Another Talk with Gary Wheeler
Better All the Time

I’ve been paying close attention to Gary Wheeler’s work since 2001, when his first production, Cris Krusen’s Final Solution, was released.  It was the first film I reviewed for Hollywood Jesus, and when I ran into Krusen at the CBA meeting during publicity events for my first book, Cris and I became fast friends.  My wife and I have since published Cris’ memoir Let Me Have My Son, and I have consulted with Cris on a number of his scripts—and he is also advising me in development of a screenplay for my novel West of the Gospel, which his company Moonlit Pictures hopes to produce.

I have also reviewed Gary’s film The List, which marked his directing debut, and have reviewed Dog Days of Summer, written and directed by Mark Freiburger.  Mark wrote the script for Gary’s second film, The Trial, which was released a week ago.

I’ve previously interviewed both Gary and Mark, and both have also expressed an interest in West of the Gospel—so I’ll admit it: I’m biased.  I like the way they work, and I like the fact that they like my work, too.

But I don’t think my bias got in the way of an honest assessment of The Trial—which I described as the kind of vanilla drama that you actually liked for being vanilla.  Gary said he’d have to mull over that review for a few days before he decided how he felt about it.

But in the talk I had with him a couple of weeks ago over the phone, I think he pretty much agreed with my assessment… though his taste in metaphors run to sports rather than food…

Matthe Modine as Mac in The TrialSince the last time that we talked, officially, you have come to completion with The Trial and it’s coming out direct to DVD, right?

Gary Wheeler: It is.  We did a regional theatrical release, and played a few festivals.  We actually opened in Davidson, North Carolina, and set the record for highest gross at that theater.  Ever.  So we did a little regional release, a few theaters here in North Carolina.  And it’s out on DVD November 9.

How did that work, with respect to the marketing plan?  I’m asking for the benefit of our readers.  The film was designed for direct release to DVD, but you’re also doing a small theatrical release.  Was that done to generate revenue, or primarily to generate buzz for the DVD release?

GW: It’s a little bit of both.  We wanted to bring it into places where people could see it on the big screen—really enjoy the way it looks, and the performances, in a bigger venue.  So we realized we didn’t have the financing to do a big national release, due to prints and advertising costs and marketing.  But we still wanted to connect and bring it to audiences that really wanted to see the movie—who had a craving to see the movie.  And we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose money on theatrical, which most movies do. 

Well, it sounds like you selected the correct theaters to release it into.

GW: We made money!  We actually made money on the theatrical.  We can say that.  But we knew we couldn’t sustain it over the course of a national release.  And we knew from day one, before we even started production, that we were headed for a DVD release.

Right.  Where do you feel The Trial fits in your career path?  What are your long-term goals as a director?

GW: That’s a good question—one that I’m not sure that I have an answer for.  I think every filmmaker—every artist, whatever form of art they are involved in—has that inner drive.  Beyond the Lord, which is the first and foremost thing in my life.  But you have this inner thing that makes you passionate about a piece, about making a movie demanding two years of your life or something.  And more than anything, that’s the path that I follow: something that inspires me enough that I think it’s a story worth telling and committing that much of my life to.  I use that as a guide.  But long term, I just want to become a better storyteller.  And I thought that this was the perfect film to help me become a better filmmaker, become a better storyteller.  And I already kind of knew what my next film was going to be as a director, so this seemed like it would be the next right step after The List.

From my perspective as a reviewer, it definitely felt that way to me—that there was a definite progression of maturity in storytelling.  The List demonstrated your ability in telling a story in an aesthetically pleasing manner; but there was more of a smoothness to The Trial—and I imagine that some of that was due to better technical circumstances.  GW: Thank you for that.  And that’s what we’ve found with audiences when they’ve seen it; that’s kind of what they say.  They liked The List, and for the reasons you just said: its aesthetics, the performances, Malcolm McDowell, that kind of thing; but The Trial was a more mature film.  It’s also an easier box to put a movie in.  Everyone knows what they’re getting when you say “courtroom drama.”  There have been hundreds of them, and we could have gone any number of different ways with that; we could have overreached, or cut to the boundaries of that.  But to use a golf analogy, we just wanted to go straight down the fairway with it.  We wanted to go right to the middle of that genre, and just tell a good story.  That was our goal, and I think we came close to reaching it.  As a director, somebody said once that with your first film, you’re just glad that the movie gets made and if there’s any kind of cohesion at all.  And with your second film, you fix all of the mistakes that you made with the first one.  And by the third movie, you’re just a director.  And so I think that’s where The Trial fits in, too.  We fixed everything we could from what we did with The List, and with the next one we’ll just keep moving on.

Before we move on to talking about what’s next for you, I do want to touch briefly on the faith content of The Trial.  The film is being brought out on DVD by the Fox Faith label—and of course there’s the question of how deep that label actually gets when it comes to Fox Faith.  But it did seem that The Trial was more of a mainstream picture and had less faith-oriented content than The List.  I suspect that a good deal of that is because of the subject matter of Robert Whitlow’s book.

GW: It is.  I think I would agree with that.  The faith elements in The List seemed more organic, and they seemed more organic to audiences.  It seems to be.  It’s more pointed.  But the elements of faith in The Trial are more specific.  The real reason is that Robert’s book had a lot more of that element in it, and won the Christie award for best religious fiction, of all things.  But what happens between the writing of the novel and the adapting of the screenplay, one of the elements that’s in the novel is that the lead character is dealing with grief, overcoming the loss of his family.  Not spoiling anything, because the movie opens with that.  But between the novel and the adaptation, Robert’s daughter-in-law, Katie, who was pregnant with Robert’s grandson, somewhere about twenty weeks along found out she had leukemia.  They gave her several options, one of which was to terminate the pregnancy and do chemo right away; and another was to do nothing, but she wouldn’t live very long.  So her husband, Robert’s son, prayed about it, and they felt that was the right thing to do.  And they all prayed for her; and she passed away about five weeks later, just before Christmas three years ago.  And Robert had just written about dealing with grief in his novel.  And so we realized that was the avenue to take with this film.  So there are certain lines in the movie—“Grief is like a river, and you can’t speed it up”—that are not in the novel, but are things he walked through as he was grieving the loss of Katie.  So that’s really the tack that we took.  We put all of our “faith elements” in the grief basket.  It was a movie that we wanted everyone to like as a courtroom drama and say, “Hey! That was a really really good movie.”  But for that one percent of people who have grief they need to deal with in their lives, to move on and go from point A to point B, we hope that the movie will be a blessing and a use to them.  Does that make sense?

Yes, it does make sense. 

GW: If you watch the movie, you’ll see that the movie is dedicated to Katie in the end credits.  And we hope that grief support groups will use it, and church groups, and other places like that.

Well, that’s one thing that did strike me watching the movie.  Even though the film is called The Trial, the resolution of the court case really isn’t the centerpiece of the movie.  There isn’t the dramatic tension there that you might expect so much as there is tension built up around Mac’s grief.  So I think you hit the mark in terms of what you were trying to accomplish, although it did throw me a bit because I was expecting something more of the hot-shot lawyer variety.

GW: Well, every court room drama is ultimately about the lawyers.  Very rarely are they about the trial.  So in this case the lawyer is dealing with grief—and “The Trial” has a double meaning.  There’s the case that has to be tried, but then there’s the trial of his heart, of his soul.

That’s nice.

GW: And that’s the trial that we chose to tell.  It’s very similar, I think, to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is one of my favorite films of all time.  It’s not really about the case; it’s really about Atticus and Scout.  And that’s kind of what we were going for here.

That’s a good comparison.  I hadn’t thought of that one.  Now, when I interviewed you for The List, which was now two years ago, one of the projects you were working on was The Sacrifice.  Is that what you’re working on next?  Or do you have something else in the works?

GW: We’re actually going to work on Jimmy next, another Whitlow novel, and then get back to The Sacrifice—which is still a very timely story about a school shooting.  And we’re planning on shooting Jimmy in January, but I’m taking a step back as director.  I’m writing the screenplay, and will be the producer, but Mark Frieburger is going to direct. 


GW: We’re going to kind of flip roles.

I really like the dynamic that you’re developing with Mark and some of the other folks that you’ve been working with.  I don’t know if you saw the interview that I did with Chad Gundersen recently, but it feels to me like there’s a very nice synergy developing amongst a body of Christian filmmakers that is, I feel, really heading in the right direction in terms of professionalism.

GW: Well, the Bible talks about how pleasant it is when brothers work together in unity.  And you can check on this, but it’s been peaceful.  We have a peaceful set and we work together toward a common goal, and that common goal is to impact culture.  And to tell stories in professionally-made, competent films that are comparable in every way to other films out there.  If you work toward that goal, you’ll achieve it.  So yeah—Mark and Chad and some of the other technical folks that we work with keep trying to build a team and keep moving forward with these films.

That’s great.  Good luck with the DVD release, Gary, and I look forward to seeing your next project.

GW: Thanks, Greg.  Jimmy will be out in another year.

Look for it next fall.  Jimmy stars Colin Ford and Devon Gearheart, who was so memorable in Mark Freiburger’s Dog Days of Summer.