by C.J. Darlington
Gary Wheeler Interview
believe in a call, I believe in a Divine spark. I believe that God
calls us to do things and gives us the creativity to do it."
-- Gary Wheeler
Gary Wheeler is a multi-award winning North Carolina filmmaker who has produced a number of motion picture and television productions around the world. He is the founder and President of Level Path Productions and makes his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In addition, Gary sits of several boards of directors and has lectured
at numerous universities and conferences around the United States.
I’ve heard you say you’ve always had a creative urge, but was there ever a defining moment that clinched it for you?
As a child I grew up in upstate New York, and as a young boy we’d spend our summers there. Me and my buddies would run around putting on plays and making movies every summer until I turned sixteen. But the real defining moment was when I read a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Fields, who back in the day was a screenplay guru. This book was a famous how-to book. I must’ve been maybe fourteen years old, and I picked it up at the local bookstore. I almost felt like the scales fell off my eyes all of a sudden and I opened up to the world of possibility, of how to create worlds, of how to take what was in my head and put it on paper. I remember devouring the book and really feeling like it’s possible. I can do this. I can make it. That was probably sometime in my eighth or ninth grade year that I really said, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. For awhile I thought I was going to be in the sports broadcasting world, but the call to me was in my heart. I never wavered from it from that point on.
What is it about the medium of movies that appeals to you, and why do you think they’re so powerful?
As a child I always loved the summer movie season. Back then we didn’t define it as the summer movie season, it was just “summer movies”, the movies you saw when you came out of school. We’d moved to Charlotte, North Caroline when I was still in elementary school, and I don’t remember what movie it was, other than it was some children’s film, but I came out of the dark, cool movie theater and into this bright, hot, blinding, light. The sunshine. We’ve all been there when you come out of a movie theater, and it’s like bam! You’re shocked back into the world. I’ve never forgotten that moment, and I went back and analyzed, asking myself, what was it that was so vivid about it to me? It was basically the dichotomy of the real world and the world on film. I think the power of film is that it has the power to take people to a place in their mind and create worlds, and ultimately it has the power to transform their lives like very few things do. It can be instantaneous. You can have such a visceral reaction to the visuals. I’ve never forgotten that’s really what all this is about. It’s easy to make it about ourselves, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of making movies and having fun making movies. But the nugget, the thing that’s going to keep you making them, the thing that’s going to keep me making them, is that it has the power to touch people in a deep and profound way. Movies have touched me in a deep and profound way.
What movies have really touched you?
You know, I’ve always kept a list of my favorite movies. It varies, but my favorite movie of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it’s just a great film. The interesting thing about To Kill A Mockingbird is that the American Film Institute did a top 100 Heroes and top 100 Villains collection. Of all the heroes who have ever been in the history of cinema, the #1 hero wasn’t Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, it was Atticus Finch, who loses the only case he tried in the movie. That’s a movie that epitomizes what it really means to be heroic and how the world is really looking for people to stand up for their beliefs.
Chariots of Fire is another one that had a profound impact on me. A summer movie that really stuck with me is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I just remember being transported into that world and how much I really loved that. I love westerns, and I think The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great western. Breaking Away is a great 80's movie. As a teenager a movie that had a profound impact on me as I was moving and getting ready to go to college was Say Anything. That was Cameron Crowe’s first movie. I though the writing was just brilliant. I could relate to the John Cusack character. He was a senior in high school that was similar to me. I drove a big car like he did, liked that kind of music.
Your wife Jodie is also a creative person, right? Is she involved in some of your movies as well?
Yeah, she is. We’re a team. She has her Masters from Regent University in Television and Film Production and Management. She works with me on everything, really. She doesn’t get the credit that I get because I’m more in the forefront, but as anybody who attempts anything significant knows, their partner, their spouse, is really the one that should get the credit. She’s behind me 100% of the way, and she likes to say she’s the average movie goer. So as we develop these films and books and scripts, she’s always the person who says, “No, this is what you need to do.” Or “This is the type of person you need to cast.” And as our kids get older, we have four children, we see her being even more involved in the company and in the production.
And then you have four more average movie goers!
That’s right! My son is eleven and he’s already creating little films in his head. I want to bring him on set with me from now on. He comes a lot. It was fun to see him hanging out with Matthew Modine on The Trial set. That was really cool for me. I’d like to get where I can make some movies in the summer time when he’s out of school so I can hire him, give him his first summer job and let him be a production assistant. He can get his first IMDB credit. (Chuckles.)
How did you guys originally connect with Robert Whitlow?
I guess it was six or seven years ago. When he met me I had one child. Now I have four! I remember my son went to the first meeting with a cowboy outfit on. He must’ve been five years old at that point. I was working on a movie called Final Solution as a Producer, and Robert’s wife Kathy had told him from day one that The List was going to be a movie. He had looked for producers that had the right sensibility. He wanted a certain element of creative control over the project. He wanted to make sure that the vision God gave him for the book stayed true in the movie. He didn’t really want to just option the book to a production company and have them make whatever they wanted to make. He wanted to be actively involved in the process. I don’t think he knew, or I knew, what that meant. A mutual friend of ours, Willie Mangum, knew that Robert wanted to make a movie and knew that I was in the mountains of North Carolina, just a couple counties away, and grew up in Charlotte. Willie very selflessly put the two of us together. One day I get a call from him saying, “Hey, I’m Robert Whitlow.” I really didn’t know at that point much about him. He sent me a copy of the book The List, and I sent him a copy of Final Solution. We both liked what the other had done. I thought The List as a novel was very powerful. It made me cry. Everything about it that was powerful was probably uncinematic. But I knew I was supposed to do it. Then we pursued a relationship. That was July. It took us about six months to figure out how we were going to start things. About a year, year and a half later we were mostly funded on The List and getting ready to prep and shoot it. It was a couple year process getting to know each other figuring out a system. I’d say it’s a rare day when I don’t talk to Robert. It’s been awhile since he’s not been in my life. He’s one of my best friends. I don’t think either one of us would’ve expected that six years ago.
You’ve touched on this already, but some authors will let go entirely, others really want to have their hand in a movie adaptation. Robert helped write the screen play for both of these, right? And he’s one of the Producers. What did that collaborative process look like for you guys in The Trial? Cutting a long book down so much must’ve been challenging.
The process of adapting a novel was very different for The List than it was for The Trial. There are so many viewpoints. Some of the characters have strong arcs in the book. The Trial the movie is really about Mac and whether he’s going to start living again, what it will take. As soon as we had grief as our theme, it really was a pretty easy process. Again, To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite movie, and we put The Trial square in the courtroom drama genre. We worked with a script consultant named Blake Snyder who wrote a book called Save the Cat, and he has a very strong screenplay model that says there are basically sixteen story beats every good movie falls into. Even The Social Network falls into it. People say that’s not a formulaic movie, but it falls perfectly into it. Toy Story 3 falls into it. We just hung our hat on those story beats, and Blake was an A List script screenwriter in the 80s and 90s. He worked on giving us advice and actually passed away just before we shot the movie. He was a great mentor to us and his book still is a guiding force and something we plug every screenplay into now. We pulled the courtroom scenes almost straight from the novel. You know the Rodney MacFarland character, the truck driver guy who’s very funny, that’s almost verbatim from the novel.
In a book you can be a little more subtle on certain things, so we’ve added at the end of the movie certain things to make our character, who’s struggling with whether he has a will to live, have to fight for his life. So what happens is Mark Freiburger, one of the screenwriters, did the first couple drafts. He did what I would call the heavy lifting, taking 400 pages and making it 140. I come in and I’m like the hatchet man. If it’s not necessary I cut it. Robert and I wrote and wrote and wrote pretty much three days a week, all afternoon, for three or four months. And then Mark came back in and we all worked together. We did script reading with actors. For those who see this movie, and even those who saw The List, I think what they’ll find is that this script is really polished. It’s a very professional film. I hope! (Laughs.) We’re growing. Each one hopefully gets better.
What did you like most about working with Robert? And what did he bring to the table that you maybe didn’t expect?
Robert has a gift for dialogue. He has a nose for humor and southern dialogue that is fantastic. And he’s not married to his book. He has a policy that if it’s better than what he thought of in the book, put it in the movie. He’s all in, to use a poker term, when it comes to his friends, his family, and his own finances. I think his wife Kathy really sets the tone for them even. She just felt a call to do this, and he has honored that call. She’s on set praying every day. He’s there, his friends are investors, he’s invested. He’s just so involved. The most important thing, is that Robert has a very godly perspective on the way to do business and the way people should treat each other. This is a flaky business, but if God is the safety net underneath everything that you do, and you eliminate the flakiness from it and have a kingdom minded perspective, it makes things go so much smoother and so much more of a joy to work with.
I have the same attitude that we’re doing this for bigger reasons. If you take money off the table when people are partnering together it makes life so much easier. Neither one of us holds that too tightly, but Robert in particular doesn’t, and that makes him a joy to work with in a film making endeavor. I think we’re unique in this, really. We are friends, and we’re still friends. We’ve scrapped a little, of course we have, but usually it’s him puppy slapping me around . . . you know how you would train a dog or something . . . he knocks some sense into me occasionally more than I knock some sense into him! (Laughs.)
But one of the most fun experiences for me was when he was telling me about another book idea he had and he wanted my opinion as a storyteller. I thought that was pretty cool to have that kind of discussion on where his next novel is going to go.
Every movie seems to have a moment or two during the making of it where something goes wrong and it takes some fixing to get things back on track. Did you have any moments like that during the making of The Trial?
During the making of The Trial? Absolutely, 100%, not during the making of the movie. It was the smoothest I’ve ever made. However, did we have it getting to the shooting of the movie . . . dozens. One of the worst was that our financing fell through two weeks before we were supposed to shoot the movie.
But ultimately, because of that you were able to get Matthew Modine to play Mac, but he had to learn his lines literally in days! How did he learn the script so fast?
(Laughs.) Well, that’s another challenge. We basically had to bring somebody in to read lines with him because he had long speeches. And it’s a real testimony to his performance . . . if you look at his closing argument, the very last time he argues something in court, which is a beautiful speech, where he sums up what he’s learned and stuff? That’s one take. There are no cutaways. It’s probably two or three minutes. He did that eight days after finishing a play! It’s amazing. It’s a testimony to his skill level.
I love hearing about times when an actor ad libs something that makes the movie better. Did that happen at all?
That constantly happens. That’s an exciting thing as a screenwriter to see actors breathe life into it. We had lots of actors who were really good at that. Matthew’s good at that, and he’s really good at paring things down to their essence. He’s good at taking lines out and showing it with his face. That’s just Matthew. But Robert Forster brought such a level as the private investigator. He’s so great. Like he would say, I’m going to have this newspaper here and wear this leather jacket. That’s exactly what the character would do. And Nikki Deloach, who plays Matthew’s assistance, she would offer things in response, and you’d laugh. She brought a lot of laughter to the movie. And then Danny Vinson . . . he did straight ad libbing in the court room. He goes on and talks about how he had too much truck, he got this one speeding ticket this one time, and he’s just ad libbing constantly. All that was ad libbed. Part of it was in the script, but he just took it and ran with it. When he goes on and on and on and won’t stop talking about his accident, that was him. We realized we had comic gold there so we just let the camera go.
Danny has two scenes. One with Robert Forster, and one with Matthew Modine. Both Matthew and Robert just decided they were going to play the straight man to him and let him get the laughs. Which is really a testimony to their generosity as actors. That’s what makes those scenes because they’re willing to let him get the laughs.
One of my favorite scenes is when Mac is talking to Anna on the porch, and her response to him is really the crux, the takeaway of this film. She delivers it so well. Would you say that’s the message you want to leave viewers with or is there something else?
That’s it ultimately. We do throw in that grief is like a river. That’s a practical thing people can take away from this as they deal with grief, but really you hit the nail on the head. That’s the crux of the movie. The pause when Matthew asks her, what’s he supposed to do. And then Clare Carey, the actress, does a fantastic job in the movie, and in that scene in particular, there’s a pause which she gives there . . . we cut to her, and it was deliberate. I could tell the day I shot that it was her moment. When she talks, that is the takeaway. That scene is what people remember. That’s why from there I did a two minute dolly shot afterwards with no dialogue so that the audience can think about what she said. Rather than beat a dead horse, I thought it would be better to pull back from Matthew for two minutes as he realizes everything. We had about a four minute longer scene that went there when Matthew talked about his family’s accident and what specifically happened, it was cold, snow was coming, etc. Matthew the actor knew that wasn’t what it was about. He said I’m just going to cut all that. So he cut an actor’s moment and just said it’s more about the interaction of the two of them, and her response. I think that speaks volumes to him as a collaborator.
Speaking of Clare, I remember her from Jericho, and I’m wondering how you came to work with her as well as the other actors.
Clare is great. I remember her from Coach. She played Craig T. Nelon’s daughter. She’s such a great actress. She had worked with our casting director, Beverly Holloway, before and we were trying to figure out who we were going to pair with Matthew. Ultimately you have to get him in first before you pair the female lead. Because it’s his story ultimately. Beverly said you should talk to Clare, I’ve worked with her before, she’s great, she’s professional. I had a Saturday morning conversation with Clare. She really wanted to know who Anna was. She asked me very specific, pointed questions. I thought she would play the character extremely sympathetically but also as a strong woman. I thought that’s exactly what we needed. Somebody who’s a single mom and brought a strength to the performance. I knew kind of instantly as I started talking to her that she was the one. She did a fantastic job. I was most proud of her on that porch. She knew that was an important moment, and she wanted to do her best for me. When Matthew was there and they were talking, she believed every word she said.
Bob Gunton. Everybody loves Bob from Shawshank. I don’t know that we made an offer to anybody else. I just said, let’s go to Bob Gunton, and again the casting director had a relationship with his agent. Bob had sworn off courtroom dramas because they’re so standard. But he felt like this one had some tweaks to it. And he felt like his character had an arc and wasn’t this slick, evil prosecutor. He was a guy who just wanted justice. He said he’d do one more cause he really liked the script, he liked the redemptive nature of the film.
Then Robert Forster . . . I was a fan from Jackie Brown. And one day it just hit me. I was thinking southern for that role, but then I thought, no, no. Robert Forster. He would be so different from the rest of the cast. I just said to the casting director, make an offer to Robert Forster. I think it was the only offer we made. He loved the script and signed on immediately. What I liked about Bob Forster was he said, you know, Gary, this film has film noir elements to it. You can’t forget that there’s an investigation here in this case. My character carries the day there. I’m going to play it like I’m in a noir. That’s one of the biggest surprises to me watching it with an audience to see how important his character was. He cuts away from the case, from the courtroom stuff. He’s so important, funny, has a dry sense of humor, and does a great job.
The other biggies were Rance Howard the judge, Ron Howard’s dad. I liked him, we had mutual friends, and I wanted him to play the judge. Then there’s Randy Wayne who was the lead in To Save A Life. We had multiple people audition for his role. I mean, dozens. Randy had done To Save A Life, but it hadn’t come out yet. I liked him as a person. He’s a big sports guy, so am I, and we just clicked. I thought of all the people who auditioned for the role, and Randy was extremely sympathetic. The book goes into Pete’s transformation significantly. We don’t really touch on that a lot in the movie, so we needed somebody who could ooze sympathy instantly. Randy delivered that significantly.
Nikki Deloach, who’s a southern Georgia girl, a little spitfire, that’s the way she is in real life. She’s so different from anybody else in the movie, and that’s why I liked her. She was fun. She’s such a sweet person.
And then all the rest of the supporting cast, from Danny Vinson to Bruce Jenkins. They’re just great southern actors.
What was your most memorable on the set moment while making this movie?
The actual productions are whirlwinds. You’re just moving so fast. I think ultimately on set some of the courtroom speeches---as a guy who’s a fan of To Kill A Mockingbird---we had a great old creaky courthouse that we shot in. There are a couple shots when Bob’s up there giving his opening statement and closing argument where we have beautiful cinematography and the camera’s lit exquisitely, and you’re like, this is my dream coming to fruition. It’s surreal. You kind of sit back and watch the monitor and realize this is the fun part of the business.
What has been your most embarrassing moment as a film maker?
We have them all the time! It would probably be calling somebody back for a second audition and you have a couple actresses who look the same, and you forget which one you called back. You forget which role you called them back for, you have these conversations, and you realize the light’s not coming on in their eyes because you’re talking to the wrong person. I’ve had that happen probably on more than one occasion.
I had a really embarrassing one recently that had nothing to do with the making of the film, but the distribution of the movie. I had a guy come and interview me for a newspaper, and the very next meeting after that I met a pastor of a church. He was going to bring his church group to the movie. They looked fairly similar, right? Fast forward two or three weeks later, and I’m at the opening night of the movie, and this guy comes in and I swore he was the interviewer. He comes out of the movie afterward and I was like, that was a great article! A fantastic article. And he goes, he looks stunned, and he’s like, yeah it was, wasn’t it? I say, Man, thank you, that was one of the best local articles I’ve ever gotten on any of my movies. And then he left. I thought, that was weird. He was so nice before. The very next night I’m at the theater, and there’s the real interviewer. I go, ohhhh noooo. That’s the guy. I’m trying to rack my brain . . . who was the other guy?!? I couldn’t remember. Then it dawned on me . . . he was at the church! Oddly enough I ran into that same guy and I told him the story. He got a kick out of it. But it was so embarrassing you have to laugh at it. So just compound that with actors and actresses. You say things like, I love the way you did this. And they didn’t really do that.
How important is your faith in the making of your movies, and what part does it play for you?
It’s extremely important because my faith is really everything. I forget that sometimes. Sometimes you can make it be about yourselves, but ultimately it’s about impacting lives and impacting culture. When you boil it all down I feel very privileged to be doing what I’m doing. I believe in a call, I believe in a Divine spark. I believe that God calls us to do things and gives us the creativity to do it. And so sometimes it’s really easy to forget that. That’s where Jodie comes in. That’s where Robert Whitlow comes in. That’s where other people come in. I don’t think for me as a film maker there’s anything greater than hearing somebody say, you ran the most peaceful set that I’ve ever been on. It was such a peaceful place to be. That’s really what I want. I want to create an environment where people can feel comfortable to create but also that they’ll know that something’s different about us and the way we do things. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s not to proselytize, but just to say, I’m different and here’s why. The Trial is very subtle, but there’s a strong message there. Really it’s about the way we treat each other. Somebody once said that the problem with Christianity today is that people have forgotten that we have a God who loves us very much and if we just remembered that we’d learn how to treat each other. I think that’s really true. If you boil it all down to God loves us, we’d learn how to treat each other better.
I’ve been talking to other directors who are Christians and a lot of them seem to adamantly resist the label “Christian movie” for their films, and you’ve even said you guys are not Christian film makers but are Christians making films. Do you have any thoughts on this issue?
I had a calling at a young age to be in film making. I had a calling that pre-dates my Christianity. I didn’t become a Christian until after that period. I was a film maker first. I believe I was a film maker at fourteen years old, I just hadn’t made a movie yet. However, and this is where I think we all blow it as Christian film makers and film makers who are Christians, however you want to put it. It’s disingenuous to say, oh we’re not Christian film makers, we’re real film makers or that sort of thing. Without the Christian market, without people wanting to see films with faith, none of us would be in the business. We all have to find our niche as film makers whether you’re Michael Bay making action movies, or Steven Spielberg making the kind of movies he makes. Or Mike Lee with his movies in the UK. We all have to find our niche. Without there being an audience that wants to buy movies that deal with Christian themes, none of us would be in the business. I certainly wouldn’t be. I would be trying to break in like everybody else. But because there is a market and there are studios who are willing to partner with us we all have jobs. (Laughs.) We have the opportunity to pursue our calling. It’s disingenuous to discount the market and poo poo it. I’m guilty of it too, but we have to realize that we are here because there is an audience.
What are two things people might surprised to know about you?
One thing is I’m a bowler. I was a bowler growing up. Actually a really good one and was on a traveling team, and we were number one in the nation when I was in high school on an all star team. Made the local news, I wouldn’t say national news because I don’t think there is national news for bowling (Laughs.) My best score was somewhere in the high twos. 240 or 257. I never got close to three hundred, but I threw lots of strikes in a row lots of times. My average that last year was probably in the high 180s.
The other is I’m an extremely avid Atlanta Braves baseball fan. I probably watched or checked online a hundred and forty eight of the games this season. I got a little obsessed and actually had to fast baseball for a couple weeks because I realized it was a little too stressful. There was nothing I could do to change it! I’ve been a huge Atlanta Braves fan since we moved south. I’m an avid baseball fan in general.
You ought to make a baseball movie.
I will eventually. You gotta find the right one though. Because they’ve been done before. You don’t want to do them cheaply.
What’s next for you and Level Path Productions?
We have three projects we’re working on actively right now. One is Jimmy, which is based on Robert Whitlow’s novel, and we have the screenplay done. We’re actually going to shoot the football scenes this Friday. And then the bulk of production will be sometime in January/February. Mark Freiburger is actually going to direct, and I’m going to produce. Mark and I have already written the screenplay.
I’m working with Ken Davis the comedian. We’re going to do a feature length comedy concert in the spring that we’re going to bring to theaters. Kind of like a one night only, Ken Davis in concert type of thing. He’s hilarious. I spent a lot of time with him. The message that he has, I won’t spoil it, but he has one of the most timely, unique messages that he feels like God has called him to share. It’s going to be fantastic. I’m going to produce and probably direct that. It’ll be a multi camera, big HD shoot. We’ll shoot that in the spring.
My next directing gig, at least now, it could change, is an adaptation of Adrian Plass’s novel Silver Birches. We’re going to shoot that in the UK maybe as early as next summer. And we have another Whitlow book we’re considering. We’re not a 100% sure which one will be next after Jimmy. We’ll probably zero in on that in the next six months.
You’re in line at Starbucks, what are you ordering?
Oh, that’s easy. A grande Americano in a venti cup with peppermint flavor. I get it every day. And you gotta get the grande in the venti because I like room for cream. You can do it with regular coffee or Americano. If you like cream and peppermint it’s perfect. But you know how Starbucks overfills sometimes, they fill it right to the top and there’s very little room for cream. So that’s why you get the grande and put it in a venti cup. And it costs less money too.
You’ve really perfected this.
(Laughs.) Between here and my son and daughter’s school are three Starbucks in two miles. I have lots of time to go get a Starbucks.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I hope people would
come and enjoy the movie, and buy the movie, and rent the movie. I think
will like the film. They have so far. I had a woman
come up to me afterwards and say it had a profound impact on her. And she
said it was the scene on the porch. She told me her husband died six months
ago and she just never thought to ask God, why am I still here? That was
enough for me. She looked in my eyes, had tears in her eyes, and I thought,
that’s worth it right there. That’s our real heart. Then I
had a teenager who said her mother watched the movie and then brought her
to see it the next day. She was thirteen years old, and she said, “My
mom made me watch the movie. I just couldn’t believe how upset I
was about not getting invited to the dance with a boy. After I watched
that movie I realized how insignificant my worries were.”
Watch the Trailer:
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.