The Epic Story Teller
While it’s true that everyone has a story, not everyone can tell a story well. Fewer still can visually tell a story well. Randall Wallace is a master at both. He is an accomplished author, screen writer, director, film maker and producer with several Oscar nominat ions to his credit. But Hollywood was the far thest thing from his mind growing up.
Born and raised in a small country town in Tennessee, Randall learned the value of simplicity in life and the art of storytelling, writing his first story at the age of seven. His faith played an integral role in his life and led him to Duke University, where he studied Russian, Literature and Religion. After graduating, he worked his way through a year of seminary school by instructing Karate (he holds a black belt).
Randall then moved to Nashville, where he ran an animal show at Opryland before deciding to move to Hollywood to pursue singing and songwriting. While trying to find his niche, Randall began writing short stories, novels and scripts for television dramas. His background in Russian gave him a foundation and appreciation for the epic story tellers such as Tolstoy, Chekov and Pushkin. Over the next four years he worked on a book set in the royal court of Catherine the Great. The book eventually grew to a 1600 page manuscript. Although he wasn’t able to sell the story, it gave him the experience to undertake his next great adventure.
In Search of a Story
During a vacation to Edinburgh in 1983, Randall discovered the legend of William Wallace, who led the Scots’ 13th-century revolt against the British. Determined to learn all he could about the Scottish national hero who shared his family name, Randall spent four years writing the epic saga Braveheart. Randall was able to artfully tell the story of William Wallace, and was also able to weave in the emotion and passion that inspires souls. John Eldridge, president of Ransomed Heart Ministries, and author of the book and Bible study Wild at Heart, draws upon the passion that the film inspires to motivate Christian men to live their lives passionately as God has called them to.
The screenplay quickly caught the attention of Mel Gibson, who was eager to portray William Wallace and direct the film. The film was a box office and critical hit, garnering dozens of awards including Oscars for Mel Gibson for Best Picture and Best Director; Randall was nominated for Best Writing.
"Every man dies, not every man really lives.” William Wallace, Braveheart
Grounded in Faith and Family
While the film firmly established Randall as one of Hollywood’s great screenwriters, the Oscar experience left him feeling uneasy. He explained, “There is no clearer example of the biblical sin of idolatry than the Oscar: It’s an actual golden statue. People worship it, not just in Hollywood, but all over.”
Randall felt the need to make a conscious effort to refocus on his faith and family, the things that truly mattered to him. Randall began teaching Sunday school classes in his church and founded the Hollywood Habitat for Humanity organization that harnessed the star power of Hollywood celebrities to raise money and draw volunteers to build homes for those most in need.
As scripts began pouring his way, Randall was offered the opportunity to direct the big screen adaptation of the classic Man in the Iron Mask, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Randall also wrote the screenplay and produced the film, which was released in 1998 and grossed over $56 million at the box office. His next two films, Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers portrayed the human struggles with our nation at war. We Were Soldiers, also gave Randall the opportunity to work with Mel Gibson again. The two have remained close friends since then.
One of the songs played during the closing credits of We Were Soldiers, “Mansions of the Lord,” was written by Randall. The song was performed as the closing hymn at the State funeral of President Reagan, and the U.S. Army has adopted it as one of its performance pieces honoring the American soldier.
Although many people have been critical of the violence in some of Randall’s films, he sees them as stories of passionate devotion to a cause. He says, “When people ask me why I make so many movies about war, I tell them that they are really movies about love and loving something or someone so much that you are willing to die for it. I was at a screening for the movie Braveheart, where afterwards there was a question and answer session. A young woman nineteen years old stood up and told me that she didn’t have a question but a comment. Her fiancé had passed away six months prior, and before he died he told her that he wanted her to see the movie Braveheart so that she would understand the way he loved her.”
A Winning Story
His next film, the 2010 Disney film Secretariat, would quiet those critics. It was a hero story of a different kind, based on a three year old colt that captured the hearts of the nation by becoming the first horse to win the elusive Triple Crown, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, since 1948. Secretariat not only won each race of the Triple Crown, but won each race in a record setting time with the grand finale at Belmont, where he won by an incredible 31 lengths.
Randall knew that the only way to capture the excitement and zeitgeist of that era was to film the crowd scenes on location in Kentucky. He was not disappointed. The stadium, Churchill Downs, was filled with enthusiastic fans, many of whom were there to witness the original race as teenagers. The movie also highlights the charming owner and Secretariat’s biggest fan, Penny Chenery, who visited the set on the day of shooting and agreed to Randall’s request to appear in the film as a spectator in the box with Diane Lane, who portrayed her in the film. The success of the film solidified Randall’s place as one of the great visual story tellers of our time and reinforced his conviction in the power of a story.
Challenging the Audience to Believe
For Randall, some of the most powerful stories are those involving faith. For his next and most recent film, for which he wrote the screenplay and directed, he would draw upon his deeply held faith to bring the audience on a journey beyond this world, in Heaven is for Real.
The film, based upon the New York Times #1 best-selling book of the same name, is about the remarkable experience of Colton Burpo who, at four years old, had a near death experience. After his recovery, Colton began to reveal his experience to his parents. He recounted detailed events that he saw that included things that happened before he was even born and would have had no knowledge of otherwise. He also told of visiting heaven, recalling specific, striking details about what heaven is like. Randall explained, “For me, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do this film justice if I didn’t believe in it. When I was first approached about the movie, at first appearances it seems like a small, family story about a father and a son and the son’s impact on the family.
At the same time, I realized that it is an epic movie about the universal questions about life, our existence and eternity. When I first met Colton and looked into his eyes when he told me of some of his experiences, I believed. For me, that’s the essence of faith. It’s more important to believe than to know. My hope is that this movie will allow the audience to open their hearts and then open their minds to explore the possibilities of belief.”
Oscar nominee Greg Kinear, who stars as Colton’s father Todd in the film, said, “What appealed to me most at the end of the day is that Randy had tackled this very human story and the eternal question everyone has about what comes after. Whatever your feelings on the afterlife–even in your current life, right here, right now–there is this beauty all around you that’s been nicely captured for this film through the eyes of a little boy. If you don’t have any personal inspiration, Heaven is for Real will give you some.”
The film was immediately embraced, bringing in over $22 million on its opening weekend this past April. To date, it has grossed over $76 million. For Randall, success is measured by more than box office data.
The Power in a Story
“I believe that we never know how significant we are in God’s plans and purposes." Randall Wallace
Randall explained, "I don’t always understand the full implications of everything that I do. One of the things about the Christian faith is the recognition of ‘He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.’ Being faithful in even the smallest of things in our eyes can have large, eternal impacts on God’s kingdom.”
When asked whether there are more of these types of films in his future, Randall said, “I will always be drawn to the types of stories that give me goose bumps, and Heaven is for Real was one of those films; one that grabbed my heart. It was the same feeling that drew my heart to Braveheart. There is power in a story.”
By: Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker is the Executive Editor of TwoTen Magazine. He is inspired daily by his God, his wife Kim and his three daughters Hannah, Sarah, and Rhea.Read More Articles by Mark Whitaker