God and Comedy
Screenwriter Michael Zagst chooses laughter with Divine Access
Catholic mass was still presented in Latin when Michael Zagst was an altar boy in Houston. Laurel and Hardy riffed slapstick comedy on TV as young Zagst inhaled breakfast before church. "I loved them," he says. "I'd watch them and ride my bike to go speak in tongues and talk about God. Then I'd go to school from there."
Flash forward to 2016 and the official release of Divine Access, an Austin-shot, low-budget comedy co-written by Zagst about an aimless guy named Jack (Billy Burke) who shames a religious huckster (Gary Cole) during a cable access television show also named Divine Access and hosted by Patrick Warburton's Bob. The moment transforms Jack into a semi-reluctant spiritual celebrity in his own right.
"So there's big religious questions, talking in tongues, and slapstick," Zagst says of his altar boy days. "It all comes up in Divine Access. People turn to [Jack] for answers, the big answers to the big questions of life, religion, and love. He's been exposed to a number of different New Age and traditional beliefs, so he knows a lot. But he doesn't really believe in any of it. His basic belief is we're here right now; let's concentrate on that."
After a successful festival run, the film screens Tuesday, May 17, at the Violet Crown Cinema, with Zagst conducting a Q&A afterward (the film will be released on iTunes the same day). Zagst conceivably could have walked to the screening from his former Austin apartment near Pease Park, but a 60% rent increase sent him to Houston, where he now shares a house with his ex-wife. "I could have done it," he says of the rent hike that he admits is the market rate in a new Austin, "but I didn't want to pay that much for the privilege of living here. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I have nothing but respect for Austin – and very little of that."
The film's director, Steven Prince, a longtime actor, approached Zagst with the idea years ago. "His mother had raised him, dragging him around to various New Age things like [Werner Erhard's self-actualization seminars], EST, and also more traditional churches," Zagst says. "He said, 'Let's make a deal. You write it, and I'll act in it.'"
The script was penned/reworked/revised over and over as Prince moved to Los Angeles and became head of production company the Traveling Picture Show. One version had Jack commanding a thunderstorm to stop, and it did. "The producers said, 'That's just too spot-on,' and I agree with that now," Zagst says. "It should be more suggested. Is he a Christ figure? I don't know. He's just a guy trying to get by. He's suave, too. He uses these situations to his advantage to meet women."
It's Zagst's first produced screenplay, who had earlier success as a novelist when the acclaimed writer Bruce Jay Friedman got one his books in the right editor's hands. Before and after getting a sociology degree at the University of Texas, Zagst worked a series of grunt jobs – driving a yogurt delivery truck, clerking at the Austin State Hospital – while writing fiction. When his big break came, he saw three comic novels released in quick succession – The Greening of Thurmond Leaner, about a professional golfer, The Sanity Matinee, inspired by his time at the state hospital, and the clunkily titled but marvelous romp "M.H." Meets President Harding, inspired by lavish camping trips organized by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone in the Twenties. On this camping trip, President Harding is kidnapped and the three friends must free him.
But as is the lot of the mid-list novelist, the New York publishers gave a thumbs-down to a fourth book. "It looked like, 'Wow, this guy's turning them out every six months,' but, no, that was 12 years of writing and putting stuff in the drawer," he says. "After that I couldn't get arrested."
Zagst ended up in Los Angeles as a would-be screenwriter. He made his living as a Screen Actors Guild card-carrying movie extra in more than 60 films, a blurry face in the background watching actors ply their trade. "You're right there, five feet from them," says Zagst, who has a small part in Divine Access, earned by auditioning before people who were unaware he wrote the story. "It's about the best acting class you can take."
It makes the wide-eyed child within him gleam. "I recall visiting relatives in Galveston when I was about 6, and being dropped off at a theatre there," he says. "I became completely taken away by John Huston's Moby Dick. Afterwards, we drove along the seawall, and I couldn't take my eyes off the Gulf, right outside our moving car. Another world was right there, something I could not have imagined before that movie. Not a profound revelation for an adult, but it kind of blew my 6-year-old mind."
There were also L.A. stints as a flower delivery driver and as a dog walker. Doing the latter, he was bitten by a rattlesnake and rushed to the hospital. "I got to the emergency room, and there were all of these people walking around in scrubs, and nobody would help me," he says. "It turned out Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were having their baby. Half the people in scrubs were paparazzi trying to get some kind of picture. I thought, 'This is just too weird. I'm getting out of this town.' I came back to Texas shortly after that."
He took Social Security early at age 62. It was just enough to pay for his Austin apartment and utilities before the rent increase. "I wish I might at some point have been given more encouragement," Zagst says of his career. "But at the same time I've done what I've done to some pretty good recognition now and then. It's just a scramble. I think that's the complaint of any writer. Even with the rattlesnake experience, I'm thinking of trying L.A. again now that I've got a little foothold with Divine Access. I haven't given up on it."
Divine Access screens Tue., May 17, 7 & 7:30pm, at the Violet Crown Cinema. For more info, see www.divineaccessmovie.com.