Dan Howlett knows the importance of a good story. For the Middlesbrough, England native, the most fundamental aspect of documentary filmmaking is having a good story that both informs and entertains; it comes before everything, and he starts every project with that mentality, conducting often arduous interviews that sometimes don’t even make it into the film. Every new piece of information he learns about a character betters his understanding of the story, and Howlett has a way with people, allowing his interviewees to forget they are in front of a camera, and they simply have a conversation. As both a producer and director, he really listens and aims to fully understand their situation. This natural ability combined with determination and raw talent has allowed Howlett to rise to the top of his industry, creating engaging films that captivate audiences around the world.
“I love everything about the job, but mainly it’s the people. By the very nature of the job you are meeting people who are fascinating and are in the middle of something incredible. Otherwise you wouldn’t be filming them. That’s the real beauty of it and that’s why I feel so lucky,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of documentaries and this role means that I get to be right there with these people as things unfold and they discover what is happening and how it will affect their life. It’s an incredible privilege and I sometimes have to pinch myself when somebody is allowing me full access into their world, sharing with me their deepest, darkest, secrets and fears – it’s incredible.”
Whether creating content for the big or small screen, Howlett knows how to keep his viewers enthralled. His television work includes acclaimed series such as Haunted USA and True Conviction, and his films extend to pieces like Westboro and My Life Inside: The Purity Movement.
One of Howlett’s most recent projects is My Life Inside: The Snake Church, which he directed and produced. It is a two-part documentary that dives deep into snake handling/serpent handling within various churches in the United States, specifically the startling moment when a controversial American pastor is bitten by a deadly snake during a service. Cody Coots is the pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name church in Middlesboro, Kentucky - one of America’s only remaining snake-handling churches. The dangerous ritual had already cost the Pentecostal church its previous pastor, Cody’s father Jamie Coots, 42, after he was bitten by a rattlesnake and killed in 2014. And the shocking footage shows Cody Coots - his shirt splattered in blood - collapsing and being helped from his altar as the snake’s potentially lethal poison begins to take hold.
“The Coots family encompass so many themes of human existence but through an extreme lens because of the way they practice their faith. Despite being from a completely different world, I found so much of what they go through relatable and it was always my hope that people who watched it would have a better understanding of why they worship the way they do. Everybody around them believes the same way and after handling deadly rattlesnakes as part of their religion they’ll head to McDonalds for a milkshake, go to the park with their children or hangout with their friends and play music before getting up for work on a Monday. I wanted people to understand these people and understand why they believe the way they do and I hope I achieved that,” Howlett explained.
Howlett has always been fascinated with theology and the way that people practice their faith, particularly its association with class. He was raised Catholic and many members of his family are very religious. However, because the traditions in the United Kingdom are so well established, there are not many variations of beliefs or practices to choose from, a stark contrast to America, where there are many different worshiping styles that practice the same religion.
“I had heard about snake handling churches when I was younger but didn’t really think it properly existed – the entire concept of somebody holding a deadly snake to prove their faith in God was absolutely fascinating to me. There are videos on YouTube and I’d seen a documentary a few years ago about it so I was definitely interested in it and wanted to learn more,” he said.
The entire series is fascinating, but the most memorable moment came when a snake bit Coots, something Howlett will never forget. He filmed Coots getting ready for church and tried to build up what a typical day involved. On this day in particular, he was feeling really good and had an air of confidence around him. He went to his mothers to pick up the snakes, which he kept in a locked room at the back of her house before ‘packing’ them for church.
When they got to the church, Howlett gave him a quick interview outside that would become incredibly prophetic. Coots told them filmmaker that he was going to die young just like his father but did not care as that is what the Lord wants for him. Inside, Howlett and his team filmed everybody getting ready for service. When the service began, it didn’t take long for Coots to take a rattle snake from the box and use it to worship God.
“They say that the Lord moves on them to pick up the snakes and it looked like he was moving on this day. The atmosphere was electric with people bouncing up and down and speaking in tongues - it was completely surreal,” Howlett described.
Coots was waving the snake in the air and preaching when suddenly the music stopped. The joyous prayers turned to terrified yells, as he had been bitten in the face by a rattlesnake. He continued to preach while blood poured from his face and Howlett made the decision to keep on shooting until he was told otherwise by a member of the congregation. After praying and preaching for some time, Coots eventually passed out and was taken to the hospital against his wishes. Cody, like his father, believes that if you are bitten by a snake you have to let the Lord decide if you will live or die and should not seek medical treatment. He survived with no major problems and wanted Howlett to continue filming his recovery and journey back to health.
The series was filmed in 2015 and was released on YouTube’s most popular factual channel Barcroft TV in August of this year. From there, it was picked up by media outlets around the world and seen by millions of people. Howlett has received countless calls and emails from journalists and producers from across America who want to know more about the snake handling traditions of the Appalachian Mountains. The success is incredible for Howlett, but for the filmmaker, the most important endorsement came from Coots.
“We captured one of the lowest moments in his life and followed him as he got to grips with PTSD and his own mortality, which I didn’t think he had addressed before. I spoke to him beforehand and warned him that the piece was quite graphic and that he should have someone with him while watching it. He said he found it hard to watch but enjoyed it and felt we did a good job telling his story. That was great for me to hear as the subject matter was obviously so sensitive,” he said.
Watch Howlett’s incredible series My Life Inside: The Snake Church here.