Abigail Disney (her grandfather was Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, just to get that out of the way) has long been a producer of award-winning documentaries, including producing Pray the Devil Back to Hell, The Invisible War (Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated film for Independent Lens, 2013), and the five-part PBS special series Women, War & Peace. Disney’s films and series focus on social issues, spotlighting extraordinary people who speak truth to power, and with her first film in the director’s chair, she continues that tradition with two articulate, passionate, and thoughtful people at the center. The Armor of Light, which she co-directed and produced with Kathleen Hughes, premieres Tuesday, May 10 on PBS at 8pm [check local listings], follows the journeys of Evangelical minister Rob Schenck, an outspoken pro-life advocate who is now trying to find the courage to preach about the growing toll of gun violence in America; and Lucy McBath, the mother of an unarmed teenager who was murdered in Florida and whose story cast a spotlight on the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. Disney talked to us about why she wanted to make a film that takes a more philosophical and theological bent to such a contentious topic.
Why did you make this film?
The Armor of Light is an attempt to stir a new conversation in this country based on the values shared by both conservatives and liberals. [For the film] we listened to people who genuinely believe in the sacredness of every human life as they come to grips with the readiness, even eagerness, of their fellow citizens to buy, carry, and use firearms in a wide array of public circumstances. In doing so we hope to trigger some new modes of thinking and discussion in a space “above politics,” that space inhabited by us all which is rooted in morals, in faith, and in ethics. It is this discussion that should precede all talk of legislation and policy, not the other way around. And so The Armor of Light attempts to remind us all of who we are as a nation on a moral plane.
Was there any particular incident, or incidents (mass shootings, etc), that set you off on the path to make this film, or was it a more gradual path to this idea?
Well, I’ve cared about this for a long, long time. It troubled me. I had wanted to make a film, but my husband and I agreed that given how violent some of the advocates are in this space, that it might be best for me to wait until the last of our children had left for college. Then Sandy Hook happened, and I simply could not be silent any longer.
How did you first hear about Rev. Schenck — did you put out a call for religious people on this subject or know about his activism beforehand? Did it take time for you to both become comfortable with each other before he let you into his own philosophical struggles?
I went looking for someone — anyone — in the pro-life world who could help me understand how while out of one side of their mouths Evangelicals spoke so passionately about the sanctity of every human life and out of the other, they seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the “make-my-day” ethos of gun culture. So I spoke to a few different ministers and Rob was the only one brave enough to step into the public eye on it. I was surprised at how quickly we became comfortable with each other. I know he wondered WHY he trusted me, but the fact is, he did. And vice versa. So a friendship formed pretty quickly.
And how did you first approach Lucy McBath about participating in this film, given how painful it surely is for her to talk about her son’s death, and dive into this issue?
We actually found Lucy McBath because we were interested in her attorney, John Phillips. We were looking for conservative “apostates” on the theory that the gun culture has led to laws and practices that are socially destabilizing, and that socially destabilizing values are not conservative values. But when we met Lucy through John she was just so compelling, so eloquent, and so on the same wavelength with Rob, we just had to work with her.
Did you yourself have a religious or spiritual upbringing, or mostly agnostic? How did that affect how it was to enter the world of evangelical Christianity for the film?
I was raised in a conservative Irish Catholic home. I left the spiritual practice when I left home for college, as a lot of people do, but the words and the spirit of faith never really left me. I’m grateful to this film and to Rob and Lucy in fact for helping me find my way back to a faith practice, even though it’s not precisely to the faith I was raised on.
What were some of the other challenges you faced in making this film?
My biggest challenge was managing my own feelings about the pro-life/pro-choice debate. I had come into the conversation with the minister in our film with a conscious desire to be a peace builder; to reach out across a political gulf that divided us and to deliberately seek and inhabit the common ground we shared.
But once in awhile, there was a moment when I felt so angry, and so defensive of my own point of view, that I had a hard time not shouting in disagreement. This came up again and again in the edit as well. I had promised everyone we filmed that they would be treated with respect, and it is really hard not to want to undercut someone you disagree with when you have all the power in the world to do so in an edit room.
The film also does a good job of being careful not to, pardon the expression, ‘preach to the choir’ about guns. What do you want people to take away from this film after they see it, as far as discussion points, especially given it’s a contentious election year and this is such a hot-button issue? How can we have conversations — the way Rev. Schenck attempted to — with people in our families and circles who we may not agree with?
Yes, we were very careful not to simply make another film for the liberal echo chamber. I really believe in the power of dialogue. What I want people to take away isn’t so much a particular message or plan of action. I want people to understand this film as an invitation to a dialogue. It’s a dialogue we’ve never had as a nation, what I call the “moral homework” of gun violence. A gun is an instrument of the absolute. Its consequences are spiritual, ontological, ethical, and moral. If you want to wield one, you need to answer a lot of questions about your values before you start that process. So I am hoping people will no longer feel cowed by the loud voices who have dominated this conversation before and will instead talk to their communities about these issues in a nuanced and compassionate way.
It is crazy to think that one film can change the deep divide this country is living on in terms of the gun issue, but I do hope to get people to sit down with peace and love in their hearts, and to at least try to have conversations they’ve never had before about how to bring their best and highest selves to this incredibly serious, life-or-death issue.
You’ve worked on numerous acclaimed documentary productions, but this was your first time as a director. What was different in your experience here as a director rather than as producer? What was the process collaborating with your co-director and producer Kathleen Hughes?
Oh my goodness, directing is different! When I started the project, I had an idea that I hadn’t heard anyone else echo yet; and that is the terrifying high wire of artistic expression. We had no way of knowing whether or not this was going to work. But Kathy Hughes is so talented and has so much experience. She generously held my hand in the process, and maybe saved my bacon once or twice, too!
What are your three favorite films?
Singing in the Rain, The Best Years of Our Lives, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
This film was hard for me to start because it demanded that I trust my own judgment. I had an idea in my head, and I’d never heard anyone else talk about it! What if I was crazy? What if no one talked about it precisely because it was a stupid idea? This was incredibly hard. But as I pushed forward, every single day was slightly more satisfying than the one before it. My advice to young filmmakers is not to wait until you feel like your ideas have been pre-certified or until you think you’ve gotten some approval for them. Then it’s too late. Follow your gut. That’s hard to do, but the only way to be original.
What projects are you working on or planning to work on next?
Oh that’s such a hard question!! I have a bunch of things in the works that I can’t talk about just yet, but I will say this: I will always be a peacebuilder through film. I so strongly believe that the best way to open hearts and minds and to ask people to rise — instead of shrivel — is through storytelling. Film is the best way to do that.