On May 31, Hallmark Movie Channel presents The Color of Rain, inspired by the true story of Gina Kell and Michael Spehn and their New York Times bestselling memoir.
On Christmas Day 2005, 35-year-old Matt Kell lost his three-year battle with a rare form of cancer, leaving behind his wife Gina and their two small sons. Just six weeks later, a fast-growing brain tumor claimed Matt’s childhood friend and neighbor Cathy Spehn, making a widower of her stunned husband Michael, who was left to raise their own three young children alone.
United by grief, faith and the determination to help their kids heal, Michael and Gina forged a close friendship that extended to the children. Over the next two years, friendship turned to love, and the pair married in late 2007. Realizing their own hard-won experience could help other young families in crisis, the Spehns cofounded The New Day Foundation for Families and chronicled their converging paths in a 2011 book they called The Color of Rain for the double rainbow Gina spotted while hoping for a divine thumbs-up for their union.
On May 31, Hallmark Movie Channel turns the tale into a winning, warmhearted telefilm of the same name, starring Warren Christie (Alphas) and Lacey Chabert (Party of Five) as Michael and Gina.
“I really fell in love with them as a family while reading their book,” says Chabert. “I was just moved that people who had gone through such horrific tragedies could be so inspiring and uplifting. They’re wonderful parents, and what touched me so much was that they find humor in every situation. I knew it was a special story and feel lucky that it came my way.”
We talked with Michael and Gina Spehn about their inspirational story, their advice for other individuals and families in crisis, and becoming the subject of a television film.
Channel Guide Magazine: Tell me how you found out your remarkable story would be coming to TV audiences — and what that process has been like for you and your family.
Gina Spehn: One of the producers was on a treadmill at the gym and saw us on the Today show talking about the story, and right there on the treadmill he ordered the book. When he started reading the book, he said, “We need to make this one into a movie.” I just love that part of the story. He ended up sending us an email through one of our websites and that began the ball rolling.
CGM: When you decided to write the book did you recognize that virtually everyone could relate to and find hope and positivity in your message — trying to keep as much normalcy for your kids as possible in the midst of great challenges, trying to keep yourself whole the midst of caregiving, but also the gift of new perspective in terms of priorities and relationships?
Gina: In the beginning the book was an idea — it was just this thought between Michael and I that we should record this stuff for our kids — and then that became clear to us after talking to different people. One gentleman we refer to often came to one of the nonprofit events we have for The New Day Foundation and his wife was very ill at the time and they had young children. He came to the event and sat at our table with our five kids, and he came up to us afterwards and said, “Seeing what you guys are doing and how you are with your kids and everyone is happy and healthy and normal and alive and OK — it gives me such great hope, knowing what we are about to go through, that the kids are going to be OK.” Michael said to me, “We can’t have dinner with everybody — we need to write this stuff down.” And he was right! It became clear our story was having an impact on people who weren’t even affected by cancer. They were looking at our story and saying, “I want to be a better wife, I want to be a better friend or sister!” That is the greatest gift that has come out of the story. To me that is where God has a hand in things.
Michael Spehn: And there is so much more to the story when you read the book than just cancer. Cancer happens in the book but that’s not what it is really about. For instance, I hear from men all over the country and world — the book is in 12 different countries — about their relationships with their fathers and how the story I told about mine really resonated with them. How they aren’t going to be making those mistakes with their sons, and how they were going to attempt reconciliation with their fathers. The story has just resonated with a lot of people on a lot of different levels.
Gina: That’s the big message. Tragedy happens in everyone’s life at some point — you lose a loved one or something happens — and it really does change you. You can choose to go one way or the other. One is despair and it can result in depression or broken relationships. We get at each other instead of coming together. We hope that people take from this that the only way to survive this is to stay connected to people you love and to lay down the stuff that plagues your relationships, the stuff that doesn’t mean too much.
Michael: There really is a fine line between grief and despair. Grief is a healthy and necessary process of human emotion and process we go through with loss. A divorce or a broken relationship or the loss of a career or your home, or hard financial times. Loss comes in so many different ways to families, and grief is a part of the human healing. But despair becomes something different. Our purpose for writing it down was to show that you can walk through grief without backsliding into despair.
CGM: While the backbone of the film is your love story, your book carefully chronicles your shock and heartache at losing your young spouses and your child-centric approach to blending your lives and your families. How important was it to you to keep them at the forefront?
Michael: I don’t think we did everything right, but we did this right — we told our kids from the onset, if you feel sad today, let’s talk about that and if you feel happy today, you can feel happy and go downstairs and watch cartoons. You can smile and you can laugh. You can go outside and play ball. Grief is going to find us. We are going to feel sad plenty, but if you want to feel happy today even for 10 minutes you should give yourself permission to do that.
CGM: The message that you taught your kids — and ultimately everyone who reads your book and learns your story — that, as you said, Michael, love is not a zero sum game and the heart can accommodate as much love as it is offered is so valuable. Do you think it’s far too common for people who have lost a loved one to think it is a betrayal to move forward?
Gina: It is a hard lesson for people, to receive. People who are generally in control, people who are in charge and then have the complete loss of control, it is almost like, “bar the doors — I have to figure this out!” And they shut people out. The chapter “It Takes A Lot” is Michael allowing people in again.
Michael: The irony is, as Gina said, men are more accustomed to this — doing it alone. I got this! But I do think it can be true for men or women that there is this sense of fidelity, whether it’s a lost child, God forbid, or a spouse, brother or sister, or even a best friend. “My best friend died and therefore if I am having fun, I am betraying them; I am not faithful to their memory.” Ironically, it is the opposite that is true. You don’t have to put on grief — it will get to you plenty. Your loss will resonate with you and you will be moved to tears plenty. But by opening your heart, your faith and your love, you actually honor them and keep them alive. Matt and Cathy are present tense in our family. I don’t think that the lives and the love of Matt and Cathy would be as resonant or as present tense as they are if we shut out the world.
CGM: Gina, Matt remarkably called his battle with cancer a win-win situation, since he would either be cured or just meet his Savior a little earlier than he had planned. How much of a gift to you was that in terms of knowing that a) he was absolutely correct and b) he had made peace with what was happening?
Gina: That was a moment that changed everything for me. In some ways I think that moment was what gave us the foundation we have today. It was like a seed was planted in me that day. Faith was there; I had faith in God and I was a regular churchgoer, but now confronted with “I am going to lose my husband and I am going to be raising two young boys alone and figuring in what this is in terms of what I believe in,” when Matt said those words to me, it changed everything. It brought tremendous peace to me and to many people. They would come in and out of our home to see him, but really to say goodbye to him. And when they did, everyone left with a gift from Matt. I don’t mean a gift in their hands but an intangible gift. He was expressing to them “I am not afraid to die. I know where I am going. It is going to be OK.” He wrote in a journal that cancer has been a gift — and he didn’t just say it, he really believed it. It really changed my walk with God and my faith journey and has really set me on the path I am on today.
Michael: And let me say, it didn’t just change the people who were there. I never met Matt, but that faith and the way he lived those days resonates today and has impacted my faith and my children’s faith, and now we have the privilege to go around the country and speak about it. That faith lives on because he was so incredibly faithful in those closing days.
CGM: Gina, Matt also made videotapes for Sam and Drew, including one in which he gave you — and ultimately Michael — an incredible gift in giving not just his blessing but his love to any man who earned your love. What was it like knowing you had that blessing as you realized you were falling for Michael?
Gina: It was a mind-blowing moment when I watched that video. I had no idea that he had left that video. I knew he was making video diaries but he drew up an outline, and actually let it sit for about two and a half years. About three months before he died, he began the diaries, and when I saw them for the first time, I was incredibly emotional and also grateful he had given me permission to live again. In that moment, it wasn’t even a thought in my mind — you are very much in the mindset of “I have to protect my children, I have to make sure they are OK, I have to get a job, I have to figure out what I am going to do.” Your identity crisis begins and everything is so confusing.
That kind of generosity and that kind of trust is the greatest gift you can give someone — and I wish that we would give that to each other when we are living rather than after. But he was always like that. And that is why we want to share this amazing stuff. We are the most unlikely messengers, but when you have people like Matt and Cathy who have taught us so much and given us so many gifts, you gotta share it! You gotta talk about it!
CGM: And Michael, when did you get to see the video, and what was it like knowing you were the guy he was ultimately talking about?
Michael: It was years later. It was probably five years after we met, like two years ago that she said, “Do you want to see this?” I said OK — and I remember it like it was yesterday. Obviously being the man he is talking about in the video was incredibly humbling. It is a surreal experience. But by the same token, it is incredibly inspirational, as a man of faith, to witness someone’s faith walk manifesting so clearly. For him to have such a clarity of faith and clarity of love for his children and for his wife that he said, “Grieve me and live on — I want you to live on, love and to laugh. We will meet again. But in the meantime I want you to thrive in this world and to do what God has put you here to do.” To have that clarity of faith and love has been an inspiration for me to try to live up to, and I know it is beginning to impact our children as they move from childhood into young adulthood. Those kind of word and sentiments and those gifts their late mother and late father left behind are beginning to have a genuine impact.
CGM: Can you each take me back to the moment you realized that something extraordinary was happening between the two of you and between your families?
Gina: I don’t think I can point to one specific moment where that happened, but it evolved in small moments. You read that Michael is a funny person and he is likable and that naturally connects you to someone, and I watched him with his kids and then with my kids. The way he dealt with them and handled them and talked with them and comforted them and disciplined them was so spot-on. They liked him and connected to him, and he understood them. For me that was really great. It connected me to him even more and made me love and admire him more. But it was an evolutionary process. For many, many months you don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone; you are just trying to get through every day. But it was so natural, that it felt right. It was always just OK. Michael, now you tell your version of that. [Laughs]
Michael: It was all of those things. First of all, Gina is spot-on when she says it was this natural blending that went day-by-day, week-by-week. The very first time they came over for dinner, there was an instant comfort level — an instant normal. It was as if we knew each other for 20 years. It was almost like when your college roommate comes back to visit. You haven’t seen him in years but there is an instant comfort. It was like that.
CGM: How much input did you have in the script?
Gina: That was critically important to us, because we are handing over our story to someone else and allowing them to interpret it. We had written the book — those are the true words, so now what are they going to do with it? While they did take some liberties and changed a few things, I believe they did a good job of remaining true to it. A big part of the reason they were able to do that was because they were incredibly generous in allowing us to contribute. They allowed us to read the script and edit things. For us, as people who have never written a script before, we made some rookie mistakes. We were adding a lot of money to their budget by writing the script we were writing [laughs]. But Michael crafted it beautifully and worked closely with Nancy Silver, the writer, to make it more authentic.
Michael: It was very important that we had a couple of critical elements in there and you pointed to one earlier — that in a lot of ways the children led us down this journey. As Gina said, if any of the five had spoken out or had a hesitation, problems or issues with either one of us, we would not have gone forward. One thing we really wanted to stress is when you have young kids, they really have to come first. They have to lead the way and you can really do them a disservice if you put yourself first. That is why so many second marriages fail, because they haven’t considered the children first. “I have fallen in love with this person; my kids will just have to get in line.” We reversed that process. We let the kids fall in love with each other first and then we fell in line.
CGM: What was it like to be on the set and see the film actually taking shape?
Gina: Watching it and hearing the words — everything is not quite exact, but there were parts that were really right on. They were quoting the book and they were quoting us. It was really humbling.
Michael: We were on the set for most of the movie and so were our kids. It was quite an adventure. There is a restaurant scene where Gina and I are having our one and only date. That dialogue happened in real life. But it was more humbling for me to step off the set and look at the crew members and workers and truck drivers and production assistants who all came to work to bring this story to the screen. It was gratifying and it was humbling. I felt so pleased and so proud. All these people got work because of this story.
CGM: It’s pretty remarkable how much Warren Christie and Lacey Chabert resemble you two — did you have any input in the casting, and what did you think when you met them?
Gina: Lacey is the nicest person on the planet!
Michael: Warren looks just like me! [Laughs]
Gina: Lacey called me before they began filming and asked a few questions and wanted to get a sense of things, and when we were on set there was even more of that. And Michael and Warren had a great bond on the set, too.
Michael: They were incredibly generous to us, always asking us our opinion. In particular there was one scene in the parking lot where Warren breaks down with the pastor and I knew that scene very well and had gone through it and I had a lot of anxiety over it and was hoping that they would do it right. He actually sought me out and asked me what I thought, and we ended up talking for about 20 minutes about the state of mind of the character of Michael in his journey and how this is a tipping point for him. They were incredibly generous and they felt an incredible responsibility and they didn’t just verbalize it — they lived it on the set to get it right. I thought they both did a marvelous job.
CGM: Besides The New Day Foundation for Families, you two also have a radio show, do speaking engagements and Michael, on your website, you say that you are developing film scripts — what else is in the hopper?
Michael: We are taking over for Michael and Kelly. [Laughs]
Gina: We are hoping to write a second book — that’s in the plan and in the works. There is a big story about my friend’s son with the heart transplant. It was a thread throughout The Color of Rain. And Michael has been doing screenwriting.
Michael: I got a little taste of it with The Color of Rain, and once that gets in your blood it is hard to shake. I am hoping to announce something in the next few months. I love to write. We speak all over the country — that keeps us very busy — and we have five kids. Between writing the second book and some screenplays. I am interested in writing about people of faith in movies that are real. I don’t see a lot of real people who happen to be people of faith. I see caricatures. I see one-dimensional people who are way too sympathetic or way too antagonistic. I want to see some three dimensional characters.
The Color of Rain premieres May 31 at 9/8CT on Hallmark Movie Channel
Images/video:©2014 Crown Media, all rights reserved.