I recently sat down and started to read the bestselling book, The Insanity of God, and found that while it was easy to pick up, it was nearly impossible to put down. The book is part life-story of Nik Ripken (not his real name) and his family, telling how they wound up as missionaries/relief workers in Somalia during the 1990’s, when the civil war was raging. It goes on to explore how watching the tiny Christian population try to survive in the middle of unimaginable difficulties changed him, and after leaving Africa, the calling he had on his life to try and learn more about the struggles of the persecuted church in the world – a calling that led him to many different “closed” countries – where he interviewed dozens of Christians for whom persecution was a part of daily life.
The book deals with real persecution, not the “Starbucks red coffee cup” kind of persecution most of us know in the west. Needless to say, the book is a challenging read, and is important to read so that we can better understand what our brothers and sisters are experiencing in other countries.
I was thrilled when I read that Lifeway Films, in partnership with the International Mission Board, was making a documentary based on the book. Real-life stories like this are much more inspiring and challenging then the fiction accounts of American persecution that we’ve seen in theaters over the past several years, and this is one of the first major films of its kind, a documentary exploring the trials of Christians around the world.
A bit of research led me to some more thrilling news when I found out that Phil Cooke was attached to the project as an executive producer. I’ve followed Phil for many years, and have long enjoyed his perspective on faith and the arts. I wasted no time contacting Phil to see if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the film, and he was gracious enough to take the time to do so.
THIMBLERIG’S INTERVIEW WITH PHIL COOKE
Why don’t we start with a little bit about you, Phil. Who are you, where did you come from, what do you do now, and how have you gotten to do it?
I’m a pastor’s kid from Charlotte, NC who never had a call to preach myself. However, as a teenager, I loved to make films. My friends and I took my dad’s Super-8 movie camera and produced war movies, mafia movies, space movies – all kinds of terrible films. I went to college as a music major (remember, I was a preacher’s kid), but a student in my dorm saw my film reels and invited me to the film department to learn to edit. A professor was there who asked if he could show one of my films in his class. When the film ended, it started a discussion, and the thought occurred to me that if I can do something with a camera that makes people talk like this – then that’s what I’m supposed to do with my life. I’ve never looked back, and today I’m the founder of Cooke Pictures, a media production and consulting company in Los Angeles.
Who have been some of your biggest spiritual or theological influences?
My father was a huge influence on me. He was a great student, had multiple graduate degrees, and taught me the value of reading. My first job out of college was an assistant film editor on Francis Schaffer’s famous film series “How Should We Then Live?” So I became a huge fan of this thinking. Then I worked with Oral Roberts at the peak of his media ministry. But probably the most influential influence has been our long time pastor in Los Angeles, Jack Hayford. In my book, he could be the Protestant Pope.
How about your biggest creative influences?
As long as I remember I’ve gravitated toward creativity. As a kid, I was always the guy who wrote the sketches for “skit night” at camp. As far as influences, I take in everything. I study advertising, I’m a museum hound, a movie buff, and a hardcore reader.
What are your three “desert island” films?
That’s a tough one, because I don’t think of films in that way. But three I couldn’t live without would probably be The Godfather, The Seventh Seal, and Citizen Kane. I’m also a big fan of campy science fiction films from the 50’s and 60’s.
Speaking of films, you’ve produced two that are coming out in the next couple of months, with The Insanity of God playing in theaters on August 30 and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise releasing on September 16. Starting with The Insanity of God, what can you tell us about this film?
Nik Ripken was a long time missionary in Somalia, but when his son died in the field, he began to question what it was all about. Traveling to the most desperate places on the earth, Nik began to see things he’d never realized before – especially the levels of Christian persecution that are out there. Another producer, Craig Martin brought the book to my attention, and we felt it was a story that needed to be told.
Reading The Insanity of God, a book which so clearly portrays the suffering of the persecuted church, had a profound effect on me. If you are willing, can you talk about the impact producing this film has had on you?
During the filming, I had a number of moments where I saw just how unserious I have been about the gospel. In America, we launch a boycott when we can’t say a prayer at the beginning of a high school football game. But overseas, people are being raped, beaten, tortured, and beheaded everyday for their faith. Their commitment is so far beyond anything I’ve ever had to give.
Considering all of the talk we hear in America about the loss of religious freedoms, what would you say a film like The Insanity of God has to say the American church?
First – we need to do more to help. These are our brothers and sisters, and we can’t sit idly by and continue watching. Second – although right now it’s nothing like what’s happening overseas, believe it, it’s coming our way. There’s no question in my mind that we’re seeing Christianity being more and more marginalized in our culture, and I don’t think it will be long before it gets very serious. I’m reminded of the recent quote by Catholic Cardinal Francis George: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”
Turning to your other film, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise is a much different film, and has been billed as a “theatrical worship experience.” Can you unpack that idea a bit?
I’ve been a long time friend of Pastor Brian Houston and his leadership team at Hillsong Church and had the opportunity to teach the entire church staff in Sydney a few years ago. Their worship band, Hillsong United has sold out the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, and Red Rocks, and is one of the most popular bands in the world. In our research for the movie, we discovered that 50 million people sing Hillsong music every Sunday! So producer Jon Bock first developed the concept, and I helped raise the money, and we started working. Essentially, the movie is a behind the scenes look at their most recent world tour.
What were some of the challenges and joys of making a feature-length film about a worship band, albeit a very successful worship band?
Money. It’s always money! Feature films simply cost a great deal to produce, market, and distribute that it’s critical that you have an idea that audiences will be interested in, and we believe we have that in Hillsong, which has become a global brand.
Turning from the specific to the general, what are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?
I’ve been involved in both Christian and secular media for a long time, and I’m very gratified to see that Christians are finally understanding the importance of telling a story well. In the past, most Christian producers got so wrapped up in the message, they often put that message inside a very unappealing package. But today we live in the most distracted culture in history, and the competition is simply too great. How we tell the story is just as important as the story we tell.
Do you have any advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – faith-based or otherwise?
Yes – be the best at whatever you do. In Hollywood, nobody cares if you’re a Christian or if God called you to make a movie. But if you’re a great actor, director, writer, or whatever – that will get their attention. Once they respect your talent, they’re more likely to be interested in what you believe.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share with us? What’s on the burner?
Our company – Cooke Pictures – is largely a client driven media production and consulting company, so we’re always involved in amazing projects. Just a few of our current clients include The Salvation Army, the YouVersion Bible App, and The Museum of the Bible (opening in Washington, DC in 2017). Beyond that, we’re talking to a number of major secular networks about television projects. Honestly, my great passion is feature documentaries. I wish more Christians understood that with a limited budget, a fascinating documentary can be far more influential than a badly produced drama.
Finally, where are the best places people can go to keep up-to-date about your activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?
To find a theater near you that will be showing The Insanity of God, take a look here.
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise will have a wide release on September 16.