After being taken hostage by murderer and convicted rapist Brian Nichols, Ashley Smith famously survived by reading aloud from mega-church minister Rick Warren's bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life."
Nichols eventually let her go and surrendered to police. Smith became a hero to evangelical Christians everywhere.
But as she explained recently in her lilting Georgia accent, Smith didn't want to turn her 2005 ordeal into a treacly adaptation that would preach to the converted and ultimately land in video purgatory. Instead, she wanted to "reach the people who have no interest in God."
The result is "Captive," Paramount Pictures' taut crime thriller opening Friday starring David Oyelowo as cold-blooded Nichols and Kate Mara as Smith at her most strung-out and lonely. This isn't your typical faith-based fare.
"It's not squeaky-clean," said "Captive" co-producer Terry Botwick. "It's a little bit messy. But that's where the truth of it is."
"Captive" reflects a subtle shift happening among Hollywood's faith-based filmmakers. Tired of amateurish storytelling and low production values, they want to draw broader audiences with stories that better reflect the complexities of faith in real life. Even influential Christian groups that review media are more open to endorsing grittier plot lines if there's a redemptive message at the core.
Oyelowo, who last year played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma" and who co-produced "Captive," is outspoken about his own Christian faith and sees his call to acting as a ministry of sorts. But he doesn't want to evangelize through film.
"Yes I'm a Christian myself, but I'm not particularly interested in quote-unquote preaching to the choir," Oyelowo said. "I am a big believer in the potency of artistic endeavor at its highest. To proselyte through your storytelling is not good storytelling."
As Botwick points out, the morality-driven scripts of the "Left Behind" variety can alienate the very group evangelical Christians want to inspire: the non-believers. Stories with an organic element of faith — and a solid cast and quality production — are a more potent way to reach them.
"Once you identify an audience, I think you have to evolve over time or else you just beat the same thing to death until it implodes," said Botwick, a veteran of the faith-based "Veggie Tales" series. "This idea of the Christian film is unfortunate. I don't think it should be a genre. … To think those movies are somehow going to change the world is probably not the case. It is people of faith talking to people of faith."
Ever since Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," Hollywood has tried unsuccessfully to find its own $600-million faith-based blockbuster. Yet as costly misfires such as 20th Century Fox's "Exodus: Gods and Kings" and Paramount's "Noah" show, it's a tough market to crack. Faith-based audiences are as complex as the nuances of belief.
"This is the only business where the customers are scolded for liking certain things and disliking others," said producer Mark Joseph, a faith-based marketing expert who helped promote "The Passion of the Christ." "What often happens is they get scolded and called hayseeds because they don't want to fill their minds with four-letter words, violence, sex or unusual interpretations of their heroes' stories."
Sony Pictures' Labor Day hit "War Room" appears to be an antidote to those misfires at a fraction of the cost. It's the latest from Albany, Ga.-based ministers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who have been criticized by both secular and Christian filmgoers for preaching to the converted with low-budget fare.
So far "War Room" has taken in almost $40 million at the box office.
"The Christian audience is getting a little bit resistant to typical Christian messages in film," said Dick Rolfe, CEO of the faith-based group the Dove Foundation, which reviews media. "They're a little too cheesy and too preachy. There's a feeling by some Christians that they're being exploited by the money-making Hollywood. The messages are pretty obvious and not terribly exciting and unpredictable like life is."
Alex Kendrick notes that he and his brother aim to reach Christians who need inspiration rather than nonbelievers. Still, they aim to amp up their game as filmmakers with each new project.
"We're still relatively young in this field," he said.
The Dove Foundation recently expanded its approval system to recommend films tackling tough subjects such as atheism ("God's Not Dead"), abortion ("October Baby") and sex trafficking ("Not Today").
"Captive" earned Dove's faith-based seal of approval, albeit "with caution" for its on-screen drug use. In fact, audiences looking for sun streaks through clouds and the swell of violins will be disappointed. The movie plays like a traditional drama that just happens to include a Christian self-help book as a plot point.
It opens with Nichols escaping custody at a hearing by brutally beating a deputy, then opening fire in a courtroom, shooting and killing a judge and a bailiff and later an off-duty FBI agent. He finds Smith in the parking lot of her apartment building and drags her inside.
For Mara, the role was a chance to work with her longtime friend Oyelowo and an opportunity to play against type.
"I never thought we were making a faith-based film," she said. "I was approaching the film and character and story as I would any mainstream drama about despair and two people who are completely lost in their lives and, somehow through these tragic events, one person is changed."
Oyelowo plays Nichols with chilling remove as he roughly binds his captive's arms and legs with duct tape. For a moment, it appears he might rape her. Later, Nichols holds a gun to Smith's head, forcing her face onto a tray of methamphetamine, demanding she snort it with him.
In a moment of calm, Smith idly flips through a borrowed copy of Warren's book, and Nichols orders her to read it to him. If anything, it feels somewhat anticlimactic.
The film ends with Smith quietly ducking out of her apartment, leaving Nichols to be swarmed by police. Though footage of Smith talking to Oprah Winfrey
appears as the credits roll, images of Nichols' victims are among the last the audience sees.
It's not exactly a Hollywood ending. And that's how the filmmakers wanted it.
"We have all done things we regret," said Oyelowo. "We all would like a second chance. That's a pretty universal, inspirational story, outside of personal faith. That's my hope."