WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and this summer we’re taking a short break from our regular programming and presenting to you interviews from the Listening In archive. Interviews that have not been previously available online. Today you’ll be hearing an encore presentation of my 2015 conversation with filmmaker Brian Ivie, whose movies include the pro-life film, The Drop Box, as well as the new movie Emmanuel about the massive shooting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Brian Ivie is a remarkable young man. As a 21 year old undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, he read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Korean pastor who saved disabled babies that had been abandoned on the streets of Seoul. Ivie, who was not then a Christian, was nonetheless drawn to that story. Not so much as a story of Christian redemption, but as a story of a man who was rebelling against the Korean culture—a culture that would dispose of babies that were not up to some arbitrary standard of perfection.
But over the course of making the movie, Brian Ivie was moved by the pastor’s love and that love drew him to Christ. Suddenly, Brian Ivie himself was on a mission to tell the story of a father’s love—a love that is a reflection of our heavenly father’s love for us. Now, Brian’s new movie—Emmanuel—also carries on that theme of redemption. It’s a story of forgiveness set in tragic circumstances: The mass shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. I had this conversation with Brian Ivie in 2015 just prior to the release of his first movie, The Drop Box.
Let’s talk about the Dropbox first before we go back and explore a little bit of your career up until this point. Tell me about The Drop Box. What’s the movie about?
BRIAN IVIE, GUEST: The Drop Box is a documentary feature film about a man in Korea—pastor in Korea—who built a mailbox for abandoned babies, where nearly 600 babies have been saved. And he built this and one of the poorest districts of the Guano Gu borough of Seoul, South Korea—the capital of South Korea—and did it after funding a little girl with Down Syndrome on his front steps who was left out during the winter time and wanted to find a safer way for them to be surrendered safely. And so he built this box.
SMITH: How did you find out about this story?
IVIE: I actually read an article in the Los Angeles Times on June 20th, 2011 and that article was called “South Korean Pastor Tends an Unwanted Flock.” And it was all about the man who built the mailbox for abandoned babies. But not only that, the babies had physical disabilities or deformities, and so he was saving—in some ways—the most disposable children of all.
SMITH: Now you were in southern California, in LA, at least in part to go to USC film school, right? Were you still in film school whenever you read this article?
IVIE: I was in film school. I was a rising junior at USC film school.
SMITH: And so you saw this and you said to yourself, this is a documentary, this is a story? Or did it take a while for you to kind of come to that conclusion?
IVIE: You know, it’s actually one of the things I’ll never forget was reading this article. I read it in the actual physical newspaper over my breakfast cereal. And I’ll never forget reading the article and reading about the man who built the mailbox and thinking, if I don’t do anything about this, if I don’t tell this story, everyone’s going to forget. That’s what I thought that morning. And so I decided to send an email out to the correspondent in Korea, get all his contact information and get in touch with the pastor trying to make a film about his life.
SMITH: And well, obviously, you made the film, but let’s back up to that point because I got to tell you to go from a student at USC film school who reads an article in a paper to a completed feature length documentary film that’s already won some awards and is now being debuted here in Atlanta, which is where you and I are having this conversation, by Focus On the Family. That’s a pretty amazing journey. So what happened from that first article and that first email to that correspondent?
IVIE: Well, I’ll tell you this, Warren, it was never supposed to be a feature film. It was actually planned out from the very beginning to be a five to 10 minute short film that we were going to make. And the bent of the movie was that it was going to be, it’s going to pit this kind of like Korean society of perfectionism—because there’s a lot of plastic surgery in Korea (it’s very perfectionistic culture)—against this man’s counterculture of taking in children with deformities and disabilities and how he was rebelling against what seemed to me at the time to be Korean society at large. But what I will tell you—and kind of the interesting twist to this whole narrative—is that I became a Christian while making this film. And so what I didn’t expect is that when I was going to go make a film about saving Korean babies, that God was going to save me.
SMITH: Did this story of working on this film lead you to Christ? Or were there other factors involved here?
IVIE: You know, like Lee Strobel would say, there are a lot of links in the chain. That’s for sure. But this was the first time I felt like I had experienced true love, love that wasn’t about being weak at the knees, but something that was gritty and something that was sacrificial. And seeing this pastor and how he had drawn a line in the sand and said, no one dies here and had built in some ways a bunker for babies and said, I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to go after you, even though you may never know that I’ve done this for you, even though you may never know that you needed to be rescued. That to me really mirrored the love of the Father. And when I saw myself as one of those children, that’s when everything changed.
SMITH: So you have—as a film student—a project, right? That sounds like it could be a pretty cool project—the perfectionistic South Korean culture versus this man who is saving, you know, folks that don’t conform to that perfectionistic culture. But then you have this encounter with Christ. You become a Christian. And I guess it’s at that point where maybe this five to 10 minute student project becomes something more?
IVIE: That’s correct. We go on the first trip in December of 2011 and I come back and I really experience what it means to be fully known with all the things that I was ashamed of and yet fully loved, meaning that God wanted me still even knowing everything about me, even all the darkest secrets. And so after that, I really did go back to Korea to make an entirely different film. And that film was going to be about the father’s heart. And so the goal of the movie now as it stands as an 80 minute feature film, is to be a love letter from the Father to the world.
SMITH: And I don’t want to drill too much down into the economics of this, but, you know, a five minute student—I mean, USC film school is expensive. I know that. So I know you must have had at least some financial resources to even to be able to go to the school. But doing a full length feature documentary that involves travel back and forth to Korea is a completely different scale. So at what point and how did you negotiate this pivot from this short student film to this 80 minute documentary that’s gonna probably have a pretty decent sized budget?
IVIE: Sure. Well, it’s amazing, actually. We initially were planning to raise money just through Kickstarter. And for those of you who don’t know what Kickstarter is, it’s basically an online—the way I describe it—is an online crowd-funding platform where you post a project and a goal for a certain amount of money that you’re too poor to produce on your own, right? A piece of technology, a film or something like that. And then you beg your friends and family to help you reach that goal, right? That’s what it seems like, at least. And we’re going to post $5,000, go shoot the movie on whatever crappy cameras we can get our hands on. Tut at the last minute I decided instead of posting five, I was gonna post a $20,000 goal. And we reached that goal very quickly. And then the day after that, I got a phone call from somebody that said, I’d like to match your goal. So we had $40,000. And I asked them why, and they said, you’ll understand later. And I really did. And then I got another phone call.
SMITH: And did you —you’re just not telling me who that person is. You know.
IVIE: I do.
SMITH: It was not an anonymous—
IVIE: It was not, but they’d like to remain so. And this is what kept happening. And, again, I wasn’t a Christian at the time. So I was seeing these people come out of the woodwork. And for me, Christians at the time, well, evangelical Christians were crazy people, hypocrites, you know, haters, whatever you want to call them. But I was experiencing something really authentic. People that were giving in a very authentic fashion, did not want to be known for it. And then it happened again. We had another $25,000 donation that came and said, I want this story to be told, please. Here’s the resources to do it. So we had $65,000 to make our short film. So already, even in 2011, we were thinking this could be a lot bigger. This could be a lot bigger. And on top of that, a girl, Korean girl from USC came up to me one day and said, you should give another friend, a friend of my mom, a call. And at this point, all these phone calls could mean thousands of dollars. So I give this woman a call and she basically says, hi, I read the same article as you and what can I do? Can I charter a plane? Is there anything I can do for you? And I said, you know what? You know what, Laura? That’s already taken care of. But I know that your husband is the president of Oakley Optics. And I know that Oakley Optics co-founded a company called Red Camera and Peter Jackson is shooting The Hobbit on the Red Camera right now. Would you buy me a red camera to make this movie? And she said, of course I will. So I walked into Red headquarters, walked out with $50,000 worth of camera equipment as Peter Jackson was shooting The Hobbit in New Zealand, and we went to Korea with the same equipment. And so it was this, these miracles. And I was starting to think, man, there’s something to this God guy.
SMITH: And you’re not a Christian.
IVIE: Not at all. No way.
SMITH: But you’re obviously seeing these amazing things.
IVIE: So I got to see God work in those ways. And of course it was His grace. You know, did I deserve—I wasn’t even a Christian. And people that were donating, who knows if they knew I was a Christian, but they knew the character of the man that I was making the movie about. And I did not yet. And so we had $65,000 and $50,000 in camera equipment, and we flew 11 people to Seoul, South Korea on December 15th, 2011 to make a documentary on the man who built a mailbox for abandoned babies.
And so upon coming back from that trip, that first trip where we had spent a significant amount of money, it wasn’t that we didn’t have enough footage, we actually had enough footage to make a full on movie. But what I realized was that we had made the movie I wanted to make, but I felt like there was another movie that we needed to make after I got saved. And that movie was much more about the father’s heart. And it was also—the way we shot, the second trip to Korea was we didn’t go for people with titles. We didn’t go to experts. We just stayed in that little home or that pastor was and talked to his children and talk to him and the staff. And that’s the majority of the film. It was ordinary people doing extraordinary things with the love of God motivated by it and relying on it. And it was like the foolish shaming the wise. And the same with us as a bunch of—the motley crew film crew that we were, having never worked on these cameras before. I mean, I was watching YouTube videos to figure out half of the things we needed to accomplish. And so it’s an amazing opportunity when I get to talk about it to say it was God.
SMITH: So you get the movie shot and now you’re starting to cut this—you’ve become a believer and you’re starting to cut this longer movie together. How did you come to the attention of Focus On the Family and sort of move beyond, you know, a guy with a movie to a guy with a movie and a way to let hundreds of thousands of people see it?
IVIE: Well, hey, I think this is the best way to describe it. So, people told me that when I was going to make the first trips that I had to savior complex because I wanted to go and be the white man’s burden and go save a bunch of babies in another country.
SMITH: “Mighty Whitey” is what I feel it’s sometimes called, right?
IVIE: But I didn’t have a savior complex. I had a Sundance Film Festival complex. I had a Sundance complex. And what I mean by that is, really, I wanted to make this film for two very, very contradictory reasons. Number one, I wanted to help this family, but at the same time, I very much wanted to be famous and I wanted to go to a film festival and I thought this was a perfect social issue piece to get me there. And so what happened was when we got rejected from Sundance, we got into a festival called the San Antonio Christian Film Festival, which is known as the Christian Oscars. And we actually won that festival—beating, you know, several million dollars plus movies at this festival, our little movie that could. And the Grand Prize of that festival was $101,000. And we used that in order to help the pastor in his ministry. But that’s what brought it to the attention of a lot of other people and said, there’s some heat on this movie. It’s bigger than a movie. Let’s see if we can get behind and get this message out to the world.
SMITH: So among those people that found out about the movie were the folks at Focus On the Family.
IVIE: That’s correct.
SMITH: Fast forward to tonight where you and I are in Atlanta. We’re at the performing arts center up in Duluth, Georgia—Gwinnett county, just right outside of Atlanta. And you’re going to premier—some folks might be hearing in the background, Steven Curtis Chapman doing a sound check. I don’t know if they can hear that or not. But you and I certainly can. So what made you decide to hook up with Focus and what’s the outcome of this partnership from your point of view? What do you want to accomplish from this partnership?
IVIE: Well, I think the goal for me is unification. I think it’s very easy for a young Christians to get very jaded about what the previous generation is doing with storytelling. You know, the normal perspective from a believer in my neck of the woods in Los Angeles is, ah, the Christians are making faith films. They’re so corny and they don’t really get to the authentic parts of the issues. And so—but what I’ve seen is a need for unity. Unity from generation to generation. And what’s amazing about our partnership is it’s a marriage of our youth and energy and their wisdom and their experience and their resources. And it’s the same spirit.
SMITH: So the practical outcome of this partnership will be the premier tonight, which is going to be seen by thought leaders from I guess around the country, but certainly from the Atlanta area in the Christian community. But the actual theater release of the movie will be next year, right?
IVIE: That’s March 3rd, 4th, and 5th. It’ll be a fathom release, which means that it’s a short window, but it’s a very large amount of screens. So it’ll be in 650 theaters nationwide. And for a documentary in a foreign language, that’s a lot of screen time. And an amazing way to get the movie out. And the amazing part of the reason why we’re in Atlanta tonight is because we’re filming what’s really the bookends of the experience that you’re going to go see in theater. So when you come to theaters, you’ll see the premiere and you’ll see Jim Daley from Focus On the Family come out and introduce the movie. You’ll get to see Steven Curtis Chapman support the film and play a song that has a lot to do with the themes of the movie. And you get to hear me share my testimony about how the father met me while making it.
SMITH: What’s next on the filmmaking agenda for you?
IVIE: Well, it’s actually exciting because I’ll be making a documentary feature film, titled The Jesus Revolution, which is all about the Jesus people movement of the 60s and 70s. So we’re going to be interviewing really awesome men and women of God across this nation about really the last great spiritual awakening in this country. And as somebody my age in the generation that I’m in, I think it’s really similar to the generation back then. And so what I’d like to do is really create a bridge, help people see that God’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. He still does that kind of stuff and I’ve had my own awakening. So, that’s what we’re out to do. And we start production for that in January.
SMITH: I am curious, just because I’ve read a book recently called God’s Forever Family—
IVIE: I just read that book, yeah.
SMITH: Is the movie going to be based on that book or are you cooperating with the author of that book or is this going to be your own entirely independent kind of a project?
IVIE: It will be independent. We’re doing the project with the Erwin brothers. They made a film called October Baby and we’re working with their studio, but the idea is we’re definitely gonna work with Larry and other authors of different Jesus Movement novels and things like that. And it’s amazing. They have aggregated a lot of content for us. But the idea is actually to really give people an experience of the Jesus People Movement, but also talk to young people today who have experienced similar awakening.
SMITH: Well, you mentioned Erwin brothers who did October Baby, which was a very well regarded pro-life movie. It was not one of those cheesy Christian movies that you talked about earlier. They’re filmmakers themselves, so what’s the relationship? You’re directing, they’re producing?
IVIE: That’s right. So, the relationship is amazing and, again, part of what I really believe in is stewardship. I mean, we all, of course we do, the Bible says it, but doesn’t mean we know what that means. And so for me, Jon Erwin is my mentor and, really, I’m his apprentice. So it’s an apprenticeship and he’s basically, he’s carved stairs into this mountain, which he climbed the face of. And now I can walk up with him. Doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy, but it’s exciting to me because it’s really just this generation to generation to generation stewardship—Focus On the Family, with Erwin brothers, and with me. And then I’m going to reach back from whoever’s behind me, that’s for sure.
SMITH: And just movie you expect to go into shooting, what, next year?
IVIE: We’ll be shooting for the first three months of 2015 and the movie will actually be in theaters in summer 2015.
SMITH: Really? That fast?
IVIE: That fast, yeah.
SMITH: Wow. And what’s the purpose for making it happen so quickly? Just because you can, or because there’s a particular—?
IVIE: So, the Erwin Brothers actually in the middle and that’s where I just came from—since that early, early this morning. But back in Alabama. I’m working with them on another film called Woodlawn, which is about a revival at a high school called Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973. And that revival healed his football team, which in turn healed the city of Birmingham. And at the center of this eye of the storm of race riots at the time. And so when Jon and Andy Erwin were doing research for their film Woodlawn, they realized there was a nationwide movement of God. And so what they have tasked me to do is basically tell that entire story. And so the film’s coming out next summer, because Woodlawn will come out after that and it’s really kind of an appetizer for it.
SMITH: I gotcha. Very good. Well, Brian, thank you so much. It’s been great to chat with you. Just, by the way, I know you’re just out of film school. How old are you?
SMITH: 24 and you—where did you do undergrad?
IVIE: I did Undergrad at University of Southern California. And so I went to USC film school and studied cinema television.
SMITH: So the film school was an undergraduate program?
IVIE: That’s right.
SMITH: Okay. I got you. Cause I’m thinking, I think mostly of the USC as their grad program, but they do—
IVIE: They have an amazing undergrad program and when you walk into the school, you have George Lucas’s name etched in stone and suddenly you’re very inadequate. But it’s a great place to—it’s a safe place to fail. That’s what I say about film school to people. If you want to go—safe place to fail. Everybody’s in the same boat as you. And it’s where you find the people you want to work with.
SMITH: Well and also, too, I mean, you kind of have this idea, right? That if—
IVIE: That if they did it, we can do it. Yeah.
SMITH: Maybe you could, too, right?
SMITH: So Brian, you’ve made this movie and Focus On the Family is going to be involved in the distribution of it—600+ theaters around the country. Tell me about you personally now. I mean, we kind of know that this is the biggest thing going on in your life professionally, at least for the next little bit. But A) you’ve not been a Christian for very long and yet you’re already saying things that I might expect to come out of the mouth of somebody who’s a little bit more theologically sophisticated. They’ve been a believer for long time. You’ve mentioned my friend Lee Strobel, so if you’re reading his books, I know you’re getting at least some grounding in the faith. What are you doing to grow in your personal faith as a new young Christian?
IVIE: Well, a lot of things. The biggest thing is allowing myself to be adopted by people who have been walking with Him for a long time. Meaning that I have spiritual parents. I do. Their names are Patrice and Rob and they live in San Diego. And I go down to their house whenever I can and they speak into my life. They speak into my relationship with my girlfriend now who is soon to be more than a girlfriend. But I have spiritual parents and I also weekly have prayer calls with a really amazing man of God. And just to stay current in the things that I’m dealing with. My pillar as a Christian is nothing fake. And that means this is me. It’s on my sleeve. This is who I am. This is the stuff I deal with. Nothing’s undercover. It’s all going to be revealed one day.
But more than that, I think people need to see that about me. They need to see that I’m real and I live in the same world that they do. So I try to be as honest as I can with people. And on top of that, of course, I’m in an amazing community. I go to a great home church called Reality LA, where I know people are trophies of grace that lead that church. Our pastor was an ex-meth addict and now he leads a flock of thousands of people. And so it’s the real deal. So I have church, my community group, and surrounded by people. But more than anything it’s about experiencing the Father loving me even right now. And that’s my greatest accountability is being intimate with Him. Because Christianity isn’t something that you know or something you do. It’s something you become. And so for me, as I become more like Him and then I’ll start seeing those things, it’s just part of who I am now.