Author David L. Cook, one of America’s leading Peak Performances coaches and sports psychologists, aimed to prove important life lessons in his 2009 book, Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia . The novel, and its life lessons, were the inspiration for the new sports drama ‘Seven Days in Utopia,’ which stars Robert Duvall, Lucas Black and Melissa Leo, and for which Cook wrote the screenplay.
The story follows a down-on-luck professional golfer, Luke Chisholm (Black), who travels through the back roads of Texas after having a breakdown during a televised tournament. After being stranded in Utopia, former professional golfer Johnny Crawford (Duvall) challenges Luke to stay in the small town for seven days. In the process, the young athlete learns that faith and staying true to yourself is more important than winning every game.
Cook generously took the time to discuss where the inspiration for the story came from. He also spoke about the process of bringing the story to the screen in Seven Days in Utopia, which is now playing in theaters in a limited release.
Question: Where did you get the inspiration to write this book?
David L. Cook: You really want to know?
Question: Yes, because it wasn’t as much of a golf film as it was a life film.
DLC: It is a life film. You always have to set a film in some sort of metaphor. So Utopia, Texas is real, it’s a little town of about 200 people, minus my family. My wife’s family has a ranch that has been in their family for about 100 years. So we go down there all the time, and we’ve been going there for about 30 years. There’s no golf course within 60 miles of this place, and I’m a golfer. I figured I’d never play golf when I was down there. For 30 years I didn’t.
When I walked in the cafe down there one day, everything’s fried, and the smoke just blows out, just like in the book, and as I was paying, this is how life changes. This is a real story. I look up, and there’s a hand-written piece of paper, torn in half, (that says) Utopia Driving Range. Next to the cemetery. (laughs) Come find your game. This was the marketing plan for this new driving range. I was intrigued, and it caught my attention. Maybe no one else, but it did mine.
So I went out there, because I like to hit golf balls. There’s this beautiful cemetery with oak trees with a rock wall around it, it looked like Scotland. It was gorgeous. I mean, the tombstones are like from 1804. I mean, this is a beautiful place. Then like 10 steps outside of that fence were like three pieces of AstroTurf, with weeds and rocks all around. They were the worst golf balls anyone’s ever seen, they didn’t have any dimples on them, hardly. Along the 300-yard long plowed cow pasture, there were three signs that were crooked. This was the Utopia Driving Range.
I laughed, and I just sat there and said this is so bad, this is pathetic. But there was something that happened, the profoundness of that simple spot moved me, and I knew that there was something going on here. I looked at that cemetery, and something began to well up inside of me. I took my computer out, and put it on the front porch of our farm house and began to write, and about eight hours later, stopped.
What I found that day is this: when I hit, I went ahead and hit a golf ball, I’m a pretty good player. What every golf player is looking for, and this is just metaphorical for life, what we’re all looking for is the sweet spot. When you hit a golf ball, it kind of hits right in the center of the club and it takes off perfectly, it doesn’t matter if you’re on a pebble beach, or if you’re in Utopia. I went aha! The sensation that we’re all looking for in our life is the sweet spot. So underneath the book and the movie is this whole idea about what is the sweet spot in life?
Question: With golf films, there seems to be something that’s transcendent beyond the sport. What is it about golf and making films, and writing books about it, that has that core experience?
DLC: The thing with golf is that you interact so deeply with nature. I mean, you’re out there on a four-to-six hour walk, depending on how slow the place is, and you’re interacting with nature. It’s just you, and you can’t hide your score from anybody, but there’s this peace.
Like right here in New York City, they’ve played the U.S. Open here several times. It’s a great place to go lose yourself, and involve yourself in something that’s really cool. Everyone in the world, it may be a long shot, if they made a putt from 30 feet, you would be able to say, that’s as good as Tiger Woods could have done.
That’s the thing about golf, even once or twice a round, we enter into this zone. I mean, you can do that in golf, but none of us can go out and do that on a professional football field. But all of us can do that in golf, it’s easy to get into this zone, where you hit the sweet spot and you make something happen. You go, no one in the world can make that happen.
Question: During the process of writing the book, did you check the PGA Tour, to help you get in the mindset?
DLC: My day job is a sports psychologist. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, working with the PGA Tour. Lucas Black is a compilation of all those players in one guy. So I knew this, I saw all this on a daily basis, I saw the melt-downs. I felt that in my life as a player, I knew that character. Also, the way I teach, plus the mentors in my life, I put them all in that Robert Duvall character. So it’s a good question. Both those characters have a little bit of me, but a whole lot of the people I’ve worked with, or under. So it was easy, I didn’t have to do it all from my head. I’ve worked with that kid in the movie my whole life.
Question: How did you decide on K.J. Choi as the player who would play golfer T.K. Oh in the film?
DLC: That’s a good question. If you look universally, the future of golf is moving to Asia, fast. I was noticing in the women’s amateur that the U.S. Amateur (Championship), and the U.S. Junior (Amateur Golf Championship), and I think the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association), were all won by Asian women. It’s starting in the men’s tour, with K.J. Choi.
First of all, I wanted that character to be unique in golf, and so far, an Asian hasn’t become number one in the world, but it’s a matter of time. Also, I wanted to expand the expansion of golf towards Asia, and help encourage that. The third thing is that I wanted this movie to be futuristic and predictable and prophetic, that it may happen one day. So I needed an Asian to play that character.
So this is really cool. K.J. Choi used to be a power-lifter. He used to be able to lift 350 pounds. So K.J. Choi (was a power-lifter) before he became a golfer. So that was unique. But when you bring an Asian into the movie, you want the guy to be intimidating looking. But we have a faith element in the movie, and K.J. Choi is a very faith-driven man. So the reason we got him was because he liked the story, and he wanted to be part of that story. He didn’t speak much English last year, but we said, you have the right heart for this for the story, but I want you to look like you’re about to clean and jerk 350 pounds for three days while you’re filming this movie, just look intimidating. He did a great job.
Question: You did a great job with the anger of the jealous boyfriend (Jake, played by Brian Geraghty, who wanted a romantic relationship with Deborah Ann Woll’s character, Sarah, who in turn liked Luke) with teaching lessons. So with what you do in real life, where did that begin?
DLC: Well, you almost have to watch this movie two or three times to get that that guy had a turn-around in his life. It happened when they (Jake and Luke) were pitching offers. They started doing well together, and they started liking each other. Then when he (Jake) started doing the face-on putting as good as Luke, that was good.
But there was a line in there, where Sarah says, you’ll have to forgive him. You’ll have to listen really carefully, and I’ve heard this line many times, and I think the sound was off a little in the movie, she says he has a broken heart. His dad wanted him to continue the family business, but he chose the rodeo instead, and his dad disowned him.
So I work with lots of young men and women that have been disowned because they followed their dreams. They have a choice. They can emerge as people who feel good that they followed their dreams, or they can be angry.
I wanted Jake somehow, in the background, to turn that around. I have such a heart for people who just have a dream, but they get shut down. So he was that character. Then the main character, he had a dream, and he just knocked it down. But there was a really cool thing with his dad (Martin, played by Joseph Lyle Taylor), too. It was a different element. It was like his dad was too invested, while the other dad just disowned him. So that just set up a fight between those two guys. But their hearts were right.
Question: Luke’s father was too invested in the man he wanted his son to be, not what his son wanted to be.
DLC: That’s right. What do you call that when the dad does that, transference? (He’s) validating himself through his son.
Question: How did you find out that Lucas Black was a golfer?
DLC: One of my very good friends is Stan Utley, he’s a leading short-game experts in the world. His brother, John, is from Missouri (like Black), and he’s a teacher as well, a golf instructor. He and Lucas play golf together in tournaments. John called me and said, if you end up turning this book into a movie, I’ve got the perfect guy for it. He’s about 27-years-old. He plays in all these amateur tournaments. He plays on my team, he can beat me. I’m a pro, and the guy’s really, really good.
I just knew this: if we’re going to have an element in there, whether it’s flying, fly-fishing or golf, these had to be done well, and they had to be portrayed right. There’s been too many golf movies where they got an actor and taught them to play golf, and you can’t do that. Kevin Costner couldn’t come across as a pro golfer (in Tin Cup). That was a decent movie, but could we get a golfer that can pull it off?
Sling Blade, (The Fast and the FuriousTokyo Drift, Friday Night Lights, All the Pretty Horses, the man (Black) can act. I think this is a coming-out for him, he’s in every scene.
In All the Pretty Horses, there was a line in there. We shot (Seven Days in Utopia) in Utopia, Texas. Texas has the Sabinal River that runs through it, and Utopia sits in the Sabinal Valley. It’s only like a five or 10 mile circle. In ‘All the Pretty Horses’, Lucas is a little kid, and these big guys come up to him and say, where are you from? He says, I’m from Uvalla County. I’m from the Sabinal Valley in Uvalla County. That’s exactly where we shot this movie. That was done like 10 years ago in another movie that has nothing to do with this movie.
Question: Lucas has a perfect Alabama accent. How was it as a Texas accent?
DLC: Perfect. Like people from the South, he just had to throw in a few y’alls in there. (laughs) Other than that, it’s pretty much y’all, because he’s pretty much perfect.
Question: Robert is such a lover of Texas. Was he always part of the plan?
DLC: So we sit down the first day this was going to be a movie, and go, okay, no one’s in the room. We got the white board up there. If anybody can play Johnny, who would it be? I said, Robert Duvall. Everyone in the room just kind of laughed. We put him up there, and said, okay, lets get real. (laughs) Then we started looking on the Internet for all these people who can act, but no one knows their names. We said, okay, can we get him for $500? (laughs) So the first two guys on the white board were Lucas Black and Robert Duvall. Then Robert said yes.
Question: Didn’t you have Lucas first?
DLC: Yes, but they were the first in their categories. So when Robert Duvall said yes, all the dominoes kind of just fell. We went from a sleepy, million dollar movie to a multi-million dollar movie. Not because we paid them all that, but because it opened the realm for this to be a major release.
Question: Was it difficult to bring the book into the movie?
DLC: No, I got to shepard it along. It started at an independent production company. I was an EP (executive producer) along the way, and I got to write the screenplay. We knew there were some non-negotiables in this movie. The ending was non-negotiable. The faith element, we needed to maintain that. It’s just the circle of a human being. There’s that part to everybody, and you have to do it right in the movie. We didn’t want to shy away from it.
What was beautiful was that Robert Duvall said yes to this. Some younger actors could have been scared, I think. There’s a faith element they have to do. As soon as Robert said he was in it, everybody was in it.