Simple Faith in the Face of Tragedy Fuels Letters to God
- Christa A. Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2010 8 Apr
If faith-based film director David Nixon gets his way, Orlando won't just be the home of all things Disney. It'll also be the "Christian film capital of the world."
For Nixon, a native of Sydney, Australia, he's always believed that movies are really the greatest evangelistic tool of our time, and as a producer for Facing the Giants and Fireproof, wildly successful films made on a shoestring budget, he's loved seeing how films with a solid faith-based message have attracted a wide audience ever since the release of The Passion of The Christ in 2004.
"Really, how else can you get to a portion of the population that would never darken the door of a church? Yet people go to movies all the time, so why not use this medium to get the message across?" says Nixon, co-director of Letters to God, releasing Friday, April 9. "As long as this opportunity stays open to get theatrical distribution, it's really our dream and our heart [with Possibility Pictures] to make as many faith-based films as we can before that door closes. We've got so many wonderful stories that need to be told."
A True Story Comes to Life
Inspired by the likes of Chariots of Fire and The Mission, movies that were "high-quality but ahead of their time," Nixon believed there was a significant audience for strong redemptive stories. But Nixon says it wasn't until The Passion of The Christ's successful run, that Hollywood saw the true commercial prospects of faith-based fare.
"Before, it wasn't possible to convince Hollywood that people really wanted to see these kinds of movies," Nixon says. "But we have that opportunity now, so we're definitely not slowing down,"
With Letters to God, Nixon's attention was immediately captured by the true story of a young boy, Tyler, who was suffering with cancer but had simple faith in the face of tragedy.
"For me, it was the letters component that was really unique about this story. The idea that this little boy would write to his best friend, God, really took it to another level," says Nixon. "We used it to get a message out that wasn't heavy-handed or preachy. I felt it was a soft way to get this simple message out to millions."
Moving in a Promising Direction
From a production standpoint on Letters to God, one of the coolest things for Nixon was working with actual actors, rather than primarily volunteers.
"It was such a wonderful experience because the actors were prepared and got into character so easily that it made my job as a director that much easier," Nixon says. "If you do a really good job of casting and find the actors who are going to portray these roles the best, then you don't really have to draw the performance out. You just set the tone and pacing."
One of Nixon's biggest highlights was working with Ralph Waite, best known as the elder John Walton on The Waltons.
"When you get to work with an icon like that, it's such an honor," Nixon remembers. "He is such a great guy, and I remember in casting how he told us that this story was so close to him because he'd lost a child to cancer 30 years ago. He said he'd be honored to play this role, and that just warmed our hearts."
Also particularly noteworthy was teaming up with well-known actors Robyn Lively (Saving Grace, Chicago Hope) and Jeffrey Johnson (Criminal Minds, Burn Notice), who played the mailman who "delivered" those important letters. "Jeffrey did such an amazing job of portraying an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck guy at the start of the movie. And then you see his character slowly begin to change as these letters from this little boy change his life."
However, the greatest joy of all was seeing these caliber of actors even showing up for the audition. "I was absolutely amazed," continues Nixon. "They would show up and say they loved the screenplay and how they don't get a lot of scripts that were like this. They'd say how they wanted to make more movies like this. I was amazed at the caliber of talent that showed up, primarily because this was different than what they usually do."
Raising the Bar
As far as "Christian" films go, Nixon knows there's still a lot of stigmas, but he's really hoping that'll change.
"Unfortunately, Christian movies have had a bad name, but we're trying to change that. We're artists who've honed our skills for many years, and we want to bring that talent that God has given us to the forefront and make really good, really quality movies," Nixon says. "Ultimately, it's about execution. We don't want to be cheesy or low-budget. As the budgets increase I think more and more filmmakers will come out of the woodwork to do this. Theatrical distribution has changed the playing field too; if you couldn't get distribution, you couldn't get funding. But that's beginning to change, and I'm confident that will change the overall quality."
In the meantime, Nixon is encouraged by how believers have really taken ownership of these movies and promoted them to the masses.
"It has worked really well to build a grassroots following by basically giving the film away, which is the antithesis of Hollywood. They don't want to give anything away," Nixon adds. "What we do is show the movie to church leaders and pastors ahead of time and say, ‘Now you go and tell everybody about it.' Along with social marketing, that really has worked well. People get excited and take ownership of these movies and get the word out through their own social networks so that's only going to increase and get better and better. It's a whole new model for marketing these movies, instead of the really splashy and expensive marketing that Hollywood has done for years and years. We build it from the bottom up."
Rated PG for thematic material, Letters to God is now available on DVD and released previously in theaters on April 9, 2010. For more information on the film and additional resources for those struggling with cancer, please visit www.letterstogodthemovie.com. To read a full review of this film, click here.