On December 2, Smith Global Media and Power of 3 Entertainment releases a new faith- and family-friendly drama, Believe, in 600 US locations. The film stars Ryan O’Quinn, whose career as an entertainer has included performing comedy at Christian megachurches. O’Quinn plays Matthew Peyton, the owner of a family automotive company which is the last viable business in the economically depressed town of Grundy, Virginia. The orphaned Peyton inherited the business from his grandfather, who raised him. He also inherited the town’s popular annual Christmas pageant, underwritten by the family company with the stipulation that the company not profit from it in any way.
A low-budget film with mostly little-known actors, Believe is a collaboration between O’Quinn and Christian cinematographer and director Billy Dickson (12 Miles of Bad Road, Hidden Hills, One Tree Hill). Dickson is a two-time Emmy Award nominee and has worked on 15 feature films and 40 television movies and pilots. After meeting O’Quinn, Dickson sent him three scripts he had written for his input.
“Of the three scripts he sent, the one that was set in a rural east coast town resonated most with me,” O’Quinn said. “Billy had no way of knowing this, but the character of Matthew Peyton very much paralleled my own life in so many ways, including my childhood and formative years.”
O’Quinn made some changes to the script, including changing the film’s location from a Pennsylvania town to Grundy, Virginia, where O’Quinn himself had been raised.
“It was great going back to my hometown and seeing places that were so familiar to me, such as the railroad tracks and or a particular restaurant,” O’Quinn said. “It was also a special opportunity to reconnect with family and friends I knew in my childhood.”
O’Quinn also helped recruit other actors for the production, including Kevin Sizemore (Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, Woodlawn), who plays Albert Bagley, one of the villains in the film. Sizemore, too, had grown up in a town near Grundy, and O’Quinn queried him via social media: “You want to go back home to work on a movie?” Twenty seconds later the two were on the phone talking about plans for Believe.
The film begins with Matthew enjoying a bright, lively, and well-attended Christmas pageant with gal-pal Dr. Nancy Wells (Shawnee Smith, The Blob, Saw). Colorful lights, Santa, and the reading of the Christmas story are all part of the fun.
The story then advances nearly a year, when Matthew is driving one night and is followed by a mysterious truck. He finds himself with a flat tire and no cell phone coverage; several assailants beat him and set his car afire.
CJ (portrayed by Issac Ryan Brown, the youngest member of the cast) stumbles upon Matthew and brings him home to be cared for by his abandoned mother, Sharon (Danielle Nicolet, Born Again Virgin, BET’s The Game). CJ, we learn, has aspirations to portray the Angel Gabriel in the Christmas pageant. He and Matthew go on to develop a close relationship.
Brown, age 11, first became known to millions after singing on America’s Got Talent at age 6. Casting child actors is often a challenge, but when Brown read for the part, producers knew they had happened on someone special.
“He blew everyone away,” Sizemore said. “When he started talking, even before he read, we all knew he was wise beyond his years and we were just praying that his acting talent matched his wisdom.”
Brown was eager to do the film, he said, because “this movie is about faith, which my mother and father taught me to have. It reminds us to give God the honor and praise no matter what you face; God will be there for you.”
He’s grateful to O’Quinn for serving as a mentor to him on the project, and said that during filming “every day on the set was a party. Everyone was joking and having a good time; we had an amazing cast and crew.”
We learn that Matthew’s assault was linked to trouble at Matthew’s company, Peyton Automotive. The company is struggling financially, and the workers go on strike. Matthew is pressured to either sell the company to a Japanese firm or charge for attendance at the upcoming Christmas pageant, neither of which he will do. He announces that the annual Christmas pageant must be cancelled, as his firm lacks the funds to pay for it. As the pageant is one of the few remaining events in the town which is profitable to local vendors, Matthew quickly becomes the most unpopular person in town.
The film touches on some broader themes in American society, such as economic depression in America’s Rust Belt towns—an important factor in the election of Donald Trump—and the secularization of Christmas by the dominant voices in popular culture. At the beginning of the film, for example, while driving his car through depressed Grundy, Matthew hears the radio announcer refer to the “holiday” pageant; an annoyed Matthew corrects him: “Christmas!”
There is also an ongoing message of the importance of faith and hope. When Matthew tells CJ that the Christmas pageant has to be cancelled, an earnest CJ says, “You have to believe.”
Filming began in December 2015 at a Christmas parade in Bristol, Virginia, about a two-hour drive from Grundy. Local media interviewed the cast about the production and helped draw a record 14,000 attendees. O’Quinn was invited to participate in the official parade ribbon-cutting with local elected officials, a moment that filmmakers were able to capture for the film.
When the film crew filmed in Grundy, O’Quinn’s hometown, backdrops included the drive-in that O’Quinn and his family visited in his childhood and the local hospital that bears the name of O’Quinn’s mother, Delores O’Quinn. While in Grundy filmmakers invited the townspeople to come out one evening to serve as extras. They were hoping for 200; 2,300 showed up and stayed until filming wrapped at 4 am.
The movie features a variety of original songs from such performers as Rachel Taylor, Matt Maher, and Nathan Stanley.
O’Quinn reflected, “Despite a number of hurdles along the way, we were able to get exactly what we needed. I was so thrilled to take Hollywood back home to where I grew up and share this experience with my community. Although I have been away for 25 years, home will always be home.”
He also stressed that Believe is a family film with a “faith element.” He said, “The message of Jesus and the Bible pervades the film. We also want to underscore that it is Christmas, and Jesus is the reason for the season.”
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