Lee’s Summit man inspires movie with ‘Unlimited’ potential

The budget is small by Hollywood standards, but the filmmakers hope the power of the project is unlimited.

That is fitting for a story inspired by a local man who has spent much of his life encouraging others to make the most of their opportunities.

Actor and former U.S. senator Fred Thompson will be on the screen when the movie “Unlimited” hits theaters next year. His character is based on Harold L. Finch of Lee’s Summit, who at 78 is enjoying a new chapter in an already eventful life.

Finch is a former Apollo space program engineer who went on to become an entrepreneur and author, a Christian mission worker and a motivational speaker. His life provides the framework for a fictional story that wrapped up filming this month on location in El Paso, Texas.

“It’s about the unlimited potential that I believe everybody has — and that almost everyone misses out on,” said Finch, who is executive producer of the film.

That was the message of a simple little book Finch wrote called “The Three Keys That Open the Door to Great Success.” And it was the message of a company Finch built called Padgett-Thompson, which provides motivational training for business and civic leaders.

Finch is a former principal engineer at Midwest Research Institute. In the 1960s, his contribution to the Apollo program was a rotation system to protect astronauts from thermal hazards in space. He later was executive dean and vice president of Johnson County Community College. At age 52, Finch sold his business interests and devoted himself to helping the unfortunate, including children in a low-caste orphanage in rural India.

That real-life experience translates to a fictional orphanage in Mexico, the setting of the film. “Unlimited” tells the story of a struggling research scientist who travels to Mexico in search of a former professor who believed in him. He ends up at an orphanage run by a character named for and based on Finch. Along the way there are corrupt officials, drug cartels and the promise of cheap energy for poor countries.

Eventually, the scientist has a revelation. The tagline for the movie is: “Before he can change the world, he must change himself.”

Chad Gundersen, who is the producer, said the market for Christian movies has broadened in recent years with the success of projects like “Fireproof” and “Courageous.” Both had strong messages about family relationships.

The latter film impressed Don Pearce of Kansas City, who has been a friend of Finch for 42 years. When he learned about the “Unlimited” project, Pearce and his wife, Linda, decided last year to help support it financially.

“I’d never thought about doing anything like this,” said Pearce, who owns a construction company. “This is an investment in people, and I’m behind Harold in everything that he’s doing. The message is inspiring. If someone sets their goals and their heart, they can achieve what they want to.”

Over the decades Finch has affected the lives of countless people, which caught the attention of an international organization called Youth With a Mission. The group approached Finch about three years ago and suggested a film loosely based on his life.

The professional optimist agreed, but he acknowledges it hasn’t exactly been an easy road since then.

“It’s been three years of sweat and blood and about 20 different revisions to the script,” Finch said.

Though a neophyte in the film industry, Finch shared responsibility for raising the $1.5 million budgeted for the film.

That doesn’t put it in a league with “The Dark Knight Rises,” but then it’s not that kind of movie. The professionals involved have track records of making family-friendly movies with a Christian theme.

The script for “Unlimited” was written by best-selling author Davis Bunn. The director is Nathan Frankowski, who also directed the 2008 documentary “Expelled” with Ben Stein about intelligent design.

“Nathan introduced me to Harold and we really hit off on multiple levels, including our faith,” said Gundersen, adding that the movie is about living up to one’s God-given potential.

“We’re taking that and folding it into a very cool story,” he said. “There is action, adventure, a kind of exotic locale, a love story and a problem that needs to be solved that’s almost science fiction.”

Thompson, who plays Finch, is a former senator from Tennessee who has acted in television shows and movies including “Law and Order” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

“Unlimited” is now in post-production, getting ready to hit the film festival circuit in search of a distributor. The goal is to have it on 800 to 1,000 screens around the country in the fall of 2013. The creators hope it will live on after that in DVD release.

Gundersen, who has made nine films, said “Unlimited” is a professional production despite its small budget.

“I don’t want (my films) to look like a home movie or something my neighbor could have made,” he said. “We have an amazing core team of filmmakers who really give it their all.”

Finch and his wife, Peggy, traveled to El Paso for much of the five weeks allotted for filming. “It was fascinating to see the script coming to life,” Finch said.

Finch’s daughter and son-in-law, Susan and Jose Ruiz of Lee’s Summit, also had a chance to visit the set. Their 20-month-old daughter, Sophia, appeared in two scenes with Thompson, playing an orphan. Another of Finch’s granddaughters, Aliya, also has a role in the film.

Susan Ruiz said the family is excited about the movie.

“I’ve always thought my dad should have an autobiography out there or something like that,” she said. “But he’s a very humble person who doesn’t bring a lot of attention to himself.”

Finch said the film about his message of unlimited opportunity will outlast him.

“I thought, maybe this will be a platform that will enable me to continue to do this when I’m no longer able to,” he said.