Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 02/21/24

Celebrating gratitude. Rising country star Paige King Johnson released her popular song I Thank God last November as a sort Thanksgiving carol. Based on that success she’s debuting an acoustic video version of the song today right here on Beliefnet (see above). That’s in advance of the new full video version set to drop on Heartland on Friday.

Talking about the writing process for the song, the singer-songwriter (who has won five Carolina Country Music Awards including Single of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year) suggests there almost wasn’t one. As she puts it “I Thank God was one of those songs that didn’t really feel like we wrote it – it felt more like we were just the vessel to get those words from the heart to paper. Once we started brainstorming, the whole song really just flowed out in about 90 minutes. It was an amazing experience to be part of & now to be able to share with others.”

Tony’s grand finale continues. Music icon Tony Orlando, who has sold millions of records (including five #1 hit records Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree, Knock Three Times, Candida, My Sweet Gypsy Rose and He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)) is today finishing up his final sold out show in Las Vegas – but, to paraphrase Sonny & Cher (whose legendary variety musical variety show was replaced in the summer of 1974 by the equally legendary Tony Orlando and Dawn), the beat will go on until March 22 when his final concert tour actually comes to a close at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Find ticket info here. FYI, my interview with Tony – who, BTW, is not retiring – will run in this space prior to that big event.

Storyteller. As reported here last week, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Kingdom Story Company Andrew Erwin recently launched a podcast called The Storytellers in which he interviews some of most successful Christians in the entertainment business about their faith, their life and their craft. It seems apt subject for him to focus since he too is one of the most successful and prolific faith-themed storytellers out there. His long list of credits includes such hits as October Baby (2011), Mom’s Night Out (2014), Woodlawn (2015), I Can Only Imagine (2018), I Still Believe (2020), American Underdog (2021) and Jesus Revolution (2023).

His latest production Ordinary Angels debuts in theaters tomorrow. Based on a true story and starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Alan Ritchson (of Amazon Prime’s Reacher), the film follows struggling Kentucky hairdresser Sharon Stevens (Swank) who finds a renewed sense of purpose when she helps Ed Schmitt (Ritchson), a widower and father of two daughters, the younger of which is awaiting a liver transplant.

JWK: What is it about this story that grabbed you?

Andrew Erwin: Ordinary Angels was one that found us. We didn’t really go find it. It just kind of caught us really off guard. Lionsgate brought it us. Jon Berg, who did the movie Elf, brought it to Lionsgate. Lionsgate said “You need to talk to Kingdom. They’re our faith guys.” When they brought it us us, we read the synopsis of it. We were like “Omigosh! This is Southeast Christian Church in Louisville that the story is based around. The chairman of our board, Tony Young, is one of the elders there at that church. We know this story well.

Jon Gunn came on to do the rewrites write and direct it. He really fell in love with the idea of this kind of Good Samaritan story that allowed the church to be the hero. It was just a story that had a ton of heart and an unlikely hero – this lady Sharon that rallied the whole community around this father who has lost his wife to a mysterious illness and then finds out that his five-year-old daughter has the same illness and needs a liver transplant. She rallies the whole community around them and, ultimately, the church gets to be the hero. A movie that allows the church, rather than being the butt of a joke, to be the hero was one we absolutely wanted to be part of. Jon Gunn did a great job and delivered a heck of a film.

JWK: Was the church involved in the movie?

AE: Yeah, they were. Dave Stone, who was the pastor at the time of the story – he has since turned over the reins to Kyle Idleman – was very involved. In fact, Dave has done a whole teaching series around the movie…It’s been exciting to let them kind of relive and help us make sure we get it right.

JWK: How did Hilary Swank come aboard?

AE: That was what took the film to another level. We had cast the majority of the film but we needed a person to play Sharon. We had talked to a couple of other actresses…and then Hilary read the script. She had been taking a hiatus from acting. She read the script and she flipped out. She said “My father is a transplant survivor.” So, Hilary came aboard. She really embraced the role and gave us a special performance. It’s amazing to watch. We were just lucky enough to catch her attention at the right time.

JWK: How did she find the script? How did it get into her hands?

AE: We had heard through mutual connections that she had an affinity towards the transplant survivor kind of story. So, we went through her agents and all that kind of thing to get it to her. When she read it, she fully engaged. She was like “I want to be part of this.” It was just destiny that she came back to her craft at just the right time for us.”

JWK: Her co-star is Alan Ritchson who most people think of as kind of an action star.

AE: His star is on the ascent. He’s the new bad guy in the Fast & Furious movies, he’s got this Reacher series that’s really popular at Amazon but he’s a believer. He’s a former marine that has a YouTube channel and preaches on it. So, he was really passionate about this material. I think it’s his best performance. He really portrays this man of few words with a lot of intensity and edginess as he fights for his daughter’s life. I do think he definitely went toe-to-toe with Hilary.

JWK: Nancy Travis from Last Man Standing is also in the movie.

AE: That was one of my contributions. We were looking for somebody to play Ed’s mom. The actress that we had got covid – or tested positive; I don’t know that she had covid – right before we started shooting and had to drop out. So, we had to scramble to find somebody to replace her. I was like “Hey, we oughtta take a look at Nancy Travis.” I’ve always liked her body of work. She was a treat to work with, absolutely incredible.

JWK: So, the cast really gelled.

AE: It really did. The part that really gelled was the two little girls that we cast in the film. They’re both from Canada. They just absolutely steal the show. They make you care about them and the story really plays. It’s a tribute to Jon Gunn as a director. He really made a quality film. When we did the screen test for it…it was the highest testing film in the history of Lionsgate, from what I understand.

JWK: What do you hope people take from the movie?

AE: It’s a Good Samaritan story (about) loving your neighbor in a day and age where the church is looking for relevance. I think a lot of time where we find the biggest impact is directly at our front door and finding people in need that are hurting. This is a situation where the church tangibly loved people that were right right at the front door. I think that definitely can connect the church with the communities that we serve.

JWK: You’ve had several successful faith-themed films over the years, most recently Jesus Revolution with Kelsey Grammer. What do you look for in a project?

AE: I think for us the DNA of any faith-themed story is the idea of a rush of hope. For the most part, we’ve invested in true stories. We’re starting to branch out into other things in that realm – but a rush of hope being the destination (and) has to be the ultimate goal. When we find a story that gives you that uplifting, hopeful feeling that we’ve delivered in other films like I Can Only Imagine and Jesus Revolution, that’s when we know that we have a story that’s a winner. Ordinary Angels has that.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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