here.

Jazmyn 11 years, 2 months ago

I want to see this documentary ONLY if none of my money goes to Phelps and his group. Can anyone verify that none of the proceeds from this movie will go to them? I didn't see this mentioned anywhere.

jayhuck 11 years, 2 months ago

I have no desire to see this movie. Frankly I'm saddened that the creator of this documentary somehow made peace with the idea that he is giving more publicity to the Phelps family. Regardless of whether the publicity is good or bad, the Phelps family thrives on it and is sustained by it. We have to start treating this family as we would a child who throws temper tantrums - we have to simply ignore them! I'm starting now!

Meatwad 11 years, 2 months ago

I'm torn. This film is increasing their publicity but it's also documenting what they are doing. Everything Fred does is calculated so that it elicits a response, the bigger the better. A huge negative response or even violence toward him is what he craves and what he lives for. The ONLY way this group is going to ever whither is if/when people simply pay no attention to them. Rocks, verbal attacks, etc only increase their resolve. BUT then again, terrorists shouldn't be ignored either. The more Phelps is ignored, the more extreme he will become in trying to get attention. Thank god for the motorcycle organizations who make it a point to attend the funerals and drown out the church. They calmly surround the church people and the funeral goers can't hear their stupid chants. Congrats K. Ryan on getting your film into SxSw!

heatherbf4e 6 years, 10 months ago

I think it's very easy to respond to a group like this with anger and hostility because they feed so much of it to the "outside world" to begin with. Personally, after reading a few articles on them and then watching this documentary I feel saddened by this group. To know that they are living by their fear and what they presume they know would just be a horrible way to live. I am a Christian and although I am tempted to be upset because they're views are so far away from the Jesus that I know and they definitely mock what I believe, I just find myself praying for them instead. The documentary was very insightful and I think anyone who really wants to know how to deal with this type of issue (because this isn't the only extremist group out there) should watch it. I'm very glad that Jones had the guts to really find out all the sides of this subject. The best thing in the world is not to feed their ambition but rather to walk away. They just want to win an argument, they don't care about anyone else's view.

Jersey_Girl 6 years, 9 months ago

Sadly, the Phelps family suffers from a hereditary disease known as Media Whorism. The only known cure is virtually impossible; complete and total isolation from the rest of the world. It is not known whether or not this disease is fatal and all we can do is keep praying.

Liberty275 6 years, 7 months ago

"The only known cure is virtually impossible; complete and total isolation from the rest of the world."

You mean like a gulag? Who else would you like to "cure" for saying words you don't like?

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

"I spoke with both sons that are no longer associated with the church and neither of them are homosexual."

It is amazing that someone could seriously make such a statement, because only speaking with someone provides absolutely no evidence at all.

However, there is a possible exception in that the person that spoke with them is gay himself and could therefore recognize that they probably weren't. Even then, it wouldn't be a for sure.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 4 months ago

A very good friend that I have known for years, and by that I mean since 1984, used to go out with one of the Rev. Fred Phelps' daughters. His encounters with the Phelps clan were prior to the time I met him, so it's quite likely that he would have been a very good resource to have been consulted if its early history were to have been well covered. It's a bit late for that now, though. The daughter that he used to go out with once did make a run for it, but today she is still a member of the cult.

At one point, the Rev. Fred Phelps' daughter asked him to go to church with him. He did so, and was quite surprised to see that it took place in the family home.

Because almost all of his family is in the medical field, and he also has had quite a lot of experience in other ways that I don't feel at liberty to discuss here, he is very familiar with various forms of mental illness. Trust me though, this person is an expert, and can spot people's characteristics right off the bat.

Very quickly after the Rev. Fred Phelps' sermon began his mental condition became obvious, and not much about him is actually unique.

He's either schizophrenic or psychopathic, and unless the cult can find another person with those mental characteristics, the Westboro Baptist Church will soon become a footnote in the laughingstock history of the state of Kansas, if it even rates that.

P.S. It would be very interesting to know how many interviews with psychiatrists that have major reputations in their field were interviewed in the making of the film, and how many of the Phelps clan they interviewed.

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