Matt Webb can pinpoint the conversation that changed his life.
It was September 2019. Webb and his boss, Lance Clark, were sitting in a Starbucks tossing around movie ideas. It wasn’t an idle dream – both men had filmmaking experience. What’s more, they had a green light from Huntington University, their employer, to pursue their passion while creating learning opportunities for students.
During that coffee shop meeting, Clark recalled his deeply religious family’s interaction with a down-and-out, whiskey-soaked country singer who passed through their Michigan community in the 1970s. The stranger, Glenn Frank, ended up sticking around to help erect a new church building. He also opened some minds within the congregation, which initially believed Christians shouldn’t listen to secular music.
“We had some (script) ideas, but when he told me that one, I said, ‘Wow, this is a ready-made idea,’ ” Webb said.
The film, “Wayfaring Stranger,” a Forester Film production, will premiere Thursday evening in Huntington University’s Zurcher Auditorium. The viewing’s 700 tickets have all been distributed.
Webb, who whipped the story into an 85-page script, also directed the film. It stars Stephen Baldwin, whose credits include “The Usual Suspects,” and Bethany Lind, who was in the TV show “Ozark.”
Clark quickly points out that this isn’t a student film. Professionals were hired to cast the movie, lay the cables, position the lights, operate the cameras and edit the scenes. Huntington University film students were hands-on interns on set. At least one landed a full-time job after graduation as a result of the contact she made.
Mia Splendore, a Homestead High School graduate, is now living in Phoenix and working for the man who was director of photography on “Wayfaring Stranger.”
“I think that connections are a big thing,” the 22-year-old said. “Otherwise, it’s a very, very intimidating process of trying to break into the industry.”
Asked whether she got hands-on experience during the shoot, Splendore perked up.
“Ooh, man, was I,” she said. “Us students made up the bulk of the crew. I was, like, literally hands on the camera.”
Splendore estimated she operated a camera for about one-third of the movie.
“It was very rewarding for me. I had a great time,” she said. “And it was an opportunity to prove myself.”
The film provided Webb and Clark that same opportunity. They co-produced the $500,000 project, which was funded entirely with donations and supported by residents of Huntington, where it was filmed.
To accommodate the 21-day shoot last May, some city streets were blocked off and locations were rented, including a church, a bar and an elderly woman’s front porch. Some local businesses also benefited from increased hotel occupancy, restaurant traffic and sales of items used as props, Clark said.
“It was very collaborative. It was town and gown,” Clark added.
It was also a Screen Actors Guild-authorized film, which allowed the producers to hire SAG-member actors. Clark said the process of winning SAG approval was arduous, but following the strict protocols was worth the effort.
In fact, they complied with the same requirements to get their second film, “Patterns,” approved by SAG. Shooting is scheduled for next month.
Clark, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Huntington College, went on to earn a master’s in radio, TV and film from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and a doctorate from Regent in communication. His thesis was a narrative analysis of the TV series The X-Files. He is the dean of Huntington University’s School of the Arts and professor of digital media arts and film.
Webb received his bachelor’s degree in theater from Huntington University in 1998. He later earned a master’s in theology and arts from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is a department chairman and assistant professor in digital media arts and film.
Although they both had movie-making experience – Clark has produced about 150 short films, “Wayfaring Stranger” was their first feature-length film credit. With that experience, they’ve realized that shooting movies in back-to-back years is too aggressive a schedule.
After filming “Patterns,” they will revert to producing one film every two years.
The producers are open to story ideas, including those that don’t carry an explicit Christian message, Clark said. He could see possibly making a detective story. But an R-rated script is a definite no-go for students and faculty at Huntington University, which is affiliated with the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.
“We just want to tell great stories,” Clark said. He wants to prompt viewers to ponder some deep questions, including: “Why is life hard? Why is there suffering?”
Webb said he also wants audiences to wrestle with some of the themes in the movies he makes.
But he isn’t wrestling with the legacy he wants to leave.
“I really wanted to find out how to connect my faith and my art,” he said of what persuaded him to move from California in 2016 to join Huntington University’s fledgling film effort. “I really wanted to tell stories that mean something.”
Clark, who said he’s learning about the business side of filmmaking, is looking for a distributor to help get “Wayfaring Stranger” shown on movie screens in Fort Wayne and beyond.
If nothing else, the experience earned an endorsement from one of the acting Baldwin brothers, Clark recounted picking up Stephen Baldwin at Fort Wayne International Airport.
The actor wore a disguise but traveled with literally 100 pounds of shoes, clothes and ties for potential use in the film.
“He probably thought it’s a student film and we wouldn’t have our act together,” Clark said – before making a confession of sorts.
“We barely had our act together,” he said. “But (Baldwin) was so impressed.”