A feature film shot in Wichita is a homecoming for the director

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Chris Lawing on the set of “Penitentia,” a film he wrote and directed in honor of his late father, Wichita civil rights attorney Jim Lawing.

Courtesy picture

On a humid summer afternoon, a film crew is crammed into a two-bedroom bungalow in Wichita’s Sleepy Hollow neighborhood.

The person leading the chaos is Chris Lawing, who returned to his hometown to make “Penitentia,” his feature debut. He honors the legacy of his father, the late civil rights attorney Jim Lawing, who practiced law in Wichita for 50 years.

“My dad impacted thousands of lives, and he took on cases because he thought they were worth fighting for,” Lawing said. “He was driven by a very strong moral compass. He believed that the law could help people and he devoted his life to it.

“I wanted to find a way to honor that.”

“Penitentia” is the story of Alejandro “Ale” Villacano (Glenn Stanton), a young lawyer with an atypical past. A lawyer at a top law firm in Wichita, he was once jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.

The character of Ale’s lawyer, Marvin Weissman, was inspired by Jim Lawing. The film follows Ale as he struggles to put his past behind him, even as an old friend needs his help.

The cast and crew spent 10 days in Wichita in February, then returned for a long weekend in June. Production went relatively well, considering the “freezing nightmare” that was the first trip and the unusual summer storms that threatened to disrupt filming last month, Lawing said.

Some scenes were filmed a few doors down from the house where Lawing grew up. Other spots in Wichita include the bar at Georges French Bistro and the dining room at Scotch & Sirloin.

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Jim Lawing was close to the Issa family, owners of Scotch & Sirloin, where Jim Lawing was once a regular. Lawing’s son, Chris Lawing, filmed scenes for “Penitentia”, his feature debut, in the restaurant on a Sunday when the restaurant was closed. Courtesy picture

It was nostalgic to shoot at the “Scotch”, where Jim Lawing once shared drinks with other local lawyers and law enforcement. He got closer to the Issa family, owners of the restaurant.

“They’ve been incredibly helpful,” Lawing said. “When we were here, my son, who was manning the film set, talked about how we spent Thanksgiving there with Grandpa.”

The Tallgrass Film Association has also been a huge help in connecting him with local talent, Lawing said. Many of the team are based in Wichita, and local cast members include Anthony Powell and Rodrick Pocowatchit.

The majority were from out of town, and they were pleasantly surprised by their experience filming in Wichita, Lawing said.

“A lot of the cast and crew that came from out of town developed a crush on the city,” he said.

Lawing hasn’t lived in Wichita for 30 years, so filming was kind of a homecoming for him. Making narrative films is another kind of homecoming. After graduating from the University of Kansas, Lawing worked as an associate editor in Los Angeles. Prior to their move to St. Louis nearly 20 years ago, Lawing lived in San Francisco with his wife, Angie, and their young family. He worked briefly at Pixar, but found long hours incompatible with raising a family.

He turned to broadcast and commercial cinema and started Mercury Films, a production company, with his wife. Once their youngest child turned 16, it seemed like it was time to get back to storytelling. Lawing dusted off some old storylines, which led to the 2017 short story “Greg’s Going to Rehab.”

With “Penitentia” now in post-production — with plans to show it on the 2023 film festival circuit — Lawing has begun the production process for another tale, “Liberty,” which is set in western Kansas and will be a larger film than the “micro-budget” “Penitentia”.

He didn’t have the career of a writer-director, acknowledges Lawing.

“You look up and you’re in your 50s,” he said. “It’s not the typical journey for someone my age, especially in such a challenging and competitive company.”

Making a low-budget movie like “Pentitentia” was an opportunity to focus on process and craft

“I just wanted to focus on making the movie,” he said. “Anything that can happen a little after is all in sauce.”

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