Faith, Media & Culture

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

Heavenly box office. Faith-themed films are on yet another winning streak winning streak at the box office. First War Room, the Kendrick Brothers’ movie about the power of prayer, stunned the industry by winning the Labor Day Weekend competition. The movie fell only 18% last weekend to come in at a solid #3. Also, last weekend 90 Minutes in Heaven (reviewed here), on only 878 screens and telling the true-life story of a pastor’s brush with the afterlife, finished ninth — making it the top-ranked film in limited release.

This weekend sees the release of Paramount-backed Captive about a real-life 2005 Atlanta-area hostage incident in which Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life played a key role in helping Ashley Smith, a widowed mother struggling with substance abuse (played in the film by Kata Mara of House of Cards), survive being taken prisoner by escaped killer Brian Nichols (portrayed David Oyelowo of Selma).

The screenplay for the film, based on Smith’s book Unlikely Angel, is by executive producer Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel,  Hallmark Channel’s When Calls the Heart).

JWK: How did this story end up in your hands?

BRIAN BIRD: About six years ago Ken Wales, who is one of the producers and had the rights to the story,  approached me about getting involved and writing and helping produce the movie. The interesting thing is (that about) ten years ago (X-Men producer) Ralph Winter and I were trying to get a Purpose Driven Life movie made. Fox, at that time, had a real interest in movie in making some sort of Purpose Driven Life movie. The reality is that Fox owns Harper Collins and Zondervan so the fact that The Purpose Driven Life had sold so many copies — upwards of 50-million copies — (meant) Fox had a real interest in seeing (such a movie made). So, Ralph and I tried to get a movie going which was just a fictional ensemble drama like Crash or Grand Canyon, something like that. We just could never quite find the perfect DNA for it. Being that it was sort of a fictional thing, I think that it was hard for Pastor Rick Warren to gt his head around that idea of a just out-of-whole-cloth story that tapped into the power and the truth in his book. So, it never really found traction…

…What is interesting though is that at the time that we were trying to get that going forward, Rick Warren emailed me and said “Hey, what about the Ashley Smith story? Instead of trying to cook-up a story, why not just use a true story?” At the time, we were already sort of moving forward with this other idea. We had so much momentum going at Fox it just seemed…hard to shift gears this far into it.  So, what happened is that it the thing Ralph and I were doing sort of fizzled.

So, Ken Wales, who was a friend and had produced (the movie) Amazing Grace, (the TV series) Christy and a bunch of other great projects, approached us. He had secured the rights to the Ashley Smith true story…So, ours fizzled and I think whatever momentum he had going on his side of the equation also fizzled….He knew that I had been working on the other project with Ralph Winter. He (Wales) was free and clear now to be talking to other people about it…

…I was busy at the time, so I just said “I don’t know, Ken, if I really want to take this on again.” He said “Well, just read the book and then tell me what you think.” So, I pledged to do that. I read Ashley Smith’s book and I totally got it. I had heard the story obviously but I didn’t know all the details.

So, when I read the book I realized that it was an amazing story about two very broken people who saved each others lives. I got it. I said “Alright, I’m in.” I started working on the script about six years ago. It took us a year and a half or so to get it to the point where we thought it was ready for prime time.

Then, through a mutual friend who I worked with on Touched by an Angel (named) Marcie Gold (who now works with Martha Williamson on Signed, Sealed, Delivered)…read Captive and said “Would you mind if I got this to my friend David Oyelowo. I said “Are you kidding?” I love David Oyelowo. I’ve seen everything he’s done. So, I said “Please do!” So, she got it to him and like literally in a day he read it and responded back to her and said “You tell these guys, whoever is making this movie, if they don’t cast me to play Brian Nichols I’m going to stalk them like Brian Nichols stalked Atlanta.”

JWK:  That’s either really encouraging or really scary.

BB: Exactly. To have an actor of David’s rare and amazing talent jump on board (was amazing). We said “Absolutely, David we want you on board. We want you to play Brian Nichols and we also want you to help us produce this movie.” With his producer hat on, he was able to talk to his friend Kate Mara about reading the script. She had a similar reaction…You know the rule of thumb in Hollywood is this: “Talent chases material and money chases talent.” When we got both Kate and David attached to the project, the money came and then the distribution came and we were able to make this movie.

JWK:  And, of course, the book itself was a bestseller.

BB: (Ashley Smith’s) book and The Purpose Driven Life. There was so much there. I think it’s fascinating.

JWK:  While I’m sure your script is great, Ashley’s story reminds me of the Tom Hanks films Apollo 13 and Captain Phillips, both of which were true stories that played out in real life and real time as dramatically as any Hollywood movie.

BB: Totally! I mean it’s such a great story and a great archetype.  To be mentioned Captain Phillips, I absolutely loved that movie. I think it’s a fantastic movie. I’m honored to be mentioned even in the same breath as that film.

You’re right. It was just an amazing story.  The challenge of it — or any true story — is how to tell it in a traditional three-act structure which is going to have the right escalation of events…True stories don’t happen in that structure. Sometimes the truth gets in the way of good entertainment. In this case, it didn’t. I mean, we read between the lines. We had to use a little dramatic license but not that much. It’s mostly in sort of the chronology of the way things happened (though) we shuffled some things around. I have to say I’m just humbled and blessed that the movie got made.

My hope at this point is that the more people that come to the box office, maybe that’s a business success. To me, the icing on the cake is not just the box office success but the conversations that it’s going to stir up, Lord willing, among people who need help because this is a movie about damaged people who help each other and save each others lives.

To me, if Ashley Smith was sort of this perfect church lady, it wouldn’t mean as much as if she needed redemption as much as Brian Nichols did.

JWK:  We know they Ashley turned her life around after this and that’s great. What happened to Brian Nichols?

BB: Brian Nichols got sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.

JWK:  Was he changed from the event as well?

BB: To me, sort of the major redemption story of this movie is that Ashley Smith who was absolutely addicted to crystal meth — which is one of the toughest drugs to beat; it’s got a 95% recidivism rate (and) is just an evil set of chains for somebody to have — has been clean and sober since the night of her abduction and her captivity with Brian Nichols.

It took a killer to save Ashley Smith’s life because she was headed for death. Really, honestly, she could not kick it. She was trying to get her life back together. She was working. She was in school to try and finish her education. Her daughter had been taken from her. She was trying to regain custody of her daughter but was still using this drug — and she was unable to beat it.

One of the most powerful things to me about this story is that Brian Nichols figured her for a party girl. He said “You got any drugs in here?” She didn’t want to tell him that she had crystal meth. That’s a huge stimulant.

JWK:  You don’t want to give that to a guy with a gun.

BB: With three guns (and) who’s already killed four people! That would the wrong path. But he was bound and determined to get whatever she had. She delayed because she was trying to save her life. So, she (finally) got it out and when she got it ready for him, he told her “Ladies first.”

In that moment, Ashley Smith will tell this in her book and tell you to this day that she head God talking to her. She heard God’s voice and God said “These are your drugs. If you want to do them you can do them. If you do, I’m bringing you home.” She had been raised in church, so she had had a relationship with God. She walked away from it years earlier and went into a tailspin of complete drug abuse when her own husband was murdered three years prior to this and bled to death in her arms. It just sent her into this massive tailspin.

She had been forced into rehabilitation a couple of times by the court. She had heard in recovery that every addict comes to a cliff in life at one point or another. And the cliff is “If I do it again, it’ll be my last time.” She knew she had come to the cliff. She heard God’s voice. She said “No” (to Brian Nichols). She said “I’m not doing this.”

I’m not going to spoil the film for you but it’s one of the pivotal moments in the movie. It’s a real epiphany, a theophany almost.  The power of getting free of a drug that only five people in a hundred can actually free themselves from to me is an amazing miracle. This woman had been clean and sober since that night.

So, really, her redemption is a big redemption — but here’s the thing about Nichols. He was suicidal by this point. He was ready to go out in a blaze of glory. He had killed cops. He killed four people that day. He knew that the moment he stuck his head out that door — when they knew where we was — he was gonna have a hundred bullets (fired at him). So, why not go out in a blaze of glory and take some people with you?

It was Ashley reaching into his life and reminding him that he had a son, a new baby boy, who was going to grow up not thinking that his father went out in a blaze of glory (but) that he had caused all this mayhem. She appealed to his better nature and part of that was reading to him from The Purpose Driven Life which he asked her to do.

We don’t know what his redemption story is in prison or whether he’s had one yet. But the true Ashley Smith and his mother have become friends after all of this. His mother reports that he wants to find peace in life and, not only that, he wants to see his son again one day when his son is old enough. So, in our mind, God is still working on that side of the story.

Ashley Smith has gotten married again, has two more children and is working as an MRI tech. She finished her education.

JWK:  And she had custody of her first child again.

BB: She does, yeah. She got custody of Paige back.

JWK:  What does she think of the film?

BB: When we first showed it to her…she just wept. Both she and Paige, her daughter (who) is now a teenager. She was five at the time. They just wept at what they saw because it was this incredible, cathartic experience to see the story played out.

The other thing is that (Ashley) leads her own Celebrate Recovery meetings at her church. She’s one of the leaders at her church leading other addicts out of their addiction.

To me, it’s like we didn’t need to get everybody to the altar on their knees in this story because that’s not how it happened. This movie just stirs up all kinds of questions, all kinds of cravings, I think, inside of people. My prayer is that it gets people discussing with one another where they sit in the universe in relation to the Creator and how they can get past their own hurts, habits and hangups.

Note: Bird’s Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart (which he executive produces with Michael Landon Jr.) returns for a third season with a Christmas episode later this year. It was also just announced that he’ll executive producing and co-writing (with John Wierick) Touchdown on the Tundra,  an inspirational true story of a high school football team in desolate Barrow, Alaska (located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle).

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

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