January 18, 2024
Brian Ide: Unselfish love could bridge what divides us
In a new documentary, conversations about love that extends beyond sentimentality point the way toward connection.
Brian Ide is on the road. He’s somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, headed to Amarillo and points beyond, traveling cross-country to talk about a topic that, in this moment, feels both vitally important and virtually impossible to achieve.
In his new documentary, “A Case for Love,” Ide raises the possibility that unselfish love could be a bridge across the nation’s significant social and political divides.
The topic plays out through conversations — some with people the film’s crew literally walked up to on streets across America, others with individuals and families deeply engaged in living out love through challenging situations. And there are interviews with recognizable figures such as Al Roker, the Rev. Becca Stevens and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The son of a Lutheran pastor father and Catholic mother, Ide has worked in the entertainment industry for more than two decades, founding Grace-Based Films in order to start telling faith-centric stories that weren’t being told in Hollywood. He had joined the vestry as a parishioner at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills and quickly recognized that conversations about stewardship and pledging shortfalls did not play to his strengths.
“It could be a long [vestry term] — or maybe we could start telling stories and utilizing other gifts in our parish because of where we were,” Ide said he thought. “Especially back then, [what] was coming through Hollywood was centered around, if your faith was strong enough, then your football team won and your marriage was reconciled.
“We thought, ‘Who’s telling the stories about the messier, more complicated conversations, where you don’t get the big football win?’ It was born out of there.”
“A Case for Love” is Ide’s fifth film and first full-length documentary and will be showing in wide theatrical release for one day, Jan. 23. Ide spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne during a promotional tour. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: There are a lot of entry points into the conversations featured in the movie, including for people who are not from a faith background. Was that intentional?
Brian Ide: That was really important to us. Through the course of the filming, we had one story that was inside a church, because the story itself was about somebody’s faith journey. Then Al Roker, when he agreed to do a cameo for it, wanted it to be at St. James’ [Episcopal Church], but other than that, it is a story about ordinary people.
It is not a propaganda machine for the Episcopal Church or for the Christian church. It’s not a story about telling you what to believe on any of these entry points that you’re talking about; we are not experts on anything. It is truly a journey story about bringing human beings back together again in a time when it feels like we’re all being pulled apart. What can we take from being exposed to people’s intimate, vulnerable stories? We were really intentional about not hiding from it but also trying to do something that had a broad reach.
F&L: You feature such a breadth of people. How did you find and choose them?
BI: The film itself is broken into four groups of people, and the bulk of it, probably 95% of the whole film, are these deep-dive stories of ordinary people that cover a range of topics that are woven together into seven chapters. It’s usually two, maybe three of these stories woven into a single chapter, and the chapter itself has a universal theme — so a chapter on love and loss or a chapter on being dealt a difficult hand or a chapter on answering the call.
We knew early on it was really important that the bulk of the film be about ordinary people, because we wanted it to be for ordinary people so that, hopefully, they’d be inspired or moved or motivated to do something in their own life. If they see it’s Bob and Susan doing this, then they’re like, “OK, well then I think I can do that.”
Whereas if all we had was a bunch of CEOs and Mother Teresas, it would be, “Great for them, but I’ll never do that.” So that was really intentional; that’s really the heart of the film.
There were a handful of those that we had lined up before we started the filming tour, and two of them were military. We knew that it was important for us to explore the military space and that intersection of what we assume is this community that has to face conflict and war and death sometimes, and how does that intersect with love. We were just fascinated by the power of that.
Beyond the four or five we originally had lined up, it was trusting in the Holy Spirit to start in Minneapolis and be with people. And they’re like, “You’re going to Indianapolis? Listen, you really need to meet with Tim Shaw. Let me see if I can make that happen.” And the rest of the stories ended up coming from the journey itself revealing [them].
It was this mix of being intentional and planning about having diversity in the stories but then letting the Spirit guide. I love that, because we ended up being with the people that we were supposed to be with, and they weren’t people that were chosen because they’re experts on any of these topics; they’re just people. We’re in their homes, and we’re creating a space that’s vulnerable enough and safe enough for them to open up about their particular journey.
That’s the deep-dive portion of it. Then we were fortunate enough to have access to these notable figures, and those were politicians and actors and rabbis and Muslim leaders and NGO leaders. That helps Hollywood see that they can have something to sell a ticket on, when you have these notable faces and names in there.
The third group are people on the streets. We had probably 200, 250 of those, where we just pulled over [and approached them] everywhere, from downtown Indianapolis to the Brooklyn Bridge to just a small row of farms in Pennsylvania. We would just pull over and then walk up to people and ask them about what comes to mind when they hear the words “unselfish love,” and where have they seen it in the world and where have they seen the absence. Those were probably the interviews I enjoyed the most, because of how eclectic they were, how surprising they were.
After all of that, we sat down with Bishop Curry and said, “OK, you’re the teacher. Here’s what we saw. What does this mean?” He’s just beautiful about speaking to the human condition.
F&L: What a faithful way to have set out to do this, to discover the voices you needed along the way.
BI: I would say that. Or terrifying. One of those two. I think it’s a little bit of both. But it was a trust, which I loved.
F&L: What surprised you or resonated with you from these conversations?
BI: A couple of things. This first one wouldn’t be a surprise but would be a reinforcement for me that we are way more connected than the headlines of the world want us to believe.
Most of us are trying to figure out how to take care of our families and loved ones; most of us are trying to figure out what our purpose is on this planet; most of us are trying to figure out how to be kind. And most of us find that pretty tough at times. In being with people and talking about those things, where we were on some political issue or social issue never came up. Just the human part of the dialogue came up. It reminded me and reinforced for me — and that gave me hope — that we are very much connected.
The surprise part of the journey was probably the people-on-the-street times, because we’re a crew of eight. It’s a big camera package. We have big sound equipment and all of this. When you walk up to somebody and they’re walking to the grocery store to get their lunch and you pull them aside, I think everybody’s first sense was skepticism.
The surprise of it was that as soon as they believed what we were about, then there was this lifting of spirit across the board and there was a sense of, “You want to know what I think? Nobody ever asked me what I think about that and holds that in value.”
I saw that time and time again. When that happened, they shared incredibly beautiful, vulnerable, intimate things that they probably never in a million years imagined they would tell a group of strangers on camera on their way to work.
That surprised me, not knowing what that part of the process would be like, and I think that’s probably why I enjoyed them so much.
F&L: You talked to children and to young people and gave value to their stories as well.
BI: What I loved about the young people is they don’t tell you as quickly what they think you want to hear — they tell you what they think. That gives me hope too, because we’re all born with a pretty good soul and a pretty good view of what love is and instincts of what love is. To sit with them reinforced that.
I think the next project is going to be centered around young people in some way. I think, this last handful of years, that they’re absorbing toxicity at a rate that we’re not fully aware of, and I think that they’re struggling in a variety of ways. So I want to do something to serve them.
We had a national educator see one of the screenings of the film. He was like, “Can I create a discussion guide that uses our language in schools for young people?” He created a free one for seventh through 12th graders (it’s on the website and free to download) that uses the language of young people and educators. That was a beautiful thing.
F&L: Where do you hope to go with this particular project, and what’s next for Grace-Based Films?
BI: For this one, Hollywood is in an enormous period of transition right now, and I think they’re trying to figure out what models are working and not working. Is it streaming? Is it not streaming? What kinds of movies do they greenlight?
For films like these, they don’t usually get significant platforms. And when they do get platforms for faith-centric movies, historically, a lot of them have been catered to big evangelical megachurch worlds.
It’s much harder in the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran worlds to do that, so they just haven’t been given the megaphone in that way. It is really important to me to do everything we can to show the business analytics side of this, that there is an audience for these stories.
We were offered this theatrical release, which is in almost 1,000 theaters nationwide, provided by Fathom Events. (Fathom is owned by AMC, Regal and Cinemark.)
They created this company to create opportunities to add new content to midweek auditoriums and theaters, because most of their box office happens on weekends. They can now offer it to films that aren’t “The Avengers” and “Avatar” and give them opportunities like this.
The way it’ll work for us is that we’re in theaters on Jan. 23 for one day only, as most of their films are. We push all the attention toward that, and the success of the attendance and engagement with that will then dictate, “OK, does that mean that Netflix is next or Amazon is next or Peacock? What streaming opportunities? What opportunities are there for military bases?”
All of those have this tiered downstream process dictated by Hollywood. Much of that will be on the success of Jan. 23.
I try to plan for the next one, and I realize, every time I do, that I’m wrong. But I really do feel this pulling toward something that is youthful. I want to travel again and spend time with [young people] and listen for, like, “OK, what are the things that you all are talking about, and what are you not hearing, and what are you not saying?” and then mirror that with the power of storytelling, probably in a scripted movie, not in a documentary. To find something in that space is where my heart is right now.
F&L: You address head-on that some people might view this movie cynically. Bishop Curry says in the film, “Someone could say that’s naive, but sometimes what we call naivete actually are ideals we don’t want to deal with.” Could you speak to that as a filmmaker?
BI: As we were in the earliest processes of dreaming this up, I was sitting with a writer-producer friend of mine who’s done this for a long time in Hollywood, and he said, “OK, here’s the deal. You have a documentary about love. You have an older, ordained minister as the inspiration for it. The vast majority of people are going to look at that and be like, ‘I already know what that is. I don’t need to watch it.’ Or some people will be like, ‘I want that,’ but they’re going to assume that they already know what it is.
“Your job as a filmmaker is to say, ‘You thought it was this? It’s actually this.’” That drove so much of the way I went about this process, and Bishop Curry was really focused on that as well.
He says it over and over again when I’m with him, and I’ve heard him say it to many other people too, that this is not a sentimental love. He said, “What I’m talking about is not sentimentality. Unselfish love is a very different thing.”
When you hear “unselfish love,” it forces you to take a beat, because you don’t usually hear those two words together.
Sometimes jarring people can be good. There are going to be some stories that are jarring. We have some really beautiful, simple, heartwarming stories in there, and then we also have a story of a woman who was sexually trafficked from the time she was 5. We have the whole gamut in there, because different people need to hear different things, and also to remind us that these are complicated things.
All of those things drove how we go about this, so it doesn’t get written off as a churchy thing or a Valentine’s Day thing but instead is like, “No, we really need to have these conversations as a human being thing.”
We’re seeing the effect of not having these conversations, and it’s not great. Those were driving forces for us.
F&L: What haven’t I asked?
BI: I’m a hopeful person. This film is funded entirely by donors across the United States, from individuals to foundations to parishes to all kinds of people. I don’t own any of the profits from it. Bishop Curry doesn’t own any of the profits from it. The people that funded it don’t own any of the profits. They all go toward telling stories that serve people. I’d love for that to come across. Because sometimes, I think, in the cynical world that we’re living in, it’s like, “OK, is this guy hopping around all over the place trying to get people to buy his product so his product is successful and he becomes successful?”
It is important to me that people know that that’s not the driving force of why we or the people that funded this made it happen. I do like sharing that, and I think people will be surprised — I think they’ll be moved by this.
We didn’t want people to go to a theater or watch it at home for two hours, be entertained or be moved, and then go back to their life. We wanted this to instigate something; it’s part of the launch of 30 days of unselfish love. So the call people will hear in movie theaters on the 23rd, the call is, when you go home, for the next 30 days, be intentional about seeking out — every day — some act that works in your world of unselfish love and journal about that. What is the impact on you, and what did that mean to you?
There are journals on the website too. They’re beautifully designed, and they’re free; they’re downloadable. Our CFO was the one who came up with this, and he’s a very Type A, analytical, list-driven person. He started this, and he put it on his whiteboard each morning.
What he found was that by the sixth day, it became a habit. Our belief is that acts turn into habits and habits create change. We invite people to use this and then find out whatever [is next]. A lot of the NGO partners — folks that are doing really great work that have come on board, like kindness.org, dosomething.org, racial justice programs and neighborhood collaboration programs — if somebody’s moved by the faith element of this, if they’re moved by the volunteerism element of this, here are groups that do that really well.
Take this as an instigator toward action. We hope that people see that too — that this is more than just a moment in time.