“The Shack,” in its novel and movie form, tells the story of a grieving man who receives a mysterious letter inviting him to a shack in the wilderness where, to his shock, he finds God waiting to answer any questions he has. The film version of The Shack is helmed by the young BAFTA-nominated director Stuart Hazeldine (“Exam”), produced by Gil Netter (“The Blindside”), and stars Sam Worthington (“Avatar”), Octavia Spencer (“The Help”), and a strong supporting cast.
(Fun Fact: Stuart Hazeldine won an award for his film “Exam” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2010 in Santa Barbara, CA, where I used to live. I didn’t go to the festival that year, unfortunately, but getting this chance to interview Stuart makes up for it.)
The novel “The Shack” has sold millions of copies. That alone is astonishing considering that no publishing house would take it, and, at one point, one of its financiers, Brad Cummings, maxed out 12 personal credit cards to get it funded. But, as we have seen this year, the book’s rise out of nowhere to become a bestseller was just Act One of “The Shack” as a cultural phenomenon.
It has now hit the big screen: released March 3, 2017, distributed in the U.S. by Hollywood name-brand Lionsgate, produced by heavy hitter Gil Netter, and brought to life by the top-notch Hollywood talent of Stuart Hazeldine, Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, and a strong cast that includes country singer Tim McGraw (who shined with Sandra Bullock in “The Blindside” and did another great job in “The Shack”) and Radha Mitchell, who became one of my favorite actors after I saw her in the glorious “Henry Poole Is Here.”
And now The Shack has just been released on DVD and BLU-RAY™ in the States and is set to release in theaters in the UK on June 9. (If you live in the UK, you can actually book private screenings here.) So the cinematic “Shack” is still in mid-stride with its run across global culture.
Stuart Hazeldine’s path to directing this film is intriguing. As you will read in my interview with him below, he seemed to have a serendipitous tie to “The Shack.” It all has a subtle sense of destiny to it.
And I’m glad, frankly.
Stuart, along with the cast and crew who put in such a fine effort, created a jewel of a film–certainly one of the highest quality cinematic entries in the faith genre. Of course, I realize that in the large communion bowl of the Christian community there are some strong opinions about the book, for good and for ill. But putting aside the book for a moment and any arguments surrounding its symbolism, the film adaptation stands on its own as simply a good movie. Book-to-film adaptations, while aiming to please the readers, must also be good movies that entertain and pull the audience in whether they’ve read the book or not.
The film is especially powerful and moving with its use of visual, subtextual storytelling and its earnest attempt to make Mack, played by Sam Worthington, believable and plausible in how a person would react to such a horrific-yet-extraordinary journey. (That’s all the film review I’ll write; the interview will explain more.)
In my interview with Stuart–whom I found to be very inspiring and insightful (which gives me hope for Hollywood’s future)–we discuss his experience of directing the film, the art of visual storytelling, the interesting creative opportunities that come with adapting a story like “The Shack” for the big screen, and even theology, grief, and some C. S. Lewis for good measure:
What did you personally find interesting about “The Shack” story?
Well, there’s my interest as a filmmaker and my interest as a person. As a filmmaker, I was interested by the fact that film is a visual medium. But if you wanna make anything that relates to faith, your problem is God is invisible. Your biggest character is off-screen.
So, coming across a story like “The Shack” that imagines, that comes up with a premise where a human being can meet God in a visual way in a place between Earth and Heaven and actually physically relate and converse with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–that was very intriguing to me as a filmmaker, opened a lot of doors of possibility. And I think just from a sort of a faith perspective and theological perspective, I loved the idea being able to actually have theological dialogues with God and ask the questions that we all, in our heart of hearts, wanna ask, like, “Why is suffering part of our lives? Why do we have to go through the pain we have to go through?”
Yes, we can pray. Yes, God can speak back to us. But I’m betting there isn’t a single one of us who wouldn’t trade that for physically sitting with Jesus next to the Lake of Galilee and actually having a beer with Him for a couple of hours and asking Him all the questions we’ve always wanted to ask. And in a way, that’s what “The Shack” story allows for.
So I thought that was the fascinating. Movies are about wish-fulfillment, very often, “What if I could fly, what if I could time travel or be 12 again?” And that’s the great wish-fulfillment of the person of faith, I think, is to actually be with our Father and the Creator and ask those questions that you’ve always wanted to ask.
I relate to what you said. I’ve daydreamed many times about exactly what Mack goes through in the story. So, it’s kind of like stepping into one of your daydreams watching this movie.
And for me, the touchstone, interestingly–I was surprised about what I related to in the film because my dad just passed away in January, and I was like, “Uh oh, here we go,” am I gonna hold myself together for this movie–but the thing that I really connected to was Sam’s performance. I connected to his anger, his skepticism the most. That helped me get into the story and open myself to it. I’m sure you were trying to balance all that, but as a director, what did you feel was important to convey as you’re trying to make this story work and feel plausible?
Well, it was definitely true, as you say, that the emotional journey of Mack had to be as authentic as possible. If you Disney-fy it and you cut corners, in terms of how a human being would respond in a grief situation, a situation of deep grief and depression, people are just gonna call that out. They’re just gonna say, “That’s not how it would be.” So it was very important for Sam and for myself that we didn’t go the cliché route and that we just stayed as close to the raw emotional that is possible and that Mack was able to say the things that we think that we would say in that scenario.
Though, obviously, it gets a little bit more speculative when you’re getting into God’s responses. [Laughs]
We have a fair amount from scripture and obviously some of those things have been recalibrated and repackaged, but I think Paul Young honestly believed that he’s not trying to put words in God’s mouth that God wouldn’t say just because you changed the way that God gives an answer than the way He did in scripture. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re changing the meaning of it.
It’s a whole different scenario. This is a twenty-first century man meeting God who is customizing Himself to enter to meet and deal with the needs of this particular guy coming from this particular culture at this particular time and dealing with these particular emotions. So it’s very specialized, customized parenting and if the person who came to “The Shack” was a different kind of person with a different kind of pain, different kind of personality issue or a block with God, maybe God would have parented differently. It wouldn’t have changed His underlying character, but the way that God dealt with that would have been differently because we parent all our children differently.
Yeah, it’s an amazing [idea]…I mean Christianity is radical, just saying, “God is personal” is revolutionary. How did you first hear about “The Shack” novel in your own timeline with doing this movie?
Back when the book was a sort of a two million selling phenomenon. Actually, a two million selling hit, not as a huge phenomenon that it became, a twenty-two million seller. There was an early attempt to make a much lower budget fully faith-based version, nothing to do with a Hollywood studio. And the person who wanted to direct that at the time was someone who knew me and so he called me and said, “Have you heard of ‘The Shack’ and would you be interested to adapt it?” So I had been hearing people talking about “The Shack” in the church that I attend in London and it was an opportunity for me to finally dip into the book [laughs].
And I loved the cinematic side of it, I loved the wish-fulfillment side of it. But it was also a very talky book. It’s a lot of sort of conversations with God. Each chapter is like having a conversation with a different member of the Trinity about a different subject, and “This is great!” I thought, but to me, it was a bit more like a C. S. Lewis book “The Great Divorce” than it is say Narnia. Just the pure plot element that you want in a movie wasn’t there quite so strongly.
So, at the time, I said “no” for that reason and a few others. But then a few years later when the book had sold a lot more copies, a big producer, film-master picked up the rights and he made lots of pie on the “Blind Side” and I had worked for Gil ten years before so we had a working relationship, we knew each other. And I was talking on the phone with him about doing some writing on some other projects and he just slipped into the end of the conversation, “Oh, and I have this thing called ‘The Shack.'” And I was like, “Yeah, I was kind of offered that a few years ago.” And he said, “Oh, so, what, you’re religious?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I go to church. I’m kind of interested in that kind of area.”
And he just sent it to me kind of just out of intrigue just to see what I thought of it. So I kind of got sucked in because the script was, I could suddenly see the vision of the movie in the script. So, I thought it was really working. Second half was still a little talky, but I could see the finish line. I could see where it needed to go. And I started giving my notes to him, like ideas and etcetera. I wasn’t officially sort of pitching myself to rewrite it, but I felt like I was when I was writing it.
And then about nine months after that, the opportunity to direct the movie came open. And I happen to be in Los Angeles, so I met with Gil, then I met with the studio and I just said, “Here’s how I would direct it.” And I guess they kind of felt like they should take that chance on a young director like me [laughs]. And I think it turned out okay.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And when you said about “The Great Divorce”–I just read “The Great Divorce”–I completely understand that it would be hard making something like that into a film. What were you excited about, as far as the kind of visual ideas that you wanted to bring into it to turn “The Shack” into something more than just a “Great Divorce” talking kind of film?
There was a mantra that Gil and I both had, which was “mystical, not magical.” We didn’t want the movie to be “What Dreams May Come” [the 1998 Robin Williams movie that depicts the after-life] where everything is like hypercolored and everything’s heightened. My pitch for how Papa’s world would come across was simply that it’s a perfect Oregon day, you know the best version of a reality that we know. Everything [in the film] just feels like when sometimes you have those great summer days where you’re just like, “Man, the world couldn’t get any better than this.” But it’s not a different world. It’s just the best of your world. And so I felt like that was important because that’s what God is ultimately restoring Mack to is the best that you can be as a human being. He’s not gonna turn him into an alien or a perfect being. He’s gonna make him back to the best that he can be as a person. So, that’s what God’s world is.
So that was part of it and then I think also, I loved the symbolic, metaphorical possibilities because you’re not 100% in the real world. You’re kind of halfway between Earth and Heaven. It’s a place where–and it was already kind of there in the novel and also in some of the script ideas when I came on board–was the opportunity for Mack’s internal state to manifest externally.
Suddenly, you can have an anxiety attack inside you, but it causes like black water to come spread out from your boat and you feel like you’re sinking or being sucked down into it. So, I liked that, and so I sort of pushed that a little bit more in the script than some of the metaphors, for example, where the cave is kind of like a metaphor for Mack’s heart.
So when Jesus says, “I can’t. This part only you can take alone.” And Mack says, “Well, I thought you told me you’d be with me everywhere and now you’re telling me to go in there alone.” Well, the reason you can go in there alone is because he’s going into his own heart and he shut God out of his heart. That’s why God won’t follow. But once he comes through that process in his heart, a warming process of getting out of his stony cold judgementalism and he puts his weapons down and says “I don’t want to be the judge anymore,” suddenly light and water flood in and it’s like the cave comes to life and that’s when he can see Missy.
So when he comes back out of that cave, you see that there is a waterfall coming out of the cave, kind of like the story at the beginning, and that’s just to symbolize that the rock has come to life. You could look at it from the perspective like it’s Moses touching the rock and the water coming out. There’s a lot of Biblical allusions there with the mountains and the flowing water. But I felt like that is Mack’s heart and that’s the crux of the movie is what happens in the cave.
So awesome. Yeah, I love the visuals. And it really does help the heart get into it, like when C. S. Lewis wrote about the need to “sneak past watchful dragons” [of cold, familiar ritual–to get the heart past the cold barriers of lifeless talking, religious ritual and abstraction]. The visuals really get under you skin, and it’s cool to hear your perspective on it. What is it like being a director of a big movie like this and what’s the experience like overall?
[Laughs] Well, there’s always a lot to think about, a lot of problems to solve and a lot of moving parts. This movie, I think, is quite unique compared to most movies because on most movies, the director comes in with a very strong point of view, especially if it’s more than original. And everybody sort of follows the director. He’s kind of the artistic boss. On this project, it just felt like, the theme of the book is about doing things together. It’s about relationships and the circle of relationships.
And there are a lot of people on this movie who had a strong point of view. Obviously, Paul Younghad a strong point of view. You had Brad Cummings, who was one of the collaborators on the book, who was a producer on the movie. Gil Netter is very experienced and really had a strong point of view about Mack and the emotion of the story and a lot of points of view about the individuals as well. So, really I would just kind of coming in to sort of lead a team. We were a team making a movie.
And that was the right way to do it because it wasn’t right that it all just be like my way or the highway. So I felt like the way that we did it was right. But also, that takes more time because you’re always sort of discussing internally how you should do everything. And every time you want to change a line from the book or you want a drop a moment from the book, there’s like, “What do we all think of that? What are the book fans gonna think of that?” So, there was a lot of discussion that we had, but ultimately I think it pulled through.
“The Shack” is now available to purchase in the U.S. wherever DVD, BLU-RAY™ films are sold or where digital streaming is available.
Also, you can listen to my podcast of this interview at the Stabs of Joy podcast, episode 5 of Season 2, which features some additional commentary and the full audio of my conversation with Stuart.