Joshua Overbay has been on the roller coaster of his first feature film, As It Is In Heaven, for three years.
There have been ups, including the filming in Nicholasville and Central Kentucky with a crew largely drawn from his film students at Asbury University in Wilmore. And there have been downs, like not getting the movie into any of the top-tier film festivals he had hoped to attract, including Sundance, Tribecca and Slamdance.
But two weeks ago, as he and his wife were house hunting in their new home of Baton Rouge, La., he checked his phone. He knew a review of the movie was coming from The New York Times.
"We were stopped, and I did a Google search and found it, and I read through the review," Overbay recalls.
"This low-budget debut by Joshua Overbay cooks a surprising amount of tension from the barest minimum of ingredients," the review by Jeannette Catsoulis said in one of several compliments.
"I got out of the car and ran around it 10 times," Overbay says. "Just because it was so unexpected and beautiful and it felt like a vindication.
"I know there was a fair amount of skepticism about us being able to make anything of quality with such little money. And then, with all students. Really? It felt in that moment like we had done it, we had pushed our circumstances, worked within our circumstances and achieved something that was worthwhile."
The film was shot over just two weeks in rural Jessamine County in the summer of 2012 and focuses on a small religious sect awaiting the end of the world and the tension within it when the leader dies and leaves an unexpected successor.
While Asbury is a Methodist university, and its internationally acclaimed media department has produced filmmakers that have made faith-based films — including siblings Jeremy and Kendra White, whose Summer Snow also opens this weekend in Nicholasville (See story, page 9) — Overbay says his film does not fall into the faith-based genre.
"I wanted to make something that to me was more similar to the work of maybe secular filmmakers who have an upbringing in Christianity or some other form of religion and how they tackle issues and questions of faith," Overbay says.
"I'm thinking of (Ingmar) Bergman or Robert Duvall and what he did with The Apostle. Religion is an incredible means to examine the human condition through cinema. But sadly, it's been used primarily through faith-based cinema as a means to proselytize. I feel like that's a misuse.
"My faith is very conflicting and confusing, and has often been the primary source of conflict in my life. So, for me, when I went to make my first film, and I knew I didn't have much money, so it would have to be very personal, it made a lot of sense to go in that direction."
That puts the movie in a tricky position as far as marketing it, he said.
"It's definitely a traditional drama, but faith is the subject."
And like everything else with the movie, Overbay and his cohorts have to handle the marketing during a critical phase for the movie where it is being premiered in major markets like New York and Los Angeles as well as smaller markets like Louisville and Lexington, where it is opening this weekend. And he is doing all of this while also making the move to Louisiana, where he will join the film faculty at Louisiana State University this fall.
Making Heaven, he says, made the decision to leave Asbury particularly hard because, "we had really bonded and formed a community around that project. And I think they take as much joy in its success as I do. After all, their names are on it."
Overbay considers it an accomplishment to get a weeklong run at the Kentucky Theatre as opposed to a one-night screening, and he says it is critical to the film's future distribution prospects that audiences turn out this week.
"Of all the places we're booked, we easily have the biggest base of support in Lexington," Overbay says. "So we're hoping the community will get behind it and celebrate something locally made getting national attention."