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How Father Stu Brought The Real-Life Story To The Big Screen

When you have a big hit movie, or a proven track record at the box office, it gives you the freedom to make the kind of movies you want to make. With "Father Stu," Mark Wahlberg invested his own money to make a movie he believed in — a story that spoke to him in many ways that also had parallels to his own life.

While the world knows Wahlberg as a major movie star, producer and former rapper, you may not know he is also a devout Catholic — and when he learned the story of Father Stuart Long, he was transfixed. Long was a boxer, a troublemaker, and a struggling actor before a motorcycle accident nearly took his life. After the crash, he had a spiritual awakening, and became a priest, and he inspired many Catholics during his brief time on earth. Long died at the age of 50 from a rare degenerative muscle disorder.

But even if you're familiar with Long's spiritual journey, or how Wahlberg's faith helped transform his own life, there's a lot about "Father Stu" and its lengthy journey to the big screen you may not know. Here's how "Father Stu" brought this true story to the big screen. 

Mark Wahlberg first learned about the story from his priest

Mark Wahlberg has openly talked about his Catholic faith, and he first learned the incredible story of Father Stu from his own priest. Once Wahlberg learned the story, he was hooked, and he told Inside Edition, "I'm like, oh my God, I have to make the movie."

As he raved (via IndieWire), "David O. Russell and I right now are working on developing a script onFather Stu, who was an amazing priest from Helena, Montana. He was a very tough guy who was a fighter, a football player ... anything but a spiritual guy. He found his calling, and decided, after falling in love with a woman, that he wanted to become a priest." Another big hook for Wahlberg was before Father Stu died, "he was able to inspire thousands upon thousands of people."

As shown in the film, Long had a near death experience from a motorcycle crash, and it helped lead him to God. Long was hit by a car, then got run over by another car, and this event was a major crossroads in his life.

As we also saw in the film, Stu was willing to be baptised so he could hook up with the Catholic girl he fell in love with, but he clearly stayed for the long haul with God — even after he got the girl.

Mark Wahlberg considers Father Stu an important film about his faith

Many may not know it, but Mark Wahlberg is a devout Catholic, and much like "Passion of the Christ" for Mel Gibson, Wahlberg found an important film to celebrate his faith with "Father Stu."

In fact, Wahlberg even told Today that "Father Stu" is the most important film he's made, although his 12 year old daughter wasn't that impressed. Half-way through the film she told her father, "Dad, this has gotta be the most boring movie I've ever seen and that's ever made." Wahlberg joked that because she's young, he, uh, "let that slide."

As Wahlberg told the National Catholic Reporter, "I couldn't find any reason to not want to make [the movie] once I was actually smart enough to realize that this was an amazing opportunity not only to tell a story, but to do something that would be more focused on my faith and giving back."

Like Father Stu, Mark Wahlberg was also a troubled youth

Before Mark Wahlberg became a successful rapper, model and actor, he had a very troubled adolescence, and he wound up in jail for 45 days for assaulting two Vietnamese men. Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder, but was ultimately convicted of assault, and years after the fact he sought a pardon for his crimes (via Time).

As Wahlberg recalled (via the National Catholic Reporter), he saw definite similarities to Father Stu's troubled youth and his own — "in his childhood and his upbringing and all those things, all the obstacles that he faced and the things that he had to overcome."

There was a family priest that tried to help Wahlberg when he was 13 years old and he was "standing on a street corner at 2 o'clock in the morning with a beer in my hand. I had lots of troubled times, and once I started focusing on my faith, good things started to happen."

Wahlberg added (via Church Pop), "I've made a lot of mistakes, and I'm continuing to do the work, and not look for cheap grace, and do the mission. The mission is to plant those seeds, to blossom and to do God's work."

Director David O. Russell was initially on board

Mark Wahlberg and director David O. Russell first worked together on the acclaimed war drama "Three Kings," and they also did "I Heart Huckabees" and "The Fighter" together as well. As it turns out, "Father Stu" almost became the fourth film they would collaborate on.

Then reports hit the press in 2016 that they were going to make "Father Stu" together. As Wahlberg told Indiewire at the time, "David O. Russell and I right now are working on developing a script," but they were also both working on other projects at the time and it was assumed that the project would take some time to come together once their schedules permitted.

It's not clear why this potential collaboration didn't come together, and with Russell at the helm, it could have had a more irreverent, left of center take like many of his films. Instead, Russell made "Amsterdam," a comedy thriller based on a true story, starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and Robert DeNiro. "Amsterdam," which was Russell's first film he's directed in seven years, has not been well received by critics.

Instead of Russell, however, Rosalind Ross came aboard as writer and director.

Father Stu was written and directed by Mel Gibson's girlfriend

"Father Stu" was written (for the screen) and directed by a woman named Rosalind Ross, who knows something about religious passion projects because she's currently in a relationship with Mel Gibson — and he also has a role in "Father Stu."

This was Ross's first time in the director's chair, and as she said (via The A.V. Club), "I'm still wondering how I got involved!" As it turns out, "Father Stu" was in development for 10 years before it finally got off the ground, and as Ross continues, "I had no illusion that I would be directing the film when I wrote it ... So that was a surprise."

As a first-time director, Ross recalled, "I feel like I just jumped into the deep end with directing — and made so many mistakes! — and can't wait to just refine my craft and do it again. But I think that there's so much I learned from the character of Stu Long ... the filmmaking part of it is completely secondary."

Mark Wahlberg put up his own money to make the movie

When Mel Gibson made "Passion of the Christ," his Icon Productions invested about $30 million (along with $15 million in marketing) to make what was a true passion project for him, and it was a big hit, raking in more than $600 million world-wide. It also inspired Mark Wahlberg to invest his own money to make "Father Stu."

As Wahlberg said (via Variety), he spent "millions and millions" of his own personal fortune to make "Father Stu," and he likened it to "betting on myself," which he says he's always willing to do.

Wahlberg had to invest his own money in the film when he realized "Father Stu" was a tough sell in Hollywood. "I slipped the script to a couple of people that I thought maybe would get it, and they didn't ... Some people thought it was depressing because he's sick at the end. They didn't see the heart and the emotion and, ultimately, how inspiring it is."

Wahlberg felt if someone else was willing to put up the money for the film, he'd have to deal with other people's opinions and interference on the project. "So I felt, you know what, I think it's better if I just step up and have complete control."

Gaining 30 pounds to play the role

Ever since Robert DeNiro gained 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull," a number of actors have gained and lost massive amounts of weight for roles. Mark Wahlberg, who is usually in top shape, also gained 30 pounds to play Father Stu.

As Wahlberg explained (via Entertainment Weekly), "I put on 30 pounds and went from being a guy who was in fighting shape to a guy who was wheelchair-bound, suffering from a rare muscular degenerative disease."

Wahlberg had just hit 50 when he completed the film, and at that point he was consuming 11,000 calories per day. "That drastic weight gain really took a toll on me over the course of seven, eight months," he continued. Wahlberg added (via Cinema Blend), that he had to eat "the most miserable food for six full weeks. There was never, ever any sweets, or anything that I was actually excited to eat, on the menu. It was just stuff your face with lots of proteins, lots of starch, and lots of sodium to get the bloating effect ... I don't plan on doing that again any time soon."

Wahlberg's weight gain program included eggs, bacon, baked potatoes, steak, and rice, and as actors who gain weight for roles have said, it definitely added to the role. "I do like having to prepare physically as well as mentally," he said.

It took seven years before Father Stu became a priest

Movies have to cram a person's life into two hours, so there's always going to be dramatic license and compressed timelines in order to keep the story moving. One fact you may not know about the real-life journey of Father Stu was that it took him a great deal of time before he committed to becoming a priest.

As Catholic News Agency explains, Long went to a Catholic university, but he hadn't become fully religious then, and he was disruptive in college as well. As one priest, Father Bart Tolleson, told the news outlet, "His conversion is phenomenal, from being an agnostic trouble maker to having a mystical encounter with God. Then, he decided to become a priest."

According to one report, Long's path to the priesthood took nearly a decade, and he said he "played ping-pong" with the possibility of becoming a priest for seven years before he finally committed.

Similar to when he had the fleeting desire to be an actor, or got knocked around in the boxing ring, Long figured becoming a priest would be a temporary interest that would pass as well. But when Stu was interested in something, he dove into it wholeheartedly, and eventually he dedicated himself to God with tremendous fervor.

Father Stu had a positive outlook on his disease

While "Father Stu" is a positive story about the power of faith, it's also a tragedy in that Long died young of inclusion body myositis (IBM), a degenerative muscle disease. But in his time of trouble, Father Stu turned to his faith, and according to the site History vs. Hollywood, Long said his illness was the best thing that had happened to him.

As Long said in an interview, "It's helped me overcome some of my prideful ways, which were a big cross for me for many years. It's taught me a little humility. It's taught me dignity and respect for others, especially for those who share the condition that I'm in."

As it turned out, Long's illness also made him even more empathetic to the suffering of others, and as we saw in the film, the disease brought Father Stu closer to his father before his passing. (Father Stu died at the age of 50 on June 9, 2014.)

Father Stu went to Lordes for a cure

In Lourdes, France, it has long been reputed that miracles could happen, and that people could be healed from a variety of ailments. Father Stu went to Lourdes as well, but he got a much different result than he expected.

As the New York Post reports, Father Stu bathed in the waters of Lourdes, and while it didn't cure his illness, it did eventually give him a sense of peace he didn't expect. He realized that he wouldn't be cured, but he didn't lose his faith.

The first time Father Stu bathed in the waters, he thought he'd be able to walk out without crutches. Once he took a step forward and fell, he got very upset, but he went back again at the urging of a friend, and he got much different results.

After Long bathed in the waters of Lourdes a second time, his faith was back strong. He knew the reality of his illness, but he was confident he would one day be in a better place after he died. Long told a friend, "I know this disease is going to claim my life. And I also know it will be for God's glory" (via the New York Post).

Mark Wahlberg prayed to Father Stu for guidance

Father Stu didn't live long enough to see his life hit the big screen, but that doesn't mean he wasn't directing things behind the scenes. In fact, Wahlberg prayed to Long for advice and guidance during the making of the film.

It was a long, hard road to get the movie made, but as Wahlberg explained (via Church Pop), "I prayed about it and prayed about it. I said, 'No, I have to do this. This is my calling. There's a very specific reason why I've been called to do this. I asked for Stu's intercession. I asked for the Lord's intercession in Mary. And I prayed about it every single day."

Eventually Wahlberg realized that he really didn't find Father Stu's story, but it found him instead. "I think the film chose me," the actor said. (Via Catholic Sentinel)

As Stu's father, Bill Long, told the National Catholic Reporter, "I actually think Stu's involved [in the movie]. I don't think he's done playing with us."

And as Wahlberg reflects, "He's still very much hard at work today and challenging me constantly to do more and to do better. I've got pictures of him kind of in my office where I usually do most of my work and every time I glance over, if I'm in a conversation or something, he'll remind me how I need to be approaching the situation." 

The film is a hit with religious groups

Religious stories can be a tough sell, and they often don't crossover to wider audiences. "The Passion of the Christ" inspired a revival of religious stories, and there was hope that "Father Stu" could also reach mass appeal.

While "Father Stu" received mixed notices from mainstream critics, it was widely praised by Catholic groups and reporters for religious news outlets; Wahlberg did a lot of press for the film, clearly hoping it would be a success.

Coming Soon wrote, "This is a story where you can feel how genuinely invested Wahlberg is, and how much he wants to bring the true-life story to the eyes of more people. Wahlberg gives his best performance in a decade as Stu, a role he fully dedicates himself to." On the other hand, News.com.au called the film "a dull, lifeless movie."

But Catholic Review liked the film and wrote, "Positive priest characters are certainly a rarity in contemporary films. So Catholics will welcome the uplifting fact-based biography 'Father Stu.'"

Even though it didn't make a ton of money at the box office, "Father Stu" reportedly cost a paltry $4 million to make, which means it's actually a box office hit because it earned back more than $20 million world-wide.