The journey to make American Prophet began with three small but breathtaking words: I trust you.
More than two years ago I asked Bishop Thomas Gumbleton if he would give me permission to write and direct a film based on his life. I had made an appointment to see him over Easter weekend when I was back home in Detroit with my family, and so on Holy Saturday I found myself in his cozy office, surrounded by photographs of his friends and family, awards and plaques and honorary degrees from hundreds of peace organizations, and piles of books.
He listened quietly as I made my pitch. I explained to him how after his visit to New York City when he had stayed with me at Columbia University in January I had been seized by inspiration, and had so written a short screenplay almost overnight based on his life in 1968. I explained my crazed idea of producing a narrative film that told his story, to be produced and shot in Detroit. I explained that I thought the film would be well-recieved, a project that audiences would be eager to see.
As an extremely humble and unassuming person, he was of course utterly mystified by my proposal. He looked genuinely puzzled as I told him of the enthusiasm of my classmates and faculty members at Columbia who had read the script, many of whom were not Catholic or even Christian. "I'm not sure why anyone would want to see a movie about me," he said softly, a doubtful look on his face. I laughed, thinking of the many friends and colleagues who were urging me to make the film. "People are hungry for leaders of integrity," I said. "A story like your should be told because there's so much despair and negativity in the world already. It would be healing because the Catholic Church and faith in general have lost credibility. Young people want to see this, and we need hope."
He was still puzzled by all this, and so I explained more of the filmmaking process to him, going over details in the writing, the research, the production process, the distribution goals. But above all, I assured him that I would take great care in telling his story, and that of his friends and loved ones who were also featured in the narrative. "I can change the names if you prefer," I said. "People will still connect the story to you, of course. But if you're more comfortable with that, I could do it."
"And," I said. "You would have final cut privileges. Any scene you don't like will be cut. You have the main kill switch. At any time, no matter how far along we are in the process, you have the authority to stop my making this film. And I will stop, no questions asked. The last thing I want to happen is for you to be in trouble, or to be troubled or inconvenienced by this project. I know you're a private person, and don't want a spotlight put on you. It's the last thing you want. But I and many others really believe this would be inspirational to so many."
He smiled at my earnestness, and looked wonderingly down at the copy of the script I had given him to read before making a decision. No doubt this was the last conversation he had expected on Holy Saturday. And at that moment I wondered if I was doing the right thing, putting this poor man on the spot. Already the target of harsh conservative critics, I knew that a project like this might be an opportunity for them to again attack him, to crow about what they called Gumbleton's constant need for the spotlight (something that happened every time he protested war or made public statements in support of peace, women or LGBT persons) or opportunism in creating liberal propaganda. I felt instant regret about the whole thing, sorry that I had bothered him this busy afternoon before Easter with my insane ideas.
"You don't have to tell me right away what you think. Please take the script and let me know what you feel about it. Your authority and comfort is paramount. Tell me whenever you have the time, and it's not urgent."
He looked up at me then, with a slight smile and a discerning look at my anxious face. "No," he said. "You have my permission. You can do it. I trust you."
I trust you. I was floored. Floored by his faith in my ability to tell his story properly and with respect. To carry the responsibility of bringing his name to attention at a time when he could be quietly retired and unbothered by the inevitable flood of public interest and speculation a film was sure to bring. To subject him, a shy and introverted man, to the spotlight for the sake of an idea that may or may not be possible to pull off.
"Well, you can think about it," I insisted. "You don't have to tell me now. You should read the script first."
"It's all right. I don't have to think about it. I trust you."
His smile turned broader, his eyes turning into twinkly moons. "I still don't think people will find me interesting, but go ahead and do what you like. I know you'll do good."
And so here we are, years from that meeting, finally ready to begin. Preproduction and the fundraising campaign are underway, an exhilarating and scary venture after years of preparation with oral interviews, research, revisions and setbacks. We are finally coming down to the wire as we approach principal photography in November. And there's so much yet to do.
The experience of making an independent film is a huge endeavor, with variables and hundreds of details that require the work of a full staff to address and control. The executive producers must find financing, producers must find crew and locations, the department heads must design and map out their shooting plan, the actors must research and rehearse, the volunteer committee must gather personnel and resources, and the director must sit quietly in the chaos of it all and dedicate her or his self to creating a cohesive and compelling story. It's an overwhelming experience on even well-funded studio films, and much more so for a small independent project that must fend for itself without corporate studio backing.
There are times when I have been overcome by anxiety, beset with worries over casting and rising expenses. I worry about our budget, our locations, our staffing needs. But most of all I worry about my ability to pull off telling the story of a person I have grown to love as an inspiration and friend even more as the years have passed. What if I'm a crap director? Do I really know what I'm doing? Can I really pull this off? Maybe I'm not capable of a project of this scale...
For months now the bishop has already endured the curious questions and friendly ribbing from relatives and friends about his new status as a subject for Hollywood, a blush sometimes creeping into his face as parishioners and colleagues make a fuss over the excitement of it all. "Who's going to play you?" they ask. "George Clooney?" His friends have confirmed that a film project about his life is the absolute last thing he would ever personally want to happen. But yet they assure me that he is aware of the possibility for this film to bring a message of social justice and peace to others who normally would never encounter such a story. He trusts you, they say. He endures this because he believes in you.
So I try to remember that first meeting in his office, when the bishop listened to me intently as I pitched my crazy idea to him. I remember his quiet appraisal of my outlandish proposal, his generosity in thoughtfully considering what a project like this might mean in terms of his involvement and personal risks to privacy and peace. I try to always remember when he took my script, held my hand and gave me a hug, saying all the time, "I trust you."
May I have as much faith in myself as this loving friend and teacher has in me to tell his story. I will do my best.
Jasmine Rivera, Director