KAILUA-KONA — Sometimes forgotten by the film industry in favor of the more populous Oahu or scenic Kauai, Hawaii Island is about to have its moment in the spotlight.
“Running for Grace,” a new film set to premiere in Hawaii today, is a labor of love by local Honua Studios and the film’s director David L. Cunningham, a graduate of Konawaena High School who lives on the island with his wife and three children. Described by Honua Studios managing director Derek Hall as a “90-minute postcard for the islands,” it was filmed and edited almost entirely on Hawaii Island.
“Running for Grace” tells the story of Jo, played by Ryan Potter, a mixed-race orphan who finds himself taken in by a newly arrived doctor (Matt Dillon) to run medicine on Kona coffee plantations in 1920s Hawaii. Cunningham spent time directing films in Los Angeles, and around the world, before returning to his home on Hawaii Island.
“Coming back home to me, a filmmaker on Hawaii Island, wasn’t very easy,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t really have the infrastructure and there was no studio here. Oahu is really kind of the hub. And so we realized that in order to be a part of making films here we would have to help build the industry. So that’s what this studio represents, and that’s what this project represents and this is our first one out the gate so there’s a lot of reasons why we’re excited.”
Along with a homegrown director and Hawaii-centered plot, GVS Accelerator and Honua Studios reports that “Running for Grace” spent $2.5 million and created 175 jobs on Hawaii Island. With his extensive knowledge of the island, Cunningham said, he understood the potential the island and its people had to create its own film.
“That was what was so cool, we didn’t have to make stuff up, we have it here on this island,” Cunningham said. “And we’re out to prove that point, that there’s so much that the Big Island has to offer for film-making.”
The film was shot at familiar locations such as the Kona coast around Captain Cook, the Palace Theater in Hilo and Waipio Valley. Local farms such as Kona Pacific Farmers’ Cooperative, Hokukano Ranch, Kona Cloud Forest and Billy Dignan’s private farm were all used for the film’s coffee plantation setting.
“The lead character, Jo, has a real connection to the island, and a real love and passion for it. It’s a part of the story,” Cunningham said. “Hawaii is the star of this film; I think you’ll see that when you see it.”
The film opens today with a red carpet premiere at the Dole Cannery in Honolulu and will also be screening at Regal Cinemas Makalapua in Kailua-Kona, as well as theaters on Maui and Kauai. The film will make its Hilo debut on July 27 at the Palace Theater. Cunningham said he wanted Hawaii to have “a sneak peek” at the movie before its release is expanded to 10 theaters on the mainland on Aug. 17. The director also said the distribution company has already sold the film to be shown in theaters in China and countries around Europe at a later date.
Despite being set in the 1920s, Cunningham said the film’s themes of diversity, identity and adoption are still relevant today. Cunningham said tickets to the Honolulu premiere have been bought on behalf of Oahu families that have adopted or are fostering children, as well as two screens at the Regal Cinemas Makalapua for the same cause.
“This movie is about the power of adoption, which I think is something that Hawaii really gets,” Cunningham said. “The hanai culture and how you need to belong to someone and belong to a family, and this (film) really plays into that.”
“Running for Grace” was co-written by Cunningham and Christian Parks, and stars, along with Potter and Dillon, Jim Caviezel, Olivia Ritchie and Kailua-Kona native Cole Takiue as young Jo. The film was previously known as “Jo, the Medicine Runner” until a name change was implemented to make it more marketable worldwide.
“What we’re wanting people to know, and to recognize, is that we’ve made an independent film with movie stars that is for a global release,” Cunningham said. “This isn’t an arthouse film made for a smaller, or niche, audience. This was made for the world.”
Cunningham said the most difficult challenge when making “Running for Grace” was the smaller budget. Despite this, it still has the feel of a big budget film thanks to the addition of movie stars Dillon and Caviezel and the many Hawaii Island locations used for the film. He said the help he received from his family and friends made filming run smooth, and being at home on the island was both a comfort to him and a source of pride.
“For Hawaii audiences, I really hope that they’re proud of this film,” Cunningham said. “That they see a reflection of who we are in an affirming way — the whole concept of a melting pot and championing different cultures that all live here. I hope they walk away with the power of adoption, the power of identity and that they enjoy the movie. …I think that this has got something for everybody, and the audience will really enjoy it.”