Inside ‘GodlyWood:’ A Day on the Set of a ‘Christian’ Movie

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

One Alabama May morning, film director Andrew Erwin preps his crowd of extras for the day’s movie shoot in the parking lot of a bowling alley.

But this isn’t just any Hollywood set.

After instructing the children and mothers on where to stand, where to walk, and what noise not to make, Erwin hands the mic to the reigning godfather of Evangelical subculture moviemaking and force behind religious blockbusters Fireproof and Courageous, Alex Kendrick.

The pastor-turned-movie-mogul steps into the center of the circle to give an old-fashioned Southern Baptist homily before filming begins.

“You are the leading actor in God’s story of your life,” he thunders, pausing for effect as the crowd blinks in the hot sun, “And He has a plot for your life. And He tells me in scripture that He’s the director and the writer.”

Some heads nod in agreement as others stand politely and stonily silent. But everybody clasps hands and bows heads for a prayer for safety and creativity before the cameras start rolling.

That’s how they do in Alabama.

This movie set sits two thousand eleven miles from Hollywood in physical space and a million in tone. Daily devotions replace boozy after-hours clubbing. Earnest, self-important Liberty University interns replace arrogant, self-important personal assistants. And nary an f-bomb is audible on set from the local crew manning lights and cameras.

Yet this next generation of faith-based film is also miles away from the films Kendrick and his brother Stephen produced as ministers of film at Shrewood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.

A still from Mom’s Night Out

 

For one thing, this new motion picture, Mom’s Night Out, bears the backing of Sony Entertainment’s Faith and Family division Affirm Films. They greenlit the stay-at-home mom comedy and provided it with a respectable budget. Professional level funds enabled Erwin to land a recognizable cast: Emmy-winner TV star Patricia Heaton, Sean Astin of Lord of the Rings and Rudy, Country Music star Trace Atkins, and Grey’s Anatomy cast member Sarah Drew.

This time, Alex Kendrick is on set to lead devotions and for a bit part only.

This movie belongs to Jon and Andrew Erwin. Their mentors the Kendrick brothers turned to moviemaking as a means to save souls, but the Erwin brothers journey to film director sounds more similar to aspiring directors in the secular world. Entranced by filmmaking as teens, they practiced for fun and learned at summer camp, paid their dues and learned their profession at ESPN before breaking away to focus on music videos, commercials, and, eventually, feature films.

Since Mel Gibson blew up boxoffices with his astonishingly profitable The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Hollywood has been looking to cash in on faith-based markets. Some efforts are successful, such as this year’s record-breaking miniseries The Bible from Survivor producer Mark Burnett and Touched by an Angel alum Roma Downey.

Others, not so much.

For every Fireproof, there is a Letters to God, a religious genre movie that fails to make enough at box office to even cover its production costs.

Turns out, faith-based audiences are as difficult to predict as secular ones.

Next: How Alex Kendrick came to dominate the religious market.

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Interview: Sean Astin on His Faith and His Family

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

Sean Astin comes into the press room on the set of Mom’s Night Out after a run. He’s slightly sweaty and red faced. Many stars would never face the press without hair done and stylist approved clothes, much less still glistening from a workout, but Astin plops down on a seat, smiles all around and fields questions as he downs a water bottle.

It feels like a backyard barbeque and this man is a genial host, friendly and open.

His ease is all the more amazing when one remembers Astin is Hollywood royalty, the son of star Patty Duke and a well-known actor in his own right, from Goonies to Rudy to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The man grew up in the spotlight, which, as we know, often does not turn out well.

His upbringing is evident, however, when he talks about his family. He’ll prattle on all day about his pets, but ask him to connect his current role to his real life role as a dad, and he politely but firmly demurs.

This movie is like my family. The situations in the film are very like the situations we face. As recently as yesterday.

Q: What happened yesterday?

I can’t say….

Um. Well we this weekend was chock full….I haven’t been spending much time at home, I’ve been all over the world, really. I came home. Next thing you know, I’m at the..

I can’t say. I don’t want to betray the trust of my kids.

Astin never does say what happened the day before. As it turns out, he’s a good dad.

He’s also somewhat of a philosopher. The press in the room is religious press, and as they ask repeated questions to nail down Astin’s faith status, he gives profound but unconventional answers.

Asked about the faith of his mother, Patty Duke, he responds, “Depends what day you ask her.” But then he goes on to give a profound observation: “I know when my sister died, she insisted that, there’s this group of nuns that live in a convent near her, she insisted they be there. So when you talk about self-identifying verus how people practice versus their culture, I think my mom feels very comfortable with Catholicism.”

Astin isn’t interested in categories of faith because he knows that they way people act in reality often defies categorization.

The proof is in the pudding, as it were.

“Religion is most noticeable when someone dies. We all seem to experience a lot of death. Different generations, different tragedies, cancers, things. I think it snaps us back, always, to a keep appreciation for what formal religion can do to bolster families and communities.”

Astin says his own Christian faith “takes a long time to unpack,” but he and his family are baptized Lutherans, attend church, and he sends his daughter to a Christian high school.

Astin has no problem referring to Mom’s Night Out as a “Christian” movie. In fact, he worked on another movie he matter-of-factly calls “Christian:” Amazing Love. The debates and nuance of faith-based filmmaking don’t seem to affect him one bit. If he likes a project, he does it.

Sarah Drew and Sean Astin on the set of Mom’s Night Out.
Photo via Twitter

Secure in his fame, his family and his legacy, Astin isn’t really interested in debating divisions. He is more interested in drawing together. His current passion project, next to running marathons, is Vox Populi Radio, an occasional show in which Astin talks in depth about politics and issues. In one episode, he delved into the role of the Congressional Budget Office with talk show host Michael Medved. In another, he explores the Afforable Care Act.

Given his ability to discuss emotional and difficult issues and still be friendly and approachable, he should be a natural.

Read the transcript of the interview with Sean Astin here.

Interview Transcript: Sean Astin on Family, Patty Duke, and Lutheranism, Buddhism, and Catholicism

The players of Mom’s Night Out

Andrew Erwin
“Our first goal is to tell a good story”
Alex Kendrick
We want to present stories that would draw people to a relationship with the Lord.
Patricia Heaton
I don’t think of movies as Christian or non-Christian. I don’t think God categorizes us like that.
Sean Astin
My Christian faith takes a lot of time to unpack.
Sarah Drew
So much beauty and truth can be found in every show.
Mom’s Night Out
A day on the set of a “Christian” movie

May 29 on the set of Mom’s Night Out, partial transcript of group press interview with Sean Astin. Most of the questions are not mine.

What attracted you to this movie? 

I think in my life and my family, I think we very directly relate to the circumstance of this movie. Basically the reason I did this part was because it’s like me. This movie is like my family. The situations in the film are very like the situations we face. As recently as yesterday.

What happened yesterday?

I can’t say.

Um. Well we this weekend was chock full….I haven’t been spending much time at home, I’ve been all over the world, really. I came home. Next thing you know, I’m at the..

I can’t say. I don’t want to betray the trust of my kids. But basically everything from nine different people sleeping on the couches who we aren’t related to swimming pool antics to high school plays, you know it’s just a full on normal weekend. And at one point my wife looked at me and said, ‘Are you ok with all this, it’s a lot of activity.’ And I think I must have looked a little shell shocked. And I said no this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s the way I was raised. Tons of activity and people around. It’s like a revolving door on the front door. It’s how my wife was raised. For several years, we were kind of a little bit more middle of the road people but that’s gone.

It’s better than being bored.

Oh, there’s no boredom. And there’s pets. So many pets.

Does [a love of animals] come from your Christian belief system?

I had a couple experiences as a kid with animals where I hurt them kind of unintentionally and when I saw a human being could hurt an animal it really affected me.

Tell me what you hope moms walk away from this film experiencing.

I hope, I know, I don’t even hope I know, that moms will take away from this movie a little sense of permission to take it just a little easier on themselves than they did before.

One of the cool things about this Christian movie is that it has a strong female and she’s going through an experience, usually I see it’s a guy going through the experience. So her self doubt and anxieties and everything else they pale in comparision to what you know people that are depicted in crisis situations have, but it’s real. It’s very real. So I think women will appreciate that some filmmakers have identified the fact that what women go through is complex and funny and worthy of consideration.

So you are a Presbyterian…

Lutheran, technically, I think, but in this room I can be a Presbyterian. [Laughing]

My Christianity takes a long time to unpack, but basically if you want to cut right to the judgement of it all, we were all baptized in my wife’s Lutheran church in Indiana.

I understand you studied Buddhism at one point?

My dad was a Buddhist when I was young, so when I was begging to become a Catholic he was saying no and imparting Buddhist precepts.

Are you talking about John Astin?

Yes. He’s my father. He’s not my gentetic father, but he’s my father.

Your genetic father is Jewish, isn’t he?

He is. Yeah. He said something interesting to me though, at one point. When we were living a somewhat agnostic existence, he just said you know, pick something. We said what do you mean? There’s a lot of Jewish people in our community. My daughter when she was 13, she went through the bat mitzvah circuit which is the most extraordinary thing in the world and I assumed he meant pick Judaism.  He said Judaism, Christianity, Hindu, Muslim… you need community. Just pick something and stick with it. So I think we arrived at a Christian posture.

Is [Sean Astin's mother] Patty Duke a Catholic?

Depends when you ask her…. I know when my sister died, she insisted that, there’s this group of nuns that live in a convent near her, she insisted they be there. So when you talk about self-identifying verus how people practice versus their culture, I think my mom feels very comfortable with Catholicism.

Did your biological dad give you good advice? Was it good advice?

Yeah. I think it’s good advice. I don’t think you should pick something just for the sake of picking it like he was saying but I took his point. Religion is most noticeable when someone dies. We all seem to experience a lot of death. Different generations, different tragedies, cancers, things. I think it snaps us back, always, to a keep appreciation for what formal religion can do to bolster families and communities.

The rest of the time, we like to pray, we like church, we don’t get to church enough, my daughter goes to a Christian school, that she picked. She wanted to go there. We went there.. Even thought I’m a Christian, I was very worried about a heavy handed religious pedagogy but what we’ve found is a place that has seamlessly interwoven Christianity with a secular values, I guess you could say. It’s all about academic excellence, creativity, leadership, by the way the foundation for all those things is being a good relationship with the church.

She comes home all the time with scripture we need to know.

I found myself counseling one of her friends. He said he was an atheist, I’m an atheist. Ok. You’re an atheiset. He was so upset with what he was being taught in Bible class. I said ok do this, study it as though it is absolutely factual 100 percent and at the end of it, you’ll know what that is, and you’ll have an informed viewpoint. But if you fight it the whole way through, then you’re not getting anything. He did great.

Interview: Sean Astin on Who Told Him “Every Human Interaction is Sacred”

Sean Astin has acted in some of the most beloved and successful films of all time. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played Samwise Gamgee, has generated worldwide grosses in the billions. So finding him at at a Birmingham bowling alley, shaking hands and signing autographs, after a long day’s shoot on a Christian movie set is more than a little challenging to anyone who might have too rigid stereotypes about what Hollywood movie stars are all about. [Read more...]


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