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Flying Saucer Cults and the American Sprawl: How Preston Miller Made God’s Land for $30,000

Jodi Lin, Shing Ka, and Mathew Chiu in God's Land.

Preston Miller, the only current resident of Hicksville, Long Island, to have made a film about a benign Taiwanese flying saucer cult that moves to Garland, Texas, where they wait for Jesus to appear on cable TV, is the sort of moviemaker you root for. How else is the film fan to feel sitting through Mr. Miller’s most recent effort, God’s Land, which follows the true adventures of the "God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Foundation" as they stumble about the postmodern Texan landscape attired in white cowboy hats? The hats are an effort to better fit in with the locals, according to the dictates of genial leader Teacher Chen, who wears a ring said to contain a rocket ship capable of carrying 100,000 believers into space. The fact that 40-year-old Mr. Miller, who was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and attended Appalachian State University, manages to keep this sort of operatic scenario on track for the film’s two-hour-and-40-minute running time with a $30,000 budget is something of a miracle in itself in these dark economic days.

"Well, to make a movie like God’s Land takes determination, or maybe obsession, but then again, I have sort of a passion for the absurd," said Miller, speaking from the Hicksville home where he moved about ten years ago so his Bengali wife could be close to her family. "You have to be possessed by a vision and stick to it no matter what." Miller, who first read of the cult in 1998 and finally got to shoot his movie ten years later, used money made working overtime at his job as a "visual aid presenter" for a midtown law firm. Although Miller tried to be faithful to the actual story, tirelessly transcribing the increasingly inane yet somehow affecting "press conferences" given by the cult, little of the picture was shot in Texas. "We did almost all of it in Hicksville, a lot of it in my house," Miller told me. "The American sprawl is the American sprawl … we had a scene where the cult members go to Target. A Target in Hicksville is exactly the same as a Target in Garland. When we got kicked out of the Hicksville Target, we just drove over to the one in Levittown and finished the scenes there. I got the idea that a flying saucer cult could fit in almost anywhere."

One size might fit all when it comes to flying saucer cults (after God did not appear on TV in Garland, Teacher Chen had a dream featuring the numbers 18 and 78, prompting him to move his flock to the intersection of Highways 18 and 78 in Olcott, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario). But when it comes to movies about the vagaries of belief, Mr. Miller’s is a singular thing, at least the equal of the haunting Take Shelter and far more humane than the touted Mansonesque Martha Marcy May Marlene. However, since God’s Land has received almost no publicity (only four Rotten Tomatoes reviews as we speak), the box office prospects remain dim.

Indeed, when I saw it at a 4:30 performance at the Quad Cinema in New York — where it will play until Thursday — I was the only one in the theater. This turned strange when Mr. Miller himself showed up at the film’s end, accompanied by two of his stars, Jodi Lin and Shing Ka, to do a "Q&A" with the audience. It seemed to bother Mr. Miller not a bit that this was an audience of one. In fact, he said, he often went to see movies and was the only person in the audience. These were some of the best experiences in his movie-going career.