By Lynette Carrington
Photos by Paul Bickford
You could say that film “By the Grace of Bob” is the making of a movie within a movie. As the entire cast moves through funny and poignant moments in making a film about the Prodigal Son, they all learn a lot about love and acceptance. “By the Grace of Bob” is directed by David Powers, and the response to his finished film has been somewhat of a surprise to him.
About ‘By the Grace of Bob’
“The film is about Brother Bob, who is played by Paul Wilson,” states the film’s director, David Powers. “He is an over-the-top, larger than life Baptist preacher in a fictional town in South Alabama. He inherited the church from his daddy. They called him Brother Big Bob.” The church has declining attendance and offerings, and Brother Bob tries to save it.
“Brother Bob has an overzealous associate who convinces him that one of the solutions might be to make a movie, ‘A lot of churches are doing things like that,’ he says,” explains Powers. “So, that’s what they set out to do. But, the people who end up helping to make the movie are quite the assembly. There’s a Jewish film school student from New York who is the director. He brings in folks like a Muslim actor to play the lead. He brings in his buddy – an African American cinematographer, a gay costume designer and a goat.” Needless to say, the story unfolds with many unusual and unique angles that are both thought-provoking and ripe for comedy.
“The bulk of the film is this little community that lives in an all-white Christian bubble in South Alabama coming to terms with how to live with and work with these people that they view as outsiders,” says Powers. “It creates, as you might expect, considerable tension. When we set out to do this, we had no idea that the environment would be as hyper-polarized and contentious as it is that we live in right now, as evidenced by the sadness and craziness in Charlottesville.” Although the film is a comedy with satire, the director now sees that “By the Grace of Bob” is speaking the truth about the current condition of our country. “We weren’t trying to make this a message movie, we were just trying to have some fun with it,” adds Powers.
Powers comes from a church background where he served on staff at a church out of Richmond, VA for 20 years doing communications and television work. Prior to that, he was in broadcast journalism and then he worked on the Baptist mission board, traveling the world shooting documentaries of missionaries and their work. “Storytelling in that faith context is something that I have been in for many, many years,” explains the director. In looking at other faith-based films, he thought that some of them were just preaching to the choir in their approach. He sought to do something more forward-thinking in his storytelling with “By the Grace of Bob” by shedding some of what Powers calls “institutional baggage” that often comes along with message-heavy films. Realizing that he was approaching newer generations of filmgoers, he sought to make his film fun and approachable in a worldly way.
Powers’ company, Belltower Pictures was established as a nonprofit and “By the Grace of Bob” from lightbulb moment inception and writing to funding and filming fruition lasted 2010 through early 2016. Although he encountered some bumps along the way in making his first full-length feature film, it’s been a rewarding experience. “I directed my first feature film at 64. So, I guess that tells people that there’s life after 60 and you’re not too old to learn. We made mistakes and I wish I could go back and do it again, but I guess a lot of writers, directors and producers have the same feeling,” states Powers. The differences between television and feature film production can be daunting, but the cast and crew really came together to make a solid film.
Finding an Audience
Powers was keen to show his film to some church congregations, but the response was not quite what he expected. “It was a surprise to me; it really was,” explains Powers. “One of the tag lines we were using early on was, ‘A faith-based film for the rest of us.’ What I meant was that this wasn’t going to be a preachy, hyper-evangelistic film that guilts you into something.”
Powers continues, “I thought there were a lot of moderate progressive churches and Christians and leaders in the world that would really glom onto this and say, ‘Oh, at last, a breath of fresh air!’ And we got a lot of that. But, what surprised me was the number of folks who didn’t know what to do with this film. A lot of churches and pastors don’t know how to laugh at themselves. They didn’t know what to do with this crazy film they heard about. What’s interesting, when they sit down and watch the film, they ‘get it.’” Powers is inspired by some of the positive conversations taking place after the film’s Q&A sessions. After looking at the reactions of audiences he now has a different perspective. “We thought we had a faith-based film, but realized what we really have a is a comedy,” notes Powers.
Taking the Lead
Lead actor, Paul Wilson (Brother Bob Cross) is a native of Virginia and making “By the Grace of Bob” was a fulfilling experience for him. “I was born in Richmond, VA, and have family in the region and with Virginia’s rich history and diversity, especially in Richmond with such a vibrant arts community and great talent and skill in artists who work on all sides of the camera, to return there and shoot ‘By the Grace of Bob’ was indeed special,” says Wilson. “To work with David and the team to create this movie was equally special. David brought a calm and cool leadership style to what was a very challenging few weeks of shooting around rain, blistering heat and several very tedious set ups.”
The film and some of the reception to the film have also taken on a whole new meaning because of recent violent events and the death in Charlottesville, VA. The themes of love, acceptance and forgiveness are a powerful message in today’s society and with the current political climate. Wilson was keen to explore the film’s material to give it special meaning.
Wilson states, “Many of the actors would routinely meet and discuss scenes and tone prior to us shooting those scenes. We knew we had some very good material and we felt a responsibility to the themes. Comedy can be very honest and even tragic. And humor isn’t always just funny, it can be awkward and show vulnerability. Today, especially considering the racial turpitude we’ve witnessed in Charlottesville, and sadly in other cities, this message of grace and tolerance, that we are all in this together…that’s every race, religion, gender, all people… that above all of it, there should be love. To love one another and respect one another. That’s why this movie is so important to see.”
Powers finishes, “We hope this will be the first of many projects from Belltower Pictures that tells stories that are intriguing and well done, but does something to raise the water level all around us; not to reinforce stereotypes, but to get us to see each other as people, not as issues.”