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Friday, March 3, 2017

Press Junket Potluck: Octavia Spencer & William Paul Young's spiritual trip to The Shack

Film Flam Flummox

The Shack movie poster

Stuart Hazeldine's adaptation of William Paul Young's bestselling novel The Shack is, by textbook definition, a Christian film, centering around the crisis of faith of one Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) after he loses one of his children--and himself--in an unspeakable tragedy. But as seen in Young's novel and now Hazeldine's film, Mack's journey to greater spiritual understanding and enlightenment is unlike most depictions of such stories and explorations of such themes, for it comes by way of a weekend trip to the secluded shack of the title, where no less than God Himself--or, rather, Herself, in the very female form of Octavia Spencer, going by the name of "Papa"--resides with Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire). Young and Spencer discussed that atypical approach along with the overarching universal themes and intent of its story at a press day last month in Beverly Hills.

Divine Inspiration

"I've always been a writer, but like anybody you write stuff for your friends and family, poetry, short stories. [My wife] had been saying for about four years, "Someday, as a gift for our children, just write something that puts in one place how you think because you think outside the box." And I really didn't feel healthy enough until the year I turned 50. I was working three jobs, and I had 40 minutes on the train, and I had nothing for Christmas. We were at a very great place of contentedness in not having anything, which was a huge journey in itself. I wrote [the novel] mostly on the train and got it done, made my 15 copies at Office Depot as a gift for Christmas. I'm not a trained writer. I learned to write by reading; that's where I learned. I've never taken the classes. I never intended to be a published author. So when I wrote this, it was simply a way to say--because my kids love story, because I think everybody loves story--let me tell you about the God who showed up and filled my heart, and not the religious God I grew up with."
--William Paul Young

Building the Shack, Literally and Metaphorically

"We camped with the kids. I wrote it for them, so I used all kinds of places they're familiar with. We'd run into this thing in the woods, some hunter's cabin or whatever. So I started [writing the novel] with the conversations, all of the questions that I had, and this dialogue between me and God about loss and forgiveness, and those conversations became living. But then it became time [to figure out] who's asking and why, and that's where Mackenzie, who embodies my own losses, came about. So what's the setting? And in thinking about the setting, the shack suddenly made perfect sense. It's a place where you get stuck; it's our house on the inside; it's our broken soul. It's a place where I believe God has inhabited the entire time because God dwells with us. And what we do is we want to avoid the place of our darkness, where we hide our secrets, where we store our addictions. We don't want to deal with it. Our unforgiveness is there. Our shame is there. It's this broken down place we never want to go back into. But for our healing--we have to go back into that place. It is your soul, and that's what God loves, who God loves. He does not love our presentation of our best performance somewhere outside. We have to go back in here and co-create some healing, so that you can be free to be comfortable inside your own skin and at home inside your own soul."
--William Paul Young

Papa Does Preach

"For me, it was a huge undertaking, and I actually had to try to figure out a way into the character. So what I did was basically boil it down to the relationship between Mack and Papa, and it felt very parental to me. So I basically did the work as if I were his foster mom who failed him, and then it was about building those bridges so that he could trust me again."
--Octavia Spencer

"I cannot even imagine Papa not being Octavia. She embodies what I was wanting: this embrace but still in-your-face. It's the true understanding of what a parent's love is all about, that will constantly pursue you and won't stop even though you're pushing back, and filling up all the holes of the things we've lost along the way in maybe our own relationships with our own parents. Octavia is fantastic."
--William Paul Young

The Shack's Other Residents

"I have no second thoughts or regrets about any of the choices that were made, and I thought [they] just come across so powerfully. They really put their hearts into it. Tim McGraw [as Mack's best friend], Sam Worthington, Radha Mitchell [as Mack's wife], Sumire as the Holy Spirit, Aviv Alush--we have a Jew playing Jesus; who'd have thought, you know? [laughs] "
--William Paul Young

"I'm very glad that they cast an Israeli as Jesus, and the thing about Aviv is that he has this beautiful personality. If you believe that Jesus is the light of the world, Aviv is definitely the man you want to play him because he has just this everyman light, and when you're around him he just fills the room with joy. He's devout. He's just a beautiful, beautiful person. I'm glad that I got to meet him and work together, and he was a lot of fun to work with, he and Sumire. It was wonderful working with Sam. He was a brand new father when we were doing this. I think the baby was only about six to eight weeks old; tiny. [The baby] being so young, he was exhausted because he wasn't really on a sleep schedule. And he was very vulnerable, which is what the character had to be. He was a sweetheart and very open to finding the truth in the scenes--and that's what you want in a scene partner: a person who's ready to go everywhere to get to the truth."
--Octavia Spencer

The Guiding Spirit of Director Stuart Hazeldine

"Stuart is a great collaborator. We didn't have a lot of rehearsal time because we were all coming from different sets and different periods, so there was not a lot of rehearsal time prior to shooting. But while we were there, we took our time and worked on the scenes that required it. He was very collaborative and allowed us to find our footing in the scenes."
--Octavia Spencer

A Story for Everyone

"I wouldn't be doing the movie if I didn't believe in the messages of it. I think we all face challenges, and I think agnostics can approach this film and learn from it as well. You realize that we all face challenges, and Mack has a huge challenge that he's facing: the loss of a child. I'm not a parent, but for my friends and family that are, their nightmare is to lose a child. So you have a man who suffers this tremendous loss; he had such a tumultuous childhood; and he loses a child, and so he loses faith. He loses faith in himself. He loses faith in God. And by doing that, he basically becomes paralyzed in his own life and shuts down. And so his family suffers from that; his daughter also shuts down. So it's about learning to forgive yourself and also learning that if you are ever a person who ever questions God, there's also a way to be able to forgive God. I don't think you necessarily have to be a religious person to understand the message about grief and guilt being a paralytic. If you don't correct that course, you will stay in a state of distress and be unable to grow. And I think that is something anybody can identify with."
--Octavia Spencer

The Last Word

"Everything that matters to me--identity, work, value, significance, security, meaning, purpose, destiny, community, love--those were all in place before I wrote the book. The book didn't give me those things, for which I am so grateful because I can see what a black hole that can be. But what it did give me is it gave me an invitation into the holy ground of other people's stories. I tell people I think that's why we're born barefoot. We're designed to be inside the story of the other, and that invitation and ripples of it--I am so grateful [for that]. It is a kindness and a generosity to me that is too beautiful for words."
--William Paul Young

The Shack opens today, Friday, March 3, in cinemas nationwide, from Summit Entertainment.

Buy The Shack movie poster here.
Buy The Shack soundtrack here.
Buy The Shack novel here.
Buy The Shack audiobook here.

Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer
(photo by Michael Dequina)

(Special thanks to Lionsgate)

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