Daniel Roebuck’s state of ‘Grace’
With over 200 film and television credits (and counting), Daniel Roebuck has considerable experience, but Getting Grace is perhaps the most special of all – because it’s his baby all the way.
Not only is he the star, but he’s also the director, producer and screenwriter. He found the property. He raised the funding. He found the location (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – from which he hails). He hammered out the logistics. He brought in friends and called in favors.
“When they talk about an independent film, this was truly an independent film,” said Roebuck, traveling from city to city to promote the film on a screening tour that came to Greensboro last week. Getting Grace will be released nationwide March 23, with additional theaters being added March 30, including the Regal Grande Stadium 16 in Greensboro and the Regal Palladium Stadium 14 in High Point.
The title character, Grace (Madelyn Dundon), is a bright, perceptive teenager stricken with terminal cancer. Grace refuses to let her condition diminish her spirit or spunk, a trait her single mother Venus (Marsha Dietlin) tries, not always successfully, to emulate.
Grace has questions about death, and who better to ask than Bill Jankowski (Roebuck), the uptight director of the local funeral home? Just to be on the safe side, she also consults a local minister (Duane Whitaker) and a best-selling self-help author (Dana Ashbrook).
But it’s the relationship between Grace and Bill, whose bluster masks his own hidden grief, that forms the centerpiece of the film, particularly when Grace tries to steer him and Venus into a relationship, even as her health flags.
Roebuck, whose diverse credits include the indifferent teen murderer in River’s Edge (1987), legal eagle Cliff Lewis on the final three seasons of “Matlock,” dogged federal marshal Bobby Biggs in The Fugitive (1993) and U.S. Marshals (1998), and a combustible Jay Leno in the acclaimed HBO adaptation of The Late Shift (1996), is unstinting in his praise for Dundon, whose first feature this is.
“Maddie is magical. She’s not a triple threat; she’s a quadruple threat. She dances. She sings. She acts. She can play Shakespeare. She is crazy talented. I directed her father in a play when he was 13 – can you believe that? – so I’ve known the family for years. She will be a movie star. But I’d like to brag, if I may, about all the child actors – none of whom had done much, if any, acting before.”
The genesis for Getting Grace (which was originally titled Bending Spoons) goes back nearly a decade when Roebuck read the screenplay, the first by Jeff Lewis, a prison guard in Saginaw, Michigan. “I was so taken with the idea,” Roebuck recalls. “All the basic elements were there. It was funny. It was moving. The characters just jumped off the page. I knew this was something special. He rewrote it, I rewrote it, he rewrote it … I couldn’t have done it without Jeff.” (That Roebuck’s first-born is named Grace was also a happy coincidence.)
Although a faith-based film, Roebuck did not want those elements to overwhelm Getting Grace. “I wanted it to be an allegory,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed. I just want people to recognize that there’s a God. He’s here for all of us. God’s grace is available to all of us. That’s it.”
At last year’s Northeast Film Festival (held annually in Teaneck, New Jersey), Getting Grace made a strong showing, winning awards for Best Feature Film, Best Director of a Feature Film, Best Actress in a Feature Film and the Audience Choice Award, with nominations for Best Actor in a Feature Film, Best Supporting Actress in a Feature Film (Dietlein), Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film (both Dana Ashbrook and Duane Whitaker), and Best Screenplay.
Even a cursory glance at the credits indicates that Getting Grace was very much a family and a community project. “There were a lot of Roebucks,” he laughs, “and they work for free!”
Filming in Bethlehem was a homecoming. “Bethlehem and Lehigh Valley partnered with us. That’s the only way I can put it. I wanted to make a love letter to where I come from, and I think we did that. God’s hand guided us the whole way.”
There’s even a memorable sequence filmed at Roadside America, the popular tourist destination in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, that bills itself as “the world’s greatest indoor miniature village.”
During production, Roebuck’s son Buster, who plays young Bill in flashbacks, finally admitted that, having either visited or heard about Roadside America so many times, he couldn’t stand the place. “How can you be a good American if you don’t like Roadside America?” Laughs Roebuck. “Try as you might, sometimes you just can’t get your kids to love the same things you do!”
It would be remiss not to ask Roebuck about working with Andy Griffith on “Matlock,” and he’s happy to, as he considered him both friend and mentor.
“There was no one like him,” Roebuck said. “Those were truly, truly, truly the best three years of my life. Andy was a very smart, cultured man and he trusted me. I’m so lucky to have spent time with him.”
Although Hollywood is home, Bethlehem is where Roebuck’s heart remains – to say nothing of his sports loyalties. A die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, he remembers his family spending hard-earned money for season tickets during seasons when the team was mired in mediocrity year after year. Thus, the outcome of Super Bowl LII in February was very sweet indeed.
“We deserved it, we earned it, it was meant to be,” he declares. “No disrespect to New England fans, it was just, finally, our time.”
The official Getting Grace website is https://www.gettinggracethemovie.com/.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.