Debuting today on DVD, the TV movie Amish Grace broke multiple network records when it premiered this spring as the most-watched and highest-rated original movie in Lifetime Movie Network history. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same title about the aftermath of the 2006 Amish school shooting in Lancaster, Pa., the film was produced by the Larry Thompson Organization, founded by Larry A. Thompson, an executive producer on the film.
Thompson lives in Hollywood, but as soon as he opens his mouth you know he’s not from around there. He gets three syllables out of the word “forgive” (fa-gee-uv, as he says it), betraying his Mississippi roots. Thompson is a cradle Catholic and has recently reconnected with his faith — a change he credits to two things. One is his family, which includes two children, a girl of 8 and a boy of 5. The other was making Amish Grace. Thompson spoke to me via phone recently about the film and what it means to him.
Congratulations on the success of Amish Grace.
Thank you so much. It was a painful joy to make. I’m so touched by the reaction that people have had to it. It’s a movie with a very powerful inspirational message that you don’t see a lot on television. ... We drew a crowd that shocked Hollywood, and it became the most-watched and highest-rated movie in the history of the network.
What do you think it was about this story that connected with audiences?
I think the power of the ability to forgive is a subject that is so difficult, not only to grasp but to live, that to see it unfold through these Amish people — who were able so immediately and absolutely to forgive the most heinous of acts — is startling. It’s funny how you can be driving your car and somebody cuts you off, and immediately you get so mad — you wanna kill ’em! But to say in the Lord’s Prayer every day, as I’ve been doing since I was an altar boy, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive ...” I think we say the words, we know what it means, but we’re never tested to that degree. Watching these people do this makes us think, Gosh, could I do that? Does God expect me to be able to do that? How did they do that?
In our post-Christian culture, I think people often have a reflexive respect for the idea of forgiveness, but often stumble when it comes to the reality of forgiving someone — as in this movie — who has done something heinous and hasn’t expressed remorse or repentance. People even ask themselves what such forgiveness means, or even whether it’s moral to forgive under those circumstances.
I must admit that I myself, Steven, didn’t understand forgiveness. ... When God asks us to forgive, he’s not asking us to forget that someone did something bad to you. He doesn’t even ask that we necessarily reconcile with them and make them our best friend. But you have to forgive them and let God deal with them ... let it go. If we harbor it, keep that inside us, it’ll eat us alive. I read once that the inability to forgive is like drinking poison every day and believing that it’s killing the other person. We live in such an egocentric world: We have prided and put ourselves above everything, and when we’re offended or someone takes advantage of us, we have this feeling of revenge and getting even. Forgiveness is difficult to understand and difficult to practice. But God wants us to forgive because it’s his way of helping us. And I hope the movie touches on those themes without being preachy.
Your film is a fictionalized story based on a nonfiction book about actual events.
What’s great about the book and this story is that it isn’t about the tragedy. It isn’t about the shooting as much as the aftermath of the shooting and how the forgiveness offered by the Amish community transcended the tragedy. In our movie we wanted to tell a story, as accurately as we could, about the message of forgiveness transcending tragedy. We researched the Amish — their customs, their belief system, their dress, everything we could.
We used the true events, certain real people, certain characters who were composites of real people, and certain fictional characters so that through their eyes we could tell a story that we could understand as non-Amish people. I mean, as a non-Amish, if this happened to you, could you really forgive? And if you couldn’t, how did these people do it? So the story, through this combination of fictional, composite and real people, takes us through an emotional and spiritual journey so that we understand what happened and how we can relate it to our lives.
How do you research the Amish?
The first writer that we hired we sent to Lancaster, Pa. She was there for a little over a week and a half and interviewed as many Amish and non-Amish residents as she could. She got to know the people there, asked a lot of questions. We also hired a person in Lancaster who was one of the grief counselors who offered comfort to the real people [whose story the movie is based on].
We tried not to be invasive of their lives and community because, as you know, they shun any type of attention. And, of course, we also researched the Amish in books and photos and things like that.
Did any of the cast have any firsthand exposure to the Amish?
Kimberly [Williams-Paisley, who stars as one of the bereaved mothers] went to an Amish Mennonite community near her home in Nashville and spent like a day and a half talking to various people. Other than her, none of the actors, to my knowledge, spent time with Amish.
Did you have any concerns about the subject matter?
It was a very difficult development process. The idea of a child, let alone multiple children, being killed is certainly not a subject that would entice people to say, “Oh, let’s go watch that movie!” We kept in mind that the story wasn’t about the tragedy but about the forgiveness that followed. If you’ve seen the movie, we tell this story of the horrific tragedy of the shooting without one gunshot being heard, without one drop of blood being shown. So we tell about a mass murder in a way in which you never actually see it.
I’ll tell you my favorite scene in the film.
My favorite scene comes toward the end … [Spoiler warning]My favorite scene comes toward the end, as one of the young girls who survived tells the main character about her daughter’s last moments. The scene is powerful not only because of how bravely the young girl faced death, but because her willingness to forgive her own killer was such a transformative moment for the mother, who had felt that forgiving the killer would be betraying her daughter. In the end, her daughter’s forgiveness persuades her that not forgiving the killer whom her daughter forgave would be the real betrayal of her daughter.
That’s certainly one of my favorite scenes. I also love the scene in which the Amish come over the hill to appear at the grave site of the killer [at his burial], which is a cinematic, visual depiction of forgiveness.
And there’s certain scenes where the main character is talking to her husband and says, “God has shattered my heart.” And Matt Letscher, the husband, explaining what forgiveness is about is very powerful too. Even though he doesn’t understand forgiveness, he does clearly understand that God expects it of us.
You mentioned being an altar boy. Can you talk more about your faith?
I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school in Mississippi, St. Elizabeth Catholic School. I still am Catholic. I waited late in life to have a family, but I have an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy, and they’re at St. Paul the Apostle here in Los Angeles. My little girl made her first holy Communion last year in the second grade. My son started kindergarten yesterday at St. Paul. Having these young children in Catholic school ... it’s sort of allowed me to see God in my religion through the eyes of my children, and maybe even opened me up to discover Amish Grace as a story that in this time in my life as a producer that I wanted to tell.
This movie had a life of its own. In the making of it, somewhere along the way, it wasn’t me making it any more. It was a bigger force. Maybe in a strange way the story of forgiveness is something I had to learn. And if it motivates other people to think about it, that’s wonderful.
Do I forgive the 9/11 terrorists? It’s a question I can’t remember asking myself before this week after screening the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, the film is based on the real-life Amish school shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.