Writer, director, and producer Randall Wallace's name may not be immediately recognizable, but his movies are. He not only wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Braveheart, he also wrote screenplays for Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, and The Man in the Iron Mask, along with directing the latter two. But filmmaking wasn't Wallace's original plan in life. As a seminary student at Duke Divinity School, he thought he might enter the ministry. But God had another call in mind for him, he explains, with his third directorial effort, Secretariat, hitting theaters this month.
Q: You wrote the theme song for Secretariat, "It's Who You Are," and you wrote it to "address the question: what is the heart of victory?" Can you explain that?
When I'm working on a script or planning a movie I'll ask myself, What is this story is really about? And I do that not only at the beginning of the process but also in the middle of the process and at the very end. What does this movie really mean? What is the essential message I want to convey if I were to boil it down to just a few words? And this song arose from that process.
In so many other stories it's your enemies that oppose you, but in this case it was the people Penny Chenery [Secretariat's owner] was closest to who were telling her she couldn't do it, that she was only a housewife, as if that were an indictment of her potential. And sometimes that's the central battle of life. And just like other forms of heroism, it is also a measure of heroism when someone can stand up and say, "It would be really wonderful if you all liked me, but I'm not running a popularity contest, I'm running a life, and I'm going to be who I think God called me to be." That's certainly been true of my life.
My father passed away during the very end of the making of We Were Soldiers, and I called my mother right before we tested that movie. And she could tell I was very nervous, and she asked me why. I explained, "Well, you know, because you put your heart and soul and blood and sweat and tears into something and there are people who aren't going to like it, who are hoping to be able to criticize it, in fact." And my mother said, "Son, if people crucified Jesus Christ, there are going to be some of them that don't like you." And it was funny and we laughed, but it's also very true.
Q: Some people might argue that Hollywood is too dark a place for Christians and that you would have better served God by entering the ministry than becoming a filmmaker. Are there things you can accomplish as filmmaker that a minister can't?
I think a minister can probably accomplish pretty much anything I could, but this is my calling. I can tell you that Braveheart and some of the other films I've done have been purer messages of what I believe than what I could have preached from a pulpit. It's the reason I'm a storyteller instead of a minister.
One of the themes of Secretariat is that there's joy in becoming what you were made to be, and Christ is at the heart of it. Christ says that He came so we could have life more fully. We were each made for something and only by doing that thing do we experience fullness. The line that people most often quote to me from Braveheart after "They may take our lives but they'll never take our freedom" is "Every man dies, not every man really lives." To really live, you have to do the thing you were made to do.
As an example, the church I'm a member of once approached me about becoming ordained because I was teaching a Sunday school class and I had enough seminary training to qualify within the denomination. And I told them, "You know, I don't think my work as a Christian is diminished because I'm not ordained, nor do I think it would be increased if I did become ordained. I'm glad we have ministers, but I don't believe every one of us is supposed to be one. Some of us are supposed to make movies."
Q: You've been one of the people behind some very successful movies. What is the secret to making a movie that resonates with the audience?
I once heard this great story from a minister. He said, "You know, I would like to give my son $10 million but I can't because I don't have $10 million." Then he said, "You're here this morning because you want your children to have faith. How are you going to do that if you don't have it yourself?" And that's what I think has to happen in a movie. I cannot inspire others unless I am inspired. I don't know if it's my calling to inspire others or not, but it seems like the thing I most need to work. So I look for opportunities to be inspired. Then when I am, I try to share it.
Movies are such a powerful art form-in fact, they may be the most powerful art form humanity's ever come up with. It's a version of storytelling, but you are also able to use music and narrative and moving images, and you combine all of that to make people experience something collectively. One of Hollywood's greatest flaws is underestimating their audience-forgetting that the audience is full of heart and full of a desire for hope.
Q: What other mistakes do you see filmmakers, including up-and-coming Christian filmmakers, making in their approach to the art form?
If anything feels like it's a Sunday school lesson, that would drive me away from a theater, let alone someone who isn't disposed to the same viewpoint. When I go to the movies, I'm not looking to be exposed to somebody else's dogma. And when I make a movie I'm not looking to explain my intellectual arguments of faith to somebody else. Now I love doing that, I love having discussions with my friends about how faith impacts the way you see life, that's a discussion that always fascinates me. But in storytelling it's about the experience. My father once told me that people will remember almost nothing of what you tell them and only slightly more of what you do. But they will remember for the rest of their lives how you made them feel.
For a review of the film, see "When Disney was Disney."