Abigail Disney was speaking to a group of women in Northern Mexico when her mind started to drift up north to her native United States. The granddaughter of Roy Disney, the prolific producer has made a name for herself as one of the leading producers of issue-oriented documentaries, arguably the person for whom the term “filmanthropist” was christened after backing such filmmakers as Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War” and “The Hunting Ground”) and Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (“Hot Girls Wanted” and “Sexy Baby”) in projects that transcend the medium to push audiences to find solutions to societal ills. But when her work on the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” about a group of women who brought about peace in Liberia, led someone to ask about the connection between violence and women at a conference, it was Disney who was left searching for answers.
“How is it possible that I’m this American woman and I’ve got anything to say about this when I know there are a quarter of a million weapons making there way into this area from Texas and Arizona alone?” Disney recalls thinking. “I’ve never lifted a finger to stop that. How dare I have this conversation with anyone if I don’t go home and try to address that.”
You could call it a “Come to Jesus” moment for Disney, more so than she would ever anticipate. For the first time, Disney takes to the director’s chair for “Armor of Light,” a film that finds an unexpected way into the debate over gun control through the story of Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who rose to prominence by leading demonstrations outside of abortion clinics and has become a powerful figure in Washington at the intersection of church and state as the founder of the Washington D.C.-based political action group Faith and Action. Yet Disney profiles Schenck at a particularly intriguing moment as he finds himself unable to ignore the growing number of gun-related deaths in America and as mass shootings become commonplace, he realizes his pro-life position needs to be consistent, advocating for stricter gun control laws that suddenly puts him at odds with his conservative base.
“The Armor of Light” doesn’t only follow Schenck, a fascinating figure apart from his current crisis of faith as a man who became an evangelical Christian after being born into a Jewish family, but Lucy McBath, the mother of the late Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old teen in Jacksonville, Florida who was shot and killed by someone who felt entitled to do so by the state’s Stand Your Ground law over nothing more than loud music. Now, McBath finds herself crossing paths with Schenck as the two reconcile their beliefs with the current political reality, uncovering connections between guns and religion that can be alternately revelatory and disturbing that Disney and co-director Kathleen Hughes capture in all its complexity.
Shortly before the film hits theaters following a much-talked about debut earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Disney and Schenck were in Los Angeles to talk about how these unlikely allies came to collaborate with each other, Disney’s move from producing to the director’s chair and what they learned about themselves while making the film.
How did this come about?
Rev. Rob Schenck: [points at Disney, with an accusatory smile] She initiated it.
Abigail Disney: I started it because I know from life experience that while you may disagree politically with people it’s not because they’re bad people. I knew there had to be people working from a place of conscience on the other side of the abortion issue from me and I figured if what was driving them was a respect for the absolute sanctity of human life, then surely there was room to have the dialogue about the role of guns in our culture. I went looking for somebody who would just have a conversation with me about it and when Rob and I met, it very quickly led into this starting.
Rev. Schenck, you get the feeling you’re really only dipping his toe into the water on this issue at the start of the film, so was it really that easy?
Rev. Rob Schenck: No, it was not an easy decision. Abby proposed it at a dinner meeting and [the idea to film] was fraught with problems, potential risks, and anxiety for me. It took me how long…?
Abigail Disney: Five or six weeks.
Rev. Rob Schenck: It felt a lot longer because I had spent 30 years building an organization with thousands of financial supporters all over the country. Every time we polled them, unfettered Second Amendment gun rights scored way at the top. Ninety-five percent of our people basically supported the position of the NRA in every way on firearms. Because of the tension within my own universe of supporters, from long-term friendships to financial backers, I knew this could put the whole organization in jeopardy.
What I had done up until then was compartmentalize this [issue]. I had simmering concerns about it, but I put them aside in deference to other issues. The more I watched the episodes of mass shootings, I had to question my own position on it, let alone everybody around me, so it took me a while. There’s a Bible verse that says, “There’s safety in the multitude of counselors,” so I went to people whose opinions I trusted and a number of them said, “If this is truly your personal conviction then you should pursue it.” That’s when I finally told Abby, “I’m in.”
There’s actually a moment in the film where you look taken aback, as I was as a viewer, when Lucy McBath repositions guns in terms of religion in a way that I’d never heard before by saying, “Guns have replaced God as the protector.” Was that actually a revelatory moment?
Rev. Rob Schenck: We have a phrase in Evangelical parlance that we call Confirmation, [which is] when someone says or does something that confirms a truth you haven’t really accepted or that you feel is somehow a leading of God in your life. When she said that, it really touched something very deep inside of me because I had been wrestling with the question of how Christians engage in idolatry by worshiping something other than God, or, by giving ultimate authority to something that is penultimate — something secondary that suddenly takes first position. I’d even written a doctoral dissertation on political idolatry. When she said, “It’s almost as if the gun replaces God,” the idolatry of this fascination with killing instruments, particularly with handguns or semi-automatic weapons, just sealed it for me. That scene in the garden — and interestingly enough, there was another garden scene in the Bible story in the Gospels — really was the moment when I finally fully embraced this journey and challenge, so Lucy played a decisive role for me.
Abigail Disney: Did I ever tell you of the title I toyed with was “Gethsemane” because of the Olive Garden?
Rev. Rob Schenck: You never told me that! Well, let’s go back and retitle it.
It’s hard to imagine the film being called anything but “Armor of Light,” not only because of a sermon that’s given in the film, but also because the way light is captured in the film, whether it’s how a particularly difficult conversation with fellow reverends at a restaurant is shrouded in darkness or the garden scene you mention with Lucy is filled with daylight. Was that actually intentional?
Abigail Disney: I just had a brilliant cinematographer [Jeff Hutchens] who made incredible choices. We were lucky with the blown-out shot in the restaurant — [the cinematographer] was not thinking thematically when he did it, it was just a beautiful shot and there were only two cameras in that scene. He’s amazing. But for the rest of it, we did start really consciously playing with light, before we were ever thinking about a title because obviously light is such an important concept in this whole scenario. We also go to white between sequences, which the first time my editor did it, I was like, “Oh my god, let’s just keep doing that.”
How did Lucy become the parallel story to Rev. Schenck?
Abigail Disney: I was raised in a conservative home and I do what I do because of the values I was taught — I understand conservative values and I don’t recognize them now, so I went looking for [Lucy’s] attorney, a lifetime gun-owning white boy from Birmingham, Alabama who was radicalized by what he witnessed being an advocate for Jordan’s family. In talking to John, we talked to Lucy and we just wanted to hear more and more [from her]. She was speaking this extraordinary language that Rob calls testimony — it was very compelling and impossible to ignore. These two parts of the film were converging and it seemed really important to let them converge and see what happens.
Up until that point, would you just follow Rev. Schenck in his travels?
Abigail Disney: He was constantly changing his mind and throwing things at us at the last minute. We were fast on our feet to follow what he was doing, and there was a lot that we shot that never made it into the film. There were also external moments [that affected filming]. There was a suicide by a son of a very high-profile minister that actually Rob and I both know. Then there was a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and then again in Isla Vista, so all those things also informed Rob’s thinking, so we just followed.
Rev. Rob Schenck: My antenna was up. Maybe a shooting 2600 miles away from me in Isla Vista, California, would not have really been anything more than just a news item [before], but it was suddenly very relevant to my life and my ministry practice. I was responding to those things in a different way. My sensitivity and even my understanding of them and the gravity of the consequences to each one was enormously increased by simply being on this project. It definitely fast forwarded me and I’m grateful for it.
Near the end of the film, Rev. Schenck says that this journey has been like gaining sobriety, which alludes to your position on gun control, but seems like it could apply to the entire process of seeing your life in full as this film presents. Did it offer some kind of clarity on everything?
Rev. Rob Schenck: It did, [almost] like an AA meeting, where you’re required to disclose and it certainly put me in a position where I had to say what I was thinking or pursue it. There were times when I had cold feet and I seriously considered withdrawing from the project. Most of that was out of my own fear — trepidation about what was coming around the corner — but also because I’m making myself very vulnerable in the film. I’d been through my own experience with therapy and I’m married to a psychotherapist, so I’ve seen how positive being authentic with your feelings and expressing yourself can be to enrich your own life and relationships.
Prior to the film, I had it set up where I could live almost two parallel lives — my inner life and my public life — and in some ways, they were in conflict with each other. That’s not good. You need to integrate yourself so that you can be whole and this [film] helped me to be authentic and whole. It was personally enriching as much as I hope it is for the people who have started the journey with me.
Abigail, did you actually pick things up from others during your years as a producer that you could apply to this?
Abigail Disney: My family, first of all. My dad [Roy] was somebody who liked to talked about the nature of story — why it mattered and how you construct one — so that was something that got talked about at the dinner table and I [went on to] get a PhD in English Literature, so I pay a lot of attention to it. In fact, I’ve been going back to the Bible again and when I was reading Matthew recently, I’m amazed by that the apostles say that Jesus is, “Why do you keep speaking in parables?” Because that’s what people understand. Stories count a lot in people’s hearts.
[As far as documentaries,] Gini Reticker, my partner in “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” taught me everything I know. She’s a brilliant filmmaker and a really amazing, generous partner. I stood over her shoulder and watched her work and we were basically arm in arm through the edit. [On this film], I had a producer [Kathleen Hughes] who I gave a co-director credit to because she went so far past producing and I wanted to give the editor [Andrew Fredericks] a co-director credit too because it was really the three of us who slugged out this incredibly difficult narrative arc. We edited for a full year and we kept each other honest. When one of us wanted to undermine a character, the other two would keep us on the straight and narrow. It’s the cliché to say [film is] a collaborative medium, but it can’t be done except in concert with other people, which is why I love it.
Since you say you’ve started going back to the Bible, did this film actually reconnect you with your faith?
Abigail Disney: I was raised very conservative and very, very, observant Catholic and it did very much to shape me, but I left that behind when I left for college. As a feminist, I couldn’t quite find my way back even though I tried along the way, here and there. I really respect people of faith and dislike hearing them disrespected and dismissed. It makes me angry, so [this experience] did reconnect me with my faith and weirdly, I’ve gone back to church — not a Catholic church, but a liberal, lefty, hilarious church with gay people, Buddhists and everybody else. I’m thrilled to pieces by that. I’m actually waking up on Sunday morning saying, “Oh, what a nice day, I get to go to church.” If you’d asked me at 19 that I was going to feel that way, I would have told you you’re nuts.
Since both of you come at political activism from unconventional places, was that actually a point of connection?
Rev. Rob Schenck: One thing that Abby did very early on — it may have been at that first conversation — was say to me, “Can we agree to inhabit the space that we have in common and leave the other things aside?” That was such a generous thing to say to me. She kept to that commitment as I hope I did, and that becomes a model for much more than work on this question. There are a whole lot of other places where people from opposite camps can find common cause and agreement. There’s so much conflict, so much tension, so much opposition and it’s not healthy, certainly not for a society, so I think that could be very salutary to our whole plight in our culture beyond this issue, although this one is certainly worthy of singular attention for the moment.
Abigail Disney: When you make a choice to inhabit your shared spaces, those are the spaces above politics.
What’s it been like to take this film out on the road?
Abigail Disney: Pretty gratifying, right?
Rev. Rob Schenck: Very. Because it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve started to hear some criticism very recently, and that never feels good, but it’s so easy to get fixated on the negative when the overwhelming number of people are responding very positively and in some cases surprisingly so.
Abigail Disney: There’s been nothing more amazing than taking on a film that isn’t like other films and it’s your own idea, and sticking to that in spite of all the doubts. Believe me, I didn’t sleep much, but when the film finally arrives and people get what you are trying to say, that is better than heroin. It feels good.
Rev. Rob Schenck: [laughs] Definitely better than heroin.