You've gotta respect a guy who can boss the X-Men around without fearing the wrath of Wolverine.

Ralph Winter

Ralph Winter

Ralph Winter is a towering, authoritative figure in stature and in reputation as a producer of Hollywood blockbusters. He's earned the attention and applause of audiences, actors, film crews, and film studios for producing such favorites as X-Men, X-2: X-Men United, the Planet of the Apes remake, and two of the most beloved Star Trek films (IV and VI). His latest production, Fantastic Four, opens in theaters next week, and he's now working on X-Men 3, coming next May. Winter also produced the Left Behind movie and an adaptation of Frank Peretti's The Visitation, due in September.

But there's more to this big-screen businessman than business. He has a heart to help artists grow and excel, contributing to endeavors at Act One: Writing for Hollywood (a program for aspiring Christian screenwriters), and the media communications program at Biola University, and he devotes himself to the art of short films, cultivating a dynamic community of up-and-coming artists.

Moreover, he's a man of faith known throughout Hollywood for his reputation for professionalism, integrity and kindness.

To talk with Winter is to quickly discern some of the secrets of his success. He speaks with the confidence and authority of experience, and he cuts right to the quick of a matter. We caught up with him just as Fantastic Four moved into post-production and X-3 headed into pre-production. But what he wanted to talk about surprised us—a big screen adaptation that serves quite another, er, purpose.

Web geeks and movie buffs are buzzing with speculation about X-3. Can you give us a hint of what we can look forward to?

Ralph Winter: We will definitely be out on May 26 next year. We have a much better script than the previous installments of X-Men, and that is exciting. Bryan [Singer, director of X-Men and X2] had envisioned this as a trilogy, and now with [new director] Brett Ratner aboard, we will deliver a compelling third movie. We are all pumped about it.

But first, you've got another superhero flick—Fantastic Four. What do you like about it?

Winter:Fantastic Four is a very good movie and will play younger than everyone thinks—I believe that is very good. We have a dysfunctional family that learns to work together, accepting their new powers, but learning to think and act as a family and a team.

Comic book movies seem to be more popular than ever. Why do you think that is?

Winter: Our culture wants to see heroes. This story of Fantastic Four is the origin story, the story of how an everyday person, Reed Richards, has his life changed by this cosmic storm, and gains these powers. How is he going to use them? That's a theme through all of Marvel's stuff, from X-Men's mutants to whatever. How are we going to live now that we have these changes in our life? That's always a pretty interesting story. What if this everyday person was thrust into this situation of potential greatness and harm, and what are the choices they're gong to make?

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Ultimately, it's about us. What choices we would make in that situation? Okay, you're the President of the United States: What are you going to do? What was easy to criticize from afar now becomes a personal struggle for you as president. And to draw people into that for two hours is pretty interesting. When we do the best job at those movies, it resonates with people. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 were pretty good at that. "What is happening to my body?" I thought that whole discovery process with him was fascinating.

Since The Passion of The Christ, there's been so much press about how Hollywood "learned a lesson" about audiences and Christian-themed material. Do you think we really will see things change?

Winter: I think studios will say, "Oh, I think we can do this!" and try to unleash every cheesy little thing they can do. The TV show Revelations seems like a clear jump-on-the-bandwagon thing. The studios clearly see it as a marketing opportunity. That's why this Purpose-Driven Life project is so interesting.

What The Purpose-Driven Life project? Are you making it into a movie?

Winter: Rupert Murdoch [of 20th Century Fox] comes to us and says, "Let's make it. I'll fund it."

How are you going to turn this non-fiction, inspirational volume of life principles into a movie?

Winter: You've got to create a story. Think Grand Canyon—that's probably a good place to start. Find disparate stories that converge and illustrate [one or two of the] principles, find good characters.

That's why I'm a fan of doing a small movie, getting a couple million dollars, and get out there and try an experiment, put our toe in the water with this. If [the first Purpose-Driven movie] works, well, you've got 39 films to make, or 12 more principles, or however many you want.

There are some who are worried about getting a big theatrical release. But let's write the script first, and let's see what that tells us about how big or how small it will be.

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You're involved in a variety of projects. Most are action-oriented, but even those seem "purpose-driven," if you will—grounded in important questions and ideas. What are some of the films that have inspired you or broadened your own personal vision?

Winter: I thought American Beauty was a great movie in the way that it asked questions, the multi-layered effect. Christians rejected the film without even knowing what it was. But I love how it digs down into that story.

Rob Johnston, in his new book Useless Beauty, helped me a lot with his analysis. He looks at how the questions asked by the writer of American Beauty, Alan Ball, are similar the questions of Ecclesiastes. What is beauty? Is it that odorless beautiful rose, or is it that plastic bag? What Rob proposes is the notion of common grace: As opposed to what we thought before, where we read the Bible and then understand culture through that grid, what if you reverse it? What if by watching American Beauty, you gain deeper insight into the Book of Ecclesiastes?

Isn't that similar to the nature of Jesus' parables? They make us look at scripture, and at our lives, in new, sometimes bewildering ways.

Winter: Yes, and they're never about God on the surface.

When movies are about God on the surface, when they're "Christian" art and entertainment, they rarely seem to captivate an audience. Why?

Winter: [Christians] want to dot every "i" and cross every "t" and make sure it's uber-clear what's happened by the end of the story. We've lost the ability to create mystery and wonder.

Movies are not good at giving answers. Movies are great at asking questions. Movies that do that are lasting.

I love the movie Gladiator. It's inspiring. It's a wonderful journey of someone who is sort of an also-ran in the process, but who aspires to greatness and asks the huge questions. It seems to be about "Win the crowd and win your freedom." But I think that movie is truly about love, and not just about choosing. Even when Commodus smothers his dad, what is it that he says? "If you would have loved me, I would have butchered the whole world." He wants love as well—in a different sense than Maximus, but it is about love at some level.

When you talk about the need for Christians in Hollywood, are you talking about screenwriters, primarily?

Winter: In writing and directing, we just don't have the material. We don't have the talent. It takes time to develop and cultivate material and get it out there. Some of the movies we've been able to do at Fox are due to having some Christians in that organization who stir up that stuff inside the organization. We need Christians inside the studio.

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We need more Christian agents who are out there developing and finding material, cultivating it, [people] with moderate integrity. We need good examples in all areas of business.

The people at Act One, like Barbara Nicolosi, are doing that. Scott Derrickson has written for Jerry Bruckheimer, Wim Wenders, and Martin Scorsese. Now he's written and directed his own piece, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, with Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson, and it's good. He's one of the guys who is the epitome of up-and-coming directors. We need more like him.

Some of these are R-rated films, due to language, violence, and sexuality. What do you say to Christians who object to the whole idea of R-rated material?

Winter: Don't read the Bible! It's R-rated too! That's more of a cultural problem, though. How we separate our cultural religion in America from true faith in Christ is always going to be a struggle, I think—politically and in the arts. Nobody wants to admit that we live in an R-rated world.

But there are a lot of films with gratuitous ugliness and misbehavior on the screen. How do you distinguish between responsible and irresponsible portrayals of evil?

Winter: It's about the integrity of the story. What is it that is necessary in order for the story to be told? I don't know how to make a PG version of Braveheart. Mel Gibson took a risk with The Passion—and made the R-rated movie that it probably was in real life. We can argue about "Where's that line?" But crucifixion is a gruesome thing. How do you tell a mafia story without the language? How do you tell Braveheart without that kind of violence? Not everyone has to go see it, but that's the story.

On the other hand, maybe the story doesn't deserve to be told. Maybe people are telling stories they don't need to tell. I don't think we need to see every movie. A movie has become a product—something we consume without even thinking about it. It takes a lot for movies to stand out for us, to rise above the noise level. People don't pursue it from that artistic standpoint. They pursue it from a commercial standpoint. That's the danger of being sucked in. We become part of the culture, making stuff that has no redeeming value. Only our great storytellers can [nourish] us.

One more question—perhaps the most important of all: In a street fight, who would win: The Fantastic Four, or the Incredibles?

Winter: In a street fight, the Fantastic Four might take 'em, since they have been around since the '60s. We like to think of the Incredibles as derivative, and that the Fantastic Four are the original deal. I put my money on Reed Richards and his gang.

(For an extended version of this interview, visit Looking Closer.)