William P. Young didn’t set out to become a self-publishing sensation with his novel The Shack, but the book has found a massive audience and has sold over 30 million copies and is now getting the cinematic adaptation with an adaptation directed by Stuart Hazeldine. The story of a grieving father (played by Sam Worthington) who spends a week with God in an idyllic shack nestled within the snowy woods aims to examine large theological questions through an everyman’s conversations with the divine being (played by Octavia Spencer). Ahead of its release, I had the chance to discuss the resonance of The Shack with the film’s stars Octavia Spencer and Radha Mitchell as well as the novel’s author William P. Young.
“We intended to publish but 26 publishers turned it down,” author William P. Young recalled of the long journey to bring his novel to readers. “The faith based people, half of them were Christian publishers and half of them were secular press, and they had one issue in common: that is – what is this? Where were we gonna put it? The faith based people thought it was too edgy and the secular people thought it had too much Jesus in it. So I got caught between edgy and Jesus. You know what? I found out a whole lotta people are in the same place.”
Rejection didn’t deter Young and his partners and soon they set forth to handle publishing duties on their own. “Because I don’t know anything about publishing, so I asked the question: ‘How hard is it to publish a book?’ Two guys here in California created a little publishing company to do it, $500. You know, whatever it cost to start a publishing company,” he recalled. “We set up a website. We pooled our resources; I had a friend who loaned me some money, one of the guys had some savings, and the other guy had a Visa and Mastercard. We ordered – how many do you order? – we ordered 10,000, which we were told later is 8,000 in your garage in two years when you’ve run out of friends and family. We had no marketing. We had no promotion.”
Word of mouth spread and copies passed hands, and soon The Shack was an independent publishing sensation. “Out of that garage, two storage units, and the local printer, in the first 13 months – because 13 months later the two guys, Brad and Wayne, who own the publishing company, they entered a joint venture with Hachette who took book internationally – but in those 13 months we spent less than $300 in marketing and advertising and shipped 1.1 million copies,” Young said.
“I mean, we’re brilliant,” he said jokingly. “It’s totally a God thing. We had no idea what we were doing.”
For actress Radha Mitchell, she encountered the film’s script before encountering the novel. “I read the script and was just moved by the story, crying at certain scenes. I felt like, ‘Wow, there’s something very simple yet very profound about this.’ It kind of reminded me of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Australian actress said. “There’s something very magical about it.”
The film’s messaging resonated with Mitchell. “It does affect you weeks later,” said of the material. “Oh, I might reframe the way I look at this situation because I don’t have to have this sort of agenda. But that’s very personal and I think when you see the film and obviously it will move you, but what’s interesting is the week or two later, maybe a year later, when you remember a moment in your own life. And you’re like, ‘Oh, I could look at this situation differently.’ I think it’s a pretty magical movie when it does get into your conscious that way, and I think that movie does it.”
Unfortunately, Radha Mitchell didn’t share any scenes with her co-star Octavia Spencer. “I just met her today. We haven’t met, obviously, because we were in completely different scenes in parallel stories,” Mitchell said of her co-star. “She’s in all of these movies recently that have these very positive agendas. It’s something in her, obviously something she wants to put into the world, and something people are recognizing in her that she’s got this light.”
Unlike Radha Mitchell, Octavia Spencer had read The Shack before it was due to become a movie. “I read the book independently of any movie talk. I read the book a few years ago. So I am one of the legion of fans,” the Academy Award winning actress said. “So when I heard that [producers] Gil and Lani [Netter] were thinking about making a movie about it I went there to convince Gil why I needed to be Papa.”
She continued, “Reading the book, I learned something different. After the playing the role, I learned something very different. When you have to prepare to play God and walking away from that you realize just how tough God’s job is and I don’t want that job.”
Stepping into the role of God, or Papa in the movie, wasn’t a daunting task for the acclaimed actress. “It’s not the role, it’s the material as a whole,” she said. “I loved the message of the book. I loved that Paul wrote this book where a regular man has a conversation with God and he asks some hard-hitting questions and I liked the way God answered. I thought it was a unique way to look at religion and for regular people to look at their role and how they basically influence their environment.”
As for the meaning behind The Shack, don’t expect Octavia Spencer to be confirming or denying what people take away from the film. “I hate to tell people what they should think because I really have an aversion when people tell me what to think. I like to present the material and let you draw from it what you need,” Spencer said. “I just know that the one thing that we have in common is challenges. No one lives a challenge-free life and Mac is definitely an example of someone who experiences a lot of challenges. As a young boy, he’s abused by the one person he should be able to trust more than anyone, his father. And we can identify with that. Some of us can identify with depression and guilt, and how grief can be paralytic. There’s definitely some universal things in it. I also think that our challenges make us unique and how we deal with them make us unique. What I love about this film is that it puts the information out there and based on your individual needs there’s so many, so many things you could draw from.”
Now that his novel is a major motion picture, William P. Young entrusted the cast and crew behind The Shack to faithfully adapt his work. “I had no concerns,” the author said of the adaptation process. “Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe it helps that I have no idea what I’m doing. When it got to that place, it’s an issue of daily trust for me. I believe in a God that is good all the time and involved in the details of my life. I don’t have to live with expectations because they’re just disappointments waiting to happen. Living inside the grace of the day, you deal with what’s right in front of you and when came time to let it go it was the perfect move. It was the right move.
“I’ve got no complaints,” he said. “When you learn to live without expectations everything’s a gift.”