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Denise Di Novi's long career as a Hollywood producer stretches back to 1989, when she helped bring the film Heathers to the big screen. Since then, she's worked extensively with director Tim Burton on films such as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood. She also produced several movies based on Nicholas Sparks' popular novels, including Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember. The latter connected with Christian viewers, as did her 1994 version of Little Women and, in 2010, an adaptation of Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Beezus. We talked with Denise about that recent family film. We also discussed the present climate for Christian filmmakers, what audiences want to see at the multiplex, and what it means to be listed as a movie's producer.

Denise, looking at your résumé, I'm struck by its diversity. What would you say draws you to work on a particular film?
As you point out, I have a very eclectic résumé, and I do a lot of different kinds of movies. I would say that there are movies that I appreciate on an artistic level, and then there are movies that I do from the heart. They work at a deeper level for me and have a greater purpose. Those are the films like A Walk to Remember and Ramona and Beezus, films I feel are putting out either a positive message or giving inspiration or comfort to people. I've felt a real partnership with Nicholas Sparks in terms of making movies that emphasize putting love into the world. They are very rewarding for me in different ways than some of my other movies.

Let's talk about Ramona and Beezus. Tell us a little about that story and what made you to want to put it on the big screen.
Well, I think the reason that the books have been so enduring and are so beloved to parents and children is that the values they portray are so important. They are about the importance of solid families, the importance of a moral code and being there for your children. They are about teaching your children the important life lessons. Mrs. Cleary envisioned these books and wrote them in a very truthful way, where the hardships and suffering of life are not shied away from. Her stories, which were published in the '50s, don't depict a perfect world. Her books really showed the hardship of life, of losing your job, of not always being able to be there for your kids because you had to work or you had problems. But her stories emphasized how to treat people decently, with integrity and honesty, and they teach kids the lessons they need to grow up. So even though she was writing in the '50s, those lessons [are still] true today. There's also a gentleness to the books that is missing in youth literature and in movies today. The books and the movie are not what we'd call edgy today. Everybody wants edgy stuff, but the books are sweet and gentle and kind. They're just about people and life, and they're not about any controversial issues or anything scary or perverse or bizarre or whatever. I think we can use the word wholesome to describe Mrs. Cleary's stories.

Back in 2002 you talked about A Walk to Remember, and said how hard that film was to make. One of the things that stood out to me in that interview was how you had a sense that there might have been some spiritual warfare involved with the project. How would you say your own spiritual convictions relate to a given film you are working on?
You know, I do find that to be true. I think that there are pursuits and endeavors in this world where you almost have to fight harder to do the right thing, to do something you know goes against the tide of this incredible, toxic negativity that's at play in the world. As we know, it's become very powerful, and it is hard to get movies like this made. It's hard to have TV shows on the air like this. I think it really tests your persistence and commitment and faith to really keep going and fight the fight.

What would you say the climate in Hollywood is like these days for people of faith who want to be involved in the movie industry?
I think it has gotten easier than it was in the past, and a few things have made it different now. I think that the Christian rock movement—Christian music—has helped in that it has broken down people's stereotypes about Christians as Bible thumpers. I think some people in the entertainment industry "coming out" as Christians has helped. But I think there are some things that have hurt it as well. This is just my personal opinion, but I think some people have felt excluded or judged by some spokespeople for the Christian religion, whether it be gay people or people of other faiths. I think that has affected the opinions of some people in the entertainment industry. So it's taking one step forward and one back. It goes back and forth. But I think we're entering a more tolerant and sort of spiritual period in terms of people in general. The economic crisis has brought some people back to realizing what is important. I think the incredible materialism and worship of money has really hurt us. People are looking inward again, and looking toward more spiritual pursuits.

I'm curious what you would say to somebody coming from a Christian background who is interested in pursuing a career in Hollywood.
I am not going to lie and tell you it's easy. It's not easy to express your beliefs, be they Christian or spiritual in general, within movies or television. It is the exception to the rule. It happens, but not very often. The reason, I think, is that it's not viewed as a commercial idea. Because movie-making is a business, it has to make money. So it tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That has been and will always be true. But if you work hard enough and long enough, I also think you have a chance to make things of value. What I try to do is make movies like A Walk to Remember or Ramona and Beezus, which are not specifically faith-based, like The Passion of the Christ, but have a positive and a spiritual component. People of any faith can find a connection to [them] and see God in the story. That is possible, and I think it's a more stealth way of doing it.

From your perspective, what kind stories do you think Hollywood is most interested in telling these days?
It really does seem like escapist fare is the most popular. Whether we're talking comedies, supernatural stories or science fiction, people want things that make them forget their problems. In a way Ramona and Beezus is that kind of movie, too. It's funny, it's heartwarming, it's relatable. … You can forget your own problems for a couple of hours. I think that's what people really want right now, and by definition, that's what entertainment is supposed to do. It's not medicine. It's not school. And if you are getting a message, it usually goes down better if there's a little sugar with it. Right now, it's not like the '70s or other periods where people really wanted to push boundaries and break down society's restrictions. I don't think we're in that phase. We're in a scary place, and I think people want either escapism or comfort food.

We sometimes hear from people who complain that there's not much family-friendly fare at the multiplex. Is there anything that the average moviegoer can do about that, or are they just at the mercy of what Hollywood decides to produce?
A lot of people, particularly moms with kids, are very busy. So the people who rush out to movies when they're first released tend to be teenagers and males. They'll rush out to the Batmans or the Pirates of the Caribbeans and those kind of movies, which are super successful. And I understand. I rush out to them, my kids rush out to them, too. That's great. But when there is a movie like Ramona and Beezus, don't say, "We'll watch that on video" or "We'll go in three weeks" or whatever. Just because your kids aren't beating the door down and they haven't seen $50 million worth of commercials on TV beating them into a frenzy, it doesn't mean you don't go the first weekend. 'Cause if do go the first weekend, the movie will be more successful. And if you get all your friends or your church group to support the movie with you, then we'll be able to make more of them. These movies aren't ever going to be as successful as Spider-Man. It's true that they cost less to make, but they do need to be reasonably successful so that studios are motivated to make more. Because it's not a non-profit organization, it is a business.

What, exactly, does a movie producer's role encompass?
The closest analogy I can give you is a real estate developer who builds a building. If you decide to build a building, you have to raise the money, you have to have a vision of what kind of building you're creating, and you have to hire the people who will do what needs to be done to get it built. So, the architect would be the director, and all the people on the crew would be like the construction crew. I'm in charge. I oversee everything from developing the script, to hiring the director and all the actors, to shooting the movie and finally marketing it to the public. Most good, dedicated producers are also on set, maybe not every minute, but for most of the time. Because you can't really do a great job if you're not there.

Is there a particular film that you are especially proud to have been part of?
I'm most proud of the movies that we've been discussing. They're the most beloved to me, from Little Women to A Walk to Remember to all my other Nicholas Sparks movies. In early 2012 people will get a chance to see The Lucky One, another Nicholas Sparks best-seller, which stars Zac Efron. Once again, it's got a message about love and family and great values. And I am excited to be doing one of those again.

Published February 2012