Getting back to the Shack
While perhaps most controversial film of 2017, The Shack, received a substandard critical reception, audiences loved it. To try to put some logic behind a leap of faith that, seemingly, only some watchers could take, we talk to the film’s director, Stuart Hazeldine, who ponders how a film promoting positive messages of love and forgiveness could be so divisive, whilst still touching the hearts of millions.
It seems strange that The Shack – whose creators set out to make a warm-hearted faith-based film with overarching positive messages and, to some extent, attempted to explain how an all-powerful deity goes about his business – could cause such a stir. Indeed, The Shack may have flown under some mainstream moviegoers’ radars, but it has divided opinions so strongly in the Christian community and beyond. Why?
An adaptation of author Paul Young’s tale of a father – Mack – who loses his daughter in the worst way possible and is then invited back to the scene of the crime to meet God, initial backlash came by way of not only the portrayal of God as a woman – Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer as ‘Papa’ – but the colour of her skin too.
“Some people find that The Shack takes liberties,” says British director Stuart Hazeldine. “They can handle God being present as Aslan the lion in Narnia, but God as a black woman? They don’t like it.”Hazeldine saw his job as staying as true to the best-selling book as possible, and he is quick to point out that it is a work of fiction – one man’s own interpretation of his relationship with God, and one that attempts to tackle the issue of bad things happening to good people. “The Shack shows a papa – a father – and Jesus who are perfectly in sync with one another, and that’s the theological position that I take, and the film takes, about who God is,” he says. “I felt that was a positive thing to say: ‘God only wants to give good things and gets involved in our suffering and suffers along with us with an ultimate plan for redemption’.”
While the mass-media critics have mostly taken a negative view of The Shack – which went on to take close to $100 million at the box office, five times its production budget – on a higher level the film and its source material have touched the hearts and souls of millions. “There’s just been really no middle on this movie,” Hazeldine admits. “From the people who made it to the people who watched it, it either really touches your heart and does something profound in you, or goes right over your head and annoys you. But I would rather do that: I’d rather change 10 people’s lives forever in a positive way than make 100 people laugh for two hours and then forget about the movie. I like the idea of resonance and having a positive effect on people.
“I have seen so much fruit coming out of The Shack, so many people’s relationships being restored, people being encouraged to forgive and let go of resentments they’ve held all their lives. They’ve come to believe that God loves them in a way they could never entirely accept, so to me that’s all positive, taking people to a place where their lives are much more marked by love than they are by fear, by hatred, or by unforgiveness.”
Positivity is the key word: Hazeldine says the cast and crew all shared a passion and vision for making the film. “Everyone working on the movie was aware that it was a deeply-loved book,” says the 46-year-old Londoner.
“We all knew it needed to be more than just another gig for us, something we all really respected. That included the people who didn’t necessarily have a particular faith. They were still moved to tears by the script and felt like it was a great message to put out in the world.”
Octavia Spencer was the first actor Hazeldine met for casting; she said the book had helped her through a difficult time in her life. “She’d already read it and loved it and she felt really positive about her ability to portray God – Papa – on screen,” he explains. “So when I met her I was really impressed by how well-read she was, about the book and the messages and issues surrounding it, and I went away from that feeling very confident that she could completely nail the role of Papa. Then we started to fit people in around her.
“Sam [Worthington, who plays Mack] had just become a father, so he was feeling that rush of paternalism. He identified a lot with Mack’s journey and was very passionate from the emotional character standpoint. Tim McGraw read the script and found it really emotional and wanted to play Mack’s best friend, Willie. Radha [Mitchell, as Mack’s wife] also loved it. Then we found some new actors who hadn’t really done anything before: Aviv Alush who played Jesus, and Sumire Matsubara as Sarayu. It was really nice to look around on set and see Octavia, Aviv and Sumire as the Holy Trinity, just larking about and having a laugh!”
While films like Darren Aronofsky’s controversial mother! and even the new Blade Runner seem to tap into Biblical subtext for their narratives – which Hazeldine puts down to the Bible being such a rich well of stories – for him The Shack is one of the first faith-based films to nail the crossover market, going beyond its religious roots. “It started being sold in church bookshops and being passed around, and then Oprah Winfrey picked it up in her book club and suddenly everybody was reading it,” he says. “On one side of the divide you’ve got movies like mother!, Noah and Silence, and on the other there’s The Case for Christ and Fireproof. I think The Shack tried to be somewhere in the middle – and succeeded.
“I think sometimes we have to remind ourselves to approach movies in the same way we approach faith, because we make assumptions and draw preconceptions about a film from the trailer, the DVD cover or even the name; and it’s my job as a director to ensure potential viewers invest well beyond that.
“In life, in faith, and in the choices we make, I want to encourage people to be a little more open-minded and not feel threatened by their own imagination,” he says. “Entertain the idea and run with it a bit and see if it changes your life in a positive way.”
Hazeldine is now focused on future projects – and he is keen not to be seen as just a faith-based director. Indeed, his first major feature, the dark and claustrophobic thriller Exam, could hardly be more different. While he says he’s likely to dip into that area in the future, his medium-term projects are in the sci-fi thriller vein.
“Right now I’m working on a ghost story set during the Blitz in World War 2, with producer Gareth Unwin [The King’s Speech],” he reveals. “It’s a thriller that revolves around ghosts and supernatural metaphysical ideas against the backdrop of London during the Blitz: the bombs falling and all that. It’s like The Third Man meets a Guillermo del Toro movie. Fire and smoke, shadows and ghosts. And not a shack in sight!”
The Shack is available on DVD and Digital now.
Christopher Ritchie (with additional reporting by Adrian Drayton)