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Filmmakers are hoping that a strong plot and a positive message will overcome budget limitations and give To Save a Life a powerful impact on young viewers.
The independent Christian movie, opening in hundreds of theaters nationwide on Friday, addresses real-life issues that teens and young adults can relate to, according to director Brian Baugh.
"I wanted to attempt to try to do something relevant not so much for the 'choir' but for those out there that may not ever go to church," Mr. Baugh said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles.
When he first saw the script by Jim Britts, Mr. Baugh said he was surprised that it was relatively gritty compared to most Christian movies.
"At the core of it, I felt it was really interesting, that there was a strong story in there that I just hadn't seen, especially from a pastor-type like Jim [Britts]. They really wanted to deal with reality and I was impressed with that," he said.
The movie centers on events surrounding Jake (played by Randy Wayne), a popular high school athlete whose idyllic life is shattered when a former close friend commits suicide.
The tragedy starts Jake looking at what he could have done to prevent the senseless death, and he also begins exploring the deeper issues of life.
To Save a Life includes scenes of high school students drinking beer and partying, "cutting" or inflicting self-injury, and talking about sex - not the typical backdrop for Christian films, Mr. Baugh said.
"It's an honest depiction of what a whole lot of high school students are going through, and it doesn't try to sugarcoat or make that look too safe."
Mr. Baugh said he believed he was the right person to tell the story because he related to some of the events that the high school characters react to in the script.
"I had two friends that committed suicide so I know about some of the decisions that Jake has to make, not only about how he chooses to live his life but also dealing with the suicide," he said.
The producers have worked to get support from churches and church youth groups nationwide, offering preview screenings, movie resource kits, youth curriculum, parental study guides, an interactive devotional, posters, stickers, T-shirts, and more.
Mr. Baugh said the filmmakers are following the lead of other movie-makers whose religious films, including The Passion of The Christ and Fireproof, have enjoyed box-office success at least partly because of grass-roots support from pastors and churches.
To Save a Life was made on a modest budget, reportedly half a million dollars, and Mr. Baugh acknowledged that financial constraints do pose challenges for a director.
"Every movie's difficult, so it's just a matter of what those challenges are, and each one is its own different beast," he said. "When you have a little more money to throw at problems, then things are easier."
He was determined, however, to use a cast from the Screen Actors Guild even though it cost more than hiring nonunion actors.
Mr. Baugh said some Hollywood specialists as well as scores of movie extras volunteered because they supported To Save a Life's efforts to give American teens - especially those who are hurting - an uplifting message.
"There was a purpose to the movie beyond just making a product that entertains, so that helped a ton," he said.
Mr. Baugh, 36, is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television and has worked as a cinematographer on more than 20 movies.
To Save a Life was produced by New Song Pictures and is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
"To Save a Life" will be shown in theaters starting Friday in Defiance and Findlay, Ohio, and in Ypsilanti, Mich. More information is available online at ToSaveaLifeMovie.com or ToSaveaLifeLeaders.com or by calling 800-991-6011.
- David Yonke