From Fireproof to Florida
ORLANDO—Coming off the improbable box-office success of his last two films—Fireproof and Facing the Giants—producer David Nixon felt as though he had stumbled onto an underserved market: Christian filmgoers.
So Nixon founded an independent production company, switched from the producer's chair to the directors, and set out to make a series of three more faith-based films. The first, Letters to God, is the based-on-a-true-story tale of Tyler, a 9-year-old boy stricken with brain cancer who writes his prayers to God in the form of letters.
CT Movies recently visited the set of Letters to God, now shooting near Orlando, where we spoke with Nixon and others affiliated with the family film, scheduled to release in spring 2010.
The venture marks a departure from Nixon's work with Sherwood Pictures, the small—and almost all-volunteer—studio at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., behind the indie hits Fireproof and Facing the Giants.
"We said, if we're going to continue to make all these movies, let's find a way to pay the crew," Nixon says. "Sooner or later you need to find real actors."
Sherwood did not have the resources to take part in Letters to God, says Nixon, so he drew on the fundraising prowess of executive producer Tom Swanson. Swanson pulled together 15 Christian investors to raise $10 million for the first three films from Nixon's new studio, Possibility Pictures.
Now Nixon has a production budget of $3 million, a cast of professional actors, and an ambitious goal to reach families of cancer patients across the U.S.
He says Letters to God isn't a "cancer movie," but a movie about prayer. "I love the idea that if a boy going through a horrible disease would have the strength to write a prayer, why not anybody?" says Nixon.
In the story, Tyler's letters wind up in the hands of a disillusioned mail carrier, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey S. S. Johnson), who is assigned to a new route in Tyler's neighborhood. As McDaniels wrestles with his own demons, he also tries to figure out what to do with the letters. Ultimately, Tyler's faith profoundly affects McDaniels and others in his community.
The real Tyler's story
The screenplay was written by Patrick Doughtie, a construction-company owner from Nashville, Tenn., whose son, Tyler, died at age 9 of brain cancer.
When tests revealed a BB-sized shadow on Tyler Doughtie's brain in January 2003, he was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, the most common form of brain tumor among children with cancer. After radiation and four rounds of chemotherapy, Tyler went into remission for nine months. But in May 2004, the cancer signaled its return as Tyler began having violent seizures. Tyler died in March 2005.
Through it all, Tyler clung to faith, his father said. "He had a gentle soul," Doughtie says. "He loved God and knew who his heavenly father was, and that was the inspiration behind the film."
During the long months of his son's suffering, Patrick Doughtie began journaling. "I started out very strong," Doughtie remembers. "Then reality sets in once they tell you it's come back. I started to question what God's motive was."
Six weeks after Tyler's death, depression set in. Doughtie spent nearly two years in its grip. During that time, Doughtie himself was diagnosed with a nonaggressive form of leukemia. When his despair caused his wife and children to pull away from him, Doughtie realized he had to change. In January 2007, he rededicated his life to God.
Shortly afterward, Doughtie felt compelled to document his son's life. He thought about writing a book, but was intimidated by how long it might take. On a whim, he took a screenwriting course. He finished writing two weeks after starting.