This Life: Take your small group to see ‘Small Group the Movie’

Writer/director Matt Chastain and crew set up location in Guatemala City, where they spent a week shooting “Small Group the Movie.” It also filmed in Athens. CONTRIBUTED

Writer/director Matt Chastain and crew set up location in Guatemala City, where they spent a week shooting “Small Group the Movie.” It also filmed in Athens. CONTRIBUTED

Just when I think I’ve heard it all, Matt Chastain takes a seat across from me at a popular Norcross coffee shop to talk about “Small Group the Movie.”

Movie, I get. I’ve seen a lot of them — loved some, others not so much.

But “Small Group” means nothing, especially not in a religious context, which is what Chastain is selling.

I like a good story, so I’m totally engaged when he launches into the moment a few years ago he and his wife joined a small group of people from Watkinsville First Baptist Church and it occurred to him that small group is the perfect way to do church and more importantly foster spiritual growth.

Apparently a lot of people agree.

According to the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm based in Ventura, Calif., 36 percent of Americans are practicing Christians, meaning they attend church monthly or more often and consider their faith important in their lives. Of those, 52 percent attended a small group in the past week, so, assuming 240 million adults, that means about 45 million adults are in a small group in any given week.

If you assume for a moment that there are roughly nine people per group, then there are 5 million groups that meet on any given week in America. That’s huge.

Chastain thinks he knows why.

“In a small group, you can crack jokes. You’re more open. You laugh and cry together. You’re there for each other, not just on Sunday morning,” he said. “And when you’re studying the Bible, the accountability opens your heart to the truth of the Gospel in a way that doesn’t happen in a large worship service. It’s pure and real and is focused on living a biblically centered life, a real life focused on pursuing God.”

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I get that in a big group, but he’s drawn me in and besides I’ve been in church long enough to know that “faith comes by hearing.”

Being a storyteller by nature, Chastain saw in his small group a pretty good tale that hasn’t yet been told and he got an idea. Someone should make a faith-based film about small groups.

“Small Group” stars (clockwise from top left) Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Derrick Gilliam, Caleb Hoffman, Copelyn Chastain, Nelson Bonilla, Kasandra Banfield and Matt Chastain. CONTRIBUTED

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He was in a meeting back in October 2014 with producer Christos Hines and mentioned this. Unlike me, Hines had heard of small groups and was a member of one. He agreed it was fertile ground for stories.

Go write it, he told Chastain.

Three weeks later, the guy was done.

His story, shot in Athens, follows a fictional documentary filmmaker named R. Scott Cooper, who has been hired to make a movie about the dwindling influence of Christianity in America. He wants to make an objective piece, but the producer has other goals. Cooper infiltrates a small group with hidden cameras to try to pull back the curtain.

Hines liked the storyline and introduced Chastain to a new partner and producer, Dale Wheatley, and over the next 18 months, the two of them drafted a screenplay.

“It was excellent,” Hines said.

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It was so good, in fact, they were able to raise in just four months more than $1 million, enough to finance the project.

Chastain, a 40-year-old father of three, had spent nearly half his life in advertising and marketing and doing voice-over for radio spots, but this was his dream from the time he was 10 years old.

He remembered standing frozen on the Monticello Square one day, watching Joe Pesci getting out of the car in that iconic scene in “My Cousin Vinny,” about two New Yorkers accused of murder in rural Alabama while on their way back to college; and the cousin (Pesci), an inexperienced lawyer, who tries to defend them.

“That was the moment I knew making movies was for me,” he said.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By the time he entered Monticello High School, he was fully fixated on the dream, filming videos and acting in school theater productions. He graduated in 1996 and headed to the University of Georgia, where he earned a degree in television production.

When he graduated in 2001, he had an offer to go to Los Angeles and work on a show he co-wrote with a friend, but he turned it down.

The toxic L.A. culture was no longer appealing to him, and he couldn’t fathom missing one Braves or Bulldogs season.

“I kinda lost the dream,” he said.

Then it looked like God intervened. The little boy on the Monticello Square that day was dreaming again. He was sure he wanted to make movies and so he did.

“Small Group the Movie” opens in theaters Oct. 19. Go. See for yourself what 5 million groups of Americans will be doing this week.

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“Small Group the Movie”

Starring: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop and Matt Chastain. Directed by Matt Chastain.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including brief violence and drug references. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 1 minute.