[box]My dream for the Over My Shoulder Foundation has always been to support and encourage mentoring relationships. We do that by producing stories, events, music, and awards that pay tribute to our own mentors and tell their stories. The journey has been so rewarding, and we have been so very fortunate to meet amazing people committed to making the world a better place. We have featured unique people like the graffiti artist Toofly; author and former white supremacist Arno Michaelis; and the brilliant lawyer Rick Dyer, who overcame addiction and now practices in the same court where he was sentenced eight times! Our stories have come to life via Jordan Rich’s nationally syndicated radio show and have been able to tell our story on the website of the acclaimed jewelry company, Alex and Ani.
Today I’m pleased to announce OMSF’s relationship with a fabulous new movie, “All Saints.” By the time I hit page twelve of the script I could already hear the songs, drenched in mentoring, with a movie score that could inspire hope and mentorship. The producer, Martha Chang, is a long-time friend. Back in the 1990’s we watched a little film project of ours—called 3 Ninjas—come to life and take flight! I’m blessed that this friendship has flourished all these years, and I am truly honored to be working with her again on this amazing project!
—Dawn Carroll, OMSF Executive Director[/box]
The Reverend Michael Spurlock and his congregation at All Saints Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, know that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
And so does mentoring, as they have come to find out. Spurlock helped a group of impoverished Southeast Asian refugees make their home in the United States while they showed him how to save his dying church at the same time. Now their story is on its way to becoming both a Hollywood movie and an innovative mentoring opportunity.
In 2007, Spurlock made a midlife career change and became an Episcopal priest. His first assignment was to move to Smyrna and close down All Saints, which had lost most of its congregation to a more conservative rival Anglican church. That’s when an unexpected influx of new worshippers appeared: seventy Karen refugees from Myanmar (also known as Burma), Christians forced to flee their country or face possible death.
Rather than sell All Saints, as he had been ordered to do, Spurlock decided to revive the church by utilizing the Karen’s skills as farmers. Despite many formidable obstacles—including drought, floods, lack of equipment and money, and skeptical church superiors—the plan worked. The church was saved, restored to health by this infusion of committed congregants.
A piece about the small miracle in Smyrna appeared in a Nashville newspaper and came to the attention of Steve Gomer, a TV and film director on the lookout for a special kind of story.
“There was a writer I had worked with closely and we wanted to find something to do with a clergy person,” Gomer said by phone from his summer vacation in Vermont. “We thought it would be a good area. I had done some research. When you read about studies that have done with clergy, you see there are similar problems. The kids have problems, the spouses have problems, and they deal with interesting life or death things. We found this article about what happened at All Saints and started looking into that. The more we found out about it the more interesting it became.”
Producer Martha Chang was also keen to work with Gomer—but she was dubious when Gomes told her about the All Saints idea.
“It actually started with Steve saying there are all these Karens in Tennessee,” Chang recalled from her home in Los Angeles. “And I said, ‘No, I think all the Koreans are here in Koreatown in L.A.’ And he said, ‘No, the Ka-RIN, K-A-R-E-N.’ It turns out they’re a minority group from Burma and they’ve been going through a form of genocide, although I believe that’s calmed down quite a bit now. They had been brought here as political refugees.
“Steve said, ‘I think this is a story you’ll really like. It’s about a priest.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I want to do a movie about a priest right now.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s really about faith.’
“Steve started telling me the story about Michael Spurlock, who was middle-aged, going through his third career, feeling like his calling was to be a pastor and finally telling his wife, ‘This is what I feel is my life’s work.’ An amazing couple. She said, ‘OK, I will quit my job’—she was a Reuters journalist—‘and I will support us wherever we go for seminary school.’ So he graduated and then, well, the rest of the story is the movie!”
Spurlock’s wife, Aimee, played a larger role than that of the supportive wife. She formed a church choir of Karen children, which doubled as a means to help them improve their English language skills. Like many of the real-life characters in “All Saints,” Aimee found herself playing the role of mentor. And as born-and-raised Tennesseans pitched in to help the struggling Karen, the Karen taught Spurlock how to run a farm, and all together they rescued a supposedly doomed church.
“All Saints” tells an uplifting story. But isn’t a movie about the struggle of an Episcopal priest a tough sell in today’s Hollywood?
Chang laughed at the question. “I didn’t really think about whether it would be tough because all movies are tough to pitch. I wanted to do a movie that was about the human condition. Once I read the article about All Saints, I realized it’s not about a religious organization, it’s about faith. The faith that makes you wake up in the morning and say, ‘I will do this today.’ The faith that allows you to go and create a farm when you’ve never been on a farm in your life and you’ve been a corporate brat your whole life. Whatever the faith is that allows us to pursue our dreams and to have the courage to do that. I love that story. And I think that is Michael’s story.”
Chang and Gomer have found support for the movie, but they still need to cast it and get the necessary financing.
“We’re in a really interesting place,” Gomer said. “We submitted the script to a very small division of Sony called Affirm and they really liked it. They’ve guaranteed us distribution and certain amount of dollars for print and ads. But they couldn’t commit to any production dollars. So we’re a little bit backwards. Every time I speak with my lawyer he starts laughing because it’s peculiar. He’s never encountered such a situation. Usually you raise the money to do a picture and then you try to get it theatrically distributed. We have distribution and now we’re trying to come up with production money. We’re talking to a lot of different people.”
If all goes well, filming of “All Saints” will begin in spring or summer of 2015, when the crops are sprouting on Tennessee’s verdant farmland. Chang and Gomer are determined to make the movie in Smyrna, a town of 40,000 that’s located about 25 miles southeast of Nashville. Using the actual church and surrounding community where the events took place makes sense, of course. And so does using members of the Karen people. But Chang and Gomer also want to make “All Saints” in Smyrna to give the community something that goes beyond the influx of money a movie shoot brings.
“We’d like to use the Karen as extras, certainly,” Chang said. “You can’t get any more authentic. But also we want to create a mentorship program where members of the community can become interns on our movie and get exposure to the different departments of a movie, to see how it works and what interests them, how the system works, and to see if they like the film industry. We believe that to know what’s out there you have to experience it.”
“The whole thing for me,” Gomer said, “when I look at what I’m attracted to, it all has to do with community. Forming community, living in a community, helping each other. I think that’s what it’s about. Now that we’ve gone to Smyrna a bunch of times, a number of the Karen kids have come to us and want to work on the picture. So it’s a natural idea to try to put at least one Karen person in each category.
“There’s a guy who loves photographing and making home movies, so he’d be a natural to work in the camera department. We need them to help us. I like things to be as authentic as possible. So we need them in the set department, props department, costume department. These aren’t make-work jobs. These are important jobs. And it just helps everything. It helps the picture, it helps them. It just makes everything better.
“It’s an important part of the whole process to me,” Gomer continued. “Anytime that I do a picture or a play I always try to find a way to make the process mirror what that thing is about. So here involving the Karen in each of these departments and essentially having a mentor, that’s what they’ve done naturally. That’s one of the things the picture is about to me. It’s a very important piece.That was Martha’s idea and it was a really great idea. I think it will be an important part of the whole thing. And it really works both ways. When you mentor somebody the mentor gains a lot.”
Or as Chang puts it, echoing Gomer’s thought, “What I find very touching is where the mentor and the mentee switch places. We all learn from each other.”
If all goes well, “All Saints” will arrive in theaters in late 2015 or early 2016. But Chang and Gomer hope their movies’ effect on Smyrna will continue long after the wrap party. Like Michael Spurlock, they want to leave the community a life-changing legacy. They want to plant a mentoring seed that will grow and spread.
“We’d like to start the mentoring program with the Karen simply because it’s a story about them,” Chang said. “Then we’d like to try to move on the greater community. A lot has to do with what we’ll be allowed to do, the resources we have, and how many intern positions we can actually offer.
“We’re hoping that if this kind of program works—and we’re talking to city and local and state governments about putting together the resources to make it work—I’m hoping they would continue it for all the feature and television work that comes to the area. Obviously there’s the “Nashville” TV show, but Tennessee has a lot of other work coming in now. I would consider it a success if the mentorship program continues after we leave and is something that has its own life.”
And who knows? Maybe this could be the start of something big.
“I would hope that it can start in the film industry and move on,” Chang said. “Nashville has a huge music scene. There’s great local farming. There are so many other industries. But you have to start somewhere.”
[box]About the Author
Former Boston Herald columnist and editor Larry Katz has covered music and the arts for more than 30 years. Visit his website, thekatztapes.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.[/box]