A Conversation with "The Trial" Filmmaker Gary Wheeler
Gary Wheeler (pictured left with actor Matthew Modine) is an award-winning southern filmmaker with credits in both motion picture and television from around the world. He is the founder and president of Level Path Productions and makes his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. His most recent work, the gmc World Premiere Movie: The Trial, marks his second collaboration with popular novelist, Robert Whitlow, the first being 2007's The List.
Mike Parker – The Trial is the second Robert Whitlow novel that you have turned into a movie, and you are currently working on a new film, Jimmy, that is also based on a Whitlow novel. Is Robert Whitlow your go-to guy for story inspiration these days?
Gary Wheeler – (laughs) Robert is a great friend. It seems like I can’t remember a time when I haven't known him, but I’ve actually only known him for around seven years. I think he creates great story and great dialog, and that’s what you need in a movie. His novels are very cinematic. Now with Jimmy I’m taking a different role. I am one of the screenwriters but I’m going to produce this film rather than direct it.
Parker – Whitlow is a popular author and fans who read his books tend to know the story quite well. Of course the novel is the novel, and the movie is the movie, but changes have to be made. How have fans reacted to changes from the novel to the film?
Wheeler – First off, I think Robert supports the film. He is one of the screenwriters, so if the audience knows he is happy with it, then they can buy into it. Second, I think a good movie is a good movie. Fans like the movie. They leave the theater saying, ‘You know, that was a pretty good movie.’ That helps a lot. You have to be true to the medium of film. I think the key to successfully adapting any book into a film is capturing the spirit of the book, and I think we did that. While the novel, The Trial, has many themes, one theme in particular is dealing with grief. That became the central theme of the movie.
So, what do I say to fans of the novel who don’t like the changes in the movie? Well, go read the novel again.
Parker – Both The Trial and The List are set in the South, and southern culture is almost a character in the film. Being based on Whitlow’s novels that would seem like an obvious choice, but was there any additional impetus on your part to bring the South to life in these films?
Wheeler – It is part of who I am as a filmmaker. I grew up in the South, and we cast in the South. Eighteen of the 25 speaking parts came from great southern actors. I think that makes a difference. The South just oozes out of them. There is no way for some of these guys to not appear southern. And we chose locations that look southern. When you are standing in front of an 1800s courthouse with a monument to Confederate soldiers on the lawn, and the Ten Commandments are hanging in the courtroom, that’s just real life in the South. I’m not making a statement. It doesn’t even occur to us that someone might be offended by that.
Parker – You are an independent filmmaker, and let’s face it, you don’t have Hollywood budgets to work with. How have you managed to get A-list actors like Malcolm McDowell, Matthew Modine, Robert Forster and Bob Gunton to take on major roles in your films?
Wheeler – It’s a God thing, really. Every one of those actors you named we got because we felt God opened the door. Those actors all responded to the story and the script. The bottom line is, if you don’t have a good script they will not want to do the movie. The trial is a good courtroom drama with a message of hope, and I think those actors responded to that. As we keep going along it becomes easier to attract great talent because we have a track record. Actors talk to each other, you know?
Parker – Your films don’t seem to shy away from topics of faith. In fact, faith seems to be an integral part of your films. Why is that?
Wheeler – Faith is important to me. I don’t hide from it. My faith is part of who I am. But I was a filmmaker before I became a Christian. What we are attempting to do with these films is to make the faith element organic to the story instead of coming in with an agenda. You can’t force faith into a film, or bring it in out of left field. I don’t think audiences response well to that. But I do think they respond to a well-told story where faith is an integral part of the character.
Parker – What’s coming up next?
Wheeler – After we finish Jimmy, I’ll be working on a comedy concert. Then we’re adapting a novel called Silver Birches, by British author Adrian Plass, which we will be shooting in the UK.
Parker – Last words?
Wheeler – My goal is that we make movies that are hopeful. Most of the audience, probably 99 percent of the audience, who sees The Trial – I hope they walk out of the theater and say it was a good movie. But that one percent who sees this movie when they are in a hard place, when they are all out of hope – I hope that it give them hope; that it will inspire them to take the next step.
–Re-printed courtesy of http://budyyhollywood.com
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