HJ reporter Scott Roche recently had the opportunity to interview Gary Wheeler, director of the recent independent release The List, at the beautiful Ballantyne Resort Hotel in Charlotte. They made themselves comfortable and after introductions they dove in.
HJ: It seems to me by reading the background materials that you were really involved in the writing process. Can you talk about how that looked?
Gary Wheeler: Yeah sure. We started the process four years ago. Robert Whitlow and I met. I loved the book and he loved a movie that I did in South Africa called Final Solution—so we decided to make a movie together. After about six months we sat down to say, okay how are we going to make this into a movie? What’s the story we’re going to tell? So we had a think session with two screenwriters, myself, Robert Whitlow and his wife Cathy, with this big dry-erase board and said, what’s this movie about? Robert picked up a copy of The List, turned to the back page and said, “The last line of the book is this: ‘God’s children and his enemies both make the same mistake. They both underestimate the power of prayer.’ That’s what the movie is about. Now how do we do a three act structure?” So we started the process. The first script had a hundred and fifty pages. We outlined it, [did a] treatment, the other screenwriters took it, wrote that hundred and fifty page document. We tweaked it down to about a hundred and thirty and then Robert and I came in and rewrote it day after day after day for probably ten months to a year. What that meant was we did two full cast script readings where we would read it, change it. I spent time with a friend of mine who’s a great story-structure guy named Tim Sullivan. We spent day after day at Starbucks just going through this page after page. Eventually we cut it down to a ninety five page, extremely tight screenplay, no fat. We eliminated all the fat from it. Every cut we could, we’d just tell it visually, tell it visually. The only thing left were the important parts. We wanted to make a movie almost like The Bourne Identity. I love those movies that don’t explain themselves, don’t over explain themselves. Just keep rolling, everything propels itself. That’s what we were going for with this. Although this is slightly less thriller-esque. It’s more of a legal drama than a legal thriller. That’s the way it went.
HJ: So being involved in this process from the screenwriting forward, is that your modus operandi?
GW: Yeah, it is. I have a good friend who make two or three movies a year and I just can’t seem to do that. I make one movie every two years. I don’t always write scripts and I don’t always direct the movies. Up until this point I’ve been largely a producer and a creative development guy. So, working through the script with a writer. I have a degree in broadcasting and a minor in English, so I love literature and writing. I’ve always tweaked things but this is the first time I’ve been this involved. I’ve always been involved from a producer standpoint in all my films this heavily from the get go.
HJ: So would it be fair to say that this is your first feature length film?
GW: Directorially. It’s not my first film producing. I produced a film called Final Solution and one other feature length, but this is my first directorial.
HJ: So what was it like directing someone like Malcolm McDowell? I’m a huge geek and a huge fan of his. I have to imagine that that was interesting.
GW: Well, we didn’t have Malcolm in the movie until a week before we were going to shoot. The story goes like this. We had five actors, when I read the book, on my list for who could play Desmond Larochette. Malcolm was one of them, and the other four I won’t tell you who they are because it’ll end up in print and we’ll get in trouble, but they were A-list actors. For reasons of they were too expensive or unavailable, we couldn’t get any of them. So I called all of the actors to thank them for doing the movie. I called Tim Ware who plays Thomas Lane in the movie and he called back and said “Do you have a Larochette?” I said, “No. I have a few people I’m thinking about, but I want an actor who could; he’s the straw that stirs the drink.” And Tim said “Well, if you don’t have anybody…” And I said, “Well, I have somebody I’m thinking about, he’s local.” And he [Ware] said “Well I have a buddy.” Everybody in this business has a buddy and Tim’s the kind of guy that’s got lots of buddies. So I said, “Who’s your buddy?” and he said, “Malcolm McDowell.” I said, “Malcolm McDowell? He’s on my list. I can’t get to him. He’s ICM. His agent will take the script and throw it in the trash.” He said, “You want his cell phone number?” So within two hours I was on the phone with Malcolm. I’ve been a huge Malcolm fan since I was in film school. I saw Time After Time when I was a kid and I loved that movie. I’m on the phone, I’ve cold-called Malcolm on his cell phone. I said, “Malcolm, this is Gary Wheeler. I’m Tim Ware’s—” And he said, “Hold on, hold on, hold on.” He said, “Tim told me you’d call. Send me the script. If I like it we’ll go from there.” I sent him the script and he said, “I promise I’ll call you tomorrow morning.” To his word he calls me [the next] morning and says, “I like it. It’s an interesting role and I want to do it. Just talk to my agent and work out the deal.” So we made an offer and you know you’re in trouble when you start out an offer to an agent by apologizing, which is what we did. “I’m sorry but here’s our offer.” And they said, “No, Malcolm will do the film for a certain amount. He’ll cut his rate. He likes the script. He likes you, but this is as far as he’s going to go.” And so it was a step up from what we had. We prayed about it, felt like we were supposed to do it, took a step of faith, took him in the movie. Two days later somebody came up to us and said, “I’d like to give you some money.” It was to the penny what we agreed to pay Malcolm. We saw God at work in that. So day one comes and Malcolm comes in. We’re shooting already, we had off that day, but Malcolm was going to start shooting that afternoon. I drive over to the studios so we can eat lunch and establish a rapport. I drive over and pick him up. We drive through Wilmington and I’m sitting there thinking, “Malcolm McDowell [is] in my car.” We eat together and immediately hit it off. Very nice guy, he’s a good friend. We’ve talked a bunch since then. And really with a guy like Malcolm, the direction is in the screenplay, as a writer. He just takes the words and makes it happen. The cool thing is I spent an hour in his trailer one day just going through the script. He said “I don’t want to change anything. I like the script, but I want to take out some lines. I can say that with my face.” So he would just mark a couple of sentences and he could. There was only one time I went to him after a scene and said “Malcolm, there’s this one shot you know…” And he said “Yeah I need to throw that line away more.” I said “Yeah.” And that was it, my one claim to fame. He’s a joy to work with. You think he’d be intimidating because he’s played so many bad guys and villains. I visited him on the Halloween set. He’s making a remake. I was in L.A. and he said come to the set. So I hung out on the set and visited him during a key scene. He’s agreed to act in my next movie.
HJ: I want to talk about towards the end. To me watching the movie last night, the South was a character.
HJ: That was a huge part of the movie. Tell me what that was like. I mean I grew up in the eastern part of the state [NC].
GW: What part?
HJ: Nag’s Head. I felt that was key, so tell me about that.
GW: I grew up in Charlotte. I was actually born in upstate New York, but moved here when I was really little. My wife’s from Goldsboro, four generations from Goldsboro. She grew up going to Carolina Beach. Robert [Whitlow]’s from Georgia, grew up there. We made a conscious effort to make this an authentically southern movie. We just wanted little key lines, lines about barbecue, throw away lines. Renny has a line about Strom Thurmond. We don’t [rim shot], we just keep going. There’s a line where a character mentions John C. Calhoon, about how he was Secretary of State. Somebody says, “In the South when we talk about the war we’re talking about the War Between the States or the War of Northern Agression.” I wanted to hit those cultural things. We really made a conscious choice to do that because the South is so beautiful. It’s so steeped in history, and typically in Hollywood movies, [southern] people are portrayed as stupid and ignorant and they’re not. They can have articulate, intelligent conversations. They can be wrong, but they can still have articulate, intelligent conversations. That’s what we wanted to do with the dialog. So there’s a lot of little southern touches. All of our main actors apart from Malcolm were southern. We had someone who studies dialect come in and said Malcolm’s Charleston accent is flawless. A lot of the actors studied Charleston, studied the dialect. Even though they’re from the south there are different dialects. Chuck grew up in Virginia so he’s a southerner. He spent six months studying the Charleston accent, just to get the subtleties of it. I think in the end we were able to succeed.
HJ: We’ve talked a little bit about prayer. You said you prayed about the money situation. How was that reflected both before you started the movie and even on set?
GW: How did we pray?
HJ: Yeah how did that look?
GW: We did a lot of stuff. We prayed from the beginning. We shot at Orton Plantation, which is a famous plantation in Wilmington in the middle of summer, the hottest day of the year. We went to three different locations that we knew we were going to shoot at, one of which we ended up not using, with a prayer team of about nineteen and we prayed on site all day with our prayer folks, our intercessors. We prayed constantly throughout. A lot of Christian films will have somebody pray openly at the beginning of the shoot every day, which is great. I’ve no problem with that. I just didn’t want to do that because most of our crew were just an excellent Wilmington crew, Christian or not. I mean who knows what’s in somebody’s heart? I had a friend of mine, Gabe Buyer, who’s a filmmaker, and a gentleman named Kit Austin, who is a businessman in Wilmington, and my Pastor from Boone; they came down at various times, and Cathy Whitlow as well, and kind of took a role as a chaplain. They just stayed on the set and prayed all day. Interceded all day long while we were shooting. I could go to them and say, “It’s getting a little stressful. Would you pray?” Or “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” And they would pray for me. But nobody knew, and they were friendly to all the crew—and [threy were] servants and they would get things for people, but it was very low key. It was constant. And a couple of days we had big shoots, the scene where Mama A prays for Renny which is a powerful scene, we had nineteen people praying on set. I was gonna cut that scene from the movie.
HJ: I’m glad you didn’t.
GW: I was gonna cut it before we shot it. So what happened— Do you mind if I tell you this story?
HJ: No, go ahead.
GW: I was going to cut it, but Elisabeth Omilami, a fantastic actress… Her husband is the lawyer at the end, they run a homeless ministry in Atlanta. He was the drill sergeant in Forrest Gump, been in tons of movies. They’re really well known southern actors. She’s a Christian. So, I was gonna cut that scene, all it was was one line in the script, Mama A prays for Renny. I saw her and went, “Oh she’s here. So we’ll set up the camera.” It was a set, by the way; that little room was a set. We had to redress that set four times that day. I said, “Elizabeth, what’re you going to do, start humming?” And she said, “Yeah I’ll probably start humming like this.” [humming sound] Then she started praying and praying and praying. She’s crying. I’m crying. I say, “Okay, okay stop. That’s what we’re going to shoot.” I just stuck her in the corner said, “Action.” She started humming and praying and praying. We did it once wide and once close; that’s it. And it was so powerful. We had people praying during that scene. All the prayer closet stuff with Daisy Stokes was also powerful. When Hilarie/Jo goes in and finds the prayer closet and says, “This is where she prays.” There were people praying on set the whole time those days.
HJ: I will say that the one thing about the movie that I felt was needed was more of those women. And I know you had to condense this massive novel down to an hour and forty-five minutes. Do you have any regrets about what you could have included but didn’t? I mean one thing this movie did was make me want to read the book.
GW: We had goals when we set out to make the movie, one of which was drive people to the novel. That was our stated goal; and because the novel contains the full Christian experience, salvation, everything that you could imagine, Robert says that it’s his most Christian, evangelistic novel of all time. It’s got a big following, sold a hundred and some odd thousand copies and people just passed it on. So we knew that was a goal, and once we knew that that was a goal we wanted to pare it down and just tell a good story. We shot more with the missionary lady, Daisy Stokes. But you walk a fine line as a filmmaker, especially one of faith, in becoming too preachy. A little goes a long way, so we had to cut a couple of those scenes because at a certain point you get who she is. She’s an intercessor and more of that turns an audience off. We did testing and they did. It was too much for audiences. Sometimes we as Christians say, “Oh we could have dealt with more of that.” It’s funny that you said that, though. If I get a comment about Daisy Stokes it’s usually like “Well, could you have toned her down a little.” I think that’s wrong. At the end of the day we wanted to tell a story that was a good story, that took people to the beginning of Renny’s life. Now you can read the novel and you see exactly what happens. But I think that’s good; like that Will Patton character who’s got that one scene, most people say, “I wish I’d seen more of him.” I like that. I’d rather you say “I wish there was more of this person” than “It was slow”. That means people want more and they are gonna go read the novel. They are gonna want to know more and see more.
HJ: So on that track, when it comes out on DVD as is usually the case these days, are there going to be extended scenes?
GW: There will be deleted scenes, yes. I cut lots from the movie and we cut twenty minutes from the beginning. The first cut took forty minutes to get to Malcolm McDowell. And we said we can’t have that. Now he gets in at about twenty minutes. We cut a scene from later at the pier where we introduce him, and that added an element of suspense at the beginning. So we moved that way up front. His character has an ending that’s different in the novel that we shot but that didn’t work for the movie. So a whole alternative ending is going to be on the DVD. We have tons of scenes with Daisy Stokes praying. We have whole other scenes with her and Jo. We have a whole throughline that was just different, for us to streamline the movie and make it better we had to do that.
HJ: When do you think that might be coming out?
GW: Probably next May, probably somewhat in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer. That’s kind of where we’ve hung our hat, the movie about prayer. I think we can meet that expectation in audiences.
HJ: You said in the press kit we were given that “sometimes you have to jump in with both feet.” How does that look here?
GW: I was just going to be the producer of the movie, period. That’s all. I was hired as the producer. At a certain point I was so emotionally invested in it, it was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep writing.” And it came to be that I was one of the screenwriters. And we looked at other directors and nobody fit the vision. I have a vision statement for my company. It’s very simple. “To help visionaries reach their vision.” I believe in the divine spark. I believe that God gives visionaries vision. I think that what happens a lot of times in adaptations of novels is that they remove the visionary. God gives them this vision, they write the book, and then somebody goes and takes the novel and makes it their own vision. I don’t want to do that and so I filter everything I do through helping visionaries reach vision. In this case it meant helping Robert Whitlow make this into a movie. And here jumping in with two feet means at a certain point I knew that I would need to step in and be the director because it would keep the vision to what he was happy with. At the end of the day I believe God gave him a vision for the novel. He’d never written one before, this was his first novel. And I believe that God has touched the novel. So my family moved to Wilmington for a year just to make the movie. I was all in, Everything in our lives was about The List. I never expected to be the writer/director. I was just going to help produce. I was going to bring in a co-producer. That was both feet. And I believe in the story of Peter walking on water. I believe that so much for our own lives. If you want to walk on water you’ve got to get out of the boat. You’ve got to attempt things that are great. Peter gets a bad rap because he sank, but you know what; as far as we know there are only two people in the history of the world that have ever walked on water, and that’s Jesus and Peter. He got out of the boat and I think sometimes you’ve got to get out of the boat.
HJ: So you mentioned earlier your next project. What’s that going to be?
GW: It’s called The Sacrifice. It’s based on another novel by Robert Whitlow. It takes place in Catawba County, in the Hickory area. There is a Catawba North Carolina, but this is a fictitious version. It revolves around a school shooting. We believe that it is time to present a message of hope in that situation, not one of exploitation or of darkness. That’s what the novel is, it’s a story about hope and sacrifice. The only thing that really defeats evil is sacrifice. Hilarie has signed on to do it, as has Malcolm. Our director of photography is back again. Largely all the same crew we had that shot in Wilmington. And it will shoot early next year.
HJ: Part of my review talks about how beautifully shot this movie is.
GW: Yeah he’s an A-list DP, named Tom Priestly. As a Director of Photography he did The Thomas Crowne Affair, which is a beautiful movie. He did both Barbershop movies, just big, big films. I kidded around and said we were by far his lowest budgeted film ever. As a camera operator he did The French Connection, Annie Hall, Sophie’s Choice, Amadeus. His first movie ever was Midnight Cowboy. He lives in Wilmington and just liked the script. He invited his buddy, a camera operator, and those two designed the look of the movie. We were like, “Who’s that guy?” and I looked him up the next day and he shot A Few Good Men. So we just had a great crew.