Tyler Perry is often credited with starting a new genre and method of filmmaking: the translation of gospel plays to feature films. However, after talking with writer/director Stan Foster (Preacher's Kid), I learned that Woman Thou Art Loosed, based on Bishop T.D. Jakes' book, was the pattern Perry follows.
"Woman Thou Art Loosed began as a stage play that had a lot of music," Foster said in a recent interview. "It was a musical stage play, a la Tyler Perry. As a matter of fact, it was the stage play that launched Tyler's career.
"He came over and took over as director for the play. Then when we did the film Woman Thou Art Loosed," Foster said, "Tyler came to the set again wanting to get in the movie business, and he wound up partnering with my co-producer from Woman Thou Art Loosed, and that started a whole new genre. WTAL was really the first in this area. It was the first stage play of its kind, the first film of its kind, and the first gospel stage play to become a film. That's the formula that Tyler now uses for all his plays and films. I helped start a billion dollar industry!"
Foster is a great example of someone creatively mining his life experience. "Every story that I do comes from a part of my life," he said. "Preacher's Kid came from my interaction with PKs that I met. There's a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility, a lot to live up to. It's not easy. I can imagine it not being easy. I can mess up and people will just say I messed up. But if a PK messes up, it's the "pastor's son" messing up."
Preacher's Kid is the result of a partnership between Foster, Gener8xion Entertainment, and Warner Brothers Pictures. Originally, Foster went to Warner Brothers to pitch the story as a direct to DVD film, but when Matt Crouch and Steve Blinn heard the story, they thought it had feature film potential. " They agreed if Warner Brothers financed it, they would distribute it theatrically, so we kind of came to that plan after it was filmed."
Preacher's Kid opened in theaters the last weekend of January and ran until April 11. During that time, Gener8xion decided to use a portion of the box office to help provide relief for the people of Haiti.
Preacher's Kid tells the tale of 20-something Angie King (played by platinum-selling Capitol Records artist LeToya Luckett), a preacher's daughter who strikes out on her own for the very first time and joins a traveling gospel show. In this modern-day rendition of the fable of the Prodigal Son, she soon discovers life on the road is tough but fears going home with nothing to show for herself, or worse, to a father who no longer loves her.
"It's a movie that takes place partially in the church, but it's not church-y," Foster said. "People that were not Christians reacted the same way. They related to the relationships in the story, whether it was the father-daughter or the good girl-bad guy. Many related the tostory of the prodigal, stepping away from home toward something you feel like is beckoning you, and before you know it, you're in over your head.
"As far as the lead casting, I actually wrote the movie for Fantasia, who was on American Idol®. I couldn't get in touch with her, and while I was trying that, friends kept recommending Jennifer Hutson, before she won her Oscar®," Foster remembers. "Jennifer read the script and called me every day and said she sleeps with it under her pillow. She said she wanted to do this movie more than anything. Then the Oscar® buzz started and she got pulled in a million directions."
Foster cast another American Idol® contestant, Syesha Mercado (from 2008) in the lead, but Mercado dropped out on a Friday night before filming started the following Monday. "I was in trouble," Foster said.
"LeToya Luckett (the lead) was a member of Destiny's Child with Beyonce Knowles. I'd given her a smaller role, but there was something about her audition that made me think she could handle this role. She was crying and said she really grew up like the main character Angie. When Syesha dropped out the studio suggested giving the script to some other people, some other names. But I said, 'No, I think LeToya can do this,'" Foster said.
"She never auditioned for the lead role; I just gave it to her. She really hit a homerun. She had an acting coach with her and we all worked with her, and she did a great job. She's wonderfully talented."
Many times when a director is asked about their completed project, they'll look back and mention scenes they might tweak here or there, or a line of dialog they might change. Not Foster. "I wouldn't change a thing about my film. I wouldn't change a single cast member, a line of dialog, or a location.
"Everything I thought was a disappointment in the process, like Syesha dropping out or not being able to get a particular location, or not getting a particular song I wanted, God had a hand in all of it. Imagine that you have this child. Maybe their nose isn't as straight as it could be, but if you changed it, it wouldn't be the child you had," Foster said.
Like Perry's films, the story of Preacher's Kid goes to some very real and raw places that many films directed toward Christian audiences won't. "I didn't grow up in the church. I grew up in the world, in the projects," Foster said. "There was drug dealing, sexual abuse, and there was all this real stuff that real people have to deal with. I think that to paint a picture of a Christian life as this perfect wonderful little photograph with no imperfections is just inaccurate and not Biblical. Jesus said there would be trials and tribulations, and we need to make the right choices. He told us how to make these choices, how to live in this world."
"This is the story of the Prodigal, and I didn't even leave out the robe and the ring. I told the story in such a way that non-Christians don't even know it's the story of the prodigal son. They have no idea.
"With Christians, it resonates right away. I think it's really important to deal with real issues and to have flawed characters. I'm not going to write a story where the pastor is this perfect guy, this perfect father," Foster said. "In my story, the father, played brilliantly by Gregalan Williams, he's got some issues, and God's not done with him.
"Just because you're a pastor doesn't mean you don't have issues. He's been too controlling and hasn't let his daughter grow up. He's sheltered her. He's gone out to live his own life after his wife died, but he's caught in this capsule," Foster said. "By the end of the film, several characters have grown, and nobody more than Angie our lead character. She actually, like the prodigal, steps out into the world because she thinks she's missing something.
"She loves her father, her church and her life, but there's so much more out there, and she feels like she's missing it all. How many of us can relate to that? Then you go out there and you realize it's not what it's cracked up to be," Foster said.
Like every filmmaker, Foster wants his stories to affect people's lives. "I think every story that I do will have to have real, relatable issues," he said. "My friend Kimberly Elise, who starred in WTAL and did Tyler Perry's film Diary of a Mad Black Woman, is one of Oprah's best friends. I didn't even know she was going to see the movie, and she sent me a text about it.
"She has a daughter that's 16 or 17 and she said her daughter couldn't stop talking about my film. She said it's taught her so many lessons that Kimberly couldn't teach her. She said she could tell her but couldn't teach her because she gets so much input from her peers, and develops her own rationalizations through her 17-year-old eyes. She said that her daughter wouldn't stop talking about the movie."
Audience response to the film has been even stronger than Foster anticipated. "In looking at some of the blogs and people writing about the film, or Facebook®, there are people creating pages about the movie. I love that!
"You can tell, preach and teach a sermon, but the sermons we live through are the ones that resonate for life."