We chatted with David L. Cunningham about his new film Running for Grace, his family legacy, Christian films and Hollywood.
Please tell us about you family background and how you are continuing that legacy?
I have 7 generations of ministers and missionaries on one side of the family and four on the other. My great grandfather started 13 churches out of a covered wagon in the Territory of Oklahoma. My great uncle was a POW in WW2 in China at the hands of the Japanese as he refused to leave his congregation there. My grandmother was the first woman ordained minister in her denomination and my parents started the interdenominational organization of YWAM or Youth With A Mission. I believe I am continuing the family legacy but that my pulpit looks a bit different. My family legacy represent folks who sacrificed much for others. I try to remember that when things get tough.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I felt from a young age that my calling was to be a filmmaker. I heard that USC was the place to go to learn so I fought my way in the back door there and ultimately graduated from there. I started a production company with my room mate out of our dorm room – we turned our closet into an edit room. We started out by doing wedding and corporate videos and then into documentaries and adventure shows. By the time we graduated we had built up a team of eight staff and had our own office in LA. But I wanted to pursue my dream of being a feature film director so my newly married wife and I took a huge leap. She went to work as a waitress, we rented out our apartment and slept on our friend’s couch and I went around the world on American Express cards pitching anyone who would meet me to invest in my first film. A year later, with 27 investors from six states and five countries I pieced together 750K to make my first feature film which we shot back in Hawai’i. It was a coming of age film that dealt with teen pregnancy and drug abuse and friendship beyond cultures. That was really my film school – you are not really a moviemaker until you have made a movie. It’s a really tough field that requires a bulldog, lockjaw tenacity.
Do you face any challenges of being a Christian in Hollywood?
Hollywood is a difficult place for anyone. It is a cutthroat business and very competitive. It comes with a lot of ups and downs. It will test your mettle in every area. If it is your calling, you will have the grace and favor but you better be certain.
How do you weave your faith into the films you make?
Every movie is a major leap of faith (this is my 8th movie to direct). It keeps me on my knees a lot. I am constantly asking for inspiration. Filmmaking is a medium that must be inspired in some regards to connect with audiences – I look to the ultimate inspiration for that touch.
What is your view on how Christian films could develop?
My father tells the story that in the 1950s when Bible based movies were doing very well at the box office. A studio executive reached out to Bible Schools and asked them to send graduates to help write Bible based movies. One Bible School President wrote back “I would rather send our graduates to Hell than to Hollywood”. There was a total rejection of popular culture by much of the faith community. In doing so we lost influence and authority in one of the most influential spheres in the world. It has taken decades to see changes in that area. I firmly believe we need to engage and create not sit on the sidelines and judge. It is wonderful to see more and more filmmakers engaging with a Biblical worldview.
What was the inspiration behind Running for Grace?
It started out with the goal of creating a film my entire family of five wanted to watch. We would often wrestle over the remote and it’s so hard to find something we all want to watch and frankly something we all should watch. I wanted to make a movie that was for the whole family that was entertaining and uplifting and carried relevant and building messages.
Tell us a bit about the film
RFG is set in the 1920’s segregated Hawai’i when it was illegal to adopt children of mixed race. “Jo”, a homeless, orphan boy of mixed race finds family with the newly arrived “Haole” (white) village doctor played by Matt Dillon. The boy can run like the wind, challenging the fastest horse and carriage, bringing Doc’s medicine to immigrant coffee pickers throughout the mountainous region. Jo, the medicine runner meets the daughter of the plantation owner “Grace” and a forbidden young love emerges. When another doctor (played by Jim Caviezel) comes to town in the new fangled contraption known as a “motor car” Doc and the boy must fight for their place in the small coffee farming community.
The film covers the themes of adoption and family, how important is this to you?
Adoption is such a powerful act. Not only does it change a child’s life but has potential to transform an entire community. I hope we can play a small role in championing those who have chosen to adopt, foster, or take on youth at risk.
How did Jim Caveziel and Matt Dillon get involved in the film?
The script resonated with them and they were fans of some of my previous work. It was a real privilege to be able to work with them and the entire cast.
What is your favorite scene in the film?
I have a few. One of them is when young Jo translates for Doc and add his own spin to the situation. I don’t want to give away something but I think audiences will get a kick out of it.
What do you hope audiences take away from watching the film?
I hope the themes in “Running for Grace” which emphasizes the power of adoption will resonate with audiences. We have been doing benefit red carpet screenings, with our movie celebrating parents who have adopted and we are carrying that theme into the digital release. We have a way for folks to bless families that have adopted by gifting them an HD download of our movie. Please go to www.runningforgracemovie.com to see where we are playing in theaters and how you can receive and give a digital copy.
What is next for you?
I am hoping to dive into an action adventure film next that champions the themes of marriage, family and reconciliation.