After years creating movies for major Hollywood studios, director David L. Cunningham returns to his roots for an indie film set in Hawaii — with faith and family at the center.
This week, a family film that went under the radar for most audiences hits Netflix where millions can enjoy it. Running for Grace tells of a spirited teenager who faces discrimination in Hawaii in the 1920s. Fighting for what matters, he changes the community around him.
The independent movie features significant stars Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ), Matt Dillon (Crash), and up-and-coming actor Ryan Potter (Big Hero 6). Filmed on stunning locations in Hawaii, Running for Grace released last year just as the main island faced massive destruction from the eruption of active volcano Mount Kīlauea.
“We’ve had some drama in the islands lately,” says director David L. Cunningham in an interview. “Some have said the volcanic activity we’ve faced over the last year has been the most dramatic in a couple hundred years. It wiped out hundreds of peoples’ homes, and we personally know four families who lost their homes to the lava flows.”
Cunningham has previously directed To End All Wars starring Kiefer Sutherland and The Seeker from Walden Media/20th Century Fox, among other films. Currently living on Hawaii Island, his latest film hints at a volcanic eruption. “Some thought we were predicting something,” he adds. “But when you make a movie, it takes a couple years so you can never really predict.”
In a phone interview from Kona, Hawaii, Cunningham reveals why he spent two years telling this story, what he hopes audiences gain from it, and how it reflects his legacy of faith.
GRACE THAT DEFIES THE ODDS
You’ve done significant work on-screen in the past, including big-budget films and a major series on 9/11. Why did you decide to make Running for Grace?
David L. Cunningham: A lot of my films have been hard-hitting and gritty. For ABC, I did a reboot of Little House on the Prairie years ago — but, other than that family miniseries, I haven’t done much for families.
I’ve got three kids, and we’ve often wrestled over the remote. I thought: Man, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a film that we all actually wanted to watch? Not one that we had to watch or should watch, but one that we all would enjoy. My girls want to see romantic comedy stuff. My boy wants to watch adventure, and I like going back in history.
That’s really the origins of this film. We hope it’s fun, entertaining and uplifting even as it deals with these themes of the power of adoption, identity, and youth at risk.
Could you share about working with Hollywood stars Matt Dillon and Jim Caviezel? It’s interesting how their characters have some vices one doesn’t often see in family films.
Cunningham: I’ve been a fan of their work for many years. I was privileged that Jim and Matt resonated with this script and had appreciated some of my past films. Each actor has their own process. The quicker you learn what that process is, the more you can serve them.
Jim Caviezel plays this doctor who is meant to be a fun villain character, with a nod and a wink to the audience. We show, during this Prohibition Era story, that he is constantly pulling out the flask. It in no way glorifies it, it’s just accurate to history.
In the 1920s, everybody was smoking. We found this footage of triathletes about to start a bike race. They were all handing around cigarettes just before they started, because they thought it was actually good for you! We thought it was ironic that these doctors were always smoking these cigars. We’re not trying to celebrate any of that, only shows how inane it is.
Everyone in our ensemble was a joy to work with. Ryan Potter who plays our lead is actually in DC Comics’ Titans series as Beast Boy and also the voice of Hiro in Big Hero 6. He has a growing following as an actor, as do others in the cast.
SPEAKING TO CURRENT HEADLINES
As one who has lived in Hawaii for much of your life, how is the island culture reflected in this new film?
Cunningham: Today, Hawaii is the most ethnically diverse state in the United States. It wasn’t always that way. Our movie takes place in the 1920s during segregation — not just in Hawaii, but across the nation. Hawaii was a territory at the time, with a terrible law in place related to what they called “racial integrity.” Children of mixed ethnicity were not legally allowed to be adopted.
Running for Grace introduces a half-Japanese, half-white boy, considered an “illegitimate” orphan. He is rejected by the Japanese immigrant community in the coffee-picking belt on the mountains of Hawaii — and by the white community as well. A doctor played by Matt Dillon comes to town to bring aid to the plantation workers. He takes the boy under his wing as his medicine runner and translator to the Japanese immigrants. They begin a father-son type relationship.
Together, they have to take on society’s obstacles at the time. A romance emerges with the plantation owner’s daughter. It’s a movie made for the whole family but with relevant themes for today: the need for belonging, family, and going after your dreams.
What truths does this film speak to issues of discrimination and racism which still exist today?
Cunningham: This is my eighth movie to direct. Many of my movies take place in another time and place, period dramas you could say. What I enjoy about taking audiences to those places is you show current themes in a new light.
It’s almost like music, where it goes right to your heart and you don’t have to think about it. It’s not a mental process, it just connects with you. You don’t have that obstacle. What we’re trying to show in this movie is a celebration of who God made you.
However you were made, whatever you look like, God made you that way. You need to embrace it yourself, and others need to embrace that as well. No matter where you came from, what you look like, and how different you are, you are good, beautiful and great. God has a dream for you and you need to go after that dream. As you do, God will give you the grace to go through it.
CONTINUING A LEGACY OF FAITH
How is your faith — and the faith community of Youth With A Mission— reflected in the film?
Cunningham: I have this amazing legacy of seven generations of ministers and missionaries on one side of my family and four on the other. My great-grandfather started thirteen churches out of a covered wagon in the territory of Oklahoma. He and his family, including my grandmother, built these churches by hand-forming mud bricks.
Then my great-uncle was a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese in World War II, because he stayed with the congregation of the church he started in China. He sent his pregnant wife home on the last Red Cross ship. He lasted through the entire war that way. And my grandmother was the first woman ordained as a minister in her denomination. They were all real pioneers.
My parents started an organization called Youth With A Mission. I grew up traveling the world, visiting missionaries. I’ve seen a lot of amazing people doing amazing things in a hurting and broken world. Those cross-cultural experiences and seeing all the stories that are out there influenced me a lot in my own worldview.
I’ve basically continued the family business but with a different pulpit. My heart calling is really to be an influence in popular culture and be a part of that conversation, and help shape it. That’s my heart and passion.
Available now on DVD and for rental on-demand, Running for Grace releases June 19 on Netflix.
Photo Courtesy: Honua Studios/Blue Fox Entertainment
Video Courtesy: Blue Fox Entertainment