“I just give God the wheel.” Nick Lanciano is trying to explain how an ordinary guy from South Philadelphia — with no Hollywood connections and with only $4,000 to spend — huddles together with his friends, makes an award-winning movie, and distributes it via Amazon Prime and in 65 territories worldwide. Lanciano wears several hats: He is the writer, director and star of Coffee With God, an indie film that earned a “Silver Award” at the Christian Family Film Festival and an “Audience Award” at the 2019 Cutting Edge Film Festival and was featured in several other film festivals.
Coffee With God, Lanciano’s third venture into filmmaking, has a familiar motif: It hints at the 1977 Carl Reiner film Oh God, in which God appears as a kindly old man (George Burns) and selects an assistant grocery manager (John Denver) as his messenger for the world. And Lanciano drew inspiration from Jim Carrey’s quirky portrayal of God’s emissary in the 2003 film Bruce Almighty.
“Jim Carrey’s movie was an inspiration for my character,” Lanciono admitted, “although I didn’t go as far overboard.”
Lanciano spoke recently with the Register about the motivation for Coffee With God and about his lifelong interest in filmmaking. “Media today is all doom and gloom,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could start making films that take people away from all the world’s craziness, even if for only 90 minutes’?”
Lanciano was only 10 years old when he decided to become a filmmaker. That’s when the filmmaker, now 51, saw the blockbuster Superman starring Christopher Reeve; and from that time, inspired by the Man of Steel, he wanted to make movies. “It took me to a different place,” he recalled. “Even now, if I watch it today, it takes me away from the stress of everyday life.”
Lanciano was raised in the Catholic tradition, attending elementary school at South Philly’s Annunciation Blessed Virgin Mary Elementary School and St. John Neumann High School; and now in adulthood, his commitment to his Christian faith remains a motivator. He has already accomplished his goal, he told the Register. “It was never about making money — it was about helping people, utilizing the talent God has given me.”
But it took a few years for him to fully understand what God was calling him to. His first film, the 2009 indie film 9th and Bay, was the story of an ex-professional fighter who struggled to support his family. In 2011, he released Purgatory, an action-suspense drama with a thought-provoking message. And a few years ago, he began work on a film titled Mixer, which included killers and a good deal of violence; but in the middle of that project, Lanciano took a step back and set it aside, unfinished. Instead, he determined to create a film that truly mirrored God’s love.
With his good friend Bob Austin, Nick began work on Coffee With God. He didn’t want to — as he described it — “go around spewing Scripture.” Instead, he focused on God’s abundant love. “One thing I notice,” he said, “is that we constantly beat ourselves up — at least I do! We try to be better, in order to have a better relationship with God; but our relationship is never going to be better. God loves me, regardless of what I do!” So one message Lanciano hopes viewers will take away from his new film is that, despite the sins of our past, despite the flaws we carry with us still today, we are deeply loved by God. He believes that his film, with its hopeful message, will appeal to all: to those who believe in God as well as to those who don’t.
The premise is simple: Lanciano as “Jack” sprawls on a park bench alongside a city street chatting with God (Claudio Baccile), who manifests as a mild-mannered, gray-haired man sporting jeans and a bold Hawaiian shirt. There’s a bit of good-natured banter and bargaining, as God gives Jack his next assignment: a person in need of healing or help.
One of those in need of Jack’s assistance in the film is Emma, a troubled teen played by Nick’s daughter, Meah Lanciano. Meah, her father reported, aspires to be an actress; as a recent high-school graduate, she is heading to a performing arts school. The filmmaking dad began the Coffee With God project with Meah in mind, although his early plan was to produce just a short clip. “It just snowballed into this feature!” he said with a laugh. He didn’t know how he would be able to fund a full-length movie; but since he was able to shoot, edit, write and direct the film (and play the lead), he didn’t have to pay for those services. Most of the cast are friends who were on board with the message and required no payment; only the director of photography received a salary. In the end, the film cost only about $4,000 to make; but Nick is proud to report that it beat out other movies in film festivals that had $400,000 budgets.
Two Actors Who Have Gone on to Meet God
The talented cast became friends during filming. The movie is dedicated to two actors who have died since completing their roles: Trisha Graybill and Wayne Shearer. Lanciano described Graybill, who played Emma's foster parent, as a “spark plug” who energized the crew. “Trisha was suffering from cancer,” Lanciano recalled, “but she’d show up on the set and push through it. When I was worried, she’d tell me in a nice way to shut up.”
Graybill believed that the movie would be great and people would love it. Sadly, she never got to see it for herself; she died of lung cancer in April 2019, before the film was completed.
Shearer played a minor role as Bobby Longo. In the film, Bobby was deep in thought, sitting on a bench beside the road, when Jack drove up. Seeing Bobby (and feeling a nudge from God), Jack stopped the car and sat beside Bobby to chat. Jack knew without Bobby’s telling him that the man had just received a diagnosis of cancer; and he assured Bobby of God’s love and protection. Only after the filming was complete did they learn that Wayne really did have terminal cancer, which has since claimed his life.
When asked what he planned to do next, Lanciano was upbeat. “Definitely,” he said, “my next film will be something on the same lines, maybe a sequel. Bob [co-writer Bob Austin] and I have another idea. Everything we do is going to be uplifting, positive!” As Lanciano likes to say, “I just give God the wheel!”
Kathy Schiffer writes from
Seneca, South Carolina.
This story was updated after posting.
Coffee With God is currently showing on Amazon Prime.