'War Room' Filmmaker: "The God of Hollywood Is Political Correctness" (Q&A)
Alex Kendrick, whose films with brother Stephen are made from a Christian viewpoint, reveals the secret behind his faith-based hits ("We pray about the plot"), his relationship with Sony Pictures, and what he thinks of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis.
Each of the last four faith-based movies Alex and Stephen Kendrick have made was declared a “surprise hit” that “shocked” Hollywood. The most recent, War Room, has surpassed $40 million domestic since it was released by Sony Pictures on Aug 28.
The film's haul so far is 13 times its production budget. The Kendrick brothers' Facing the Giants made 102 times its budget in 2006 while their 2008 movie Fireproof took in 67 times its budget. Previously, they were drawing a salary from Sherwood Pictures, the moviemaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., so the profits went to the church and to Sony, Sherwood’s production and distribution partner. The Kendricks are still ministers at the church, but since their last hit, 2011’s Courageous, they have set up FaithStep Films, and War Room is the first of several planned movies from that for-profit film studio. Alex Kendrick, 44, War Room’s co-writer and director, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about moviemaking from a Christian viewpoint.
Beyond money, why leave Sherwood Pictures?
We met with our pastor and asked, “Are we going to continue shooting every single movie in this neighborhood around our church in Albany?” The other thing is the movie ministry was wonderful for Sherwood, but it overshadowed almost everything. I mean, we are a fantastic church that has a number of ministries to the homeless, to young people, seniors, and everything in between, and every time we did a movie it overshadowed everything else. I had 1,700 volunteers help me on Courageous, which is awesome, except it means that they’re not helping in other areas, so we were the elephant in the room.
Your deal with Sony means that you’re putting a lot of money into the coffers of a studio that makes some raunchy, R-rated movies that Christians might object to.
We see Sony as a pipeline to put out movies with a redemptive, positive message that gives people hope and pulls them to God, so while that door is open we want to push those types of movies. That’s our motivation with Sony.
Are you just preaching to the choir with your movies?
People act like preaching to the choir is a bad thing, but we would say the choir needs it. There are two kinds of Christian films: the kind that introduces people to faith and the kind that helps people who are already in a family of faith to grow, and that’s probably more of who we are.
Why is it that when one of your movies does well the press calls it a ‘surprise hit?’ How many times do you have to make a successful movie before it’s no longer a surprise?
That’s a very good question. We have plenty of room to grow the excellence of our productions, and we want to do that. We encourage anyone who wants to jump into this arena to jump in — there’s plenty of room. The number of people who are making effective Christian films is fairly small.
Do you have an opinion of your competition?
I’m excited to see Woodlawn on Oct. 16 and I’m excited to see Risen in January. The trailers look amazing. I haven’t had a chance to see 90 Minutes in Heaven yet. It looks like some well-made movies are coming down the pipeline that share the Christian faith.
Which films have you seen that you thought did a disservice to the genre?
There are some aspects of our own films we wish were stronger, but I don’t feel comfortable shooting at the other guys who are trying to make films for the right reason.
What did you think about Hollywood’s big-budget attempts at faith recently, like Noah and Exodus?
What disappoints me about those is not the quality, but they take our sacred scriptures and they twist them so much. We’re grateful that they are giving the Bible some attention, but I wish they would be a little more honoring to the original scripture. When I saw Noah, I just had no words for all those rock monsters that showed up. I don’t know where that came from. And Exodus was closer to Gladiator than the actual Exodus story. To make God in the form of a sassy child — I was just wondering what was going on in the mind of the filmmaker.
How about from the past?
Passion of the Christ moved me in a powerful way, and we appreciate all of the Narnia movies. It’s something I took my kids to. I heard someone is making a new Ben-Hur movie. I hope it’s well done. I’ll probably check that out. My family still enjoys The Sound of Music, Chariots of Fire, so we’re grateful for well-told stories that honor our faith.
Do you take your six kids to see mainstream movies?
I took them to see McFarland USA, the cross-country movie, and I thought it was fantastic. I just took them to see Inside Out from Pixar. We would go see a lot more, but they usually take our Lord’s name in vain several times and have morals that are hard to support. We love a good movie if it doesn’t degrade our faith.
What’s the most recent movie you saw that degraded your faith?
I’m trying to remember. I wish I had the movies in front of me. But this is what I’ll say: You can tell a person’s worldview by the films they make, and anybody can see we believe that we are here to glorify and honor God. Hollywood believes in making money and entertainment, and we understand that. There are also agendas behind films. Avatar, for example, is an incredibly made movie but you have this Mother-Nature and save-the-Earth message, so most films have a worldview that you can easily identify. Inside Out has a great worldview on the importance of family and memories, so I talked with my kids coming home after watching Inside Out and asked them their favorite memories. It surprised me what my kids remembered — so movies are powerful. That’s why we want to make films that honor the Lord.
As you noted, mainstream Hollywood used to make very reverent movies like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. Has something changed?
Some time in the 60s it changed. One year, The Sound of Music wins the Oscar, and a few years later Midnight Cowboy wins. You saw a pretty significant shift, and they also got rid of the ministerial group that was helping to approve and rate movies in the 60s. Now, for Hollywood people that don’t share our faith, I’m sure they appreciated that. The rest of us saw a shift in film that did get more immoral, and entertainment certainly influences our culture.
Would you advocate a new ministerial board that would have sway over content and censorship?
We should have those in the arena of faith who can speak to that audience. It’s interesting, Hollywood will not dare to walk all over Islam because they know how offensive that would be, but they will walk all over the name of Jesus Christ or use God’s name in vain over and over, so there’s some hypocrisy in their standards. To that end, I wish that the Christian faith was better represented in the rating system of Hollywood. It’s offensive when our savior’s name is dragged through the mud, and you’re not going to have to go very far in finding examples of that. They walk all over wholesome morality, like jumping from one man to another for sexual fulfillment is totally okay. It’s not healthy for the next generation.
Would you put same-sex marriage in that category too — a different view of morality that Hollywood is trying to mainstream?
You know our view on all of that would line up with the scripture. I’m certainly not out there trying to pick a fight, but in all of those issues — abortion, marriage, even our finances — we would want the end-result of those issues to be honoring to God and to line up with scripture.
Some people in Hollywood fear retribution from their colleagues or employer if they do not support gay marriage. As the owner of a film studio who does business in Hollywood, does that worry you?
I would propose that the God of Hollywood is political correctness, and they are going to line up with whatever the politically correct view of the day is. For me, I’m lining up my worldview with the word of God. I hope to inspire and draw people to a closer walk with God by my films.
Do you have an opinion on the controversy over Kim Davis, the clerk who went to jail for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses?
That’s interesting. From what I understand, the Constitution in Kentucky that she was hired to support says marriage is between a man and a woman, but it gets really complicated when the Supreme Court votes the other way. Technically, her job is to uphold the Constitution in Kentucky, so it makes things complex. She is paying the price for standing on her faith, and I’d be willing to stand by my faith, as well. If I’m persecuted for being a Christian, I’m willing to accept that.
Anyone in Hollywood persecuting you?
Yes. Right now it’s verbal, and it’s happening a lot. If we weren’t heavily criticized, I’d think something is wrong.
There are some in Hollywood who have expressed a personal bias against you and Christianity?
I’d say you already know the answer to that question, but you’re wanting names and I can’t do that. The answer is an emphatic 'yes,' but that’s not a fight I want to pick. There are people who have called us vile names, told us we need to stop making films, and have ugly names for Christians. I’m not going to give you names, I’d rather reach out and minister them.
Are you talking about people at Sony?
I think Sony is pretty happy with us at the moment.
How much sway does Sony have over the content of your films?
For War Room, we sat down in a room and we went through the entire story. They asked a lot of questions. They shared their concerns and my brother and I walked them through why we wanted to make this particular movie and in what manner we wanted to make it. There were some things that we were okay with changing because it did not change the overall message or plot.
Can you give me an example of something they asked you to change?
One of the concerns was, ‘Will a movie made by two white guys in South Georgia that has a predominantly African American cast be respected by African Americans?' Our answer was, "We think this movie will be more powerful and will be more passionate in its expression of faith and prayer from that vantage point, and that it would be a different movie if we change the races." We talked about that at length and at the end of the day, we made sure that the family was presented not as you might see in a regular movie, but as a successful family that just had marital issues that they were working through. We did not in any way dishonor the race of any party involved.
If you can make such successful movies on a shoestring budget, why not try something with a big budget?
That’s a great question. We haven’t ruled that out. If the story merits that, we would certainly be open to that.
What is your secret formula? Why are your faith-based films so successful while others are not?
Literally, we will go the better of a year and pray about the plot. We will get others praying about it — families and as many people as we can. We will go through that season of prayer and when we feel like we have a prompting from God to make a particular movie a certain way, we make it. Sometimes the Lord will prompt us to change an aspect of it, but whatever he does, that’s what we do, and we believe that the favor of God is the reason our movies work. I do not think we’re the best filmmakers. I don’t even think we’re the best Christian filmmakers. I just think we try to make the best films we can and because we seek God, that’s why they work. I really don’t have a better answer for you.
Are you praying about several different potential movies at once?
God begins turning our hearts in a direction, and its very interesting, because he does it to all of us — me, my two brothers, our families. We get to a point where we’re all in agreement: we’ll make this one about love, which was Fireproof, this one about courage, which was Courageous, this one about prayer, which is War Room. My brother and I will write the script. We do tons of research and interviews until we feel comfortable. Then we proceed. We don’t use massive budgets, we don’t use A-list stars. We tend not to use lots of eye candy — all the things you find common in Hollywood movies — and the movies still work. So I really believe that the Lord has blessed what we’ve done.
Do you think, then, that the Lord has ever discouraged you from making a film that you wanted to make?
Oh, absolutely he has, because I start off like most filmmakers. I want to see a lot of eye candy and a lot of cool stuff, car chases, explosions, and usually the more I pray and say, ‘God I want to make the movie you want me to make,’ he steers me in that direction.
And he steered away from a title entirely?
Oh yes. I had a plot where this guy who is not a believer is in a car wreck and he goes into a coma. In his coma, he is taken back in time to see some of the events in the Bible. The more I prayed about it, the more I felt like God was saying, ‘That’s not it. Don’t make that movie.’ So I didn’t.
Will you ever make a mainstream movie that has nothing to do with Christianity?
I doubt it. Here’s the deal. That’s like asking Tom Brady, ‘Do you ever see yourself playing professional basketball?’ I guess he’s tall and athletic enough that he might want to, but probably not. For me, who I am is a Christian who is also called to minister. So I don’t know why I would make a movie that is not part of that calling.