This interview with Ralph Winter is reprinted from the archives of Infuze Magazine. The interview was done by author Robin Parrish in March 2004.
Ralph Winter has produced more than two dozen films for Hollywood, including blockbusters like X-Men and its sequel X2, Hackers, Planet of the Apes, four of the Star Trek films, Mighty Joe Young, Inspector Gadget, and the upcoming Fantastic Four. He has also worked on lower-budget films like Left Behind and the Frank Peretti novel-turned-film Hangman’s Curse.
As a devoted Christian, Winter is an anomaly in Hollywood. Here he offers us his perspectives on the industry, his many films, the importance of storytelling to culture, how The Passion might change the business, and some exclusive news on upcoming projects, including the first exclusive word of his desire to turn C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters into a movie.
Robin: What does a producer do, exactly?
Ralph: The producer is in charge of taking a movie from idea to the screen, and all of the elements in between. It’s finding an idea, developing it, finding the writer, finding the director, putting the team together, maybe finding the financing. Supervising the development of the idea or the script. Finding out if it’s possible to make it for a certain price, getting the financing and the distribution. Making the film, marketing it. Licensing, publicity, marketing, distribution. The whole deal.
Sounds like you’re kind of a shepherd for stories and storytellers.
Well, it’s very entrepreneurial. It’s like what a real estate developer does. It’s a business here at the studios. You try to figure out how you can actually connect an idea to an audience, and hopefully you get a return on your money, and you get to go make another one.
I was looking over your list of credits, and it seemed to me that in one way or another, most of the films you’ve worked on have been morality plays.
You could say that, sure.
Is that intentional? Do you look for those kinds of stories?
I do look for stories that have a moral center. Those appeal to me. But, you know, I have very pedestrian tastes. I like a lot of different kinds of movies.
How did you get involved with Frank Peretti and Hangman’s Curse?
My partner in Louisville, Joe Goodman, called me and asked if I’d be interested. I had dinner with Frank and his agent, and we hit it off. I’ve been an admirer of his books for years, going back to This Present Darkness. So we hit it off, talking about our philosophies of making movies and how he could be involved with that. And that’s been a tremendously enjoyable process, of having him as part of the team and even being cast in the movie. We feel good about the partnership and look forward to a lot more movies.
So do you have a relationship with Namesake Entertainment [who produced Hangman’s Curse]? I noticed your name on several of their projects.
I do. We originally got hooked up together on the Left Behind movie. And then there’s some other projects that we’ve been working together on. Hangman’s Curse is our second one. We’ll probably do another Frank Peretti book called The Visitation next. I’m not involved in all of Namesake’s projects, but there are a number of them that I’m interested in.
It sounds like you’re at a place in your career where you can pick and choose the projects you want to work on.
A little. I mean, on these smaller-budgeted properties I can. You know, I’m not wealthy, so I have to work. I’ve worked with the studios on these bigger, platform movies, and it’s an invaluable learning experience. I get a lot of experience and connections with that.
Do you enjoy one more than the other?
I don’t know, there’s different aspects to each. The smaller movies are fun because they are small, because you’re more intimately involved with the decision processes. The bigger movies have different kinds of challenges, and with a bigger budget, you have more resources to solve those challenges. Although even at $150 million on some of these movies, it can still be not enough money to really do what everyone wants to do.
How did you get involved with X-Men?
The studio called me and I interviewed with [director] Bryan Singer and [producer] Lauren Shuler-Donner. I liked the script and the team, and we jumped on and pulled off the impossible. Nobody thought we could do a big comic book movie for $75 million. And we did, and it performed well.
Yeah, I seem to recall you guys had to make that first movie really fast, didn’t you?
We did. Fox really wanted to get it into the theaters that summer, so we crunched the schedule to get it done in time. And we managed to kick the ball over the goal line, which felt good.
What is it about the X-Men story that appeals to you?
I think the themes about tolerance, the themes about young people that feel like outcasts and fit in nowhere — those themes appeal to me. How are they going to get through life? How are they going to live? What are the choices and values that they’re going to embrace? Those kinds of things are interesting to me, and it’s fun to see that work out.
Who’s your favorite X-Men character?
Wolverine is my favorite. He’s brash, but there’s a tender heart underneath it that you have to wait for. He’s about justice and fairness, but he’s also this classic hero. I want to go live in that world with Wolverine, because he always seems to know the right thing to do at the right time.
Do you ever get treated differently as a Christian working in Hollywood? Or do they even know?
They know. They’re not really wary of me or anything, I just don’t get invited to all of the parties. And I really have no interest in them. But yeah, I get treated a little differently. People talk a little differently around me. On the other hand, I’m not prudish about my Christianity. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, I don’t have a Bible on my desk. I don’t conduct prayer meetings before we start shooting. So I feel like I’m a pretty normal person. And I hang out with those guys.
So I think when people get to know me, they find out who I am and what I believe. And it’s funny when you’re the boss — people notice what kind of shoes you wear, they notice how you talk, what you talk about… And you’re oblivious to that. You don’t notice. But people talk about it. Sometimes it’s a terrifying responsibility, even in the way you discipline somebody or say something harsh — it has repercussions.
Not that I don’t have a temper and that I don’t fire people and all that. I’ve become aware that you just don’t know when people are watching, you don’t know when people are noticing who you are. Especially when you’re in a position of responsibility.
On the flip side of that, do Christians ever turn their noses up at you when they find out what you do for a living? Because we can be rather prudish about that…
(Laughs.) I do get some of that, like when I worked on Hocus Pocus ten years ago. It was this movie about witches, and I got people saying, “How can you as a Christian work on that movie?” And I had fun engaging those people because, typically they hadn’t seen the movie. They were judging the book by its cover. So I would always say, “You know, watch the movie. It’s about a teenage boy who voluntarily gives up his life for his sister. And the witches get their comeuppance. It all doesn’t turn out the way you think it might. All of those are pointers to the Gospel, and things that you can embrace as a Christian. So maybe you ought to temper your criticism and just go see the movie.” (Laughs.)
But yeah, I got some heat for that. I got into some heated arguments about it. But at the end of the day, what is valuable to me is that I had parents coming up to me saying, “I have worn out my videotape of Hocus Pocus, where can I get another one?” Because there are not many movies for families about Halloween. They just aren’t there. They’re mostly slasher movies, and this is a movie you can play for the kids.
That’s because Christians boycott Halloween…
Yeah, and I have a low tolerance for that. I did not participate in the boycott of The Last Temptation of Christ, because it was just wrong to do that. Particularly without having seen the movie. And now people are guilty of the same thing again with Mel Gibson, on the other side. The ones who supported Last Temptation are now the ones not standing up for Mel’s artistic integrity. You can’t apply the arguments just when it feels right. You have to apply the same criteria on both sides.
As long as you brought it up… What did you think of The Passion?
I loved it. I thought it was stirring up all those cravings inside people who believe in what they’re seeing, but clearly, it’s also stirring up feelings inside people who may not have faith. It’s created questions and discussion at every Starbucks in the country: “What is this about? Is it true? Where can I go find the answers to these questions?”
The big discussion everyone seems to be having now, on the other side of the movie’s success, is what effect is it going to have on the industry. Do you think it can have an effect, or was it a one-time cultural phenomenon?
A little of both. There’s part of it that is a one-time phenomenon. Remember that it comes from a star personality like Mel Gibson. He made it outside of the system, and our culture loves the underdog. So that dynamic is working tremendously for him. For a studio to try to duplicate that… I’m not sure that the same churches that have embraced the idea of Mel Gibson coming and hanging out for a couple of hours after the movie to talk about it, would feel just as open about having a studio executive come and hang out and allowing their church to become a marketing center for a studio movie.
But I do think that all of the studios are looking at an underserved market that is now going to take a billion dollars out of the marketplace, and how they can get a piece of that. So they will look at that in a careful way. I don’t think it’s going to be more Bible stories — at least, I hope it doesn’t become that. I don’t think that’s what we want the studios to be making.
My friend Bill Romanowski, who’s a professor back in Grand Rapids, talks about how hopefully, we’ll have more movies where faith is not the issue, but faith is the context for the story. I think that’s a pretty good distinction. That, to me, seems like the area to develop stories in.
I agree completely. It’s the difference between evangelizing intentionally and simply living out faith for the world to see.
Yes. And I think all that stuff comes through. I think movies are not a good evangelistic tool. They don’t work very well for that. I think the studies show you that art in any form is not a good evangelizer, but it can stir up those cravings, it can get some of those issues to bubble up to the surface.
We’ve developed here with Joe Goodman a 4-hour miniseries on the life of Pontius Pilate, which might actually be a nice counterpoint to The Passion.
Where will we see that?
ABC had it, but they put it in turnaround some time ago. We’re playing with where to take it at the moment. It’s just a script at this point; it hasn’t been shot yet. But it’s a good script, and hopefully it will find a new home in this new environment we have now.
I’ve also been, with another partner, developing The Screwtape Letters.
Which again, might be an interesting counterpoint to the straight-ahead, “Christian” type movies. This would be from a completely different perspective. A little harsher. But again, it could be that kind of a flashpoint for this sort of material.
That would be cool. And C.S. Lewis is very hot right now — they’re making the Narnia movies.
He is, yeah. But there are rights issues to be addressed; I’ve been meeting with C.S. Lewis’ son, to sort that stuff out. But I hope those kinds of stories will get made. And we’re doing more with Frank Peretti and his stories where the characters and the world have this sort of biblical context to it, but again, it’s not about having opportunities in the movie for the sinner’s prayer, or to convert people at the end of the screening.
Not everybody gets that. I think there have been screenings of The Passion around the country where they’ve had pastors show up and they stop in the middle of the movie and talk to people. And I think that’s just wrong. From my perspective as a filmmaker…
That’s the kind of thing you do after the movie’s over. At least let it play out, let the artist make his statement uninterrupted.
Right. Now, on the other hand — and I don’t know how much of this has been done or not — but I think we have probably squandered an incredible opportunity to have free Bibles at the end of a screening. You know, just give them away. All these big Bible associations that have billions of dollars — they should be giving Bibles away at the end of these screenings. What an incredible ministry that could have been.
Like the Gideons — that’s what they do anyway.
Yeah. “You’ve got questions? Here’s the answers.” That kind of thing. I don’t know, I haven’t seen much of that happening here in Hollywood.
I haven’t seen much on the East Coast either, but I have seen lots and lots of crying, lots of people standing around, talking after it’s over. Lots of people walking out of the theater, dazed, not sure what to say.
Which is the powerful part of it, isn’t it? Mel’s movie has created this incredible conversation in our culture.
The second time I went to see it, I went with my care group at church, and there were all these kids in the theater that were running around and screaming during the show. And we couldn’t believe that first of all, parents would even bring young kids to see this movie. But a friend told me after it was over that he was offended by that, because the movie was, to him, almost a holy experience. He felt like there should have been more reverence shown by the audience as the events on the screen played out, and I agree.
You know, I felt that as well. I felt like, in some ways, I was going to a worship service. A lot of people in a dark room for two hours — it felt very similar. And I think you could easily make a case that movies have become the modern worship experience of our culture, where people meet every week at the same time to hear an inspiring story. It gives them something to chat about with their friends during the week.
Totally. The theater is where the teenagers and young adults go these days to have “spiritual” experiences.
And they want to talk about it. Monday morning at school, they all want to be talking about the latest movie they saw. But I think it’s even wider in our culture, where so many people want to talk about it over coffee on Monday morning.
What’s your favorite part about what you do?
The final product. Sitting in a theater with an audience, watching people who are there just to enjoy the film. And they laugh in the right spots or cry in the right spots, if you’ve done your job. It’s fun to make stories that get a reaction out of people. It doesn’t get any better than that.
What’s your least favorite part of what you do?
The waiting. I never knew long it takes to get a movie made — sometimes years waiting for all of the elements to come together. Be it the money or the distribution or the actors or anything else… It’s overwhelming how long that stuff takes to come together.
You can lose your passion for the story after that long.
Exactly! Which makes you choose stuff differently. You want to choose stuff that you don’t have to manufacture passion for. Because it is going to take a long time, and if it’s only a flash-in-the-pan story, or something that is tied to current events and may fade in a couple of years, it’s probably not something you want to engage in as a movie. You can really be disappointed that way.
Okay, I’ve got a list here I want to run down and check on the current status of various projects that you’re attached to.
I have a good friend who will kill me if I don’t ask when we can expect to see X-Men 3.
X-Men 3 is probably Summer ’06. We’re still in the deal-making process with the talent. But Summer ’06 is probably our best target right now.
Do you have a story yet?
No. And if we did, we wouldn’t tell you. (Laughs.)
Of course not! (Laughs.) What’s happening on Nightmare Academy [the second film in Frank Peretti’s Veritas Project series]?
Nightmare Academy is on hold for the moment. Hangman’s Curse [the first film in the series] we think is going to be successful. But we’re more excited about The Visitation [a separate, adult Peretti novel] right now.
What’s happening on that?
We’re going to go into production this summer. The last of the financing should fall into place this week. We’ve made a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. So we’ll be shooting that this summer hopefully to be out — maybe even by spring of next year.
Do you have anyone attached to it yet?
Not yet. The distribution is in place now. Once the money falls into place, then we’ll get into director and actors very quickly.
Are you seeking well-known actors for The Visitation?
Well, again, we’re making these pictures at a very limited budget. The distribution may be similar to Hangman’s Curse, which opened on 18 screens in six markets, and then we expanded out for a while. But I think we might approach it a little differently and try to get up to maybe 20 to 25 screens and try to stay in the market for about six months, and work our way around the country.
At that level of filmmaking, we’ll try to get the biggest stars that we can, that are interested in this kind of story. But it’s fun. It’s a good story, and I think it’s going to have a wider market than Hangman’s Curse, which is basically aimed at high school kids. This is going to be wider.
I could see The Visitation having almost a psychological thriller feel, or even a horror movie without the slasher stuff.
Yeah, it will be right on the edge of that, but we won’t be making an R-rated movie.
Okay, here’s one I’m very interested in, personally. What’s happening with Fantastic Four?
Fantastic Four is heating up very quickly. We’re probably going to be shooting in the fall, probably somewhere in Canada, is my suspicion.
You shot X-Men in Canada, didn’t you?
We did. We shot the first one in Toronto, and the second one in Vancouver. We are looking at other places in Europe, but I think Canada is the most likely place at the moment. We probably, in ten days, will have a director.
I won’t ask you who it is.
Well, we don’t know yet, because we’re still looking at a lot of people, but I think we’ll make a decision inside of the next ten days.
Is it true that Sean Astin’s name was on the list of potential directors?
It is true. His name was on the list, but I really don’t know how serious everybody was about it. I’m not sure. But you know, when a studio begins to launch pictures like this, they talk to a lot of people. Some people are quiet about those conversations, and others are not.
And last on my list: I saw your name attached to an independent movie that looks very intriguing called In My Sleep.
This is a very low-budget movie. A guy named Allen Wolf is writing and directing it.
Is he a Christian? I was looking over the movie’s website, and he never comes right out and says it, but if you read between the lines…
Yep, he is. We’re trying to figure out, again at that low budget level, how to get the financing in place and get this movie made. He’s got some talent already attached, but that may change because you can’t shoot this thing until all of the money is there. So we’ll see how that goes. Allen has actually marketed a game, which is making some money, and he’s done a lot of meetings around the country with Christians to help raise money. And that’s slowly coming in, so we probably have about half the budget right now. And the rest of it may come very quickly.
But it’s a fun little project. It’s serious and thought-provoking. But again, we’re making it for less than the catering budget of X-Men. Hopefully, we can get some product out there that makes a little money and makes the investors happy, so that we can turn it around and go again.
We have another movie coming out on DVD called Shoot or Be Shot, starring Bill Shatner and Harry Hamlin. Bill plays an escaped mental patient with a script and a gun, who wants to get his movie made. And we made it very low-budget, but you know what? It’s going to get out there into the Blockbusters, and we’ll do a little bit, and hopefully we’ll pay back our investors and try to put a little money in Bill’s pocket and go again.
The director of that little movie, Randy Argue, is the guy who first came to me because he’s trying to option Screwtape Letters. Because he wanted to do Screwtape Letters, I said, “You’ve got to do a movie first.” So Shoot or Be Shot was our first movie together. We may even do another movie together; we’re actually talking to TBN about that. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. And if so, it will be just to build up his experience before we get to Screwtape Letters. Because we realize how important and critical that property is and we don’t want to blow it.
One last question. Why do we need storytelling? As a culture on the whole, and as people of faith?
We need stories because it’s part of our DNA. In our western culture, storytelling has been the way we teach our young how to live, how to get through the world, how to find our way. And movies have become the premier storytelling medium.
I think we also, as Christians, have more of that DNA in us than we know or admit to. A good worship service is a retelling of the Gospel story. The drama, the conflict, all of that. I’m not sure we do as good a job of that today as we have in the past. The Bible is really six hundred stories collected together, if you think about it. And all of those stories have enduring power to work at us on one level, and hours, days, months later, explode with deeper meaning inside of us on another level.
I think that’s why stories of all kinds have such lasting value and why they effect us. Jesus used that very effectively in telling parables. Evoking an emotional response and stirring up cravings inside of people that they didn’t know what to do with, except following after him. Stories have that same power today, to do that, and it’s engrained in us. It really is part of our DNA.