Friday, June 15, 2007

An Amazing Life

On April 10, I got a phone call from Ken Wales, the Executive Producer of the movie "Amazing Grace". He called in response to a message I left for him at Walden Media, which had been involved in "Amazing Grace," as well as the earlier movie "The Chronicles of Narnia". I'd called Walden Media in order to obtain contact information for Mr. Wales, because I wanted to tell him about my vision for a Christian arts ministry. I figured that if I was going to get the project off the ground, it would be extremely helpful to receive support from people who had proven themselves in terms of their artistic abilities and their use of those abilities in ways which lifted up the name of Christ.

In April, Ken spent about half an hour on the phone with me, discussing our mutual faith and telling me about the work he was doing on various film projects, including a sequel to "Chariots of Fire", as well as a movie based on the C.S. Lewis book "The Great Divorce". During our first phone conversation, Ken was kind enough to allow me to spend time talking about my vision for the Christian Artists' Resource Center.

Earlier, I had learned that Ken would be one of the guest speakers at the annual conference scheduled by Christians In Theatre Arts (CITA) to take place in June at the Moody Bible Institute, just down the street from where I lived. I was therefore hoping that our phone conversation would lay the groundwork for a personal meeting between me and Ken when he came to Chicago.

Yesterday, I walked over to Moody, knowing that their conference had begun on Wednesday, and hoping that I would be able to meet Ken, as well as some of the key figures in CITA, such as Dale Savidge and Melanie David. (Dale is the Executive Director of CITA. Melanie, who is the Western regional director for CITA, had corresponded with me earlier, after I sent her a copy of my Easter poem entitled "The Tomb". She had been very encouraging to me when I discussed my vision for a Christian arts ministry.)

I learned with pleasure that Ken was scheduled to speak in Moody's Alumni Auditorium last night, during a meeting which began at 7:30 p.m. So I headed over there at around 7:00 p.m., and waited for people to begin arriving at the auditorium. I wasn't sure whether or not I'd be allowed to attend the evening event, because technically, I hadn't enrolled in the conference, due to uncertainty regarding whether or not my schedule and my very limited budget would keep me from attending the conference.

Melanie David seems to have been otherwise occupied last night, because I never made a connection with her there. I'd been hoping to speak with her, on account of the kind things she said to me when we corresponded by e-mail earlier in the year.

Fortunately, I was able to speak with Dale Savidge shortly before the event. After I told him about my correspondence with Melanie David and my phone conversation with Ken Wales, he allowed me to attend the event in spite of the fact that I hadn't paid to attend the event. That was a blessing.

Shortly before the evening's presentations began, I saw Ken Wales sitting in the audience. I walked up to him and introduced myself. I was pleased to see that he remembered his earlier conversation with me. He said he'd visited, and he'd liked what he saw on my web site. He gave me his business card.

The evening began with prayer, not just in general terms, but also in relation to a couple of individuals who meant a lot to the members of the group. One of those people was Ruth Bell Graham, Billy Graham's wife. Ruth who died yesterday at the age of 87. People at the CITA conference expressed their love for Ruth, and they rejoiced in the knowledge that she had gone at long last to be with the Lord.

The evening's entertainment began with a one-man play by a man named Alan Atwood. The play was entitled "The Heart of God". It was essentially a retelling of the Old Testament, culminating in God's decision to come to earth in the form of a man in order to save all of mankind. Atwood played a variety of parts, including God, Satan, Abraham, Moses and others. Alan's portrayal of God was neither stereotypical nor bland. His God was a passionate God, deeply in love with his creation, and deeply hurt and disappointed when Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. Atwood's portrayal of Satan showed someone who was incredibly angry at God, contemptuous of God's ways, and determined to do anything he could do to hurt God, even if it meant destroying God's creation in the process.

Atwood's portrayal of Abraham was serious, portraying Abraham as a man whose faith in God was so deep that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, even though his words and his body language demonstrated that every fiber of his being feared that God would actually require him to go through with the sacrifice.

Things took a decidedly lighter turn when it came time to portray Moses. Moses, the Bible tells us, had a speech impediment which made him wonder why God would choose him as the liberator of Israel. Most dramatic portrayals of Moses minimize that aspect of the story. Not so with "The Heart of God". Atwood donned a Mexican hat made of straw, and portrayed Moses in a manner which he accurately described as "a Mexican version of Daffy duck", with a pronounced and heavily accented lisp which left everyone rolling in the isles, figuratively speaking. There were many other memorable characters as well, such as a drunken Israelite who had to try to explain to Moses why they'd fashioned a golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain talking to God.

Later in the play, equally memorable characters helped to portray the continual battle between good and evil which often caused Israel to abandon God and turn to idol worship. In Atwood's tale, the Devil often delighted in rubbing this in God's face, thinking that it proved that he was right and God was wrong. But God ultimately surprised Satan by choosing to come to earth in order to die on the cross and redeem all of mankind.

Overall, it was a very innovative and inspiring performance which used the full gamut of human emotions in order to make the Bible seem more real to the audience.

Atwood's performance was followed by a very interesting two-person performance consisting of interpretive dance which seemed to focus on the striving for inner peace which ultimately finds fulfillment when people seek God in prayer and learn to find rest in God. I forget the names of the performers offhand, but the performance itself was memorable, albeit somewhat ambiguous in its meaning during certain moments. Part of the ambiguity came from the fact that God was portrayed as (or by) a woman. The fact that she was in fact portraying God was never stated up front. It was solely on account of her continually loving and gentle responses to the man in the performance that it was clear that she was in fact portraying God. (Clear to me, at any rate.)

Then Ken Wales took the stage, and he began to talk about his work throughout the years. We learned a number of very interesting things about Ken, such as the fact that his Christian values were shaped by his father, a Christian pastor who had studied at Yale University, prior to the time when things took a decidedly liberal and anti-Christian turn at Yale.

Ken told us that after his family had moved from Indiana to California, he'd been mentored by giants in the movie and television industry, such as Walt Disney. Ken told about spending an intense week being mentored by Walt Disney himself, who wanted Ken's perspective in order to be able to more accurately portray life from the viewpoint of a teenager. For a week, Ken and Walt shared meals together three times a day. At the end of that week, Walt Disney took Ken on a trip to Disneyland, which was clearly a big thrill for Ken. Ken told us that after that excursion to Disneyland was over, Disney pulled out his personal checkbook and wrote a check to Ken for $5,000. That money later paid for Ken's education in the film department at USC.

Apparently, Walt Disney was happy with the results of his investment, because information which I found online says that Ken Wales later worked as the Vice President of Production at Disney Pictures. USC, where Ken currently serves as an adjunct professor, was apparently pleased as well.

One piece of advice Disney gave to Ken was that a good story always involved some element of danger or jeopardy. Disney observed that many of those who attempted to imitate Disney's movies failed to understand the importance of that element, and consequently, their work felt two-dimensional and false. Disney pointed out that Bambi's mother had to die in the movie "Bambi" so that the audience would be emotionally pulled into the story. Ken commented that one of the problems with a lot of Christian movies is that they presented overly simplistic visions of reality, in which conflicts were minimized and happy endings were a foregone conclusion.

Ken later talked about his work on some of the "Pink Panther" movies, as the assistant director for Blake Edwards. He told us the story of how his quick thinking during a particularly stressful day on one of Blake Edwards' movie sets had opened up the doors for their professional relationship, which lasted for many years. (Apparently, the microphones with which the director was supposed to communicate with the people in the helicopters were not working, on account of the corrosive effects of the moist sea air. Ken improvised by removing the microphones from a couple of nearby pay phones and attaching them to the radios so that communication could be restored. He attributed his quick thinking, in part, to the values imparted to him by his father.)

Ken showed some very funny film clips from the Peter Sellers movie "The Party". Later, he played film clips from "Amazing Grace". The quality of the projected image was considerably lower than the quality of the movie when I saw it in the movie theatre, inasmuch as it was occasionally too dark to make out the figures on the screen, but I was familiar enough with the movie that that didn't bother me a great deal. I was more interested in Ken's comments about the movie.

It became apparent that Ken really enjoyed talking about his work, particularly in the context of an audience consisting of committed Christians who were involved in the dramatic arts themselves on a variety of levels. He talked about how he derived a great deal of pleasure from the process of mentoring others.

After his presentation, Ken remained close to the stage, speaking with people who wanted to ask him questions. We were told by the security officer at Moody that we needed to vacate the auditorium by a certain time, but Ken wasn't finished. He knew that many people there had longed to ask him questions pertaining to his work. Several people suggested that they move the discussion to an all-night restaurant, but since I lived only a few blocks away, I was pretty familiar with the neighborhood. It was already pretty late --- around 10:40, as I recall. If it had been earlier, I would have suggested going to the Borders or Barnes and Noble bookstore nearby, since they both had nice coffee bars. Instead, I told them that the only place I knew of where they were open 24 hours was the "rock & roll McDonalds" located across the street from the Hard Rock Cafe. That probably would have been fine for some, but others apparently didn't like the idea of going to McDonalds. In any event, Ken eventually decided that there was no need to go to a restaurant in order to continue the discussion, since the weather was very pleasant. There was a very nice large courtyard on the Moody campus, complete with several outdoor picnic tables where we could all sit while asking questions. Ultimately, it was a better location than any restaurant would have been. It's unlikely that Ken would have felt as free to talk in a restaurant setting.

During that outdoor session (during which I sat immediately to Ken's right), we learned additional interesting facts. Ken discussed his work on the TV series "Christy" (based on the Katherine Marshall book) in great detail.

We learned about the work Ken had done as an actor in various movies. He told a memorable story about how Earnest Borgnine had once saved Ken's life during a shoot. It seems that they were doing an underwater scene, and Ken forgot to take a breath of air prior to removing his regulator from his mouth. In order to enhance the drama, the actor immediately behind Ken was supposed to look as if he was trying to push Ken's character to a position of safety, but in fact, he was holding him back in order to prolong the scene, not realizing that Ken was struggling for air. Earnest Borgnine saw what was really happening, and he pulled Ken to safety. Ken said that his mind briefly envisioned the possibility of dying in front of the movie camera. I commented that Ken had, in effect, been saved from drowning by McHale! (Borgnine played the lead character in the TV comedy "McHale's Navy".) Later, I realized that an even more apt comparison would have been related to the fact that Earnest Borgnine also starred in the original version of "The Poseidon Adventure".

Another interesting tidbit: We learned that the movie "Rebel Without A Cause" was filmed at the high school Ken attended, and that the locker used by James Dean in the movie was in fact Ken's locker in real life! Apparently, James and Ken got into a little skirmish in relation to that fact. (I wasn't clear on all of the details when Ken told the story.)

Ken talked about numerous other famous names with whom he had been associated over the years. If I'd had an audio recorder, I could undoubtedly recall them all.

Ken shared a lot of insider information regarding the way that the film industry operates, and he discussed the fact that people with Christian faith are often outsiders insofar as that industry is concerned. He discussed various factors which had played a role in bringing that situation about.

Ken shared a lot of information about the filming of the Billy Graham movie "The Prodigal". He talked about how they had consciously tried to avoid creating the typical syrupy Christian movie when making "The Prodigal", which portrayed a very dysfunctional family to which many people could relate.

Ken talked about how he tried to hide the fact that he was working on that film from people in the offices of MGM because most of them were unbelievers (primarily Jewish), and he was worried that they would ostracize him if they knew that he was using their facilities in order to work on a Billy Graham movie. Instead, many of them were incredibly moved when they saw the movie, and they offered him a very lucrative distribution deal which would have been extremely advantageous in terms of contributing to the success of the movie. He presented their offer to Billy Graham, but Billy eventually turned the deal down (even though he understood its potential significance) because some of the people within Graham's organization feared that they might lose their own jobs if the deal was accepted. Ken had tried to persuade Billy Graham that that was a mischaracterization of the MGM deal, and that no one's jobs needed to be jeopardized by the deal. In fact, he said, the deal would have made money for Graham's film division, helping to insure job security for those within Billy Graham's organization. It made Ken sad when he considered the impact which the film might have made if those people had been less fearful and more faithful. The film still did very well (second only to "The Hiding Place" in terms of Billy Graham films), but it could have done much better if the MGM deal had gone through, because it would have been seen in far more theatres, and it would have received much better publicity than it received.

Ken says he's hoping that "The Prodigal" will soon become available on DVD so that it can reach a new generation of people who have never seen that movie.

Ken also answered general questions related to the marginal influence of Christians and Christianity on the film industry. In his opinion, things were pretty good up until the end of the fifties, but then various cracks began to appear in the unity which had once been enjoyed by the Christian churches throughout the United States. Values which had bound American Christians together began to be questioned and disputed. Movies which previously would have been considered unthinkable were made and released. As a result, the more fundamentalist elements of the Christian church began to suggest that it was inherently ungodly to go to the movies.

The unfortunate effect was that the voices of conservative Christians ceased to have much of an influence on the types of movies which were made in Hollywood. There was no longer an economic incentive to make movies which portrayed Christians and Christian values in positive ways, so the film industry increasingly catered to those who were opposed to Christianity.

We are still living with the effects of those changes today. Thankfully, there are exceptional men and women, such as Ken Wales, who are determined to make films which impart Christian beliefs and values, without doing so in a manner which inadvertently drives people away from the Church.

By the time our session in the Moody courtyard was over, it was somewhere around 1:30 in the morning. I could tell that Ken was getting very tired. He threw out a few subtle suggestions to that effect. Yet, he continued to be gracious with those of us who still had a few lingering questions.

I then left Moody in order to go to McDonalds and get a little bite to eat, prior to hitting the sack at about 2:00 this morning. I awoke just a little bit before 10 a.m. Chances are good that Ken had already been up for hours, since he had various things scheduled for him on the following morning, including a class he was teaching to those who were attending the conference. I couldn't help but admire his dedication and his unselfish desire to impart his knowledge, experience and ideas to the next generation of Christian filmmakers and theatre people.

Ken talked a good deal about what he looked for when looking for a story worth telling. I would suggest that his own life story constitutes such a story. The Lord has used him, and continues to use him, in order to bring light into spiritually dark places.

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