A Talk with Alex Kendrick
Courageous Director Goes All Out
Unless you’ve been hiding under an entertainment world rock, you’ve probably heard about one or more of the Sherwood Pictures films: Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron (in a for-charity performance) as a firefighter who realizes he’s going to have to fight to save his marriage; Facing the Giants, the “little movie that could”—made by a Georgia church’s media team, and picked up by the majors for distribution; or Flywheel, the little locally-played DIY film that got them started.
If you haven’t heard of those, well, you’re hearing about their fourth film now: Courageous. It tells the story of five men (four of whom are police officers in, yes, a small Georgia town) who are challenged to become better fathers. Some rise to the challenge; some fall.
In the spring of 2010, during production of the film, the producers flew me (among several other journalists) out to Georgia for several days to witness first-hand how Sherwood Pictures makes films. During lunch break on set one afternoon, I was able to chat with the director, co-writer and star of Courageous, Alex Kendrick.
One of the criticisms that your past films has faced from within the faith community is that they have come off as a byproduct of the Health and Wealth Gospel.
AK: That is not our message.
Everything wraps up and they get what they want. My reaction to that is, “This is not the end to these people’s life stories.” As with Fireproof, you told me at the time that a lot of the details incorporated into the script came from the real experiences of real people.
AK: That’s right. So you can’t discount that certain miraculous things happen. They are in many cases the outcome of people aligning themselves with the Father’s will. At the same time, that’s not the end of the story. Troubles and hardships will continue to happen in life, just outside the story arc included in that script.
Did you see Facing the Giants? They do win the game, they do succeed in having a child. But their household income does not go up. He may get a $6000 raise, but that offsets a $6000 loss in income. Their budget stays the same. At the end of the movie, they’re a reunited family. But it’s never established that they get the leaky roof fixed, or the washer and dryer. People say, “It’s so rosy because they won the game and had a child. Are you saying everything will go your way if you pray about it?” We say, “No way, mister.” We learned from that that we might be careful about happy endings. Because some people have an aversion to that.
We do wholeheartedly believe that with God all things are possible; we have seen in our own church, for instance, more than once over the years, couples give birth who were told that they would never, medically, have children. So those things are not unrealistic for us. So at the end of the movie, because we didn’t remind people that Grant and his wife live in the same house, the dryer is still broken and the roof still leaks—because we didn’t highlight that, that allows people to walk away and say, “They won the game and they had the baby.” So that was a learning experience for us.
I’m not saying the movie doesn’t work; it’s works. But we did not ever intend to promote the prosperity Gospel.
So in this movie, Courageous, there are five fathers who all take the same pledge, and not all of them turn out well. At the end of the movie, some turn out terrible. Some are in transition, and some make horrible decisions and have to face the consequences of their decisions. So I don’t think anyone will say of this movie, “Everything’s tied up in a nice, neat bow.”
But with God, all things are still going to be possible. He’s going to be able to do miraculous things, even if they’re in the heart. You’ve got to find that balance.
You’re going to be swimming upstream, though, because the movie ends with a man speaking from the pulpit in a church.
AK: But we’re not stopping the film for a sermon. I’m grateful for all those Billy Graham films. I’ve watched them all. And he delivers wonderful sermons at the end of them. But I’ve seen that, and I know I don’t want to stop the film for a sermon. Those Graham films were effective in their own way—but that’s not what we’re doing here.
At the end of the movie, the pastor asks the men taking the pledge to come to a Father’s Day event at the church. He asks my character to talk about the Resolution. We’re going for inspiration over information. We want people to leave the theater inspired.
I don’t have a problem with that. If I were to see a film about Muslim men, for instance, who were having problems as fathers, it would seem perfectly natural to me to see them address that through their faith. And a natural resolution to that story arc would involve them walking into a mosque.
And I wouldn’t sit back and carp, “Well, that’s preachy—because they walked into a mosque.” They’re Muslims. That’s natural. Is there a problem with that? Now, the thread that I’ve seen running through your films, the thing that’s made them click with audiences, is the very innate sensitivity that you have, as storytellers, to the specific needs that men have as men, as fathers, as husbands, as providers. You’ve found ways to tell stories that really connect with those needs. And I think that’s terrific. As Stephen was saying this morning, you can start holding up Courageous as the antidote to the popular culture, which now denigrates the role of the male—which rarely prevents viable, positive role models. As a critic, I can point to that as a very unique and special thing that comes out of your work. Do you feel that’s something that’s naturally come out of your work as something God-given, or is that something you’ve really focused on—honed and developed?
AK: How do you hone and develop that?
I don’t know.
AK: I would say that we’re driven to do that. That’s the heartbeat behind what we’re doing, other than the general desire to please the Lord. When I turn on the TV—and we don’t watch TV much any more at all—every other character, every other commercial, demeans and devalues the role of the man. It’s terrible. Just take note of the commercials that you see when you’re watching TV. How many of them make the woman look like, “Well, I’m the smart one. The man can’t figure this out, but I can.” And while there’s plenty of demeaning behavior spread around to both sexes, it does seem heavily biased to be anti-father, anti-man. And in movies, when parents are having problems with their children, things get resolved by the parents saying to the children, “Oh, I’m sorry. I was wrong all along. You were right.” I mean, even look at Finding Nemo. I love the movie! It’s very well done. But at the end, the father says, “I’m sorry, Nemo. You were right—I was too hard on you.” That seems to be a running theme.
Or The Lion King, with the entirely missing father.
AK: Right. So after a while, you start thinking, “Where are the movies that build up fathers, and their importance?” Well, they are few and far between. Now, there are some. And we are saying, “Guys, you have some responsibility.”
The pendulum is going to swing, I think. Once women became empowered, which was a good thing, it wasn’t enough that they were empowered in pop culture—the purveyors of pop culture had to take advantage of that by going beyond merely presenting positive female role models and start tearing down men, bringing them down to a lower level. But that pendulum has got to swing. Clearly, men are responding to what you’re doing with your films—and clearly, women are too. They are looking at your films and saying, “Yes—that’s the kind of man that I want in my life.”
AK: It’s interesting that, in our culture, women have said, “We’re important. We need to do these things, and we need to have more power.” And at some point they look around and think, “Hey! Where are all the real men?” Well, you’ve slammed them! You’ve kicked them out. Now, we don’t want to demean the vital importance of the wife and the mother; but we do put an extra emphasis on the father role.
The anchors in Fireproof really were the wife—and the mother. The wife had her own problems, of course; but she was the character the story really revolved around. Caleb had to wake up—and at the end finds out that his father was the one who strayed, not his mother. So I don’t find any trace of sexism in your stories at all.
AK: Hopefully not!
You’re just putting a proper emphasis on the importance of the roles that men play.
AK: That’s what we’re trying to do.
Courageous opens September 30.