40 years in Hollywood hasn't erased Larry Thompson's Mississippi accent or his love of a good story. The executive producer of Amish Grace, a film premiering on the Lifetime Movie Network Sunday, March 28, Thompson makes movies to put something good about the human spirit into the world. "I don't want to preach or pontificate, because I'm a filmmaker.
Redemption Forgive Us Our Debts Script Attracts Star Power
"I make movies that are to entertain people," Thompson said in a recent interview with ChristianCinema.com. "But when you have a chance to entertain and also move them in a way, inspire them to do something positive in the world, it makes me proud to be a producer."
Thompson's latest project is based on the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Redeemed a Tragedy, the story of a senseless shooting that occurred in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Thompson recalls how he first learned of the story. "One morning I was watching Bill Moyers and he was reviewing this book that told the story of the shooting and the unconditional act of forgiveness. I was so touched by his review of the book that I went out and bought the book and read it. I thought, 'this is a movie.'
"I felt that a movie about this (forgiveness), that could be told in a way that could be non-exploitative and not focus on the tragedy, but focus on the aftermath and the forgiveness, would be wonderful," said Thompson.
Thompson acted on his instincts and contacted the publisher and author to option the book, then pitched it to the Lifetime Network. "I spent two years developing the script, and eventually we got it done. I did a lot of research for the film and we went through 13 drafts of the script. I gave notes on each draft, and know the movie pretty intimately," he said.
"By showing the tragedy the way we did, without a gunshot or drop of blood, we thought it would be very effective and more relatable than if we chose to show the gore. Imagine how much thought and conversation and talent went into making that decision."
A researcher visited the town of Nickel Mines to develop the story. "The writer we hired went to Pennsylvania and spent a week there interviewing anybody and everybody who would talk to her. We did not invade the privacy of any of the Amish people, knowing that's not what they would do. And we didn't want to put them in an uncomfortable spot.
"We talked to the community, to people that know them, to learn about their various stories. We hired an Amish consultant, one of the grief counselors who lives in that area that counseled some of the families. We worked very hard to ensure as much accuracy as we could."
When the news broke in October of 2006, it captured the attention of the world. Not because of the killings, but because of the Amish community's response: immediate forgiveness. " We used a clip from NBC News," said Thompson, "and the reporter's line was 'They buried their anger even before they buried their children.' It makes me cry just to say it.
"In the book, the scholars spend most of the book explaining the history of the Amish. Forgiveness is their way of life. And since they had been living that way all their lives, it was the natural thing to do. They were surprised that people were surprised by it, because that's who they are. It wasn't something they gave second thought to. It was something they've believed in for a long, long time. That's what's so powerful about the story."
Forgive Us Our Debts
The story demands a fresh understanding of forgiveness from anyone who studies it. Thompson himself was immensely moved by the choices the community made for forgiveness. " I've been raised Catholic my entire life, and I've been saying the Lord's Prayer since I was an altar boy. I've been saying, 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' I don't think I knew what that meant until I found out about this story. Until I read it, saw it, and made this movie, I realize I now that I didn't understand what God asks us to do in forgiving.
"I think that I've been talking the talk, but these people walk the talk. I hope I'm never faced with going through something like this. I'd like to believe I could do what they did, but I don't know."
Although the film clearly shows the power of forgiveness, it refrains from preaching or postulating what viewers should do. "We basically wanted you to see what they did and make up your own mind how you feel about it," Thompson said.
The character many viewers may relate to most is one of the mothers of the children, portrayed by Kimberly Williams-Paisley. " Ida is mad, angry, grieving, stubborn, confused, frustrated, and going through so much anger, that we needed the actress to be someone you perceived to be sweet. If she had been a 'heavy,' an actress who was mad to begin with, it could have gone too far. Kimberly has a sweetness and a likeability that is vulnerable, and we could empathize with her pain. We could understand her inability to move as quickly as everyone else did to full forgiveness.
"In retrospect, from the time the incident happens to the time the killer is buried, 5 days, she goes through this internal crisis to get to forgiveness. That's pretty fast, and yet she's the last one to come around," Thompson said.
"Matt Letscher, who plays Gideon (her husband), grounds his character in the Amish way of life and is totally believable. He is the rock, who understands the forgiveness and has faith to carry it out. But even for him it was a very difficult thing to do. He showed it in different ways, because he shows his strength in public. But when he goes to milk that cow, he falls over the stool, and it just breaks your heart."
Script Attracts Star Power
The power of the story and quality of the script attracted an outstanding team to create the finished film. "Somehow it attracted people we might not otherwise afford," Thompson stated. "We had people agreeing to do this movie for their own personal reasons. It's almost like the script and story touched them personally some way. To that effect, we have 11 cast and crew members who have 24 Emmy® nominations and 5 wins between them."
This is not a fast-paced film like many of today's theatrical film. Instead, it's a film that requires the viewer to get in step with the pace of the Amish people. It's not melodramatic, but restrained, as are the Amish people.
"We wanted to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. You don't need to enhance the story and hit the moments over the head, you just have to let them unfold," said Thompson.
This film "…requires slowing down and absorbing what happened, because there are a lot of horrifying, evolving, twisting moments that you have to live through. You have to take a passage through Ida's head to get where she did," said Thompson. "Otherwise you wouldn't understand forgiveness.
"If we just told you everybody forgave, that's a documentary, not a movie. By the end of the movie, you're probably as drained as I was, or you should be," Thompson said.
When asked what's next on his agenda, Thompson said, "I'm gonna take a nap. This movie has been a labor of love. I put so much into this, emotionally and otherwise, that I'm gonna take just a little break."
His labor of love is a beautifully told story that challenges us all to review our concept of forgiveness.
Read our review here.