Acclaimed independent Christian filmmakers Fred and Sharon Wilharm (“The Good Book”) have released their new multi-award-winning Christian movie “Providence.”
Rachel and Mitchell grow up as schoolmates in the small town of Providence, Tennessee. Throughout their lives their paths keep intersecting and connecting, but misunderstandings pull them apart. It takes a tragedy to draw them together one last time. Will they finally open their eyes to what God has planned for them all along? A feature length “silent” film, the story is told by eclectic indie music and engrossing character portrayals without dialogue.
“Providence” stars Juli Tapken (“Surrender”), Stacey Bradshaw (“Touched by Grace”) and Emily Knapp (“The Good Book”) as Rachel through the years; and Rich Swingle (“Beyond the Mask”), Josh Allen and Chase Anderson (“Where Hope Grows”) as the four decades of Mitchell. Irene Santiago (“High School Musical”) gives a vivid performance as Rachel’s mother, Edith.
We sat down for a behind the scenes interview with filmmakers Fred and Sharon Wilharm, actor Rich Swingle, and indie songwriter and musician Cindy Palin, whose song is featured in “Providence.”
Sharon, “Providence” won “Best Story,” “Best Directing” and “Best Lyrical Music” at Faith Film Fest 2015. The movie’s visual artistry and musical backdrop captivate viewers, yet the challenges that Rachel and Mitchell face and the emotions they evoke in the audience dominate the viewing experience. Why does this story, and Rachel’s character in particular, have such powerful appeal?
Sharon Wilharm (Writer/Director/Production Designer): I think because everybody can relate to Rachel. Everybody has been there where you’re hoping for one thing and you’re not sure what to do when life doesn’t turn out that way. She’s a very relatable character with her frustrations, her hurt when Grandma Rose dies, and her confusion of trying to fit in at high school and not really fitting in.
Did someone inspire the character?
Sharon Wilharm: The younger Rachel with her Grandma Rose was inspired by a friend of mine from high school who had a close relationship with her grandmother, a godly woman. When her grandmother died – She said even though she had her parents, “But I felt like an orphan because my grandmother was the one I was really close to.” That influence from her grandmother stuck with her, and my friend ended up marrying a preacher. It fascinates me how people in a child’s life can influence their future.
Fred, I have to ask you, with no dialogue the film’s visual elements had to be spectacular. Many automobile enthusiasts will see this movie as a drama that flows among a turn-back-time classic car show, predominantly classic muscle cars. The first to grab my attention was the late ’60s ice blue Plymouth GTX. And of course the steel star of the film was the jade green 1951 Kaiser Manhattan.
Fred Wilharm (Executive Producer/Director of Photography/Editor): The Kaiser was actually my car at the time. Regretfully I sold it two months ago. I went down to Burger King to have breakfast, and I was surrounded by eighty year old men like I was Elvis. About two hours later it was sold.
Yikes! Sorry to hear that! I envisioned Rich Swingle driving it while being filmed and wondered if you had to pry his ecstatic fingers off the steering wheel after each take. (Fred and Rich laugh.) Fred, how many classic cars appear in the movie, and how did they help you as director of photography to tell Mitchell’s story?
Fred Wilharm: Around fifteen cars. We had the cooperation of a classic car club. We got the word out that we needed vehicles, and they got involved. They came, sat over to the side and watched the filming. They really enjoyed themselves. What was the question about Mitchell?
How did the cars help you as director of photography to tell Mitchell’s story and the experience he is going through?
Fred Wilharm: Well, we used set design to plant the idea that Mitchell was a car enthusiast – the Kaiser poster and car posters and that kind of thing. As far as how I used it –
Sharon Wilharm: He just wanted to get his car in the movie.
Fred Wilharm: That’s pretty much how it went. I knew the movie would have more appeal to guys if we filled it up with hot rods, so I convinced Sharon to let us work that into the story. I thought it worked well, even though few high schools back then would have had those kinds of cars in the parking lot.
As a writer, I saw the Kaiser as metaphorical for Mitchell’s character. He was solid and enduring as he waited for Rachel to love him. I thought the classic car was such a great metaphor, but no, you wanted the cars in the movie.
Fred Wilharm: I wish I could say it was that deep, but no, it’s just because I like hot rods.
I love it. Sharon, every set, every camera angle, every character movement and expression is captivating. The whole movie is art on film. With the remarkable visual elements and the hand-selected indie music, truly you’ve achieved the full meaning of “performing arts.” You won the best director award for this movie, but I sense an award had nothing to do with why you went to such lengths and detail to tell this story. What is it you wanted to give the audience?
Sharon Wilharm: Throughout it we really wanted it to be beautiful, and I’m obsessed with color. Rachel, when things are great and when she’s happy, she’s in pink. When she starts to get rebellious, there’s a transition in her clothing, and she goes to the hot pinks and then the blacks. When she’s depressed, she’s in blue. A lot of people are never going to notice, but when you see her in pink, it makes you happy. So we used all the color to portray the emotion that we were looking for.
The colors and visual elements evoke emotion in the audience. So true. Your previous no-dialogue film “The Good Book” won “Best Film” and “Best Cinematography” at the 2015 AFA Truth Awards. Fred, how did you and Sharon decide to make Christian movies that have no dialogue?
Fred Wilharm: It all started in a Mexican restaurant. Sharon will tell you.
Sharon Wilharm: We had this idea for a movie where random people were connected by an object. As it progressed it became a Bible that was being passed around to all these people, ultimately impacting their lives. But it’s hard sometimes to write realistic dialogue, so we sat at this restaurant discussing how we could show and not tell.
Then Fred said, “Why don’t we take it literally?” Right then we decided to do a silent movie, to literally just show and not tell. Immediately we’re looking around to see if anybody heard this idea, because we thought, Oh my goodness, this is such an incredible idea! Why didn’t anybody think of it sooner?
The story, told over four decades, will take many viewers back to their own growing up years. For the audience, it evokes vivid memories of the past while it relates to their present, and inspires them to reach for their best future, particularly if they think it’s too late to find love. What do you want this movie to reveal about love and about trusting in God’s blessings and timing?
Sharon Wilharm: I really want people to be encouraged that it’s never too late, that God’s timing is not always the same as ours. He is always working and orchestrating things that we don’t necessarily see, just like happens with Rachel and Mitchell. So I love the concept of God’s will, that He has incredible things for us if we’ll just follow Him.
I also like that Mitchell is a Christ figure. He is the one who is always there, waiting for his bride, patiently loving. She is off doing her own thing, but he is always there, always loving her, and it’s never too late.
Christ’s bride being the church, Christian men and women. It is never too late. God is awesome. Let’s turn to you, Rich. You played the adult Mitchell and can give another male perspective. Though this movie is a romantic drama, the main focus is on the drama of the story. In what ways will Christian men find “Providence,” a romantic drama, appealing?
Rich Swingle (actor, adult Mitchell): First and foremost, this is not an action film. It has one car wreck. I think a lot of men want more than film action. More than things blowing up.
The men I talk to care about relationships. They care about God at work in their lives, at least the Christian men I know. And those who don’t know the Lord yet, I think they are curious, though they may be putting that part of their lives off. Putting it on hold. In our culture, there is a desire to put off the eternal, and I think this is a film that really challenges that. It says, No, God is very much a part of our lives. He cares about us. He works things out for our good, even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, in the moment. So I think there’s much for men there.
I know when I was a young, pre-married man, I was very curious about who God might be lining up for me. But even taking myself out of the picture (so to speak), I would still really enjoy this film.
Also, the story is told from the perspective of both Rachel and Mitchell. I think the Wilharms’ did a very good job of balancing the story, so it doesn’t feel like just a woman’s story.
I agree. Now, as an actor of stage as well as screen, you are physically and vocally dynamic. Describe the experience of playing out the character Mitchell’s story without using your voice.
Rich Swingle: It was a real gift, because it allowed us to improv, and really be true in the moment, really live out the character. For example, it was such a strong moment when I as the pastor was comforting the two grieving women in the graveyard. While the cameras were rolling, I started to talk to the two actors about their own true stories of loss. And before we knew it, the tears were streaming. That was really a gift. That couldn’t have happened had we been trying to apply our real life stories to a script. Yes, a very talented actor does that, but one of the women had never been on stage or film, and they were both able to bring tears, so that was something that might not have happened had dialogue been scripted.
Sharon told me that you have, quote, “a cool story about the theater about the answer to prayer, so be sure to ask him!” Since this movie highlights God answering prayer, will you share that story?
Rich Swingle: (laughs) In 2000, I was there at the opening of the AMC Empire 25 theater near Times Square. They had moved this big, majestic old theater over 168 feet, to make room for the 25 theaters that they now have, along with the restaurants, shops, and so on. So it was really an undertaking, and the grand opening was very grand. It had a big impression on me.
So when my wife, Joyce, and I moved close to Times Square in 2008 – we live in Midtown (Manhattan) – the very first time we returned to that theater, it had become our hometown movie theater. It was a special experience.
As I was going down the escalator, I just said this little prayer. “Lord, would you please put me in a movie that would show here, and may there be a time when I’m coming down these escalators having seen a show that I was in.” At the time, I’d never been in a feature film.
Now when the AMC independent™ distribution came along and Sharon asked us where we would want to see “Providence” shown, I said, “Empire 25.” She asked for second and third choices, so I gave her several other choices. We were delighted that Times Square opened up.
Last night the first part of that prayer was answered. We saw the trailer for “Providence” before another film, there at Empire 25 on Times Square. So I was coming down those escalators, and Joyce took a sudden photo of me—the lighting was not good—and it was at about the same place on the escalator where I’d had that prayer come up in my heart. There we were. A prayer answered. And on February 12, the prayer will be answered in full, when the movie opens at Empire 25.
That is a great story, and a great God who answers prayers. Rich, I have to ask. One of the perks of this movie for you had to be driving the 1951 Kaiser Manhattan. Your thoughts about the automobile?
Rich Swingle: It was amazing! Fred would never let me turn because it didn’t have power steering. He was uncomfortable with me turning. I told him that I drove all sorts of vehicles without power steering, but he had me always driving in a straight line. (laughs) But that was definitely a perk of the film. Opening the door was like, Whoa! They don’t make them like that anymore! A lot of cool cars in the film.
You know as a believing writer that the Lord will put his hand on something and inspire you to put it into the story, even though you don’t see the full depths of it. The car is a metaphor to Mitchell’s dedication to the calling God had placed on his life regarding Rachel.
“Providence” is exactly right. Cindy Palin, the music in this film grips the audience as does the acting, set design, and cinematography. You wrote, composed and sang the song “The Dance of Life,” which was chosen for the movie’s pinnacle emotional scene. What is the song about, and what inspired you to write it?
Cindy Palin (songwriter, musician): The song is telling us that all of life is a dance, and every step of life is important. I was inspired to write it for the hospice society in our rural town, in Alberta, that death is even one of those steps to life. It was interesting that the producers of “Providence” chose the song as a love song. And it is a love song. One of my favorite lines is, “Every moment shared is music for our final journey.” It means all of us are learning one more step to the dance of life.
How did your song come to be in the movie?
Cindy Palin: I’m very good friends with an artist and producer named John Forbes. And he’s very good friends with Rich Swingle. Rich sent a link to John and said that a certain Christian film company was looking for songs. So John sent me the link right away. I decided I was going to write a song just for the movie. So I did and sent it in. I didn’t hear anything back.
And then I got a call saying, “Thank you very much for the song you wrote, but we actually like the other one on your website. We’d like to choose that one instead.” I was surprised, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. I was happy they liked one of my other songs. I’m hoping it will bring attention to the work of my producer, Mark Troyer. He produces music at his studio in Calgary, Alberta. He did a great job on the production of “The Dance of Life.” Now Sharon and Fred Wilharm have used that song in “Providence,” and I’m thrilled to be promoting a movie that has such a special message.
Your thoughts on the “Providence” soundtrack?
Cindy Palin: Just blown away. Blown away at the artistic direction they took. They made a silent movie and let the music speak. Because I’m a musician, each movie’s music is of utmost importance to me. I always listen for a strong melody or a strong lyric line. So for me to hear that the music of “Providence” was actually speaking through the film—it was such a cool idea! So cool! The music was in the forefront rather than the background.
Fred and Sharon did an excellent job of choosing the artists – their songwriting and their voices – and placing the music to tell the different parts of the silent story.
I love that the music is the voice.
Sharon, according to the “Providence” movie website, confirmed cities for the limited release of “Providence” are Atlanta, Tulsa, Los Angeles, New York City, Destin, Charlotte and Jacksonville. How long will the movie play in theaters?
Sharon Wilharm: At least a week, beginning February 12. Then each theater will make the decision every week whether it continues another week.
Will the movie be available for purchase on DVD or instant video after that?
Sharon Wilharm: Yes, it will. It’ll be a while because after the AMC release, we want to continue showing it in theaters, perhaps like one-time screenings in a lot of other towns. Watch the movie website for showings near you. When that’s over, we’ll definitely have it on DVD and on demand.
Thank you to Fred and Sharon Wilharm, Rich Swingle, and Cindy Palin for this behind the scenes peek at the new movie “Providence.” It’s been a great joy to chat with each one of you. God bless your work on this film and the audiences who see it.
Movie trailer:Movie Trailer
Movie website: www.ProvidenceMovie.com/
Rich Swingle’s website: www.RichDrama.com
Cindy Palin’s website: www.NewCindyPalin.com
Cindy Palin’s music video “The Dance of Life,” which features the actors of “Providence”: