Matt Chastain is a Georgia guy through and through but his life changed forever when a moment of Hollywood magic came to Monticello, the little town where he grew up. When Joe Pesci stepped out of the car in the scene from My Cousin Vinny, Chastain was a ten-year-old kid watching from the street. Now, as an adult in Athens, GA, the former marketing executive has become the screenwriter, director, and actor that his ten-year-old self dreamed about all of those years ago. With the limited release of his film Small Group, Chastain is fulfilling a dream that was years in the making.
In the film, a budding documentary director is hired to go “undercover” inside a church small group, supposedly to shine a light on the way that church works and how community grows. When the director and his wife are invited into a young adults group at the local church, they experience acceptance and grace in ways they never believed imaginable. But while the film is full of deep meanings and high drama, it is also wildly hilarious, with witty critiques aimed at church life and Christians that demand the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike, which was Chastain’s hope all along.
“We screened the movie for over a thousand people, and it resonates with church people but also with unchurched and dechurched people,” the director shared. “We focused on the universal message of grace, and people responded to it regardless of what label we put on them.”
Chastain graduated from the University of Georgia, and turned down the opportunity to relocate to Los Angeles for a chance to run a television show. Instead, he did “the grown-up thing,” and took commercial jobs, voiceover gigs, and marketing opportunities. Then, several years ago, Chastain and his wife joined a small group for the first time, and he saw the stories bubbling up in a community he called genuine and open. Meeting with a film producer in town, he was encouraged to write the script that would later become Small Group after nine months of rewrites. The production budget was raised in four months, and after five weeks shooting in Athens and one in Guatemala City, Chastain had the footage he needed. Amazed by the process, he turned his attention to sharing the message of the film in advance of its theatrical release.
“The story is all about exposing us, like the lesson we got in Sunday School this week, that we’re supposed to bring ourselves to God in our most humble state,” Chastain explained. “Small groups put us in a position where we’re at our most vulnerable and can be held the most accountable. My goal was honest storytelling about what that experience is like.”
The experience Chastain describes is sometimes moving and sometimes gutwrenching, sometimes holy and sometimes irreverent, but just like life, it mixes the serious with the spontaneous and the hilarious. That translates well into the film that Chastain has shaped for the last two years, as he attempted to bring something he hadn’t seen before to Christian film.
“There is a perception that we have to fight as filmmakers that we have to fight what Christian films are,” proposed Chastain. “Some films feel like a worship experience and that’s great. But in small groups, you show up in your sweaty t-shirt you wore to work in the yard. We take the best version of ourselves to worship service, but I wanted to take the parts that feel real and raw from small groups.”
The screenwriter in him couldn’t avoid the times in small group where silliness erupted or one-liners flew fast and furious. “To be true to myself, I write from my own heart. My Sunday School teacher is always a little nervous about what I might say. We need to be able to pop the tension, in church, in Sunday School, in small group. When we don’t have real true humor, we’re not being real to true life. I want people to go, ‘Yeah that’s my experience of small group’ or ‘I’d love for that to be my experience in a small group!’ Some of the jokes I cracked in the movie I stole from my actual small group.”
“One of my favorite scenes is when they visited the awkward small group. The small group actors are from my church. The big dude tells jokes of varying degrees of appropriateness but he’s one of the best followers of Jesus I know! We can’t sanitize the way we experience church.”
Another part of the church experience that Chastain refused to sanitize was that of Engadi Ministries in Guatemala, where Chastain shot substantial parts of the Small Group story.
“We shot using the Engadi Ministries boys, their facilities, and in their neighborhood. As the production progressed so did our connection to them. Nathan Hardeman, the founder, became a co-producer on the film. I became an Engadi board member after we shot there. An investor in the film who went with us was so touched by the work they do that she donated shares in the film equal to ten percent of the total investor ownership, so as Small Group the movie succeeds, so will the boys in Zone 18 of Guatemala City! Everything the missionary Sam says is what Nathan told us about Engadi. He’s the toughest guy you’d ever meet and he breaks down every time he shares.”
Chastain met Hardeman through Chastain’s church in Athens, and as he prepared the script for the movie, he thought about all the ways that mission trips to Africa and the Caribbean had changed him. He knew that part of the church experience was breaking past the safe, American middle class bubble because that’s where he’d seen God moving the most clearly.
Now, Chastain hopes that audiences will pack check out the film on October 6, as it becomes available to digitally rent or buy, or to buy on DVD. There are talks about the video series Chastain is working on to help audiences see small groups and then build small groups for themselves, and about what the extended release will do for the film’s impact. Even in the days before Small Group debuts, Chastain is already talking about a Small Group TV or web series, and sequels, because he wants everyone to experience small groups the way he has.
“If I spend the next ten years on this, I’d be the most blessed man on earth. The culture and idea of the small group - Jesus was in a small group so this isn’t a new concept - this is the opportunity for great storytelling.”
Chastain, screenwriter, director, and actor, hopes that you will agree, and that maybe some young person will be inspired to tell their story of faith, with humor and drama, someday, too.
Original content from October 26, 2018 interview.