About The Production
BREAKTHROUGH is based on a true story of a mother, Joyce Smith, who prayed
her son back to life after he fell through a frozen lake and died and how this
miracle impacted an entire community.
John Smith was underneath the ice for 15 minutes, with no oxygen. When EMS
workers rescued him, he had no pulse. They rushed him to the emergency room and
worked on him for another 45 minutes. The doctors could not bring him back to
When they brought Joyce into the emergency room and she saw her son laid out
on the table, dead, instead of saying goodbye, she grabbed his feet and said,
'Holy Spirit please bring back my son right now!' Immediately, the EKG machine
began going off.
Written in the medical record: 'Patient dead, mother prayed, patient came
back to life.'
Producer DeVon Franklin explains, "When you're underwater for that amount of
time with no oxygen, the chances of medically recovering are slim to none. And
so, for John to have no brain damage, no eye damage, no lung damage, for
everything to have been healed, it's medically unheard of. For these reasons,
they called it a medical miracle."
The miracle of John coming back to life is only the beginning of the story
and a catalyst for a series of other miracles that followed.
Says Franklin, "Even before Joyce prays for John, it was miraculous that the
firefighters and first responders were able to find him in the first place. Lake
St. Louis is massive, like finding a needle in a haystack. When they put the
poles down in the water, they didn't know where he was, and fireman Tommy Shine
hears this voice, telling him where he needs to go. He thinks it's the chief
talking to him, but later finds out it wasn't the chief at all."
The first doctor at the local hospital, Dr. Sutterer, who happened to be the
father of a friend of John's, spent 45 minutes--an unusually long time--trying
to revive him. He told the others on his team, "We're going to work on him until
his mom can get here." " Miraculous," declares Franklin.
Then Dr. Garrett, a world renown specialist, tells John's mother, "Okay,
Joyce, I'll do what we can do, and we're going to let God do the rest." Franklin
says, "He really believed that was going to happen. So miraculous."
Obviously, John's recovering was a miracle. Says Franklin, "What we didn't
tell in the movie, there were other miracles, other prayers that went on in that
hospital where other children got healed. So, there were miracles all around the
place. But the biggest miracle is the community itself."
He continues, "The thing that was so powerful to me and one of the reasons
why I wanted to do the film is because of how the community rallied around John.
This is a modern-day resurrection story. God is operating in miracles every day,
but sometimes we're so focused in our day-to-day that we don't see them. This
movie, and the story of John Smith and Joyce Smith and Pastor Jason, I believe
will remind people that miracles are still happening. It will remind us of the
power of prayer."
Franklin first heard about the story through his friend Pastor Sam Rodriguez
when he was a guest on Rodriguez's Trinity Broadcast Network TV show, promoting
the movie Miracles from Heaven. His other guests on the show were Pastor Jason,
and Joyce and John. Rodriguez first found the story of John Smith in a newsfeed
and invited them to tell their story on his show. Recalls Franklin, "So they go
on first and I hear their story, and I'm blown away. After the show is over, I
go to them and say 'Hey listen, I've got to tell your story.'"
After setting up the film at 20th Century Fox and hiring Grant Nieporte
(Seven Pounds) to write the screenplay, Franklin began looking for a director.
When he met with Roxann Dawson, a highly experienced actress-turned-director
best known for her work in television, she told him about her adopted daughter
from China. They found Mia in an orphanage with curved legs and covered with
bedsores. She had never been held and had used her feet to feed herself. Roxann
and her husband Eric stayed with her for two weeks, hugging, holding, feeding
and loving her, and by the end of the two weeks, her legs had straightened out
and all the sores were gone.
Franklin says, "When Roxann told me that story, I knew she was the perfect
director for this film about the power of a mother's love. Finding her was a
Recalls Dawson, "Having an adopted daughter, I felt like I really understood
John and Joyce and what they were going through. This story is not just about
one miracle, it's about a series of miracles that happen to John and Joyce and
that family, and the community. It's like a ripple in a lake when you throw a
rock into it. The circle keeps getting wider. Those miracles just keep moving
ASSEMBLING THE CAST
With such a powerful story, the next challenge was finding the right actors
to bring the real-life characters to life. DeVon Franklin started casting the
net far and wide, but little did he know the cast was already right there in
To portray Joyce Smith, Franklin had one actress in mind right away, Chrissy
Metz from TV's This is Us. Although she had never appeared in a film before, he
and Dawson were convinced she was perfect for the role and went after her.
Dawson says, "Joyce is a fierce mama bear. She is not afraid to speak her mind.
She is her faith. Her not giving up hope and her fight for John is what really
brought him through this. She's been through a lot, but man she is strong. She's
a strong woman. Chrissy embraced this character, jumped in with a full heart and
with a brave performance showing every facet of Joyce. And ultimately, I just
think an audience is going to embrace her, is going to absolutely love her
journey and want to get on board with her."
Joyce Smith admits, "I'm not much of a TV watcher, and I didn't know who
Chrissy Metz was when they cast her. So, I sat down and watched This Is Us, and
I thought 'Wow she's amazing.' The first time we met, she just walked over and
hugged me. I felt like I'd known her my whole entire life. She's an awesome
John Smith recalls, "When I heard Chrissy Metz talk, I honestly thought it
was my mom. I really did. She has captured my mom's tone, the rhythm she speaks,
and how she constructs sentences. She's done such a great job of doing that, and
I'm blown away by how well she's been portraying my mom."
Says Metz, "Joyce Smith is a force. She is very strong. She has faith in what
she believes in and she loves her son wholeheartedly. I don't have children but
I do have a motherly instinct. I taught preschool, I have a big family, and I
can relate to wanting to be the caretaker and putting everybody else before
myself. Joyce believes that John was created for a purpose and refuses to accept
what the doctors say. Her faith stayed strong and she is just like a light of
love, pure love."
Roxann Dawson thought Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama, A Beautiful Mind) was
perfect for the role of Brian Smith. "Josh was wonderful as Joyce's husband,
which is a very difficult role to play. Brian's character is a man who is more
introverted, Joyce is the one who speaks up and takes the reins."
"Brian loves his son so much that he can't even be in the room with him when
he is like this, and it's not out of lack of love. It's out of so much love that
he cannot bear it. And so it's a difficult and delicate character to play
because he's not this sort of forceful father. It required Josh to take a step
back and really go inside of himself and examine those parts of him that he
could bring out."
Lucas was truly moved by reading the story: "The first time I read the
script, it was like, there's no way this can be true. It's an amazing thing to
read a script that's so extraordinary and based on a true story, and then you
immediately go online and start checking out what elements of the story are
true, and discovering that almost every single moment is true. It becomes even
When Franklin first heard that Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman, Spider Man 3,
That '70s Show) wanted to play Pastor Jason, the filmmakers were thrilled. Grace
says, "I think the most amazing thing about this movie is that it happened. It
isn't fiction. Roxann and DeVon are telling a great story, and I'm happy to be a
part of it."
Dawson says, "I am so grateful to have had Topher Grace play Jason Noble. He
brings such wonderful humor to a story that needs it. The humor in this film is
wonderful. You will be laughing and crying throughout the entire movie. And a
lot of that is due to Topher's amazing performance, and his chemistry with
Chrissy Metz. The two of them bring a wonderful layer to the whole story."
Franklin says, "The real Pastor Jason, besides being loads of fun, has really
been the backbone for the family and helped them at every level. He helped them
tell the story to bring it to the public."
Grace recalls, "Jason came to set the day I was preaching, and I thought, 'I
can't preach in front of the actual preacher,' and yet he was so positive and
such a wonderful guy that by the end of day, we were hanging out together, and I
think it was really helping the performance. I felt a real personal connection
For the character of first responder firefighter Tommy Shine, who in
real-life is Caucasian, the filmmakers cast African-American actor Mike Colter.
Says Franklin, "I'm a big fan of his Netflix series Luke Cage. With the level of
emotion and care that he brings to it, when you see Mike Colter play Tommy
Shine, it just will blow you away."
Colter says, "I think there's a fair amount of the audience that comes to a
movie like this have some apprehension about believing the story and doubt that
it really happened. Tommy's character represents the doubters and the audience
members that don't necessarily believe in miracles. Tommy is that person's point
of view, so they get to experience this film through Tommy's eyes."
After a nationwide search to find an actor to portray John Smith, the
filmmakers discovered Marcel Ruiz practically in their own backyards in L.A.
Franklin says, "Marcel is just dynamic, an incredible young actor, and a young
talent who has potent potential."
Ruiz says, "This story makes you believe that anything can really happen.
It's a total miracle. When I met the real John, he was amazing. He's also a
great basketball player. We got to play basketball together that day we were
shooting the scene in the church."
Recalls Smith, "Marcel's just like me. He's got that fire, he's got that urge
to be better. And he's got a cockiness just like me. Marcel is a good kid and
I'm super excited for him to be playing me."
Dawson says, "John Smith has taken this experience and allowed it to shape
him and shape his future. I think he wants to coach college basketball, he loves
basketball. He's become an amazing spokesman for his own experience and I think
he has touched so many lives as he continues to tell his story. He's a grateful
and gracious young man. He's truly amazing."
Sam Trammell (True Blood, The Fault in Our Stars), who plays Dr. Sutterer,
says, "It's a great portrait of this town and this community. You meet all these
different people and they all connected, and by a few degrees are all related to
John in some way. They all come together to offer emotional and spiritual
support. It's just a really inspiring story about positivity in a town, and just
believing in something and supporting each other."
For the character of Dr. Garrett, the filmmakers cast veteran actor Dennis
Haysbert, best known for his roles in such films as Far from Heaven and Heat and
such TV series as 24 and The Unit. Says Haysbert, "It's the first faith-based
movie I've done and I've always wanted to do one. It's a very positive movie,
and makes you feel good."
BREAKTHROUGH was shot in Winnipeg, Manitoba, over the course of 32 days at
the end of a Canadian winter. The timing of the schedule allowed the crew to
shoot the exterior lake scenes on an actual frozen lake.
Dawson says, "We needed the audience to believe that we are on a frozen lake,
and we really were on that frozen lake. It was so cold. Those boys were so brave
out there in the clothes that they were wearing and they were really on real
ice. The only relief for me was when my feet went numb and the pain would stop
because it was so unbelievably cold. "
Franklin explains, "We needed to shoot the ice sequence outside first, before
the ice melted, and then we had three days inside to do the underwater work, and
then ultimately blending them together with some visual effects. It took us
three days to shoot the tank work, using two different tanks. We had one tank
that was 17-feet deep, with thousands of gallons of water. That allowed us to
get underneath in the water and get all the shots we needed, looking up from the
bottom of a deep lake. And then we had a shallow tank that allowed us to get the
pieces when the boys actually fall in the lake, and where the firefighters
pulled them out. The deep tank would have been too deep to do that work, so we
built a shallow tank in order to get the surface work done."
Adds Dawson, "What was wonderful about the timing of the shoot in Winnipeg is
not only that we had a frozen lake, but we also wanted to shoot in the spring so
that we could see that change of season. We were actually able to accomplish
that within our short shooting schedule. We've got a full account of the seasons
which really speaks, on another level, to the heart of the story as well."
Franklin says, "My favorite moment of shooting the movie was the church
scene. When we shot the very last scene of the movie where you're bringing all
the first responders and the whole cast and the music, and on that day, we had
the real Pastor Jason, the real Joyce Smith, and the real John Smith there.
He continues, "We probably had 400 people on the call sheet plus extras and band
members and all that, and it was huge, but it was just awesome. For the family
to be there and to experience a little bit of what goes into getting their story
right, and for everyone there to have had the experience they had, that was so
powerful. When we announced to the audience filled with extras, this is the real
Jason, Joyce and John, and they all stand up and applaud and cheer, you would
have thought we were having a rock concert."
Topher Grace recalls, "For me, doing a full sermon is not something I ever
thought I would do, especially on film. Not only was the real Pastor Jason there
that day, but there were a lot of other pastors asked to come be in the
audience, and I thought, 'Oh man this is like taking your driver's test in front
of a bunch of NASCAR drivers or something.' I don't know if they were just all
being positive and they're nice guys, but everyone seemed to enjoy it."
It was Grace who came up with the idea for the music in that scene. Explains
Franklin, "We're in a script meeting in Winnipeg, in pre-production. Topher
comes in to meet with Roxann and I, and he says 'You know this opening church
scene, I don't think that what I'm doing would provoke the reaction we would
want. I think we need something more aggressive, like bringing in a rapper.' So,
I call Lecrae, the biggest rapper of faith in the world, to be in this film, and
he's like 'Yah man, whatever you need.'"
Franklin continues, "I asked Lecrae if he'd be interested in doing a remix of
Phil Wickham's song Amazing Grace, which was a very big record back in 2014 with
a featured rap vocal and he was like 'Yah man, whatever you need.' Lecrae goes
into a studio in Atlanta, cuts the record and sends it to everybody. Everyone's
like, 'This is unbelievable!' We flew him up to Winnipeg to shoot the church
scene, and there you have it."
In addition to Lecrae and Phil Wickham, the film includes songs by Mark
Ronson and Bruno Mars and Macklemore. Says Franklin, "We open the film with
Uptown Funk and we have Can't Hold Me Down because of actual songs from when the
incident happened over Martin Luther King weekend in 2015."
He continues, "We also have Oceans which, when it comes to worship music, is
one of the biggest worship songs probably in the history of worship music. We
had Kirk Franklin who's a good buddy of mine come in and do a remix for a gospel
version that's performed on camera during the prayer vigil scene."
Roxann Dawson wasn't familiar with Oceans, but it was love at first listen:
"The first time I heard it we knew it had to be a part of this film. We're using
it as the midnight vigil that is sung outside the window on the night before
John is going to go off all medication and all machines to see if he can
survive. When the community gets together and really prays as one for John."
She adds, "We've got music that John was actually listening to, music that
was on his playlist. The audience can put themselves into John's shoes. The
actions he takes, his attitudes, the things that he goes through I think will be
After seeing an early cut of the film, 10-time Academy Award-nominated
songwriter Diane Warren was inspired to contribute musically. Franklin says,
"Diane was so moved by the last scene when Pastor Jason asks everyone to stand,
that she went immediately to the studio to write a song called "I'm Standing
With You." And guess who sings it? Chrissy Metz."
HOPES FOR THE FILM
Franklin hopes the film will be a catalyst for positive transformative change
in the life of everyone who sees it. "We live in a time so divisive, where
everybody is on different sides of the political aisle, and have different
points of view on so many things. That division can keep us from reminding
ourselves, we're still brothers and sisters. We're still in this together. I
might not agree with you but I'll pray with you. My hope is that this movie can
really stimulate and be a catalyst to get people back to praying together."
He continues, "I truly hope that audiences take away from this movie, hope.
Faith. Love. Joy. Community. And that all things really are possible. They may
not always work out the way you want, and may not always fall in line, but when
you are down you will see who really cares about you. Sometimes I think things
don't work out the way we want, so that we understand we're more loved than we
think. I hope and pray anyone who watches it will believe there really is a plan
for your life."
Dawson says, "I hope that everybody will walk out of this movie feeling there
is hope for us. In a world that feels chaotic, there is hope we can find common
ground. Love really is at the core of everything, if you really distill it down,
and if we can come back to remembering this. Maybe this movie can help remind us
in one small way."
Says Lucas, "I hope that audiences that are not necessarily faith-based come
and see the movie and see a story that makes them have some questions about what
is faith, and their own faith. Whether you're a believer or not I think you take
away something from this movie, and this story more than anything makes you go
'There is something bigger out there.' Whatever your beliefs are. I think it
could be a movie where you go home and lay in bed that night and have some
interesting thoughts and questions, and maybe some challenging ones about
yourself, about what you're going through in your own life."
Metz adds, "I hope audiences take away that love can truly move mountains. In
that collective consciousness or prayer, in that quiet still time, those moments
really make a difference in that you can change your life and you can change
your mind. And when you do that and you believe in the power of positivity and
prayer you would be amazed what could happen."
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