“Hi, may I take your order?”
Not many parents would view that question as a harbinger of success for their teenaged child. The phrase has morphed into shorthand for concerns about current job market prospects.
According to Christian-movie.com, that same question was also a line in a McDonald’s commercial; it was David A. R. White’s first professional acting job in Hollywood; it was just the first of many successes. These would include three years in a recurring role on Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds, as well as guest appearances on Coach, Saved by the Bell, Sisters and Melrose Place.
Opening in theaters on Aug. 27, What If stars Kevin Sorbo of Hercules, Kristy Swanson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Big Daddy, Debby Ryan from Disney’s Suite Life on Deck, and John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Clavin on Cheers.
In the tradition of The Family Man and It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie explores the possibilities inherent in the questions, “What if God gave you a second chance? What if you had a chance to go back and correct an apparent mistake?” In a flight of cinematic fancy, a decision Ben Walker (Sorbo) made 15 years earlier is changed. He finds himself no longer a successful investment banker about to head to Paris for a dinner with his high-maintenance fiancee. Instead, he’s a small-town pastor married to his hometown sweetheart (Swanson). And he’s expected to preach his first Sunday sermon.
Q&A with David A. R. White
Recently we had the chance to talk to White. As co-founder of Pure Flix Culture, a company that produces and distributes faith-based films, White has a unique perspective on the current status of Christian films, including Pure Flix’s most recent theatrical release, What If . It opens in local theaters Aug. 27, in partnership with Jenkins Culture, the brainchild of director Dallas Jenkins and his father, Jerry B. Jenkins, author of the Left Behind series and 175 other books.
Good News: You had a great deal of success in mainstream media before you moved into faith-based movies, what prompted the shift?
White: Without sounding too over-spiritual, the Lord caused it. People often look at the limits of Christian film and the things you can’t do in a faith-based film, but I look at it in the opposite way – the market is so wide open. You can tell so many stories that haven’t been told in this genre, in this arena. I can talk openly about faith and salvation and Jesus. To me it’s a blessing to be able to do that.
GN: Often faith-based films have so many insider allusions that it seems that Christians are the only intended audience. Is that true of What If
White: What If is truly a family film. Mom, Dad, single people, kids. It’s a message about what’s important in life and having a second chance. It’s a universal message, which is why it’s connecting not just in the Christian realm, but also to the mainstream. People want to know what’s important in life, and this movie deals directly with that. What if you had a chance to take a different path that you didn’t take in your life?
GN: Do you think that sometimes audiences drew back from Christian films, not due to a negative reaction to the spiritual content, but because they couldn’t see themselves in what is often portrayed as a very cut-and-dried, good versus evil world, when they knew that their own hearts, families and lives aren’t so clear-cut?
White: Ultimately it comes down to the writing. Are we writing better characters? What we’ve been calling 3-D, or characters that are more true to life, if you will. People are complicated you need only look at your own marriage to know that.
GN: If higher budgets and better production values are bridging the discernible divide between the quality of faith-based films and major market releases, what defines a film as Christian?
White: A Christian film to me is a film that uplifts and inspires the human spirit and ultimately brings people to a higher level of insight into who God is and the purpose that He has for their lives. If I’m doing that in a film, I think that is considered a faith-based film.
In one pivotal scene in What If , Ben Walker finds himself at the bedside of what could have been him in 25 years as a successful, but materialistic, executive (who) comes face-to-face with his own mortality. Even as Ben, in his role as pastor, speaks of the forgiveness and restoration offered by Christ, he is visibly affected by his own words of comfort and challenge to the dying man.
Around the country, congregations, small-group Bible studies and ministries are encouraging their members to not only vote for quality family Culture by going to see the movie on opening weekend, but to use it as a conversation starter about the gospel with family, friends and co-workers.
GN: If a movie such as What If
is a “good” movie, is it replacing conversations about Christ, or spawning them?
White: I think some of each. I’m not trying to shy away from doing a Christian film that deals directly with Jesus Christ and deals directly with evangelism and with hardcore issues with the Bible and talking openly about them. What If has a universal theme that anyone could discuss, but hopefully it opens up the chance for conversations about the Lord. Our hope is that if people have been having those conversations and still have unanswered questions about the Lord, that they’re answered in this movie. I don’t want to make a movie that is just wide-open questions, where you walk out of the theater having a massive question. I want to have some answers in this film.
GN: How can you judge success?
White: If someone says the salvation prayer afterwards, obviously that is one level of success. If someone is moved along spiritually, that’s another level of success. Any time an independent film gets made, that’s success. I’m always amazed at the Holy Spirit. We’re just excited to see the results. This is the Lord’s company and it’s His movie. Once we start trying to grab, or saying that it is ours, that’s when the problems arrive.
Early showings and acclaim
Advance screenings, including one at Jerry Jenkins’ annual Christian Writer’s Guild conference in Denver, have solicited great reviews.
“What If makes a profound impact. The story is powerful, the acting compelling, and the ending gripping. Entertaining? Yes, but more than that, it’s thought-provoking in an easy and believable way.” – James MacDonald, Pastor, Harvest Bible Chapel, Chicago
“What if dramatically and subtly addresses a critical issue in our culture – with a surprise ending!” – Dr. Gene A. Getz, President, Center for Church Renewal
“This faith-based movie will have you laughing and crying as you enjoy this magically entertaining story.” – Dick Rolfe, The Dove Foundation
“This movie is a powerful reminder that God is with us, even when we detour from the main road. Your family and friends will enjoy this movie, and I promise it’ll give you much to talk about.” – Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Moody Church, Chicago
“I was totally engaged the very clever story had a lot of power with a very great message.” – Charles Colson, Prison Fellowship.
What If opens Aug. 27 in these local theaters: Regal Cinemas Sawgrass, Muvico in Pompano Beach, Regal Magnolia in Coral Springs and Regal Cinemas in Delray Beach. A complete listing of theaters can be found at www.TheWhatIfMovie.com.