QUESTION #1: ACQUAINT
There’s much more to a meal than palate and preference. How does your go-to order at your favorite hometown restaurant reveal the true you behind the web bio?
I grew up in Tampa, Florida. You may not know it, but Tampa was a haven for Cuban exiles before Miami was on the map. Cuban cuisine has always been close to my heart—and my stomach! I remember savoring Spanish bean soup at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City with my grandfather, the tasty Cuban sandwiches made on medianoche bread, which we often had for lunch, and María Vicari’s homemade flan, the pièce de résistance for any meal served at home. There you have it. Cuban and Mediterranean cuisine—these are my favorites (followed in quick succession by Mexican and Jamaican cooking).
QUESTION #2: REVEAL
We’ve all got quirky proclivities and out-of-the-way interests, but we tend to hide them. What do you love doing that might surprise (or shock) people?
Nature, animals, children. These are my go-tos in life, where I invariably find peace and contentment. Walking down a wooded trail or through a lonely stretch of land or ambling by the sea is, for me, like listening to music. I hear sounds and feel sensations that speak to me. I allow my mind to wander at such times and attach itself to thoughts and emotions that take me by the hand and help me commune with my Maker. Something similar happens when I’m around animals. In my opinion, Francis of Assisi did speak with the animals; it’s not just a cute story. Having said that, I confess I do not care for some reptiles and spiders! And children—they are my heart. My wife says I’m a child. She’s mostly right, I think. For many years now, my chief goal in life has been to be an educated child.
QUESTION #3: CONFESS
Every superhero has a weakness. Every human, too. We’re just good at faking it. But who are we kidding? We’re broken and in this thing together. So what’s your kryptonite and how do you hide it?
They’re called the big three: money, sex, power. Any one of them (not to mention two or all three together) can conspire to bring the strongest and brightest among us crashing to the ground. We need to look no further than King David in the Bible. He loved women to excess, and while God never stopped loving David, there were consequences to his actions. His family life was a disaster. If I am honest, and you have asked me to be honest, money and power don’t mean much to me, but the fairer sex—I have to be mindful of my vulnerabilities in this area. I find there are two things that help me keep my head above water, and they both tie in with Scripture and my Christian faith. The first is that when we are “clothed” in Christ, we are neither male nor female; rather, we are one in the Lord (Galatians 3:28). That being the case, I strive first and foremost to look into the heart of everyone I meet—not the outward appearance.
The second thing that helps me stems from childhood. Though I never served in the military, as a child I was fascinated by military history and the idea of the honorable warrior, a man under authority who follows orders even if it is to his death. I have given my sacred pledge to be true to my wife. Of course there is love between us! But I do not, for one moment, minimize the importance of honor in relationship with a Greater Power. I am a man under authority, and I break ranks or suffer indiscipline to my shame.
QUESTION #4: FIRE UP
Tell us about your toil. How are you investing your professional time right now? What’s your obsession? And why should it be ours?
I’ve written hundreds of poems, stories, and screenplays; I’m still trying to write a good one. I’ve made dozens of films; I’m still trying to make a good picture. I’ve acted in films, commercials and on stage; I’m still trying to deliver a good performance. I don’t suspect I’ll ever “arrive,” but I have the temerity to think (and hope) that the best is yet ahead.
From a creative standpoint, I see myself tending more and more toward naked simplicity. Imagine watching a feature film that conveys the settledness of a haiku. I would like that to describe my work.
My newest film, Let Me Have My Son, will release on May 24. It was a labor of love based in part on my son’s struggles with severe mental illness and how that affected the rest of the family. I will admit, however, that in the making of the film, I almost constantly ran the danger of losing what I’ll call the “golden thread”—the creative and spiritual impulse that inspired the movie in the first place. All too often, the mechanics of making a film overtake what is most important—the pure projection of the heart of the filmmaker and his story. And here I find myself going back to what I said before: children, nature, animals—they are my friends and my betters.
QUESTION #5: BOOST
Cashiers, CEOs, contractors, or customer service reps, we all need grace flowing into us and back out into the world. How does the Holy Spirit invigorate your work? And how do you know it’s God when it happens?
I won’t say it’s always the case, but generally speaking, I follow my tears. What moves me? What spontaneously, often surprisingly, provokes unbidden weeping on my part? It can be the smallest of things. It can be among the most important. When I follow those tears, I eventually find my way to the spring from which they have come. They are not tears of frustration or bitterness, nor are they tears of regret or condemnation. They are something pure. Unrehearsed. Inexplicable. Eternal.
I have had a special experience numerous times in the writing of a screenplay. I don’t recall that it has ever failed to happen. Every time I have written a scene that has caused me to shed tears, I have later observed people in the audience watching the finished film crying in the exact place where I cried when I first wrote the scene. I don’t mean to imply that our creativity should be all about the tears; I am only saying that spontaneous, unrehearsed, deep emotion welling up inside us can be evidence of a wordless connection with the Divine.
I remember well when I ran into a brick wall, creatively speaking, on the first draft of Let Me Have My Son. It was so puzzling. My script outline and treatment had covered all the story beats, or so I thought, yet there I was—unable to get beyond page 55 of a 105-page script. What was wrong? What had happened? More importantly, what was the solution? The answer came when I was out for a walk, turning the script over in my mind. This new line came to me, taking place when the father of the story speaks to a group of patients in the mental hospital: “I can’t save you, can I?” says the father, knowing that the patients are in the same condition as his son. “I can’t save any of you. But…I can love you. I can love you.” The tears bottled inside me spilled forth in that moment, and I finished the first draft of the script in short order.
QUESTION #6: INSPIRE
Some people divide things sacred and things secular. But you know, God can surprise us in unlikely places. How do you find spiritual renewal in so-called “nonspiritual” activities?
Morning light. American Bible Society. Coffee. Those are the three cranks of the engine that get me started each day. A fourth would be a little bit of singing, perhaps. “Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn” (Psalm 57:8). Whether I’m in Minnesota or Jamaica (the two places I live), my preferred place to start the day is in my bedroom facing East. In Minnesota, the window is usually cracked slightly open. In Jamaica, there’s no glass in the window—just an ornate grill with enough space between the bars to catch the view of the mountains and big enough for the occasional hummingbird to fly through and say hello.
In either place, my wife, Cheryl, joins me in our daily Bible reading (provided by the American Bible Society), and we pray together. I drink my strong Blue Mountain coffee and become giddy, spiritual, and somewhat entertaining all at once. The day is off to a good start and only gets better if I can manage to run into someone to whom I can show love and kindness, pet someone’s dog while out for a walk, or spend time with my grandchildren and listen to what’s on their hearts and minds. I try to embrace the simple things of life, live in the moment as well as enjoy the moment, and pray without ceasing. As to this last point (praying without ceasing), I might call this being plugged in 24/7 to God. It’s constant but unobtrusive, like an ocean current.
At night, I will sometimes walk through the downstairs of my house, praying aloud and, more often than not, singing. I find that singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs sets my heart free and takes my worries away (Ephesians 5:19). I have a guitar I play as well. I used to play it for my children when they were little. Now that my children are gone, I play it still, singing some of the same songs from years gone by.
QUESTION #7: FOCUS
Our email subscribers get free ebooks featuring our favorite resources—lots of things that have truly impacted our faith. But you know about some really great stuff too. What are three of your favorite resources?
A movie, a book, and a song.
First, the movie.
In December 2015, two highly anticipated, big-budget films were released in theaters nationwide. The one I saw first, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, left me feeling I should never have set out to be a filmmaker. The one I watched second, The Revenant, convinced me there had been no mistake in my calling. I know, of course, there are millions of people who all but idolize the Star Wars franchise. I’m not one of them (though I did very much enjoy the first Star Wars movie). I thought The Force Awakens was hokey and not just a little stupid. At the same time, it was extremely popular and made over two billion dollars at the box office! “I must be in the wrong field,” I said to my wife as we left the theater that day. “I thought the movie was awful. It seems I hate what others love.” Then, a few days later, we watched The Revenant. I was swept away by the film. It had a great story, great acting, and outstanding cinematography and direction. It was a work of art—elegant, understated, spiritual—and it affected me deeply. I turned to my wife that day and said, “Now I know why I want to be a filmmaker.”
Second, the book.
A year ago, on an impulse, I went to the public library and checked out the unabridged version of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. It was a hardcover book with over 1,000 pages. I devoured each one. We are all aware of how much Les Misérables has embedded itself in contemporary culture through various film versions and stage musicals. But what was the original story? The one written down by Victor Hugo himself? That is what I wanted to uncover. I will tell you, the book took me on an unforgettable journey. The greatest takeaway for me was the story arc of the main character, Jean Valjean. We all know how Jean Valjean started out. But do we remember how he ended up? When I got to that point of the story, it was a wonderful payoff for me. I read this on page 1,186: “The convict was transfigured into Christ.” When I read those words in the fading light of a late summer’s day, I burst into tears and cried aloud toward heaven: “Victor Hugo, you are my brother! I will see you in heaven!” Victor Hugo was immensely popular in his day and is still popular today. And though he requested in his will to not have a church funeral, he stated boldy in the same will, “I am a Christian.” What made Victor Hugo tick, and what does he have to say to us today? A lot! Les Misérables—the book—will give you details and offer insights available nowhere else.
Third, the song.
The name of it is “Jesus Strong and Kind” by CityAlight. It is simple, childlike, and profoundly beautiful. Here are part of the lyrics: “Jesus said, if I am weak, I should come to Him. No one else can be my strength. I should come to Him. For the Lord is good and faithful. He will keep us day and night. We can always run to Jesus. Jesus, strong and kind.”
We all have things we cling to to survive (or thrive) in tough times. Name one resource you’ve found indispensable in this current season—and tell us what it’s done for you.
I listen frequently to the music of Arvo Pärt, especially when I am writing or am engaged in any creative activity. Arvo Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935 and developed the Tintinnabuli technique of music, which unites melody and triad into one inseparable ensemble. They say there’s a mathematical part to it all, of which I can’t speak for the life of me. But I can tell you this: When I listen to his music, I enter a zone where I experience peace and calm. I am in my ackee, as they say in Jamaica.
Pärt is often identified with the school of minimalism and, more specifically, mystic minimalism. Give him a listen and see if you aren’t led to a quiet place where the still waters run deep.
QUESTION #8: DREAM
God is continually stirring new things in each of us. So, give us the scoop! What’s beginning to stir in you but not yet fully awakened? What can we expect from you in the future?
I have an announcement to make. I am in AA now. It looks like it could last a while. However long it takes, I’m going to stay right here. I could strike out on my own today and do what seems best in my own eyes. But, no. I’m going to wait for Him.
By the way, AA (in this instance) stands for “Anticipation and Assignment.”
I recently finished Let Me Have My Son, which took me three years to produce. I have five completed screenplays in the drawer, but I’m not pushing any of them into the foreground. I am waiting. I am waiting in anticipation for the living God to reveal my next assignment. I am unworthy to untie His sandals. Yet He and I have an understanding—a pact, perhaps. I will make films declaring His glory to the nations. What does He want next? Here am I, Lord, your servant, to do your bidding.
Read the Full Interview on RAPT