He’s Looking for a Good Story: A Conversation with Ralph Winter, Producer of X-Men and Fantastic Four

An abridged edition of my conversation with producer Ralph Winter was originally published at CT Movies.

While the bustling activity of the Biola Media Conference went on outside, we took refuge in an unoccupied office for an hour, sat and ate our sack lunches, talked about movies, and then went our separate ways as friends. Ralph’s that kind of guy — you can’t help but be impressed at how personable, direct, smart, and generous he is.

And now… here’s the entire interview.

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You’ve gotta respect a guy who can boss the X-Men around without fearing the wrath of Wolverine.

Ralph Winter is a towering, authoritative figure in stature and in reputation as a producer of Hollywood blockbusters. He’s earned the attention and applause of audiences, actors, film crews, and film studios for producing such favorites as X-Men, X-2: X-Men United, the Planet of the Apes remake, and two of the most beloved Star Trek films (IV and VI). He also produced the Left Behind movie, and the as-yet-unreleased adaptation of Frank Peretti’s The Visitation. The preview for his latest project, Fantastic Four, dazzled audiences in the moments before Star Wars, Episode Three hit screens around the world.

But there’s more to this big-screen businessman than business. He has a heart to help artists grow and excel, contributing to endeavors at Act One: Writing for Hollywood (a program for aspiring Christian screenwriters), and the media communications program at Biola University, and he devotes himself to the art of short-films, cultivating a dynamic community of up-and-coming artists.

Moreover, he’s a man outspoken about his faith.

Craig Detweiler, who writes and teaches about faith and film from his vantage point on the edge of Hollywood, says Winter reached this level of accomplishment and influence “by being good.”

Okay, he’s good, but what sets him apart? Detweiler explains: “If you go to Ralph Winter’s office, he has posters up for all of his films. They have signatures [and messages] from all of the crew. You’ll see the depth of feeling from the actors, the level of appreciation. It’s not like, ‘Ralph, hey, that was fun.’ It’s like, ‘Ralph, I couldn’t have survived without you. Ralph, you made a difference to me when it mattered. Ralph, you were the glue that held this production together.’ There is a depth of respect engendered from the way he has carried himself. It goes far beyond what happens onscreen. The power is in the interpersonal testimony more than the finished product.”

Barbara Nicolosi grants Winter something akin to superhero status, calling him “a talented, experienced and reliable professional. He is one of the handful of men who can line-produce $150 million projects, and bring them in on time and on budget. He has wrangled the most temperamentally difficult actors and directors, and has managed to get the best results possible out of them.”

She adds, “Ralph is important to the Christian community of Hollywood, because he is a living breathing witness of what it takes for Christians to acquire power and influence here. [He’s] a wonderful combination of professionalism and integrity, and godliness. He has made it to the highest level in Hollywood, without losing his faith in Jesus, and without the kind of nauseating rationalizations that many Christians eventually make to achieve success here.”

To talk with Winter is to quickly discern some of the secrets of his success. He speaks with the confidence and authority of experience, and he cuts right to the quick of a matter.

CT Movies caught Winter as Fantastic Four moved into post-productions and X-3 headed into pre-production. (For an extended version of this interview, visit Looking Closer.) But what he wanted to talk about surprised us—a big screen adaptation that hasn’t yet shown up on mainstream-press radar….

Web geeks and movie buffs are buzzing with speculation about X-3 in development, especially considering you’ve got a new director on board. Can you give us a hint of what we can look forward to? Will it still be released in Summer 2006, as originally planned?

We will definitely be out on May 26 next year—no problem. We have a much better script than the previous installments of X-Men and that is exciting. Bryan had envisioned this as a trilogy, and now with Brett Ratner aboard, we will deliver a compelling third movie. We are all pumped about it.

Will the cast we know and love be back for another round?

They’ll come back. They’ve all become busy stars. If Ian [McKellan] wants to do it, he’ll make it happen. He’s got to make some choices.

But first, you’re releasing another superhero flick—Fantastic Four. What about Fantastic Four most excites you?

Fantastic Four is a very good movie and will play younger than everyone thinks—I believe that is very good. We have a dysfunctional family that learns to work together, accepting their new powers, but learning to think and act as a family and a team.

Comic book movies are a hit-and-miss genre; some of them dig deep into substantial themes, like your X-Men films, and others seem to be just empty entertainment. But they seem to be more popular than ever. What, in your opinion, is the primary draw of comic book films?

Our culture wants to see heroes. This story of Fantastic Four is the origin story, the story of how an everyday person, Reed Richards, has his life changed by this cosmic storm, and gains these powers. How is he going to use them? That’s a theme through all of Marvel’s stuff, from X-Men’s mutants to whatever. How are we going to live now that we have these changes in our life? That’s always a pretty interesting story. What if this everyday person was thrust into this situation of potential greatness and harm, and what are the choices they’re gong to make?

Ultimately, it’s about us. What would we do? What are the choices we would make in that situation? Okay, you’re the President of the United States: What are you going to do? What was easy to criticize from afar now becomes a personal struggle for you as president. And to draw people into that for two hours is pretty interesting. When we do the best job at those movies, it resonates with people. Spider-man and Spider-man 2 were pretty good at that. ‘What is happening to my body?’ I thought that whole discovery process with him was fascinating.

It’s been almost a year since The Passion of the Christ came out. There has been so much press about how Hollywood ‘learned a lesson’ about audiences and Christian-themed material. Do you think we really will see things change? What will happen?

I think the studios will say, ‘Oh, I think we can do this!’ and try to unleash every cheesy little thing they can do. I didn’t see the TV show ‘Revelations,’ but that seems like a clear jump-on-the-bandwagon thing.

That stuff might illicit some good questions. The studios clearly see it as a marketing opportunity. That’s why this Purpose-Driven Life project is so interesting.

You’re making The Purpose-Driven Life into a movie?

Rupert Murdoch [of 20th Century Fox] comes to us and says, ‘Let’s do it. Come on. Let’s make it. I’ll fund it.’

How are you going to turn this non-fiction, inspirational volume of life-principles into a movie?

You’ve got to create a story. If you think Grand Canyon, that’s probably a good place to start. Find disparate stories that converge and illustrate [one or two of the] principles, find good characters.

That’s why I’m a fan of doing a small movie, getting a couple million dollars, and get out there and try an experiment, put our toe in the water with this. If [the first Purpose-Driven movie] works, well, you’ve got thirty-nine films to make, or twelve more principles, or however many you want.

There are some who are worried about getting a big theatrical release. But let’s write the script first, and let’s see what that tells us about how big or how small it will be.

So, it could be rather like The Decalogue—Krzysztof Kieslowski’s series of ten short films illustrating how the ten commandments play out in our everyday lives.

Kieslowski died the same year that we’d invited him to the Fuller festival to show his trilogy, Blue, White, and Red. But he had a way of speaking Biblical truth into the culture that wasn’t offensive. It was inspiring. It was interesting. Everybody wanted to know what he was talking about.

So your focus is shifting to X3 and the Purpose-Driven project. Anything else in the works?

[We’re] finishing the prep on X3 and start shooting in August. We also have an active development slate, with various projects in different stages. Purpose-Driven Life should start writing soon, everything else is in place. I have a heist movie, Breaking the Box, that is in rewrites. And we have three other movie scripts and one television series we are pitching around town. So I’m quite busy with travel back and forth, and trying to sell these new ideas and concepts.

You’re involved in such a variety of projects. Most of them are action-oriented, but even those seem “purpose-driven,” if you will—grounded in important questions and ideas. What are some of the films that have inspired you or broadened your own personal vision?

I thought American Beauty was a great movie in the way that it asked questions, the multi-layered effect. Christians rejected the film without even knowing what it was. But I love how it digs down into that story.

Rob Johnston, in his new book Useless Beauty, helped me a lot with his analysis. He looks at how the questions that the writer of American Beauty, Allan Ball, has in that movie are similar the questions of Ecclesiastes. What is beauty? Is it that odorless beautiful rose, or is it that plastic bag? What Rob proposes is the notion of common grace: As opposed to what we thought before, where we read the Bible and then understand culture through that grid, what if you reverse it? What if by watching American Beauty, you gain deeper insight into the Book of Ecclesiastes?

Isn’t that similar to the nature of Jesus’ parables? They make us look at scripture, and at our lives, in new, sometimes bewildering ways.

Yes, and they’re never about God on the surface.

Why is it such a rare occasion these days that Christian art and entertainment really captivates an audience?

[Christians] want to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and make sure it’s uber-clear what’s happened by the end of the story. We’ve lost the ability to create mystery and wonder.

Movies are not good at giving answers. Movies are great at asking questions. Movies that do that are lasting.

I love the movie Gladiator. Gladiator is inspiring. It’s a wonderful journey of someone who is sort of an also-ran in the process, but who aspires to greatness and asks the huge questions. It seems to be about ‘Win the crowd and win your freedom.’ But I think that movie is truly about love, and not just about choosing. Even when Commodus smothers his dad, what is it that he says? ‘If you would have loved me, ‘I would have butchered the whole world.’ He wants love as well—in a different sense than Maximus, but it is about love at some level.

When you talk about the need for Christians in Hollywood, are you talking about screenwriters, primarily?

In writing and directing, we just don’t have the material. We don’t have the talent.

It takes time to develop and cultivate material and get it out there. Some of the movies we’ve been able to do at FOX—they’re due to having some Christians in that organization who stir up that stuff inside the organization. We need Christians inside the studio.

We need more Christian agents who are out there developing and finding material, cultivating it, [people] with moderate integrity. We need good examples in all areas of business.

The people at Act One, like Barbara Nicolosi, are doing that. Scott Derrickson’s … written for Jerry Bruckheimer, Wim Wenders, and Martin Scorsese. Now he’s written and directed his own piece called The Exorcism of Emily Rose, with Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson, and it’s good. He’s one of the guys who is the epitome of up-and-coming directors. We need more like him.

Some of these are R-rated films, due to their language, their violence, their sexuality. What do you say to Christians who object to the whole idea of R-rated material?

Don’t read the Bible! It’s R-rated too! That’s more of a cultural problem, though. How we separate our cultural religion in America from true faith in Christ is always going to be a struggle, I think… politically and in the arts.

But there are a lot of films with gratuitous ugliness and misbehavior on the screen. How do you distinguish between responsible and irresponsible portrayals of evil?

It’s about the integrity of the story. What is it that is integral to the story, that is necessary in order for the story to be told? I don’t know how to make a PG version of Braveheart. Mel Gibson took a risk with The Passion… and made the R-rated thing that it probably was in real life. We can argue about ‘Where’s that line?’ But crucifixion is a gruesome thing. How do you tell a mafia story without the language? How do you tell Braveheart without that kind of violence? Not everyone has to go see it, but that’s the story.

The violence in The Passion—we’ve rehearsed that violence throughout the history of the church. This won’t be the time to catch people off guard. They’re ready for it.

Nobody wants to admit that we live in an R-rated world. Just in Iraq, for example, it’s violent, it’s awful, it’s ugly.

On the other hand … maybe the story doesn’t deserve to be told. Maybe people are telling stories they don’t need to tell. I don’t think we need to see every movie. A movie has become a product… something we consume without even thinking about it. It takes a lot for movies to stand out for us, to rise above the noise level. People don’t pursue it from that artistic standpoint. They pursue it from a commercial standpoint. That’s the danger of being sucked in. We become part of the culture, making stuff that has no redeeming value. Only our great storytellers can [nourish] us.

You somehow manage to give us action movies that have moments of quiet, meaningful, human relationship amidst the special effects. How do you pull that off?

You invest those scenes with information that is valuable in pushing on the structure of the story. You’ve got to ‘go guerilla’ with the subterfuge of that. [The writer’s] got to be clever about how he writes those scenes, so that there’s such valuable information coming out to push on the plot that, if you’re a studio executive, you have to endure that.

One more question—perhaps the most important of all: In a street fight, who would win: The Fantastic Four, or the Incredibles?

In a street fight, the Fantastic Four might take ‘em, since they have been around since the 60’s. We like to think of the Incredibles as derivative, and that we are the original deal. I put my money on Reed Richards and his gang

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Justin

    I prefer watching Jon Stewart over the real news. He’s great.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Well Woman, I’m looking forward to hearing more from you. You know, I’ve never been to Damah, usually because festivals don’t work very well with my schedule. Full-time day-job and all. But I have seen a “best-of” collection that they showed at Bumbershoot.

    Jason, I was just a mild-mannered reporter with a notebook, in a land of giants. But my ego thanks you. :)

  • jasdye

    Jeffrey,

    Again, great interview. Biola sounded great. Wall-to-wall heroes, you being one of ‘em.

    Ohhh, stop blushing.

  • Bar Bar A

    Hey Jeffrey, glad I found your blog. Glad you got to meet and interview Ralph I loved what he had to say. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him when he was a juror for a film festival I volunteer for, The Damah Film Festival.

    I had several friends at the Media Conference at Biola, heard it was great.

    Take care. I’ll be back :)


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