When Randall Wallace first met Mel Gibson, he was pitching a script for a movie about a 14th century Scottish hero most of us had never heard of: William Wallace. (And no, Randall isn't related to him.)
Gibson listened as Wallace became more and more animated, till he was pounding on the table and saying things like, "If you are faithful to your heart, even if they cut it out of you, you prevail" and "If you don't want to make that story, you should go somewhere else." Gibson wanted to make that story, and the rest is Braveheart history.
It was a long way from Durham, North Carolina, and Duke Divinity School, where, more than 20 years before, Wallace was studying theology and considering becoming a pastor—till his own minister urged him to consider his true calling. That ultimately turned out to be Hollywood and making movies—first as a writer and later as a director.
Wallace was nominated for an Oscar (and won the Writers Guild of America award) for his Braveheart screenplay in 1995. He went on to write scripts for The Man in the Iron Mask, Pearl Harbor, and We Were Soldiers, the last of which he also directed—and which starred Mel Gibson in the lead role.
Next up for Wallace is Secretariat, opening in theaters this week. Yes, it's the story of the great race horse who won the 1973 Triple Crown, but moreso, it's the story of owner Penny Chenery, who overcame hardship, bucked the odds—and doubts and criticisms in a male-dominated sport—and practically willed the horse to victory. It all adds up to an inspiring, family-friendly film that includes, hands-down, the best horse racing footage ever seen on the big screen (including Seabiscuit).
We recently sat down with Wallace to talk about Secretariat, how his faith informs his work, the legacy of Braveheart, and what he thinks of Mel Gibson's recent scandals.
Why did you want to tell this story?
It was exciting. It had dimensions of surprise. I didn't know how spectacular the horse Secretariat was, and I knew nothing about the woman who owned him and her courage and vision. And it was a story that everyone in the family could enjoy.
Was Penny's story the main reason for making it into a movie?
It was a big factor. Before, I hadn't known about the interplay between the horse and the woman. It is dangerously romantic to believe that that horse would not have run in the same way had his owner not been who she was, but I began to feel that that horse—in his non-cognitive mind, that well of instinct—drew from her.
Not in a weird Horse Whisperer kind of way, but some human-animal connection like we have with our pets?
Yes. I'm not big on airy-fairy, woo-woo. But I believe this woman found something in the horse that informed her decisions. I believe the horse's willingness to go out and try to do what no horse had ever done before had some direct connection to her life. These race horses have a spirit. In seminary, I learned what "spirit" means in biblical terms—it's related to the word for "breath." When "spirit" appears in the Old Testament, it's the same as when we describe a spirited horse—one full of life and fire. The evidence of this is that when a horse is beaten in a race he is much less likely to win again. His spirit has been broken.
Really? Statistics support that?
Yes. It's like they are running to establish the pecking order. So it's a fabulous burst of spirit when a horse overcomes a loss and that "loser" label, if he can come back and win against the same horse. That's an amazing achievement, as it is in life when we have labeled ourselves as "broken" and "flawed" and "loser." I believe that this is what Jesus did in Zacchaeus or the fishermen who became disciples.
The film opens with a passage from Job, as spoken by Penny in a voiceover. That's not necessarily a popular decision in secular moviemaking.
We wrestled with that. There was a discussion about whether this movie should be called Secretariat at all. You want the title to be compelling, intriguing, something that draws people in. I consulted some friends and said I'd love a passage like Chariots of Fire, something that feels biblical and powerful and iconic. They came up with that quote from Job, and it works really well. It's a great setup for the movie.
Did anyone say, "No, we can't open with a Bible verse"?
Disney had the same concerns I did; they all wanted the movie to appeal to as many people as possible and not to disinvite someone because of the Bible passage. I considered those things when deciding about the quote from Job and "Oh Happy Day" [a popular spiritual that plays prominently in the film, including a lyric about "when Jesus washed my sins away"]. I tested the movie with some [non-Christian] friends. In one screening, I sat next to a Jewish friend here at Disney. At the end, tears were sheeting down her face and she said, "I am Jewish, and I want them to sing 'Oh Happy Day' at my funeral." I knew then we'd done the right thing.
When "Oh Happy Day" plays, Penny and the groom [Eddie Sweat] are washing Secretariat. What's the significance of that scene?
Penny kept getting discouraging responses from people about what to do with Secretariat, and that's where "Oh Happy Day" came in: You do what you do when you know you have the right plan, and no one else will follow you in it. I didn't feel that the washing of the horse was about Jesus washing sins away as much as it was that she was happy because she felt loved and validated, that it was great to be alive.
We all carry the condemnations and rejections from others, but even more difficult are our internal damnations. I hate to sound like a former seminarian, but Satan is the accuser, telling us we failed, we're not good enough, God doesn't love us, nobody does. Penny was feeling that defeat, but then she sees Eddie washing this horse and loving being alive, that this is a happy day no matter what. That feeds into the next moment of Penny saying "I don't care how many times they say no. We are going to see this horse run and win, and we're going to live rejoicing every day. I will not live my life in regret."
Horseracing has a sleazy side in gambling, which isn't portrayed in this film. Why gloss over that?
I didn't want gambling to be part of this story. There are clearly people who gamble in horseracing, but it did not impact Penny's story. There's no profanity, no alcohol, and no gambling. But that wasn't at the insistence of Disney; that was me. I just wanted the story to be purely about courage and love and faith.
Talk about how your faith intersects your work.
Well, I don't trust my own understanding, and it was Karl Barth, a theologian I studied in divinity school at Duke, who said, "Religion is man's way to God and is always erroneous, and revelation is God's way to man and is always perfect." [Barth's actual quotes are here.] I'm not trying to argue from my own dogma, my own understanding. I want a story that reveals something to me, and so hopefully to an audience.
As a young man, you considered being a pastor. What changed that?
My minister had heard that I was studying for the ministry, and he asked if I felt called to be a minister. I said, "I am studying [for the ministry] because I want my life to be about something more than the satisfaction of my own appetites. I don't know that I've heard the calling to be a minister, but it's the highest calling anyone could have." He said, "You're wrong. The highest calling you can have is the calling that is yours."
Isn't making movies sort of like being a minister? You're sort of ministering to people in the theater.
The purest pulpit that I can have is through what I've said in movies like Braveheart and now in Secretariat. I hope and pray that the message is not my religion, but the revelation that God is greater than we are, and that life can work if we are willing to believe and trust and be faithful. That's how Braveheart got made. The night before I met with Mel Gibson [to discuss the script], I prayed that God would not let me kiss his ass.
God's or Mel Gibson's?
Mel Gibson's. And that I would not become somebody who is trying to say what Mel wanted to hear rather than what I believed. Within the first three minutes after I met him, I was pounding on the table like a tent revivalist and I said, "Every story has a message, and what most movies tell us is that the guy with the bluest eyes and the cutest dimples and the biggest biceps is the one who wins. What this story says is if you are faithful to your heart, even if they cut it out of you, you prevail. That's the story I want my sons to see. If you want to make that story, I'm your guy. If you don't want to make that story, you should go somewhere else." And that was the story he wanted to make.
What has happened to Mel Gibson? Christians had embraced him as "one of us" after The Passion, and now feel betrayed by his recent actions.
I'm often asked about Mel. It's not my place to judge him, and not just because the circumstances of his life are far too complicated for any of us to appraise based on the awful fragments that come our way. What I know is that he would be the first to admit to his own sins; I believe that no one who judges him or feels disappointed could possibly judge him as harshly as he judges himself. I know that he repents on his knees in prayer. And I pray for him.
What are your best memories of making Braveheart?
The ongoing influence of Braveheart brings me to a stunned silence. Writing it was an intense experience, rich with emotion. I remember writing [William Wallace's line], "Every man dies, not every man really lives." I can see, vividly, when I was coming to the end of the story and the axe was dropping toward William's throat, and I paused and thought I couldn't show the audience the physical beheading, so what would I show? It struck me that in the last instants of his life, William would look to his friends, the ones he knew would be somewhere in the crowd, to support him in his death the way they had supported him in life. I began to write, "As the axe falls, William's eyes seek Hamish and Stephen …" And it came to me that there was someone else—his wife, the one his enemies had killed. She was there, at peace, telling him by her presence and her smile that she was where he was going. And I wept. I believe Christians have embraced that film because the heart of the story is in fact a Christian heart.
Briefly tell me about your own faith journey.
I grew up in a Christian home in Tennessee. My mother and father, along with my grandparents and my Aunt Betty, founded a church in the front room of their farmhouse, and that church is thriving even now. We went to church at least ten hours every week—Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday school, Training Union, choir practice. During revivals those hours doubled. The amount of preaching I heard in those days seemed endless, but what affected me most in those services was the Bible itself, and the hymns. Baptists are big on both.
The person who most embodied God's love to me was my Grandmother Page. Everyone who ever knew her recognized that she heard the voices of the angels. When I was small and suffered from asthma, she would hold me in her lap all night long and sing to me. When we went to tent revivals and sang "The Old Rugged Cross" together, and I saw tears rolling down her face, I knew I might never have the purity of her soul, but I would always cling to that cross.
Do you think of yourself as a Christian writer/director, or a writer/director who happens to be a Christian? Or is that merely semantics?
I am a Christian, no matter what else I do. I could change my name to something else, but I would not become someone else. My Christian identity doesn't depend on my earning the title; the start of my journey as a Christian is my certainty that I don't merit the love of God and I have it anyway—just as I am, without one plea.
If we call a man a Christian doctor, deep sea diver, or dogcatcher, we'd expect that he did his work the best he could, maybe even with special care for excellence. When we ask if someone is a Christian writer/director, we might become suspicious that he was trying to spread not simply the love God has given him, but his own theories about God and that love. I studied theology; I have many theories. But I believe in none of them. I believe that the death of Jesus of Nazareth opened a door to love and life that are, quite literally, a union with God. I don't understand it, but Jesus didn't ask for my understanding. He just said "Follow me," gave up his life, and rose from the dead. So I try to follow. I'm not trying to spread my dogma. I'm trying to live my experience that God loves me, and the only way I can follow is by loving others.
I tell stories of love. People ask me why I make war stories, but what I make is love stories, and stories of war can put love in perspective: What do you love enough that you would lay down your life for it? How do you gain life by losing it? Secretariat is especially exciting because we ask those questions in a context without physical violence, in a way that a people of all ages can consider in a direct, personal, and exciting way.
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