Listening In: David Cunningham

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with filmmaker David Cunningham. Born in Switzerland and raised in Hawaii, David Cunningham is a filmmaker responsible for such movies as To End All Wars and the groundbreaking TV mini-series The Path to 9/11, both of which we’ll talk about later in this program.

Another interesting fact about David Cunningham is that he’s the son of Loren and Darlene Cunningham, founders of Youth With A Mission. YWAM, as it’s often called, is one of the nation’s—indeed one of the world’s—largest missionary organizations. His ministry upbringing has informed his 25-year film career, which has often moved back and forth between ministry and secular projects.

His new movie, Running For Grace, in some ways attempts to bridge or even eradicate that gap between the sacred and the secular.  The movie is set in David Cunningham’s beloved Hawaii, and it focuses on the 1920s, a time of troubled race relations both in Hawaii and in the country as a whole. David Cunningham spoke to me about this movie and about his career from a studio in Los Angeles.

David Cunningham, welcome to the program. I just saw a preview screener, I guess, of your movie Running For Grace and really enjoyed it a great deal. Of course it was set in Hawaii. I know you and I are having this conversation while you’re in Los Angeles, but you were pretty much raised in Hawaii, weren’t you?

DAVID CUNNINGHAM, GUEST: I was. It’s a great place to grow up, and it’s where my kids have been born and we’re raising, and I’ve made about three movies out of there and we actually have a film studio out of there as well.

SMITH: Well, in the movie, this movie Running For Grace is in some ways an homage to Hawaii. It does look at a couple of dark moments in Hawaiian history. Some, I guess you could say, racist moments in Hawaiian history. You’re unblinking about that. But boy, oh boy, some of the landscape shots. It was like a love letter to the state.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I love Hawaii and the people there, and this was a time, not just in Hawaii, but in the United States in the 1920s where there was a federal law. It was all about racial integrity. The words they use were, it was illegal to adopt children of mixed ethnicities. And so our story is about a little boy named Joe who’s half Japanese, half Haoli who was illegitimate and rejected by both communities, the Japanese immigrant community, I should say, and the white community. And a doctor comes to town to fill out a job request to be the plantation doctor. He’s played by Matt Dillon and basically takes the boy under his wing to be his translator and to run medicine up the mountain to the coffee pickers of the time. So it’s less about a specific thing in Hawaii history and it’s more about a whole time and era where racism was embraced and legal and how far we’ve come. And  of course we still have a long ways to go.

SMITH: Well, yeah, that’s right. And I know you don’t mean—I find—and David, correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of times message movies suffer for being message movies. If you just tell a great story and sort of let the message be implicit, it often to me feels like it has more integrity. And that’s what you’ve done as well. You don’t make too big a deal out of the adoption angle or the racism angle, but no question it’s part of the context of the times. Was that your intention?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. You know, I really set out to make this movie for my whole family. I have three kids, two girls and a boy, and we wrestle over the remote quite often over what we’re going to watch. And I really wanted to make a movie that we all wanted to watch. Not only is it a family film and safe for the whole family, I wanted to pick a movie that they wanted to go and see. And so our intention was to create an experience that was entertaining, that brought you to another time and place, but also did champion the themes of the power of adoption and the need for family and identity and the need of really getting behind folks that have a dream and have a lot of obstacles in front of them. But through grace and tenacity, you can achieve those dreams. So that was the intent and we’re not meant to, we’re not looking to preach to the choir per se, but we sure need the choir’s help and believe that families across the United States will really enjoy this and hopefully take away some key themes as well.

SMITH: I want to talk to you a little bit about the filmmaking process with this movie in particular. Now, I know you’re from Hawaii, you’ve got a studio in Hawaii, but I’m just wondering, what the challenges were of making a movie there. I mean, you had to create sets that were true to that period. Hawaii is a jungle in many places. Any particular struggles or challenges there or have you’ve been there so long that it just sort of felt like, well, this is life.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, the privilege of shooting in your backyard brings a lot of benefits. And I know the island well. This is on Hawaii Island where the volcano is getting some attention lately and we’re the largest island of all the islands there in the Hawaiian chain. In fact, twice as big as all the islands. And we have 11 of the 13 climate zones including snow on our mountain, which most people don’t think of. And I really wanted to bring people to other places in Hawaii and in another time that perhaps they weren’t aware of and typically people think of Hawaii as beaches and hotels, but there’s so much incredible diversity. There’s so much beauty there and I thought it would be a wonderful place to set this story, which has a major theme of romance as well, which is a big part of the plot.

And, so yeah, so in terms of challenges, I think the biggest challenge is we are trying to build the independent film scene there on Hawaii Island and build the infrastructure. So we’ve built a studio and in cooperation with our local government. We have been training up crew, investing in equipment, and when you’re on an island, you know, it takes a while to get stuff there and so that’s probably the biggest challenge is shooting in an isolated place. But our goal is to put Hawaii on the map much like, you know, Wellington, New Zealand is and I know we’re swinging for the fences there, but that’s not too big of a city. It’s the middle of the Pacific and it’s become a international film hub. So we have high hopes that Hawaii can be that someday.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, of course, Wellington had what the Lord of the Rings trilogy going for them and now Hawaii will have Running For Grace going for it, I guess, right?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, well, and before Lord of the Rings there was a series of independent movies that really helped create and build a film community and an infrastructure that was able to then help facilitate a movie of that size of Lord of the Rings. So we’re trying to build that infrastructure so that we can continue to grow and take on bigger and bigger stuff.

SMITH: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your actors, too, David, because you had Jim Caviezel playing a role. I mean, those of us who know him as Jesus he was playing against type. He was definitely very un-Jesus-like in this movie. And Matt Dillon. I mean, these guys are both, you know, well known, really you could say movie stars and then you had a little kid as well. And boy, I’ve heard that one of the hardest things for a director to do is to direct a kid because they don’t really have the acting chops. You just have to—It’s really more of a casting issue. Is that what you found in directing a kid?

CUNNINGHAM: It is, and I’ve, I guess this is about my third movie to direct kids in and did one for Disney and one for Fox that the leads were kids. And it really is about finding the right one and it’s this combination of you want somebody, you want a kid that’s uninhibited, confident and, at the same time, can take direction. And that’s a difficult thing to find. You get these kids that are just super charismatic and really outgoing and then, you know, you can’t control them and they don’t hit their mark or they don’t get their line and they’re bored and they’re squirmy. But we really scored with little Cole and this was his first acting job. And he also was half Japanese, half Caucasian, just like the older character that plays the same character but as a young man versus a boy. And the kid pulled it off. He went toe to toe with academy-nominated Matt Dillon. And they were a great team, had a great chemistry. And so we were really blessed to discover Cole and have that work.

SMITH: David, I’d like to shift gears on you just a little bit and talk about some of your past movies if I could. One of the—and I’m going to sort of go in reverse order. I want to talk about To End All Wars, which was your 2001 movie, but also want to talk about The Path to 9/11, which came out five years later in 2006. And that movie—I say movie, but it was actually a mini-series. It was a two part mini-series on television on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. And, again, I probably shouldn’t be such a fan boy and should put more on my journalist hat on, David, but I was a big fan of that mini-series. I thought it was very powerful. Part of that was the way it was presented without commercial interruption on two consecutive nights, but it also generated a lot of controversy. How did it feel for you being in the eye of the storm?

CUNNINGHAM: It was wild. The Path to 9/11 was, first off, a real privilege to be able to be asked to direct that. It was for ABC. It was a $43 million budget starring Harvey Keitel, a huge cast of over 200. We filmed around the world. And it was basically the events leading up to 9/11, both from the terrorist perspective as well as the intelligence community in the United States. And the intention of ABC was very honorable. It was about trying to demonstrate and educate the American public of what happened and how we can help keep this from happening again. And it was all based upon the 9/11 commission report, which is a bipartisan report that both the Democrats and Republicans signed off on as the most factual evidence building up to 9/11. And so my job was to try to translate the script and through my partner who was the writer on that, the writer/producer Cyrus Nowrasteh to translate that to the general public in a way that was engaging and entertaining and also informative.

So it was a drama, you know, much like of a Bourne type of franchise, but was based on fact. And we were super proud of that film. So was ABC, was getting all kinds of kudos. And we began showing the film to key influencers before the actual air date and at the National Press Club in D.C. the first night because it was a multipart film was shown. And night one dealt with the Clinton administration on how they handled terrorism, Osama bin Laden, etcetera. And then night two dealt with George W. Bush’s administration in the same way. There was no intention to try to emphasize one administration over the other and, in fact, the ABC executives and the producing team, I think, would all considered themselves quite liberal and Clinton, pro-Clinton. And I was born in Switzerland and try to stay neutral. Well, until this thing happened. And basically, we were accused of trying to have—of making an agenda movie that was going to hurt Hillary’s chances of running. And the issue was all around how we demonstrated the Clinton administration engagement with the Osama bin Laden.

And the controversy was that we fabricated a scene where there was an opportunity to take out bin Laden well before 9/11 and that was missed because of all the bureaucracy that was going on around the Lewinsky scandal. And we played the most neutral, down the middle version of that. There was actually several incidences that we could have tackled. We had incredible consultants on that that were with us on the set, that were a part of the 9/11 commission report. The head of CIA in Pakistan was on our team. The man who held the football for the Clinton administration, the nuclear codes, sits next to the president, FBI terrorism directors or those in leadership. So they were guiding us along the way, as well as a whole bunch of Disney lawyers making sure that we weren’t taking liberties. So, we really felt there was a lot of integrity in the process, but it hit a political chord and all of a sudden there was this huge backlash…

SMITH: Well, there was. And if I could just, I mean, you know, David, if I could interrupt you, I mean, you got—it got an Emmy award, it got a ton of Emmy nominations. It got a lot of critical approval. You got good ratings, as well. You got beat by Sunday night football one of the nights, but still, I mean that’s not bad. You had millions of people if not into the tens of millions of people watching it. But yeah, you did hit a lot of political backlash. How did you take all of that? Were you like, well, I need to respond, I just need to let it play its course? What was your posture whenever that backlash was coming?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, it was totally a surprise. And, essentially, the Clinton machine decided that they were going to target two areas to try to undermine the film. And they worked very hard to try to get the movie censored and, in fact, not aired. And Senator [Harry] Reid and others were threatening ABC’s licensing, broadcast licensing. It got absolutely crazy. But the two key areas where they felt were vulnerable was the writer/producer had been on some conservative talk shows and they were painting him as if he was extremely conservative. And then they found out that I was a person of faith and that my parents started a Christian organization called YWAM or Youth With a Mission, which is an interdenominational missions organization. And they, basically, the bloggers working for the Clintons said Youth With a Mission, these missionaries organize themselves and funded this movie to keep Hillary out of office for religious reasons.

And it just got nuts and there was all this—it just started—the whole story started just snowballing and got really ludicrous and it just turned into a frenzy and then crazy people got involved and there was death threats. So it did air, but it was censored. The pressure was very great on ABC and, to their credit, they aired it, but it was censored that particular scene. And yeah, I was told 23 million Americans saw it over the two nights and I remain very proud of that film. But to this day, you can’t get that film and it was blocked. So you can’t buy that movie.

SMITH: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that because, you know, even though it did air and, you know, good for ABC for standing by it, it’s never been on DVD that I know of. It’s never been on any streaming services. Do you think that that was because of the political pressure or was it the economics? Why do you think?

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely was because of the political pressure. And I think it was such a huge surprise that, you know, that the Clintons came after this to a lot of people in leadership that they just wanted it to all go away. And it’s a bummer because the film was popular. It could have made money for ABC. I never saw any residuals for that movie because they did not air it again. And that’s, you know, that’s a hit to your income. And felt like that was very unfair and sad. But there is, it was a real eye-opener for me, you know, they talk about free speech and all that’s—all of that. And I was so naive to this whole process. I remember watching Wolf Blitzer and they were trying to get me on that show and a bunch of other shows. And I’m watching Wolf Blitzer from my couch at home in Hawaii and he’s telling lies about my family. He’s just quoting stuff that was made up by bloggers who had a clear agenda. And I started switching channels and seeing that—and I just, my mind was blown. And the whole integrity for media from that time on was really fractured. And just, I’m sure this isn’t news to your listeners, but I was blown away with how that whole system works.

SMITH: Well I know Cyrus Nowrasteh and he’s been on our program before. He’s been on Listening In, when his movie a Young Messiah came out, we had him on the program. And I know Max Blumenthal, who was the liberal blogger that made the connection between you and your dad and made all of these wild accusations. And Max is a little bit of a bomb thrower and he has the ear of many on the left. And, so, I guess —

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, he definitely chucked some hand grenades our way. And there was a documentary made about what happened to us called The Blocking of the Path to 9/11: The Anatomy of a Smear Campaign. And I didn’t make that film but I’m in it and it’s accurate. So it’s a fascinating look about what happened to us and it was quite the experience, that whole process.

SMITH: Well, David, I want to change gears again and talk about another one of your movies that I’m also a big fan of and that is To End All Wars and that movie came out in 2001 and it starred Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Carlyle. It also had some actors in it like Mark Strong, for example, who was, I mean, he’d been around a little bit by 2001, but he wasn’t the star he is today. I mean, he’s in The Kingsman and all kinds of other stuff that folks would know about him today. Talk a little about making that movie. Again, another movie that is a powerful story, but I guess you could say with a Christian message, but the Christian message is not explicit.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, that movie was an amazing process. And yeah, we had a fantastic cast, Kiefer Sutherland and Mark Strong and Robert Carlyle. A WWII, POW movie about forgiveness in the face of war. A true story. And when I read the original draft of this script, which was really about how under pain and suffering, incredible pain and suffering, torture, in the case of my movie, how men can stand up and choose to forgive and how that just, it just changes the environment and transforms so much. It was mind blowing to me. So, it was exciting to make that film. We shot that also in Hawaii and that was my second movie to make in my career as well as in Hawaii. And that movie really put me on the map, as a director and I directed for the studios after that for about 10 years, including Path to 9/11, which we were just chatting about. And in recent years I’ve come back to my independent roots and have our own studio now. And Running for Grace is one of the first coming out of those efforts.

SMITH: Well, can you talk to me a little bit, David, about the process for that, because I said whenever I asked my last question, that it wasn’t an explicitly Christian movie, but I guess a Christian worldview is pervasive in that movie the idea of forgiveness. And, of course, it was about Ernest Gordon, who was a Christian chaplain and theologian and wrote a book about his experience in the prisoner of war camp. But one of the things that I thought was especially powerful about that movie and about that story was that they had—these POWS created, if you will, a university in the jungle that each man sort of brought their own vocation and giftedness. There was a man who was an actor, who had memorized a great deal of Shakespeare. So they were, they were studying Shakespeare because this guy had memorized it and could share it even though they were in a place where they had no books and had no classrooms and whatever. It was just such a powerful, if I could put it in theological terms, such a powerful depiction of even in the worst circumstances, when the worst was brought out in many people, there was still a sense of man being made in the Imago Dei, in the image of God.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, absolutely. No, you really nailed it. These men would meet in the morgue where the Japanese wouldn’t go because the stench was so bad. They would sneak in there in the middle of the night and they would all bring something that they had learned. And, as you mentioned, Shakespeare in one case, art and another man played by Mark Strong, Dusty, brought the Bible and started teaching them the concept of forgiveness out of the Bible. And this troop emerged where they created a play and an orchestra and really just transformed that camp in spite of the amazing suffering that went on around them. And it just, it rattled me the—not only the incredible courage that it took to stand up with forgiveness, but also the impact that that has. And the stuff in the Bible is true and you follow that, it is just such powerful principles and this happens to be one of them. The power of forgiveness.

SMITH: A couple of questions about that movie that I’ve always wondered about. I heard a rumor somewhere along the way that you guys, I don’t want to give away too much of the movie for people—because it is on Netflix. Actually watched it not long ago on Netflix maybe a year ago. And there’s like a bombing scene at the end of the movie and what I heard was that you guys ran out of money or ran out of bombs anyway, and that they were also shooting Pearl Harbor, the movie Pearl Harbor, and that y’all kinda were able to take the leftovers from that. Is that true? Is that a true story or not?

CUNNINGHAM: It is. You know, that was an independent movie made on a wing and a prayer. And what was happening was Pearl Harbor was filming on the other island and we had the same effects, special effects person, Archie Ohuna, who’s kind of the go-to special effects guy for the state. And he came up to me and he said, David, I have a gift for you. He said, I’m in charge of detonating all of the extra bombs left from Pearl Harbor movie and I’m gonna put them in for this final scene. And so we knew we didn’t know the extent of what Archie had in his arsenal, and we only had one take and this extra, if you watched the movie, who was running in front of the bombing. And the way you rig it, all the C4 and all the explosions is under the ground. And so Archie is behind the controls and as the extra runs, who in this case was playing a Japanese soldier, it looks like the bombing is happening right behind them. And it is. But if the actor would have fallen or anything, Archie was just simply not triggered the next bomb. But this particular extra wasn’t really experienced and he thought the world was coming to an end, and he ran for his life. And these bombs just went off, and at the end of it there’s this silence and then I just hooped and hollered, “Thank you, Archie!” So it was one of those fun movie moments that sometimes fall off the truck and you’re blessed to be able to get it on screen.

SMITH: Yeah, well there’s another thing I wanted to ask you about that movie, David, and that is the fact that it was rated R. It was rated R because of the brutal violence that was accurately portrayed. I mean, the way those folks were treated in the prisoner of war camp was fairly accurate, as accurately as you can portray such a thing. It’s not because of sex and there was some bad language in it, but honestly I’ve probably heard worse language in a PG-13 movie. It was the brutality that I’m guessing earned you the R rating. Do you regret that? Because that movie with its powerful Christian message as a PG-13 movie would have had probably a pretty different future.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I don’t regret it for a couple reasons. One is we did attempt to get a PG-13. We went back to the MPAA three times and there was some language in it, but most of that language, by the way, was improv from the actors. And the performances were so powerful that I wanted to choose the performance over language. And that’s why there’s a few moments in there where there’s some swearing when when men are getting killed and beaten. And so it’s not a Sunday school film. But I felt like that was appropriate within that context and these men were suffering and it was real stuff. In terms of the violence, I had a studio come to us and say, if you can get this to a PG-13, you know, we will be interested in this. And we went to the MPAA three times, as I mentioned, and tried to trim back things and edit things. And they kept coming back with the R and it was frustrating that we couldn’t do that, but it came to a point where I had to say to these, to my partners and to this particular studio, if I can’t show the suffering that these men went through, it cheapens the forgiveness and I have to draw a line because I have a commitment to these men and their legacy and if we’re turning this into some kind of slick thing that doesn’t show what they went through, then that power of forgiveness is cheapened. So we did lose some opportunities, but I stand by that. I feel like there’s integrity in that process. And something that I’d love your listeners to really understand is that the MPAA is not based upon a biblical grid and there’s this sense that somehow a rating will line up somehow in our Christian worldview and it does not. It’s based upon a system that is purely—there’s 12 people around a room in Burbank that are deciding these things with a grid that is more or less based upon what might offend and that kind of thing. But there are PG-13 movies out there that have a worldview that is dangerous. And it’s not because of sex, it’s not because of violence, but it is undermining to the worldview that you and I share. So I just really hope that listeners will tune into that. And now with the rating system for online being basically super broad and not helpful at all. Like, I’d be watching a show with my son, my 11 year old son on Netflix and something will pop up all of a sudden, I was like, what in the world? So I kind of feel like the ratings have been thrown out the window and that Christians really need to look at movies and television in a way that is more sophisticated than a secular system that is checking some boxes. And, so yeah, long answer to say that. And I can share with you why that, I mean that film has stood the test of time and probably I’m most known for that movie, but we were going to have a very big campaign but the, at our premier, 9/11 happened and everyone fled because of the falling towers. We were in Toronto and our wide release was then limited because of all the war and the distribution companies wanted romance films and anything to get people out of thinking about the war. And they felt like our movie was a war movie. Meanwhile, we had fans going, please David, get your film out there that the world needs to see a message of forgiveness in light of what’s happening in the towers coming down and so on. But that was the key issue that prevented us from kind of going big and wide immediately.

SMITH: Well, David Cunningham, I’m a big fan of that movie. In fact, I will tell you that I rented a movie theater here in Charlotte, my hometown, and put 250 people in front of that movie whenever it came out. That was how big a fan I was of it. And a lot more—I’m going to have to have you back on the program to talk about all the questions that I was not able to get to today. But let me just say thank you. Congratulations on this new movie Running for Grace. Thanks for To End All Wars and The Path to 9/11. I’m a big fan of both of those and just pray God continues to bless your efforts in the future.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me. Really grateful and make sure everybody knows, go to our website and see where you can see it in theaters and on iTunes. So thanks again.

SMITH: You’ve been listening in on my conversation with David Cunningham. We’ve been discussing his latest movie Running for Grace as well as taking a retrospective look at his career that’s included To End All Wars and The Path to 9/11.

David Cunningham had this conversation with me from a studio in Los Angeles, Listening In is brought to you by WORLD News Group, and this podcast is just one of the many benefits of WORLD membership. To find out more about becoming a member of WORLD, go to

The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host, Warren Smith, and you’ve been Listening In.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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