If you were desperately ill, what would you say to God? What would you ask for?
A boy named Tyler had some things he wanted to ask God when he became ill with cancer, and now his story has become a movie, Letters to God. I spoke to the film’s director, David Nixon, who has made a career out of faith-based films that, to the astonishment of Hollywood cynics, have been very successful with audiences. “Letters to God” opens tomorrow.
Tell me about the movie.
It’s the true story of a little boy in Nashville, Tennessee who went through brain cancer. While he was going through the chemo and all the horrible parts of that disease he was writing letters to his best friend, God. And he would put a stamp on it and put it in the mail. And the mailman, knowing that the little boy was a cancer boy, couldn’t bring himself to put those letters in the undeliverable bin — you know, that’s what happens in the post office, and it sits there for about six months and if nobody claims them, they shred them. But the mailman knew the little boy, so he kept the letters and he began to open them. And he discovered that the little boy wasn’t asking for anything for himself. He was asking for help for everyone else in his family, for the people in his neighborhood, for the people that the cancer was affecting, his mother and his grandmother, his brother, the little boy in school who was bullying him, saying things about his shaved head, about his best friend.
So the mailman started giving all those letters to the people the little boy was writing about. And you can imagine how they felt, how they responded. It did not only change the lives of the people in the community but it changed the mailman’s life. He was an alcoholic. His life was turned around because of the faith of the little cancer boy.
An extraordinary story. How did you find out about it?
We were putting together a film deal and looking for scripts and a friend who is a writer, Art D’Alessandro, had just polished the script for a guy up in Nashville, the father of the real boy. He’d never written a screenplay before so he asked Art for help. As soon as I read it, it just connected with me and I got on a plane to Nashville and met with Patrick and his wife and said, “We’ve got to make this movie.” Not just because it was a cancer story — though cancer is a universal theme that touches everyone because we are only about one degree of separation from somebody we know who is going through or has had cancer. But I thought, what a wonderful way to tell the story with the little sweet letters, a great way to get across the message.
I’d like to hear about your commitment to making faith-based films in an industry that does not seem to have as much interest in them as audiences do.
I’ve had this dream for about 30 years. I’ve had a secular production business but always wanted to make these kinds of films. You could never get distribution until something radical happened: “The Passion of the Christ” made $600 million. That opened the eyes of Hollywood. They saw that there was an under-served audience. Christians are going to movies! We’d better make a God film. And we were there with “Facing the Giants.” And that made $35 million. And then the church asked us to do “Fireproof.” And now every studio in LA has a faith-based arm. They are not quite sure what it is, but they know they can make money on it! We’re making as many of these as we can. We’re shooting two more this summer and we’ve got plans for number ten and number 100. We have to make money. But we can certainly use that pipeline to get our message out.
I think films are the greatest evangelical tool of our time. How else do you get to people who would never darken the door of a church. Or to your neighbor over the back yard that would never talk about faith. But they go to movies all the time, so why not use that to deliver your message.
What makes a movie a Christian movie?
You’ve got to have a message. We don’t want to be preachy or overbearing but you’ve got to get the gospel out. You’ve got to come up with a way to tell a true life story or a story that could be true of an average Joe, going through life like anyone else, maybe going through adversity, and how they react to that. Maybe they turn to the Bible instead of the bottle. Or they turn to God instead of the darkness.
That’s all our movies do. They’re telling true stories that people can connect with. It has to be real, or people aren’t going to get it. When people go and sit in that dark room for 90 minutes, and they drop their guard and empathize with those characters they see up on screen, it sears through your heart like nothing else can. People come out of these movies physically and emotionally changed.
And what’s next for you?
We’re making a Christian comedy called “Saving Livingston” and a true story about a girl here in Orlando called “To Write Love on Her Arms.”
What are some of your favorite movies?
“Chariots of Fire” and “The Mission.” Billy Graham’s Worldwide Pictures, the Cecil B. DeMille movies like “The Robe” and “The Ten Commandments. Then Hollywood went away from that and now here we are with a chance to tell these stories again. It’s heartening to me that we’re seeing more of these movies coming out.
Be sure to check out Ten Movies that Celebrate Marriage by Kris Rasmussen. There are a zillion movies that celebrate falling in love but relatively few take on the more challenging task of showing what happens next — what living happily ever after really means. I was glad to see Julie & Julia on the list. The portrayal of the real-life marriage of Paul and Julia Child as passionate, supportive, understanding, and deeply loving was one of the great cinematic treats of 2009. And the wordless depiction of a decades long marriage that began Pixar’s Up conveyed more in a few brief moments than most movies do in two hours. I liked her mentioning both versions of “Shall We Dance” and “Father of the Bride.” And of course there is special sweetness in the Spencer Tracy speech she quotes from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” because it was clear that he was really speaking about his love for his co-star, Katherine Hepburn.
My own list of great movie depictions of marriage would include Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two for the Road. But because we follow them over time, I think television does a better job in showing us great marriages — think of Ricky and Lucy, Rob and Laura, Cliff and Claire, as well as the couples in “Mad About You,” “Growing Pains,” “Home Improvement,” and many, many more.
“Twilight‘s” Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning star as Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in the upcoming film about the pioneering all-girl rock group The Runaways. Before it opens on April 9, it might be fun to take a look at the the real Runaways.
Joan Jett co-stars with Michael J. Fox as siblings who play in a rock band in the under-appreciated “Light of Day.” She gives a confident but sensitive performance that makes me wish she had done more acting. And of course the musical numbers are terrific. She also has a live concert film with the group she formed after the Runaways. And her anthemic “Bad Reputation” is on the sound-track of the upcoming “Kick-Ass” as well as many other movies, from “Shrek” to “10 Things I Hate About You.”
Edgeplay – A Film About The Runaways is band member Victory Tischler-Blue’s documentary about the group.
The movie also gives us a glimpse of DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, known as Mayor of the Sunset Strip. His support of the San Francisco music scene is covered in a documentary by that name that features appearances by just about every music superstar of the era, from David Bowie and the Ramones to Coldplay and No Doubt.
And take a look at Slate’s piece on movies about girl groups by Marisa Meltzer. How many of the cliches do you think will be in this week’s release? Well, how many music groups of either gender manage to evade them in real life?
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, families can watch Autism – The Musical, about five families dealing with autism as they prepare for a musical performance. The film is illuminating in its depiction of the very different kids with very different abilities, a stark contrast to the one-dimensional portrayal of autism in movies like “Rain Man” or “House of Cards.” It is frank in its portrayal of the strains within the families of the children and between the families as there are clashes between and within the group. And it is deeply moving as we see the children’s courage and their evident joy.