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Movie about the life of a Michigan City pastor films in the Region, Porter County Jail
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Movie about the life of a Michigan City pastor films in the Region, Porter County Jail

From the Anna Ortiz's memorable stories from 2019 series

VALPARAISO — Actor Joey Lawrence donned an orange inmate uniform and spent countless hours behind bars in Porter County Jail for a in-production movie that takes place in the Region.

The film will tell the story of a Michigan City pastor's journey from being in prison to being behind a pulpit.

“It's been surreal,” Lawrence said. “When I work on 'Hawaii Five-0' playing the role of Aaron Wright, I'm working on sets. Here, we are shooting in a real working jail facility, and it's no joke. You hear things and see things and sometimes it's uncomfortable. As an actor though, it's everything you could ask for. It's cool to be entrenched in it.”

From dark scenes in cells to triumphant moments of redemption, Lawrence is acting out pieces of Scott Highberger's life for the film-in-progress, “Pardoned by Grace.” The movie is based off Highberger's autobiography, “Behind the Wire: A Prisoner's Journey to the Pulpit.”

Highberger’s book begins in the midst of 35 arrests, eight felony convictions and five prison sentences — a time he said he was on the path of drug addiction and personal turmoil. It ends with his new life as an outreach pastor at Road to Life Church's Michigan City campus who ministers to inmates at Westville Correctional Center.

However, Highberger’s story is still far from over. The jail cells and hallways the cast and crew walked as they filmed in the jail are familiar places for Highberger, who spent many days behind bars in Porter County Jail.

“It’s been unreal,” Highberger said. “It’s also very emotional. I lived it, and it’s surreal watching it all unfold. It’s been moving, and I’ve felt a sense of God all the way through. It shows that anyone is able to change. And I hope if other people can see that I did it, then they might say, ‘I can do it, too.’ If you’re not dead, God’s not done with you yet.”

Capt. Ryan Taylor, of the Porter County Sheriff's Department, recalls meeting Highberger years back when Taylor was a new officer, and Highberger was a young inmate. He has since seen Highberger's transformation from a troubled young man into a pastor who ministers to inmates.

During filming, Taylor helped escort the crew around to different scene locations in the jail.

“I hope his story will help someone find the right path,” Taylor said. “I am pretty proud of Scott. He changed his path and found a new one to get where he is today. It's hard for a lot of people to do that.”

From Wednesday to Friday, film crews, actors and extras spent long hours in Porter County Jail to shoot some of the movie's most crucial scenes. Real jumpsuits and police uniforms were lent to the crew by the Porter County Sheriff’s Department.

“It's been a challenge,” Director Kevan Otto said. “We have a movie to shoot and they have a jail to run. Sometimes we have to put our scenes on hold because someone got arrested and they're bringing them through.”

The movie is being produced by Graham Family Films, a faith-based movie company.

Otto has worked on popular Christian-genre films such as “Grace of God” and “Question of Faith.” The movie's director of photography, Brian Shanley, has been the cinematographer for “God's Not Dead,” “The Case for Christ,” “Do You Believe” and more.

Otto said while “Pardoned by Grace” has a Christian message, it will also hit more gritty moments.

“We are not trying to water stuff down,” Otto said. “If we want to show true redemption, we have to show the starting point. It's important to the arc of Scott’s character. To know how amazing this story is, you have to see where he began.”

On Friday, a scene where Lawrence preached to inmates took place in the jail's chaplain room, where Highberger said he first came to faith.

Highberger grew up in Michigan City and spent his young adult years in Chesterton, the next filming location. He said there will be a lot of scenes filmed in Chesterton’s downtown area, including a scene that will involve Lawrence in a brawl in front of a bar. Crews also filmed at Road to Life Church in Michigan City and many congregation members volunteered to be extras, including filling orange inmate suits for jail scenes.

As for having Lawrence play him on the big screen, it’s been a “whoa” moment for the pastor.

“I grew up watching (Lawrence),” Highberger said. “When he took the role, I was amazed. I felt blessed. He is a really cool guy, and I’m glad I’ve got to know him.”

For Lawrence, it was Highberger’s story that attracted him to take on the role.

“Scott is a cool dude, and I’ve had a lot of time to talk to him,” Lawrence said. “I read his book, and I think his story is incredible — that’s why I’m here.”

Another notable player is actor and musician Michael W. Smith, a big name in contemporary Christian music, who will play the role of Pastor Dave Gargano of Road to Life Church in Michigan City and Chesterton.

On top of his book, Highberger shares his testimony with inmates at Westville Correctional Facility for Road to Life Church's prison ministry. Highberger said he hopes the movie, which will have a theatrical release expected sometime next year, will reach even more people.

“It will show the rough life I had,” Highberger said. “All of those arrests. Those times when I was homeless living on the street, strung out on alcohol. But in it all, the way out was through Christ. I hope people who struggle will see there’s a way out.”

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Night Crime/Breaking News Reporter

Anna Ortiz is the breaking news/crime reporter for The Times, covering crime, politics, courts and investigative news. She is a graduate of Ball State University with a major in journalism and minor in anthropology. 219-933-4194, anna.ortiz@nwi.com

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