Watch Deleted Scenes From The Case for Christ as Screenwriter Shares Secrets From Hit Drama
Following a successful run in movie theaters worldwide, The Case for Christ was recently released on DVD and digital platforms. Starring Mike Vogel (Cloverfield, The Help) and Erika Christensen (Parenthood), the biopic centers on a Chicago Tribune reporter in the 1980’s whose life takes an unexpected turn due to his wife’s newfound faith.
He’s not the only one in for surprises. Based on a book packed with apologetics ideas, the film goes for emotional depth over stodgy academia. Veteran screenwriter Brian Bird weaves multiple threads together: a marriage in crisis, a reporter investigating a cop shooter, and a skeptic’s odyssey to deal Christianity a death blow.
With dozens of film credits over the past thirty years, Bird is the rare producer who evades clichés common in faith-centric films. In a new interview, he takes The Stream behind-the-scenes of crafting the story with author Lee Strobel — and even offers insights into deleted scenes.
We’ve all seen those films where a good-hearted man of faith clashes with an angry, devious atheist. What makes The Case for Christ different?
Brian Bird: In this story, the hero’s quest is opposite of what we normally find. The hero is an agnostic who’s trying to save his wife from what he thinks is a cult in her life. Lee Strobel was trying to debunk Christianity to save his wife from herself.
In his view, she’s been the victim of a big con job so he’s going to try to rescue her. Usually the person who’s attacking people of faith is the bad guy. But in this case, he’s an anti-hero for awhile and we begin to love him along the way.
He’s not an atheist with horns and a tail; this guy cares about his family. He’s a man who has a big father wound, which informs a lot of his antagonism to faith. You feel sympathy for him.
For his wife, Lee’s hard-headed, dry, scientific, rational approach to the world wasn’t enough, especially in light of her existential crisis. But when Leslie becomes a believer, she makes mistakes. She gets angry and defensive and she comes on too strong with Lee.
It’s what distinguishes this film from the way other people have told stories of a marriage on the rocks. There are no black hats or white hats, just folks trying to figure things out in a very confusing world.
At points in the movie, Lee Strobel comes across as an awful person. Are he and his family uncomfortable with some scenes?
Bird: While it’s hard to see yourself depicted on-screen, Lee and Leslie were all for it. They said, if anything, it was sanitized from the real experience. Lee was a profane, drunken guy back in the day. We had to tone some of that down. This depiction, while it has some uncomfortable edges and moments, is not as bad as it might have been.
Lee has told the story of his father wound in his books. His family understood that was part of his experience, and we needed to tell it. We did film some illuminating scenes that didn’t make the final movie. There was so much story, we had to leave some on the cutting room floor.
There’s a deleted scene that came out of their experience where, on the evening of his high school graduation, young Lee was caught by his father. He had stolen some money from his dad to buy a motorcycle. His dad owned an insurance agency, so he had absolutely forbid Lee to own a motorcycle. Lee had tricked him and lied to him.
So Lee pushed some buttons. Then his father told him he didn’t have enough love for him to fill his little finger. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Lee. He got on that motorcycle, left home and never looked back. He never reconciled with his father.
Some were concerned that the film not depict Lee’s father in a horrible light; Lee didn’t want us to overdo it or underdo it. Both Lee and Leslie love the happy medium we struck in how their story is portrayed.
How close is this film to the real-life events that occurred?
Bird: When you’re building a three-act, two-hour movie out of a true story, you have to compress events. The film schedule and budget are also factors. So you take the spirit of something that happened, read between the lines and adapt it. That was the case with little Alison’s choking incident that opens the film.
The Strobels love how we didn’t just invent everything, but we tried to stay as true to events as we possibly could.
What really happened to Lee and Leslie’s family? They went to an amusement park in Chicago when Alison was five years old, when Leslie was pregnant with Kyle. And they lost her for three hours. Imagine losing your five year-old in a crowded amusement park, not knowing if a predator has taken her or if she’s injured or looking for you. It’s a heartbreaking thing.
We needed to do something akin to that, which would give us the same value in terms of being a catalyst for Lee and Leslie. So we had to come up with our version of the inciting incident. That’s what led to Alison choking in the restaurant with the family.
Lee and Leslie were deeply organic to the process of telling this story. Lee has said: “Eighty-five percent of the film comes right out of our lives.” They love how we didn’t just invent everything, but we tried to stay as true to events as we possibly could.
In a scene near the end, a man who’s been hurt by Lee’s actions tells him: “You didn’t see because you didn’t want to see.” How does this reflect larger themes?
Bird: I absolutely love that moment. It really pushes us into the climax of the story.
In doing research with Lee, I had him in my office for four days. We tried to unpack everything we could possibly understand about his story. When I heard about his investigation of a cop shooting, I told PureFlix, I told everybody: We absolutely have to do this story — it has to be in the movie.
When he was at the Chicago Tribune, Lee was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on this cop shooter story. And it was really happening at the same time in Lee’s experience as he was going on this deep dive to debunk Christianity. We realized these two stories could dovetail in a powerful way.
Lee’s blinders when he first covered that story for the Tribune were similar to blinders he had about Christianity. He didn’t want to see the truth in Christianity — just like he didn’t want to see the truth about his presuppositions about this case with James Hicks. Lee’s Tribune article led Hicks to go to jail before Lee finally realized there was more to it. He could’ve missed the true story about what really happened when that cop was shot.
That scene is the metanarrative. Our ego, our pride gets in the way of us totally opening ourselves up to the truth in this world. That happened for Lee and it happens for most people.
With The Case for Christ being the film title, have you heard from people who came into it as skeptics?
Bird: The film title was a question that came up with the production team. But of his twenty-five or so books, this is the most significant Lee Strobel has written. The Case for Christ is the title of this man’s life. You can’t walk away from that.
Yes, this is a title that’s right in your face. No doubt about it. But we showed this film to some mixed focus-group audiences, people who were not in our faith tribe already. We heard that they loved the movie — title and all.
The test screening included a handful of agnostics in the crowd. We tested two versions of the film ending. There was a version that didn’t fully show Lee’s conversion scene. We cut it where Leslie hugs him before he says that honest prayer. We wanted to make sure we weren’t being manipulative or turning it into a propaganda piece, right?
And it was the agnostics in the room who said: No, you have to give the whole story! Because it’s like in a romance, if you don’t get to the kiss, you haven’t told the full story. They basically told us that his prayer is the kiss in this love story between heaven and earth. So the agnostics helped us make the right choice.
How can this film be a starting point for people to share their own faith story?
Bird: I’ll be the first to say I’ve been shy about sharing my testimony. Most people are, because it’s hard to do personal evangelism with people, to share your faith journey.
We believe the gospel is ultimately the cure for everything. Salvation through the Cross is the most important message in the entire universe. Yet we keep our trap shut for the most part, on a personal level. I’m as guilty of that as anybody.
For me, this movie was a way to tell somebody else’s story but also to be able to say: This is my story too. I want to have a legacy in my life of sharing stories that move people closer to God. Every one of us could share this with somebody else as a bridge.
Until I moved to Colorado, my pastor for 20 years was Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Southern California. That’s where I got to know Lee Strobel, when he was a teaching pastor there. Rick once told me regarding my work in film and television, Brian, if all you do is ask great questions and stir up people’s cravings and drive them to the door of my church, I’ll finish the job. God will do the rest.
For me, that’s the importance of this movie: as a tool to start a deeper conversation. The rest of the story has to be delivered by flesh-and-blood people in loving relationship.
We’ve brought the loaves and fishes, me and the other team members on this project. We now lay it at the Savior’s feet and ask Him to multiply it into eternity.
The Case for Christ is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms.