Interview: Stephen Kendrick (War Room, 2015)

Interview: Stephen Kendrick (War Room, 2015) September 24, 2015

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Stephen Kendrick and his brother Alex made waves in a big way when their second film, Facing the Giants, grossed $10 million nationwide despite being produced on a shoestring by an almost all-volunteer crew. Their next two films were even bigger successes, and now their fifth film — War Room, produced for a reported $3 million — has earned over $50 million in its first four weeks. It has also earned a place in the history books as the first Evangelical Christian movie to be #1 at the box office.

I spoke to Stephen Kendrick shortly before War Room opened in Canadian theatres last week. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

This is the first movie that you and your brother have made since you branched off on your own. You’re not with Sherwood [Pictures] any more, right?

Kendrick: Yes. We still attend the church. This was the first film that we have made with just Kendrick Brothers Productions. We had our pastor’s blessing back in 2013 to launch out, and so we shot this one last year, in 2014, but we still had the church pray over us just a few weeks ago, before the movie hit theatres, and the pastor was asking God to bless the film, and so we’re very excited about what’s happening right now.

So you still have people praying as you shoot the film. Are they still from Sherwood or are they coming from other places as well?

Kendrick: This one, we still had the prayer support of our church. We shot this film in Charlotte, North Carolina, and we had about 85 churches rise up and support us across racial and denominational lines, and many of them were praying for us, and we built some prayer teams where we had people on set praying, and then we also had people by e-mail, that we would send out requests to specifically have praying for us. We had over a thousand people by e-mail that we were e-mailing requests to. So this one, I would say, kind of took the praying support of the church that we’d experienced at Sherwood and exponentially multiplied it.

Is Sherwood Pictures still a thing? I happened to see Woodlawn last night, and I noticed that [Sherwood pastor] Michael Catt’s name was in there as one of the producers. Is Sherwood Pictures still happening at Sherwood or is Michael getting involved with other films on more of a freelance basis?

Kendrick: Right. Michael’s freelance was to be executive producer on that project. He is friends with the Erwins, and also he was saved actually during the Jesus movement, and that movie is about a revival that took place at that school in the Woodlawn area —

In the ’70s, yeah.

Kendrick: Yeah. Michael was personally passionate about that project, so he jumped on board to help them. But as for the second part of your question, Sherwood Pictures, they still cultivate those four films to whatever degree, but they have not worked on any new pictures since we launched out.

Do you still work with mostly volunteer crews, or do you have more professionals on the crew now or even among the cast than you had beore?

Kendrick: With Courageous, it was the first film where we really began to pay our cast. Because the church owned the previous films and we started so small, with such small budgets, people were just volunteering on the cast and crew. By the time we got to Courageous, we were bringing in more outsiders, so any time we would bring in outsiders, we would offer to pay them, and [as for volunteers from] the church, because they were getting the benefit of the income to all the ministries of the church and the mission, the building program and all those things, they knew up-front that they were volunteering and gladly did so. It was actually a great partnership there.

So on Courageous we paid all the actors, because half of them were from outside the church, and then on War Room we paid the actors and the crew. We tried to pay all of them as much or more than what they are used to getting paid for independent projects of our size. We still had, though, different positions that were volunteer positions, and we had people come in, extras in the stands and those kinds of things, and we just invited people and said, if you want to be part of this, this is a volunteer position, it’s up to you. And people have lined up — they want to be a part of this production, they enjoyed doing that — but we tried to take really good care of our cast and crew.

When I visited you guys seven years ago, while you were making Fireproof, there was a lot of talk about how the church’s share of the profits from Facing the Giants had gone to different building projects and things like that. Now that you’re working with your own company, you and your brother, if you see a lot of money coming back from War Room, what is the plan for that?

Kendrick: Two things. One, we want to make more films, so we want to expand what we’re doing. And secondly, we set up an account with the National Christian Foundation, and that is a vehicle for giving back into kingdom causes.

Alex and I started out the whole filmmaking journey as a desire to reach people for Christ and try to impact their lives for him, so we made the decision before Facing the Giants hit theatres — where we realized that a lot of money could come in — that we always had to put kingdom causes above financial gain. So we have made storyline decisions that we knew would cause us to make less money but would impact more people for the Lord, we’ve made distribution decisions that we knew would cause us to make less money but we thought would impact more people.

Even now, even though we are a for-profit company legally, we view it as a ministry. Everything that we’re doing, we’re trying to impact people for the Lord.

How did you settle on this particular topic, for War Room? Your other films were very specifically about issues like marriage, and prayer was a factor in how people dealt with it, and now in War Room that’s sort of reversed. Prayer was in the background of all of your films, and now you’ve brought it into the foreground. How did you make that decision?

Kendrick: With every movie, we will spend a season of prayer just asking God what’s on his heart, and we spent about a year, two years, in prayer, trying to figure out the direction for the next film. And I have a comedy that I’ve been developing, Alex has multiple other storylines that he’s been developing over the years. But we kind of laid all those out and said, “God, what’s on your heart? What do you want us to do here? Which one do you want us to do?” And the redirection that we believe that he gave us was to call my people back to prayer.

Prayer doesn’t sound like a cool hot topic that would cause people to rush to the theatre, stand in line, and buy tickets about prayer. And in churches, we see that getting people to show up for a prayer meeting is a lot more difficult than a concert or service project or just about anything else. So we were thinking, we’re stepping into some unknown territory here that could be as profitable, or it could be a box-office flop, but there was a rightness about it. And so this whole idea of the war room being like a spiritual warfare room, a place of prayer where you get alone with God and you’re making your decisions and you’re dealing with your issues first in prayer.

That whole concept, that analogy, was an idea that kept coming back to Alex as he was praying through what the project should be. With every film though, as we’re working on it and as we complete it and then we look at the finished product, there’s a sense that God has been preparing us for decades to make that film. So I think walking through the stories — with Fireproof and marriage and Courageous and fatherhood and all the background that went into that — I’m sure you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, where in that moment, as he’s being asked those questions, it’s like this guy is so prepared to do this, he looks back and sees all of the elements in his life that were preparing him for that. Well, in Ephesians 2:10, it says that God, when it comes to believers, has been preparing all of us — we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he has prepared in advance for us to do.

And so, when we looked back, we grew up in a praying home, we saw incredible answers to prayer in our parents’ lives, they grew up in praying homes, our father launched a Christian school with nothing, basically he had some people that believed in the project but they had very little resources, and we watched our parents deal with those issues first in prayer, and then when they went out knocking on doors they saw amazing doors answered and resources come in.

Well that’s basically how we launched Sherwood Pictures, and with all five of our films, we sat down and we had a long list of specific things that we were praying for God to provide, and then we would just deal with all those things in prayer first, and then when we went out and began knocking on doors and calling, it was clear that God was going before us and providing the way and sending the resources, and sometimes it wasn’t even when we were knocking on doors, it would be, the phone would ring and somebody would say, “God told me to do this,” and it would be exactly the perfect timing to help us with the next step of the filmmaking.

And so we have been at a praying church, and I’ve been helping to lead the prayer ministry at our church for years, and just seeing how God in scripture, and in Christian history, and then even in our own lives will respond powerfully to prayer if we get our hearts right with him and we’re praying specifically, scripturally and strategically, how we will see him show up in power.

And so, when we started working towards War Room, I had all of these Bible studies and sermons about prayer and praying effectively on my computer that I’ve been working on for years, I had helped to develop some of the tools at our church on how to pray through issues, and with all of the previous books — if you go back and look at The Love Dare or The Resolution for Men — we put prayer strategies in the back of those books, on how to pray for your spouse or your kids. So everything was culminating with War Room specifically about prayer. And so there was this clear sense of rightness, that this is the direction we needed to go, and it was definitely a step of faith, because it didn’t really make sense, when two white guys out in Georgia make a movie about an elderly black woman’s prayer closet.

Well, that was actually going to be my next question. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need for more diversity in film, and coincidentally or not, your fifth film revolves around African-American protagonists. You’ve had African-American supporting characters in your films before, but this is the first time that they’ve really taken centre stage. What went into that decision? What was that based on?

Kendrick: I would say it did not come from external statistics or hearing that we need more minorities in our films or anything like that. It had nothing to do with a politically correct pursuit of diversity. To be honest, the same ideas that Alex had in his head, as he was working on War Room, were always of an African-American couple. We were looking at that, thinking, “Okay, how are we going to pull this off? Because we want it to be authentic, and we don’t want it to be unnecessarily offensive to anybody. So we just want to be very careful in how we handle this.”

I actually sat down with some people in our church — we have the most integrated church in our region, and we have a lot of friends and brothers and sisters in Christ who are African-American — so we sat down with them and said, “What would you counsel us to do as we look into this?” And then as we were developing the script, Alex would talk to T.C. Stallings and Priscilla Shirer and other people as we were continuing to polish the script, even up until we started shooting, saying, “What are the issues that couples fight about in an African-American home? What are the conversations like? How does Hollywood get it wrong, and how do they get it right? And what should we be mindful of?”

So we went into this feeling like it was the right story to be told, and we even had some raised eyebrows with our distributors saying this could really limit the success of the film, if it marginalizes our core audience, who would arguably be primarily white. So we just told them we thought this was where God was leading us to go with this film. But now, when we’re done, we just couldn’t imagine it any other way. Miss Clara just had to be black: the passion, the humour, the wit, all of that, we just felt like would be much more powerful and authentic when spoken through the lens of an African-American elderly woman.

Since the film has come out, there have been some articles that have been a little more critical of the film, and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of them — Christianity Today, for example, ran an article that took issue with some aspects of the screenplay, and other people on the more secular end of things have complained about the idea that a woman has to stay in a bad marriage — the word “abusive” has been used, though I didn’t get the impression that the one in the film was abusive per se. What do you say in response to all that?

Kendrick: Well, concerning the abusive relationship, there is no domestic violence in this film, and it’s funny that when we read those reviews, they were really looking for something to take issue with and write a story about. It’s like a news man trying to find an angle that will sell newspapers, you know? It’s surprising to a certain degree, and then not, in another way. We’ve always had people criticize our filmmaking.

If you go back and look at all of our films, film critics will try to take issue with how overt we are with our Christianity. We quote a Bible verse and they’ll say things like, “They’re punching me in the face with the Bible.” So we expect that, but we are specifically going after an audience that most movies never go after, and we are intentionally going after a Christian audience and specifically the Church. We want to preach to the choir because the choir needs preaching to!

And if you look at how Jesus told stories, when he was speaking to the secular crowds, he intentionally embedded in the subtext the messages of his parables, and would communicate to them only through parables, and if Alex and I were making films aimed at reaching a non-believing audience, we would make completely different films. But Jesus was very overt with the disciples. If you compare the parables of Luke to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, I mean [they are] completely different types of communication. So because we are going after the church first — and we know that the church needs healing and the church needs restoration and the church needs unity and the church needs to repent of her own sin — we are much more overt and we are trying to connect specifically with that audience.

So it’s a different type of filmmaking, and we also try to keep the messaging and everything clear enough so that even Bubba on the back row, who’s only half paying attention, is going to be able to get it.

Just curious about the other kinds of films you’re getting involved with. You mentioned that you’re developing a comedy, which is interesting because that’s a very different kind of film than we normally see from the “faith-based” community, and also, you were involved with Beyond the Mask earlier this year, which is more of a swashbuckling adventure film. How is it branching into these different things? Do you approach those with the same sort of season of prayer idea that you approach these films with, or is it a different kind of filmmaking that you’re doing there?

Kendrick: Absolutely. With Beyond the Mask, I was meeting with the Burns early on, the script wasn’t done and they were just running with an idea. We’ve talked about this, the difference between a good idea and a God idea, and if there is a sense that God is on something, that he is blessing something, that he wants us to be involved in something, then to us, it’s not about the genre of the film or the time period that it takes place in or any of those things. We want to support and be involved in whatever he leads us to do. So with Beyond the Mask, it was a lot of fun, because we spent a lot of time praying with the Burns and then we came to that place where there was a sense that God wants them to make this movie and God wants me to be a part of it.

So I was thrilled to get to be a part of that whole adventure of helping them, praying through their decisions and cast, and rewrite elements of the script to add depth to some of the characters and add spiritual power to some of the moments, so that was a lot of fun. And even with the comedy project that I’m talking about, I’m not ready to dive off and go out and make that film if God doesn’t confirm first that he wants me to do it. I know that we’ll end up spending years of time and energy working on something that’s not a priority if we don’t have that sense that God is in it first.

Last question: Your perspective on where the genre’s out right now. You guys first became national news with Facing the Giants, which was almost a decade ago now, and since then the “faith-based” film genre, if you will, has been growing by leaps and bounds, certainly at the box office. There have been a number of hits and misses along the way, but I think back in the day Facing the Giants grossed something like $10 million, and then Fireproof grossed $30-something, and then last year God’s Not Dead grossed $60 million, and now War Room may be on the way to approaching that. And also, not just the money side of it, but this month in particular, there seems to be kind of a glut, almost, to these films: War Room is still out, still doing big business. 90 Minutes in Heaven came out a few days ago. Captive comes out later this week…

Kendrick: And Woodlawn will be in theatres on October 16th.

That’s right, that one doesn’t open until October, but that one’s coming out fairly soon too. So are there too many right now? Is there enough room for all these films? What do you think about that, or how the genre has done in the decade or so that you’ve been in the business?

Kendrick: Well, we love when people do it right and they honour God and the message is powerful and redemptive and transformational, then I say the more the merrier. When people just feel like, “Well hey, I want to go do that for a business motivation or something,” and they’re making films that are either not theologically solid, or they’re a distraction because of the direction that they’re going away from something else that needs to be done, then they cannot help us. Sometimes a Christian film will come out, and it pulls us backwards rather than pushing it forward because of the quality or all the things that Christian films get attacked for.

But we’re thrilled about those that are honouring the Lord in the process, and we hear stories behind the scenes about other Christian filmmakers and other Christian films and how they are processing things and how they are doing things, and we’re trying to cheer them on as much as we can, if we believe that their hearts are really aimed towards pleasing God and not just stroking their ego or lining their pockets.

We heard, a year or two ago, that people were wondering if the Christian market could handle more than just two films a year, because if the church is your main core audience and you’re wanting churches to get behind it, they’ve got so many different things to focus in on in their communities, in the families that are in the church, in communicating God’s word, and their number one priority is not to go buy movie tickets and sit in theatres.

So for them, if pastors are going to stand up and endorse films, or they’re going to do campaigns about issues like marriage or fatherhood or prayer, they’re very limited as to how many they can really rally behind, and a pastor is going to feel like his priorities are out of order if he’s standing up at the pulpit every week and endorsing and promoting for everybody to see the latest film that’s coming out.

So that’s another reason why we spend a lot of time making sure that the movies not only will work on an entertainment level or a theological level, but it is our hope that entire churches will be blessed by the films, and that it will help that church overall be able to more rapidly move forward in a good direction. And so when we hear pastors say, “This is exactly what we need, we’re going to do a campaign this fall on prayer and we’re going to do prayer training for all the ministries of our church, and we’re going to use War Room to launch into that prayer training,” that is very exciting and fulfilling for us.

The other thing is, the church takes a lot longer to get behind something than the world does. You can have a new Hollywood movie about to come out in a month, and they can hit it real hard with $20 million worth of promotion to theatres and on television, and people will discover the new Iron Man, Spider-Man movie, whatever it is, and then jump behind it. The pastor, if he’s planning a campaign in his church, he may be planning that six months in advance or meeting with his staff, saying, “What are we going to do in the fall?” or “What are we going to do at Christmas time?”

It just takes the church a lot longer to disseminate that information and make the decision that they’re going to rally behind something.

— The photo at the top of this post shows Stephen Kendrick (centre) with War Room co-star T.C. Stallings (left) and his Courageous co-star Ken Bevel (right).

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