Getting God to the Hollywood Screen: A Review of Letters to God and Interview with Director David Nixon

Ever wonder what happens to the letters children mail to Santa? Imagine the dilemma the mailman faces when a confident boy of 8 hands him letters addressed to God.

This is the situation that Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey Johnston) finds himself in when he takes over the route of a fellow letter carrier on leave.  More troublesome still, his supervisor Les (Dennis Neal) suggests he keep them. He brings them with him to show them to his old Commanding Officer, now a bartender at his nightly watering hole, who suggests they belong in a church. Hesitantly Brady walks up the aisle of the local church, hoping to leave the letters there, and escape unnoticed. He feels uncomfortable, suspecting that his drunkenness will not go over well. He is startled by the pastor, who  suggests that Brady has been given a mission by God, and that the letters from his brain cancer-ridden parishioner, 8 year old Tyler (Tanner McGuire) were meant for him.

What could the chatty letters full of details of Tyler Doherty’s life and childish questions have to do with a life where, as Brady describes it, “everything I touch turns to dust?” After he was caught driving drunk with his son in the car, Brady lost custody of him to his ex-wife. He misses his son, yet knows that, as a drunk, he is a bad example to him. His life is a lonely one, and it isn’t long before the letters draw Brady into the loving attitude of Tyler’s family and finds himself involved in their lives.

Maddy Doherty (Robyn Lively) is at the end of her rope. Her husband’s sudden death last year left her a single mom of two growing boys. On the night she prepares to return to her nursing job at the hospital, she burns the meatloaf. Only the calm reassurance of her mother Olivia (Maree Cheatham) enables Maddie to keep it together as she hugs Tyler goodbye and leaves for work. Tyler is the light of her life, and though his doctor has warned her not to get her hopes up, she can’t help hoping that his cancer will be cured. What she can’t cure is her teenager Ben’s (Michael Bolten) negative attitude towards his family. He feels that his mother has forgotten him in her focus on his sick brother. The tragic loss of his father has injured his faith in God and Ben sullenly hides in his room, playing his guitar and pushing everyone away.

Letters to God is not a typical sick child story. Missing the self-absorption and the scientists rushing to find a cure, we are left with an eight year old boy whose contagious hope buoys up everyone he meets. Tyler sits out on the roof of the house at night talking to God in his letters. “I miss Mom’s laugh.” “Can you see the stars from there, God? My father told me you made them”. Tyler isn’t afraid of going to heaven, as he tell God, “I already know two people there” and he isn’t afraid of sharing the reason for his hope: Tyler is best friends with God.

Letters to God is based on a true story written by Patrick Doughtie, the father of a little boy who died of cancer and whose letters had a powerful effect on those who read them, inspiring them to write their own letters to God. Anyone who has lost a loved one to the slow painful death from cancer knows the importance of a relationship with God in a crisis. Yet Tyler’s faith isn’t the foxhole faith of a dying boy; it’s the easy friendship of a life long walk in the company of Jesus, molded in His image. Tyler doesn’t beg to live longer, he asks for faith for those he loves, and for someone to care for his lonely mother. When the Grandpa of Tyler’s friend Samantha, the irascible Cornelius Pennyfield (Ralph Waite) tells him that he has been handed the role of his life, to be a warrior for God, Tyler takes on the challenge with gusto. His courageous example inspires Samantha (Bailee Madison) who ferociously defends him at school, to look into the hearts of those who are cruel and offer forgiveness.  Tyler is an inspiration to his classmates; to his brother Ben, who composes a song for him; and for his mother, who finds strength in his example. Soon, the influence of one little boy’s faith inspires a movement of outreach and faith. Letters to God is a moving tribute to a life well-lived and a mission accomplished.

A compelling performance by Tanner McGuire as Tyler is the hub of this emotional drama and compliments the theatrical  magic of Ralph Waite. Jeffrey Johnston is believable as Brady McDaniels, renegade turned father, and the film, though slow in places, finishes with a powerful impact, as real life testimonies to the real Tyler are shown during the credits.

David Nixon, director of Letters to God sat down with this author to discuss making Christian-themed films with a “Hollywood look.”

Velasquez : How is your company related to the church in Georgia?

Nixon: About six years ago, we got a divine appointment with that church, Sherwood Baptist in Albany, [Georgia]. I’ve been in production for about 30 years, doing secular productions: commercials, documentaries and things — they knew of my production company. They wanted to make Christian films, so they called me and said, “Will you come and help us make our next movie; give us a Hollywood look.” That was Facing the Giants.

They had made Flywheel themselves in the church, and they couldn’t get a Hollywood look, so they called me, and I drove my crew from Orlando and we kind of elevated their production level to give them a Hollywood look. At that point, we didn’t think they were going to get a theatrical deal. We didn’t think we could get that back then, but that was when The Passion was getting about $600 million.

We were at the right place at the right time. And SONY picked it up, and put it in theatres and the rest is history.

Velasquez: Where did you get the story for Letters to God?

Nixon: About three years ago, we were putting a film deal together after we finished Facing the Giants and we were gearing up to make Fireproof.  The distributor said, “Can you do any more of these God films?”  I told him that the church could only do one about every three years, but Possibility Pictures could do it. That was SONY, who is the distributor. It’s an amazing thing that Hollywood wants these movies. And so I was looking for scripts.

I have a friend in Orlando, a writer, who said he was just working with the father of a little cancer boy up in Nashville who’d written this story Letters to God. He asked if I wanted to see it, and I said, “Definitely.” As soon as I read it, it just touched me and I got on a plane and I flew to Nashville. I met with Patrick Doughty the father, and I said, “We’ve got to make this movie; it’s just a wonderful sweet little story, and it has all the components of a great film.” That was about three years ago. We went out and raised the money, made the film, and here we are.

Sony originally said they would fund it, but I went back to Orlando, and I asked my Christian friends, “Should we really let Hollywood pay for it?” and they said “No, no, we can raise the money. If Hollywood pays for it, they’ll control the content, and they’ll water down the message. Why don’t you let us raise the money here in Orlando, and we can make sure the content doesn’t get watered down, and the Christian message doesn’t get taken out of the movie.”

Velasquez: That really is the secret to the success.

Nixon: Exactly.  That’s really our model, my company, Possibility Pictures funds the movies.

Velasquez: What do you think sets this film apart from other films about sick children, like, Extraordinary Measures? What is the difference in perspective?

Nixon: Well, really it’s the story. It’s a true story, and it goes beyond just the typical cancer idea with the letters component. We wanted to make a movie with a lesson, but we didn’t want to be preachy, to hit you over the head. I loved this idea of a little eight year old, writing these simple letters to his best friend, God, and putting them in the mail, because that’s a way to get across a message without it being overbearing, without it being preachy, and that’s what makes the difference. You’re so compelled by this little eight year old, and his faith, and the characters portrayed up on screen that you become part of the family. That’s so real that it’s not hitting you over the head with the message; you just get it. The faith of this little boy changed all of the lives around him.

Velasquez: It was the father who wrote the story, and yet there is no father in the story; why?

Nixon: He changed the story because it was so difficult for him. After his son passed, he went through about two years of depression. He came out of that and God put it on his heart to write the story, but he had to change that because it was so close to him. He changed it to be a single mom instead of a single father, and he added a few characters. He changed it enough so that it wasn’t too difficult for him when he was writing the story.

Velasquez: He wrote himself out of the story?

Nixon: Yes (laughs).

Velasquez: Was the mailman part of the original story? It’s very poignant, his being an absentee father. So many kids are going through fatherlessness.

Nixon: The mailman was fictional, but the father (Patrick Doughty) thought, ‘Let’s add this guy who’s had his own demons, who’s going through his own struggles, being alcoholic and we can really see his character change, through the movie.” And I thought Jess Johnson just played such a wonderful role, and really pulled that character off. You really feel for this guy.

Velasquez: I appreciate the fact that in the beginning, the audience is led to think, “what kind of a loser is this guy?’ then as the story unfolds, you begin to feel sympathy for him.

Nixon: The screenplay came first, the book was written after the screenplay, the novelization was written after we’d actually made the movie. It was Patrick’s story of his little boy Tyler that he wrote into a screenplay, and that was the original idea.  We took that screenplay and polished it. I had my writer, Sandy Thrift, whose been my partner for about 20 years, polish the script.  She added the magic; she added the characters which gave the neighborhood the wonderful charm, like magic.

Velasquez: Where did you find your actors?

Nixon: We did a casting in LA and most of the actors were actors in LA who have done television and some movies. We just put the normal casting call out; we didn’t think we would get high-caliber actors. This isn’t a high-budget movie. We couldn’t offer them much in terms of compensation. We were amazed at how many actors came and said, “We love the screenplay; we don’t get enough of these kinds of screenplays; we would love to play this role.” Especially Ralph Waite (Pa Walton in The Waltons). He blew us away when he came to the casting. He said to us in the casting, “You know, this movie is very close to my heart, I lost a child to cancer 30 years ago, so I wanted to play this role.“

Velasquez: Did you use the words from Tyler’s original letters?

Nixon: Exactly, that is true to life, that Patrick wrote down the same dialogue and the same things that happened with him and his son are true to life in the story.

Velasquez: What do you hope is the message that audiences take away from the film?

Nixon: The bottom line is what Tyler says at the end of the movie, “I just want everybody to believe.” The reason why we make these movies is that we want people to know that you can have a connection with God. If this little eight-yea-old boy, going through the worst time of his life, can write these sweet little letters, to his best friend, to God, and he has this connection, then any of us can have that hope, and that connection. I hope that people will be inspired by the movie, and maybe they’ll start writing their own letters to God, but at least have some kind of connection with God that wants to be a part of their lives.

Velasquez: What’s your next project?

Nixon: We have two films we’re shooting this summer. One is a Christian comedy called Saving Livingston which is a wonderful little story we came up with, and another true life story about a girl in Orlando which is called, To Write Love on Her Arm. We’re shooting both of those this summer and they’ll be out next year in theatres.

Velasquez: You sound like you’re getting busier.

Nixon: Oh, yeah, it’s non-stop. While we’ve got this door open to theatrical release, we’re going to run right through that.

Our formula is in the three million dollar range, so we can have paid actors and paid crew in these movies, we’re staying to that formula, we’re not increasing it from movie to movie. We’ve gone out and raised enough money to make each one of these movies for about that, It works pretty well, you know the distributor has to make money, so you can’t be spending a hundred million dollars on a movie, in this genre, you’re not going to make your money back.

Velasquez: Do you have any romantic films coming? Is To Write Love on Her Arm romantic?

Nixon: Not really, To Write Love on Her Arm is a true story about a teenage girl who went through depression became an alcoholic and became addicted to cutting.

Velasquez: That’s becoming a frighteningly common trend.

Nixon: Terrible. That’s what that’s about; we wanted to tell that true story about a girl in Orlando who went through that. We wanted to tell that story to save some kids. There are kids who are committing suicide because of this. That’s a pretty heavy dramatic film. Saving Livingston is a comedy but it has a pretty romantic side to it. That will be a little lighter fare.

Velasquez: Can you do an anti-Twilight film?

Nixon: (Laughs.) That’s the plan.  Really, that’s To Write Love on Her Arms; that’s the anti-Twilight film.

David Nixon was the producer of Facing the Giants and Fireproof and is the director of Letters to God which is coming out Friday, April. 8. This moving film will become a standard in many a family DVD collection.  No nudity or profanity.  Brief violence related to drunkenness, and a mature theme have earned this film a PG rating. Highly recommended for children Tyler’s age (8) and up.

[Copyright 2010]


Mother to three daughters and a Literature instructor, Leticia has always loved writing, good literature, and classic films. She became a blogger in 2006, and began to include film reviews on her blogs, Causa Nostrae Laetitiae, and Cause of Our Joy Suddenly Leticia was thrust into the world of film criticism when Eric Sheske of the National Catholic Register mentioned her blog as a source for Catholic film reviews. The next day, an invitation arrived to attend a film premiere in Hollywood, which she accepted, and a film critic was born. Leticia began Catholic Media Review to guide parents in their decisions on whether to let their children see a particular film. She also promotes independent family films like “Bella”, and “Fireproof” so that they can reach a larger audience. Her goal is nothing less than a transformation of the culture to what Pope John Paul II called a “Culture of Life”. She realizes that the pivotal role the media has to play in this transformation, and is determined that those who would defame Christ’s message do not have the last word. She writes film and book reviews for the following publications: MercatorNet, Catholic Exchange, Catholic Online, and “National Catholic Register”. Her reviews have been posted at the websites of Reuters, IMBD, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, and various TV news stations.

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