Ordinary Angels: Interview with Director/Producer Jon Gunn

Ordinary Angels: Interview with Director/Producer Jon Gunn

Photo by Lionsgate – © Lionsgate

People overcoming their differences to selflessly help the greater good of their community shows their true integrity. The new drama, Ordinary Angels, is an inspirational retelling of a true story about the Schmitt family, which relies on the help of their neighbors in order to save their young sick daughter. Those acquaintances willingly put their own challenges and differences aside to rally together and secure the liver transplant the young girl desperately needs.

The film was directed and produced by Jon Gunn. Ordinary Angels screenplay, which is based on the actual events that the Schmitt family and their neighbors went through, was written by Kelly Fremon Craig and Meg Tilly. The movie stars Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Tamala Jones, Drew Powell, Amy Acker, Skywalker Hughes and Emily Mitchell.

Ordinary Angels follows Sharon Stevens (Swank), a fierce but struggling hairdresser in small-town Kentucky who discovers a renewed sense of purpose when she meets Ed Schmitt (Ritchson), a widower working hard to make ends meet for his two daughters. With his younger daughter, Michelle (Mitchell) waiting for the liver transplant, Sharon sets her mind to helping the family. What unfolds is the inspiring tale of faith, everyday miracles and ordinary angels.

Lionsgate will distribute Ordinary Angels in theaters this Friday, February 23. In honor of the drama’s release, Gunn generously took the time recently to talk about helming and producing the project during an interview over Zoom.

Ordinary Angles 2

Photo by Lionsgate – © Lionsgate

Q: You directed the new drama, Ordinary Angels, which was written by Kelly Fremon Craig and Meg Tilly. What was it about the script that convinced you to helm the film?

JG: Well, I have been working with Lionsgate on a number of movies over the last five years, and this was one of those projects. We did American Underdog, Jesus Revolution and I Still Believe together. I directed a film with them called The Unbreakable Boy with Zachary Levi, and that movie comes out next February.

In the process of all these projects that I was developing with the Urban Brothers at Kingdom Story Company, Lionsgate said, “We don’t only want to finance your films, we also want to collaborate with you and bring your ideas that we love to the screen.”

So Ordinary Angels was a project that Lionsgate had. It was brought to them after 15 years of development through various producers, writers and filmmakers.

Dave Matthews– the Dave Matthews – was one of them, so he’s one of our producers. Then he brought it to John Berg, the producer of Elf, who had also worked at Warner Brothers for many years. John had then brought it to Lionsgate.

So I was busy collaborating with Lionsgate on a lot of other projects. So they said, “Would you look at this script and tell us if you think you’d like to make this movie? We really, really love it and we think you’d be a good fit.”

So I read it, and it was a draft written by Kelly Freeman Craig. She’s lovely. She wrote and directed Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.

It was just a wonderful script and story, and we all felt like we could see it turned into movie. It’s a story that needed to be told. It’s an unbelievable true story that was inspiring but also just really honest and filled with real human drama. It also has a third act that took place during the worst snowstorm in Louisville history in 1994.

So I found a very exciting and cinematic. It just dealt with a lot of issues of service, helping others and community coming together, and healing. There were a lot of things I love, but it also has the charm and flavor of an Erin Brockovich-type of character at the heart of it.

The fact that we got Hilary Swank to play this character with such a gift. Sharon’s funny, dynamic, broken and messy. She’s just an ordinary hairdresser who changed lives. With this one family in particular, she just took it upon herself to help them and save them, whether they wanted her help or not.

The film is funny, heartfelt and beautiful. So I was excited to take the film on and be the guy to finish it after so many years of it being a development. I was really honored.

Q: The movie stars Hilary Swank, who you mentioned earlier, as well as Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Tamala Jones, Drew Powell, Amy Acker, Skywalker Hughes and Emily Mitchell. What was the casting process like for the drama?

JG: As a director, casting, and finding the right actors to bring these characters to life, is the most important thing. So you dream of the people you think could play these roles when you put your list together.

But it’s so hard. A lot of times those people say no, as they’re not available or not interested. So there’s a lot of heartbreak along the way to land the cast that you hope you could dream of.

So you can imagine that getting Hilary swank was difficult. First of all, I love her work. She’s a two-time Oscar winner. I’m a huge fan of her work from Boys Don’t Cry and especially her Clint Eastwood boxing movie, Million Dollar Baby, which I had seen four times in the theater.

I think she’s funny, dramatic, interesting and unexpected in her performances in so many movies. I hadn’t seen her be funny in a long time. This is a movie that’s a drama, and there’s a lot of brokenness in it, but there’s levity in that humanity.

So I just knew she’d be a great person for it. But I almost couldn’t believe that we got her. In the negotiation, you sort of think it still could fall apart. I didn’t want get my heart broken, but I still held out hope that we would really get her on set.

Then Alan Ritchson was such an interesting surprise because he’s known so much for playing Jack Reacher on the Amazon (Prime Video) show. He’s also known for doing action movies like Fast X.

But he’s really this quiet, mild-mannered, blue-collar man, and he gives a very vulnerable performance in this film. I don’t think anyone’s going to see this coming. When they watch him, they’ll be like, where is this version of Alan Ritchson coming from? It’s astonishing. But he’s just great in it.

Nancy Travis plays his mom in this movie and she’s wonderful. We thought really hard for the cast and everyone in this movie, including Tamala Jones, Drew Powell, Amy Acker and the two kids who play Alan’s daughters, including Skywalker Hughes, which is, by the way, such a cool name. Then Emily Mitchell is the young girl who plays the sort of heart and soul of the movie, Michelle.

They’re just a super special cast of actors who were there because they wanted to be there. They gave so much of themselves that it comes through in the performances.

I feel like directors always have to say that when they do press, but I honestly love this cast, and we’re all like family. So I was so grateful to get them.

This is going to be a role that I think Hilary is going to be recognized for. We have not seen her do something like this in a really long time. I’m very excited to share that.

Q: Once the actors were cast, how did you work with them, notably Hilary and Alan, to build their characters, especially the more light-hearted moments, which you mentioned?

JG: There was a lot of levity in the script that Kelly Fremon Craig wrote. I ended up doing a pass on my own, as I wanted to just make sure that every few minutes, there was going to be some release. There’s a lot of heavy stuff in this movie but ultimately, it’s a super inspiring, encouraging and optimistic film. So I wanted there to be joy.

My favorite kind of laughter is the kind that comes unexpectedly out of struggle and pain. So it’s really gratifying for me to watch this in a crowd. When you see this film in the theater, there’s laughter like if you were watching a comedy. There are big laughs every few minutes.

So it’s been really exciting for me to get to experience that because that was one of my big goals. I wanted to keep the movie lifted with the levity, laughter and joy. At the end of the day, you feel the greatest amounts of joy when they’re balanced by real strain, pain and struggle, I think. So I think the balance really works well in this film.

Q: Speaking of the theatrical release, Lionsgate is set to distribute Ordinary Angels in theaters nationwide on February 23. How did you secure the distribution for the film?

JG: Well, I’m just really grateful to Lionsgate. Over the process of making this film, there has been a lot of uncertainty about how dramas will play in theaters.

I go to the theaters every week, sometimes twice a week. if I can. I love going to the movies. I love seeing dramas in the movies. I also love seeing these kinds of true stories, as well as comedies, in the theaters.

So I was very hopeful that a theatrical release would work for this film. But with COVID and all of the uncertainty that has gone along with it, it’s just been a journey of waiting to see if we could release this movie in theaters.

Lionsgate really believes in this film, and they really were very unwavering about it. It was just about finding the right time to release it.

We were originally supposed to release the movie in October, and then Taylor Swift came in and dropped her concert movie right on our release date. So we delayed our release date, which ended up being perfect.

I think this is the perfect time to release this film, now that the actor strike is over, Alan, Hilary and all the actors get to do press for the film, which is wonderful.

I feel like this is the right moment in time for it to be released. I’m really grateful that Lionsgate is putting it out in tons of theaters nationwide.

Q: In addition to directing the movie, you also served as an executive producer on the feature. Why did you decide to also produce the drama? How did you balance helming and producing the film?

JG: Well, they’re great. Like I said, I’ve developed six or seven movies with Lionsgate. We’ve made five or six of them already. So we’ve become quite a family and they’re great collaborators. They’re very supportive.

They’re the perfect kind of a studio in my mind because they’re small and personal enough that you really know them all. They love films and they care about the projects they’re making. So it’s been a real gift for me to work with them. Like I said, this was a passion project of theirs, so I was happy to be able to deliver a movie that they love in a way that they’re really happy with.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film. 

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