In July 2009, Timothy Ratajczak and I were both pretty happy with our budding career in the faith-based films. We were very happy with our drama "Hidden Secrets." We were very happy with the original edit of our comedy "Holyman Undercover," although we were both displeased with the later edits which attempted to remove any objectionable humor from the film. Fortunately, we felt we rebounded with our pro-life drama "Sarah's Choice." The question was: What's next? Quite a bit actually.
The next ten months would be a tremendous blur of work while the country suffered under the effects of the recession. The films "The Encounter," "Run On," "Marriage Retreat" and "Brother White" would all be developed and written, somewhat simultaneously, but at a heavy cost and much travail. One of us would nearly die. (The other one of us would die later.) One of us would become disillusioned and walk temporarily away from the Christian movie business. (It would take a lot more to disillusion the other one, but in time....)
The first project Tim and I were offered after finishing "Sarah's Choice" was an adaptation of television evangelist John Hagee's book "Jerusalem Countdown." PureFlix bought the rights to the non-fiction book and intended to use it as a basis for a fictional End Times thriller. It was a good business decision. Independent faith-based films, without a sizable advertising and marketing budget, live or die on the recommendations and support of national ministries. Hagee was known for his end times teaching and was very supportive of the PureFlix film "In The Blink of an Eye." He bought a large number of copies to give to his audience in return for donations. Additionally, Hagee devoted an entire program to promoting the movie. (I even wrote that program.) That said, we were not going to write "Jerusalem Countdown." Why? Tim and I were both raised Catholic, and Tim still went to the Catholic Church. He despised Hagee's outspoken and sometimes irrational anti-Catholic bigotry. He flat out refused, and I stood by him. (We almost did a rewrite on the disastrous first draft of the script out of friendship to the producer David A.R. White, but politics with the director and original writer happily prevented us from doing so. From the final film, however, I could tell that they acted on some of our notes.)
On July 19th, Tim and I received an email from David A.R. White. It contained a six-page treatment for a film called Proof. The treatment was written by Brad Stine and John Sullivan. We knew and liked the comedian Brad Stine. He gave us a great performance in "Sarah's Choice," and we had already talked about writing a movie with him away from the umbrella of PureFlix. We didn't know John Sullivan personally, but we were familiar with a theatrically released documentary film he had produced starring Ben Stein called "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." He would later hit pay dirt with "2016: Obama's America."
|God's Comic: Brad Stine|
Starting to sound like another movie? The biggest difference between Proof and the main plot of "God's Not Dead" was who did the debating. Narratively speaking, it would be ideal for the persecuted student Josh (same name in both stories) to do the debating himself, but since the film was intelligently designed as a starring vehicle for Brad Stine, the professor had to defend the student.
Tim and I submitted a revised treatment to David a couple weeks later on August 4th. It was approved by PureFlix and Brad. Contracts were written up and dutifully signed. The project seemed greenlit. PureFlix rarely spent money on scripts they didn't intend to produce. Tim and I went to work. We were quite excited about the project. It was right in our wheelhouse. Tim and I both enjoyed apologetics and comedy. This film would have plenty of both.
We began writing it. Then tragedy struck about halfway through -- the same week "Sarah's Choice" was released. Tim was diagnosed with leukemia. This was serious business and Tim soon found himself in the hospital battling for his life while writing projects began to pile up. In addition to Proof, we were already discussing "Marriage Retreat," "Brother White" and putting the finishing touches on David White's new one-man-show "Prodigal" -- which would be the basis for his segment of the film "Run On."
Tim was very sick. I was concerned that the burden of the work would be too much for him, but he wanted to continue and we did when he got out of the hospital. By that time, David had sent us the original treatment for "The Encounter." That film was now the one with the heat. David wanted us to put Proof aside and start immediately on "The Encounter." We objected. We were already halfway through Proof. We thought it was very promising and we wanted to finish it. However, David was insistent. We moved over to "The Encounter." We did, after we completed the first draft of that script, we went back and finished Proof.
Tim and I quickly finished the second half of the script. There was one interesting change from our original conception which was written prior to Tim's illness. In the treatment, our atheist professor had a wife who died a result of cancer. (As opposed to God's Not Dead, where the atheist's mother died.) In this first draft, written after Tim's illness, the wife miraculously survives. Tim wanted it that way, and I couldn't argue against it.
We sent the script to David. He had no real notes on it. He said Brad would walk us through a rewrite after we finished up with the other films. We got some initial notes from Brad and found ourselves in agreement with them, but the rewrites never happened. The project went from green to red without any explanation. We were too busy to worry about it.
Then I started hearing rumors about "God's Not Dead." I heard that it had the same central plot as Proof. Brad and John heard the same thing, and they were understandably concerned. I later heard that PureFlix never even purchased their original treatment. That was insane to me. Why would they pay Tim and I to write a screenplay based on a property they didn't even own? And now they were making another film on the same subject....
It couldn't be a coincidence. PureFlix isn't a massive multinational corporation moving in twenty directions at once. It only has four principal partners, David A.R. White, Michael Scott, Russell Wolfe and Elizabeth Travis. (Back then, Byron Jones was also a partner.) They all know about the projects in development. David obviously knew about it. So did Russ. He was copied on some of our emails. I was hearing so much whispering that I decided to investigate myself. I knew and respected Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, the screenwriters of "God's Not Dead." I know them to be men of Christian integrity and they were genuinely surprised to hear about Proof. They assured me they had never read the script and explained how they had worked out the plot lines in conjunction with Hunter Dennis. I believed them and offered my opinion on the subject to anyone who asked.
Honestly, it wouldn't have mattered to Tim or I whether Cary and Chuck saw our script or not. We obviously wanted to see our movie made but it ultimately wasn't our idea. Our property. It was a work for hire. Tim and I did our work and got paid. Although, one could argue, we were cheated out of our contracted points when they dumped this film for the other one. But at least we got something. I do feel bad for Brad and John. They weren't paid for their original treatment and now, because of its remarkable similarity to "God's Not Dead," they can't exploit it elsewhere without being derided as copycats.
Oh well. That's Hollywood.
And Tim and I had more movies to write!
"The Encounter," Part 2, The Writing
Read about the making of my previous features:
Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God. It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.