Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace: My Interview with Walden Media's Chip Flaherty

"...Wilberforce was one of the first people to not check his faith at the door, but say 'I'm gonna stay involved in the public discourse, in the marketplace of ideas, and I'm going to use this inspired faith which informs my life, to do something tackle an atrocity, to tackle an evil, and to change the world.' --Walden Media V.P. Francis "Chip" Flaherty

The movie Amazing Grace, based on the life of anti-slavery champion and devout Christian William Wilberforce, opens in theaters today. A few days ago, I was able to interview Francis "Chip" Flaherty, vice president of Walden Media. A division of Walden, Bristol Bay, is behind "Amazing Grace."

The movie has already garnered some excellent reviews, although a sparse few have accused director Michael Apted of hagiography (merriam-webster: idealizing or idolizing biography), and some evangelicals wish the "Christ" part of Wilberforce's faith was emphasized a bit more.

However, not having seen the movie myself, I've been very impressed by the trailers and by the reviews of people whose opinions I tend to trust. And I have to say I'm very glad that such a movie has been made--a movie that is uplifting and faith-affirming. Chip Flaherty told me that Walden Media has tried to light a candle in the movie industry, instead of cursing the darkness. In this, I wish them well.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with Chip Flaherty.

Bringing Beloved Books to Life

CINDY: I'm very excited to have as my guest the vice president of Walden Media, Chip Flaherty.

CHIP: Cindy, thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it.

Chip Flaherty (right) with his brother Michael Flaherty,(left) the president of Walden Media

CINDY: Well, it's great to have you on to talk about this movie, because I've heard some really wonderful things about it. Now, before we get into it, I do want to touch a little bit on the company of which you're the vice president, and that's Walden Media. You were telling me earlier that there are other divisions of the company, but what exactly is Walden Media?

CHIP: Walden Media is a company that was started about six years ago, with an eye toward, rather than cursing the darkness of the movies that were coming out of the industry, but to light a candle, if you will, and to give the audience another type of movie to go see, and more choices for families.

Walden Media, toward that end, looked at books that kids were reading and wanted to make faithful adaptations of those books into film. And we did it with "Holes," "Because of Winn Dixie," and most recently, "The Chronicles of Narnia," and "Bridge to Terabithia," and "Charlotte's Web" as well.

So we look at books that have been beloved by kids, in some cases for a number of generations, and say, "Let's give them a film, so they can see it as well." Not because it's better than the book...and we always drive kids back into the books, back into libraries, we have huge book give-aways, we talk about libraries and things like that. Because we talk about the power of story, and that kids really have to tackle the fundamentals of reading and writing if they ever want to accomplish anything in life. So that's really been WaldenMedia's raison d'etre, if you will, and what we have attempted to do.

Chip talks about bringing Narnia to life on screen

We have another company, a sister-company if you will, called Bristol Bay. They did the movie "Ray" based on the life of Ray Charles, and they're doing this movie, "Amazing Grace" which is about the life of William Wilberforce. Same company, same folks working on it, just a different division because the film product is a little different simply because it's not based on a book-to-film-type adaptation.

The compelling character of William Wilberforce

CINDY: I've heard of William Wilberforce for many years; I know there are colleges named after him, and he's always been very revered person. But how did the idea come about to actually make a movie about the importance that he represented in the anti-slavery movement?

CHIP: The owner of our company had been a real Wilberforce fan his entire life, and just thought it would be very fitting to bring the story of Wilberforce to the screen, if we were able to do it well. And thankfully, we have been able to do it well. We had a great director, Michael Apted, who directed "Coal Miner's Daughter." So you're exactly right; the film, in and of itself, even before you get into the stirring content and the stories that it tells, the film itself is beautifully shot.

Abraham Lincoln once said that the name William Wilberforce should be in the minds and on the lips of very school child in America, and as we began to undertake this film, I mean obviously, that's not the case. So one of the main things we wanted to do was to bring him back to the forefront. Not only him as a historical figure, but really, what his life stands for. And that's what I think we're most proud of, with the movie. I mean, Wilberforce and John Newton, who wrote the song "Amazing Grace," and plays a huge role in Wilberforce's life...just two incredible characters. I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up as compelling if you sat down with a pad of paper and a pen for decades.

A conversion experience

William Wilberforce, when he was 21, was a wealthy young man, he was elected to Parliament. He was a handsome man, I mean, all of the secular attributes that society puts up on a pedestal, he had. And after a few years he began to really feel empty, and he said, "What good is all this power and this wealth unless something noble, something great is done with it?" And he had a conversion experience, and he turned himself over to God, and he said, "I want to do something great with my life."

And he tackled two great objectives with his life. One was to abolish the slave trade, where he said, you know, "Men belong to God, they don't belong to other men, and we have to stop this atrocity."

The second was just the reformation of society at large. He saw that England was on the wrong course, it had become a very coarse society, not looking out for the most vulnerable members of its society, and toward that end he established a number of different groups and societies in his lifetime to help address that, and kind of give a moral compass back to his country.

So, in terms of that, I think Wilberforce is so compelling because, back in the day, when you had a conversion experience, you would become a member of the clergy. Which is a great vocation, obviously, but Wilberforce was one of the first people to not check his faith at the door, but say "I'm gonna stay involved in the public discourse, in the marketplace of ideas, and I'm going to use this inspired faith which informs my life, to do something tackle an atrocity, to tackle an evil, and to change the world."

Flaherty talks about Wilberforce's association with "Amazing Grace" author John Newton

CINDY: Well, Chip, I hope that Walden Media and your divisions continue to come out with quality entertainment, because we desperately need it.

CHIP: I hope so too, and I realize how precious people's time is, but if they have the chance to see this film, I think it will inspire them in their life, to see it. It's also a film, I think, that a lot of people in the industry will look at to see if there really is an audience for a film like this. So I think if people can find the time and see this movie, it would be a great thing. And I think it would really be one of those things that they could talk about long thereafter to really inform some of the challenges they face in their lives.

Read Solo Feminity's review of "Amazing Grace" here.

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1 comment:

Jan Parrish said...

I love this movie. It's in my top ten for 2007.

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