The new film “Running For Grace,” starring Jim Caviezel, Matt Dillon, Ryan Potter, and Olivia Ritchie tells the story of an orphan boy of mixed race who finds family with the newly arrived white village doctor in 1920s Hawaii. The boy can run like the wind, and begins bringing Doc’s medicine to coffee pickers throughout the mountainous region. On an errand, the medicine runner meets the daughter of the plantation owner and a young love blossoms like the white “Kona Snow” of the surrounding coffee trees. (And I have to say, Potter and Ritchie are both extraordinary in this movie. Dillon and Caviezel are too, of course, but the talented young actors add a nice emotional power to the story.)
Running for Grace just released in theaters this past weekend, and it is also now available on-demand on streaming platforms. They’re doing something amazing with this movie: if you know a family who has adopted children, you can gift them this movie digitally. And if there’s a family in your community who can’t make it to the theaters to see it, the movie can be gifted to them too. Find out more about the movie (and how to gift it) at the film’s official site and on their Facebook page.
#RunningForGrace has some wonderful and compelling elements: stunning footage of Hawaii, memorable performances from its cast, a love story set amidst the turbulent racial tensions of Hawaii in the 1920s, an effective mix of drama and romance, and all of it packaged and delivered in a way that is family-friendly and edifying for the spirit. It’s not preachy (which is a good thing), but it has a power and wholesomeness to it that affects the viewer and leaves the heart uplifted long after watching it. It adds a unique and refreshing flavor to the buffet of entertainment currently available in theaters and online. To use an expression from one of Jesus’ parables, it’s salt sprinkled on the earth.
This isn’t surprising at all when you consider who directed it: David L. Cunningham.
David is a talented director who, as noted in a press release, has directed big budget Studio films (Fox, Disney, ABC), experimental and pioneering independent features, as well as hard-hitting documentaries filmed in over 50 countries. He is also an entrepreneur having founded more than a dozen companies in the creative industries including the award-winning content machine Global Virtual Studio (GVS). He has directed a wide range of today’s finest actors including Harvey Keitel, Edward James Olmos, Mark Strong, Robert Carlyle, Kiefer Sutherland, Ian McShane, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Matt Dillon, Jim Caviezel, Donnie Wahlberg and Alexander Ludwig. Cunningham is best known for the gritty WW2 Drama, “To End All Wars” (20th Century Fox), and the Primetime Emmy Winning, and controversial miniseries on ABC, “Path to 9/11”. (With a budget of $45M and total viewership of approximately 23 million, Path to 9/11 was considered a breakthrough in the miniseries format.)
He also has an intriguing family history. His parents founded Youth With a Mission (YWAM) and comes from a long line of missionaries and ministers with incredible stories that range from starting churches in covered wagons during America’s pioneering days to WWII when a relative of his ministered to fellow prisoners in a POW camp. (David elaborates on his family history in the interview.)
If you’ve seen the epic WWII film “To End All Wars,” (with a screenplay written by a fellow Christian writer and friend of mine Brian Godawa), you know how skillfully David weaves in redemption themes into his films–powerful themes informed by the Gospel. He is also known for his social impact initiatives as the creator of several nation-changing media campaigns with focuses on indigenous rights, human trafficking and orphans with special needs.
I had the chance to speak with David about his new film:
It’s been interesting to learn how the film intersects with your life. How did this idea for the story come to you?
It really started out with wrestling over the remote with my kids and my wife and me in the evening time. We’re all kind of wanting to watch something different. And I obviously wanted to have something that we all wanted to watch, not just safe for us to watch but something we actually all wanted to watch. And so that’s the origins of this, and I live in Hawaii and I’m from there and my kids are born and raised there, and I thought this story could resonate to audiences around the world.
I understand you come from a long line of missionaries. Can you tell us a little bit about your family legacy?
I’ve got seven generations of missionaries and ministers on one side of my family and four on the other. My three grandfathers started thirteen churches out of a covered wagon in the territory of Oklahoma. And my great uncle was a prisoner of war during World War II in China, being with the Christians that he had led to the Lord there, and he put his pregnant wife on a Red Cross ship back to safety while he ministered in the POW camp.
And my grandmother was the first woman ordained minister in her denomination. And my parents started an organization called YWAM, a youth mission. So I grew up around amazing people doing amazing things. I really feel like I’m continuing the family legacy, it’s just is a different pulpit.
Now how did you get into film making? What kind of diverted, or brought you into that world?
I really feel like it was a calling and it’s what I dedicated my life to and ever since I was a young man, I really felt that that’s what I was supposed to be doing and engaging with popular culture and hopefully making a difference. And I wasn’t around film making, I traveled the world with my folks to a lot of places like refugee camps and a lot of different places, certainly not in the entertainment world, but really felt that, from a young age, it was what I was supposed to do. So I talked my way into USC and studied film there and graduated from there and just started working my way up. This’ll be my eighth movie to direct.
Were there any particularly memorable moments while you were shooting this film that are special to you or stick out to your memory?
Yeah, you know, making this film in my backyard with my family, and my wife did the hair and make-up, and my kids are stand-ins and doubles in the film. It was such a joy to be able to do that. A lot of movies that I’ve made I’ve been on different locations, and I had done a few in Hawaii as well, but it’s been rare. So this was just a real joy to make this movie together and do so in a place that we love. This is the place that we love.
Jim Caviezel and Matt Dillon, I’ve probably just about every movie that they’ve been in and I really enjoy their presence on screen. I’m just curious how they got involved in this movie with you?
Attracting actors of their caliber is about two things: it’s about the script and trust in the director, and I was privileged to be able to win them over in both of those categories and they were fans of some of my other films. So it was just a real joy to work with them both, and frankly the whole cast, Ryan Potter and the whole cast–it was a real privilege.
What are you hoping people will really take away from the film after they see it?
It’s made for the whole family, as I mentioned, but one of the main themes is celebrating the power of adoption, and how adoption can not only transform the child that’s been adopted and the family that they come into, but it can transform a community. And our story’s about a boy who grows up in 1920s segregation. It is absolutely illegal for children of mixed ethnicity to be adopted through what they call racial integrity, the federal law.
And this is about a boy, he’s half-Japanese, half-white. He’s rejected by both the Japanese and the white community, and a new doctor comes to town for the plantation, played by Matt Dillon, and he takes the boy under his wing to be his assistant. He has to run medicine up the mountain for the Japanese immigrant coffee pickers.
And this is all set on the Big Island 1920s in the coffee belt. A lot of people are aware of Kona coffees and this is in the origins of that world and that product. And eventually we have themes of overcoming, a romance theme to it, and identity, the importance of belonging, those kinds of things.
So I really hope that people would get that takeaway and we’ve been doing these white-carpet premiers across the nation, celebrating families that have adopted and having these red-carpet experiences, where they walk down the red carpet and get their pictures taken and given the night out on us. And it’s just been a real joy to see the film helping bring a spotlight to that really important movement.
How do you hope this film will contribute to our cultural dialogue today, especially with the themes of racial tension?
Well a lot of it, as I mentioned, it was not only a Hawaii law, it was a federal law. Hawaii at the time was a territory of the United States and so it is, I think, an encapsulation of what was happening in the world at the time. And unfortunately, we still have a long ways to go in this issue, but there’s been tremendous progress from that extreme, and in Hawaii, specifically, we’re now the most racially diverse state in the Union, I believe.
And when you go to a different place or time in a story, you can look at some of these issues that are still relevant to today in a different light, and perhaps learn something. I hope that people will find that the film is entertaining and uplifting and enjoyable. So we’ve been getting great feedback in those categories. So, we’re not trying to preach to the choir, per se, but we really want the choirs to promote, and we really hope these screenings will be championed.
What’s next for you after this film and how can moviegoers learn more about ‘Running For Grace?’
Yeah, it’s a little early, I’m really focusing on this one, but there is a potential up-and-coming film that deals with family and marriage and set in a Western drama, and I like to try to tackle themes that are relevant, but are maybe, say, in an unlikely package, and moving in that way. And for “Running for Grace,” you can learn more by visiting RunningForGraceMovie.com or our Facebook page. There’s a way that the film can be gifted to adoptive families digitally with iTunes, and there’s a way that you can give a family in your community this movie if they can’t make it to the theaters. So we are running across the nation in selected theaters, but it’s also available digitally.