By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—When the faith-based film “God’s Not Dead” arrived in theaters in 2014, mainstream critics didn’t think it had a prayer at the box office. Instead, the independently financed film about a Christian college student who stands up against the system and refuses to sign a professor’s disbelieving declaration about the Almighty raked in $62 million and spawned a sequel. “God’s Not Dead 2,” followed the story of a teacher who stands up for her beliefs. It too delivered faithful audiences despite a small budget.
In the final installment of the trilogy, “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” due out on the heels of another faith-based surprise success, “I Can Only Imagine,” about the humble origins of the popular Christian-crossover song, expectations about its potential performance at the box office are running high, even among skeptics.
The drama once again stars David A.R. White, who also is a co-founder of Pure Flix Entertainment, the company that produces the “God’s Not Dead” and other faith-based films. He reprises his role as Reverend Dave, a second-generation pastor who ministers to a devoted congregation on the campus of a fictional Arkansas university, which was founded as a Christian school but is now publicly funded. After the historic church is severely damaged and visiting pastor from Africa is killed in a gas explosion set off by a possible arsonist, the university’s secular board of trustees seizes the opportunity to try and legally evict the congregation from campus. Reverend Dave taps his estranged brother Pearce (John Corbett, “Sex and the City”), an Ohio attorney, for legal advice. The debate on campus of whether the church should stay or go reaches an angry crescendo, with both sides at immovable odds with each other. Reverend Dave realizes he has to compromise for the greater good and demonstrates that Christianity is about forgiveness. The film also stars Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal (“Paper Moon”), Ted McGinley (“Revenge of the Nerds”), Shane Harper (“God’s Not Dead”) and Jennifer Taylor (“Shameless”).
The cast recently reunited at a press day to discuss the “God’s Not Dead” finale and its plot’s relevance to today’s unproductive discourse in which arguing a point loudly has become more important than coming up with viable solutions to problems.
Q: This film seems very timely with all the discourse taking place on social media and on the streets. Tatum, you’re new to this franchise. What made you want to sign on to this project?
Tatum O’Neal: I hadn’t seen the other “God’s Not Dead” movies. I read the script and thought it was really good. The characters were fleshed out and real. The dialogue was good. I knew there was the Christian-element to it and I’d never done (a faith-based film) before. But I was like, this is something new for me. I’ve never played this kind of straight character, a quasi-villainous person. I didn’t really see her like that. I wanted to do something in this time where people aren’t really talking to each other and there’s so much rage going back and forth. There are so many issues with women and men and the #metoo stuff. I just wanted to do something that would be inclusive and get a conversation going.
Q: John, how did you happen to join this cast?
John Corbett: I did a film (“Baby on Board”) about 10 years ago with a fellow named Brian Herzlinger and our (“God’s Not Dead”) director came to the set. Brian called me up and said, “Sometimes scripts don’t come to you through your agent the way they’re supposed to and my buddy’s doing this movie. You’ve met him. Any chance I can send you the script and you can read it.” I said, “Yeah. What’s it about?” And he said, “It’s faith-based.” And I said, “All right. Just send it.” I didn’t expect to want to do it. I thought it might be a little soft. It was this. I’d head that the original “God’s Not Dead” made a lot of money and the sequel made a ton of money. So, I opened it up and started reading it and, like Tatum, I saw that it was a solid drama. If I didn’t know it was faith-based—not that I have anything against faith-based—I’d say you have a very good film here. I mostly do romantic comedies. Hardly anyone ever asks me to do a dramatic role. I knew (producer/co-star) David (A.R. White) when I was on “Northern Exposure” in 1990 and a couple of years later he was on “Evening Shade” with Burt (Reynolds) and Charles Durning, and so it all made sense.
O’Neal: These films are not just for Christian people. It applies to everybody. It’s great for people who are devoutly Christian but it also opens to a wider audience. That can really help people who are resistant to a higher power or whatever.
Jennifer Taylor: It also opens it up to people who have had a bad taste in their mouth with Christians. People who have been very vocal against Christians—it gives them an opportunity to go, “Oh, I was thinking wrong about them.” We don’t have to agree on everything but we should still be kind to each other and listen to one another. We all need to listen.
Shane Harper: A big part of that has to come from the Christian community themselves. This movie is about how we’re all so busy trying to get our own point across that we stop listening to the other side. That’s true with Christians, non-Christians, just humankind right now. I fairly lightly use the word “kind.” We’re so intense about putting forward our point of view, we stop listening to the other side. We’re so quick to judge. This (film) is about a group of people who’ve come to the point where they have to go beyond the conflict and find a way to make resolution. It works really well for the time period we’re in and the way we’re all living our lives that I feel it’s so current, this film.
O’Neal: Social media has really insulated us away from each other because you don’t have to come face-to-face with the person who is insulting you. I don’t really use social media. You wouldn’t say those things to someone in person.
Q: David, how did the concept for this third film in the trilogy come about?
David A.R. White: The original idea was like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” How do you go bigger than the last one? Maybe we should be at the Supreme Court. We tried that. We went through multiple script writers to try and figure out what this thing is supposed to be. They’re wonderful writers. They all have a ton of credits. In fact, the guys who wrote the original two (“God’s Not Dead”) wrote the first draft of this but it just wasn’t perfect for the time. It wasn’t relevant enough of what we needed at the time. So, we started asking, “What’s the theme of this movie?” during this dark, social and politically divisive time where everyone’s yelling and nobody’s listening, and that really was the heartbeat of what it was, and out of that the story for “(A Light in Darkness”) came.
Q: John, your character, Pearce, returns to help his brother with legal matters but still questions his own faith. How did you bring that inner conflict of the character to the screen?
Corbett: There’s that old saying if it’s on the page, then it can be on the screen. The two brothers were well-defined. That relationship was on the page. Personally, I’m a Christian who’s also a non-believer. Sometimes, in my darkest times, I just know there’s no Creator out there looking out for me, and other times in my life, I’m so thankful to the Lord for all of my gifts. Anytime I get in a vehicle that can crash and burn at 500 mph, I say more than enough prayers to let my soul be taken to heaven. So, that’s the kind of person I am.
Harper: The brothers’ relationship in this movie is one of the strongest points of the film. It’s so much fun to watch and be a part of. Anytime I laughed in the movie was when I was watching John and David. It’s a nice place to go to in the story.
Corbett: That’s funny because I’ve only seen it on a laptop. I watched it so intently that I didn’t get any laughs from it. But David watched it with a couple of (test) screenings and he said, “They’re all laughing at you.”
Q: Ted, your character, Thomas, an official with the university, and Reverend Dave are friends initially but then this issue of whether the church should remain or leave the college campus divides them.
McGinley: It’s very real. So many families after the election can’t sit and talk amongst themselves. We’re so factionalized. There are so many disagreements going on today in society. I owe David’s character my job, my livelihood, my family, so I was deeply indebted to him. And I love him and his family. It was a great conflict for the character and Michael really put it together nicely and, at the end, you have this great resolve. I really loved hitting David.
Q: Jennifer, what interested you about joining this franchise?
Taylor: I’d heard about these movies before. For me, it was literally an answered prayer because I was wondering what I was going to do next. I literally wrote down that I wanted to do something that would make a difference. This came along and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I only read two scenes for the audition. I went and felt like I did a really good job but then I didn’t hear anything for a month. And then I got a text (from my agent) telling me, “You’ve got an offer and you leave for Little Rock (Ark., where the film was shot) in two days.” And I was like, “OK!” I hadn’t read the whole script so I read the whole thing. And I immediately know that this film was going to have an impact on a lot of people—Christians and non-Christians. I am a Christian so this movie is kind of outing me. Nobody ever asked before.
Taylor: I’m excited that I get to do two things that I love.
Corbett: (to Taylor) What do you mean about “the outing” thing? Did you purposely keep your faith a secret in Hollywood?
Taylor: Nobody ever asked. I’ve done tons of things where people’d go, “Well, that’s not really Christian.” No, but that’s my job, but if you ask me about my faith, I’ll tell you about my faith. But nobody (before) has ever asked. But now, with this film, people are asking.
O’Neal: It’s a very selfish town.
Q: There’s a stigma that goes with presenting yourself as “Christian.” It’s become politicized.
O’Neal: And it’s a wrong perception. It’s hard for people to understand the double-standard.
Taylor: People assume that if you’re a Christian, you think you’re perfect. But the whole point is, we’re not perfect. Nobody is perfect so we basically have two commandments: love God and love one another.
O’Neal: We’re not doing very well with that.
White: What this film talks about is that saying from the first couple of movies, “God is good all the time and all the time God is good.” Hopefully, what this film does, in the midst of our brokenness, where we’re at, no matter what we’ve lost—our jobs, our families, our wives, our kids—there are all of these things that happen, and it’s all about how we respond to it. How do we respond to the hate out there? Everybody’s yelling, nobody’s listening. But also, how do we respond to the brokenness that we, as individuals, all have. Because, even as believers, we fail in miserable ways from sunup to sundown. Different ways. That’s human. So, that’s what I think makes this movie special. It’s unique
O’Neal: It starts the conversation. If we could at least get it going and work at taking that first step, we’d be heading in the right direction.
McGinley: People on the other side of the aisle (non-Christians), after seeing this movie, will see that they were fairly represented. Their viewpoint was what they felt and it was real for them. They weren’t vilified. They have an opinion that counts.