When I got a call about doing a film on the life of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine shooting, I fully expected I would pass on the project. I started reading the script thinking it was going to be about some boring, sheltered, high school church girl who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was wrong.
Rachel’s life was a surprising, interesting, beautiful mess of teenage contradictions and struggles. Her faith led her to want to make a difference in the world, to be a light in her school, but she battled against her demons and temptations. She was just like me. There was a core to the story that was so accessible … so real.
However, because Rachel had a faith, the story got labeled as faith-based, and I didn’t particularly want to direct a so-called Christian film. I have a deep distaste for that term. I don’t consider movies Christian, any more than I think there are Christian bicycles, Christian hamburgers or a Christian piece of plywood.
Products and art don’t normally get described by the religion of their investors or creators, so why should films? Do we call Hugo’s “Les Misérables” a Christian play? Or Handel’s “Messiah” a Christian symphony? Or DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” a Christian painting? Or conversely, do we call “Malcolm X” a Muslim film? Or “Schindler’s List” a Jewish film? Does anyone label a Martin Scorsese film a Catholic film? I’ve never heard them referred to as such. To me, movies are just good, bad or somewhere in between. They either connect with an audience or they don’t.
So much to my surprise, after learning about Rachel’s life, I was willing to take the risk. She was a fascinating high school girl with a powerful story that could connect with audiences in a real way. She was a young artist who loved writing, drawing and acting. And she left behind these beautiful journals that told of her inner journey.
It was like the Columbine High School version of Anne Frank.There were both private writings and journals she shared with her friends. Imagine the ’90s version of getting to read all of her text messages. When reading them, you experience her internal roller coaster of emotions, from the competing desires between what she felt called to do because of her faith, and the pressures and yearnings of high school life. It was complicated, messy and full of heart. I think we would have been good friends if we went to the same high school. Rachel’s authenticity won me over.
I could see that this project had the chance to connect with audiences no matter what they believed. At the core, the film is about the universal process of learning to stand up for your beliefs. Even though I knew it was going to be marketed as a “Christian film,” I thought it had a chance to connect with mainstream audiences if given the chance.
The story has a genuineness that is similar to some other wonderful films about women who are guided by their faith. Perhaps audiences would enjoy following Rachel’s story just like they did with Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking,” Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side,” or Viola Davis in “The Help.” Each of these characters has a faith in God that drives their actions and inspires their decisions as protagonists in these powerful stories. Audiences don’t have to agree with their faith to enjoy these films.
When you are writing and directing true stories, it is always interesting to see how much truth the family will let you tell. From what I read in Rachel’s journals, more than almost anything, she didn’t want to be fake. Would Rachel’s mother allow the film version of Rachel’s life to be faithful to that desire and show the dirt?
Thankfully she was brave enough. When working on the script, I had the pleasure of walking through the story with Rachel’s mother, Beth, who has been on a fifteen year journey to tell her daughter’s story on screen. As I asked for permission to bring darker aspects of Rachel’s life into the script she courageously responded, “Brian, I know I’m going to have to have some thick skin, but it’s the right thing to do. Students and parents need this.”
It was her vision for this project not to be a “Christian film,” but for it to be for everyone. For years she had spoken at schools and seen how all types of people have responded to Rachel’s story.
So I’ve never seen this as my film, but as hers. It has been an honor to be one of the people that helped a dream come true for a mother and her family that has been through such senseless loss.
I’m typically not one that gets excited about minefield projects like this. Every step you take you could get attacked from either side. I figured there would be protests, there would be haters, and that people wouldn’t agree with the truth of the story.
But in the end, I wanted to help my new friend Beth. She wanted to make a movie that would try in some small way to redeem the inexcusable, horrible events of that day in April 1999, and show that hope can rise from the ashes. In the end, I consider it a privilege to direct a movie that attempts to do that.
So you may be tempted to write off this film because it centers around a young woman’s journey of faith. But if you give it a chance, you might get surprised. Just like I was.
Watch the trailer for “I’m Not Ashamed” below.