For LDS story ‘The Fighting Preacher,’ filmmaker turns real life into a movie

(Photo courtesy of Purdie Distribution) Writer-director T.C. Christensen, right, goofs around on the set of "The Fighting Preacher" with his lead actor, Dave McConnell, who plays an ex-boxer-turned Latter-day Saint missionary sent in 1915 to Palmyra, N.Y.

T.C. Christensen admits he had to go a few rounds with “The Fighting Preacher” before bringing the story of Willard and Rebecca Bean — who served one of the longest missions in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to the movie screen.

Christensen had just finished making his 2011 movie “17 Miracles,” the first of two movies that focused on hardships on the pioneer trail to Utah, when someone suggested he read the book “A Lion and a Lamb,” a biography of the Beans by their grandson, Rand H. Packer.

“I read it, and I liked the scenes, but it wasn’t a movie to me,” Christensen said in an interview this week, ahead of the release of “The Fighting Preacher” in Utah theaters on Wednesday — July 24, Pioneer Day.

“When you’re making films about true stories, people don’t live their lives like a movie,” Christensen said. “It was a nice idea, and I left it in my file.”

Willard Bean, a onetime middleweight boxer, and his young wife, Rebecca, were sent by church leaders in 1915 to Palmyra, N.Y. The church had, a few years earlier, taken possession of the farm where the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, lived as a child — including the grove where, according to church lore, Smith had the visions of God and Jesus that inspired the church’s founding.

The Beans’ mission — which ended up lasting 24 years — was to live in the Smith farmhouse and try to reestablish a Latter-day Saint community in upstate New York. Willard was also given the assignment to negotiate the purchase of Hill Cumorah, the land where Smith said he found the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.

“’I gotta get a hill,’ or ‘I gotta get a piece of property’ — that’s money. That’s stuff that doesn’t matter,” Christensen said. “It’s that [Bean] had to be changing the hearts of the town. And then also that they in some way affect him, and change his heart, too.”

Once Christensen realized that, he said, he had his movie. Now he had to find the actors to play the Beans.

To play Willard, Christensen needed someone who could be tough, earnest and a little bit cocky. “I had so many actors that were saying the words, but they didn’t have that idea that you know he’s on top of the situation,” he said. Dave McConnell got it, Christensen said, “after one take in the casting session.”

When McConnell auditioned, Christensen said he thought the actor was a new face — but, in fact, McConnell had worked as a driver on one of Christensen’s films years earlier.

Cassidy Hubert, who plays Rebecca Bean, is a newcomer. “The Fighting Preacher” is her first acting role, and her previous credits are for working in the art department on a few films.

“She came in and, man, she did a scene for me that was just terrific,” Christensen said.

Rebecca, in many ways, is the heart of the story, the one who gently pushes her husband to let go of anger and use kindness to turn the Palmyra residents’ hearts.

Rebecca is “not just be somebody in the background,” Christensen said. “She’s part of this whole process of figuring out how to deal with this community.”

Christensen filmed for three days in the Palmyra area, getting shots of the countryside that add a level of authenticity for Latter-day Saint faithful who have visited the Smith farm. The rest was filmed in Utah, taking advantage of the Utah Film Commission’s tax incentive program and the period buildings at Salt Lake City’s This Is the Place Heritage Park.

“They have a lot of great buildings to work in,” Christensen said of This Is the Place. The tricky part in filming a period piece there, he said, is finding angles that capture the buildings without also including the things that don’t represent the old days — like power poles, cars or city skylines.

Selling a movie with a strong Latter-day Saint storyline “is a tough business,” Christensen said. The plan is to open “The Fighting Preacher” in 24 theaters in Utah, from Logan to St. George, on the Pioneer Day holiday. After that, the movie will open Aug. 9 in Phoenix, Las Vegas and into Idaho.

“Then, you know how it goes — if we do good, then we expand more,” he said.

The message of “The Fighting Preacher” is suddenly timely, Christensen said, when the phrase the Beans heard in Palmyra — “go back where you came from” — is a sentiment being uttered by the president of the United States.

“Maybe there’s a reason why I didn’t want to do [this movie] 10 years ago,” Christensen said, adding that he hopes viewers “see an example of two different cultures clashing, and coming together and finding a way to making it work. Maybe we can have a little more kindness in the world.”