Lee Strobel’s worldwide best-selling book contained 13 interviews with international experts in the fields of history, archeology, theology and ancient antiquities. It was a massive data dump of research, information, facts and historical evidence. So how was I, as a screenwriter, supposed to turn all of that into a movie – one that would not only get to the heart of the evidence for the case for Christ but would also entertain audiences with a compelling and authentic personal true story?
Lesson 1 – Do a deep dive into the human story first. Because Lee Strobel’s book is a virtual cache of all the best thinking of world-class experts on the reliability of the evidence for Jesus, I knew I would have no shortage of firepower in that story-telling department. But what I decided to do first was kidnap Lee and his wife, Leslie, in my basement office for four days and dive deep into their personal life. What I discovered was that at the heart of Lee’s case was a deeply emotional love story between a radical atheist skeptic and the woman who loved him into his Christian faith. There was such amazing conflict and drama in their personal journey together that I knew I could use it as the central through-line of the movie.
Lesson 2: When shopping for meat, choose only a few best cuts. Lee’s case is so exhaustive, we knew we could not do all of that research justice in a two-hour movie. So, what I did was choose what seemed like the three most compelling streams of evidence that I knew would lay out in a very cinematic way: The veracity and proof of the 500-plus eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ after the cross, the reliability of the ancient manuscript stream, and the evidence for the crucifixion and that there was no conspiracy to fake the resurrection. And then I picked five experts for Lee to interrogate Da Vinci Code-style. I had to find the balance between making “the case” a fascinating thriller and overwhelming the audience with information.
Lesson 3: Look for parallel storylines to keep the audience guessing. In addition to the unfolding love story between Lee and Leslie, there were other powerful true through-lines I discovered in my research. In one of them, at the same time Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel was trying to debunk Leslie’s faith to save her from the “Willow Creek” cult, he was also investigating a true cop-shooting story that ended up having uncanny parallels to his personal faith quest. During the course of the film, the audience just sees them as separate storylines, but I was able to find a way to make them dovetail in a poignant way.
Lesson 4: You can’t let the truth get in the way of good story-telling. I just heard a collective gasp across the inter-webs. Here’s the thing… when you’re making a narrative film, you are not making a documentary. That’s a completely different goal and process. My goal as a screenwriter is to suck viewers into the world of my story-telling and keep them so enthralled they don’t want to ever leave. Sometimes the way true life lays out in reality is inconvenient to a film’s traditional three-act structure. Sometimes the events don’t happen in the right order, or the hero’s journey (character arc) doesn’t exactly resolve itself in real life the way it needs to do under Aristotelian dramatic principles. When that’s the case, you take necessary liberties to make it all work. In the case of Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ, much of it laid out beautifully in movie structure – in fact I would say 85 percent of the true story is there the way it happened, which is an amazingly high percentage of truth to license. The rest was me trying to trap my audience into our world and take them on an adventure that we pray will change their lives for eternity.
Brian Bird is writer and co-producer of The Case for Christ, which comes out in theaters nationally on April 7, 2017