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Whitworth grad turns spiritual crisis into feature film

Rachael Perrell Fosket and Michael Draper in a scene from “Emily.” (Tribune News Service)
Rachael Perrell Fosket and Michael Draper in a scene from “Emily.” (Tribune News Service)

When going through a spiritual crisis, some people fall apart. Portland filmmaker Ryan Graves ended up making a movie.

Graves is the director and screenwriter of “Emily,” a film that will open Friday at the Magic Lantern Theater. Both Graves and the film’s producer, Kelly McCrillis, are Whitworth University graduates and will be at evening screenings of “Emily” on Friday and Saturday.

It was while at Whitworth that Graves began to question things he’d previously simply accepted. The crux of his doubts began at Whitworth when he took a team-taught course called Core 250.

“The Whitworth staff tells every class, ‘You’re going to be talking about this class in 20 years,’ ” Graves said during a phone interview. “And every class is like, ‘Yeah, right!’ But I’m telling you, it is the most important class because you study philosophy, you study religion and theology, and you kind of have to reclaim your whole identity.”

What Graves discovered in the class shook his world. “I realized that my faith wasn’t necessarily my faith,” he said. “It was the faith that my parents wanted me to have.”

As one of his professors, Leonard Oakland, said, “It knocked his whole religious underpinnings out from under him.”

But with the help of Oakland and fellow Whitworth professors Casey Andrews and Fred Johnson, Graves began to explore another interest: filmmaking. And it was through this artistic discipline that Graves – with the help of McCrillis – found the means to explore his ongoing spiritual journey.

That journey, he said, began with his wife, Sara, whom he began dating when both were still Whitworth students. “I began thinking about what would have happened if I had this existential crisis when I was married, and what kinds of problems that would cause,” Graves said. “So Emily is greatly based on my wife.”

“Emily” the film follows the story of a married couple, Nathan (Michael Draper) and Emily (Rachael Perrell Fosket). When Nathan tells Emily that he no longer wants to be part of their regular Bible study group, she is understandably hurt. And when he moves out, she struggles to figure out what to do – and even if they are meant to be together.

The question becomes whether any relationship, but especially a loving one, can bridge such a stark difference in spiritual beliefs.

Graves explained that he and McCrillis decided to title the film “Emily” because, ultimately, everything revolves around her. “She is the protagonist in the classical sense,” he said. “She pushes things forward. It’s Nathan’s crisis, but she is the moral hero of the story.”

“Emily” is Graves’ first feature, but it isn’t his first film. Shortly after he and McCrillis left Spokane for Portland, he wrote and directed a short titled “Mr. Right.” Released in 2014, it starred McCrillis and Fosket, an actress whom he had met in a Portland coffee shop.

A year later, when offered $20,000 to make another short, Graves decided instead to try his hand at making a feature. He convinced McCrillis to forego plans to attend film school and help him, promising that they would learn what they needed to know as they proceeded.

They worked out the idea for the film, and Graves shot the final screenplay mostly in his own apartment but also in various Portland locations (such as the bar Pepe le Moko). He had already decided to cast Fosket, and it was she who suggested Draper to play Nathan.

The shoot took “about 18 days,” Graves said. “Since I knew we had only 20 grand, I wrote in a way that I knew could be done easily,” he said. He raised post-production funds, which amounted to another $7,000, through crowdfunding.

“Emily” had its premiere on the Whitworth campus at the 2016 Leonard Oakland Film Festival, which was the perfect venue because, as Oakland himself said, “They got to show it to an audience that knew who they were and what they were trying to do.”

But the film should appeal to a more mainstream audience, too.

“It’s everything you expect an independent movie to be,” Oakland said. “It’s a sweet little movie about a crisis that is thrown into a relationship. It just happens to be a religious crisis.”

And sometimes, it’s clear, a life crisis can lead to something good – which is something else Graves learned from his Whitworth teachers.

“We’re totally indebted to what they taught us,” Graves said. “Having those professors really made a difference.”