I was surprised when I got a call out of the blue from movie producers at Pure Flix asking if they could make a feature film based on my book, “The Case for Christ.” After all, my book had been published nearly two decades earlier.
But it didn’t take long for my wife Leslie and me to agree to this depiction of my journey from atheism to Christianity. We reasoned that some people won’t read a 300-page book or darken the door of a church, but they might go to the theater. We were excited about the project’s evangelistic potential.
We assumed — naively — that we would have complete control over how our story was told. We wanted to have the right to pull the plug if, in the end, it didn’t fairly portray our story. But as our attorney explained, movie producers can’t raise millions of dollars from investors and then have us reject the final product at the last minute.
So we would have to trust Pure Flix. We met with them and were impressed by their sincerity and track record. Just in case, we added a provision that the movie must be written by Brian Bird, an accomplished screenwriter who also happens to be a friend. We knew Brian would protect the integrity of our journey. Pure Flix agreed — and we were launched on one of the most incredible adventures of our 45-year marriage.
Leslie and I sat down with Brian in his basement office in Denver and spent several days telling him about our lives. He wanted to know everything about our love story (we met when we were 14 years old), the dynamics of our marriage (including pet names we had for each other), my strained relationship with my father (which formed a psychological barrier to faith) and the evidence that convinced me that Christianity is true (primarily the facts behind the resurrection of Jesus).
Brian’s goal was to write a script that blended both heart and head — not a documentary, but a compelling story of the personal side of my journey mixed with highlights of the historical evidence for Jesus rising from the dead. His screenplay accomplished his objective masterfully.
Pure Flix consulted us on the actors. We were thrilled with the selection of Mike Vogel, featured in “The Help” and the new NBC series, “The Brave,” to play me. When he was having a crisis of faith at age 17, Mike was helped by reading “The Case for Christ,” so this project had special meaning for him.
The movie was a challenge for producers because it was set in 1980, which meant finding period-correct cars, clothes and even small items like pagers and typewriters — remember those? On their sound stage outside Atlanta, Triple Horse Studios built a replica of the Chicago Tribune newsroom, where I worked as the legal affairs editor. It was so eerily accurate that when I visited the set, I felt like I was being transported back 35 years in a time machine. They even had fake cigarette smoke rising from the desks of reporters!
The big news was that Hollywood legend Faye Dunaway agreed to play a role in the movie. As recipient of every major acting award, she brought extra credibility to the project. But we were aghast to learn that a week before filming, she fell and severely broke her ankle.
It would have been understandable if the 76-year-old star backed out of the film. But as an old-school actress, her attitude was that the show must go on. The script was rewritten so she could sit for her entire scene, and she had to elevate her painful leg during breaks — but she persevered and brought a high level of respectability to the production.
The pivotal scene was when Mike portrayed the day in 1981 when I prayed to receive Jesus as my forgiver and leader. Everyone knows that this kind of highly personal and spiritually charged scene can easily come off as contrived or clichéd, so Leslie and I were praying hard as we watched a video monitor outside the house where it was being filmed.
The Gospel is presented with clarity in the scene. Leslie and I felt like everything was on the line. We held our breath as Mike so honestly and authentically portrayed my conversion. Clearly, God showed up at that instant — there wasn’t a dry eye on the set.
Afterward, I went up to Mike to thank him, and I just broke into tears. I gave him a big hug and managed to whisper, “Thank you, Mike, for being so genuine and real.”
Interestingly, when we showed the movie to test audiences of non-Christians, they said unanimously that this scene definitely had to be included in the final cut of the film.
In the end, we were thoroughly gratified by how the movie turned out. The secular rating service Cinemascore gave it an A+, which only about two movies a year receive. Even the cynical critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 79 percent positive rating — incredibly high for a faith-based film.
The movie was a success at the box office, finishing in the top 20 faith movies of all time. Since then, it has shown in South Korea, Nigeria, South Africa, Mexico, England — plus one theater in Papua New Guinea — and is now being seen on DVD and Blu-ray around the world. I was glad that my role as a professor at HBU was highlighted at the conclusion of the film.
Most importantly, God has used the movie to lead people to Christ. A church in Australia, for example, rented a theater to show the film — and 29 people came to faith in Jesus that night.
When people ask about the success of the movie, that’s the kind of story I like to emphasize. Films are the language of young people, so why not harness the power of cinema to spread God’s message of hope and grace to a new generation?