A week before the release of his latest film “Come Sunday,” director Joshua Marston accompanied the film’s subject, Carlton Pearson, the Bishop of All Souls Unitarian Church, to a hometown screening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the local multiplex, the Circle Cinema, had to open four of its theaters to accommodate the crowd.
“It played simultaneously to completely packed rooms, many of which were filled with former congregants and people were visibly moved and really happy to see Carlton’s story told,” says Marston, with a slight sense of relief since the last time he had been in Tulsa was two years prior, doing the kind of scrupulous research on Pearson that gave previous films “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Forgiveness of Blood” such unshakable authenticity.
The large audience wasn’t unusual for Pearson, a fiery preacher known for flashing a sharp wit as much as a vivid recall for the perfect Bible verse for any given occasion, but for as well as the film played, the triumph might’ve been offscreen rather than on since it brought together a community that had been divided since the Bishop’s declaration that there isn’t a hell. Once presiding over a regular flock of 5000 at the Higher Dimensions Family Church, Pearson saw his status as a favored disciple of Oral Roberts diminished in relaying that God told him that eternal damnation didn’t exist, leading many parishioners to flee as they grappled with the notion that there was no punishment for a life of sin. Pearson’s change of heart grabbed national attention, making for a particularly memorable episode of “This American Life” in 2005 entitled “Heretics.”
The Ira Glass show segment has given way to an equally engaging film in “Come Sunday.” Told with the sensitivity and provocation that one has come to expect from Marston, you see not only the toll that it takes on Pearson to stick by his convictions as they threaten the sanctity of his church, but how it ripples through the community, touching the lives of those holds dear, whether it’s Henry (Jason Segel), his partner in the church, his organist Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), or his wife Gina (Condola Rashad), who grapple with their own faith as they reconsider their relationships to Pearson. No matter whether Pearson is to be believed or not, one can understand the difficult question in front of them given how persuasive Chiwetel Ejiofor is as the Bishop, disarmingly charming and open to confrontation that he believes will serve the greater good and in following him, Marston, working from a meticulous script by Marcus Hinchey, opens up a story that is equally provocative about the power of belief and the capacity to evolve.
An answer to the prayers of audiences looking for thoughtful dramas to see, “Come Sunday” has arrived on Netflix following its debut earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and Marston recently took the time to talk about how he was drawn to Pearson’s story, working on a feature he had not originated himself for the first time and enjoying a tour with the film that’s peppered with as many theological questions as about what type of camera equipment he used.
How did this come about?
I had heard the “This American Life” episode and then years later, they called me up and said, “We have a screenplay based on that episode. Do you want to read it?” I read it, I went back and relistened to the radio story and just found Carlton [to be] a very compelling person on which to base a movie. He’s dynamic, he’s charismatic, he’s larger than life. He is bold and very strong in his beliefs, even when he’s going through a crisis of belief. And I thought the intellectual questions he’s raising are fascinating – what does it mean if there’s no hell? What does it mean if we’re not eternally judged for our actions? That’s an interesting and important question, but more than anything I think it’s a story that’s important to tell now as people become further and further entrenched in their beliefs. The country becomes more and more divided, so to tell a story about someone who had the courage and bravery to examine what he believed and why and change what he believed is a really important thing to hold up right now. It’s courageous to not simply believe what you believe because you’ve taken [something] on blind faith because someone else tells you that’s actually what you should believe, but to ask really hard questions and see where you come out.
This is your first feature you haven’t written from the ground up – was that a different experience for you?
Yeah, it was. There was all the research that had gone into the radio show and then there was all the research that the screenwriter [Marcus Hinchey] did for the first few drafts of the screenplay [and] I spent probably a year working with [him]. Once I became involved, I spent a lot of time with Carlton interviewing people and on the one hand, it was liberating because someone else had provided me the framework and the structure. On the other hand, it still afforded me the ability to go back and to dig deeper and revise certain scenes and to flesh them out emotionally.
There’s a great clip online of an All Souls service where you and Chiwetel had gone to Oklahoma for a weekend to spend time with Carlton and his congregation – what was that weekend like? It’s inferred that he was going to take you to meet not only his supporters, but detractors as well.
That was amazing. It’s a testament to Carlton’s courage and to how much even people who still disagree with him love him that he was able to invite them and they were willing to come to his house and sit with me and with Chiwetel and talk about what the experience was like. For example, I remember very clearly, one of the couples that was most impressive to me was a man and woman who had been with Carlton from the ground up, when his church was first founded. Listening to the story of the creation of Higher Dimensions, it was like listening to the story of a Silicon Valley startup. It was so exciting. But then it led to this moment where Carlton started changing what he was preaching and the wife said immediately she felt the holy ghost stir in her and she couldn’t abide by what he was preaching and she had to leave [the church]. They had five sons and four of her sons went with her to another church, but her husband insisted on continuing to go to Carlton’s church and the fifth son went with him.
The husband and wife were sitting side by side telling me this story, with one of their sons right there, and she was describing how much turmoil it put her in to worry that her son was going to come home and say, “Well, I can go out on Saturday night and do whatever I want, right? Because there’s no hell, God doesn’t judge me. I’m not going to pay any price. I don’t need to go to church.” That was really terrifying to her and it was really moving to hear this story and to understand how it pulled apart the fabric of this one family. It was impressive to me that Carlton was able to bring them into his home to tell that story to me, and really important for me that Carlton was able to take us on that guided tour and bring detractors into his house. He gave me the phone numbers of the two white pastors who are the basis for Jason Segel’s character [Henry] and they got on the phone [to] have a long conversation with me and then had a long conversation with Jason Segel to help him prepare for the role.
The film is careful to extend that consideration into the film – was it a challenge not to side with any of the characters too heavily?
It was something that we thought about a lot. From the get go, it was important that the Jason Segel side of the story, the Pentecostal fundamentalist, the born again side of the issue, not be reduced or vilified or turned into a simple antagonist – that all of the characters are thoughtful and feelingful people who believe what they believe. They’re not evil or simple-minded. It’s still Carlton Pearson’s story — it begins and ends with him, and to the extent we’re telling his story, we’re allowing you inside of his head and inside his experience, so we are humanizing him, which someone on the other side of the debate might see as not objective or skewed towards one side of the debate. It’s not an objective movie [in the sense there’s a central protagonist], but we’re never trying to celebrate or propagandize or promote what he believes and I think it’s still a story that is fair to all of the characters involved, so I hope it’s accessible and interesting and entertaining regardless of where they fall on the religious spectrum.
What sold you on Chiwetel to play Carlton?
He’s a tremendous actor and he has a great facility for inhabiting a range of characters. He’s just a very thoughtful actor, so he wanted to do a lot of reading. He wanted to spend a lot of time with Carlton, learning who Carlton is and then he wanted to not be around Carlton when it came time to shoot, so he could make the character his own and I think he did that quite well.
For the opening sermon in the film, it feels like you might’ve run through an entire Sunday service, complete with breaks for the choir. Was that actually the case?
We definitely ran the whole thing, but it wasn’t like there was a whole bunch of before and after where Chiwetel was improvising a sermon. As far as the congregants and the reaction, it seemed like on almost every take once he got to singing the song, people were very moved, so they responded and we just filmed that response. And we made sure that there was a certain contingent of the extras who were actually Pentecostal and responded in the way that they’d respond as if they were in an actual Pentecostal service, so I wasn’t directing them as to how to get to their feet or how to be moved by the Holy Spirit.
Did you draw on non-professionals for other parts of the film?
This film didn’t have many non-actors, if at all. I can think of one role that has one or two lines of dialogue that wasn’t a trained actor, a guy who was in what we refer to as the heresy trial scene [towards the end of the film], the guy sitting next to the Ellis character who tries to break in a couple times. He was a professor at Morehouse and a preacher whom I had met while I was doing research in Atlanta, and he and two other professors at Morehouse agreed to have a roundtable with Carlton and the actors and me to discuss the theology underneath the story. I loved meeting him so much I actually asked him to come in and audition, so he plays that very, very small role. Otherwise, this movie is entirely trained actors, but my next movie may be more. I could go back and forth. It’s always going to be a mix.
Was there a particularly tricky day of shooting on this?
The church scenes were the most tricky, simply because some of those scenes are lengthy scenes with a lot of characters and a lot of extras and it’s just a lot to cover. Those are very challenging on a logistical level, but on an emotional level, there were a couple scenes that were very emotionally taxing for the actors, where the characters are coming to tears, and you’re asking the actor to do it again and again, you have to be very respectful and mindful to get it and move on.
It seems like the scene with Danny Glover as Carlton’s uncle in prison might’ve been one of those. What was that scene like to shoot?
What’s remarkable working with Danny Glover is how little as a director you have to do. He’s very available emotionally and very available to direction, so I just had to give subtle adjustments. He just is the character in front of the camera. When we got finished shooting that scene, I was driving home with the cinematographer and he commented when we turned around and filmed Danny’s side of the scene, it seemed like Danny lit himself – that the cinematographer didn’t have to struggle to figure out where to place the lights. I said, that has nothing to do with the visuals of Danny. That has to do with his performance. He feels so natural that you feel like you don’t have to do anything.
You recently took the film to Tulsa with Carlton in attendance. What was that like?
That was amazing. There were questions in the Q & A I wouldn’t have predicted. The first woman raised her hand and said, “Can you tell me the difference between the Holy Spirit and God?” I don’t know how to answer that question. [laughs] That’s not usually a question you get in a Q & A. Carlton answered it in a way that I don’t think no one else would answer it, [which was] it’s like the same thing — the difference between God, the son and the holy spirit is like the difference between ice water and mist. And the Q & A ended with a woman with a thick German accent saying, “I’m from Germany, so I want to ask you, if Hitler’s not in hell, where is he? What happens to Hitler in your scenario?” And that’s a really difficult question, but the kind of difficult question I feel that the movie provokes. Just because I’m not able to answer it — and Carlton’s able to answer it, but you can’t shy away from the question just because it’s difficult. I’m happy if the movie provokes those questions and that conversation.