Englishman Stuart Hazeldine has a host of screenplays and directorial work to his resume, but it took the second coming of The Shack to get his name onto the marquees in the States. When he first read the novel, the writer/director/producer was aware of a plan to make a low-budget Christian film version of the story, but he was unmoved to get involved. Impressed by the way that it made tangible the God he worshipped who was spirit and invisible, he just couldn’t see a plot-driven film there when it was first offered.
Years later, a friend he’d worked with before, Gil Netter (The Blind Side, Life of Pi) asked him to offer an opinion on a draft. Sending over notes seemed innocuous enough, until nine months later, the director’s chair came open and Hazeldine was handed the reins.
Written as a treatise on faith – as well as a murder mystery – the novel reveals how Young’s sense of self had not developed, given his own personal history of abuse and abandonment. Young’s desire to share how someone might feel denied and rejected by God drew him to the person he believed would have the “ultimate grudge” with God: a father who lost his child. Therefore, the story revolved around a young father, Mackenzie (played onscreen by Sam Worthington), who withdraws from his life after his young daughter is believed to be murdered by a serial killer.
“The father is meant to be the provider and protector,” Hazeldine mused over the phone. “He feels like he failed. So there’s this guy with all of this anger and depression, stuck in a life he can’t get out of. But even if you’re not a parent, if you’ve had a great loss, you can relate to Mack. You’re asking God, ‘how could you take this away?'”
In The Shack, Mack receives a letter from God the Father (played by Octavia Spenser), who invites him back to the location where his daughter died. In that space, the triune God meets Mack and answers many of his questions about love, loss, faith, judgment, and evil.
Hazeldine believes that this kind of emotional mash-up with theology is programmed into the story, intentionally, or as he says, “manipulative, but in a good way.” “Cinema is an emotional exercise,” he shared. “It’s a cathartic cry within the film to let go and trust God, to feel the love flow back in. Sometimes, to get there, you have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Still, not everyone has the emotional response, positively. I shared with Hazeldine that nothing compared to The Shack in terms of negative backlash I’ve ever received as a writer, pastor, or critic. He admitted that the language of the film doesn’t feel old and Biblical, and that some people can’t get comfortable in that. But he believes that it articulates the Incarnation of God in a way that really brings God closer.
“God choosing to come into the flesh… makes sense for God to be a black woman to Mack in the context of the story,” proposed the director. “But not everyone will make the connection. It’s like having ten people in a random pew in church and you have five people who feel loved and approved, and the other five will tell you that they feel that when really they think they’re unloved.”
“Ultimately, everyone is asking, who is God? To some people he’s Jesus, the perfect presentation of God; to others, Jesus is just the good cop to the bad cop of the Old Testament God.”
“I kind of had that view growing up, and I tried to find a solution. But you end up playing theological Twister because some of the words of God in the Old Testament are diametrically opposed to what Jesus says. So, ultimately, I’m going to have to trust that Jesus is who Jesus says he is and rest in that.”
While Hazeldine hopes that a new wave of audiences will see The Shack, ask questions, and find comfort, his brain is already buzzing with a stack of projects he’s working on. A ghost story during the London Blitz by a friend of Tolkien’s and Lewis’, World War II stories about the Holocaust, an exploration of Emperor Constantine. But in each of them he finds himself disproportionately drawn to morality and spirituality in the stories, even as he wraps his time with The Shack and its unique story.
“It’s tough to follow but when you realize that people see it and find themselves wanting to forgive people, it makes you want to do more projects like that,” Hazeldine admitted. “To have inspired, educated, and enlightened. I’m just trying to make films like the ones that inspired me as a teenager. I want to get to the end of my life and know I made a difference.”
Hazeldine is well on his way, but the best is yet to come.
The Shack is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.