If you’re not a golfer, you may not know of Dr. David L. Cook. But if you play on the PGA Tour or even live in Utopia, Texas in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, then you most surely know the man in the hat.
One of the top Peak Performance coaches and seminar leaders in the United States, Cook received his Ph.D. in Sport and Performance Psychology from the University of Virginia. And he has worked with a who’s who list of top athletes, professional sports organizations and businesses—including NBA World Champions, National Collegiate Champions, PGA Tour Champions, Olympians and Fortune 500 companies.
Several years ago, he was inspired to write his first performance novel after stopping for lunch at a small café in Utopia. Originally called Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, the story illustrates important life lessons and principles through the unlikely friendship of an eccentric rancher named Johnny and a young golfer who’s burned out and ready to escape the pressures of the game. After the golfer has a mid-tournament performance meltdown, he tries to drive out his frustrations on the Texas back roads. But he soon finds himself “stuck” in Utopia, where he meets the rancher who will make him a surprising deal: “Spend seven days in Utopia, and you’ll find your game.”
It sounds too good to be true. But with some days off from the golf tournament circuit and nothing left to lose, the golfer agrees to a week of what will dramatically change his course and be nothing short of a powerful life transformation.
Now adapted for the big screen, the fictional story is being told as Seven Days in Utopia, starring Robert Duvall as the mentor Johnny Crawford and Lucas Black as the down-and-out golfer cum apprentice Luke Chisolm. The pairing marks the third time the duo has worked together on-screen (Sling Blade, Get Low), but the chemistry between the Academy Award-winning veteran and the Southern-bred young actor—who just happens to have golf experience and is said to be “probably the best golfer Hollywood has ever had in its midst”—has not waned.
Themes of reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness and grace come to life, as Luke spends a week with a powerful mentor, who Cook says, “lived in a simple place but had extraordinary insight.” From Johnny, Luke learns that becoming who you were meant to be has nothing to do with winning and everything to do with how you approach the game, as evidenced in Johnny’s three-point strategy of “see it, feel it, trust it.”
Dr. Cook has overseen the journey of Seven Days in Utopia from book to screen in his roles as author, screenwriter and executive producer and loves the fact that audiences at advance screenings have said it really isn’t a “golf story,” but a film about life.
“I think there are a lot of young people in need of wisdom and a lot of people out there who have done a lot of living and have that wisdom to give,” he explains. “We just all need a time and a place where we can slow down enough to ask for or give that kind of help. And Utopia is the epitome of that place.”
I spoke with Dr. Cook recently about his story and what he hopes Seven Days in Utopia will mean for anyone who sees it—golf enthusiast or otherwise.
How did you get the story idea for Seven Days in Utopia?
We have a spot here in Utopia, Texas where our family has had a ranch here for around 100 years, and one day I walked into this little café in a little town of about 200 people. And in this café next to the cash register there was a bulletin board with a little sign on it that said: “Utopia Driving Range. Next to the cemetery. Come find your game.” And I’ve been coming out here for a long time, and there weren’t any golf courses within about 60 miles of this place. So I was intrigued by that and I went out to the driving range there, and there’s this beautiful cemetery, a great big oak tree and a rock wall around it. And right outside of that were these three pieces of AstroTurf in the middle of a bunch of weeds and rocks with the barbed wire fence, a 300-yard-long plowed cow pasture, a metal pole next to the AstroTurf and it had an index card that said: “$3 for a small bucket. $5 for a large bucket. Put your money in the slot.” And you look down, and they were the worse golf balls I’d ever seen in my life. And it really was a pathetic sight. And I was standing there just chuckling and then I just heard the Lord say, “This is the place . . . write the book.” And the symbol of that place became very profound at that moment, and I went back to the little white-frame farm house we have out on the ranch built in the 1870s and got my computer out on my front porch, put my hand on the computer and about eight hours later it stopped. So it was like a download. It was really interesting how it all came together. God just has a story that he wanted told that you know that continues one of his main principles that the simple things will confound the intelligent in the world. It is his wisdom. So that’s where it came from, and it was a real interesting experience.
And then how did the story go from book to film?
No one wanted to publish it because it was a sports psychology book, a golf book, a fiction book, a ministry book and they said, “We don’t have a category.” So I put it out for free. And when that happened . . . it was like a wildfire and took off. I ended up self-publishing. A guy sent me 1,000 books as a seed. And from that seed we began to sell books, and our director got it and said, “I want this to be my next movie.” So we spent two years together writing the screenplay trying to get it just right, and then our casting director gave it to Robert Duvall and he said, “I want to play this role” and everything changed. It went from a little million dollar movie to a multi-million dollar movie overnight. But it all changed. The key to the story is everything changed. Life changed when I was standing there paying for lunch at a café before and noticed a handwritten sign. That’s amazing how God works. Really interesting how life changes on a razor’s edge, but we know who the orchestrator is.
The film begins with a visual of Isaiah 30:21. Was that your idea to include this verse?
Well, you can’t be heavy-handed in the movie theater when you’re trying to [reach] the lives of lots of people and want to make a difference in their lives. So the movie is more of the opening of a funnel that drives people down further to our Web site and into the book and into God’s Word. So there are some steps there. But I know this as I read the Word: it says that his Word will not come back void, and the Word of God is powerful. And so in the movie itself no one quotes Scripture, so I wanted to make sure I started the movie with a powerful scripture that really defines what this movie is about and let God work through his Word and just cement this thing from the very beginning. What’s interesting is that the new True Grit which came out like nine months ago or whatever, also started with a scripture. So that was interesting that they did that as well.
In the book there’s more “golf speak” as opposed to what’s heard in the movie. Do you think that the movie might be more accessible to people who don’t know anything about golf or aren’t excited about the game?
Absolutely. And that’s why we named it Seven Days in Utopia and took golf out of it. We also feel like in our exit interviews, people go, “This isn’t a golf story. This is about life.” I think we capture that. We’ve got a love interest in the movie as well. We have lots of emphasis on flying, fly fishing and everything else, so we’ve really tried to tone down the golf, though golf is a great metaphor and there are 25 million avid golfers in America. So we wanted to make sure that for those people who were looking for a golf movie—‘cause there are golf movies in the past that have not been very authentic—we wanted to make sure that we captured that audience and that this was the most authentic golf movie ever made. In other words, the golf scenes are real, the guy that’s hitting, the actor’s a real golfer and all that. And I think we’ve accomplished that, so it’s really our evangelical tool moving into that whole 25 million golfers as well. It’s a great tool for that. So it’s going to open the doors in that area as well.
What are your thoughts on how the cast brought these characters from the book to life in the film?
They did a great job. The first day we thought this might be a movie, we sort of white-boarded and said who would play these parts. And we started with okay what’s your biggest dream and then let’s get real. Well, Robert Duvall was the first name that came up three years ago when we were white-boarding and then we put an X next to that like that was really going to happen and then started looking through the catalog of the starving artists and trying to figure out who might work. And Lucas Black we knew we wanted from the very beginning because he was a golfer. So to get these guys was God’s way. He did it. There’s no other way to say it. God did it. It’s his deal, and he gets the glory. It’s the perfect cast.
So you really had thought of the pairing of Robert Duvall and Lucas Black even before they appeared in the film Get Low together?
Oh yeah. We didn’t even know they were in a movie together. Absolutely. And isn’t that God’s way? It’s just his way.
What did your role as an executive producer look like? Were you on set every day during filming?
I was there every second and my job really was to shepherd the movie and make sure that we held the story together—at least the meat of the story—and that nothing would get lost in Hollywood and be hijacked in any way from anyone else’s agenda or those saying you can’t do a faith-based movie. That was hard, but we did it. I think we maintained the element that we were looking for in this movie without scaring people away from the box office. However, the critics are going to kill it. But we didn’t make it for the critics.
Since you worked on the screenplay with the film’s director, in a sense you had to share your baby (the book) with him. What was that like to trust someone with your story?
Matthew Russell is a dear friend and a follower of Jesus and he has the same heart as me, but he didn’t see it always exactly the way I did. But he knew this was my story, and so he did his best to make this story happen. And then I listened very well when he had ideas, especially from a cinematography [standpoint] and from his perspective. I think we worked very well as a team, because we both came from a heart of God.
It's exciting to see your story come alive now on-screen. Which character in Seven Days in Utopia would you say you identify with the most?
Probably at this moment in my life, maybe the Johnny character, the mentor. But when that meltdown’s going [for Luke] . . . and me and everybody else who’s played this game or lived life or tried to perform, we’ve all had one of those. It’s like we all jump right back and go, “Oh my gosh. I remember that.” So I could identify with both of those, and I was able to write both of them because so much of me is in both of them. But I took all of my mentors and I took myself and all the players that I have worked with over the years on the PGA Tours and created that one character.
Why do you think that storytelling can be much more powerful than just saying, “Here are the five life lessons that you need to learn”?
I think we’re just following what Jesus did. Jesus taught in parables and word pictures, and they were powerful and he used everyday experiences from seas to fig trees to weather or whatever to speak his point. And so what we’re doing is following in Jesus’ steps. The Bible also says that they shall overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the testimonies of men. The testimonies of men are really story, the story of Jesus in and through us that will change eternity. And so it’s the privilege of being a part of that game and being in the game, being called out in the game and having a place in the game. And it’s all about the story. And our stories amaze people. Everyone has a story. If we would share them, we could change the world.
As people leave the theater, what do you hope they're thinking after seeing the film?
Those people who came who are looking for more in their lives, I hope they go away going “I’ve got a glimpse of where that might come from,” and we leave them in the theater with [a message] that says to continue the journey they can go to a Web site. And most of them will because of the way we did this movie, and it got very creative at the end. I think most people are going to be compelled to go to that Web site, and that’s the beginning of the journey of more. We know where more is. People in the world looking for more don’t necessarily know where that is.
If Seven Days in Utopia does well at the box office, do you think you might try your hand at more films?
I will. I’ll see that as the Lord saying that territory in Hollywood needs to be taken back. Storytelling is his tool, and if we can do it in a way that brings a return to our investors and changes the world then I think we’ve got an opportunity to do some more of that. We’ve just got to follow the Holy Spirit.
Presented by Visio Entertainment and starring Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, Melissa Leo, Deborah Ann Woll, Brian Geraghty, Kathy Baker and K.J. Choi, Seven Days in Utopia opens in limited release in theaters on September 2, 2011. The film is rated G. For more information, please visit www.sevendaysinutopia.com.
Watch the official trailer here . . .