Interview by Paul Salfen
From the Press notes:
As an A-list actor and hugely successful film and television producer, Mark Wahlberg is used to being pitched ideas for films in unlikely places by surprising people. But the pitch for Father Stu caught even him off guard. “I was at dinner with two of the priests from my parish,” he recalls. “And Father Ed keeps talking about this movie he wants to make with me. I’m thinking, you do your job and I’ll do mine. I wasn’t there to find the next script. I was looking for the things I needed to stay on a path in the direction of spiritual growth.”
But something about the story of Stuart Long stuck with him. By all accounts the Montana-born-and-raised former boxer was abrasive, hot-tempered and rough around the edges. He was brutally honest with everyone, delivering good news and bad with the same dispassionate directness. In short, he seemed an unlikely candidate to provide the guidance and comfort of a priest under any circumstances.
“The more I heard about Stu, the more convinced I was that I had to get this movie made,” Wahlberg says. “I asked Ed to tell me the story again from the beginning, and from that point on it was my mission to produce the film.”
Part of the reason Long’s story moved Wahlberg so intensely was that in some ways it paralleled his own life. “As an actor, I’ve always looked for roles that have a personal connection for me,” he says. “I transitioned from running the streets as a teenager and young adult to finding my faith. I now realize that my purpose is to help others growing up in situations like mine.”
Wahlberg, who made an astonishing rise from rapper to action star and Oscar®-winning producer, is the founder of the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for inner-city youth. “I’ve been given gifts and opportunities that allow me to help others. I want to share Stu’s courage and conviction, to encourage people never to give up trying to be the best versions of themselves.”
Wahlberg’s passion project wended its way through development for the next six years, but his commitment never wavered. Eventually, he decided to partially finance the film out of his own pocket to help get it off the ground. “I just kept meeting different obstacles and decided I was going to go on my own path to make the movie,” he says. “Then my responsibility became to honor Stu’s legacy, and that’s a burden that I haven’t taken lightly.”
Long’s path to the priesthood was full of difficulties, but none were as dramatic as his diagnosis with inclusion body myositis (or IBM), a rare disease that progressively weakens the muscles until they cease to function. Despite the physical deterioration caused by the incurable disease, he brought his warrior’s edge to the fight and continued to minister to parishioners.
In a time when many people are experiencing what Wahlberg calls “a deficit of hope,” the actor and producer believes Long’s story needs to be heard. “People in dire straits need a reason to believe. But how many times can you hear, ‘Just wait. Things will get better.’ Some things don’t. Father Stu teaches us that your circumstances are all about your perception. When all the cards were stacked against him, he chose to see that stacked deck as a blessing. The grace with which he suffered gave comfort and inspiration to others in their own suffering.”
During the development process, Wahlberg frequently consulted friend and fellow Catholic filmmaker Mel Gibson. “I wanted to talk to him about getting his film The Passion of the Christ made, which had really inspired me,” says Wahlberg. “I met Rosalind Ross through Mel when he and I were both in Daddy’s Home 2. She shared a screenplay she had written at the time and I loved her writing.” Ross asked if she could take a stab at penning the script for Father Stu.
Ross is a former championship equestrian who left competition to become a screenwriter. Her script, Barbarian, made the 2016 Hollywood Black List of the year’s best unproduced screenplays and is currently in pre-production. “It was a huge honor when Mark chose me to write this,” she says. “I initially hesitated because I wasn’t raised Catholic. But after further deliberation I realized that Stu’s story is really universal.”
The first obstacle Ross faced in writing the screenplay was finding reliable sources of firsthand testimony about Long’s life. “I’m used to writing scripts about historical figures whose stories have been well documented in books I could read for research,” she says. “There are no books about Stu. We were able to speak with his father Bill, from whom Stu was estranged until his final illness was diagnosed, as well as his best friend from the seminary.”
Ross says her understanding of Long’s personality and his life’s journey is largely based on those two personal interviews as well as a pamphlet that was given out at his memorial service. “It was filled with anecdotes from people whose lives Stu touched,” she says. “They were quite funny and charming, and really gave me a sense of his humor and his irreverence.”
Long’s dreams are often unrealistic, says the writer, but that’s part of his charm. “I actually admire people like that,” she says. “He doesn’t see the limitations other people do. There’s something very refreshing about that. There’s also a guilelessness about him. He can be childlike and innocent, in a quixotic way, which I find endearing. And his troublemaking, his womanizing, his drinking and his anger ironically make him the perfect candidate for change.”
Three months after she began working on it, Ross handed Wahlberg a script. The actor was bowled over by the compassionate portrait of a difficult and determined man who had survived a tough childhood, a broken family, multiple professional disappointments and a disastrous motorcycle accident, only to emerge with a renewed sense of faith and purpose.
“Her voice was present throughout,” recalls Wahlberg. “There was lots of humor and lots of heart. So the question became, who’s going to direct? Me? Mel? But if Rosie could bring it to the page so beautifully, I knew she could put it on the screen.”
The offer to direct took Ross by surprise. “The responsibility of telling a real person’s story is immense,” she says. “I didn’t want my lack of theological knowledge to be a barrier, so I tried to go on that journey along with Stu as best I could. We don’t shy away from the things that made him authentic: his reckless lifestyle, his many shortcomings, certainly not any of his colorful language.”
Although creative liberties had to be taken to condense the story into two hours, Wahlberg believes the film captures Long’s essence as a man, a son and a confidant to so many people. “The film is as real and emotional as possible, which is what I always wanted,” he says. “Faith-based movies are often just preaching to the choir. You’re not reaching anybody new. This reaches out to all kinds of people.”
An Imperfect Inspiration
As the film begins, Stu is a middle-aged man whose shot at the boxing career he had dreamed of has been permanently derailed, leaving him at loose ends. Still plagued by survivor’s guilt over the death of his younger brother many years before, he’s on a quest for a purpose in life. He makes an impulsive decision to move to Los Angeles and try his luck at acting.
Wahlberg was the ideal actor for the role, says Ross. “Nobody could’ve been better. The charm, the biting humor, the roguishness — he can channel all that in his sleep. But he also shows a depth and vulnerability I don’t think I’ve seen from him on screen before.”
To play a boxer in his prime, Wahlberg started shooting the film in peak physical condition. But in order to honestly depict the toll Long’s advancing IBM took, he committed to gaining a significant amount of weight. Under the watchful eye of nutritionists and doctors, Wahlberg started a 7,000-calorie-a-day diet. “After the first two weeks, we went to 11,000 calories for the final four weeks of the shoot,” he says. “I gained 30 pounds in just a few weeks. But eating every three hours took a toll on me. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do it again.”