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Christians in Cinema: Robert Whitlow
Christians in Cinema: Robert Whitlow

Christians in Cinema: Robert Whitlow

Like Gary Wheeler , the director of The List, Robert Whitlow makes his home in North Carolina. A true Southern gentleman, he received his law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law, and though he has written several novels and is now producing films, he doesn’t want to give up his day job as an attorney.
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CC.com:    Authors don’t often have creative input into a movie adaptation of their work. How did that happen for you, and would you tell us about your experience with that? Is the film true to the novel?

Robert: 
   I was very involved in the development of the film, both in the pre-production phase (which involved writing the screenplay) and deciding what parts of the story we wanted to emphasize in a cinematic depiction of the novel.

You can’t take a 125,000 word novel and put everything on the screen, or you’re going to have a 5-hour movie with intermissions. You have to be selective and emphasize those things that are core to the vision of the story, and also the aspects that have the greatest transferability to the cinematic medium. So I was involved with that, along with the other scriptwriters: Gary Wheeler, Michelle Long, and John Moore.

Writing a movie, unlike writing a novel, is a collaborative effort. You have a lot of creative people expressing opinions and their ideas about the best way to make the film.

In terms of how true it is to the novel, one of our goals was that fans of the book would be pleased with what they see in the film. The modifications made and the things that were left out did not take away from the core of the story. We worked hard on that. The feedback I’ve gotten from viewers has been very positive, and I was encouraged by that. We did a good job with that. If there was a change, I had the opportunity to provide my input.

Unlike many situations, I didn’t give away the option and then just go eat popcorn. I was involved in the whole process.

CC.com:    You’re still practicing law, along with writing other novels. When you started working on the film, how did you balance that with your other projects and job?

Robert:    You know, most writers are not full-time, or if they are, they have a spouse that works. My wife is a homemaker, and I enjoy being a lawyer, representing people. You know, most writers are not full-time, or if they are, they have a spouse that works.

My wife is a homemaker, and I enjoy being a lawyer, representing people. The writing life is so solitary that after working part-time for a few years in front of a computer, I realized that I want to be out interacting with people. So I will write in the evenings and on the weekends. I carve out a little bit of time and try to do it on a regular basis. [Writing a novel is] a big project, so you have to take it in little bites.
In terms of working on the script, part of my job was in an overall role. In other words, I needed to help keep the overall message of the movie consistent with the message of the novel. I also had a fair amount of input into the dialogue. I love writing dialogue in the novels, and I enjoy working on the dialogue aspects of the movie.

CC.com: 
   When you write a novel, you have 125,000 words to explore all the nuances of a character and their background. How do you translate the character development to film dialogue?

Robert:    I think film and television dialogue has really affected novel dialogue. I think you’ll notice a lot of contemporary novels, including mine, have short and snappy dialogue back and forth between characters. I think that’s because people’s ears tune to that because of television shows and movies. So we were able to transfer a lot of the dialogue from the novel, sometimes lifting scenes verbatim from the novel because it was, in a sense, influenced already by movies and television.

In terms of writing dialogue, I’ve read thousands and thousands of depositions, so you just get used to it. It has really helped me in the long run.

CC.com:    Have any of the themes in your books and the movie come from any of your actual experiences as an attorney?

Robert: 
   Yes, especially the scenes in court. When I describe how someone feels, especially a lawyer, or how the lawyer or defendant might be thinking, those come from experiences in real life. And hopefully I communicate that in a way that brings the viewer or the reader into the imaginary world, and they have a vicarious experience in that moment.

There are also incidences that I’ll put into the novels or the film that are loosely based on actual events, but nothing specifically. In an overall sense, it might resemble real life.

There are actual ethical guidelines that govern that type of situation. If you’re going to use specific events, you have to have client permission. I’ve never really been interested in doing that with any cases so far.

CC.com:    Then what inspires your writing?

Robert:    For The List, I was driving in my car, just thinking about the influence that past generations have on us, both for good and for bad. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate that in the life of a Southern family going back to the Civil War. With that as the seed thought, it kind of germinated into “The List.”

The main character, Renny, had ancestors involved on both sides of the controversy surrounding this group, and 140 or 150 years later, it’s all come to roost in his life. He has to wrestle with huge challenges and opportunities related to all that. It was just a little seed and it grew into an idea. I wrote it, it got published, and now it’s a movie. It’s all a big surprise to me. Especially when I saw some of the actors say some of the things that I wrote, it was just hilarious.

CC.com:    Were you on the set for some of the filming?

Robert:    I was there for about 5 or 6 days. I’m in the opening scene, along with some of my partners and a few of our investors. I was there a few other times as well.

I got to see Will Patton do his scene, and I really enjoyed that. I saw Chuck Carrington (Renny), Hilarie Burton (Jo), and Malcolm McDowell do a few scenes to get a sense of what they were doing. Malcolm is amazing. He could do a scene 4 different ways, all of them perfectly, just to give you options when you get into the editing suite.

He could start a joke, they would call “action,” he’d do the scene perfectly, then come back and give you the punch line without missing a beat.

CC.com:
    Were you involved in the editing as well?

Robert:    Yes, Gary would bring me in to give my opinion on how it was going, and let me hear the musical score as it was progressing.

CC.com: 
   What gives you the greatest satisfaction when you see the finished film?

Robert:
    The overall goal I had was that we would have a film that was artistically excellent and spiritually powerful. I believe we have that.

What’s so important in a novel and movie is that there’s an appropriate emotional payoff at the end of the day, and I believe we have that. I believe it does provide the viewer with a level of satisfaction in the experience of what they’ve seen in the world they’ve been living in during the duration of the film.

There are also some really beautiful scenes. When they’re walking on the beach talking and you see them through the dune grass, it’s absolutely beautiful! It’s just awesome.

Another goal that I think we accomplished was that the spiritual elements of the story seem organic to the story, and not superimposed or added on, but just emerge from who the characters are, and how they, as real people, might respond to various situations.

The reaction from various crowds with different types of folks, some with stronger Christian perspective, and some that don’t have that perspective, was that we achieved that goal. They said they could see how someone could develop that kind of faith and prayer life because of the lifestyle she lived.

CC.com:    What was your own faith journey?

Robert: 
   I’m originally from Georgia and was raised in the church. I had an awakening to the reality of God’s love for me in my first year of law school in 1976. From that point forward, I would say that I had a living dynamic relationship with God. It has been my desire that would have an impact on every area of my life, whether it’s practicing law, being a father, writing a novel, or working on a film. So it goes back about 30 years now.

That’s when I had a real spiritual awakening. There was something of a crisis in the sense that there’s always a crisis that brings us to faith. I was working at a home for emotionally disturbed children outside of Atlanta. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The director at that time said, “If you have any resource, you need to call on it at this time.”

I began praying and asking God to help these kids. That was a door opening and a beginning for me. I then began to have a greater interest in learning in a more in-depth way about what it mean to be a Christian and a follower of the Lord. I began listening to some tapes my mother had and reading the Bible with a greater level of interest.

I went off to law school that fall with that already kind of happening, and it was in that fall season of 1976 that I’d go back to my apartment, study, and then really spend time with the Lord. I had a time of repentance for the things I’d done in my life, and seeking forgiveness from those I felt like I’d harmed or wronged. I remember wanting to be transformed by the Spirit of God, and to be changed.

I did see change. Where I’d been somewhat of a sarcastic, cynical person, I became more of an encourager and a person who saw the benefit of trying to live my life for other people. It was for real!

It wasn’t a religious formula. That can be a doorway, too, but that’s not how it happened for me. I began identifying with fellow Christians at the law school. We had a fellowship group began identifying with fellow Christians at the law school. We had a fellowship group that got together weekly and prayed together. It was a kind of coming out of the closet.

You’re in panic mode because law school is such a grueling difficult place, and it was kind of working at that home for kids with all the problems; you need all the help you can get. I met some really neat folks during that time.

What happened to me in 1976 was that I found out that God was real, and He would interact with me across the scope of my whole life. So my goal in the books is to say, “Hey, God is real!” All kinds of spiritual stuff happens in the movie, but not within the four walls of a church. Some cool things happen with Will Patton at the church, and God definitely works within the church, but He’s not limited.

CC.com:    Your books have a definite mix of the spiritual and supernatural. Where does that come from?

Robert:
    Well, because that’s the supernatural real misery. I’ve had experiences in my own walk with the Lord that don’t necessarily mirror what’s happened with the characters. I’ve had some characters that inspire me and made me say, “Wow, I’d like to be more like that myself.”

But at least there was enough going on in my own life that I could hopefully write credibly about spiritual things and events, and people interacting with the Lord in a way that’s not just a principal, but is dynamic. I bring that into the stories because I think that’s part of the Christian life, and it can be part of the lives of the characters. I enjoy that aspect of it, because I enjoy it in my own life. My hope is the reader and viewer will enjoy that themselves, and perhaps be inspired by it.

CC.com:
    You’re carving out time for work and writing and movie-making. What does your family think about it?

Robert: 
   My kids are all in their twenties. They’ve all read some of the books, but I don’t know that any of them have read all the books. They’ve all seen the film, and like anybody’s children, they were worried that it’s going to be cheesy and embarrassing. They’re pleased that it’s a quality film.

When I started writing, several of them were home, but now they’re all gone working or in school.

CC.com:
    What’s your writing style? And are you working on a novel now?

Robert:
    I’m more of an organic writer. I have an idea about the beginning and the end, but mainly I try to enjoy the journey in between. For example, in The List , the Daisy Stokes character (Renny’s landlady) started out as a minor character. She didn’t have a real role, but I thought it would be interesting for Renny to rent half of a real nice old home in the Charlotte area from an older lady. That was it.

As I was working on the novel, I realized this character had potential, and as I worked on the novel and she and Renny interacted, this potential grew until she became the pivotal character of the story. So none of that was anticipated. The prayer room in the film wasn’t known to me when I started the story.

I had Jo come for a visit, put her clothes on the bed, and asked myself, “What would a woman do next?” She’d put her clothes in the closet because she didn’t want them to be wrinkled. So she opened the closet door and there it was, this prayer room. I just saw it in my imagination at that moment. I thought it was cool. So I described this prayer room.

Probably the most dramatic moment I had in the making of the film was when they built this prayer room on the soundstage and I saw it. It really emotionally affected me. I’ve had more people comment about that one aspect of the story than anything else in my books. Several have even built prayer rooms in their own homes. I can’t describe what I felt when I saw this thing built. It was incredibly moving.

That’s what happens when I write; things just pop up. Characters will be in conversation – the other night I was writing and one of my characters said something that made me think, “I just can’t believe this.” It just came in the moment.

If I were to sit down and think, “I need to make a few thousand bucks,” I wouldn’t sit down and write a book. It’s a passion.

CC.com:    How long was the process from the first idea and your wife’s encouragement to write until the book was published?

Robert:    I started the book in 1996 and finished it in 1998. I wrote it for my wife and didn’t really know it would be published. But she knew somebody that knew a guy that had sold a book and he was a marketing guy from Nashville. He had a few connections in the book business, but wasn’t really a literary agent. He was a networker and a good guy.

This woman my wife knew talked to him and asked if he’d be interested in helping me find somebody to publish my book. He said, “Sure,” so I sent him a copy of the book. He took it to Amy McConnell at Thomas Nelson, dropped it off, and about 3 months later, Amy called him and said, “I can’t find the last pages of that book. I need to know what happens.”

She found the last pages and finished the book, and they brought me to Nashville to sign a deal. I never got turned down by a publisher; they were the only one that looked at it. Thomas Nelson bought it, and I’ve had a long relationship with them ever since.

It’s pretty amazing because I’m just a regular guy that’s pretty unknown. I owe a debt of gratitude to John Grisham because I think the success of his books prompted publishers to find more attorneys that could write stories. Maybe God knew I couldn’t handle a bunch of rejection because I never got turned down.

CC.com:
    How does it affect your life on a daily basis around town or at church or with friends to go from being an attorney to being a writer, to now having a feature film?

Robert:
    In all honesty, it hasn’t changed much. It gives me something else to talk about. I’ve been a successful attorney. Something I learned years ago about success is that you have to hold it with an open hand. You can’t hold it to your chest and massage it like Frodo did with the ring or it will eat you alive. You’ve got to be casual about it, and you can’t get too serious about yourself.

A few years ago a guy came up to me at a restaurant and said he recognized me, and that it probably happened all the time. It really doesn’t. He was the first one. I told him I was happy to talk with him, so I went out to my car and got him a copy of the book from the trunk of my car.

Every once in a while someone will know who I am, but it doesn’t happen a lot. What I tell people who ask is to follow their passion, do the best they can, try not to be an amateur and see what happens.

CC.com:    What’s next for you? You’re writing another novel, should we expect more films from you?

Robert
:    I have a new book that just came out, “Deeper Water,” and I’m just finishing the second one (of a three-book series) that will be out next April (2009). Gary and I are in pre-production of the adaptation of my second novel, “The Trial,” that won the Christy Award. We’re also working on “The Sacrifice,” which is my third novel. We’re wanting to try to do those novels closer together and not take as much time as we did with “The List.”

We’re working on raising money for those projects, so if anyone wants to invest $100,000, we’ll be glad to talk! My wife Kathy is one of our biggest investors. It is a challenge raising the money and being efficient with it.

CC.com: 
   What do you look to for inspiration?

Robert:    Sometimes it comes with an interesting character. I think about what they might face in life.  My book “Jimmy” is about a mentally-challenged young boy, and it started with the thought of this character.

The List is one where I really got the idea from a plot. So it varies. Sometimes the plot inspires, and sometimes the character does.

CC.com:    Given the opportunity to talk with a group of seniors who are just about to make their start in life, what would you say to them?

Robert: 
   I’ve had the chance to do it, and I know exactly what I’d say. I’d talk to them about not letting conventional wisdom dictate the course of their life. I tell them that walking with God is the greatest adventure and opportunity that you’ll ever have. If the Christian life is boring, it’s because you’re not living it. If you’re really seeking to hear God’s voice, you have a chance for significance. It won’t necessarily be easy.

I’ve spoken to law students, and I’ll tell them it’s not about climbing the ladder at the big firms, because sometimes you get to the top and there’s nothing there. It’s all about living outside the world’s box, but inside God’s box.

I love that kind of opportunity; when I get the chance I take it.

©2008 ChristianCinema.com 


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