A Talk With Gary Wheeler
A Producer In The Director’s Chair

I first ran across Gary Wheeler’s name when I was asked to review the film Final Solution for Hollywood Jesus in 2003. Wheeler produced that film for Messenger Films, but I did not speak with him then—instead, interviewing Gerrit Wolfaardt (on whose life the film was based); South African actor Jan Ellis (who played Wolfaardt in the film); and Executive Producer A. C. Green. I later ran into the films director, Cris Krusen, at the 2004 CBA convention, and became part of the prayer circle for his teenaged son, Daniel, who at the time was institutionalized for schizophrenia. Last fall, the record of that prayer circle was published in Krusen’s heartrending and hope-filled memoir, Let Me Have My Son.

So I’d heard plenty about Wheeler for a good long time, and followed his work in my editorial capacity at Hollywood Jesus. I was intrigued when Wheeler’s first theatrical film, The List, went into limited release—though unfortunately, it did not screen in Seattle, so I wasn’t able to see it.

Gary Wheeler, director of The ListThe film was recently released on DVD, however; and when a press release announced that the film had won three Crown Awards—Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Drama—at the International Christian Visual Media convention in Orlando last month, I jumped at the opportunity (courtesy of a national publicist) to speak with Wheeler.

It’s got to feel pretty good to get some awards for The List, huh?

Gary Wheeler: It does! It’s always rewarding, especially coming from your peers. I’ve done a few movies, and we’ve been blessed to win some awards. So like everybody in Hollywood, I say, “It’s nice to be nominated.” But it’s rewarding to win, particularly when it comes from fellow screenwriters. And for Robert and Kathy Whitlow, who were the executive producers—it was really their vision to see the book turned into to a movie, so it’s exciting, I think, for them. So I gave away my awards. Except for best picture! I kept that one. I gave away the screenplay award and another one.

Now, the press release about the awards mentioned that you’re at work on another Whitlow adaptation, The Trial.

GW: That’s right. It’s a courtroom drama, and it and The List are his two best-selling novels. It’s a straight courtroom drama à la To Kill A Mockingbird, which is my favorite movie of all time. Very Southern. If The List was really a movie about the power of prayer, then The Trial is more about hope, and how God can bring hope into any circumstance.

Well, when you talked with Scott Roche at Hollywood Jesus last August, around the time of the theatrical premiere of The List, you told him that you were working on Whitlow’s The Sacrifice next. What happened there?

GW: We only had a script for The Sacrifice then, and we still plan on making The Sacrifice today. But two things happened. One, we had an offer to turn The Trial into a movie from another set of producers, and that kind of forced me to read it. I hadn’t read it yet, and when I read it, I said, “You know, this is a powerful story!” And like all of the books of Whitlow’s I’ve read, I found it very cinematic. So I said, “Yeah. Let’s stop producing The Sacrifice and make it down the road.” The second thing that happened was that we had a conversation with 20th Century Fox, talking about what was next, and they suggested The Trial as well because it’s a very marketable project, and very universal—because everybody feels hopeless at one point or another. So we felt like moving to The Trial and then following it up with The Sacrifice would increase the audience for The Sacrifice. So in other words, we’re doing a second Robert Whitlow novel so we’re “building the brand.” And then after that, you can plug other movies in a little easier. The List and The Trial are the two best-selling ones, so you want to lead with them.

Sure. So it sounds like part of the business dynamics there [have] been what’s happened with the Fox Faith label itself, and the interplay between Fox Faith and Fox Home Entertainment.

GW: Yes. They’re kind of one and the same, but as a filmmaker it’s kind of exciting when you see Fox anything on your movie! That’s kind of fun in and of itself. As filmmakers, what we all want is like a parent: you want your kids to walk on their own, and we want our films to find their audience. And what Fox does is put our film in the marketplace; it allows it to kind of rise or fall on its own. So, yeah. It’s exciting to get the Fox label on your movie.

That’s interesting. In the world of niche marketing, there are all kinds of brands and labels that target specific films to specific audiences. And there’s been some talk about Fox Faith almost being a kiss of death in some cases: people saying that this is an over-defined niche, and that the Fox Faith label has actually hurt business. What’s your perspective on that?

GW: I disagree with that. You just want your movie to get out there. I think that Fox, as a distributor, is also learning about the market; and they have a sincere desire to stay in this market, and hopefully make better and better films. So I think what they’re doing now is using the Fox Faith label as more of a seal of approval to Christians; and then when it’s released in Blockbuster or other places, it then comes under Fox Home Entertainment. So I think where they’ll end up is that Fox Faith will come to be seen like the Dove Awards, or a Movieguide recommendation. But for the general market—for the Wal-Marts, the Targets—you’ll see things come from Fox Home Entertainment.

Well, I noticed that the DVD released for The List—which carries the Fox Home Entertainment label, the Dove seal, and the URL for Fox Faith—has as one of its special features a Bible study guide.

GW: That’s right.

Now, is that on all released versions?

GW: It’s on all of them, but it’s more heavily promoted in the Christian market. It’s funny, because we put it right out there. But sometimes you’ll hear from a viewer who rented it and [says], “You know, I didn’t know this had any Christian content to it.” But on the back of the case it says, “Bible Study Discussion Guide.” It’s kind of surprising. And we figured with this movie—which is about the power of prayer—there’s no way around it. And if you kind of just spring it on an audience, figuring out about half of the way through the movie that this is about prayer, they’ll be disappointed. It’s about managing expectations, I think, of the viewers. So this is a movie about prayer, and it has a Bible study that goes with it. And that’s fine with us.

Beyond managing expectations, it seems to me that it’s also about artistry. You know, Gary, I almost feel like I know you because I’ve been familiar with your work for so long, and I know Cris Krusen so well.

GW: Oh, yeah! Okay.

When I teach film classes, one of the films I show is Final Solution because it’s a film that, to me, conveys the attitude that I feel is right about Christians and filmmaking, which is: don’t shy away from your convictions, by any means; but by the same token, make good art. And I think that you’ve done the same thing with The List. It’s a very artfully done film.

GW: We had two goals: to make a movie that was artistically excellent, and [to make a movie] that was spiritually powerful. I think the two go hand in hand. Now, we were just amazed by the technical skill behind the camera on The List. The director of photography was a gentleman named Tom Priestly, Jr., who did The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). But Tom’s first film that he worked on was Midnight Cowboy. He was a camera operator on Amadeus, The French Connection, Sophie’s Choice—and the list goes on and on. He’s done five movies with Meryl Streep, and four with Dustin Hoffman—Kramer vs. Kramer. And when Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, he was the first person she thanked. So we had a lot of artistic excellence behind the scenes, and that was our goal. And spiritual power, of course. And Cris—when I worked with him as a producer, I loved it. I really learned that from him. We are filmmakers, you know? I think too many times Christians feel a call, and become evangelists more than we are filmmakers. And I think both Cris and I would agree that we are Christians, but our calling is really filmmaking. So we are filmmakers first, and our Christianity permeates our work. It’s like the Lewis quote: not “Christian writers,” but “writers who are Christians.” We are not Christian filmmakers, but filmmakers who are Christians.

What’s your background and training?

GW: I have undergrad degree in broadcasting with a minor in English Lit. So I started almost immediately in college making projects and producing films. When I graduated, I went to work in television, and then went to Regent University’s film school.

And that’s where you met Cris?

GW: That’s right. And I immediately started working with Cris… that was fifteen years ago, I guess. Since then, it’s been honing my craft and making movies. I always had the creative urge, but I found early on that I have a knack for the business elements of filmmaking. That’s kind of a needed skill, and so I’ve learned through it all that my real goal is to help visionaries reach their vision. That’s a very specific mission statement that I have. So on a movie like Final Solution, it was really helping Cris fulfill his dream of making a film about apartheid. And then on The List, that means Robert Whitlow—who had a vision to see his book adapted. So it varies from project to project, but I always run it through that filter. So I like to educate film students; I do quite a bit of guest lecturing on [a wide range of topics], from the aesthetics of filmmaking to the business of filmmaking.

That’s great—and speaking of aesthetics, I’d like to ask you about one sequence in the film. For a first-time job of direction on a full-length feature film, there are almost no false steps in your direction at all; and yet there is one sequence—the first meeting of the members of The List—in which the rhythms seem a little off. Can you tell me a little about that sequence and the difficulties of filming that?

GW: The first meeting of the members of The List.

Yes.

GW: And something about the rhythms?

Yes. When you’re doing the character introductions, going through who the various members of The List are—and I think it’s Gus, telling Renny about who the various men are. It feels like some of the cuts are kind of disjointed or something.

GW: That’s a hard scene. In the script, it was thirteen pages. We had two cameras in there, and you’re trying to cover it as much as possible; and I would rather do more setups and fewer takes. I get out of most shots in two or three takes, and just move on because I’d rather do more setups. So we did about thirty-two setups in that room during that day; and so part of that is that you’re probably missing a couple of things. And one of the compliments of this film, and one of the critiques, is that we’re getting graded like a real movie; but people might not realize we were a low budget film. We did not have a lot of money to make this movie, but it looks like it cost from three to five times what it did, when people guess the budget. So what that means is that you kind of run and gun. Probably, that scene might reflect the approach. But part of it is that we had to do ADR on that sequence when Gus was talking; and sometimes, with the sound a little off, it can make a scene feel disjointed. And the other element is that we had one of our original List members have a heart attack, after we had shot with him for a day. So we had to fix a couple of things for him in that room, in that sequence when Gus is going around introducing people; we had to change a lot of the dialogue to reflect that.

I’m sure that was a big factor in how that scene played, then.

GW: Yeah. But you caught it! So that’s good.

Well, one of my interests in film is noticing things like that—and then asking why, rather than presuming that filmmakers are idiots. So it sounds like you didn’t have the luxury of doing a lot of storyboarding.

GW: I did not. Zero. But we did shot-list 95% of the movie, so we had a shot for every scene, and that was hugely, monumentally helpful. I think we had one scene where there was a single setup, but everything else was shot-listed. And then you go from there, and see where the action takes you. But I’d still be shooting if I didn’t have the shot list, you know?