NEW HOPE, Ky. – A new movie in which Father Matthew Hardesty served as an unofficial consultant presented him with a rare opportunity to share the Gospel message with a group of Hollywood moviemakers and to see his ministry with fresh eyes.
"Wildcat" – directed by actor Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya Hawke – takes a look at the life of Catholic author Flannery O'Connor as she tried to publish her first book in the 1950s. The film was screened at a premiere event Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival after it was shown Sept. 1 at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.
It was filmed over a four-month period in various locations in Kentucky including St. Vincent de Paul Church in New Hope and St. Catherine Church in New Haven, parishes where Father Hardesty serves as pastor. Some scenes were also filmed at St. Boniface Church in Louisville.
"I take it as a sign God wanted to refresh me by helping me see more concretely the fruits of priestly ministry," said Father Hardesty during a recent interview with The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Father Hardesty and St. Vincent de Paul's choir were filmed in scenes for the movie. His main contribution, however, was guiding the actors and crew members in understanding aspects of the Catholic faith that would give authenticity to the film, he said.
He was sent a draft of the film's script and, after reading it, wrote 20 pages of notes in response to references to O'Connor's life and the Catholic faith. The movie was set in the '50s so Father Hardesty wrote in detail how to depict the Latin Mass as authentically as possible, he said. He wasn't specifically asked to critique the script, but Ethan Hawke was very receptive to his input, he said.
Over the next few weeks, he collaborated with the crew members and actors including Maya Hawke, who portrays O'Connor – and whom, the priest noted, asked for his guidance in learning how to genuflect, how to use the beads on the rosary and how to position her hands while praying.
"I was so moved as a priest by how much they were on board to get it right," he said.
Last October, producers Eric Groth and Cory Pyke knocked on his office door at St. Catherine, he said. They were interested in seeing the Church as they searched for locations to film.
Father Hardesty said he was stunned when Groth told him the movie's director was Ethan Hawke and that Hawke was waiting outside and was wondering if he could see the inside of the Church.
Father Hardesty said he was "starstruck" as he met Ethan Hawke standing in front of St. Catherine on Main Street. He's long been a fan of the actor who's starred in various movies, including "Dead Poets Society" and "Gattaca," one of Father Hardesty's favorite films.
"I sort of had a fan moment and gushed about the movie 'Gattaca,'" he said laughing.
Father Hardesty said he tends to think of movie stars as "snobby and aloof," but Ethan Hawke wasn't. "He was struck by how beautiful the Church was. He was talkative, relatable and down to earth. It was such an easy conversation."
Hearing about Ethan Hawke's and his daughter's love of O'Connor's work awakened the "Catholic nerd" and "movie buff" in him and he wanted to support the project, he said.
That visit set in motion what Father Hardesty described as his "most exciting and fascinating period of evangelization."
The cast and crew's desire to make sure the Catholic faith was represented authentically – down to the small details – conveyed an openness to the faith, Father Hardesty noted.
They were "walking around with eyes wide open and taking in the beauty (of the Churches' interior)," he said. "It led me to believe they were seeking for answers and for beauty. I could tell they were nourished by it."
Father Hardesty's parishes collaborated with the movie producers to give each member of the cast and crew a copy of O'Connor's book "A Prayer Journal," he said.
He'd had short conversations with members of the cast and crew during the weeks the movie was filmed, but the most "profound experience" of evangelization happened during two parties to celebrate the end of filming, Father Hardesty said.
"They opened up about their wounds, hopes, questions, joys they'd carried with them for years," he said. They told him about family members they'd lost and how they regretted falling away from the Church. Others were interested in what the Church believes and teaches, he said.
Father Hardesty said he felt like "seeds were planted" during filming.
Working on the movie gave the cast and crew the opportunity to learn about the "life of a faithful and devout Catholic. … Her life and work was down to earth and realistic, not fluffy or romantic" and this allowed seeds to be planted, he said.
Collaborating on this film was the "shot in the arm" Father Hardesty said he needed. He'd been feeling "stressed and burnt out," he said. He was "bogged down" by the responsibilities of administering three parishes and a school. Father Hardesty also serves as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Culvertown, Kentucky.
"It was a wake-up for me to give myself a break and see again what this is all about," he said. "It opened my eyes and ears to the deeper needs of the people. I'm more receptive of Jesus in the people around me and more receptive of the deeper needs."
Ruby Thomas is a reporter at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.