When you sit down to watch Full of Grace, prepare to be moved. Knowing the quality of the work done by Eric Groth at Outside da Box, I expected going in to my screening of this extraordinarily unusual film about Mary to be entertained--I am, after all, a HUGE fan of Eric's work. But I wasn't prepared to be literally rocked by what I saw.
A peek at this trailer will give you some sense of not only the scope of this project, but also its artistic sensibilities. I consider Full of Grace to be a modern-day work of art. It portrays our Blessed Mother in a way that moves my heart in the same way I'm moved when I pray before the image of Michelangelo's Pietà.
Today, I am honored to share my conversations with Full of Grace filmmakers Eric Groth and Andrew Hyatt. Both share openly about the making of the film and its impact upon them. I encourage you to visit the film's website at www.FullOfGraceFilm.com for additional ordering information or to bring this event to your parish or diocese.
ERIC GROTH, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER and PRESIDENT of Outside da Box
Eric Groth is Founder and Executive Producer of the award-winning production company Outside da Box. Eric has spearheaded the production of over 150 short films focused on the relevancy of Christ in teens lives. Over the past ten years, Outside da Box has forged dynamic relationships with national organizations including: The Paulists, Diocese of Wheeling-Charlston, Life Teen, National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.
Tell us about the mission of Outside da Box and Full of Grace Films and your personal role and goals for them.
I have the privilege of being the Executive Producer for Outside da Box and the films we produce. My role is to guide our dynamic team in the direction that I believe the Lord is leading us. The mission of OdB is to produce and distribute artfully-made, spiritually-rich films that foster an encounter with Christ. Over the past 10 years, we have produced more than 150 short films - specifically for Catholic teens and young adults. Most recently, we have been producing a 48-film series of films called the Video Catechism. Parishes, schools and other organizations have been using them in various catechetical, retreat, and outreach programs. Since 2007, we have distributed more than 30,000 free DVDs throughout the U.S. and Canada. Full of Grace, our first feature film in a series of more than a dozen we plan to produce on lives of the Saints, releases on DVD and video on demand (VOD) on January 5, 2016. Very simply, we hope that all of our films allow the viewer to encounter Christ in a new and vibrant way.
What went into the filming and production of Full of Grace? Tell us about some of the challenges, lessons learned, and personal highlights?
Producing Full of Grace has been an amazing journey; one that I am so privileged to be a part of. We began the process in April 2013. From ground-up, we built our team, developed the script, raised the funds needed to green light the project and planned and implemented every aspect of production. Every area is challenging and every area is rewarding. Film making is a very collaborative process. Just as the Body of Christ has many parts, so does a production team - and every part is important. From the Director to the production assistants, it takes a united team to pull-off such a venture. Navigating personalities and logistics is a challenging and fulfilling process. Being our first feature film, I learned a lot about the process. It challenged me to become a better leader. This was obviously a much larger undertaking than the 2-7 minute narrative short films we have been producing over the years, so it really stretched me. There have been countless personal highlights for me, but the one that clearly rises to the top is the relationship I have built with our lead producer, T.J. Berden, and our writer/director, Andrew Hyatt. These strangers to me in 2013 have truly become my brothers and partners in this mission to use art and beauty to lead others to encounter Jesus Christ.
How will this film be distributed? What can parishes and families do to support the film?
The film will be distributed on DVD and VOD in the U.S. and Canada via Cinedigm. Additionally, it will be distributed internationally through Mission Pictures International. We have also been developing and implementing “Parish Evenings of Reflection,” where the film is utilized in a deeper and more missional way than just watching it on a big screen or TV. This past Advent and upcoming Lent, parishes are utilizing the film in parish retreat and mission formats. We love this avenue of distribution. It truly allows the film to be used the way we intended it. It gives people the opportunity to experience and reflect on the concepts in the film. Parishes and families can support our work by purchasing DVDs (via Walmart and other retail avenues) and encouraging their pastors to bring the experience to their parish.
What are your hopes for Full of Grace and those who will see it?
As mentioned above, our hope is that Full of Grace will be seen by millions of people and draw them into a deeper understanding of and relationship with the Lord and his beautiful Mother. Like the beautiful stained glass windows in our churches and cathedrals, we believe that this film can help draw people deeper into the beauties and mysteries of the Church.
What future do you predict for Catholic filmmakers and their role as missionaries in our Church?
I believe Catholic filmmakers have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to use their gifts to build-up the Church and stimulate others to consider and embrace the message of Christ. Over the centuries, missionaries from all walks of life have brought Christ to the world in all kinds of ways. Catholic filmmakers are no different. When we see ourselves as just that, missionaries, it becomes a game-changer. No longer is it about how much money can we spend on a film, how many awards can we achieve, or who we can get to play a certain role. Our approach becomes rooted in an eternal perspective and an understanding that God will do whatever it takes to save his people - even use a film. This is what I want to do with the invitation the Lord has extended to me.
Are there any additional thoughts or comments that you would like to share with our readers?
When Jesus walked among us (and in the centuries to follow), he chose very real men and women to lead and build his Church. These people were like us in every way. When I think about them, I want and need to see myself in them; that I, too, am called to be his witness. That they struggled like I struggle. This is what we want people to realize when they watch Full of Grace and every film we produce. God does not call the “perfect,” but rather takes what little we have to offer and turns it into something extraordinary.
ANDREW HYATT, WRITER AND DIRECTOR, FULL OF GRACE
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Andrew Hyatt and I'm the writer/director of Full of Grace. I grew up and was "taught" by the Catholic church. K-8 Catholic school, Jesuit high school, Jesuit college. I think I was "faithful" growing up in that, but I'm not sure how to really define what that means. I guess you assume you are a faithful person because you are going to Church on Sundays and hearing about God and praying when you need things. But I think now I understand there was so many deep seeded familial issues and healing that needed to happen that never happened.
I was very spiritually sensitive as a child. I would have very vivid dreams, often waking up to see people standing around in my room. Sometimes good, sometimes terrifying. But I didn't understand what this meant, that there might have been a presence of something else in my life, both good and evil. As I got older I had a very intense run in with the occult that is best saved as another story. So there was no question ever in my life of whether or not there was a God. I always believed in the reality of these spiritual forces at work, but the moment I got to college, my faith went out the window. I had been taught everything there was to know and had some very distinct experiences, but within a week, over 12 years of faith formation was dropped. How did this happen? Why does this happen? I think it is happening to our young church a lot.
The truth is the world was more interesting to me and my faith didn't have anything to say in response to the temptations of it. It's only in hindsight that I realized that even though I was in the church, I didn't "know" Christ in a way that made it real to me. It was an intellectual knowledge of the faith, but not something living and breathing in my heart. I never had a real encounter. I went about 7 years off the rails, living in Hollywood and pursuing this dream of being famous. I was sleeping around, drugs every day, drinking every day, outrageous Hollywood parties, and doing exactly what I thought I needed to be doing to pursue these very worldly ambitions. At my lowest, I was living with my girlfriend, and having an affair with another girl who was engaged at the time, and those weren't the worst things going on in my life. It was a really bad period of time for me, but God never stopped His pursuit and I had a Damascus Road experience. In his absolute grace, He decided enough was enough.
It was September, 2008 and I was in a hotel room in Toronto. He showed up. Simple as that. It was an encounter. It wasn't the end of the story, it was only the beginning of course. I had a lot of wounds that needed healing and it took time to extradite myself from that life, but it was a growing thing in my heart, my faith was alive and breathing and real to me. I got married to a beautiful woman who loves Jesus more than me and helps me see Him clearer every day since I met her. I'm 33 now and I am still in transition of understanding who I am in the world as part of this beautiful family of God's children and what He is asking of me.
How did you become involved with Full of Grace?
I had met one of the producers, TJ Berden, during our time working for Steve McEveety (producer of Passion of the Christ and Braveheart) and Mpower Pictures. We worked most closely on a film The Stoning of Soraya M. together. I was in development and TJ was in marketing. Perhaps our first Catholic interaction was TJ was involved giving notes on Fr. Barron's Catholicism series, this was right after they had shot it and were sitting there with hours and hours of footage trying to figure out what to do with it. TJ and I had discussion about what might be able to be done with it and I remember thinking, "hey, this guy is an interesting guy!" We went our separate ways for a few years, but he called me up after he had been introduced to our other producer, Eric Groth, the head of the Catholic media company, Outside Da Box, in Chicago. I had written and directed two films previously and they had seen one of them that they really liked. They approached me about making a film about Saints and I flat out told them no thanks. I never wanted to make Christian films, for me most are just not very good and more so, I felt they were beneath me. I still had that leftover worldly ambition, you know, I wanted to be rich and famous, win an Oscar, date Taylor Swift, the whole package.
TJ and Eric never really gave it up, and I ended up writing a draft of Full of Grace for because I thought they were "nice guys" and I wished them well, but really never thought about actually making the film. For me, I was thinking I just made two very well received films and now it is time to get to the big leagues into studio films, not this little tiny Mary film. Wow, what a big mistake! God began to systematically close every door in my life to make His point clear. I have to really reiterate that I wasn't interested in making this film, it's not how I thought my life was going to go. But then, all doors were shut, I had no work for 18 months. I literally couldn't even get an interview at Starbucks or Costco when I was desperate for anything to pay bills. I was just married, just having our first daughter in that period and I was angry with God. I felt He was ignoring me and my young family. I wrestled with Him intensely over that period. But in the end, He won and I will be eternally grateful for that.
We had burned through all of our savings and investments keeping up appearances in a very expensive Los Angeles lifestyle for that time. We had something like $200 in the bank, we had let go the lease on our apartment, and we had nothing and didn't know where to even go. I really did despair that this was the end of it all, but I didn't know why God would do that to us. Then, I got a call from Eric and TJ Full of Grace that they had two donors who stepped up financed the film as a non-profit venture and they wanted to go into production right away. Had I had anything else going on in my life, I would have passed on the opportunity, but really by His grace God had to take everything away so I could clearly see what He was asking of me in my life so it was when I had absolutely nothing left I said yes. My wife and daughter slept with me on couches and floors of friends who generously opened their tiny LA apartments to us while we were making this film, but the sacrifice felt right. For the first time in my entire life it felt like I was being obedient to Him 100%. It felt like I was doing His work, not mine. Seeing the fruit of the work still blows my mind. I am humbled to the core to be used by Him like this.
Please give us a synopsis of the film.
One of the main challenges we gave ourselves early on was that we wanted to tell a story that had never been told before. At least, not on film. We looked at a lot of really great Saint stories, but ultimately nothing felt like the right "first step." So we asked ourselves, if we want to show people a real encounter of Christ, who had the first encounter? It was Mary. Mary is the first Christian. Technically, she is the first person to say yes to Christ. But we had felt like there were so many Nativity stories and Passion stories, but there has never been a film on her later years. So this is the first time on screen that Mary is depicted at the end of her life. It is set ten years after the Resurrection, Mary is in her final moments, knowing she will be called home soon, and Peter comes to visit to say his goodbyes. Peter is weighed down with the burdens of leading the Church that is presently divided with the Jewish/Gentile relationship issue and with a mother's tenderness and love, Mary guides Peter back to Christ being the answer, back to what is most important about this journey.
This film is unlike any other that we've seen. What inspired the focus on Mary and Peter? Why were you anxious to tell this story in this way?
There have been quite a lot of "faith based" films and tv shows that have come out since The Passion of the Christ,but they were not reflecting my experience of the difficulties of the faith journey. I don't understand where their experience is coming from. The message is say "Yes" to Jesus and then you get to kick the winning field goal, sometimes literally, but mostly in message. Say Yes to Christ and your life is wrapped up with a bow and you live happily ever after. This just doesn't speak to me. I guess if that is the experience many people get to have, that is great for them, but that's not my experience of this journey of faith. Saying "Yes" is the beginning. We are saved, we are forgiven, but now there is a constant struggle, a battle in us and in the world, as we try to become more and more like Christ in the midst of it all. It is difficult and it is very messy. There are many dark nights of the soul that even the greatest Saints have had. We have to keep going back to this encounter after we fall flat on our face. And in my experience, we will most certainly fall flat on our face. Doubts and fears creep in and we are desperate for Christ, desperate to lean on Him or we feel as if we are going to be swallowed by the world. As I get closer to Christ I realize just how terrible I really am and How much of a gift His grace is. A gift I am completely unworthy of. I wanted to make a film that moved away from this "inspirational Gospel" side of things. The Gospel is not a guide for health, wealth, and happiness. We do not encounter Christ in order to kick the winning field goal, to experience a promotion or financial windfall, to simply live a better life. It is the encounter that changes all things. As Paul says, "I count everything a loss..." It is not comfort food. Not a warm blanket and cocoa by the fire on a cold evening night night. It does not ask us to sit in comfortable pews and leave feeling great about ourselves. The Truth is nothing less than the battle between light and darkness, good and evil, the soft confident voice of beauty and truth set against the loud shout of the world's lies and deceit. It is the answer to the drama of life. It is deep and it is beautiful. It is born out of the brutal and bloody death of a Savior and a mysterious and awesome truth of a Savior's Resurrection. The blood of the Gospel has been spilled in the global arena, stared in the face of merciless death and found mercy, struck the very core of Kings and Paupers alike, and for nearly 2000 years brought the desperate and the lost from the grave into the light. I really felt God saying, "stop complaining about christian films and just make something that speaks to you." I wanted to capture some of this deeper truth and beauty and put it on film. The Church used to create the most beautiful art in the world, art that inspired people to look up and consider the heavens. This is our first step to getting back to that and hopefully we can inspire other artists to do the same.
When I started to put flesh on the bones of Peter and Mary for this story it occurred to me that I have heard the stories of them so many times and even prayed to them, but I started to feel as if I really didn't know them that well. That I had never really considered their humanity. Who they really were, inside and out. Maybe it is scary to pull that iconography or the porcelain statue down and inspect it, but it is a beautiful process, it reveals that their experience of Christ, that their humanity was no different from ours. We are living the same story they lived, and that is a beautiful thing, but also a challenging thing. It means that we all have an opportunity to be the Saints we were called to be. As the story progressed, Mary and Peter felt like the perfect combination. We all need a mother in our life, and Mary is our heavenly mother, epitomizing wise and beautiful, always pointing us back to Christ. Peter felt like the perfect every man. Someone really out of his depth who is trying to make big decisions he is just does not feel qualified to make. How often is this in our life. We get lost in the "making things happen" and we put the burden on our shoulders, but we forget why we are even trying to make things happen in the first place. Peter just felt like the perfect person to portray that.
Rather than a lot of recent biblical films and shows that shy away from digging deeper into the humanity of these individuals, we really show something more intimate with this film. There's always a little anxiety that maybe that's not what people want to see and dialogue about. But the only thing I could do was make a film that spoke to me. And I had to trust it would speak to others. The response has been beyond the expectations. Turns out that just about the entire Church has been waiting a long time for something like this!
What type of research was done to make the film scripturally and historically accurate?
We really went through the paces to make sure we could land as close to what this world might have been like. There is so much competing research though and even competing tradition. So really, there is not much that can be exactly historically accurate in this particular story. We have "roughly about" dates out there from scholars and the Church, but no one has pinned an exact time or day for most of these events. So we felt like we had room to breathe when it came to those things. The focus was always to make a great piece of inspired art rather than a historical or theological exegesis on this moment in the Church so with this heart behind the film and the idea of exploring truth and beauty in such a deep way, we gave ourselves some grace in the historical and focused our real energy on scriptural and theological and really made sure those came through in a powerful and accurate way. We surrounded ourselves with faithful, prayerful, intelligent individuals inside and out of the Church in a very ecumenical way, both Catholic and Protestant to keep us on the right path. We reversed engineered much of the story. We used those "roughly about" dates and then looked at scripture to land on what was going in the church and set the story against that. I think people will be surprised to go back through the film and see how much actual scripture we use. It is all over the film. We also used a lot of previous inspired writings and art as inspiration for some of the more crucial moments in the story.
Most importantly, prayer, prayer, prayer. If God was tasking us to tell this story, there was always an open line of communication. "God say what you need to say here." Mary has a very powerful, important monologue towards the end of the film. In summary we call it the Gospel through a Mother's eyes. I didn't know how to write that. I wasn't the mother of Christ and I'm not even a mother. Truly, I offered the stage to her. If she wanted to say something to the world today I prayed for her to say it. I think she absolutely speaks in that moment and it is one of the moments the audience leaves feeling they really just encountered her in the flesh.
What has being a part of this project meant to you? How does it change what you will do from here in your faith life and professional life?
It has changed everything. It has allowed me to wrestle with the truth, wrestle with my faith, all these questions built over 33 years of life and come out with the final answer that the Gospel does indeed answer the drama of life in a way the world cannot. It doesn't mean I won't struggle, and stumble, but the peace of knowing the certainty of truth is pure freedom. With that knowledge, it would be impossible not to share it with the world. I hope I can find the resources and the stories to continue to make these films for the rest of my life. That would be a life very well spent. We are raising money now to shoot the story of Paul with this similar heart and mission so that is our next step of the journey. Regardless of what happens though, I just want to follow where He is leading. Whatever that looks like.
What do you hope that viewers will take from their experience of Full of Grace?
Something I would say if I was sitting in front of everyone before they watch the film whether they are at a theater, at home or at a church, wherever is that our usual expectations of sitting and watching a film is to leave the baggage of our life at the door. We say, "entertain me for two hours, I don't want to think about the issues going on in my life." It is most often escapism for most of us. The additional component we tend to put on films of a biblical nature is that we bring our years of going to church and bible studies and we all consider ourselves to have a version of a major or minor in theology so we are going to watch these films with a skeptical eye. We have a subconscious checklist that we keep bringing up and we say, "okay, let me see if I agree with you here." Then we start taking these interior notes throughout. "I agree with that, not this, that's not right. What's that about?" Etc. But I invite audiences to watch this film in a very different way. Maybe in a way they have never thought about watching a film before. Everything about this film is intentional, the meditative pacing, the structure, the moments, the visuals, the details of every scene. It is intentionally created to be more like a prayer or a reflective retreat. And I would invite audiences to not leave their lives at the door, don't leave your baggage behind. Bring all of you to this film. Bring your joys, your fears, your doubts, your struggles. All of who you are today and be honest about exactly where you are at in your journey of faith. Place all of those things in front of this film and be open that God might speak something back to you. Be open that God might speak something back into your life as you watch this film. If there were only one take away from the film that I would want to sink in, it is what Mary speaks to Peter later in the film, "You are not leading, you are following. He has already gone before you, the path has already been set. Follow Him in all things and failure will be impossible."
For more information:
- FullOfGraceFilm.com - additional ordering information or to bring this event to your parish or diocese
- Social Media: Facebook, Twitter
About the Author
Lisa M. Hendey is the founder of CatholicMom.com, a bestselling author and an international speaker. A frequent radio and television guest, Hendey travels internationally giving workshops on faith, family, and communications. Visit Lisa at LisaHendey.com or on social media @LisaHendey for information on her speaking schedule or to invite her to visit your group, parish, school or organization. Visit Lisa's author page on Amazon.com.