The Parable of Amish Grace: An Interview with Larry Thompson

Producer Larry Thompson is a dynamic movie producer, lawyer, motivational speaker, author and personal manager for over 200 movie stars.  He is also a lifelong Catholic and former altar boy who enrolled his two children in a Catholic school.

Mr. Thompson’s most recent project is a movie called Amish Grace, which aired on Lifetime Television last Palm Sunday.  The movie is a partly fictionalized dramatization of the Amish school shooting incident in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006.

I had an opportunity to interview Larry Thompson after screening the DVD version of Amish Grace, which will be available on September 14th.

Peggy Bowes: This movie is very different from others you’ve produced.  You’ve stated that you were drawn to this project by the words of the “Our Father.”  What did you hope to accomplish through Amish Grace?

Larry Thompson: Well since I’ve been an altar boy, I’ve been saying the Our Father:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” I’ve said it so long that I don’t know if I ever knew what it meant.  I heard about this story and started understanding that these Amish people had the ability to immediately and absolutely offer forgiveness to someone who had done such a heinous act.  I was good at “talking the talk” in my prayers, but these people actually “walked the walk.”   They showed me how deep you have to be in touch with God to understand that He requires us to offer that level of forgiveness.  I wanted to make a movie about what these people did and why they did it and why they believe it should be done.  On the other hand, I’m not asking everybody to watch the movie and say that this is what you have to do — it’s not about being preachy.  I’m saying, “That’s what these people did, and if that makes you think, then that’s great.”

Peggy: In the movie, you contrast the Amish practice of “shunning” with their forgiveness of a murderer.  What are your thoughts on this disparity in their culture?

Larry: It’s interesting that you ask that question because in the movie, it’s true —we do have the lead character who says, “Well you want us to forgive a murderer for killing our children, but we’re going to shun a woman whose husband died, and she was looking for love outside the Amish community.”  It seems like that’s a major contradiction.  From the Amish point of view, it’s not a contradiction because when you breach the rules, they shun you in hopes of having you come back to the fold.  They’re not punishing these people.  In their mind, that’s a way to encourage people to come back.

Peggy: Amish Grace broke all Lifetime Television viewer records when it aired on Palm Sunday.  Do you think there is a need for more movies with an overt Christian theme?

Larry: Yes, and I’m trying in my own little way to get more of these movies made.  I will tell you this:  It’s very hard, in Hollywood, to sell a faith-based movie.  It’s just hard!  Without going into all the reasons why, it’s an obligation I feel to try to do my best to get as many of them made as I can, within reason.  It’s a wonderful way to reach people with a movie — to put a message out.  Jesus told stories in parables.  It’s very effective to relay a message in a story, and that’s what filmmaking is really about.  It’s a parable.  It’s a story, and people watch it and learn from it and hopefully are touched and inspired by it.

Peggy: Speaking of faith and Hollywood, as a Catholic and former altar boy, what is the biggest obstacle to your personal faith in Hollywood?

Larry: You know, we’re all tempted every day, everywhere, no matter where you live.  I think it’s very difficult in Hollywood not to get caught up in your own self-importance or your need to have your ego fed.  You’re competing so hard with some very strong competitors to see or sell your movie versus their movie.  It’s tough not to be absorbed by the material world that you’re living in, unlike the Amish, who are smart enough to say, “Hey, why don’t we just stay away from all the nonsense and the noise and focus on a simple life and being more spiritually connected to God on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis.”  It’s easier, because the distractions in your life take you away from your true course.

I’m not saying that everyone should be Amish — or that everyone should come to Hollywood — but maybe somewhere in between the Amish communities and the Hollywood communities, we can find a balance.  It’s difficult.  The more distractions and temptations you have, the tougher it is.  It’s about a balance.

Peggy: There’s been some criticism about the fictional aspects of this movie.  Why change a story that’s already compelling?

Larry: Well, the Amish are very private people.  This is not a story that they chose or wanted to tell.  Therefore, we couldn’t just go to the Amish and interview them and put them on camera.  We had to tell the story without their direct permission.  Instead of telling you a story, we had to reveal it in an emotional way by creating characters.  Some were true and real, some were composites of several characters, and some were fictional, to take us through the journey.  We had to go through a journey of understanding.  The viewers, not being Amish, would react to a shooting of a child in a way that they think is normal.  Then we have to take you through the Amish belief system to come out on the other end.  I do think we told a story that is absolutely true to the message of the [factual] story.  We didn’t set out to do a documentary of what happened.  We set out to do a dramatic re-enactment of the story so that the message comes through.  The movie’s about the message, not about the people.  It’s about forgiveness.

Peggy: What did this film teach you personally about your faith?

Larry: I have an eight year-old daughter and a five year-old son who go to Catholic school.  I’ve gotten involved with First Holy Communion for my daughter.  Seeing my own religion through the eyes of my children has brought me in closer contact with God.  I think that having these two young children attracted me to Amish Grace and led me to fight so hard to get the rights [to the book by the same name] and get it made.  I have found that in my 40-year career, I can look back over the 23 movies I’ve made and know what was going on in my life at the time.  I can actually draw a parallel that subconsciously, on a creative level, whatever was going in on my life attracted me to material that was telling or teaching me something.

I think that maybe my children and this movie, Amish Grace, and the forgiveness theme was teaching me something that I needed to learn.  It’s funny that when you’re telling a story or teaching a subject, you’re learning more yourself than the people who are listening to you.  Maybe it was about seeing God through my children and teaching my children about God and Jesus and telling those stories that I remember as a child.  I’m 66, so it’s been a long time since I was an altar boy, but it’s amazing how you never forget those things.  Your children make you think about them.

Peggy: What’s on the horizon for future films?

Larry: We’re working on a movie about Oprah and one about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  We are very much looking for another faith-based project.  Since Amish Grace was the most-watched and highest-rated movie in the history of their network, Lifetime said to me, “Hey, what have you got for next Palm Sunday?”  The problem is that you can’t just snap your fingers and come up with another movie that touches you in such a deep way and motivates you to get out there to do all the work to get it made.  These things just have to come to you.  If anybody out there has another idea for a movie or a script, please call me!

Amish Grace is released on DVD on September 14, 2010.  For reviews of the film by Catholic Exchange writers, follow these links:

Amish Grace: A Movie Review by Leticia Velasquez

Amish Grace: A Time for Forgiveness by Sr. Rose Pacatte

Forgiveness: Not Just an Amish Grace by Patti Maguire Armstrong

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