Film recounts crucial moments of faith, doubt in influential evangelist’s young life
By Chelsea Schilling
“Billy: The Early Years of Billy Graham” releases Oct. 10
A new film celebrating the life of one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century – Billy Graham – is set for release today.
“Billy: The Early Years of Billy Graham” is a about the young life of a charismatic preacher who has reached more than 2 billion people in person and by television and radio with the gospel of Christ.
Producer Larry Mortoff told WND how the idea for the movie came about.
“Two years ago my business partner, Bill McKay, and I were talking about what movie to make next,” he said. “We started talking about stories about Billy and Ruth and said ‘You know, Billy’s turning 90. We should do some kind of a testimony to his life.'”
Mortoff said they decided to focus on Graham as a young man.
“We wanted to make a movie for young people about hope, choice, family and faith rather than simply tell a story about a man who had all these amazing accomplishments,” he said. “We did, in essence, the prequel to the Billy Graham evangelist story.”
Actor Armie Hammer, 22, great-grandson of business tycoon Armand Hammer, portrays Graham as a young man who has come to a defining moment in life in which he must decide between faith and doubt.
The movie, filmed in Nashville, Tenn., begins when Graham is a teenager at the family dairy farm in Charlotte, N.C. It is set during the Great Depression at a time where Graham heeds an altar call at a tent revival. In the 1940s, Graham is friends with a famous evangelist named Charles Templeton. The two grow apart as Templeton loses faith in an age of growing skepticism and declares himself an agnostic after attending Princeton Theological Seminary. Graham, by contrast, follows his calling toward evangelism.
In a behind-the-scenes look at the film, Hammer said he spent hours watching Graham’s sermons, reading his books and becoming thoroughly familiar with the evangelist.
“But even more than that, there was a lot of spiritual work involved with it,” Hammer said. “There’s a lot of biblical principles and a lot of spirituality that gets incorporated into this film, obviously because it’s Billy Graham. … [S]o there was a lot of reading the Bible, soul searching and getting comfortable with myself in that aspect so I could play that on screen.”
Actress Stefanie Butler played Graham’s wife, Ruth. In the film promotion, she said she read six or seven books about her and “grew to love this woman.”
“Ruth Graham was just an unbelievable woman, just really, really beautiful,” Butler said. “She had such a beautiful spirit and such a joy for life. She was just a thrill seeker and really adventurous and had a great personality.”
Mortoff praised the work of writer/producer Bill McKay, writer Jana Rutledge and producer Martin Shiel. He told WND working with Director Robby Benson on the film was a “dream.”
“He is an amazing man, and amazing artist, a gifted director,” he said. “We were all dedicated to carrying the torch of the Billy and Ruth Graham story.”
Stefanie Butler and Armie Hammer as Ruth and Billy Graham (courtesy: BillyTheEarlyYears.com)
“Billy: The Early Years,” with production costs of less than $5 million, is rated PG. It opens one month before Billy Graham’s 90th birthday on more than 300 screens in 80 cities in 20 states. Mortoff said those interested in seeing the movie may visit the website to find locations where it’s playing. If it’s not playing nearby, he said he encourages people to call their theaters and ask for it.
The movie soundtrack, released Oct. 7, features high-profile recording artists such as Brooks & Dunn, Third Day’s Mac Powell, Sara Evans, Alan Jackson, Roy Orbison, Brad Paisley, Michael W. Smith and Josh Turner.
While Mortoff acknowledged some smaller scenes and facts were embellished to improve the screenplay, he said the truth about Graham’s life is clearly conveyed in the movie.
“We did extensive research so nearly 95 percent of the movie is very accurate,” he said. “We did a little fudging with events and people for dramatic purposes. Billy was not present at Gigi’s birth, but we have him and Templeton there. There are a couple of things like that. We fudge a little bit because it worked better as a movie, and we’re making a movie, we’re not making a documentary. If you see the movie and you read Billy’s book and you read some history and check up the facts, you’ll see it’s really accurate.”
Gigi, Billy Graham’s sister, has seen the movie about 10 times. She told the Christian Post some facts are embellished, but it was only a technique to add humor to the film.
“People need to remember that the movie is fiction based on fact,” she said. “Daddy was not at my birth, but who cares?”
Mortoff said audiences will find Hammer’s portrayal of Graham convincing and inspiring.
“We believe we’ve done a wonderful homage to his story, to the love story with Ruth. We are honored and humbled to have been able to do this project. I’ve seen it 20 times, and I still marvel at what we’ve accomplished.”