VETERAN PRODUCER Ralph Winter has a long list of big-screen hits to his name, starting with the tail end of the 1980s Star Trek sequels, moving into television (Lost), and on through the X-Men series. His latest, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, tallyied an impressive $87 million to kick off the summer box office this past weekend. But look over Winter’s resume, and you’ll notice he’s not only into big-budget superhero blockbusters: he's also done more than a few small-budget Christian films. He produced the first Left Behind, and every film adaptation of Christian author Frank Peretti’s novels. We recently sat down with Winter to talk about his current movie and his thoughts on being a filmmaker both in Hollywood and in the Christian film industry.
Patrol: I’ve only seen the trailer, but it doesn’t look like Wolverine is a very “nice” film. It’s not very “feel-good,” and neither are a lot of the films you’ve worked on. Is there a reason?
Winter: I’m interested in the dark side. I’m interested in who that character is. I think more people than we want to admit live on the dark side. I think that, you know, we are misled if we think that being a Christian means your life is going to be peachy; it’s just not going to happen. There are so many stories to tell, there is so much darkness, unfortunately in our lives, as we don’t get along. There are things in our culture that we don’t talk about, like suicide, and that’s where the audience lives. That’s why I think stories like that resonate with an audience that struggles with a world that’s not happy and perfect.
Patrol: Do you see that as you portraying the depravity of man in that darkness?
Winter: That’s part of it. I don’t think Wolverine lives in total darkness. There’s a redemptive path that he’s on. He starts out killing and enjoying it, but he gets to a place of realizing that’s not what he values. That’s not what’s interesting, that’s not what fulfills him. So he repudiates that. His half brother likes it, he doesn’t. “How do I get rid of it? What happened to me? How do I turn this around?” That’s part of what the journey is, is trying to figure that out.
Patrol: You’ve talked in the past about giving characters their set of ideals, what they fight for, what they value. You talk a lot about values. Can you unpack how you go about doing that in the film process?
Winter: In the film world, you do that by showing what the character does, not by what they say. That’s what’s easily confused when you think, “Oh, well the characters will talk about how he likes to do good things.” No, no, that’s a radio show. No one cares about what he says, you only care about what a character does. It’s an interesting parallel to our lives. It isn’t just about walking around saying who you are, it’s about what you do. So better that we preach the Gospel without using words.
Patrol: Is there one scene in Wolverine that just makes you go, “Yeah, that’s why I’m a filmmaker?” Is there an epiphany?
Winter: I can’t give this away, but there’s a moment when Wolverine decides to take someone along with him who otherwise he had rejected. And that action, that moment, should be a powerful moment. And that’s fulfilling, it’s fulfilling in the music, it’s fulfilling in the characters, in, you know, his journey. There’s also a moment when he defeats the bad guy that that’s fulfilling, too. I hope that there’s a lot of movie moments when you want to root and cheer for the hero, but in terms of the epiphany of his redemptive moment, yeah, it’s when he reaches out his hand and says, well, he doesn’t say the words, but he says, “Come with me.”
Patrol: You seem to have an Esther-like attitude on the amount of time you’ll be in Hollywood. You know, a “for such a time as this” type of deal. Can you talk about that?
Winter: Hm, yeah. I’m a history major and I have no background in making films. But I think I’ve been called, been put in a place, to make movies, tell stories, I enjoy doing that, and it seems to be those are the kinds of jobs that I get and God seems to bless that. I’m keenly aware that it’s a privileged position to be in, I don’t feel like it’s something I’ve earned and I also feel like it’s something that could go away at any minute. So I feel there’s also an urgency in terms of leveraging the experience I’ve had in some 25 years or so of doing this and how can I continue to make good films and maybe encourage and cultivate films that otherwise may not get made in a commercial marketplace.
Patrol: I noticed from the long list of films that you’ve made, that you have both Christian and mainstream.
Winter: Oh yeah. More secular than Christian, yes.
Patrol: So why did you make that decision to do some of each?
Winter: The better question is, “What possessed you to think you could do Christian films?” I set out to make Left Behind as a movie that would entertain people about what the Bible says about how the world will end and to put that movie out in the world in 2000 when people were hysterical about what was going to happen, “Is the world going to end?”
Yeah, um, and it went south with the filmmakers who really wanted to make an evangelistic tract out of it. That’s not what I wanted to do. Because I don’t think that has the same kind of power as a journey through the process of how the world ends. So it was successful in Christian circles. I mean, a lot of people saw the movie, but you know, the movie wasn’t that good. So I’ve since dabbled in some other stuff that is darker. Like The Visitation, Hangman’s Curse, House, Thr3e. You know, it’s been a tough struggle. We have not done as well in some of those as we thought. Lately we’ve been thinking that maybe we’ve been aiming at too specific, too narrow a market. We frankly struggle with what it means and what we’re going to do with it.
Patrol: I feel like, especially in my generation, there’s this backlash against Christian cheese.
Winter: Look, nobody starts out to make a bad movie. Everyone starts out with good intentions. People have differing skill sets to do that and different reasons and purposes.
I think that movies are better at entertaining people than transmitting content. And I think when we try to convince people of the truth of the Gospel, movies aren’t the way to do that. That’s where you can get in trouble. It would take tremendous skill to make a movie to do that. And I look at movies that just touch on it a little bit.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Ben-Hur. I just saw it—I watch it every Easter. It’s a powerful movie. And you never see Jesus’ face, you never hear him speak. The conversion process that happens for Judah Ben-Hur is after he stands at the cross and sees Jesus, he comes back to Esther, his then sort-of girlfriend, and says, “When he spoke, I felt the sword fall from my hand.”
And you know from that three-hour journey you’ve been on that that’s a big deal to him. And that’s his conversion; it happens off-screen. But you begin to see the results of that, it changes who he is and how he acts. Those are powerful, entertaining stories that make you question why. It would take a very, very skilled filmmaker that could figure out how to do that and be evangelistic without being cheesy. I can’t imagine at that moment what that movie would be. It’s better at asking questions. It’s better as an art form.
Patrol: The Hollywood culture is all about jostling for position, name-dropping, and cutthroat drive. Has that ever affected your career?
Winter: I think I cave into that all the time. That’s part of the struggle, it’s that it’s a daily struggle. I’m not confronted with making Snow White or making a pornographic movie. It’s not that black and white; it’s always grey, it’s always tough. It’s about, am I going to slant a phone message or report that is going to make me look better than someone else? It’s a daily struggle in terms of ambition. Is it important for me to get ahead? Why am I here? To what end or for whose purpose? Who’s being honored, who’s being glorified? I think that gets to the bottom of making that decision on a daily basis.
Patrol: Can you define success for yourself?
Winter: Success I think for me as a person, is probably more about the journey I’m on as a follower of Christ, so that’s closely related to how I treat and relate to my wife and my kids, my church community. That’s the kind of stuff I think that lasts and will be important, I don’t think it’s about necessarily leaving a legacy of what movies I’ve made but, you know, it’s about relationships and about the person I’m becoming. That’s what success is about.
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