FAITH IN HOLLYWOOD: An Interview (Part II) with Ralph Winter and Scott Derrickson

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Popcorn movie party entertainment

A Conversation in Two Acts

The Cast—All as Themselves

Ralph Winter, producer, whose credits include The X-Men trilogy, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, Inspector Gadget, and Left Behind. He is currently filming Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Scott Derrickson, director and writer, best known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. His credits also include Urban Legends: Final Cut and Hellraiser: Inferno. His current project, Paradise Lost, is in pre-production.

Scott Young, moderator, co-founder of the Coalition for Ministry in Daily Life (CMDL), and co-founder/director emeritus of the City of Angels Film Festival. He is adjunct instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary, the Art Center College of Design, the Los Angeles Film Study Center, and Biola University.


The Scene: Still at Fuller Seminary in Los Angeles, the moderator opens it up to the audience: "If you have a question for Ralph or Scott, please come up to the microphone."

Question: I took a course in college about Christ figures in literature, and I wonder whether, as Christians, your temptation is always to incorporate a Christ figure in your work—or whether that is from earlier days?

Derrickson: I heard someone say the new Superman film is one of the most stunning Christ allegories ever made. No, I don’t think that’s a temptation, and I don’t think it’s passé. The ideas of the incarnation, of the sacrificial messianic figure, the dual nature of humanity, these are basic mythic paradigms from the beginning of stories. They predate Christ. They are who we are, they are the human story, they are in our DNA. I love that C. S. Lewis was converted out of his disbelief in part because these mythic stories all told similar tales about a messianic figure, sacrifice, the human struggle, the human fall, and the need for redemption. Visual effects change. Cinema itself is rapidly evolving. Soon we’re going to watch high-quality 3-D film, and one day we’ll watch holographic cinema. But those basic stories won’t change, because they are what it means to be human.

A lot of what we see in movies, even the abuses of it, shows our potent desire to tell the truth of the mythic stories. Sometimes the stories lack the proper outlet because the culture has no good theology, no good religious belief. Consider the violence in American movies. We set up a villain, someone evil. And the more evil we make this character, the more everyone desires his death to be vicious, creative, prolonged, and total. So a lot of violence in movies is ultimately trying to satisfy, I think—a need at the DNA level to see sacrifice. To see a sacrifice for sin, to see sin violently expunged … these are important ideas. Every good storyteller doesn’t necessarily believe in Christianity, but he understands these stories are who we are. And I don’t think those will change.

Winter: Exactly right. Joseph Campbell’s work is widely followed in Hollywood: the reluctant hero, the mythic hero, the hero’s journey. Some say the story of Christ is also a myth. On the Star Trek II movie, at the very end, after Spock is killed, we previewed the movie and audiences left the movie feeling horrible: Why did I come to see this? What was that about? After the preview, we met in Michael Eisner’s office with Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Simpson … Harve Bennett, the director Nick Meyers, and myself. Michael Eisner said, “We have no resurrection scene, no garden scene at the end.” We went out and filmed in Golden Gate Park. The casket is shot from the ship and lands in the garden, and we focus in, push in to the casket, then it fades and dissolves out. So trekkers are hopeful about the next movie, and we can make a sequel.

Young: Six.

Question: First, I want to tell you that all the Star Trek movies helped me through some terrible youth ministry years, so thank you for that. Also, I enjoyed Emily Rose. My question is: Were you ever faced with an ethical choice in Hollywood that could have jeopardized your career? How would you deal with that?

Derrickson: I’ve thought a lot about this issue. A great variety of occupations are represented here tonight, and I have no aggrandized view that Hollywood is the most difficult place in the world to live out your faith, because it’s just not. In some ways it’s relatively easy because Hollywood is such a liberal community, and they really don’t care what you believe. They care about money, and that’s really it.

When doing the right thing comes at a price, pay it. That’s kind of simple for me. Only, I’ve learned that situations in the workplace rarely are that simple. When dealing with executives and studios and producers, I can get considerable insight through Jesus’ responses when he is asked about his beliefs. What I love about Jesus is that he did not do what I think a lot of good Christians instinctively feel they ought to do: “Here it comes, okay, well, I just have to stand up for Christ right now and get tagged as a religious weirdo or the person with a religious agenda at work.” What I love is that when people questioned Jesus, his first response was to assess the motivation of the questioner. Sometimes his answers were frank, shockingly frank, shockingly honest—and eventually they got him killed. So he was willing to pay that price. But often, he understood and dealt with the meanings and motives behind the questions.

I’ll give you two examples. First, I was once working with Bryan Singer on a project of mine that he’d brought into Tri-Star Pictures. At the time I was a little filmmaker who had never made a feature film, and I brought him a script that dealt with angels and demons. Now, I was going to meet with the head of the studio. It was my first time to meet him, and I knew he wasn’t a religious guy. There were a couple of high-powered people in Hollywood who were pretty open about the fact that they were gay, and he was one of those. He was smart, educated … it’s fair to say that I didn’t expect him to appreciate my religious background. When I went in, he sat down and opened the script. Then he pointed to it and said, “I assume you believe all this?”

I felt in my bones that he wanted to size up whether I was a Christian with an agenda. Was I one of those right-winged Republican evangelicals trying to come in and usurp his studio? I told him my personal belief was irrelevant. I said what matters is that audiences want to believe in angels, and this story was trying to appeal to that desire. He’s a smart guy. He smiled and nodded—appreciating, I think, that I was at least smart enough to give that answer. Of course, driving home, I call my wife, and I’m like, “Oh no! I denied Jesus!” But in retrospect, what I said was the right answer.

I remember another conversation about a scene toward the end of Emily Rose where the character has a vision of the Virgin Mary. I’m not Catholic, but Chesterton is my favorite writer, and I have great affinity with Catholicism. In the real Emily Rose case, a young Catholic girl had these visions and believed they held meaning. The story is dark and depressing. The real 17-year-old girl went through exorcisms and died—it happened. I determined that the potential for larger meaning in her death was where the movie had redemptive value and hope and some beauty. Shortly after the script was sold, I met with the head of the studio. We eventually became good friends, but that first meeting was contentious.

I respect him now just because he had enough integrity to speak up when he thought that I was a guy with an agenda. He said, “We got to cut this scene out of the movie.” He said, “You’re just some Christian with an agenda.”

That made me furious. My dad was a car dealer, so I grew up in a profane house, so now I unleashed—first to dissuade him that I was too conservative, but also because what he was saying wasn’t true. I wasn’t propagating a Christian point of view. I was trying to tell this real person’s story. In the end, I said, “Yeah, I do believe it, it does matter to me, and that’s the true story." I said I didn’t *&#! care what he thought. I told him that if he didn’t want that scene, I couldn’t make the movie. He backed off, and that scene eventually was the poster of the movie.

For people who grow up in conservative Christian training, even moderate Christian training, the idea of situational ethics gets downplayed, criticized, and pooh-poohed. But ethics always cater to the specifics of the situation. I believe strongly in having integrity and paying the price. I’ve turned down projects because of my faith, but so what? Everyone in the workplace has to do that. In short, I believe in being thoughtful and shrewd and not hurling myself onto the sacrificial alter too quickly, too easily, which is an action that can carry a bit of self-righteousness. Instead, I struggle to figure out in each situation what truly is for the longer, greater good.

Winter: That’s good. I think this question comes up a lot partly because of Hollywood’s perception as a debased, wicked place. And while part of that is true, the decisions we face rarely are clear ones. I don’t have to choose between doing Snow White or a porno movie.

It’s always shades of gray in the workplace. The daily temptation is to skew that email to distort the facts, to elevate me and diminish him. That daily battle is a lot tougher and holds more potential, cumulatively, to change who you are.

I’ve walked away from projects because scripts are bad … because stories are bad. But I’m not persecuted in Hollywood. The only time I had a huge decision was once while working on a picture in New York. My father-in-law had committed suicide, and I sent my wife, Judy, and the kids back. But I didn’t come back. I was with a company going to London to shoot, and we had responsibility to finish. Lots of our friends came around Judy and the family.

Not long after that, United Artists called and said, "Why don’t you leave this picture? We need you to go take over the James Bond movie." At the time, that would have meant a terrific addition to my resume. So I flew in from London, and Judy and I met in New York for a weekend. She helped me see that another six months away from the family, regardless of how exciting James Bond might be, would do nothing for my family. So we decided there, that weekend, that I would finish out that movie and accept no more projects that would take me out of town. For the six or eight months after that movie, I had no work. Was this how God honored our decision? I’m praying for significant filmmakers to work with, and significant projects; Judy’s praying for every project that shoots around the corner. It was a hard time. All our accounts dropped to zero and, waiting and wondering and looking, out of the blue, I got an offer to work on a television show shooting in the Valley, and ironically the executive producer was Steven Spielberg …

Derrickson: Who?

(Audience Laughter)

Derrickson: Sorry.

Winter: It set my career. Looking back, James Bond on my resume now would have meant nothing in comparison. And Judy and I have been married 32 years as of this year.

Question: What do you think about churches using film clips during worship? Is that appropriate?

Derrickson: I’ve been in churches where it’s been done. And obviously my first instinct is that it depends on if the movie or clips are any good. I like that younger generations coming up are story savvy, culture savvy. On the other hand, it took me a long time as a Christian to find a great Bible study—a deep study of the gospels. It’s so easy to teach everything but the gospels. And those gospel narratives, Jesus’ open-ended stories, don’t come with precise meanings. They tell more about you than about the story. They can’t be pinned down; sometimes when you hear them, you wiggle uncomfortably. As Christians, we follow a guy who taught like that. I love being able to put stories, tales, parables, and images up in churches to extract truth and meaning and value for life. That is decidedly Christian. I think what we do in our seminaries, in all our systematizing, is decidedly Western Greek and not necessarily the best tradition. I definitely don’t think it’s the best way to reach the up-and-coming generations—they are people of stories, and this is how they will be moved.

Winter: I’m a big fan, but there are a couple of things. First, as you said, you’ve got to do your homework and find the right clips. Second, you’ve got to set them up and use them correctly. Just playing the clip has no meaning for people who may not have seen the movie. Third, and this is a big one for me, movies are not good at answering questions. They’re good at asking questions. So don’t find clips that give you answers. Find clips that stimulate questions that you can answer in the sermon, in the context of the worship service.

I’m a fan of Robert Webber. I haven’t read that much of his work, but he talks about worship in the same way that I think of it as a producer: content, structure, and style. When I see a bad worship service, I tend to think it’s poorly produced. There is a structure to a good worship service—a gathering, a coming to the table, the word, the sending out. There’s content, the retelling of the gospel story, the story of redemption. And there’s a style to it, be it Pentecostal, be it Episcopal, be it whatever. And we’ve lost the art of good worship services. Until we figure that out, and figure out how to use clips as a part of retelling the story, we’re going to stay frustrated. We should be using the clips to ask questions and stimulate questions so that we’re not just finding clips that tell us about the answers.

Young: Film quite obviously has become the lingua franca of the day. The movie theater, for many people, is the new temple. So we need new priests, and we have two of them, better known in Hollywood as The Players, right here. So let’s give them another round of applause.

Ralph and Scott, thank you so much for your time, for your witness, really. It was inspirational to hear what you’re doing, how you do it, the pragmatic way that you deal with complex problems that most of us also face in our various circumstances.

<< Read "Act 1" of this interview!