“The Fighting Preacher” is “the greatest church history story that you’ve never heard of,” according to director and writer T.C. Christensen.
“There’s so few people that know about it, and the Beans deserve to have their story told,” Christensen told the Daily Herald in a recent phone interview.
Christensen’s latest film, set for theatrical release Wednesday, follows Willard Bean, a former middleweight boxing champion, and his wife, Rebecca Bean, on their mission to run The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ newly acquired Joseph Smith farm in 1915, 85 years since church members had lived in Palmyra, New York.
“These guys were ministering to a town that hated them,” Christensen said. “That’s a whole other level to this whole ministering thing to have people that not just don’t want to see you, they really hate you and would like to see bad things happen to you.”
The director, known for directing many popular LDS films like “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration” and “17 Miracles,” describes the Beans as “Willard the tough and Rebecca the sweet.”
“Really, we could have named the film ‘The Fighting Preacher’s Wife’ because so much of it is about Rebecca and her ability to put up with all of the adversity that was put in front of her and continue to be Christlike and looking for ways to help other people,” Christensen said.
A story that touched Christensen in his research for the movie was when Rebecca Bean helped a woman in need who had “slammed the door in her face and yelled at her” years earlier when Rebecca Bean needed help.
“She was Christlike enough to put that behind her and go and help this woman in her time of need, even though she had been awful to Rebecca,” Christensen said. “I think that was one of the moments I just thought, ‘Man, I’ve really got to do this. This is a good story.’ ”
Christensen said the film’s lead actors, David McConnell and Cassidy Hubert, stood out in their auditions for Willard and Rebecca Bean’s parts, respectively.
“I gave (Dave) a scene where Willard is being kind of funny … where he’s a little bit sarcastic and just poignant that way, and he got it. He just understood it,” Christensen said. “I had one scene that I was concerned about because it was very emotional, and I’d had several good actresses that did OK, and then Cassidy came in, and, man, she just created a feeling in the room as she read it.”
McConnell said portraying Willard Bean is probably the most physical role he has ever played.
“I’ve never played a boxer,” McConnell said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t have any boxing history at all, and so the preparation for this role was a bit arduous.”
The actor had six weeks from when he was cast to become as physically fit as possible for the role in addition to doing character study.
“There’s nothing more motivating than knowing that in six weeks, you’re going to have to flex on camera,” McConnell said. “I increased my workouts. I was in the gym three hours a day at least. I cut my calorie count to 1,200 calories a day. I tried to burn about 500 or 600 of those on cardio machines throughout the day on top of increasing my weightlifting, so I was hoping to get, as they say, in my fighting shape. So that’s what I did, and I worked with the stunt coordinator on boxing, boxing techniques.”
Christensen said “The Fighting Preacher” is “based on a true story” because he did take some liberties with it, which he never does unless “it’s in the spirit of the people.”
“People don’t live their life like a movie,” Christensen said. “To make a movie, you have to have ways to kind of tie it together and create a conflict and then resolution, and maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way.”
The director said he feels good about the film’s representation of the Beans, which he gauges by involving their family members, including Rand Packer, who wrote the book the film is based on, “A Lion and a Lamb.”
“Rand Packer has seen an earlier version of the film and is very happy with the way his grandparents are represented, so that’s the best thing for me,” Christensen said.
Many of the Beans’ descendants are also involved in the movie as actors, according to Christensen.
“We put out a call, and we got them to come in and be extras in the film,” Christensen said. “Some of them even have little bit parts and have close-ups, and I just love to do that. It’s a way of paying homage to this whole family. It’s a great family, and they all have benefited by having this great ancestor.”
“The Fighting Preacher” was a family affair for Christensen as well, whose son Tanner and daughter Tess were involved in the film’s editing and makeup department, respectively.
“We do it all the time,” T.C. Christensen said. “I can tell you one of the best things about that is that my wife and I live right next door to Tanner and his family, and he has his editing studio in his basement. So for three months, I’d just get up and walk about 100 feet and go down into his basement, and then I end up with one grandkid on one knee and another grandkid on another knee working on and editing the film. You don’t get a better day of work than that.”
Working with T.C. Christensen “was an absolute pleasure,” according to McConnell.
“He’s as nice a guy as he seems,” McConnell said. “You can tell his heart and soul is in what he does. There’s nothing flippant about anything that was done in that movie. Everything was thought out and everything had his touch on it for sure.”
McConnell said playing Willard Bean in “The Fighting Preacher” impacted him in “recognizing the power of faith, and in turn, motivation to be a better person every day and the payoff for doing that.”
“Willard was out to make a difference and do it in more of a physical way, but over the course of time, he recognized that the best way to influence and help others is just to love — genuine, true love,” McConnell said. “And although you may not sway everybody to become you or be like you or think like you, ultimately, at the end of the day, they’re better because of you, and I think that’s the story here.”