David Weiss’ goal as a scriptwriter has maintained itself over his years in the industry: “I like telling stories that a kid in junior high would enjoy. I like doing things that are good and helpful to mankind. And there’s something neat and sweet and old fashioned in doing films for families.” And in his work, from his debut “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” “The Rugrats Movie,” “Shrek 2,” and the upcoming “Smurfs” movie, he’s done just that. Behind the success, however, Mr. Weiss has also journeyed a great deal spiritually, a path he will outline in his presentation Friday at Chabad Jewish Center in Ventura, the city where he was born and raised.
Mr. Weiss’ own storyline pitch would be simple: A boy raised a Reform Jew in Southern California finds Christ and converts to Christianity. Yet, later on in life, after his initial success in Hollywood, he returns to Judaism, delving deeper than he ever did.
On the phone, Mr. Weiss is open, relaxed, and humorous. He lets it be known when he’s saving some answers for the talk on Friday, especially the jokes.
He also fleshes out parts of the story that he knows he won’t have time to go into.
Growing up in the Ventura suburbs in the 1960s was more about recreation to Mr. Weiss than religion. Though his great-grandfather was from Russia and orthodox, when his mother’s and father’s families emigrated to America they quickly assimilated. Though he went through his Bar Mitzvah and attended Beth Torah, his household was more Reformed. As he puts it, there was talk about the Holocaust and of planting trees for Israel, but no time for bigger questions of existence. “I was a questioner, I guess a little hyperactive too,” he says. “But it was more a sense of, ‘Sit down and be quiet.’ ”
Not that there were a lot of other Jewish families in town, and Mr. Weiss was one of seven Jewish kids in all of his high school. He began to hang out a lot with Christians his own age. Christian families were his neighbors. “A lot were sweet good folks,” he says. “They’d invite you to church. They were warm, loving; it was a very gracious community.”
He got even more involved when a Methodist youth minister mounted a production of “Godspell.”
“That was it for me,” he says. “I just loved singing in harmony in front of a crowd. It was all about the sense of being alive it can bring and mistaking that for purpose, I think.”
All this culminated one night when Mr. Weiss was 17. There was a long, late-night conversation with a good friend on Christmas Eve.
“That night I prayed the prayer and immediately regretted it,” he says. “I spent six months going back and forth, admitting and denying it. I hopped back and forth depending on who was questioning me.”
Mr. Weiss attended church, then at Christian camp he decided to really get serious about it. At the same time, after being impressed with the multimedia aspects of the various talks there and at church, he turned to film school. His graduate film at USC was a “wacky Christian comedy action adventure, sort of ‘Ghostbusters’ meets ‘Bruce Almighty.’ ” That got him an agent.
“My goal was to make films that wouldn’t be preachy or come off as religious,” he says. “I didn’t like ‘Christian film’ per se. It needed to be something an ordinary Joe could enjoy but also be moved by.”
His big break was coming to the attention of director Don Bluth, who brought the writer over to Dublin, Ireland, to script “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” Bluth was a Mormon, so immediately the two had to find some common ground. “We’d get into the office and spend the first hour wrestling over our faiths. It was good practice and a good discussion, but then we’d get into the script.”
“Dogs” was a modest success in 1989, and led to more family scripts, including another Don Bluth film, “Rock-a-Doodle.”
Yet, just as once Mr. Weiss found himself slipping away from his parents’ faith as a teen, the adult Mr. Weiss, who was now married, found himself straying from Christianity.
He struck up a friendship with David Steinberg, who like Mr. Weiss worked in the film industry but also was deeply into his faith. Mr. Steinberg, however, was Orthodox, and Mr. Weiss originally called on him to explain Jewish festivals to the Christian youth he was teaching in Dublin.
“That opened my eyes that there was a lot more to Judaism than I had realized as a kid,” he said. “That started a several-year process of seeking out more religious Jews.” He got to a place where he says he just confused himself.
“I didn’t really know who I was or what to do,” he says. “The thought of leaving the church was mortifying, because it had been such a huge part of my life for 15 years.” The church had been there through deaths in his family and very supportive. So, he says, he drifted between the two.
“I did notice there was a slight tiredness creeping in,” he says. “I had gone as far as I thought I could go, there was a lack of a challenge. That’s never been satisfying to me.”
More importantly, he said, in learning about Judaism, he found a lot of his Christian theology felt like a “glossing over” of deeper ideas. The idea of Christ as sacrifice, as atonement for other people’s sins, felt wrong to him. “If you were to tell me that I could save 5, 10, 100 people from the death penalty by offering up my innocent daughter instead? It’s offensive to the universe, I think.”
The other thing that bothered him when he was preaching Christianity was telling people that they were condemned to hell if they didn’t find God. “I apologized a lot or gave it the soft-sell,” he says. “When you start with the idea that I have to change the people around me, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Around the time of his “return” to Judaism, his daughter was born, and he penned a special Chanukah episode of Rugrats, in which he takes special pride, as it balanced humor and education. Also, his wife was also learning about Judaism, and enrolled them both in classes at the University of Judaism. When she converted, the Rabbi told Mr. Weiss he hwad to make a choice between his faiths. You can’t be both, the Rabbi said.
“I still feel a great affection for my time in the church,” he says. “I needed the Christians to convince me that God was real and there might be a messiah Orthodoxy gave me the realization that these ideas were part of my heritage and gave me the opportunity to go back to the source.”
IF YOU GO:
WHO: David Weiss
WHERE: Chabad Jewish Center of Ventura, 5040 Telegraph Rd.
WHEN: Friday, July 30, 7 – 10 p.m. (includes Shabbat dinner)
Tickets: $18 – $50
INFO: 558-1770 or www.ChabadVentura.com