Journalist Paula Zahn once remarked that Phil Cooke is rare because he’s a working film producer in Hollywood with a degree in theology. Not only that, Phil has produced media programming in nearly 50 countries around the world. Phil says that during the process, he has been “shot at, survived two military coups, fallen out of a helicopter, and been threatened with prison.”
In addition to writing four books, Phil provides insightful cultural commentary at his blog. He also provided plenty of insight into the intersection between Christians and film in this interview, where we talk about cursing and sex in movies, cheesy Christian films, and the quality of The Bible miniseries.
1. So Phil, recently you wrote, “I have a [feeling] that we lost much of the quality in Christian art when it was determined that everything needed to be ‘family friendly.’” I want to ask you a few questions about that. First, do you think Christian-produced movies about real people who would normally use curse words should include curse words?
Outside of films created especially for kids, why wouldn’t we include profanity when that’s the way a character would honestly talk? I’m not a fan of being gratuitous with profanity, sex, violence or anything else, but I believe one of the biggest reasons the culture marginalizes Christianity is that too many of us live in an artificial bubble that shouldn’t actually exist. Keep in mind some of the Bible isn’t terribly “family safe.” Just try to make a film about David delivering 100 Philistine foreskins to King Saul (1 Samuel 18:25-27). Or try to explain much of the Song of Solomon to your kids. God treats us as grown-ups, which is why I find it strange that we often treat each other like children.
2. Do you think there’s an appropriate way for Christian-produced films to explore sexuality in a positive way?
The term “sexuality” is so broad that it’s tough to answer. For instance, I think you could have a very deep and significant exploration of sexuality without showing explicit nudity. Sexual questions are one of the most challenging issues in our culture today, and if we don’t start looking at it from a Christian perspective, plenty of other perspectives will fill up that space. While we’re talking about sexuality, let me add that I believe pornography is the greatest scourge to ever hit our culture. I worry about a generation of today’s kids that have such easy access to porn online and on mobile devices. What will their expectations about sex be when all they’ve seen are online porn, explicit music videos, and sexually explicit advertising?
3. Films like Courageous feel like Christian versions of Lifetime movies to me, but I’ve heard it said that we should buy tickets because a church produced it. Do you feel like Christians should support films just because other Christians produced them?
The worst reason in the world to buy tickets to a movie is because we’re “supposed” to support it. Good art and entertainment should stand on its own, and when we have to prop it up — even out of good intentions — it doesn’t help create better art.
I know the Kendrick brothers (producers of Courageous) and their goal isn’t to make mainstream theatrical films for the secular audience. Their goal is to make films specifically for the Christian audience, so it’s tough to compare them with other efforts by Christians.
We wouldn’t buy a house that’s falling apart just because Christians built it. We wouldn’t have brain surgery by a well-intentioned, but unqualified, Christian doctor. In the same way, we shouldn’t support bad Christian art of any kind.
4. I assume you watched The Bible miniseries. How many stars out of four would you give it and why?
I don’t rate movies and TV programs. And although there were plenty of issues with The Bible miniseries, there’s no question it tapped a nerve in the culture. On the day it broke TV audience records, I received calls from reporters at The Christian Science Monitor, NBC News and the Associated Press, all baffled that anyone would be interested in a TV program about the Bible. I simply told them that for years, TV networks had gone out of their way to create programming for special interest groups like the gay community, environmentalists, feminists and others. But Pew Research indicates there’s more than 90 million evangelical Christians in America, which makes us the biggest special interest group of all. So there’s no surprise millions of people tuned into that series.
That got their attention.
Also remember that it was the first major Bible story project since Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The majority of issues with The Bible series were simply the result of its vast scope. A full TV series is a lot of hours of special effects, shooting in difficult places, a huge cast, massive logistics and more. I can just tell you from being a producer myself, with something that big, you’re bound to have a “ninja angel” slip in there somewhere!
5. If a wealthy Christian benefactor came to you with $250 million and said, “Phil, here’s some money to produce a solid film with a Christian message,” what would that film be?
The story of William Tyndale — the man who translated the Bible into English. Before you call me crazy, let me explain: This was during a time when people were being burned at the stake for reading the Bible in English. The Catholic Church of the time had outlawed common people reading the Bible in their own language, and the King supported it — viciously. William Tyndale was so committed to the idea of everyone being able to read the Bible, he was willing to forsake marriage and family, and live his adult life in hiding and on the run. He lived with smugglers in Antwerp, Belgium, who taught him how to smuggle the printed pages of his translation into England. His presses were raided multiple times, and eventually he was betrayed by his best friend, given an unfair trial and sentenced to death. While he was being burned at the stake, his last words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” And within about 70 years, the 1611 King James Version was authorized, which literally changed the world. A few years ago, Life magazine published a list of 100 events of the last thousand years that had the most impact on the world.
Number one on the list was the printing of the King James Bible.
I believe that is such a powerful, historical story of adventure, suspense, horror and emotion that, if well written and produced in a stylish, big-budget way, anyone — believer or unbeliever — would be fascinated by that story. And that’s the key: We can’t just produce stories that appeal to Christians. We need powerful and compelling stories that cross over to all audiences. As C.S. Lewis’ stepson Doug Gresham said a few years ago, “We don’t need more Christian movies. We need more Christians making good movies.”