by C.J. Darlington
Stephen Kendrick Interview
"Movies and art are religion externalized. They are the hearts of people being put out on the screen." -- Stephen Kendrick
Stephen Kendrick has served as associate teaching pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church since 2001. He leads the church’s prayer ministry, major ministry events, an adult Sunday school class, and The Great Adventure, an adult discipleship program that he developed. Stephen also serves as the senior pastor’s preaching assistant, filling the pulpit when the pastor is gone.
Stephen and his brother
Alex helped Sherwood Baptist establish Sherwood Pictures in 2003. Stephen
filled vital roles in both of Sherwood Pictures’ movie
releases, Facing the Giants and Flywheel as a co-writer and producer. He
also worked with Provident Films, developing marketing and Bible study
resources for churches in conjunction with Facing the Giants.
C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to make Christian movies?
Stephen: My brother Alex and I grew up with a video camera on our shoulders. It was a hobby as kids. Other kids would go play spin the bottle, and we would run around and shoot our own Indiana Jones movies outside instead. We grew up in a strong Christian home, and we would run home with all these videos we’d shot. Most of them were chase-‘em-down, beat-‘em-up plots, and our mom and dad were like, “What are you guys doing?” (Laughs.) We made our “Alabama Jones”, and instead of “James Bond” we made “Savings Bond”.
Then we fell in love with the Lord as teenagers, and the Lord called us into ministry. We took our love for video making into ministry and were making camp videos and promotional videos for the church. When Alex was hired by Sherwood Baptist Church in 1999 he told them that he would love to make Christian movies long term, and that it was a dream he had. He came on as their media director here at the church. He was over the TV station filming the services on Sundays. 2002 was the big spark year. A national poll came out by George Barna that said the church is no longer in the top ten influences of American culture, but movies and music are in the top three. Which translates to us that people are letting movies influence them more than they are the church. If that is true, then we as believers need to get our Gospel surf boards out and surf on that wave and use it to propel the Gospel. So we said, “Why don’t we take the best messages in the world from Scripture and translate those into a means of communication that people are watching?”
We shot our first movie
in 2002 and then in April 2003 Flywheel was released in our local theater
a test, just to see if we could do this. The movie
did very well. It outran twelve Hollywood movies in our local theater,
to our surprise, and then it got picked up by Blockbuster video. We were
in business! But we were surprised the movie did so well. We were just
hoping it wasn’t cheesy and God would use it somehow.
Alex and I have not had training in writing, he has not been trained as a director, I’ve not been trained as a producer. It’s really just a lot of prayer and hard work. And the Lord has really helped us with the support of a godly church. They have surrounded us with volunteers who are willing to help support the vision. The budget for Flywheel was $20,000. Today we’ve sold over 150,000 DVDs of Flywheel. It’s encouraging to see God take five loaves and two fish and use it to impact a lot of people.
Your next film is Fireproof. I’m anxious to hear about that. Why did you decide to make a movie about a firefighter who’s marriage is crumbling? Where did the inspiration come from?
Alex got the idea while
he was jogging. He thought of a young man whose marriage was headed for
and his father steps in and says, “Please
don’t get a divorce yet. Delay it for forty days. I’m gonna
send you something in the mail.” And the son gets this book in the
mail called The Love Dare. It’s a day-by-day journey of discovering
what unconditional love is. The character Caleb Holt, through the book,
begins to realize what Christ did, how He was the epitome of unconditional
love, that the Cross is God’s means of demonstrating love for us.
His father makes this statement in the movie, “You cannot give your
wife what you do not have.” And that is unconditional love. Caleb
comes to Christ halfway through the movie, and he begins to try and rescue
his dying marriage.
That was the first idea, marriage. Then we were trying to figure out what would be a fun, exciting backdrop on which to paint this story, and it just fits so well with the firefighter theme. Firefighters are laying down their lives, and there are a lot of parallels with Christ laying down His life for us. They have exciting lives of going into fires. When we found out what the word “fireproof” meant, that was the clincher for us. Fireproof doesn’t mean it keeps fire away. If something is fireproof it means that it can withstand the heat. Every marriage is going to have fires in it. And every relationship does to a certain degree. So we wanted to communicate some Biblical truths through the movie that would help people to have stronger marriages. Marriages are hemorrhaging in America and the church. We wanted to lift up some hope to couples.
You had a lot of help from the guys at your local fire department too, right?
Albany Fire Dept. jumped in and said we could use their stations and their trucks and even some of their crew.
How did you come to work with Kirk Cameron and cast him in the lead role?
That was really a God thing. Alex, my brother, ran into him at the Atlanta airport right after we finished Facing the Giants, before the theatrical release. He gave him a screener copy and Kirk watched it on the airplane. He cried and loved it and took it home and watched it over and over again with his family. His kids started quoting it and talking about how it was impacting them. He contacted us and said, “Man you guys, I love Facing the Giants. If you ever make another movie keep me in mind.”
As we were working on Fireproof we were trying to find a Captain of a fire department. We imagined this 6'4" tall guy, a big strapping firefighter. And we couldn’t find what we were looking for. So we called Kirk up and asked, “Would you be interested in just coming and auditioning with the rest of the people who audition?” So he flew out on his own bill and came out to Sherwood and tried out. All the important scenes he nailed. We were like, “Man, this guy can do this.” So he started gaining weight and working out, and we butched his hair, made it a little bit shorter, a more military look. He came down and said that he was willing to jump on board as a volunteer like the rest of the crew since the rest of the actors were volunteers. He said he would rather we just give the money to a ministry that he believes in. He came in with great motives, and he did an outstanding job in the role. The Lord really opened that door.
What’s the biggest challenge you faced when writing and filming Fireproof?
Time is always an issue with movie making. They say you never really finish making a movie, you just run out of time. And that’s true. We’re right now finishing up the final edit, and we’ve got all kinds of deadlines. We’re trying to polish it up and send it off. It’s tough. Shooting in the fall and winter was difficult because the days were so short, and we were running out of daylight.
One of our main cameramen died halfway through the shoot. We shut down production and went and ministered to his family. That really threw us into a tailspin for a week or two. And then there are the spiritual attacks. God has been blessing and using the movies – Facing the Giants is in 57 countries around the world and we’ve had thousands of people come to Christ from it. We’ve had so many churches email us and say, “We are specifically praying for your next movie.” So we know the devil is not happy. There has been spiritual warfare; a lot of prayer has had to go into us just getting the movie completed. The devil always attacks the same way. He tries to divide the team, he tries to distract you with secondary things, he tries to discourage you so you give up and quit. He runs you down in your mind, he’ll deceive you with lies. So there are all kinds of things. We had devotions everyday on the set. We had a whole prayer chain praying specifically for the movie the whole time we were in production.
Do you have any specific stories of how God answered your prayers while making the movie?
We were shooting a train wreck sequence. We had to get this wrecked car on the train tracks. It didn’t have an engine, the tires were all messed up, so we couldn’t just drive it. We had this heavy car that we had to move, and we didn’t know how to move it. We figured we needed a forklift, we wished we had a forklift, but we hadn’t known we’d need a forklift. So 50-100 people are standing around this set, staring at this car. We were in a different city in Georgia, 20-30 minutes away from home. The guy who lived right next to where the train tracks are, an old man out in his front yard, said, “You guys need a forklift?” And we said, “Yeah!” We had been praying for God to provide everything we needed. He said, “I got one in my back yard, and it works.” He went in his back yard and drove it around, picked up this car and moved it into place, and then drove back to his backyard again. I remember turning to the director/photographer, Bob Scott, who is a professional who has shot a bunch of Hollywood movies you’ve heard of, and he looked at me and said, “Unbelievable! What are the chances that within a hundred mile radius of where we are that somebody has a forklift in their backyard that works?” This guy was right here, right next to where we are, with one ready for us.
We had sixteen locations for the movie. They were all donated for free. Our local fire department said, “We’ve got brand new fire trucks that are coming in right at the beginning of your shoot. We want you to use our brand new fire trucks. We’ll use the backup trucks.” We had fire trucks as nice as any 200 million dollar movie, and it cost us nothing. We were just laughing, because God would consistently show up and provide what we needed.
When that type of thing happens often, when we’re praying for a piece of equipment that we need and it shows up, or we’re praying for money, or praying for volunteers at a church to act. It was so cool to see the Lord take and transform people who in the auditions were not good actors, but we felt were the right choice for the roles. We’d be on the set and yell, “Action!”, and they would just bloom. We’ve even had people at Sony who’ve seen the rough cut of the movie say, “Where did you guys get these actors?” It’s been hilarious to see how the Lord’s grace has enabled believers to do something beyond their own ability.
Any humorous stories?
We played a lot of pranks on Kirk, dumping water on him and stuff. I remember when he was in a scene where he was waking up in the morning in bed and he’s waiting for the alarm clock to go off. We piled on top of him! Everybody just jumped on him. There were a lot of moments where he was walking through a scene, and he didn’t know we’d rigged the scene for someone to jump out and scare him. We had a lot of fun doing that kind of stuff. He had a great attitude. He was playing pranks on people, too. It was a lot of fun watching the Lord show up. We would just laugh sometimes at how things would fall into place.
What’s the number one thing you want people to take away from the movie?
That God is the source of unconditional love. When we are in a strong relationship with Him, His Spirit gives us the fruit of the Spirit which is first love, joy, peace.... It says in Romans 5 that His Holy Spirit pours out agape, unconditional love, into our hearts. That is really the secret to the success of any marriage. Marriages are going to fall apart if love is not communicated in that marriage. It says in 1John that God is love and that if we’re going to love one another, it’s got to come from God. A strong, godly Christian automatically becomes a healthier spouse, because they’re going to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. They’re going to have love, joy, and peace flowing out of their hearts. They’re going to be patient and kind, and not rude and not jealous or irritable, not easily angered, and not keeping a record of wrongs.
All of those things that we’re supposed to be doing as believers will flow into a marriage and make it strong if the couple is walking with the Lord. If someone does not know Christ, first base for them would be to realize that the Cross of Christ is the greatest expression of unconditional love. The Scripture says that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. They need to be in a relationship with God by surrendering to Christ. Then secondly, as a husband or wife, learning to walk in obedience to the Lord and be filled with His spirit is the best thing in the world for our marriage. It makes us better than we are. We become a channel of God’s love, rather than us trying to force it or manufacture it out of our hearts. Jesus said in John 15, “As the Father has loved me, I have loved you.” That really is what a husband should be able to say to his wife - “As God, my Father, is loving me, I am loving you.” That’s a beautiful thing. In marriage we see a picture of Christ and His bride. A husband and wife can be a living, walking, breathing portrait of that eternal relationship with God by how they love one another sacrificially.
This movie is not just for married people. Regardless of whether you do or you don’t, everyone needs to allow the Lord to be the source of love. We all need it, and we all want it. All relationships need it, if they’re going to be strong. If you’re really going to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, it’s going to have to be by God’s grace and love in your life that enables you to do that on a consistent basis.
We’ve found that people love movies and romances, and this movie’s very entertaining; there’s a lot of humor in it; there are some great romantic scenes in it, but ultimately we want them to walk away with the Lord having touched their hearts.
Facing the Giants had a really small budget of $100,000. Did the budget increase for Fireproof?
It went to half a million for “Fireproof”. But that’s still nothing. It’s still beans compared to a 200 million dollar Hollywood movie. The way we can pull that off is volunteer actors, volunteer sets and equipment. The Lord would always give us what we needed so we could pay the film crew who did give us a break. We had an awesome crew, and a lot of them were believers, who so believed in what we were doing. They were excited to get to work on a project that is honoring the Lord.
Christian movies have often been criticized for being too preachy or avoiding the real issues of life. What would you say to someone who feels this way about Christian films?
I understand. We have felt that way about Christian movies. There are a few factors that have caused Christian movies to be frowned upon. One is that they are communicating the Gospel, and people are offended by the Gospel. So even if the movie was excellent from beginning to end, ultimately the Gospel is offensive. That’s what Scripture says. The preaching of the Cross is an offense to those who don’t know Christ.
But a lot of times Christian movies will offend people unnecessarily. They will be so cheesy that it’s painful to watch the scenes. Or the acting is so bad, the production is so bad, there is no entertainment value. Those are some of the factors. We want the right things to offend people and not the wrong things. A big factor is the Golden Rule. We are trying to make movies that we want to go see in the theater. They’re clean, but we’re going to laugh, cry, be moved, challenged, inspired, impacted by the story, and walk away a better person wanting to go live for the Lord. At the same time there can be a fine line between cheesiness and being very powerful. Sometimes the most dramatic, tear jerker scenes are walking that fine line.
We’ve never claimed that our movies are Academy Award winning. We’ve never claimed that we have the 200 million dollar budgets or anything else. But we are trying to pursue excellence. There are things about our movies that we hate, that we wish we could change and do better. But we’ve tried to take what the Lord has given us, the five loaves and two fishes entrusted to us, and be the best stewards with the time we have to pursue excellence. In the end we have to say, “Lord, were You pleased? Were we obedient to You?” And we have to leave that with Him. Ultimately, pleasing Him is a higher priority than pleasing man. If a movie does its job, then people will not only enjoy it, but be impacted by it. The fruit that remains is the proof in the pudding.
What advice would you give to other churches or individuals who aspire to make Christian movies?
We get calls every week now from churches wanting to do it. (Laughs.) Our advice is that healthy fruit comes from good soil, and we are in a church environment where we are unified. The Scripture says that God blesses where brethren dwell together in unity. Our pastor is involved in the movie production process, and if he has a check in his spirit about an actor or the direction we’re going in a certain scene we tried to honor that. There have been multiple times where he would step in and say, “I don’t think this is the direction the Lord wants us to go.” We would honor that. Prayer is also a key. We have a praying church with a strong prayer ministry. That environment of prayer and unity and being under the vision and authority of the pastor is a very rich soil for us to be able to function. A lot of people have been watching us now, secular and Christians. They watch our church now; they come and interview us, or they come and visit the church. And if we were a fighting church, if we were living in immorality, or if there was a lot of junk going on in our church, we would not be representing the Lord well. Making a movie really gives you a platform. It puts you out in front of a whole lot of people. We’re accountable for that influence. Churches need to make sure they are representing the Lord well before they stick their neck out and say, “Look at us.”
Secondly, they need to make sure that it’s not just a good idea, but a God idea. Making movies is hard work. It’s sacrificial. You’re working sixteen hour days. It’s very testing on families. It has to be something the Lord has clearly called you to do. We found out that just because a church can make a movie, doesn’t mean they should. They need to get before God and ask, “Lord, what have you called us to do to reach our community? Where are our church members gifted?” There was a very successful church you would probably know if I told you the name of it, that called us and said, “Hey, we can make a movie, too. Come up and show us how.” We went up and explained to them how the Lord led us to do it. They came back and said, “You know what? Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. God has not called us to make a movie. We’re not going to do it.” I respected that. I so appreciated them realizing what the Lord had given them to do.
There was an issue with the rating of facing the giants. Have you heard about the rating for Fireproof yet?
We have not submitted
it to MPAA yet. We’re in the process of doing
that in the next few months. That is around the corner, and we are expecting
a PG rating. We deal in this movie with pornography. I think the word pornography
is used one time, and it’s kind of hidden in the dialogue. But you
understand when his wife says, “You’re looking at trash on
the internet.” Adults will know what’s going on. Kids won’t.
We try to be very tasteful in how we handle that issue so we can show how
it does destroy marriages. But at the same time we know that children will
be in the theater and will watch this movie on DVD, and we don’t
want to in any way put a stumbling block in front of them. But we also
have some action sequences. Caleb’s dragging this little girl out
of a house fire, there’s a big car wreck sequence, and it’s
pretty perilous. So when people are watching it, they’re going to
enjoy the adventure of it. Some of the scenes are nail biters.
What do you wish Christians knew about the Christian movie industry?
I think the theological foundation needs to be laid first before people are handed a camera. Just because you’re a believer doesn’t mean that you are ready to teach the world through a movie. A lot of guys out there love movies, so they say, “I’m a Christian, and I love movies, so I’m gonna go make movies.” It says in James 3 that God holds you to a higher standard if you are going to be a teacher over other people. A movie, whether you want it to or not, is a sermon. It’s either Al Gore communicating a message about saving the world or it’s the Matrix movie communicating a sermon about post modern perception, which is what it does.
Movies and art are religion externalized. It is the hearts of people being put out on the screen. That’s why movies are filled with a lot of anger and violence and immorality and profanity. That’s not gonna change unless God changes the hearts of people, ‘cause that’s flowing out of their lives. So even believers, if they’re not mature spiritually, they need to be very careful, because a movie is a sword, and oftentimes they can grab the wrong end of it, and it cuts them. They will take this great, influential tool and if they are not strong in their studying of Scripture and their understanding of what God’s called them to do, they will put out something that misrepresents Christ, that is unholy and ungodly. They will try to excuse immorality and junk on the screen because they’ll sprinkle in some verses or some Christian message.
We’ve often seen movie makers who are Christians - it’s almost like they have a love affair with the world. They so love watching violent, angry horror, sexual immorality, that they think that because they’re a Christian, and because some of the actors are Christians, that they can do all those things and just tone it down a little bit, and then still be okay putting it up on the screen because it’s not as bad as Hollywood movies. It grieves us when we see believers putting out stuff that has the f-word in it, and they’re cursing the name of Jesus, and there’s a sex scene in it that goes too far. A lot of times we won’t even go see it. Believers need to be holy.
In our movies we try to have the ladies dress modestly. You can be creative and still present a very realistic scenario to people. We deal with pornography head on in this movie. But children are not going to stumble when they watch it. That’s the test of someone’s creativity. They say, “I want to be creative, so give me freedom to go communicate whatever I want.” But if you’re really creative you can deal with issues in a way that can still honor the Lord. What we hear people say, from Hollywood too, is, “Well, this is what really goes on out there. I want to show you what really goes on. So let me show you what homosexuals do in private. I’m going to show you what violent, hateful people do when they slaughter and hack up people with knives.” They want to show it to you because it’s reality. Well, yeah, it may be real, but that doesn’t give you permission. We are morally responsible for how we influence people.
It used to be a law in our nation that said it is against the law to contribute to the delinquency of a minor. And now, how many movies and musicians are communicating a message that is leading the next generation to live violent, immoral, atheistic lives? We have to come back to looking at what God’s word says. It says whatever’s true, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy is what we’re supposed to be meditating on. We’re supposed to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. David slept with Bathsheba, there is violence in Scripture, but you don’t hear the details as to what he did with Bathsheba. If you see Saul trying to throw a spear at David, you also will hear about how Saul was tormented because of how immoral he had become. You always see the consequences for sin and the rewards for obedience.
Back in our grandparents’ day, the good won out and crimes and sins were punished. Nowadays in movies, James Bond is not only murdering people left and right gratuitously, but he’s sleeping around with forty-seven women, he’s cheating on the poker table, he’s drinking alcohol and lying left and right. But because the James Bond theme song plays when he does all this, people think this is a good guy. They have such a twisted view of morality that they can’t even discern what’s right and wrong anymore. Movies are either helping to contribute to that or providing truth and light.
We had a poll recently on our website that asked “Should Christians go see ‘R’ rated movies?” What are your thoughts on that? Is there a definitive answer?
I went to see The Passion, and I think every believer should see that movie. It’s rated R. Anytime you try to set a standard that Scripture does not set you can get into trouble. You’ll have a man in his church, and he will say, “Women need to dress modestly. It’s a Biblical principle.” And we say, “Amen. That’s right.” But then when he says, “No more pants. Women can only wear dresses everywhere they go.” Now he has taken a Biblical principle and he’s applied it. It’s totally fine if he makes that standard for himself, but when he imposes that application of Scripture on someone else, now he’s done what the Pharisees did. They said, “Not only won’t you work on Sunday, but you can’t heal on Sunday either.” Where Scripture speaks, we should speak. And where Scripture is silent, I will be silent. I may share my opinion with you, or my standard. But I’m not gonna impose something on your conscious that Scripture doesn’t impose. I have to come back to that. If a movie is causing you to stumble, then Jesus said if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If this movie leads you to lust, then Jesus said to flee fornication and youthful lust. If a movie is causing you to fall into sin or to be worldy, or to be callous to the Lord, those are Biblical principles that we need to come back to.
There are movies that are rated G that I’m not going to let my six year old see. There are tv shows on PBS for kids that have sorcery in them. I’m not going to let my kids watch those. Just because the world has put their stamp of approval on them doesn’t mean that me before God, trying to obey Scripture, can endorse them. I think the wrong thing to say is that all R rated movies are totally evil and wrong. I can’t say that because of The Passion. That movie impacted my personal walk with Christ. It showed me what Christ did in His love for me. I will never view the Cross and Easter the same after having seen that movie. I’m not going to force someone else to go see it. If they set a standard of no R rated movies, I’ll cheer them. If they with a clear conscience say that God has led them to do that, go for it. Let’s serve together in unity. But I think sometimes people say they just need to know what’s going on in the world, or that they don’t need to be legalistic, and they are piping in all kinds of immorality. They’re not honoring what God’s Word says about what you need to be thinking about and saying and focusing your time and energy on.
Your favorite movie of all time?
Wow. That’s tough. There are a lot of good ones. Sergeant York is up there at the top. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie. Those movies are solid. I like the Princess Bride, if you want humor and hokiness. If I could say our movies, I still love to watch Facing the Giants, but I’m biased. (Laughs.) It’s been fun to hear people say that Flywheel and Facing the Giants are their favorite movies of all time. I hope that all of our movies would be ones that people can say that about. I love a good story.
You’re in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
Three things always found in your refrigerator?
Fruit smoothie ingredients in the freezer. We make a lot of smoothies at home. Cheese. We’re really into omelettes. Eggs, cheese, and smoothies. I had one today.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind. My grandfather was seven feet tall. I’m 5'11". I started going grey when I was seventeen. I knew my wife was the one because God told me I was going to marry her before our first date. I knew her, but I didn’t know her very well. My brother, Alex, and I had been praying for months about what the Lord was leading me to do about getting married. I was 25 at the time. Alex sat down across from me, and he said, “Stephen, I know who you’re going to marry.” And he was right. God had been leading us in that direction. That was before our first date.
Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
We are writing the book The Love Dare (B&H Publishing). It’s going to be put in with Fireproof and released around Valentine’s Day next year when they release the DVD, so people can have something tangible to invest into their marriage after they see the movie. Visit our website at www.fireproofthemovie.com.
Watch the Fireproof
Watch the teaser trailer for Fireproof!
(Click here for the Quicktime version)
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.