When it comes to bringing God into a cinematic conversation, David Nixon knows more than most.
Nixon was a producer with the two faith-based independent films – “Fireproof” and “Facing the Giants” – which put Georgia’s Sherwood Pictures on the map. His latest venture slid him into the director’s chair for a movie which he believes will touch a wide secular audience and further inspire Christian moviegoers.
“Letters to God” debuts tomorrow in theaters, released by the Christian production company Possibility Pictures.
It tells the story of Tyler Doherty, an 8-year-old boy battling cancer and withering chemotherapy treatments. Fueled by a love of soccer and the desire to be as active and capricious as any other 8-year-old, Tyler writes letters to God to help cope with his illness help his family and rescue the mailman picking up the letters.
The unique twist is that the story is based on a real boy, Tyler Doughtie, whose father Patrick wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of his son’s death.
“Having met and worked with Tyler’s father, the number one thing that makes this story genuine is that it is true,” Nixon said in a telephone interview with Everyday Christian. “Then, it being a cancer story and that there is usually only one degree of separation between most people and cancer makes it pretty universal. There are a lot of cancer movies, but the idea of this boy writing these cool little letters to his best friend God gets across a fabulous message.”
The film stars Tanner Maguire as Tyler and Bailee Madison as Tyler’s best friend Samantha Perryfield. Directing children is always a challenge, Nixon agreed, but he said that the atmosphere on the set was conducive to success.
“The key (working with kids) is the casting,” Nixon said. “The casting people looked at a lot of kids in L.A., as you would imagine. Bailee Madison and Tanner Maguire were not only the perfect kids for these roles, but Tanner looks so much like the real Tyler it’s amazing.
“Screen direction is all about presence on the set. It’s very difficult for a kid not just to learn lines, but when you as a director go to them and ask them to tweak a performance and do a different take, it’s demanding. Tanner and Bailee knew so well how to take direction and hit it just perfectly take after take.
“I also had to think it had a God component. The tone on the set was so radically different than what you would ordinarily see. On set we had crew members who were prayer warriors who helped us start every day in prayer. To pray before shooting is unheard of L.A. and it set up wonderful situations. For example, if Bailee had a tough scene coming up that would be difficult for her to do we would pray for her and for God to give her guidance. I really think we had some divine intervention to help the kids get through the filming.”
In writing the screenplay Patrick Doughtie changed things around deliberately, making Tyler’s character have a single mother and an older brother and inserting Brady, the mailman who is inspired by the letters to God, into the plot.
“Patrick was invaluable because we wanted to make the movie authentic and make sure it didn’t come off as cheesy or manipulative,” Nixon explained. “We could turn to him and ask, “How did this happen here?” or “How would Tyler react to this?” He could talk to us and Tanner how Tyler would be after just having gone through a chemo treatment and how he had to match the energy level you would realistically see.”
The range of emotions Doughtie went though on the set were palpable.
“There were many days where he would turn away, especially when we were filming in the hospital,” Nixon said. “You could always gauge by looking at Patrick how accurate the scene was. There were times when he was bawling his eyes out or when he had a huge grin ear to ear where we knew we really captured something special.”
Nixon added that during filming – well after the screenplay had been written and edited – that Doughtie went through Tyler’s room at home and found a notepad with letters scrawled on it, including letters to God.
“The thing that is so wonderful about the letters in the film is that they are totally selfless expressing Tyler’s concerns about how his cancer is affecting the lives of everyone around him, not about what he’s going through,” he said.
For purely secular audience members, Nixon believes the authenticity of the story will be apparent regardless of faith perspective.
“The bottom line is this is a true story about a little 8-year-old boy who writes letters to God because he cares about the people around him,” he said. “It doesn’t hit you over the head with the Bible. It is a story about people getting through everyday life, from Brady to Tyler’s mother. … People wonder how they can relate to situations where God is connected to them, and here is an 8-year-old boy who had such faith and hope in his heart.”
Nixon related one of his favorite Bible verses — James 5:3 — to the experience.
“The verse says that when God’s people pray amazing things happen,” he said. “Over and over on set we bathed the project in prayer through pre-production, shooting and post-production and had the pleasure of seeing how that prayer touched people’s lives.”