Featured image: Kevin Corrigan as Father Andrew and Thomas Jay Ryan as Father James in Scenes from an Empty Church. (Courtesy of MPI Media Group.)
“New York is dead… It’s not dead, but it’s on life support,” narrates Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan) to begin Onur Tukel’s newest film Scenes from an Empty Church. This is the usual witticism and cynicism that marks a Tukel film, but here it works as more of a love letter to the tenacity of New York. With both Tukel and Kevin Corrigan, one of the film’s trio of leads, hailing from New York, their passion for the city is felt deeply here.
This drama is set during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, where two priests, Father Andrew (Corrigan) and Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan) go through their daily routine, affected by the collective trauma of the pandemic, as well as the loss of their colleague, Father Brooks. Brooks’ death because of COVID-19 is the breaking point for Father James.
It’s also brilliant in how Father Brooks is used as a symbol: One whose passing symbolizes the change in the dynamic between the two priests, as it also ushers in the change because of the pandemic. As well, it feels more a story device as his passing seems to completely change Father James as a character. James starts off as closed-off; opening up as the film goes along, which is beautiful in Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance.
One thing Father James is opposed to is the idea of venturing back into the world – a natural fear at this time (and even now). When one of Father Andrew’s old friends, Paul (Max Casella), pays a visit to the Church, this connection makes Father Andrew realize that they need to re-open to the community. People miss that connection, and Father James reluctantly agrees to re-open, as long as Andrew takes the responsibility. “If they have a cough, send them off,” warns Father James.
It’s a film that’s hopeful during a dark time and shows light at the end of the tunnel. These three core characters are all portrayed with such power. They heal from their trauma – the priests because of the passing of Father Brooks, and Paul dealing with past addictions – just as the community itself is healing. The community and parishioners have been isolated during the pandemic, from God; and now they’re allowed back in.
It’s a film itself that could be dealt with in a lot of cynicism that things are never going to get better. However, New York survives, and Scenes from an Empty Church is cathartic in its portrayal. It deals with it with some great, funny scenes, as well as just a lot of powerful drama, all brought to life shooting in a gorgeous cathedral. This Church is convincing as a pillar of the community because it feels like a character in itself; one that’s missed when no one can visit it. And one that has the power to bring everyone back together again.
I was able to speak with the team behind their film Scenes from an Empty Church, where for my podcast The Filmcraziest Show I spoke with writer and director Onur Tukel, as well as the film’s three core actors in Kevin Corrigan, Max Casella and Thomas Jay Ryan.
In the conversation, Thomas and Kevin talk about preparing to play priests; Max Casella playing his character and workshopping it with Onur; making a pandemic film that feels both cathartic and positive, and sharing this film as the world begins to get back to normal. We also talk about balancing some of the drama with comedy, and more in between.
You can watch the conversation on YouTube below, as well as listen to the conversation below or go here to download it. Scenes From An Empty Church is now playing in theatres as of July 2, and on digital formats (many of which you can find listed here).
*Podcast music courtesy of bensound.com