David Nixon spent 30 years producing and directing commercials and documentaries to prepare him for taking the helm on the feature film Letters to God. All that experience built his craft and honed his skills so he and his crew can create real life situations that touch hearts and minds. Before leading the work on Letters to God, he was a co-producer and assistant director on Sherwood Pictures' Facing the Giants and Fireproof. David took the time to answer some questions about his background, the challenges he faced with this film, and the difference between working on commercial projects and Christian films.
Production Challenges Prepare for the Future
Advice for Christian Filmmakers Faith Journey
What are some of your hopes for this film and others like it?
David: My dream has always been to use motion pictures to present the gospel. There’s a magical thing that happens when you sit in a dark room with 100 strangers for 90 minutes and are mesmerized by the flickering images on the silver screen…you get your perceptions changed and you heart touched. That’s why I’m making these movies. To connect people with God in a relevant way.
This movie shows how an 8 year old going through cancer can have a relationship with God and gain such strength. I’m hoping it opens up a whole new world to those seeking God, and give strength to those going through a similar struggle.
What do you want viewers to leave the theater thinking about or feeling?
David: My hope is that the audience will leave the theatre with a new perspective on prayer…if a little 8 year old going through cancer can write simple prayers to his best friend, God, every day, then anyone can pray to the God of the universe. And I’m hoping that the audience sees themselves up on screen, whether they’re the down and out mailman, or the mother, or the grandmother, or the older brother, or the best friend…and gains some insight into faith though those characters.
What was the most challenging aspect of producing and directing this film?
David: To be believable…from the cancer and medical side, and the family dealing with this horrible disease, to the alcoholic mailman and his dark life. You’re really drawn into the lives of these characters and are affected by them when they fall, and when they soar. If we’ve achieved that, we’ve succeeded.
Speaking of the characters, what were you looking for when you cast for the movie? How did you recognize the actors who would play the young boy and the postal worker?
David: We cast in Los Angeles & Orlando, and were blessed with a huge pool of great talent. We didn’t have a large budget, but so many great actors said “I’ve been waiting for a project like this for years”. It was tough to choose between our top picks.
I was looking for a young boy with an angelic face that would melt your heart when you saw him, and we got that with Tanner McGuire. He did a fabulous job of not overstating the role, but playing it true. Patrick Doughtie, the father of the real Tyler, was blown away with how Tanner’s looks and mannerisms were so much like his son’s. There were many times on set when Patrick was overwhelmed with emotion because Tanner was so real.
With the Brady character, I as looking for someone that could make you believe he was an alcoholic, but also make you want him to be a better person…to cheer for him when he was getting his life together. Jeffrey Johnson did a masterful job of showing his character arc from down and out, to loveable hero. Jeffrey became Brady.
It's an often-mentioned fact that working with children and animals presents the greatest challenges to a director. How do you approach that challenge, and do you have advice for others who face that?
David: Working with kids and animals is challenging. They give you the most incredible imagery, and the most memorable moments, but be prepared to change your plan when things aren’t working out. What we do is rehearse and rehearse and rehearse without them, so we can be spontaneous with them.
And remember, both kids and animals have a very short window of energy. So you can’t work them very long, before you get into diminishing returns. Shoot the rehearsal and be flexible. If you’re flexible enough to see an opportunity when it arises, and go with it, you may just create some magic!
As producer and director, you have a lot of control over the production process, but you also release different aspects of the production to others. Is it difficult to hand off something that's kind of your baby to someone else?
David: One of the most enjoyable aspects of creating a project like this is the collaboration of experts in their respective fields, whether it's cinematography or lighting, or music, or production design, or editing, etc.
It's fun to hand off the project to them at the appropriate time and see how their skill takes it to a new height that you could never have imagined. You can either hold on to it tight to yourself and it will only ever be as good as in your head, or let it go and let others make it so much better.
You spent so many years producing and directing commercials and documentaries. How did that experience prepare you for feature productions?
David: All that experience honed my skills and built my craft to the point where my crew and I can create these real life situations that touch hearts and minds. Execution is so important. You can’t let the camera or the performance get in the way, or the audience will see right through it…it has to come off real. And the audience has to care about those characters on screen. You have to empathize with them, cry with them, laugh with them. When you forget that you’re watching a movie, we’ve done our job well.
You've worked on general market films, commercials, and films with Christian producers. What differences do you see between those disciplines?
David: The big difference between working on a secular project and this is the God factor. We pray about everything. Pray over the scripting, pray over the pre-production, pray at the start of each shoot day, pray when things break down, pray over the editing, pray over the marketing, etc. Because we know that no matter how good the writing is, the photography is, the music is, etc, if God’s not in it, it won’t touch hearts…and that’s the only reason we’re doing it. So, even though we’re good at what we do, and we should be the best for God, we want to make sure that it’s His movie, and that we’re going in the right direction for Him. If we have His favor, He can take our talents, and use them to turn people to Him.
In what areas would you encourage Christian producers to grow? And how do you think Christian producers can best influence the general market? Should they even try?
David: I would encourage Christian filmmakers to hone their skills to be the best they can be…because you have to have excellent execution, no matter what your budget is…and make sure that they bathe their projects in prayer.
My hope is that Christian producers will influence the general market. If we can make films that everyone will want to see, that show Christianity in a positive light, and show how God wants to have a relationship with us, we will influence the general market. That’s how culture gets changed, through poignant, real, thought provoking media that shows Christians going though difficult times and turning to the bible, instead of the bottle.
Finally, could you share part of your own personal faith journey with us?
David: I grew up in Australia with missionary parents. My Dad is an evangelist/bush pilot, and for the past 50 years has flown into the outback to bring the gospel to the little dusty cattle stations and mining towns of the interior of Australia. I grew up in that environment and accepted the Lord as my Savior as a 7 year old in a little one room Sunday School class. I came to the US to go to college and it was there that God gave me the dream to use motion pictures to tell the gospel.