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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

THE TRIALS OF ST. PATRICK, an eight-part audio drama from Augustine Institute Radio Theatre (AIR Theatre), tells the dramatic story of how a kidnapped slave risked his life to be a champion of the Christian faith to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire. The miniseries stars Seán T. Ó Meallaigh as Young Patrick and John Rhys-Davies as Patrick as an older man.

Paul McCusker, Director of Content for the Augustine Institute, will be at New York City’s Sheen Center for Thought and Culture this Friday night (St. Patrick’s Day!) discussing The Trials of St. Patrick, the eight-part epic audio drama he wrote and directed. Joining him for the event, which will feature clips from the saga, will be Augustine Institute President Dr. Tim Gray.  Besides reflecting on the very interesting life of St. Patrick, the pair will offer a brief presentation on The Story of Air Theatre,  a cutting-edge initiative designed to provide audio dramas that are “sound entertainment” for the culture. For information about the event click here.

McCusker is no stranger to radio drama, having gained acclaim as a Peabody Award-winning writer and director of the audio production Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom, as well as his work on award-winning audio dramatizations of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis At War,  A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables. His original works also include The Father Gilbert Mysteries series and The Luke Reports (dramatizing the Book of Luke). McCusker is also a writer and director for the long-running children’s program Adventures in Odyssey, writing not only over 300 audio episodes, but scripting two of the animated video series and 18 spin-off novels. 

I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his latest contribution to surprisingly-thriving art form of audio theater.

JWK: So, what should we know about The Trials of St. Patrick?

PAUL MCCUSKER: It’s an audio drama. That’s kind of the first thing. We’re producing these new audio dramas. We started with St. Francis. It’s called Brother Francis: Barefoot Saint of Assisi that we released a couple of months ago — and now (we have) St. Patrick. The Trials of St. Patrick is a dramatization of his life…What I was trying to do with both Francis and Patrick is to…pull together a coherent flow of the story of their lives. Both saints have such a mix of things we can verify and the legends around them, that sort of thing.

So, I tried to pull together a good narrative flow Patrick’s life as best as I could glean from all the biographies and scholarship that’s out there  and, of course, from Patrick’s own writings. We have at least two letters from him. And then to create a look at the man himself, what he went through and how he wound up the man that we actually admire as a saint. 

JWK: So, this is not your first audio drama production. Can you tell me about some of the others you’ve worked on?

PM: Yes. Brother Francis: Barefoot Saint of Assisi we produced right ahead of this, in fact. There wasn’t much of a gap between the two productions. That one came out in November — so that’s available now.

You know, I’ve worked for years on Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization, on the Adventures in Odyssey audio drama for kids. We  produced a lot of classics — Chronicles of Narnia, things like that — through Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. So, I’ve got years and years doing basically cinema for the mind. It’s fully fleshed out in terms of sound effects, music and acting. We record in England using some incredible actors over there who love to do audio drama and then we bring it all back here and mix it together. This is not an audio book. This is a full-blown drama.

JWK: What kind of budget do you have for these productions?

PM: It varies. Using some old numbers, I generally estimate around $25,000 per half-hour of content. So, for example, Francis was ten half hours. Patrick is around eight. That’s pretty much how I guess our budget. That encompasses paying the actors, paying sound designers and the composer for the score — all of that production side.

JWK: So, would you describe these productions as being almost a radio version of a TV miniseries?

PM: Oh, yeah. It’s funny, I sort of write them episodically even though, if you listen to them, they kind of flow through. I come out of an episodic background because when I was working on Focus on the Family everything was for broadcast and we generally had half-hour slots to put them into. Also, I found with the saints, in particular, doing it episodically — much like the John Adams series that HBO produced — was helpful because, when dealing with not a single episode in a man’s life but you’re dealing with an entire epic story of a person’s life, that the episodic nature of it seems to work better for trying to capture those moments. So, each one sort of captured  both for Francis and Patrick key moments in their lives that flow through to the end of the story. That worked for me. I always found that it worked really well doing it that way — especially for something as epic as a life. If I were dealing with just one event, that would be a different structure. .

JWK: How many of these dramas is the Augustine Institute planning on producing per year? How fast can you turn these out?

PM: Not that fast. We were on a fast track for Francis and Patrick. Right now I’m pulling together two or three different ideas — everything from outlining to working on scripts for the next couple of things we hope to produce. I hope to get back into the studio in the next couple of months to produce the next one which, hopefully, we’ll have out in September or October. It takes about that long, once we record the actors, to produce everything. I’m hoping we’ll have at least two a year, maybe more. It depends on budget and funding and all the other things that go into a nonprofit situation.

JWK: How do you cast these productions? Is it sort of a repertory company with guest stars?

PM: We have a core group of actors that often will come in with us. We pull them in because they’re versatile and we love to work with them. And then we have some key that will come in from project to project. For example, John Rhys-Davies, an actor who was in Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings (and) has done tons of things. He’s done projects with us before when I was at Focus on the Family but this is his first project at the Augustine Institute — where he came in an played the older Patrick. We also had Owen Teale (Game of Thrones) was in our Francis project. Harry Lloyd — who was in Game of Thrones — was with us on Francis..So, we use the best we can get, if we can get them. We jut approach agents and tell them about the projects and see if we can entice them in.

JWK: What do you hope the audience takes from these stories?

PM: Well, the broader purpose for me — anytime I’m doing any kind of a story, whether it’s an original story or telling someone’s life — I’m trying to get to the heart of the person so we can understand (them) and (in the case of historical figures), hopefully, be surprised by things we didn’t know about them.

When we first started talking about doing saints, for example, I was very wary because I just thought “We all know stories like Francis — or we think we know them. We all know the story of Patrick. But then I go in and I find out that there’s a lot I didn’t know. And then I find out that there’s a lot that a lot of people don’t know about these men and their lives.

So, I’m trying to tease out the story that would be compelling just as stories go — and then, ultimately, to find inspiration, to find how they responded to their times, to the conflicts that they faced and the struggles and how they responded to God in terms of God’s calling. And the two men were very different. Francis responded to God in one way — which as a very internal reality when you dig into Francis’ live…Patrick was far more external in terms of what he was up against being a Roman Britain who then, after he’s enslaved by Irish pirates, escapes and then is later called back to take the Gospel to Ireland–which is (at the time), in many ways, horrific. But he responded to that and he went. His question was: How do you communicate Christ to a completely pagan culture? How do you go in and present something to them that is not only incredibly foreign but is completely contrary to their understanding of God or god. Those are the kinds of things I love to explore thematically.

JWK: Where can people hear these dramas?

PM: EWTN (Radio) is going to begin airing Patrick and I think Immaculate Heart Radio and its affiliates will start airing (the episodes) on Sunday mornings. I don’t know the exact times for either network. Individual stations will begin airing them on St. Patrick’s Day…Or they can buy them if they go to AirTheatre.org. That’s our landing page for all the drama that we’re doing right now.

JWK: Is that “theatre/theater” British or American?

PM: We actually grabbed the (domain) name for both. I’ve been airing on the side of “re” just because I’m a pretentious artist type.

JWK: Tell me about the Augustine Institute.

PM: They’re in Denver…It’s a lay graduate school for Catholics — or anybody really. They have really over the past two or three years moved aggressively creating incredibly well done catechetical videos and then have moved into storytelling — starting with audio dramas. They’re really enthused on the arts. Tim Gray is the president. He’s very arts mind. He’s always looking for an excuse to try to communicate though the arts. That’s one of the things that drew me there.

JWK: How important is storytelling in affecting the culture?

PM: I think storytelling is huge. It may be even more significant — especially to this generation — than propositional truths and proclamation of truths. I think story — because is it, in many way, experiential — has that wonder of exploring ideas rather than necessarily hitting people on the head with them. It works at a whole different level and I think is more effective. I think there’s a good argument to be made that we in many ways lost our culture because believers didn’t tell stories very well.

It’s the narrative. We can argue about legislation but, when you really think about it, the changes in our culture came through television programs, books and films — either overt in terms of large impact or in that very slow subtle way. Storytelling has changed our culture and, I think, to reclaim stories and the arts is huge for people of faith — and to do it credibly and really well.

JWK: What’s next for you?

PM: There are a couple of things. I’m exploring dramatizing Quo Vadis, the 19th century classic from Henryk Sienkiewicz which takes place during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome. It’s a great novel. It’s powerful, kind of a variation of…Ben-Hur but, in many ways, it’s more powerful. I mean Ben-Hur is extremely powerful but this works a whole other level.

That’s one — but there are other saints that we’re talking about…I’m looking at maybe even developing a kids’ program too.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith and media.

The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) and Daniel Brühl (Captain America: Civil War) opens in theaters March 31st.

Synopsis: Based on a true story. In 1939 Poland, zookeeper Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) have Poland’s Warsaw Zoo flourishing. When the Germans invade at the start World War II, the Christian joins the resistance and use the zoo as a hiding place and refuge to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis – risking their own lives in the process.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith and media.

The Shack blows roof off box-office expectations. As the screen adaptation of Wm. Paul Young’s bestselling book heads into its second weekend in theaters, it’s already clear that the movie is one of the biggest faith-themed movies to come along in a long time. Last weekend, The Shack brought in a whopping $16.1 million, a per screen average higher than either last year’s Miracles from Heaven or 2014’s God’s Not Dead and, boding well for the film’s legs, an impressive A grade from film-goers polled by CinemaScore.

Before the film opened I had an opportunity to chat with actor Sam Worthington (Avatar, Hacksaw Ridge) who plays Mack Phillips, a father grieving the murder of his young child when he has an unanticipated encounter with multiple manifestations of God (portrayed Hidden Figures Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara and Graham Greene).

1.) JWK: You’re resume includes such films as Avatar, Clash of the Titans, Everest, Hacksaw Ridge and, now, The Shack. What goes into your decision-making process when choosing a project?

SAM WORTHINGTON: You’re always just inspired by the story and whether that story is going to touch other people. With something like this (The Shack), I identified a lot with the character’s journey of being quite angry, petulant and frustrated — and longing for answers and not getting them. I’ve kinda have had that experience within my life. Then, when you kinda dive in, you go “Am I willing to go on this journey for the next couple of months and explore that?”

2.) JWK: Is it painful to revisit those kinds of feelings?

SW: Cathartic — to be honest. In Mack’s case, he’s going through such a painful journey. It’s a journey of forgiveness — where he has to forgive a person that took his child away. Then he has to forgive God and come to an understanding of what that relationship with his faith is — and then, eventually, learn how to forgive himself. When you’re playing that in a scene, it can be quite painful — if you’re playing it truthfully. But, at the end of the day, you’re hoping that what is coming across and what you’re saying to an audience really touches them and affects them in a positive way.

3.) JWK: What do you hope the audience takes from the film?

SW: A sense of hope that no matter how bleak, or how dark and how lonely this journey and our lives can sometimes be that we have a connection to God who can give us  unconditional love and comfort to make everything seem okay. (This hope that) may not give us the answers but can release the burden and help us through — just like if my son us upset and frustrated and angry, I can give him comfort. I may not be able to give him all the answers but I can release some of that tension and help him on his way.

4.) JWK: I understand that you grew up in working-class family in Australia, that your mother was a housewife and your father worked at a power plant. That’s a long journey to Hollywood. Can you tell me about that?

SW: Where I grew up there were no cinemas. VHS had just started coming in and the idea that you would be in a movie was elusive.

5.) JWK: With all that seeming impossibility, how did the dream of becoming an actor come to you?

SW: I was 19 years old when I met a girl who wanted to be an actress. I went along with her to an audition to drama school. I got in and she didn’t. I went along on this journey and I’ve scamming it ever since. I mean I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. That’s a long time. That’s half my life.

6.) JWK: But you must have discovered early on that you enjoy it.

SW: I enjoye diving into other people’s worlds and lives. I do enjoy that. I find this job extremely frustrating sometimes but I’ve done more hard (and) frustrating jobs. You know, I get to play — and play dress-up — for a living.

7.) JWK: So, what’s most frustrating and what’s most rewarding?

SW: What’s most rewarding is how an audience connects with your movie. What’s most frustrating is the pressure I put on myself.

8.) JWK: What has been your most difficult role to play so far?

SW: Every role has its challenges. It depends on the conceit of the film. Sometimes there’s  technical challenge, sometimes there’s the length of the shoot. With something like this, I know that book had such a far-reaching touch and you’re dealing with God and what God is and what that means to people. You kinda want to come at it in a way that is completely 100% truthful from your standpoint.

I came to religion very late. I was in my twenties. It was never something forced on me as a kid. It’s something that I’ve been discovering as I’ve been becoming an adult and starting my own family — what faith can do to make you a better person and how it connects us. This (role) was just part of that journey. So, it was important and I kinda went in truthfully.

9.) JWK: How would you describe your relationship with God?

SW: Now that I’m a father, I have a lot more worries. Whenever I’ve hit challenges in my life, I’ve been trying to solve them. Since I’ve opened myself up to God and prayed, what it’s done is that there is someone there that can listen. It’s as simple as that. I’m not maybe getting anything back that I thought I would always get, a conceit that I thought I’d get. But what I’m getting is a comfort. I’m getting time to just be with my thoughts and I feel His Love coming back. That helps me. It’s very hard to explain because, if I try to rationally explain it, I get tangled up — but I know how it makes me feel. As I said, it’s the same feeling I get if I hug my son. That’s how I feel. I feel a bit hugged and it’s gonna be okay. I can go through this world and this life with an open heart. That’s what I’ve been searching for, I think.

10.) JWK: Has The Shack affected or confirmed your view of God in any way?

SW: God, to me when I was growing up, it was such a massive word. Now, it’s not so massive. If anything, God’s a friend. I’m doing a movie where you get to confront God and maybe receive something back. That’s what we often struggle with — these massive kind of conceits of “What am I doing? Why did you let that happen?” Because in the movie, I looked at Octavia (Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer, who plays God/Papa) as a friend who might be able to help me…and the same with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), Sarayu/the Holy Ghost (played by Sumire Matsubara). I kinda looked at them as if I’m asking a friend from the deep bottom of my heart, well, now in my real life that’s how I ask God — as a friend. And I’m not scared and it’s not overwhelming. (God) is there to help me and love me.

11.) JWK: Do you find that using your talent as an actor is your way of giving back to God?

SW: Trying to be a better person when I’m not acting, that’s my way of saying “Thank You.”

12.) JWK: Does your faith play a role in the roles you choose to play as an actor?

SW: Now the choices that I make are because of my sons. I’m trying to be a better person and not be so angry and frustrated and selfish. I try to do stories that have themes that might actually help them to grow as men.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith and media.

A grieving Mack Phillips comes face to face with manifestations of God in The Shack based on the bestselling novel by William P. Young.  Starring Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara, Graham Greene, Alice Braga, Radha Mitchell, Amélie Eve, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe and Tim McGraw. Directed by Stuart Hazeldine. Screenplay by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Cretton.

Synopsis (from the film’s website): Based on the New York Times best-selling novel, The Shack takes us on a father’s uplifting spiritual journey. After suffering a family tragedy, Mack Phillips [Sam Worthington] spirals into a deep depression causing him to question his innermost beliefs. Facing a crisis of faith, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Despite his doubts, Mack journeys to the shack and encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa [Octavia Spencer]. Through this meeting, Mack finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever.

Review: The Shack builds a strong message of hope and forgiveness. I was at the red-carpet premiere in New York on Tuesday to preview the phenomenally popular faith-themed novel by William Paul Young.  The film hits general release today (3/3) and if you’re looking for a bit of calming shelter from a winter and/or life storm, you might want to check in.

Fresh off her Academy Award-nomination for Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer plays God (aka Papa) — or at least one manifestation of the Creator. Other diverse manifestations are portrayed by Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush, Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara (God’s Spirit) and Graham Greene (as a male expression of Papa). Brazilian actress Alice Braga plays Wisdom, an attribute of God. The subtle — and good — message seems to be that God is all of us, regardless of what particular “tribe” we belong to here on Earth.

Structurally, The Shack passes muster as a screenplay — building on the core idea that God loves forgives us all and will never abandon us. Kindness, forgiveness and trust in God are presented as touchstones on the universal pathway to peace and happiness.

Sam Worthington, a rising actor, best known for his roles in the Avatar franchise and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, gets to stretch his acting chops and demonstrate why he is an actor to watch.  He has real presence in the role of Mack Phillips, a man who is struggling to keep it all together following the horrific murder of his youngest daughter. He effectively brings us along on his character’s inner journey.

Director Stuart Hazeldine shows respect for his material and the faith paradigm it puts forth. True, the film sometimes takes on the feel of a big screen version of Touched by an Angel but, on the other hand, now there’s an idea! Touched had it critics, but it ran for roughly a decade on CBS by spinning faith-themed stories in a way that also managed to bring in the broader audience. I believe The Shack has the same breakout potential.

Bottom line: Highly recommended.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11