The Ultimate Gift – An Interview with Author Jim Stovall

Can you tell me about the book The Ultimate Gift?

The Ultimate Gift is about when one of the richest men in the world is coming to the end of his life and instead of making all of his relatives instant millionaires forever, he has a grandson he sees some potential in and instead of giving him money, sends him on a twelve month odyssey which he has to learn the gift of money, friends, and family. In the end if he can accomplish all of these things, then he will receive the ultimate gift.

What inspired this story?

I had written five books or so before this and they were all non-fiction. I had written everything I knew and everything I kind of suspected, so it was time to come up with some fiction. I liked the way the story wrapped around the messages I wanted to deliver.

I had a co-worker diagnosed with terminal cancer and she made me the guardian of her 11 year old child. And in that process gave me a lot of instruction: make sure she knows about dating, driving, and going to college and those sorts of things. So that whole concept of somebody passing something on at a time when they knew they weren’t going to be there I think is where some of that came from.

Do you see this journey that Jason is on as an allegory for discipleship?

I think it can be. The whole concept of us passing on things that matter, both practical, spiritual, financial, all these things that make a difference. How we manage our money, how we manage our life is a reflection of our faith. I don’t think you can separate those out. Too many people try to compartmentalize their faith. “I’m doing good in my faith area, but I’m doing bad in my family area.” I don’t think you can do that.

Can you tell me a bit about your own spiritual journey?

I grew up in a Christian home. My father has worked for Oral Roberts for over 50 years now, still working. I grew up in that environment. We were in church every week. I would say, as I look back on it now, that I was a very religious person. I did it because that was what we did. And then at age 17 I was diagnosed with a disease that would result in my blindness and you immediately go from religion to relationship. That faith has to go from a theory that you take down and polish off on Sunday mornings to something real that you can live with.

How involved were you with the movie? Did it turn out as you imagined/hoped?

There has probably not been an author who has had as much involvement as I did. I had script approval, I worked with them on casting, and I actually played a small part in the film. That was fun. So all and all, I was very pleased.

Obviously when you turn a book into a movie you have to make changes. Leave things out, add an element of danger, we had to give Jason a girlfriend … some things like that. But by and large, I was totally pleased with the final product.

Can you tell me about the broader ministry you see this movie being a part of?

We do a lot of work in public schools, we do a lot of work in prisons. The Ultimate Gift is taught as a curriculum now and we’re able to go into a lot of places. It has become almost like a movement.

What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from this movie?

That our life has been given to us as a gift and there are things we’re here to do. And we’re supposed to do them otherwise we’d all just be in heaven now. So it’s been given to us as a gift and how we deal with it on a daily basis is our tribute to the gift we’ve been given.

Do you think you’re passing along the gift of story?

Well, I hope so. You know whether you are talking about the Bible or not, when you tell a good story, you’ve earned the right to speak into people’s lives. I could talk to you for an hour and a half about a certain message or I could just say it’s like the good Samaritan and you’d know what I was talking about. We all have those connections with a great story. So hopefully it will live and the message will come through that way.

What are you up to now?

The sequel to The Ultimate Gift comes out next month. It’s called The Ultimate Life and it follows what happens to Jason right after the movie. So we continue on into his life.

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The Ultimate Gift – An Interview with Director Michael Sajbel

How did you get started in movies?

I started making movies in junior high and high school and then I was fortunate enough to go to UCLA film school. When I graduated, I started working for an independent producer/director as a screenwriter. I think I was 22 years old when my first screenplay was made into a movie.

How do you go about choosing your projects?

Well, they kind of choose me. In other words, of all the projects in the world, only a certain number get filtered through to me. I don’t know how you would characterize that, but if a project gets to me, I usually take a look at it. If it has an offer to direct, it goes to the top of the stack. If it’s financed already, it goes to the very top of the stack. I look at it and see if it’s something that I’m the right person for. Just a few months ago there was a film that came to me with an offer to direct that I just didn’t feel was right for me, so I turned it down.

I always look at the story and if the story has got all of the elements that I respond to, usually redemption, somebody seeking redemption, something that is authentically written, then I really respond to it.

Can you tell me a bit about your own spiritual journey?

There was a great awakening in America during the early 70s called the Jesus movement. Jesus Freaks were running around converting everyone. I was in high school and had a girlfriend who I knew really well. She went off to Colorado to go skiing and when she got back, she was a completely different person. I saw when she was walking in the door without even saying a word that she was a completely changed person. It was amazing. I had never seen that before. She told me what had happened to her and I fought it for a while (maybe a week) on my own, just between me and God. Finally, God convinced me that this was the way, the truth, and the life. So I surrendered my life.

There’s been a lot of talk about “The Passion Effect” as Hollywood tries to go after the “Christian audience.” Do you see yourself mostly making films targeting the Christian market?

That’s almost a two part question. The Passion Effect … I look at it as one man who had a vision and a passion, Mel Gibson, and he made a film exactly the way he wanted to make it. He was criticized heavily before that film opened about how it was going to be everything from too violent to anti-Semitic, you name it. And he stuck to his guns and the public responded. I think what they saw was a movie made by a person, not by a committee. The effect is that a lot of studios recognize that there is an untapped audience out there.

The Ultimate Gift is not Christian per se, but enjoys a Christian worldview. It is just great entertainment. It’s about character and what does and does not really matters in life. Whether you call that a Christian film or not is up to you.

One of the experiences we had was that we were released by Fox Faith as opposed to 20th Century Fox or another studio. Which labeled the movie as a Christian movie and critics really went after it as a Christian film. At the same time, we are marketing to the Christian community because they have been clamoring for entertainment that is inspiring, non-offensive, or is sympathetic with a Christian worldview. The Ultimate Gift has all of that. In the music business it’s what you would call a crossover picture. It can please any of a number of audiences.

What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from this movie?

The ultimate gift isn’t any specific type of dogma or religious thought. The ultimate gift is the passing on of one’s values to the next generation. The ultimate gift is what those who are wiser than we are can share with us. And it’s not about a lot of the things that today’s society would hold in high regard. Like money, fame, and all of the accompanying signs of success. It’s about what really counts.

Do you think you’re passing along the gift of story?

I like to think of myself as a director who happens to be a Christian. What appeals to me about any project that comes across my desk is that I see if it’s a story that I would want to tell. Every now and then, a story comes past me that I HAVE to tell. And that’s the difference: what can I take that I really like and am inspired by and what do I get really passionate about. Certainly The Ultimate Gift and before that, One Night with a King, all the work that I’ve done in my career so far has been stuff that I’ve felt that I was ideally suited to do.

What are you up to now?

I was in the running for a project called Joshua, sort of a “what if Jesus was to come back now” sort of story. I didn’t get that project, but then I came across a book that really nailed it for me. Eli by Bill Myers. A radical take on the synoptic gospels, kind of like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Eli. Most sermons explain things like “a drachma was”, taking us back into the culture of the time. Eli does none of that but is about Jesus in our culture and our time. The premise is that Jesus never came back two thousand years ago, but came now for the first time.

I bought the rights to the book Eli, I talked with the author about it, and we agreed that I would write the screenplay because I have a particular vision for this book. It’s unlike a lot of books where you’d have to radically change them. The screenplay is going to be very, very in harmony with the book. The fact that Bill Myers is also a screen writer as well as an excellent story-teller probably is why my life is fairly easier on this one than it has been on other projects.

But Eli is an extremely challenging character and story. It just won’t let you off the hook. Jesus is not a milquetoast, mamby-pamby, pablum-spouting, do-gooder. He challenges you, every turn that you make, to what you hold is real and what your values are. I should have the screenplay done in the next week and, if I get the financing, will have the film ready for next year. It’s really more me. I really can’t do a film that I don’t see myself in or in some way can grab ahold of the theme and the story and take it somewhere.

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The Ultimate Gift – A Review

“The Ultimate Journey”

“Every happening great or small is a parable by which God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

Seems to be the season for movies that see themselves as a part of a larger mission (I’m looking at you, Evan Almighty), which carries with them the burden that we aren’t watching art unfold as much as a propaganda piece. Based on the best-selling novel by Jim Stovall, director Michael Sajbel brings us The Ultimate Gift. In a lot of ways, The Ultimate Gift could be seen as a more sincere re-imagining of Brewster’s Millions, since at their core, they have the same message.

“It’s amazing how far the fruit can fall from the tree.” –Miss Hastings (Lee Meriwether)

Billionaire Red Stevens (James Garner) dies and the vultures he calls family circle about ready to dine on his still cooling body. More interested in what they’d get from the will than in the passing of someone they supposedly loved, we’re hammered by the point that money—the love of it and the ease it provided—ruined them.

The only hopeful heir comes in the form of brat playboy, Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller). He’s told that he has been left a gift, something to help make up for how Red “ruined his life”, but he must complete a series of tests in order to receive it. So like the 12 tasks of Hercules, Jason Stevens sets about his quest of receiving a series of twelve gifts leading up to the ultimate gift: the gift of work, the gift of friends, the gift of money, the gift of problems, the gift of family, the gift of learning, the gift of laughter, the gift of gratitude, the gift of dreams, the gift of giving, the gift of a day, and the gift of love.

“Don’t be pathetic.” –Emily (Abigail Breslin)

Along the way, Jason encounters Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin as dying girl, Emily, and her mother, Alexia (Ali Hillis) as well as a number of life lessons. Like how friendship is a beautiful and unique form of love, providing a genuine opportunity for our need for intimacy to be met and serve as a protection against isolation and loneliness. That it is a treasure to be valued for its own sake. Or how we use money, rather than letting it use us, can be a form of spiritual formation. That giving is a way of organizing even the financial parts of our lives around life with God and can be a form of worship. How reprioritizing our spending habits acknowledging that all that we have comes from God and cultivates a spirit of gratitude.

“You don’t begin to live until you’ve lost everything.” –Red

The ultimate gift is a journey of learning, of discipleship, of forming one another in the way of Christ. The healing comes, even early in his journey, that the outstretched arms of Christ are meant for us. He just has to learn what it means to be a disciple. As author Robert Webber put it “discipleship is a long obedience in the same direction.” The gift shapes Jason into the kind of man he should be as he learns to serve others, put himself in other’s situations, counts his blessings, values education, learns truth, and seeks forgiveness. With obedience to his grandfather’s tests comes the attitudes of peacemaking, endurance, respect, cooperation, and sacrifice. And like all journeys, it takes time. Experience takes a long time to gain. Learning takes a long time. Spiritual formation takes a long time.

“You need to come up with a dream, then act on it.” –Red

We’re often too weighted down and not free to dream rather than going through the motions of life. Sometimes it requires an end of self moment or as Jason confesses “Up until now, I’ve only existed. I’ve drifted through life thinking that was enough. And honestly, I don’t know if I have my own dream. But I do know I can help others fulfill theirs.” To realize that a dream has been provided to help people resist empty ways of life by becoming fully human in the way of Jesus, to learn what it means to love one another, and to join in his mission to bless the world. To be with people we love, who love each other. That is the ultimate gift.

The Ultimate Gift is one of those relentlessly heart-warming movies, sometimes so earnest it hurts (it even sums up the lessons for everyone during the credits). Aimed at its nebulous target audience known as the Christian market, Hollywood continues to struggle with how to reach them, stumbling onto a more intentional Disney-type product. The Ultimate Gift, though flawed, asks us to examine what sort of legacy we plan on leaving behind. Misters Stova’l and Sajbel leave us with one last gift to consider: the gift of a story.

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