WASHINGTON — Some filmmakers get their inspiration from a childhood memory or perhaps a work of literature. Daniel Lusko said the idea for the movie "Persecuted" came from the Holy Spirit.
"The very core of what inspired this movie — and I am by no means a holy man — was prompted by the Holy Spirit," Lusko said. "I awoke one morning, chills ran down my spine, and the whole story stood before me."
Lusko said his vision included the image of a hunted man running through the forest to save his life. That image became the film's protagonist John Luther, a popular evangelist targeted by powerful Washington interests for his refusal to support proposed radical restrictions on religious freedom.
As these interests attempt to frame him for murder, Luther, played by James Remar ("The Cotton Club," "X-Men First Class"), goes on the lam, with even one of his closest aides turning on him.
The motion picture, which opens May 9 on 600 movie screens across the country, including in Salt Lake City, is being heavily marketed to the Christian community. At its heart, Lusko said, is a question: How far are you willing to go to defend your beliefs?
The writer/director said the issue of freedom of conscience versus the state's influence is central to the film’s message.
"There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a people who want all faiths to get along," Lusko said, "but the moment a government starts forcing that, or the way a religion can act, you’re forcing conscience and the human heart. Man ought to have the right to choose, and the moment the government starts dictating the conscience of man, we need to look at what’s happening."
Despite the movie's ripped-from-the-headlines feel, Lusko insists there's no agenda beyond his desire to preserve freedom of conscience. " 'Persecuted' wasn’t developed around a political agenda," he said. "It’s not for the right or the left, but for everybody. Do we really stand for freedom?"
Others involved in the film have similar views. Brad Stine, an actor and comedian dubbed "God's comic" in a New Yorker magazine profile, plays Luther's right-hand man, who is "flipped" by Luther's enemies into opposing him, without even knowing it.
"This film unapologetically speaks of what truly happens in real time," Stine said, referring to the suppression of liberties in many parts of the world. "To think a free country can't do it is naïve," he added.
Fred Dalton Thompson, an actor and a Republican who served as a United States senator from Tennessee, plays Luther’s father in the film. On his way to a congressional screening Monday, he said "Persecuted" should score with his former colleagues.
"They’ll be impressed," Thompson said. "Everyone ought to see it; this film raises important questions about our constitutional rights."
Lusko said the movie frames issues of persecution and freedom of speech and conscience in the form of a question: "What beliefs do you hold sacred?"
"Everyone has some idea that drives them, but what if a society becomes hostile to that belief?" he asked. "It's happening all over the world."
Producer/actor James Higgins, a Tulsa cardiologist making his film debut as an unnamed president of the United States, also cited the religious liberty angle as something that appealed to him and led him to be involved with the film.
Higgins, who admits when he was 20 he set a "bucket list" goal of appearing in a motion picture with a speaking part, said the script’s appeal beyond traditional "Christian" elements of a personal fall and redemption also appealed to him.
"The script went beyond (the) Christian elements (and) went on to talk about what’s happening in this country with almost the suppression of free speech, suppression of our liberties and of the federal government being more powerful than it should be," he said.
Gretchen Carlson, a Fox News Channel anchor and former Miss America, said she was "requested" by Lusko for the film, in which her character — a television newscaster — plays a pivotal role.
"I was honored" to do the film, her first movie role, Carlson said. "I love the message of this film; it's very timely and will resonate with people."
Indeed, Gary Bauer, a 2000 Republican presidential candidate and head of the Virginia-based American Values organization, said the film has the potential to influence midterm elections this year and two years hence, if the issue of religious freedom continues to gather steam among the electorate.
"I think freedom of conscience and religious persecution is beginning to emerge as an issue, but it's not clear whether it has enough traction yet to be part of the election cycle," Bauer said. "A movie like this is very important because public opinion in the United States tends to be molded by culture, film, music, books and even entertainment more than, I think, talking heads on 'Meet the Press' or whatever. I'm glad the film is out there, and I'll do everything I can to promote it."
Beyond Christian cinema
Equally important to the filmmaker and his backers was producing a picture they said would go beyond the stereotypical "Christian movie" that may motivate a core audience while driving away critics and nonbelievers over a bad storyline or poor production values.
Most notably panned was the original "Left Behind" movie series (a new film version is due this year), which critics slammed as not being well produced. Two of the three movies went straight to video distribution after a critical backlash and poor box-office reception for the first film, released in 2000. "Persecution" will be different, backers said.
"This film has much better cinematography than other Christian-based movies," Higgins said in a telephone interview. "The music is much better, (and) the acting is much better."
Said Lusko, "People identify with movies, and if people are sculpting their lives after movies, and faith-based films are subpar, what does that say about us?" He said he hoped people after viewing this film "wouldn’t be embarrassed about their faith, regardless of what faith they have."
Jerry Simmons, a venture capitalist from Overland Park, Kan., usually raises money for commercial businesses and entrepreneurs, not for motion pictures. But "Persecuted" captured his attention, he said, and he ended up as the film's executive producer.
"I loved the script — it's an avenue to reach a lot of people," Simmons said. "I think this movie is going to be hugely successful. Ten major studios have inquired about distributing it."
Simmons also said he found a personal connection to the leading character: "This John Luther, people can relate to him, and it was just an encourager: here's a guy the government goes after because they want him to support a bill that's not good for our freedoms, and he (Luther) is an overcomer. When I saw the movie (script), I kind of saw myself in it."
Producers are counting on advance screenings, such as those at the late-February National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville and the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in March to create enough word-of-mouth buzz to help carry the film. Along with the Washington screening this week, the film also played to an enthusiastic preview audience Tuesday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Lusko and Higgins each said.
More information about the film and a trailer can be found online at persecutedmovie.com.