REINVENTING THE FAMILY BUSINESS: Return to the Hiding Place
By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
For decades readers and film audiences have marveled at the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch watchmaker who hid Jews and members of the underground resistance in her home during World War II. Her story, The Hiding Place, touches on the coordinated efforts it took to pull off such a dangerous mission, but as it should, focuses primarily on ten Boom and her story. In undertaking such a harrowing accomplishment, the efforts and cooperation of dozens of people are usually required. Return to the Hiding Place completes ten Boom’s story, focusing on the army of untrained teenagers that assisted her. Equally interesting to the coordinated efforts around tin Boom were the coordinated efforts that actually produced the film. Writer/Director, Peter C. Spencer tackled the complex story by enlisting the help of those he most believed in – his family. I caught up with the Spencer family recently and discussed their impressive accomplishment called Return to the Hiding Place. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
JOHN BUCHER: This is a film that is, in a sense, produced by a family. Peter, so many members of your family played a part in helping to bring this story to the screen. Can you talk a little bit about working with them and the wonder of being able to do that? Because, a lot of people wouldn’t bring their family on board to the project afraid the quality might suffer but it appears to me, the quality actually improved the more family you brought on board to the project.
PETER C. SPENCER: That’s one of the things that was actually a challenge as we got into the filmmaking because there are a lot things in family films made nowadays which are basically a dad comes up or mom comes up with a story that’s a neat story and so they kind of corral their kids into it, who have never done any editing except maybe they got a final cut somewhere that they got online and they clip it. It’s [the family film industry] a growing industry. Suddenly films are doing $100 million in business. But the blessing for me was that my family had been raised in the industry. I had been writing, directing theater and was a professional actor in equity theater when I was a young man and I brought my children up in that world. So when they were tiny they were sitting there with their feet sticking out of the seats watching my rehearsals eight times a week. So by the end of those experiences, they were professionals. They were all excellent in their fields and mediocrity was not an option as the children grew up. I didn’t have to be a dictator. They just had a passion to do things well. So many things were resolved ahead of time for me because I could trust my team.
Peter’s daughter, Petra Spencer Pearce, produced the film.
PETRA SPENCER PEARCE: I think that having grown up in that environment, we just naturally chose professions that were part of the industry because I’ve looked back when people say “When did you make the decision to go into film production?’ and I can’t remember a definitive moment when I said, ”Oh, that’s what I want to do!” I just went into that career because it was something that I loved so I think that’s how it’s been with each one of us kids. My mom’s a wardrobe designer so she did wardrobe on this film. I produced it. Rachel acted in it. [My brother] Josiah, who’s done music videos for Beyoncé and Lenny Kravitz, edited the film and my youngest brother worked for the accounting department when we were on set. So, all of us had these experiences in the professional world that made it possible to collaborate as a family. I was just very pleased with the product we were able to turn out.
Peter’s daughter, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, gives a stirring performance as Aty van Woerden in the film.
RACHEL SPENCER HEWITT: In addition to our family’s history with the industry, my own theatrical background prepared me for this project. While it’s getting better, the substance in scripts for young females in film and television can be lacking. I found our script exceptionally rare in that my character was allowed to be intelligent, complex, warm, defiant and human at the same time. I may be a little biased, but I feel that those characters and those opportunities to explore those characters are more common in theater. It’s often about finding what that human need is, finding what is universal and then allowing it to be uniquely expressed through your character’s identity. Aty actually existed so I think that my theatrical background gave me the tools to investigate her life in a way that was palpable and communicate that. I also had the advantage of knowing Hans as a family friend so when I began reading Aty’s story, I had learned from theater that I’m an advocate for these people and for these characters and what she sacrificed. I felt it was my responsibility and my privilege to let her story be a part of the repertoire of the people that I fight for.
Thoughts about audience reactions to the film…
PETRA SPENCER PEARCE: We had a screening during the Sundance Film Festival and there were all sorts of people there. And I would ask people as they exited, “What did you think of the film?” People were crying and it just kind of shell shocked some of them. There were guys who said that they loved the father son relationship. There were so many people who were drawn to that fact that even when you’re in the minority and you feel like you’re alone that you can still make a difference in the world. This is a story of hope. This is a story of the underdog being able to win and this is a story about people who fight for their convictions even at personal physical costs to themselves so that they can make a difference in history and in the lives of others. I think that’ something that appeals to everyone.
Thoughts about working with film legend John Rhys-Davis on the project…
RACHEL SPENCER HEWITT: John is now a very close friend of our family and when I met him on set and he heard that I’m doing this for a living and that I’m very passionate, he sat down with me almost immediately and started asking me where I went to school, what my dreams were, what my favorite Shakespeare plays were and after awhile we started swapping stories and he leveled the playing field socially by looking me eye to eye and having conversations with me about art as if we were longtime friends. I started to notice how he would rehearse the scenes with David Thomas Jenkins who played Hans and they would talk about what their characters were thinking and what the different moments in the script were and then my Dad would come in with notes and John would ask him questions about what his intentions were with the lines and where his inspirations for the scene came from. So for a young actor, there’s often a turning point where you either have an idol who shuts you down and you realize that to be a great artist you have to elevate yourself or there’s a turning point where you see a masterful artist who is also a humble and kind human being. And in that moment I began to associate great art with generosity because he exuded that on and off set. He also made one of my biggest dreams come true when he said, “Oh you played Ophelia in school? I played Claudius in Hamlet. We should do a scene together.” He took some of his time off and we videotaped Ophelia’s scene when she comes in to see Claudius and I have it on tape now. It was a dream come true. So I have to scratch that off my bucket list. It was just like a Master’s class, watching him work. I can only hope that as my career grows and my artistry grows that I can also have that same generosity.
Thoughts on the impact of the film…
PETER C. SPENCER: I think it was Rabbi Schwartz who said of the film that he actually witnessed incredible human beings that were not just created by clever writing but were a reflection of actual deeds done. These were actual teenagers who were willing to give up their lives for actual people that they didn’t know. That’s what stunned him was the willingness to stand up for good and for humanity and he said that that was left an impression on him. He said I hope everybody in the world gets to see this film. I do to. I spent five years devoted to this. Everything we’ve got, we put into this. I heard people say that when they walk in and walk out an hour and a half later, they walk out altered in the ways that they thought and ways they treated other people. We’ve had audiences sit all the way through the credits to the very end and when the lights go up we see a third of them that have tears in their eyes and are so affected they just have to talk about it. We live in a culture that genuinely needs healing. We are torn so many different directions that when you can sit down and say, “You know what? These young people, didn’t matter that they were thirteen years old or seventeen years old, they said if we simply stand up for what’s right we can make a difference and change the direction of this ship in the water,” and they did it. To me that is encouraging on tough days. I look back on my circumstances and say I didn’t have a tough day like this. I didn’t have to hide behind a wall. I didn’t have to be lined up and shot. I didn’t have to be tortured for my faith. Today I had a hard day. I had a lot of work and I had to raise enough money to keep this thing going. That is nothing compared to what these young people did. And that’s what we end up with. A lot of old people and young people walking out and saying I’m going to live my life differently. And for me that’s a success.
Return to the Hiding Place can be purchased at ReturntotheHidingPlace.com.