In Beyond the Mask, a new Christian action-adventure movie set before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a former assassin for the East India Company tries to make a clean break with his sordid past. But he finds the past isn’t as easy to escape as he’d hoped … even when he travels from England to America to get away from it. (Tickets for the movie, in theaters Monday, April 6, can be purchased only at beyondthemaskmovie.com. Plugged In’s full review will be available April 3.)
Recently, I had a chance to talk with Beyond the Mask’s primary screenwriter, Paul McCusker. Longtime Adventures in Odyssey fans will likely be familiar with McCusker, who wrote, produced and directed Odyssey episodes for more than 25 years. McCusker has also been a driving force behind Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. In addition, he’s the author of more than 75 books, plays and musicals … and now, a screenplay.
Adam Holz: Paul, Beyond the Mask is an action-adventure film, but one that incorporates a strong message about faith as well. What challenges did you face weaving those two elements together?
Paul McCusker: The faith element was important to us from the start. We knew we didn’t want to do a dramatized sermon, but to tell a story that had faith aspects woven through it. I’ve been doing drama a long time. And I’m finding, more often than not, what we have to do is come up with an excuse to talk about the faith within a story. In other words, you’re setting the stage that has all the components of good storytelling—which would be plot, characterization, all of those things. But it’s kind of like C.S. Lewis said about the Narnia stories: “If people get the faith aspect, that’s great. And if they don’t, at least hopefully they’ve heard a good story.” And I think that’s probably the better way to do things.
We wrestled a lot, because any time we were shoehorning in a spiritual message, we would argue through how to pull it back so that it didn’t feel unnatural. The whole point is, if there’s going to be a faith element, it has to come out of the plot and the characters, as opposed to characters coming out with their faith. That’s what feels like a commercial. And even among Christians, I think they tend to reject that, too. They like to have faith affirmed, but not mindlessly. And really, in a broader way, the story is trying to explore themes of redemption, the ways that we try to contrive our own redemption—through circumstances or our own efforts—and then ultimately the way God offers us redemption through faith in Christ.
Holz: How did you get involved with Beyond the Mask?
McCusker: The movie’s creators, Chad and Aaron Burns, contacted me. They had done a previous film called Pendragon: Sword of His Father, a straight-to-video effort they produced on a shoestring budget. It’s based on Arthurian legends. When they contacted me, I was wary, because I’ve been contacted from time to time by people who really wanted to do movies. They either have no real experience at it, or they have some experience, but they really have no money or budget. A lot of times, I’m hearing from people who want to do dramatized sermons.
I get that, for the evangelical market. To motivate people to get out to a movie, there is a demand for something with an obvious takeaway. Drama is an extension of expressing the Word, and evangelicals are used to sermons. So if there isn’t an obvious takeaway, they’re suspect. There’s a whole side conversation to be had on this subject regarding the success of a Fireproof, and those kinds of movies, over and against Mom’s Night Out, which was mostly entertainment but it had some spiritual ideas and some Christian ideas woven through it. As I understand it, that movie has not done as well as the ones with obvious takeaway.
So, when the guys approached me, I was wary for those reasons. I said I’m not really interested in working on a film that’s going to be like all the other films—with all due respect to the marketplace that they’re trying to reach. So they called, and they said here’s the story: It’s about this assassin for the East India Company, which was a huge, monolithic, dominant force globally at the time. And it’s about what happens to him. He’s dealing with his conscience for the things he’s done, and then the company turns on him. That forces him to explore what he believes, why he believes it and who he is. As the title implies, it deals with this question: Who am I? Am I this assassin? What am I? So Beyond the Mask explores those questions.
I was intrigued. The last thing I expected was for them to say, “OK, so it’s set in 1775-76 before the Declaration of Independence was signed.” And then when they told me the situation, an assassin who basically goes through these twists and turns, I said, “OK. I’m game. I’d love to give that a shot.”
Holz: How did the process move forward from there?
McCusker: We had that plot as a starting point. There were certain moments they had in mind, like, “We’d really like for this to happen.” So we sat down for two or three days and pretty much storyboarded it. Chad and Aaron were big on the action, of course. And at every point, I just kept pushing back with questions of character motivation. “I know you want him to do that, but why is he doing it? There has to be a solid reason behind it.” Then the story’s main elements began to come together, with who his nemesis was, what he was up against. When I did the first draft of the script after we hammered out the outline, it was like 160 pages.
Holz: Which is long for a screenplay, isn’t it?
McCusker: [Most screenplays are] maybe 120 pages, tops. So then it came down to, how do we cut it down? How do we still get the essence of the story, and keep as much nuance as we can, but get it to time and keep it within budget? Chad and Aaron ultimately worked with a couple of other writers on a few things. But the film itself is very much their film. And I think they’re incredibly talented, in some respects visionaries, because they’re trying to do what few others are doing.
Holz: I can’t think of many comparable Christian films.
McCusker: Yeah, you either have the kitchen-table dramas or you have the dystopian dramas. And the variations in that are very limited.
Holz: This film starts out feeling almost like a period piece. You’re sort of in Pride and Prejudice. There’s a pretty girl, a tormented guy. Of course, they can’t just get married. And then it morphs into an action movie. What was actually drawn from history with regard to the film? Did the East India Company actually have assassins?
McCusker: What the East India Company had was huge power. Advocates in Parliament. Historically, I believe there were atrocities in India, which are alluded to. The dominance of India by the East India Company for their commerce as a human rights issue was huge. As for America, there was no benefit to the East India Company for America to go independent, which we see in the film. So the merging of the speculative, action-adventure side of it with the actual history is justifiable, though not overtly historical.
Holz: Wasn’t there a real bomb plot somewhere along the way?
McCusker: There may well have been in Philadelphia. The attempt on George Washington’s life we see in the film was based on history. Then there was another plot to put explosives under key bridges, stuff like that. As these sorts of movies often do, we’ve consolidated historical details, alluding to certain things that were true and historically accurate. But it’s obviously not a documentary.
Holz: What do you hope viewers come away with after seeing the film?
McCusker: Going back to our original intention, I hope they enjoy a good story. But I hope they’re also able to take on the film’s deeper themes of how often we contrive our own redemption to make amends for our mistakes. In the story, that impulse gets flipped upside-down. So I hope Beyond the Mask can be a story that triggers thoughts about forgiveness in its audiences, prompting questions about it. And then maybe to come to similar conclusions. Because apart from faith in Christ, you can’t earn redemption.