Faith-based films are usually told from the perspective of those who are already believers, but filmmaker Matt Chastain thought it'd be interesting to show what goes on in church culture through the eyes of a skeptic who joins a small group.
Known for being both in front of and behind the camera, Chastain has produced hundreds of TV commercials and promotional videos in his 15-year career in marketing and advertising. Now, because of "Small Group," he adds filmmaker to his extensive resume.
According to the movie's description, "R. Scott Cooper is hired to make a film about the dwindling influence of Christianity. But to his surprise, the producer asks Scott to secretly infiltrate a small group and make a cheap hit piece. Already having moved his family to Athens, Georgia, he's forced to move forward but discovers much more than he set out to do."
Below is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with Christian where he shares the heart behind the making of "Small Group."
CP: What inspired you to write "Small Group"?
Chastain: In 2014, my wife and I had joined a small group at our church. We both grew up in small-town Baptist churches so we were a little late to the small group party. But better to be rookies in your mid-30s than never at all, right?
The whole experience just felt so much more real and genuine and interactive than other church experiences I'd had. It was early on, maybe in the second meeting, when I was kind of given the idea: this is a story that needs to be told! Somebody ought a make a movie called 'Small Group'! Being too dumb to know what an undertaking it would actually be to do it right, I decided to write a screenplay and make a movie!
CP: Can you share with us your own experience with a small group and how it impacted your life?
Chastain: We can't truly and fully present ourselves to God until we can come humbled, focused on Him and His desire for us rather than toxified by our own self-centered crap. When we're committed to experiencing real life with a group of believers, it keeps us focused, accountable and humble.
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In "Small Group," the character Cori is explaining the concept of grace to Coop and she says that "pure and true grace, it flows from God, through me, to others." I've experienced that flow of grace through some of the most wonderful folks I know and I hope they've felt it flowing through me as well.
CP: The film is told from the perspective of skeptics and nonbelievers, and it provided a different prospective from what we're used to seeing in faith-based films. Did you find that it freed you to be more honest in your storytelling?
Chastain: Yeah, it was very important for me to have the protagonist of the story be a nonbeliever for several reasons. First, the conflict of his infiltration just provides great story tension. But I also wanted us, as Christians, to be able to take a good, objective look at ourselves through the eyes of an outsider.
It can be uncomfortable and challenging, especially as we play with stereotypes, but I still can't find the passage in Scripture where it says we're supposed to live easy, unchallenged lives. Plus, stereotypes are funny.
CP: I enjoyed how the Christians in the film were portrayed as normal people who love Jesus and not hyper-religious, what was your heart behind showing that?
Chastain: My heart for storytelling in this film was — from writing through production — being as true to real life as possible. In real life, I find most Christians to be normal people, not hyper-religious. That real-life execution of a Gospel-driven life is what excited me about being in a small group, so I couldn't be an honest filmmaker if I did it any other way.
CP: In the film you included a mission trip to a country in Latin America that was pretty intense. What are you hoping viewers take away from that scene?
Chastain: The group's trip to Guatemala is one of most viewers' favorite sequences in the film — mine too!
Certainly having the privilege of shooting for a week in one of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods in Central America was one of my life's greatest blessings. Speaking of hyper-religious, it's almost 12:30 a.m. and for some reason I'm typing in Christianese like it's my native tongue, so let me rephrase: shooting in Guatemala was freakin' awesome.
I wrote it into the screenplay because I needed our protagonist to be able to see Jesus living through people in an environment not tainted by abundance. Some of my most meaningful periods of spiritual growth have come on short mission trips I've been on. I was blessed (see, here I go again), to have a connection with Engadi Ministries, an actual mission on which the mission in the film is directly based and they were ecstatic to have someone come and tell the story of the realities of their world.
CP: "Small Group" also shows how the mainstream media can take things out of context and destroy the credibility of the Church. What advice do you have for those who are skeptical of the Church because of what they see in media and online?
Chastain: One of the first questions my development producer had about my screenplay was: "Who is the audience for your theme?"
I told him that there are two.
He warned me against attempting to have two opposing groups who as the primary recipients of the theme or moral of the story. But look no further than the parable of the prodigal son for the perfect example.
I learned from Tim Keller in a small group study series that that parable isn't just about the little brother's sins of the flesh. It's also for big brothers of the world to learn to show grace, and the same is true for "Small Group" the movie. I'm not just asking skeptics to give us an objective chance and get to know us in person, but I'm also advising my fellow Christians to try and take a look at ourselves through the skeptic's perspective to better understand his or her point of view.
CP: What are you hoping people take away from "Small Group"?
Chastain: We've screened "Small Group" for many audiences and their takeaways tend to be pretty dang consistent. They walk out of the theater saying that they laughed and they cried and their group was energized. It makes people who aren't involved in group ministry want to be. And hopefully, it shows that people from different perspectives can learn a lot and live far more peaceful lives by offering each other grace rather than feeding on anger. The world desperately needs more of that, in my opinion.
"Small Group" will have a limited release on Oct. 19 but is available in theaters nationwide via Theatrical on Demand. To request the movie be shown in a theater near you, visit Small Group Movie.com to search for a theater and then select "Gather a Screening" and the makers of "Small Group" will bring the movie to your local theater.
For more information, visit the movie's website.