Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Cooke, Producer of The Insanity of God and Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

14978955I 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?

2015132Cooke-1167edit 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?

4817_the-insanity-of-god-poster_AC09Nik 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?

hillsong_let_hope_rise_xlgI’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?

IMG_0873I’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?

Phil at CBSOur 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)?

My blog is at philcooke.com, I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @philcooke, and I’m on Facebook as well.

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.

The Problem with Faith-Based Movies is that they are Faith-Based Movies

FaithbasedMovies_Chart_309x550_1I recently read a story over at The Wrap cleverly titled, “Faith-Based Movies’ Box Office Goes To Hell” that reported that the more recently released so-called “faith-based” films did not repeat the box office success of the springtime’s Son of God, God’s Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real.   You can see the little chart that they made over on the right.

Among people, the article quoted  Phil Cooke, who put forward the contention that films made with faith-based themes (as with any films aiming to connect with a subculture) would do better to wave a flag stating clearly that the film contains Christian values, so that the subculture can recognize that the film is okay for them to view.

I respect Phil Cooke, having had some interaction with him over the past couple of years, and I agree that what he is suggesting makes sense from a bottom-line point of view, but (and you might call me naïve) I’m tired of looking at filmmaking by Christians from the bottom-line point of view.

That’s what Hollywood has been doing since Passion of the Christ, and it’s not resulted in many better made films made by Christians – it’s mainly resulted in more and more films that succeed in preaching to the choir.  The sign of whether or not they are successful?  The infernal bottom-line – because the successful ones get the church bottoms in the seats, and that is all that matters.

Church, the fact that we expect this from our filmmakers – and that we don’t support them if they don’t package their films in a way in which we can approve – borders on sin.

Think about it.  One of the clearest commands in Scripture is Matthew 28:19, where Jesus calls his followers to go out into the world and make disciples.  But with our filmmakers, we’re happy for them to keep it in the bubble.  We want our filmmakers to massage us, make us feel good, make the sinful world look bad, and help us in our attempts to ostracize ourselves from the rest of society.

If you are in the church, and that is true for you, I have a few very important reflection questions for you:

When will we (the church) wake up and release our filmmakers to go out into the world?  When will we tell them to get out there and stop worrying about the subculture – just make good movies that draw all kinds of people?  After all, we release our missionaries – and support them financially – to go to the corners of the globe and do all sorts of things – medicine, engineering, teaching, social activism.  We do this because we trust that they will be living out their Christian faith as they serve the people to whom they’re called, that they will be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), that they will represent us – and Christ – with honor and distinction.

But we don’t trust our filmmakers to do the same thing.  When will this change?

When will we stop requiring them to raise a banner that identifies them clearly before we agree to support them?  When will our mission-minded churches start to seek out filmmakers laboring in the fields outside the bubble to see how we can support their vision – and not just our own?

Now, if you are a filmmaker and you are reading this, I have a few important things to tell you:

You need to know that there are lots and lots of us in the church that want you to be the next Christopher Nolan, or the next Katherine Bigelow, or the next Tomm Moore, or the next Steve McQueen, or the next George Lucas.  We want you to make the big summer blockbusters and we want you to make the quiet art house films, we want you to be nominated for best original screenplay or best actress or best director or best picture.  We don’t really care if you are nominated for a Dove Award.  We don’t really care if you get the Newsboys or Audio Adrenaline to perform on the soundtrack.  We will rise up and call you blessed if you don’t involve Duck Dynasty at all.

What do we want from you?  We want you to be setting the standard for excellence in filmmaking.  We want to be able to look up at you and smile with the knowledge that you are one of ours, laboring away in the fields of the film industry, confident in the knowledge that you are where you are because the God of Heaven placed you there.  Praying for you to have an impact on the corner of the world He’s given you to have an impact upon.

And yes, I do understand that you want to feed your family.  I understand that you have to pay your student loans.  And I understand that the Christian subculture can potentially give huge returns to small investments.

But do it the same way everyone else does it – by becoming excellent at your craft.  Let the Hollywood producers worry about tapping into the faith based crowd, because they don’t really care if you are the one they’re pushing or if it’s someone from outside the family (Evan Almighty, anyone?  Man of Steel, anyone?  Did anyone see the way they pushed Aronofsky’s Noah?  And get ready for the push to support the famously irreligious Sir Ridley Scott and his Exodus).

Forget about all of that, and just make really good movies.

Personally, I’m thinking of writing a faith-based screenplay that focuses on a non-Christian Hollywood producer trying to make a faith-based film.  It could be one of the most entertaining comedies of the last ten years, and I could even add “Based on a True Story” as a title card.

Post Scriptum – I am not opposed to films made for the Christian subculture.  I just wish we could give as much energy and support to those films being made for secular audiences by believers as we do to those being made for us.

Post Post Scriptum – I just found out that Willie Robertson is executive producing the upcoming Left Behind film with Nicolas Cage.

I don’t have words.