The Resurrection of Gavin Stone highlights a unique collaboration between WWE Films, Blumhouse Productions, and Vertical Church Films, the outreach from James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. Soon, the story of a disgraced child television star who finds redemption in a local church production of the Easter story will land in theaters across the country, aimed at what it means for the church to show grace in its community. To get the inside scoop on the story and this unusual power combination, Christian Cinema caught up with director Dallas Jenkins.
Jenkins’ love for film started with his father, Jerry Jenkins, an author who also shared his faith with his son. At twenty-five, Jenkins joined his father on the set of Hometown Legend, creating a film that shared a strong story and their message of faith. The younger Jenkins grew into his own as a filmmaker in Los Angeles, believing that “the most important message in the world deserves the most powerful meaning in the world.”
After ten years in L.A., Jenkins received a call from Harvest Bible, an invitation to return home to Chicago and make films that shared the message of the church. One Christmas Eve, tired of the length of time it was taking to develop a full-length feature, Jenkins crafted a short film, The Ride. The film was intended only to be used inside their church, but it ended up in front of the horror film company Blumhouse Productions…. which was seeking to get into the faith-based market.
Now, Jenkins will unveil The Resurrection of Gavin Stone on January 20 in conjunction with Blumhouse and WWE Films, another outside-of-the-box company who liked what they saw in The Ride. After their collaboration had been discussed initially, the story of the former child star entered the conversation, highlighting how mandated community service pushed Stone into his hometown church’s production of an Easter play. An unexpected plot point, that the non-Christian would find himself learning about Christ by playing Jesus, proved to be the lynchpin for the film’s uniqueness.
“All of us loved the script,” Jenkins shared. “They put up twice the amount of money that the church would have if we’d made it ourselves, but they didn’t ask to change the message or any of the content. They told us we were experts on that part - sharing the message of unashamed portrayal and power of the church, and they could get audiences who haven’t seen a faith-based movie out to theaters.”
The film itself reflects the diversity of those involved in making it, and the desire by Jenkins and Harvest Bible Chapel to bridge the “insider/outsider” perspective of looking at those in the church and those outside.
“The main character is an outsider,” Jenkins reflected. “The humor that comes from that is appealing to people. Everyone can relate to being a fish out of water. In test screenings, the film has rated just as high with non-churchgoers. They see Gavin experiencing stuff with the same lack of understanding as they do. When Gavin experiences unconditional grace and doesn’t understand why, he’s told ‘because this is what we do’ by those at the church.”
“At the same time, when the movie is set in a church, the churchgoers can see the things they expect - the sermon, the music, the behavior. And maybe it will challenge them to see themselves differently.”
Still, given the way that the market can often prove critical, I asked Jenkins if he was worried about ‘poking the bear’ through humor and drama?
“I want to tell the truth,” he said, “so I don’t have a problem doing that inside and outside of the church, regardless of how it comes across. If you can’t laugh at yourself a little bit, we’re probably not going to be friends anyway.”
“I also made sure that the film was affectionate,” he continued. “The guy who is the theological nerd is also the nicest guy in the film. When you show people in a positive light - it’s easier to accept the criticism of them, too. Sometimes, we see Jesus too stiffly, and we need an outsider to remind us about who we were before we found grace.”
“Maybe we’ve forgotten what grace feels like.”
Another surprising source entered the film’s development as an honorary casting scout. Jenkins’ son sent him a text while watching one of his favorite shows. The text, which Jenkins still has saved on his phone, told his experienced filmmaking father that Marvel Agents of Shield was the perfect source for the man to play Gavin. There, Brett Dalton was playing the evil Hive, but Jenkins’ son saw something his dad didn’t.
“My son kept pushing for Brett,” Jenkins admitted. “I wasn’t sure he could play this part because it was multifaceted and his role on Agents was so straightforward. But we had the casting director send the script, and Brett loved it. He missed lunch on set because he was reading it. Immediately after casting, we knew he was the right guy. A church outsider in a lot of ways, it was the right part.”
On the other side of the insider/outsider equation in the film, WWE’s Shawn Michaels plays the role of a reformed biker already in the church, whose mentorship impacts Stone’s trajectory. Jenkins said that while Michaels had turned down other films, he jumped onboard to the surprise of WWE Films, even as they sought to encourage their wrestlers to be themselves.
“WWE is never resistant to their wrestlers faith,” the director explained, “but Shawn’s coming to faith was a blessing to them. Before he was so obnoxious, so addicted and bad boy; when he came to faith, he was radically changed, became kind and deferential and humble. They love their wrestlers being able to connect with more fans; he loves to share his faith with more fans.”
This film represented just what Michaels and MacDonald’s church were looking for.
“James MacDonald always says that we should welcome without judgment, love without condition, and forgive without limit. He says that a church that does that is going to need more chairs. People say they want that in a church, and we hope that the film will make them ask, ‘is that what we do?’
The Resurrection of Gavin Stone debuts in theaters on January 20, and audiences can see for themselves how grace might challenge them to change.