Andie got out when she was 18, and headed straight off to school, determined to figure out just what it was she escaped. Esther, well, she just got kicked out, and things are looking a little more rocky.
Their stories are similar, but don't assume that Andie Redwine's script for the new film Paradise Recovered is auto-biographical. Yes, she left a fundamentalist, cult-like Christian church when she came of age. And her film depicts a lead character, Esther, whom we meet right around the time that she's been excommunicated from a similarly repressive church, and left to fend for herself on the streets of Bloomington.
But Redwine, a writer, producer and stay-at-home mother of four living near Bedford, says the film she wrote and co-produced is based on not one story, but many: the story of her own quest for knowledge and self-identity, the oral histories of those coping with spiritual abuse and trying to adjust to the outside world, the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.
It's also the story of an ultra low-budget feature by a first-time screenwriter — and a director, Storme Wood, helming his full-length film — finding success in established festivals. The 96-minute dramatic film is an official selection of this year's Heartland Film Festival, where it will make its world premiere. It will screen later this month at the screenwriter-focused Austin Film Festival, and will appear on a Los Angeles screen in November as part of the social justice-centric Film Courage Interactive series.
Austin is calling Paradise Recovered one of its own — Wood and some of the crew and cast hail from Austin, and the film is part of this year's Austin Screens lineup, the local component of the Austin Film Festival's program. But Indiana could also stake its claim. The majority of the film was shot on location in Bloomington and southern Indiana, including a closing scene in Indiana University's Showalter Fountain. And the soundtrack is almost entirely supplied by Indiana-based artists, including local singer-songwriter Cara Jean Wahlers.
The way Redwine tells it, Paradise Recovered was 11 years in the making, and the natural outgrowth of her attempt to understand the fundamentalist Christian organization in which she grew up. Among other goals she has for the film, she hopes that it will reach people who are in the same situation as Esther — cast out of a church without job skills, social support or an adequate understanding of the outside world.
A Prophetic Watchman
Paradise Recovered opens with a day-in-the-life sequence chronicling the times of Esther (Heather del Rio), a young woman completely devoted to a family (not her own) and her church, a fundamentalist religious group named Prophetic Watchman Industries International. She flyers for the church, stapling up hectoring calls to listen to a church service broadcast on local television. She acts as nanny to a younger child, teaching her the story of The Good Samaritan via flannelgraph. She attends a service held in a local VFW Hall, where a sermon by a modern-day, fire-and-brimstone shouter is supplemented by a video message recorded from on high by the church's founder and lawgiver, William F. Vanderbilt.
And her life is dictated by rules — arbitrary, capricious, extra-Biblical rules, almost all of them thou shalt nots rather than thou shalls. Thou shalt not eat pork. Women shall not teach nor assume positions of power in the church. Thou shalt not swim; thou shalt not imbibe alcohol; thou shalt not watch movies.
The organization is fictional, a distillation of 18 different Christian groups, according to Redwine. Her list of groups, which she declines to reveal, citing legal concerns, includes those ranging "from the very large, you-would-recognize-the-name groups, to the small little church on the corner where someone told me, 'This preacher is really crazy. It's just really high-demand; you should really check this out.'"
Redwine emphasizes that her film considers only a certain slice of organizations that might be considered cults, explaining that cultic experiences aren't "limited to the Christian experience, but we couldn't cover every cult angle. So we chose the Christian experience because that's the one — I did anyway, in writing the script — because I felt like that's the one that most connected with audiences in the middle of America."
And of course, Redwine also ended up writing about the fundamentalist Christian experience because she has first-hand knowledge of it. She's been a member and a critic, and she's devoted her intellectual energies towards understanding why people might join these organizations.
Redwine: "A lot of people watch televangelists and they're like, 'Really? This is a charade.' But to someone who's desperate, who just lost somebody, who's up in the middle of the night and their defenses are down and they're watching this guy or woman, and this person seems to really be hitting them where they live, because they're good at it, then they kind of get hooked that way."
- Esther (Heather del Rio) asks for forgiveness from her pastor (Andre Sensenig) and the congregation of her church in a still from "Paradise Recovered."
Living in tension
"I grew up in a group that I'd rather not name," says the Muncie-born Redwine, a funny, attention-deficient talker with an irrepressible positive energy that one imagines busting through any chains that would bind.
"My parents were young when they got married, and they were attracted to this group because it was a family, and there were a lot of people who cared about them. The people that I grew up with are some of the finest people who have ever walked: They are nice, kind, generous, giving, self-sacrificial, devout, loving. It's not them that I have the problem with."
Rather, "It's the people that orchestrated all of that to keep my parents giving them money, and then making everyone's salvation conditional upon whether or not you were following them."
And those conditions imposed upon members of Redwine's organization would change over time. Women were forbidden to wear makeup, until they weren't, after which time they were once again forbidden. Families were discouraged from vaccinating their children, although Redwine's mother went against the directive. Members were prohibited from seeking the services of a psychotherapist or psychologist. Redwine believes a close friend and church member who committed suicide could have benefited from mental health services.
"When I was 18, I left the group with the help of my friends," Redwine continues. "It wasn't for me. And it was very difficult, because I knew if I left, all those people I was telling you about wouldn't be allowed to talk to me."
But Redwine was never estranged from her family, and after several years, a loosening of church rules made it possible for her to contact church members who had previously cut off all communication. And she's careful to note that she was "fortunate" when compared to others, and didn't suffer the sort of physical or sexual abuse that she later discovered was inflicted on members of her same church.
And if some things were off-limits in Redwine's home, creative writing never was: "I was four years old when I wrote my first story. It was about Batman and Robin and Batgirl. And it went like this, 'One day, Batgirl was in the kitchen making soup. Robin didn't know. Batman didn't either. The end.' And then there was an extensive About the Author section, because clearly, that was the most important part."
St. Louis was the first stop for Redwine as she embarked on what she calls the "How Many Colleges Can You Go To Before You Actually Graduate Plan." She ended up living in a house with a couple of guys upon leaving the church, as does her character Esther. Philosophy was the first course of study, and in the attempt to counter the extra-biblical teachings of her youth with more mainstream theology, she attended seminary before she was through with her studies. The seminary was in Austin, which she found an appealing city: "It was a place where there were all these ideas, and people seemed very comfortable living in the tension between different faiths."
During those years at seminary, Redwine started researching her own experience, contributing to message board threads where people were comparing experiences. She eventually interviewed nearly a hundred men and women about their time in fundamentalist Christian groups, an experience that allowed her to see the similarties between authoritarian groups with ostensibly divergent philosophies.
And while her journey from the church to the outside world was without undue trauma, she sympathizes with those who don't have a support system, people like Esther who lack the skills necessary to adjust.
"If you're kicked out of the one place that's supposed to help you, and they said to you, 'If you ever leave this church you're going to become a drug addict or alcoholic...' The only thing you know to do in the world is go out and party and be self-destructive. You don't know how to live a life of balance that's healthy, because the world has been so black and white, and when you're thrust into the black, you think you have to start slamming shots."
Sahara Mart: the great equalizer
Talking with Redwine, one gets the feeling that, at a certain point in her life, she was going to tell the story of Paradise Recovered one way or another, and that it was just a matter of how. And the how began to take shape, as she relates it, when she was shopping at a health food store in Bloomington.
"I shop at a health food store because I'm vegan. So I was at Sahara Mart, and I saw this woman who was a Mennonite — she had the cap and the dress. I didn't really think much about it, and I stopped in the aisle. Then this guy walks up — he's dreaded out, tatted out — and he's standing next to her, and she asks him a question and he answered it. And I thought, that wouldn't happen in any other place in America other than a health food store, because they have that in common. And I thought that was an intriguing place to go."
Redwine puts that idea in the mouth of her character, Gabriel, who manages the film's version of Sahara Mart: "The point on the ideological spectrum where far-left bohemians and right-wing fundamentalists meet is a health food store."
And thus, the movie begins to roll along when Esther proposes that she might work at a health food store in order to raise money for the church. Worldviews collide when she establishes a relationship with her boss Gabriel (Dane Seth Hurlburt), a philosophy major who instantiates all the evils of the life of the mind for Esther. When Esther is kicked out of the house after being caught in a state of undress with her host family's demagogic son and branded a loose woman, Gabriel plays the Good Samaritan, and takes Esther in. Gabriel and his roommate Mark (Oliver Luke) initiate Esther in the "sins" of the world, introducing her to birthday parties, pork, dating and movies.
Redwine initially planned on telling the story of Paradise Recovered as a novel, but a high-school friend and producer, Dennis Hennelly, impressed upon her that she ought to write a film. Redwine countered to Hennelly: "'I don't really know anything about writing a screenplay.' And he said, 'Well, I do.' My first screenplay was dreadful, terrible, awful."
But Redwine had help from both Hennelly and Storme Wood, an Austin-area director whom Redwine had met while she lived in the city. At first, Redwine only asked Wood for help with the script. But stars aligned, and Wood agreed to direct. "I had been working on this project for about 10 years, and Storme had been looking for a feature to direct for about 10 years," Redwine says.
Wood sees a similar serendipity: "It was kind of like Andie wrote this script that was the movie I always wanted to make. It fit the style and the tone of the thing I always imagined would be great to do.
"I was always drawn to these movies that are stripped down and raw, about real people and real situations," Wood, a stay-at-home parent like Redwine, continues. "That part of this story really drew me in. The other part was that there was humor and life in this script. It was nice that it had this kind of life in there, even though it was about something that could have been really melodramatic."
Redwine was home schooling her four children while she wrote the film — she's careful to note that she didn't do so for ideological reasons, but rather because she wanted to establish an emotional connection with two children she and her husband had recently adopted. So she worked in her free moments: From 5 a.m. until the kids woke up around 7 a.m.; every other Saturday at a Starbucks in Bedford. She stole dialogue and character names while sitting at the coffee shop, taking some lines word-for-word from overheard conversations.
The script went through 27 revisions — all of them "purposeful," according to Redwine — before it was locked in as a shooting script.
- Gabriel (left, Dane Seth Hurlburt) misdirects two church members, played by Austin Chittim and Wendy Zavaleta, who have come to reclaim lost parishioner Esther.
Avoiding heat stroke
The team originally planned to shoot in Austin. But a day spent by Wood and Redwine in the Indiana countryside changed their minds.
"Storme said, 'Andie, why don't we shoot here. It's beautiful,'" according to Redwine, whose list of reasons for why Southern Indiana was the perfect place to shoot the majority of the film includes: "A: It's beautiful; southern Indiana is gorgeous country. B: It's where I wrote the story, so that's interesting. But also there's all these little small towns around here that have great theaters that you can four-wall and do events. The other part is, there are a lot of people in Indiana that will go see a movie that was shot in Indiana, versus a movie that some writer from Indiana wrote that was shot in Austin. Austin people will go see a movie regardless, because they support independent film there."
The July 2009 shoot lasted 17 days altogether — 13 days in Bloomington, and an additional 4 in Austin, where interiors of Gabriel and his roommate Mark's house were filmed. For Redwine, they were the, "Longest 13 days in my life. It felt like two years."
With a $70,000 budget, there wasn't much room for error, or for extra help. The on-set crew was principally comprised of Wood, Redwine (who produced and evaluated performances during dailies), director of photography David Blue Garcia, who shot on a high-def RED camera provided by first assistant cameraman Julio Quintana, sound guy Jason Young and gaffer Michael Tambasco.
Wood, who has worked professionally in film and video since graduating from the University of Austin's film program in 2001, and was a camera assistant for another film screening at this year's Heartland, the suspense film The Presence, brought talents with him to the shoot that were well-suited to such an intense schedule.
"One of my strengths is managing the clock, and knowing that, if we want to have a movie, we have to shoot something. It's not going to be perfect, but if we don't start rolling now, we're going to get to the end of this and we're not going to have a movie."
He says the day of shooting at a VFW Hall in Oolitic, where scenes depicting Prophetic Watchman Ministry worship services were staged, was the most intense.
"We shot that in less than one day, and that was the hardest thing I've ever done, because we were shooting three scenes simultaneously with over a hundred extras... Being a small movie, we couldn't shut down the places that we went because they were doing us a huge favor by letting us shoot there. I was really praying that all those scenes would cut together, because I wasn't sure that we got everything we needed in all that hectic-ness."
Shooting in Austin was no less difficult, if for different reasons. Redwine: "It was the hottest summer in Austin on record, in July. At one point, it was 117 outside. So what do we do? We shoot in a house, we cut the air, we black tape the windows. Then, because it was a night scene, we shoot lights through the black plastic. We were going outside to get cool. During that four days, I lost like seven pounds. It was a sauna. My job as a producer was: Watch the performances and keep everyone from getting heat stroke."
Wood mentions a couple films as inspirations for the film's visual style: the Mexican road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien and the union-building classic Norma Rae.
"The way the camera is used is great, the way it's a character in the scene, and that shots will continue and reframe," he says of Norma Rae. "And there's really a sense of place in that movie, where you start in that factory and that town; you just get a real sense of what it's like to be there, and that was an inspiration to me for this movie."
When shooting and editing was complete, Redwine, who doesn't tend towards self-deprecation, was pleased with the results: "We're both very proud of the fact that we don't have to apologize for our lack of budget. We used what we had to tell the story."
And she's also committed towards a sustainable, fair business model: "Everybody got paid. Everyone that worked for us got paid. I was shocked — I gave everybody checks, and they were like, 'Thank you.' And I was like, 'You earned this. Why are you thanking me?' People don't pay people."
A Facebook reunion
Redwine took her idea about making Paradise Recovered an Indiana filma step further when it came time to compile the soundtrack. She decided to bring together, in her words, "independent filmmaking and independent music," by using the talents of as many Indiana-based artists as possible.
She started with a suggestion from a couple old college friends, Jeb Banner and PJ Christie of Small Box Design. Why not use Musical Family Tree, their web-based archive of Indiana music past and present, as a resource, they asked?
And so bands active on the Musical Family Tree site — Jookabox, Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, Sardina — made their way into the film. 20-somethings get down during a birthday party to Jookabox's "The One Thing." Shoppers stroll down the aisles of Sahara Mart to the music of Bloomington-based new age band Salaam.
But it took a little longer for Wood and Redwine to find a female musical voice they thought appropriate for the movie, a counterpart to Esther who could amplify and complicate what it was Esther is going through.
And then Redwine happened upon a high school friend, Cara Jean Wahlers, on Facebook. The two performed together in a string quartet while they attended Burris Academy in Muncie — Wahlers on bass, Redwine on violin. But they had lost touch since.
On a whim, she clicked through to Wahlers' site. And she was hooked. Redwine: "We had been looking for this voice for Esther, because it really is a narrative kind of film, and we're listening to this, and it's not like raw that it hurts to listen to, but there's definitely some passion there."
Wahlers initially agreed to allow the filmmakers to use one of her songs, but became more and more involved with the soundtrack as she reconnected with Redwine. Wood and Redwine came to Indianapolis to screen a rough cut for Wahlers in her living room.
And after the credits rolled, Wahlers registered disbelief: "You hear about cults and think, 'That could never be me.' I told Andie that and she said, 'No one ever does. And that's why it's often people exactly like you.' That sent a little shiver up my spine."
Wahlers and cellist Grover Parido came to score the film, contributing instrumental passages and three songs, including one, "I Have Always Loved You," which Wahlers wrote specifically for the film.
Wahlers: "I wanted 'I Have Always Loved You' to be about God and about Gabriel, spiritual and romantic love at the same time — with a little nod admittedly to Dolly Parton. I was Esther when I wrote that, as much as she was me."
Trying on new things
The team behind Paradise Recovered hopes to try more than one method to put their movie in front of viewers and consumers. First, the film-festival model, where they don't count on finding a distributor that will work miracles, but are open to finding a partner who can help share the burden. Then special events, roadshow screenings with live music that will allow the producers, according to Wood, "to make a night out of showing the movie." Then perhaps a small, rolling, art-film style release, followed by video-on-demand and DVD.
Finally, the producers hope that the film might serve as an education tool for counselors and ex-cult groups. Redwine hopes to use some of the movie's profits to create a small foundation that would allow those without sufficient resources to attend Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, an Ohio-based residential center specializing in the treatment of those who have escaped from, using the Center's definitions, "high-demand religious groups" or "mind control/brainwashing cults."
Paradise Recovered may be structured around the story of the Good Samaritan, and it may occasionally favor characters who make choices that might bring them closer to the Christian faith (a late-scene baptism is staged as a celebratory, carefree experience; a reunion between Gabriel and his minister father sees the wayward son listening respectfully to his dad's grounded, Christian reading of the story's events).
Still, according to Redwine, "I never wanted to label this a Christian film, even though Storme and I do have faith, because then the people that I love who are artists are never going to watch it. I think the viewpoint of the film is tolerance. There are a lot of forces at work in our culture that want us to be polarized, namely because they profit from it."
And in the same vein — and we give you a spoiler alert here — Redwine didn't want to play up the story's sensationalist appeal, which might have allowed her movie to profit from fear in the same way as network TV news magazines or Lifetime-style movies. Esther's story is ultimately a hopeful one.
"We had an earlier version of the script where somebody didn't quite make it," Redwine explains. "It was edgier. I think I went for the positive because, if this intended audience is for ex-cult members, it's sort of like: Well, you don't have any choice but to go hang yourself now. I'd really like to show them that there is hope on the other side, and that it's OK: you can think, you can question, you can try to be the person you can be. You can try on different parts of your personality, and try on new things."
Paradise Recovered screens at 5:30 p.m., Oct. 16 and 7:45 p.m., Oct. 20 at AMC Showcase Indianapolis and at 8:15 p.m., Oct. 18 and 2 p.m., Oct. 21 at AMC Castleton Square.
- Wood and Redwine are willing to pitch in wherever help is needed. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.