How Father Stu’s first-time director helped Mark Wahlberg bring an extraordinary life to the big screen

Producer-star Wahlberg not only asked Rosalind Ross to write the screenplay, but he tapped her to direct it, too

Rosalind Ross admits that she was surprised when Mark Wahlberg asked her to adapt the life of Father Stuart “Stu” Long into a full-length script. Ross was even more amazed when Wahlberg enlisted her to make her directorial debut on the project, which was filmed over the course of just 30 days.

Producer and star Wahlberg’s decade-long efforts to bring Long’s story to the big screen culminates on April 13, when Father Stu opens in theaters. The film dramatizes the extraordinary life of a boxer-turned-actor-turned-Catholic Priest, including the near-fatal motorcycle accident that led to his devout faith and the diagnosis of inclusion body myositis that meant an early death (but not before he inspired countless congregants).

With a supporting cast that includes Jacki WeaverTeresa Ruiz, and Ross’ longtime partner Mel Gibson, Father Stu is a tale of faith that’s relatable to anyone facing adversity. Ross talked with The A.V. Club about the challenges of being a first-time director, why we should poke at the term “biopic,” and Wahlberg’s improvisational prowess.

The A.V. Club: So the idea for Father Stu first germinated with Mark Wahlberg hearing about this priest’s life. How did you get involved as its writer and director?

Rosalind Ross: I’m still wondering how I got involved! I had written a couple of scripts for Mark to star in, so he was familiar with my writing. And he just called me out of the blue one day and pitched me the story and asked if it was something I’d be interested in writing. And I’m not sure what exactly rekindled it in his mind because he’d been developing it—gosh, probably close to 10 years ago with David O. Russell. But I guess he thought I might be the missing piece of the puzzle. I found my way into it through the character, and [came] on board. But I had no illusion that I would be directing the film when I wrote it, nor even when I turned it in. So that was a surprise.

AVC: Would you have written the screenplay differently if you knew you were also going to be behind the camera?

RR: Yeah, I’m sure I would have. Because now that I’ve directed a film, I take so much of that into my writing. But I’m glad that I didn’t know [I’d be directing], because then you’re not burdened by the constraints of budgeting or logistics, you know? I sort of wrote my dream version of what this film could and should be—and then forced myself to step up to the plate to execute it.

AVC: How do you turn a person’s entire life into a two-hour biopic?

RR: It’s a challenge. You look at all of the key moments in his life and figure out which ones feel maybe redundant and which ones feel the most impactful for his character and the evolution of his character. And then you have to sort of distill this huge life, with so many experiences and unlikely twists and turns, into a 120-page script or whatever it was. And it is a challenge, but it’s a really fun one. And then, yeah, there are creative liberties.

AVC: What goes into biographical storytelling in a Hollywood project?

RR: I didn’t really have a structure in mind. I just knew my starting point and my end point and that I needed to do something compelling in between. I think “biopic,” as a term, has gotten sort of a bad name because it implies this walk down a museum hall. There’s a bit of a negative connotation, isn’t there? And with the exception of, let’s say, Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody, I guess those qualify as biopics and they were commercial successes. But I think those are sort of exceptions to the rule, like most of these end up being small, little indies that don’t make a lot of money and don’t have a lot of commercial viability. I wanted to create something that was true to the character and not exorbitant in budget or or scope, but that would have some commercial appeal—namely, I think, through the humor. From all the stories I’ve been told about [Long], he was such an irreverent, quirky, quixotic kind of guy. And I wanted to capture that. Anyone you talk to whose life he touched speaks to how funny and mischievous he was. And it was really important to me to try to capture that. And I feel like it’s humor that always makes something more entertaining.

AVC: So zeroing in on his humor is both your path to commercial viability and the guiding force for developing this “character”?

RR: Yeah, exactly. I met his father, Bill, and a close friend of his from the seminary and interviewed them in person. I was [also] given this pamphlet that was handed out at his memorial service. And it contained what seemed like hundreds of anecdotes from people who knew him as a priest and from before he was a priest and they were so funny. They made me laugh out loud. It’s some of these stories that gave me such a great, big-picture idea of who this guy was.

AVC: What were expectations for your directorial debut versus the reality?

RR: Yes. I’m naturally such an introvert and as a writer, I get to sort of sit in my own tortured mind by myself. So probably the most daunting thing was knowing that I had to be around a bunch of people and in charge of them and steer the ship. But I had such an incredible team supporting me and everybody there was so passionate about the story and made such sacrifices to be involved with the project. It’s funny: For all the nerves and stress that you build up in your head, you show up on set and it’s like, Do you sink or swim? And you just don’t really have the time or the chance to second guess or stress about anything because you just react to what’s in front of you and do what’s in front of you. And before you know it, you got through day one and then you gotta do it again.

AVC: Were there any surprises or improvised moments that ended up in the film?

RR: Mark is a master of improv. And the scene where [Stu] first comes to Hollywood and he enters his motel room and he’s checking out his new digs, I believe I told him to just go in and scope it out. I wanted to feel his surprise, that shock at being in this luxury room—which was really a dump—and hearing traffic outside. I wanted to experience that with the character. So I just let him loose to improvise. And I was across the hallway in a room with my video village and I was almost peeing in my pants, laughing so hard I couldn’t even say “cut.” He is so funny when you let him loose. He was so deeply in the character; it was seamless.

AVC: What are your cinematic influences? Does your partner Mel Gibson, who’s prolific in front of and behind the camera, factor in?

RR: Yeah, he has been my mentor and a huge inspiration of mine. Braveheart is still my favorite movie of all time! Undoubtedly, he’s been a huge influence. But I really want to create my own identity as a filmmaker, and I think I have a very distinctive, different identity from now [on after Father Stu]. And [Quentin] Tarantino is one of my favorites. I don’t know if you can see that in this film.

AVC: You must have learned so much throughout this process. What will you take with you into your next project?

RR: So many things. 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. That’s the most important learning experience of this whole process for me; the filmmaking part of it is completely secondary. The whole experience was a lesson in humility and surrendering control and ego. And I’m really grateful for that.