STUART HAZELDINE The Shack: A Leap of Faith

The Shack is a story about a man, who due to a tragic loss begins to doubt his faith, and winds up meeting God in a dreamlike reality. Based on the best selling novel of the same title, the film opens in Australian cinemas this week. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Stuart Hazeldine about how it was to bring this ambitious concept to the screen.

“I thought that it is very hard to deal with the problem that when you are making a movie about god,” Hazeldine pauses and contemplates for a second, before continuing, “…cinema is visual medium and god is spirit (and) invisible. So when you have a story where a man meets visual representations of god (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit), in a dimension that is somewhere between Earth and Heaven – that as a conceptual idea is really strong.

“So suddenly you have the opportunity to have a chat about the questions of life. Often films are wish fulfillment (what if I could fly, what if I could time travel), and I think one of the biggest spiritual wish fulfillment that people who believe in God (either passionately or nominally) have is – ‘What if I could meet God and have a proper conversation about all the questions I have?’ ‘Why is there suffering in the world?’ ‘Why have I gone through suffering?’… etcetera.

“It’s something that meant a lot to me, and I felt a lot of people would find it a great way of reflecting on those things.”

Which is not to say that Hazeldine didn’t have concerns about the subject. “I had concerns if we were dealing with too many things, weather we had time to deal with them properly, were they being dealt with in too conversational a way. However there is no perfect vehicle to deal with these things and everyone’s theology differs slightly. I thought the heart of what the story is about is unquestionably positive and unquestionably powerful. I went into it as a leap of faith.”

The result is a film based around the cinematic tropes of magical realism, that explores Christian belief. To bring this to the screen Hazeldine had to work out how to stage the miraculous, and capture it on film.

“I am a believer of trying to use practical effects where you possibly can,” he says.”I also didn’t want Papa’s (God’s) world to be overly CG. My pitch was it to seem like a perfect Oregon day. I didn’t want it to seem like a fantasy world, like Narnia or What Dreams May Come (1998 film), as people would be looking at the scenery rather than the characters and the story.”

The Shack drew the attention of a rather impressive cast, including Octavia Spencer, Sam Worthington and Radha Mitchell. Interestingly enough it sees Spencer playing God the Father, and Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush playing Jesus.

For Hazeldine the primary challenge was to make the questioning seem real, despite the occasionally fantastic nature of the setting. “I was just trying to find the reality and truth for the conversations between Mack (Sam Worthington) and the various members of the Trinity.”

Despite a background in screen writing (including work on Australian director Alex Proyas’ never produced Paradise Lost film – one of those scintillating  “what ifs?” of cinematic history), Hazeldine always planned to be a director. In 2009 he had his start with the psychological thriller The Exam, for which he earned a BAFTA nomination.

“Directing is something you work up to. Although I hope to direct more frequently than a 6 year gap,” he says.

Hopefully this should be the case, as he is already developing a ghost story written by Charles Williams (a contemporary CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien and fellow Inkling) called All Hallows’ Eve.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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