I confess: I’ve already seen Father Stu, the much anticipated film scheduled for release this week from Sony Pictures. I’ve seen it twice, in fact – and I loved it! So when I was invited to talk with Mel Gibson, who plays Father Stu’s father in the movie, and with Bill Long, Stu’s real-life father, I jumped at the chance.
The two men have never met in person, but have talked by phone. “I talked with Mel Gibson quite a bit on the phone the first time,” Bill Long recalled, “and he said he was interested in studying my voice. Everyone who has seen the film says that he got that down pretty well!”
Mel Gibson also recalled their conversations. “He’s not overly verbose,” Gibson told me. “He says the necessary things, but it’s almost what he doesn’t say that tells you more. He’s just a regular, good guy.”
How closely does the film reflect reality?
Bill Long had already seen Father Stu ahead of its official opening in theaters. “It was pretty close to what happened,” he told me. “They got to the point! There were scenes in which the story differed from real life – that’s all right! They had a story to tell. It’s not a documentary!”
For example, Bill reported that while Stu, played by Mark Wahlberg, was a smoker early in the film, in real life his son had never smoked. And the story about the family’s lack of faith was sort of compressed. “I was baptized back in 1948,” Bill said. “My wife had been around religion off and on for quite some time.”
Bill added that he and his wife were not demanding regarding church attendance during their years of child-raising. “The only thing we asked of the kids,” he said, “was that they believe in God. As far as any particular denomination, when they were adults that would be their choice. It was a surprise to us that Stu elected to go into Catholicism – and become a priest!”
There was a time, Bill told me from his home in Montana, when no one would ever have expected his son to pursue a religious vocation. “In fact,” he recalled, “a bunch of Stu’s friends were talking some years ago, and one of them said, ‘Well, Stu Long is going to be a priest.’ Another friend said ‘I went to school with a Stu Long – but it certainly wasn’t the same one!’”
There were other elements of the film that rang true to life for Bill. “His [Stu’s] sister and I were laughing uncontrollably,” he said. “We were laughing because early in the film, there’s a scene in which young Stu is dancing around the living room in his underwear. We were in hysterics because as a young kid, Stu was always in his underwear!”
Important spiritual lessons
Mel Gibson, for his part, was enthused that there were so many spiritual lessons to be learned from the story of Father Stu. “It’s a very compelling story!” Mel told me in our interview. “It isn’t saccharine, or merely preaching to the choir. It was about real people, who have a spiritual experience – and the change in them! We all have the same struggle – the struggle between ‘I’ and ‘not me.’ ”
He added that the filmmakers aren’t “beating you over the head” with the story of Stu Long’s dramatic conversion – they’re “just kind of laying it out there.” Mel hoped that viewers would take away important spiritual lessons. For example, he said, “It’s never too late to change! Particularly the character I played – he decided so late in life that he was going to be a good father. That opened him up to a whole new experience.”
Father Stu has as its theme redemption and transformation – not just of Stuart Long, but of his parents, too, and the people around him. “He takes them along with him!” Mel explains.
Asked about other important themes, Mel added, “The mystery of suffering. And the need to stop depending so much on yourself, and hand it over to someone bigger.” He talked about the change in his character, Stu’s father, as the movie progressed. In the early scenes, Bill Long carried a gun; later in the film, after his conversion experience, he carried a Rosary. Gibson said that that transformation was intentional. “And after all,” he smiled, “they’re both weapons!”
Father Stu opens this week in theaters across America. Starring Wahlberg as the boxer-turned-priest and Mel Gibson as his father, it promises to be a hit with people of faith, and with anyone who appreciates a great story, told well.
• Related at CWR: “‘Everything happens for a reason’: Mark Wahlberg and Teresa Ruiz on Father Stu“ (Apr 12, 2022) by Steven D. Greydanus
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