'Only God Can' Movie set in Charleston about women, friendship and faith

Vanessa Evigan (left) as Gracie talks about her faith with Lisa Sheridan, who plays Sara, on the beach in the movie “Only God Can.”

When the women in the movie “Only God Can” talk with each other, they say things like “Let me tell you, one Charleston Heart to another,” then go on to say whatever they wanted to share.

This is a faith-based movie about five women in their 40s who have been friends since their days at the College of Charleston. They call themselves the “Holy City Heartbreakers” and the film begins with them all coming together for a reunion at a splendid beach house not far from Charleston.

That these women love and care for each other is readily apparent, yet, as adults, they have taken different paths toward completeness, with varying results. Two are committed Christians, the other three, not so much. This leads to conflict among them that is put into perspective when tragedy strikes.

The movie stars Lisa Sheridan as Sara, Donna D'Errico as Coley, Robbi Chong as Patrice, Debra Capps as Glen, and Vanessa Evigan as Gracie.

Greg Evigan plays Pastor Rodney. John Oliver, one of the film's producer's, also portrays Coley's chauffeur, and Jan Anderson plays Gracie's mother. Andre Bauer, a former S.C. lieutenant governor, also has a credited, cameo role. The film was directed by Randall Owens.

“Only God Can” is definitely a women's movie. The screenplay was written about six years ago by two women, Colette Harrington Schwoeri and Terry Ward Tucker, both of whom were living in Charleston at the time.

After a long and arduous path from conception to completion, the movie is finally coming to theaters in March.

Linda Flannery, the film's executive producer, said she fell in love with the script when she first heard it read at a Bible study.

“This is my first movie,” Flannery said. “I was invited to a Bible study by Jennifer Truesdale. She said, 'Linda, we're going to do a script reading at the Bible study. It's a Christian movie.' ”

Flannery, 52, is a mother of six and grandmother of four. She and her husband, Jim Flannery, sold their Washington, D.C., metro-area based technology company several years back and relocated to the Charleston region. They lived on Daniel Island for a while and attended church at Seacoast's Mount Pleasant campus. They are now staying at their Kiawah Island beach house, which was used as one of the primary shooting locations for the film. Two of their children attend school at Porter-Gaud.

Schwoeri, who now lives in Newport, R.I., said she and her co-writer Tucker met on the set of “Sweet Carolina,” a TV show Schwoeri hosted on WLCN-TV, a local low-power television station. Tucker, an accomplished author, was on the show to plug a book she had written, “Charleston Kisses,” Schwoeri said. “I told her, 'I am really feeling a calling to write a screenplay about Christian women.' ”

Tucker and Schwoeri collaborated for hours on end, Schwoeri said. “There is no way I could have done this without her.”

Schwoeri was not always one to identify herself as a Christian.

“I was a Catholic girl from Chicago,” she said. When she and her husband, Larry, moved to the Charleston area, he started attending services at First Baptist in Mount Pleasant. She decided to go with him one day to see what it was all about.

“The moment I walked in there, I felt that connection,” she said.

Co-writer Tucker describes herself as a lifelong Christian. “I came to Jesus in an old-fashioned revival meeting at First Baptist Church in Lancaster,” she said. “I was 8 years old. I've been washed in the blood of Jesus ever since.”

Tucker, 69, lives on James Island and attends First Baptist Church in Charleston. She holds a doctorate from the University of South Carolina in reading education. She describes herself as a “recovering academic, now swimming around in the sweet waters of film art.”

Tucker has written four novels set in Charleston, and said having Charleston as the location for “Only God Can” was a no-brainer.

In keeping with the professed faith of both of its writers, “Only God Can” presents a Baptist understanding of the role of baptism in the lives of believers.

The film was first shown locally at a pre-release screening at Charleston Southern University in June. It was supposed to have been released in the fall, but the release has met several delays.

Tucker said she's excited that the film is finally going to be seen in theaters.

“When we showed it at Charleston Southern, the audience stood up and clapped at the end,” she said. “This is going to be something that women enjoy watching together in a collegial way, for a long time. It's a common thing for women in the South to graduate from college and to keep those friendships all their lives.”

Though the movie was written and produced largely by women and for women, men like it too, Flannery said.

“When we did the film festival in L.A., we had focus groups afterwards. One man said, 'I am a Christian. I enjoyed it. Why are you marketing it as a women's movie?' ”

Just as 1983's ensemble movie “The Big Chill” showed the Beaufort area in a favorable light, “Only God Can,” makes the Charleston metro region look good.

Much of the movie was filmed at a beachfront Kiawah Island home owned by Flannery and her husband. The house serves as the home of Coley, the character played by Donna D'Errico, who is perhaps best known for her role on “Baywatch.”

“Originally, the script was written with Coley having a really nice house at the beach,” Flannery said. “I think in Colette's mind, it was at the Isle of Palms, but I thought, 'Why not at Kiawah?' ”

The Flannerys' five-bedroom, 7,845-square-foot home on Oceans Palms Court is one of Kiawah's more elaborate beach houses. They rent it out during the summer season for about $18,000 a week, she said.

“We have a lot of the same families coming back each year so we've never had any problems with anybody trashing the place,” she said.

Flannery did not bring it up herself, but the house is on the market with a current asking price of $11.75 million, according to the real estate website, Zillow.

The movie wasn't always entitled, “Only God Can,” Flannery said. The first working title was “Perfume Poured Out.”

In real life, Schwoeri distributes a perfume named “Sweet Carolina” and in the film, the character Coley gives each of her friends a gift of perfume at the reunion.

Other titles included “Heaven's Grace,” and “Holy City Heartbreakers” before Flannery finally settled on “Only God Can.”

That women's Bible study at which Flannery heard the script read for the first time proved to be a turning point in her own life, she said. It was a time during which she was feeling discouraged.

“I threw myself into the movie. It gave me myself back. I believe that we can do anything we need to do with God.”

For Schwoeri too, the movie has come to symbolize God's mercy as well as his might.

“The week I signed the contract for the movie, I learned I had an incurable type of leukemia,” she said. “It's not curable but it is treatable and I am doing well with treatment.”

Schwoeri also plays a church secretary, Daisy, in the film. Daisy opposes an apparent romance in bloom between the lead female character Sara and Pastor Rod, the lead male character, Schwoeri said.

Though the film is very flattering to Charleston, not all of the scenes that are set in Charleston were actually filmed here. Most of the church scenes and several outdoor scenes were filmed in the Greenville area. An exterior shot of a church building was actually filmed in California.

And a flashback scene that shows Coley's mother berating her as a child was filmed in California, Flannery said. “We felt like we had to add that scene so people could have a better understanding of Coley.”

Over the bumpy road from editing the film to finally getting it in theaters, Flannery has met with several distributors, big and small. She's talked with secular distributors and with those who specialize in distributing faith-based films.

The film had originally been slated for release to theaters in the fall, but the release dates kept getting pushed back, despite a very successful social media campaign.

“Only God Can” has a Facebook page with more than 390,000 fans and new ones being added every day, Flannery said. “I've got almost 400,000 people who want to see this movie, but I have had a hard time getting it into theaters.”

The last big distributor she spoke with wanted her to wait until June to put the film in theaters, she said. That distributor had another Christian-themed film coming out around Easter and he did not want to release “Only God Can” because it would have been competing for the same eyeballs and dollars.

Flannery said she felt she would be letting down the movie's huge social media following if she waited until June, so she's used an alternative method to get the film into theaters.

It is called “theatrical on-demand” and is an approach used by many documentary filmmakers, she said. With this method, patrons go online and reserve tickets for a screening, she said. If enough patrons reserve tickets, the screening will take place.

“You have to enter your credit card number but the card is not charged unless and until the screening is confirmed.”

To prime the pump, Flannery has set up a number of showings in the Charleston area, including an official Charleston premiere on March 15 at The Terrace on Maybank Highway.