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How has your faith guided your choices as a screenwriter?
I don't have a set recipe for what opportunities to pursue, but when I got started my agent gave me a bit of advice that made it clear he was the right person to represent me. He said, "Make films that you'll be proud to show your grandchildren." That's all he had to say. When I look at the stories that I've been blessed to see make it to the screen, I think we've followed that advice. Every week I turn down projects because I don't feel right about the subject matter.

How much control do you have once you submit a script? Have directors ever taken liberties that bothered you?
There's a scene in Finding Forrester where the main character overhears neighbors in his apartment building having sex. That was not in the script. There were also two serious profanities in that film, but I'd be lying if I said they weren't mine. We were harshly portraying the ghetto, so I think they were appropriate to drive home key moments of abject failure and ultimate betrayal. We chose them very judiciously. That was my first film, which gave me the chance to do The Rookie, which was rated G, and then The Nativity Story. A lot of times you'll see a person's body of work go in the opposite direction.

The Christmas story has been filmed before. What made you want to revisit it with The Nativity Story?
In December 2004, Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on "secrets of the nativity." When I sat down and read them it struck me that most times the Christmas story isn't told from a character standpoint, which is how I always try to approach a screenplay. It's intimidating when you realize you're going to give Mary and Joseph dialogue, emotion, faith, doubt, fear and apprehension. But I had a liberating moment when I looked back on The Passion of the Christ and recalled that amazing scene where Mary is watching Jesus carry the cross, and He stumbles in the street. She flashes back to seeing her little boy stumble. It impacted me as much as anything in the movie. That was a speculative scene, but it's very consistent with the spirit and tone of the biblical account. There are definitely other [Bible] stories waiting to be told, and I think the changing landscape in Hollywood is open to them. We just need to make sure we treat them with care.

What about teens interested in writing for the screen? How can parents encourage them and help them succeed?
It's tempting to write what we think Hollywood wants, but it's important that young writers cultivate a unique voice. They should tell the story they want to tell with passion. For me it helped to read good screenplays. I made a list of classic films I liked and found the scripts at libraries, bookstores or online. And I didn't rush it. It took a couple of years before I completed the first draft of Finding Forrester.

How did you get Hollywood to take your work seriously?
I couldn't get anyone to read Finding Forrester until I entered it in a contest sponsored by the Oscars. It's called the Nicholl Fellowship and it's open to anyone who has never sold a screenplay. All of the information is at oscars.org. I think it costs around $30 to enter. I was fortunate enough to be one of the five winners in 1998, which is what got somebody to take a look at it. Before that I was doing morning news for a radio station here in Portland, Oregon. For nearly 20 years the alarm would go off at 3:15 a.m. and I'd be to work at 5:00. I didn't dislike my old career, but it's been nice to have my writing be more than just a creative release.

Published December 2006