Sports psychologist turned film producer David Cook thinks Hollywood is starting to grasp the faith-friendly film market thanks to hits like “Soul Surfer” and “The Blind Side.”
Yet Cook says when industry executives circled around the film adaptation of his spiritually-driven book, “Seven Days In Utopia,” they weren’t sure it could draw a crowd.
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It’s one reason Cook took control of the film adaptation. He started his own film studio (Utopia Films) to produce the movie and served as both executive producer and co-screenwriter.
“I’m a sports psychologist. What do I know about making a movie?" he asks. "But I do know about telling stories, and that’s what filmmaking is. I just made sure the story didn’t get botched up.”
Cook wouldn’t let Hollywood warp his beloved story about a young golfer who finds his stroke again after spending a week in a tiny Texas hamlet. That meant the film’s spiritual component stayed intact, but just as importantly the main character would be played by an actor who knew his way around the golf course.
“I’ve been playing golf since I was six. All these golf movies coming out are so fake. [Non-golfers like] Kevin Costner, Matt Damon … you put a club in their hand and it always discredits the movie,” he says. “We wanted to make sure we got it right.”
So Cook’s studio reached out to Lucas Black, a scratch golfer who just so happens to have a few impressive films on his resume (“Get Low,” “Sling Blade”).
“He read the book and felt like this was the story of his life … plus, he loves to hunt and fish, too,” he says. The book’s emotional themes also helped snare one of film's biggest stars, Oscar-winner Robert Duvall, to play the main character's spiritual mentor. It helped that the project’s casting director previously worked on Duvall’s film “Crazy Heart,” and that Ducall had a rare gap in his film schedule.
The script for “Seven Days in Utopia” took two years to complete, in part because the film’s interior monologues were tricky to translate to the big screen.
“The book has a lot of introspection. You can see what’s going on in his head,” he says of Black's character. “We had to bring that out through characters and action. It took a while to get the story right.”
Cook found making a movie somewhat similar to working with a football team.
“Hollywood’s business model is so un-businesslike that it scares you to death,” he says. “You raise a lot of money and then you spend it all in 30 days. You don’t have time to sit around in a board meeting and say, ‘what do you think about this decision?’
On top of that, Cook’s crew had to deal with some “intense moments” on the shoot, from a helicopter nearly hitting a pole to a fan breaking at an inopportune time.
“There are so many moving parts that move so fast … people coming in and going out … you just have to trust ‘em,” he says.
At times, the production reminded him of his duties helping sports teams be the best they can be.
“We had 30 days to pull this off, and any day over that cost $100,000,” he says. “We’re doing it outside, we needed the weather [to cooperate]. It’s lots of patience and persistence similar to training camp. We’re going all day every day to get it right.”
The film’s sports themes also tie into the greater story of personal reinvention.
“What does it take to be the best at your sport, to come out from crisis? We tried to answer it without getting preachy,” he says. “I don’t think we turned too many people off.”
“Seven Days in Utopia” couldn’t repeat the box office success of other faith-based films like “Courageous” and “Fireproof.” Cook looks at films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Ultimate Gift,” movies which underwhelmed at the box office during their initial runs but found new life on cable and home video, for inspiration.
Cook may be a neophyte movie maker, but he’s savvy enough to know today’s audiences hunger for G-rated family fare that tips its cap to religion.
“150 million people go to church twice a month. There’s a huge faith element out there,” he says.
Cook is working on a new chapter to his “Seven Days in Utopia” story, but he’s not pursuing it for the usual reasons.
“You don’t write a sequel [to 'Seven Days in Utopia'] to sell another book. It’s such a part of my life. I don’t want to do it unless it’s done right,” he says.