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Christians in Cinema: Gary Wheeler
Christians in Cinema: Gary Wheeler

Christians in Cinema: Gary Wheeler

North Carolina native Gary Wheeler is introducing the world to his beautiful state one movie at a time. Soft-spoken, with the genteel manner of a true Southern gentleman, Gary’s choice of location for his new film The List made it possible for him to go home to his family every night.

Based on a novel by Robert Whitlow, the film is the story of a young attorney fresh out of law school that learns about the power of prevailing prayer.

Like Us on Facebook How did you meet Robert Whitlow?

Gary: I was producer on a film called Final Solution that was filmed in South Africa. A gentleman in Charlotte saw it at some sort of film night and really liked it. He was friends with Robert Whitlow, who had written this book The List. At that point, I think he had 4 novels written.

One day this gentleman called me and told me he had a friend named Robert Whitlow who was looking for someone to adapt his book into a movie. He’d been approached by many producers over the years, but he didn’t want to give up creative control.

Robert called me up, we talked, and he sent me the book, and I sent him a copy of “Final Solution.” I stepped out of my office and ran into a friend of mine in the hallway. I said, “Hey, have you ever heard of a guy named Robert Whitlow?” I knew this guy was a Christian, and he said, “Yeah, my son goes to his church in Charlotte. I’ve read all of his books.”

I read the book in basically two bursts. I read the first 100 pages over one or two days, and then it sat for a couple of weeks while I did something else. One night I couldn’t sleep, and I woke up at 3:00 AM in the morning and read the other 200 pages. By the end I was crying, and I knew it was powerful.

We got together and figured out how it could work, and then got busy. We went through a long process of translating it screen and raising the money and everything else involved.

It’s funny because I’ve known Robert for about 4 ½ years, and now it’s hard to imagine a time he wasn’t in my life. We talk pretty much every day, and he’s one of my best friends at this point. It’s peculiar to think that not that long ago, I didn’t really know him.

I tell him that when I write my great big book on filmmaking, there are going to be several chapters called, “How Robert Whitlow Changed My Life.” Since the two of you are both writers, did you collaborate on the screenplay?

Gary: Robert had a friend who was a screenwriter who had written a draft of the film. Her name is Michelle Hoppe-Long. We took that script and sat down and broke it down. We started from scratch with that screenplay as the outline. We hired another screenwriter, Johnston Moore, who’s a friend of mine, and he wrote several drafts of it.

Then Robert and I came in and co-wrote for probably a year together. We re-wrote, refining the dialogue and story, so the whole process was about 18 months for screenwriting. What it meant to “The List” was that at the end of that 18 months we had an extremely tight script that had already been through several readings with local actors. We worked it, and worked it, and worked it.

I think it helped us get some of the cast we had because it was such a tight script. It’s really challenging to take a 450-page novel and make it 95 pages, so really there were 4 of us writing the script. Each of us brought a distinct vision, and that collaboration really helped.

Obviously, this process will help us tremendously for our next project. We know how we work together, and I’ve personally grown as a screenwriter through it. When The List began, I was just the producer on the movie. But really my gifting in college and before was as a writer and director, but those have lain dormant for a while.

I never intended to be a screenwriter on it, it just sort of happened. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. It was a great experience and it ended up helping dramatically. My gifting is structure, and Robert’s is dialogue. He has a very strong ear for dialogue, Southern dialogue particularly. I think that’s one of the things that stand out about “The List.” It’s very culturally accurate, especially for the South. Besides being able to go home to your family every night, what were other benefits of filming in your home state?

Gary: We kind of set up shop at the beach in Wilmington, North Carolina, for about 10 months. It was nice to go home because my whole family was there. It was a very relaxed shoot, as far as shoots go.

There’s nothing easy about making a movie, but we had a very easy shoot. We had hundreds of thousands of people praying, and we were able to make all of our days. That means that what we intended to shoot that day, we got done. That’s very difficult to do.

We had a significant amount of union crew members, and we had very little paid overtime. It was kind of a fun, relaxing shoot for people. I think as Christians we have to do that. My goal all along was to make it a pleasant experience.

There’s a scripture that says, “Oh how good and pleasant it is when brothers work together in unity,” and I wanted to have a good experience for the crew. What were a couple of fun and pleasant moments that stand out for you from the shoot?

Gary: There’s a scene that takes place between Malcolm McDowell and Chuck Carrington, who play Desmond Larochette and Renny Jacobsen, respectively. They are talking in front of a fireplace, and Malcolm’s character twists this story for his own purposes. He twists the story of Joseph. Chuck came to me early on and said, “Look, I think it would be great to have Larochette do something there, maybe a scene where he twists a story from the Bible.”

I knew he was right, but I struggled for months to figure out what to write. I couldn’t think of anything. I’d take these morning walks and run scripture over in my head, and one day, I just said, “The story of Joseph! It’s one of my favorite stories! Ok, he could really twist this because it’s about power!” and I wrote it.

I had struggled with it for months, and I wrote it in minutes, then it just came out. Then fast-forward to the filming. We weren’t going to do it that night, because it was late and Malcolm had just flown in. He didn’t know his lines, but he came to me anyway, and said, “All right, I’ll do it!”

He put the script under his leg and just rattled it off. It was amazing as a writer to see an actor read your lines verbatim, and have them so powerful. It’s actually Malcolm’s favorite scene in the movie because it’s so powerful.

One of my favorite scenes with regard to the spiritual power of the story is when Elizabeth Omilami, who plays “Mama A,” prays for Renny. I wrote one line in the script for that: “Mama A prays for Renny.” I was going to cut that from the movie and we shot it on a day when we had a lot of stage work, in other words, they built the set.

I was going to cut it because it was just one small scene of so many. I saw they called Elizabeth. It was the only thing she was going to do that day. She’s a strong Christian and runs a great ministry there in Atlanta. Since she was there, I thought, “I guess we’ll have to do this.” I didn’t want to waste her time.

So I went over to her while they were setting up the scene and said, “Elizabeth, what are you thinking? Maybe some humming?”

She starts humming and praying, and she really is praying for Chuck, the actor, and we both start crying. I said, “Ok, just do that.”

I stuck her in front of the camera and said, “Action.” She did it once. I said, “action,” again, and we filmed it a second time, but a little closer. That was all heart. That was 100% her and the Lord. When you watch the movie, I think people can sense how sincere she is and how powerful that scene really is. Can you talk some about the cast? You had a great ensemble, and it must have been great to work with all of them.

Gary: Malcolm was on my original list of people I wanted for that role. I knew it had to be kind of the straw that serves the drink. I studied his film “If…” in film school. It was his first film. When we first met, we went out to lunch. I really liked him. He really liked the script and he’s fun and funny. He comes from the British school of acting, which is you start to tell a joke, go do your scene – even if it’s the most intense scene in the world – yell “Cut” and then give you the punchline. He can get in and out of character so quickly.

I saw the movie with him at a film festival where he received a lifetime achievement award, and he asked that they show “The List” as part of the festival. I really like and enjoy him. I enjoy our conversations. He returns my phone calls almost immediately, and he doesn’t have to! We’re friends.

Chuck I’ve known for longer. He was the first person attached to the movie. I ran into him at a Starbucks just before we were going to have a big casting session. I knew he was perfect for the part. He’s a good friend. He’s an ACC basketball fan, and so am I, so we have that in common.

He’s got kids relatively the same age as mine. He’s really become a friend, and it was really fun to work with him. He’s very serious about his craft and continues to refine his craft through acting lessons. It was really pleasant to work with him, and he’s a great guy.

I also worked with Will Patton, who was the second actor attached. I love him. He really liked this script and also liked “Final Solution.”

Hilarie Burton, from “One Tree Hill,” has also become a good friend. She was great to work with. Our family has become friends with her family since then.

I think God blessed us and we got a great cast for this movie. Can you talk some about the cinematography? One of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen on film was toward the end of the movie at the lake. How did you accomplish that?

Gary: First off, I had an amazing director of photography. His name is Tom Priestley, and he’s an A-list cinematographer. He did “The Thomas Crown Affair,” among other things. He lives in Wilmington, and loved the script. He said it’s by far the lowest budget movie he’s ever done in his life.

He brought an A-list camera crew to the movie. Our camera operator was from “A Few Good Men,” and it just looked beautiful. We had great locations and it was shot at a beautiful plantation. We treated the crew well, and everybody repaid that kindness with good work. That goes from Malcolm McDowell on down through the cast and crew.

We set out to make a movie that was two things: one, artistically excellent, and two, spiritually powerful. As Christian filmmakers we can get tunnel vision on either one of those. As a filmmaker you can just want to make something that looks beautiful but has no power to it. As Christians we can want to make something that has power but isn’t artistically excellent. So we wanted to focus on both: artistic excellence and spiritual power.

There are some things we added to the book, but others were lifted verbatim out of the book, so we had a senses of seeing the novel come to life. Our goal all along was to drive people to the novel, because it contains the full measure of the Gospel in the sense that it contains the full Christian experience, and you could never convey that in a film. So if people go and watch the movie and pick up the book afterward, we’ve accomplished one of our goals. What’s another of your goals with the film?

Gary: That people will be touched by the power of prevailing prayer. There’s a line that Robert wrote at the end of the book, and he told me during one of our first story meetings that this is really what the movie is about. “God’s children and his enemies both make the same mistake. They both underestimate the power of prevailing prayer.” So we really set out with that as one of our goals. Eventually we gave a character that line to say, and we even changed the ending to highlight that further.

So one of our major goals is that people would be touched by the power of prayer. Speaking of the ending, when I saw the film in Atlanta last year, I have to say I was a little dissatisfied with the way it ended.

Gary: As a filmmaker, I was fine with that. There’s one thing I know is true about “The List.” I’ve gone to screenings in several cities, and people always talk about it afterward. It’s not one of these movies that people will see and say, “Oh, good, what’s for dinner?”

They go to dinner and talk about it. That’s good, and it’s thought-provoking. When people told me the original ending was ambiguous, I was OK with that because as a filmmaker you want to be careful not to over-explain things. I want people to watch it a second, third, fourth time and get the real heart of the matter.

But it came to me one day as I was talking with someone about the central theme of the power of prayer. They said, “You know. It’s fantastic, but could we just put an exclamation point on the end?”
It was like a light bulb went off in my head. I knew what we could do. So I went back to this ending that was in the original script by Michelle Long. It’s only a 12 – 15 second shot that we popped on at the end, but I think it really makes the difference in the movie. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it before the theatrical release, but that’s how it goes.

(At this point, Gary told me the ending, but I’m not going to spoil it for you!) Fox has picked up the film for distribution. What does that mean to you as a producer and to the film in general?

Gary: I think what it means for me, more than anything, is that the movie is going to have a chance now. In other words, people are going to be able to see it and tell their friends about it.

It’s going to be in Blockbuster, available in Wal-Mart, it’s going to be out there. That’s all that a filmmaker can ask; that their movie get a shot. So Fox has been tremendous to work with. They’re extremely collaborative. They came up with some great artwork.

It’s going to have a shot, and if it touches people, it’s going to go out to a wider audience than we could ever imagine. And that’s all we can ask for as a filmmaker; that your movie has a shot to stand or fall on its own merit. Whether or not audiences respond, that’s up to the film and to the Lord. That’s all we can ask for. I think it’s exciting that we get our chance, we get our shot. Let’s talk about what’s ahead for you now. Are you and Robert Whitlow going to collaborate again?

Gary: We are. There are 4 books we’re talking about, two of them immediately. One is called “The Trial,” which is an interesting story. I would say it’s about turning hopelessness into hope. The other is “Sacrifice,” and we’re in development on both of those. Hopefully one will be shot later this year, and the other the next.

And a good friend of mine, Mark Freiburger, has interest in doing another one of Robert’s novels called “Jimmy.” On that one, it looks like I’ll produce it along with Robert. Hopefully that might get done next year as well.

It’s a full plate. And, like any other producer, I’d say I have several projects in various stages of development.

Malcolm, Hilarie, and Chuck are all ready to go on any of those. Malcolm and I have talked about doing some longer terms projects, as have Hilarie and I. We’ll see how all that shakes out. Besides releasing The List, you’ve had another exciting event happen recently.

Gary: We’ve just had our fourth baby (Kayla Beth, who is two weeks old), so we’re really busy right now, and my concept of time is skewed. My wife Jodie and I have been married 14 years, and we have 4 kids. Our other children are Joseph (9), Ella (4), and Anna (2). We’ve outgrown our mini-van! I never thought we’d do that, but it looks like we might have to graduate to a Suburban or something.

I’m one of two kids, and Jodie is one of 3, so it’s a new experience for us. We felt like we just weren’t complete after 3, and felt like God wanted us to have another one. So it’s exciting, but tiring nonetheless.

I met Robert Whitlow, the author of “The List,” four and a half years ago. He reminds me that when we met, I had one kid, and now I have 4. It’s been a change for me to go from one child to 4 really quickly, and make a movie as well. It’s been a big life change.

Like any life change, it has its challenges and blessings. It’s been a crazy full four years.

My mom, who’s retired, was a single mom of two kids. I don’t think she can fathom our lifestyle with 4 kids, the craziness of the film industry, and going all the time. It kind of fascinates her when we tell her what we’re doing. At what point did you become a believer, and when did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?

Gary: They came in reverse order. At a pretty young age, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. We always put on plays growing up, but it really hit me during high school. I was 14 or 15 years old, and read a book by Syd Fields on writing screenplays. It kind of opened my eyes to how it’s done.

I’ve always had a passion for film and television. As a child, I used to memorize the names of all the actors on the TV shows. No one could figure out why, and it’s a weird habit to have, especially for a young kid. But I can tell you who played all the parts in shows like “Good Times.”

Somewhere in high school I thought I might like to make films. Up until that point, I thought I might want to be a lawyer. I like to write, and there’s a lot of writing involved, and I have a fairly analytical mind. But all of a sudden it clicked in my mind that I wanted to get into television. Originally, I thought it would be sports TV, because I was an athlete.

But somewhere near the end of my senior year, I wrote a short story that my teacher just loved and submitted it to some kind of high school awards festival. I went to her one day and said, “Hey, I want to make this into a movie.” She was very visionary, and said “Yes, let’s do it.”

So as a senior in high school, I spent the second half of my senior year making this short story into a movie. Then that summer, I visited my best friend in New York, and we spent that summer making films. We convinced a professional editor to edit it, and talked our way into a premiere at a local theater, complete with a red carpet and all that kind of stuff.

Then I went off to college at Appalachian State in the mountains of North Carolina because they had a great broadcasting department. I was studying sports broadcasting, but always made dramatic films instead of documentaries or “PM Magazine”-style stuff. I gravitated toward that throughout my college career.

I also have a minor in English. I’ve always been fascinated by literature and writing. So somewhere in there, probably when I was 18 or 19 years old, I wrote my first screenplay. I remember feeling absolutely hopeless as I watched it print up on my old BubbleJet printer. I don’t think anyone from my university had ever made a movie, so I felt utter hopelessness.

Fast-forward to my senior year, and I had gotten somewhat of a reputation on campus as a guy who could shoot and direct things. So a campus ministry called me and asked if I would do a promotional video for them. Even though I was president of the campus Episcopal group, I really didn’t know Jesus as my personal Savior at that point.

I said, “Hey, I’m a good person, I’ll help you out.” Little did I know that my life would forever be changed. Along the process I got the chance to meet the campus minister, and he laid the Gospel out clearly for me, and I turned my life over to the Lord.

I had a very clear definition that one minute my life was one way, the next minute my life was another. I said the “sinner’s prayer” and instantly felt a heart change. I couldn’t stop smiling; it was very significant and very specific. From that point on, I said, “God, you’re alive.” I’m 38 now, and that was 19 years ago. It was life-changing moment.

So my wife and I went up to Regent University at that point to get our Master’s degree in film. She finished and I didn’t. I immediately started working for a Christian film company, and that’s been 14 years ago – right after we first got married.

Now I look back and I say that it’s amazing to see my life change; to see God use me to make movies and compare the hopelessness I felt then to the hope that I feel now. For me the main thing is the Gospel represents the one kernel I’ve never forgotten; the ability of Jesus to take hopelessness and turn it into hope. More than anything, that’s what it represents for me.

It’s funny, because from a young age I was called to make films. God instilled that in me as a young person. So in a lot of ways, I’m a filmmaker first, and the Christianity portion of it permeates out of me. It’s different than a lot of my peers in this industry. What are some of your favorite movies?

Gary: My favorite one of all time is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Of course. Followed by Chariots of Fire. What do you do in your spare time? Assuming there is any?

Gary: I love sports, and playing with my kids. We read a lot; we’re a reading family. So what books would we find on your nightstand?

Gary: Right now you’d find “The Collected Works of Robert Frost.” There’s a book called “Rainey” by Clyde Edgerton (a Southern author). I’m working through a book called, “I’ll be in My Trailer,” by John Badham, who’s a film director, and it’s about working with actors.

Of course you’ll always find a Bible, and I find myself moving toward more poetic books right now. Like Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.

I like “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” by John Ortberg. I love that book, and try to read through it a couple of times a year. I love John Ortberg, and have a couple of his books on my nightstand right now. What about scripting another film? Would you be interested in telling an original story, not an adaptation?

Gary: I think so. Right now, I’m so caught up in these adaptations that it’s hard to look beyond that. I’ve just read a book about screenwriting called “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. I’ve kind of read them all, but this one changed everything for me.

It’s about script and story structure, and he’s 100% right. I’ve never seen it laid out in such practical terms. If you don’t know anything about screen structure, get that book and it will change the way you do things. That’s very helpful for someone who wants to start from scratch with their own story. I’ve exchanged a few emails with Blake, and he’s actually going to help us as a consultant with some of Robert’s adaptations. Finally, what advice would you give if you had the chance to go back to your university and talk to young people who really want to go into filmmaking, what would you tell them?

Gary: That’s a passion of mine to speak to young people and tell them they can do it. I say, “Look, I’m a guy from a university that, to my knowledge, no one from there made a movie. But God used me to do it, and if He can use me, then, my gosh! You can do it!”

Secondly, if you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. Don’t ever, ever quit. You could be quitting just on the other side of success, so don’t quit. You can absolutely do it.

The third thing is that the film industry is peppered with visionaries, people who want to direct. I think we need more filmmakers who respect the business end of filmmaking. If you can learn about things like accounting, marketing ,distribution and general business decision-making, how to organize and structure your day, those things are incredibly helpful. Filmmakers are typically not organized and disciplined. We’re a creative bunch, so if you can develop those skills it will put you way ahead in the industry.

There are all sorts of materials available to read about the business end of filmmaking. I’ve got dozens of different books on all the different filmmaking elements in my library at home. Topics like directing, producing, forms and examples of legal documents needed; they’re all available. The more knowledge we have, the more prepared we are.

John Wooden, the basketball coach, would say, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” And I think that’s true with visionaries, that often they’re not prepared.

We had a shot list for 90% of “The List,” so that before we even shot the movie we knew that on this day we had 15 shots, this day 20, this day 30, the next day 40, and it just made the process so much more smooth. That smoothness allowed us to get what we needed to get done, then have more time to be creative because we completed we needed to. You’re very passionate about this subject. Have you considered in the long run teaching this subject?

Gary: You know, I have. I really believe in young people. God calls us at a young age, so I think that’s where I’d like to end up one day. So I try to go speak on campuses 4 or 5 times a year just to exercise those skills, so that one day when my life slows down a bit I’ll be able to work for a university and maybe teach a curriculum.

It’s a cliché now, but the church in general is so dissatisfied with the way faith is being portrayed, and even being practiced. So many people say, “I’d rather do business with non-Christians than Christians,” and I think that’s totally wrong. I think the only way we’re going to change that is through the next generation.


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