Alex Kendrick has a passion to tell stories about the message of Jesus and redemption. Kendrick and his brothers, Stephen and Shannon, have made six Christian feature films, including “Courageous,” “War Room” and “Overcomer,” which released last month. As an actor and co-writer for the Kendrick Brothers’ films, he is also the director and editor. He and his wife, Christina, live in Georgia with their six children.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
Kendrick was raised in a conservative, Christian home.
His father was a minister, and his mother was a school teacher.
“Growing up, we were very careful about the entertainment choices we had in our home,” Kendrick said. “Most of the movie choices we watched were family friendly, mainly Disney.”
Seeing stories played out on screen led Kendrick to dream about making films.
“I remember falling in love with the concept of storytelling, where you had this emotional or exciting journey to take the audience to the end of the story,” Kendrick added. “I enjoyed being a part of school or church productions we had. I told my parents that I wanted to make movies when I was older. Of course, that concerned them. At the time, in the 1980s, there wasn’t much redeeming entertainment coming out of Hollywood, and that’s still true today.”
During high school, Kendrick and his brothers gave their hearts to the Lord. When Kendrick headed off to college, he left his dream of making films behind.
“I majored in communications, then I went into seminary to go into ministry, and I kind of gave up the dream of making movies someday,” he said. “What I see today was that time was for me to grow, so by the time the Lord would gave that dream back, I was looking at it from a different perspective. Not just wanting to entertain Christians, but rather to have redeeming values to the stories we would tell.”
Kendrick went into full-time youth ministry and became an associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in 1999.
Three years later, he approached his senior pastor with an idea for a film titled “Flywheel,” which unexpectedly took off.
“I said, ‘What if we made a low-budget film for this community’ and that was the extent of my vision,” Kendrick said. “The one thing we did right, because the production is not very high quality, is we bathed that thing in prayer. We prayed like crazy before, during and after. When the movie was shown in our one local theater, it went crazy. So many people came to see it. We started selling DVDs and sold over a million. The next thing we know is we could not make it fast enough.”
The Kendrick brothers next made “Facing the Giants” with Sony Pictures.
The film opened in 400 theaters and earned $10 million.
“We got so much response that we had to hire four additional staff members just to answer emails and phone calls,” Kendrick added. “It came in like a waterfall. From that time until today, I don’t even know if one Sunday has gone by where someone didn’t come to visit the church because of the movies.”
Kendrick had no clue the movies he helped make would change so many lives.
“I had hoped they would be effective and that the Lord would allow them to be seen widely, but I didn’t know how to categorize a certain number,” he said. “At first, you’re thinking about North America, and that’s the culture you’re familiar with. Sony translates most of our movies into a couple dozen languages … We’re able to send these movies to 76 countries now.”
Do you call your movies “Christian films” or films focusing on Jesus?
Regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself, Kendrick is focused solely on the fruit.
“There’s this nice, little debate of, ‘What is a Christian film?’” Kendrick said. “I’ve heard every argument. ‘These aren’t really films, they’re sermons.’ ‘These are Christian films with a great message.’ It doesn’t bother us. We don’t mind however people want to categorize them, but what we’re interested in is the fruit—the people who watch them and what the Lord says and does.”
Kendrick said he would rather have a harder road that bears more fruit than an easier road with less fruit.
“We’ve gotten every possible response from these films,” Kendrick added. “From raging positive to hateful, negative, ‘We wish you would go away.’ I’m encouraged because for a while that was really frustrating, but I’m reminded even Jesus had people who loved and hated Him.”
Screenwriter, filmmaker and actor Alex Kendrick gave us a peek behind the curtain of Christian filmmaking and the creative process.
How does your audience inspire the stories you share?
“The audience out there is extremely diverse,” Kendrick said. “They use different perspectives when watching the film. We know that the core audience that is coming to see these films is the faith audience. That is probably 70% of who walks in the doors. We recognize and embrace that … I can always tell how seasoned a young filmmaker is when I ask them their target audience and they tell me, ‘Everybody.’ That’s why we have genres.”
Kendrick said the primary purposes of his films are to edify the church and to present the Gospel message for people to respond to Jesus.
“At the end of the day, our motivation is not just to entertain the saints,” Kendrick added. “We build them up to give them a picture or visual parable of, ‘What it looks like to strategically pray. What it looks like to fight for your marriage. What it looks like to not give up the faith. What it looks like to find your identity in Christ.’ We go after common people. We do not tell stories of fantasy, but try to tell stories where people can relate to the characters and their journey. Our movies are very organic, meaning we want everyone to feel a little bit of themselves in the screen.”
How do you know if a film will succeed?
“I’m going through it right now,” Kendrick said. “‘Courageous’ did $35 million at the box office. Then, if I tell you I’m going to make a movie about an elderly, black woman’s prayer closet, that doesn’t even sound cinematic, and I don’t even know if I want to see that. I thought “War Room” might be our least attended movie, and it turned out to be No. 1 at the box office and did almost $70 million. So, if you ask me, ‘Which movie is going to work?’ I don’t even know how to answer that question … exactly how each of our movies will register with our audience. All I know to do is to tell the story the Lord is prompting us to tell with a growing level of excellence.”
How do you and your team come up with creative content?
“We have 1,000 ideas, and it’s funny that people give us ideas on a daily basis,” he said. “We are actually flooded with ideas and we ask God, ‘Which one? What do you want to say? What’s the theme?’”
Kendrick used “Overcomer” to share the step-by-step process for storytelling:
Prayer: “While that’s going on, I am coaching my six kids in cross country,” Kendrick said. “I noted that the kids that had their dads cheering them on the sidelines tended to run differently. I’m observing this race after race, and it occurs to me that sometimes life is like that long journey and when we listen to the Father, it’s so refreshing. I was thinking about that correlation the same time the Lord was turning us toward identity in Christ.”
Research: What does it really mean to have identity in Christ? When your career, health, money and relationships can change, Christ is the foundation that is immovable.
Scene selection: “We write a skeleton of a story and individual scenes on colored sticky notes,” Kendrick added. “We put them on a wall and each color represents a mood or feeling that the audience might be experiencing while they’re watching that scene. Is it joy, sadness, inspiration or frustration? By the time you have 70 to 80 scenes, you start ordering them to tell your story and you can look up to see what the audience is feeling.”
Write the finished script.
Scout and cast actors.
Shoot the movie.
Test it with audiences of 30 to 40 people to get feedback: “We’ll go through four or five versions of the movie to get to the one you see in theater,” he said.
For Kendrick Brothers’ films, what makes for good storytelling?
Engaging: Not just entertaining.
Personable: The audience is able to see themselves in the story.
Nutrition for the soul, not eye-candy movies: Encourages the audience to think about life and God after seeing the film.