WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on an encore presentation of my 2015 conversation with writer, musician and filmmaker Randall Wallace.
RANDALL WALLACE, GUEST: I want them to be listening to the story, experiencing the story, and feeling those things that I felt standing next to my mother and father and sister and singing hymns at the top of my lungs. I want them to feel that because that’s who I really am.
SMITH: It’s a long way from Lizard Lick, Tennessee to Hollywood, but that is the journey Randall Wallace has taken. He had stops on his journey at Duke University—where he studied theology—and Nashville—where he honed his craft as a songwriter. But he’s had his greatest successes as a filmmaker. Randall Wallace was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe award for writing the screenplay for Braveheart. He wrote and directed, We Were Soldiers, which portrayed with vivid realism one of the first major battles of the Vietnam War. It was both a box office and a critical success.
He also directed the box office hits Secretariat, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Heaven is For Real. In fact, movies that Wallace has either written or directed have grossed more than $1 billion at the box office—making him one of Hollywood’s power players. Randall Wallace has been on Listening In several times over the years.
We talked when Heaven is For Real was released, and later that year, we had the conversation that you’re about to hear—about the book Living the Braveheart Life: Finding the Courage to Follow Your Heart.
We had this conversation in California at a restaurant near his home in Malibu, just north of Los Angeles. The date was September 11—the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which was also the 14th anniversary of the death of Randall Wallace’s father. I mention these dates because we refer to both of these events later in the program. But we began our conversation by talking about what Randall Wallace calls one of the Braveheart moments of his life.
Randall Wallace, first of all, thank you for coming on the program.
WALLACE: Warren, it’s great to be here with you.
SMITH: When I was doing a little bit of research, I watched you National Prayer Breakfast speech from, I guess, a couple of years ago now. And when you spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, you said, “I’m not a philosopher or a preacher. I’m a storyteller like Jesus. And as nearly as I can tell, that’s my only similarity with him except for one thing: like him I’ve also cried out, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’” That’s a pretty powerful opening.
WALLACE: Yeah, that worked well because it was true.
SMITH: Well, what were some of those moments where you’ve had to cry out to God? I mean, in your book you describe a lot of incidents, one of which was when you had MRSA, when you got an infection and that brought you really to death’s door. Was that one of those moments or were there others that you had in mind?
WALLACE: It absolutely was one of those moments, and I’ve come to call those our Braveheart moments. Those moments when we face a decision that’s going to change the rest of our lives. It’s a crossroads and the outcome is not only unknown but unknowable and we have to act in faith. I think one of my first big ones that identified as that kind of moment was when I was facing financial ruin. It looked like I was going to have to stop being a writer, give up all my dreams to be able to feed my family. I thought I had one more chance to write something before I had to stop and got on my knees and said to God, “If I go down in this fight and that’s what you want, then give me the strength to go down and try to show my sons what a man does when he gets knocked down. But if I can, I want to be worshiping you, not some false idol of fame or money or Hollywood success.” And that’s when I got up and decided to write the kind of story that I wanted to see, not what I thought Hollywood wanted to buy. That was a turning point in my life. That was the first one of what I’d call my Braveheart moments.
SMITH: Randall Wallace, that moment during the writer’s guild strike whenever you thought, you know, you might lose your livelihood, you got down on your knees and you prayed and you got up. And that was the moment where you resolved to write Braveheart. You write about that passage in your book. Would you read that passage there on page 90?
WALLACE: I got on my knees. I knew what every man knows when he kneels to pray for help—in a time when he needs help desperately. I was a hypocrite. I didn’t mean to be, of course. None of us wants to be shallow and false and all of us know we inherently are. By the time we get around to asking God for help and trying to seem sincere and worthy, we’re quite certain of how sincere and worthy we are not.
SMITH: Just as you had that crisis in your life, the writer’s strike and the prospect of losing your house and that resolve to sort of, you know, rise up from your knees to to write Braveheart. Your father also had a moment like that, too, where he was crushed, brought down. You were about 11 years old, as I recall, at that time. What was that experience like for you as an 11 year old boy? Describe what happened to your dad and what happened after that to your dad?
WALLACE: My father was completely self-made. He went to work full-time when he was 14 years old and he had nobody to encourage him to go to college or to help him cover the financial costs. Higher education was not a choice that he had in his life. He went on to become an extremely successful salesman. He rose up in a company, became a national sales manager. The company was then sold and my father lost his job at the ripe old age of 38 and he completely crumbled and none of us could understand it because my father was the most courageous. I mean, he was fearless, I thought. And he was charismatic. He would walk in a room and the whole room would light up. He loved everyone he met.
So I wondered, how is this happening? What is happening? It was so disturbing to all of us who looked to—my mother, my father, my sister, and I—all depended on my father’s confidence. And I realized later realized even as I was writing the book, that his confidence was his weapon. That was what he had to enable him to move through life. And when he was fired, through no fault of his own, the company was bought by a bunch of MBAs who decided they would maximize their profits by firing all the old guys. When he lost his job, his confidence shattered. And he had to rebuild his faith in God and in himself. And I watched him go through that process. And that became, for me, one of my greatest weapons. When I felt myself at the very edge of that kind of brokenness, I could think, I saw my father do this. I saw how he came through. This is not the end of me. This is maybe the beginning of me. So, that was one of the lessons that they taught. One thing you know from Tennesseans is give up is not a word for them.
SMITH: Well, that’s exactly right. And so your father rebuilt his life. You grew up. And you say he died 14 years ago, is that right?
WALLACE: Yes. He died on September the 11th, 2001—the day the World Trade Center came down. I was in the air. I was in an airplane trying to get to his hospital room when that happened. And the pilot came on and said that all air traffic in the United States had been ordered to land. I was over Asheville, North Carolina at the time trying to get to Lynchburg, Virginia. And I didn’t know how bad the situation was, but I knew it was awful if all the air traffic had been ordered down. And I ran to the rental car counter and got a car and tried to drive and make it to his hospital room. And I didn’t. My sister was with him when he passed. And that, too, has been a remarkable experience because I have felt my father with me even more now that he’s not breathing inside his physical body than I even felt before. That is a real experience. It may not be a logical one, but it’s powerfully true.
Same that my mother passed away right before we began filming Heaven is For Real. And when you watch somebody that you love so much, somebody who is integral to your life as your own mother is, and you see the last breaths leave their body and you look at that body and you realize that’s not her anymore. That is a husk. You understand what we’ve always known. There was a soul, there was something eternal about life that was not limited by our physical bodies.
SMITH: So your dad got to see some of your success. I mean, he got to—let’s see. Braveheart was about 20 years ago, so he got to see, at a minimum, Braveheart which was among your bigger successes though you’d had many other successes by then. Do you think he was proud of you?
WALLACE: I think my father was the proudest of me of anyone, ever. And he had also tried to steer me away from writing. He felt guilt about that. When we were watching Braveheart, there was a sense in him of awe. There was also—my father being a country boy—whenever he thought something was funny, he would always stick his elbow in your ribs and he kept his elbow in my ribs almost through that entire movie. And he was deeply proud. But he also said to me once, I tried to stop you and I said, no, you didn’t. You tried to make me focus on what was important. And that’s what you did. When you said you need to feed your family, what it did was make me recommit myself and refocus on how I could make this career and writing and directing and making movies, how I could make it work.
SMITH: Randall Wallace, in Living the Braveheart Life, there’s a lot about prayer and even a few prayers themselves. But one particular prayer near the end I’d like to ask you to read. It’s on page 173 in your book. Do you mind reading that prayer out loud?
WALLACE: I’m happy to. When I was writing Living the Braveheart Life, I wanted to share with people what my specific prayers are. This is the one that I pray every morning before I begin to write. “Oh Lord, thank you for this work. I pray you bless me in it and others through it, however it is your will. I pray to offer it to you as you offer it to me—in love and in faith and hope. I pray that you would bless me. Bless me, indeed. Increase thy territory and that thy hand be upon me to keep me from evil. And that I cause no pain. I thank you that you are God Almighty, Lord of all creation. That your creativity is without limit and I am part of your creativity. Thy will be done. For this, I give thanks and rejoice in Jesus name. Amen.”
SMITH: When did you start praying that prayer?
WALLACE: I began to pray that probably 30 years ago. And I’ve modified it since then. You may recognize the prayer of Jabez is in there. And I only learned that one maybe 10, 15 years ago and added that to my prayer. And I wanted to recognize that writing is a sacred activity. It’s an act of faith. And I wanted to focus myself on God’s will being done and also to try to diffuse the pride, the arrogance that comes with the sense that I need to do something that will make the world a better place. That will change the world. I want to do all of those things, but whether or not I do them is in God’s hands, not in mine. And the only way I can possibly do it is to be in God’s hands.
SMITH: You know, you were talking about pride and arrogance and humility and you know, I would guess because you had a lot of really amazing accomplishments in your life—writing and filmmaking and financial success as well—that comes with all of that. It could be easy, if it would happen to me, I’d be prideful about it, probably. In fact I can say with almost certainty that I would. And yet in this book, I wonder if it was almost as an antidote. You know, you do write the stories about MRSA, for example, and coming close to death and you’re pretty transparent about your divorce as well in the book. That’s also gotta be one of the failures of life that was hard to face—maybe a dark night of the soul. Is that fair to say?
WALLACE: Absolutely. And I wanted to share with everyone a sense that I’m not just talking in Living the Braveheart Life about the mountaintops, but I’m talking about the valleys too. Of course, my favorite and probably everyone’s favorite Psalm is the 23rd, and we know the “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and I have walked a few times in that valley and those shadows. And I am not pretending that I have a prescription that will prevent any of those shadows and any of that journey or put us always on the mountaintop. But I wanted to tell stories of my life. The story of when I had MRSA and the doctor was planning to cut off my fingers, if not my whole hand. I wanted to describe that I went through a divorce and the brokenness that comes in a family and yet the healing that can come after it.
SMITH: The Bible says God hates divorce. Did it feel like a risk for you or for your publisher to be as open and transparent about that experience as you were in the book?
WALLACE: It certainly crossed my mind, Warren, that we have a tendency in the church and among Christians try to pretend that being right with God then prevents all of our errors that we might make, all of our heartbreak, that everything is always rosy. And the strange thing is every Christian that I know knows that forgiveness is necessary—forgiveness of ourselves, God’s forgiveness first. That we are all broken people who come together. One of my friends says, God only uses broken people. That’s all he has to use. And that it did cross my mind to think that there might be people who looked at me and who would say, well, what do you know. Look, you’re divorced or look, you’ve had these struggles in your life. You’re not a perfect paragon of virtue.
The stories that I love the best in the Bible—I’m reading the books of Samuel now. And the story of David. When I look at the—my favorite gospel is Gospel of Mark, which I believe was really written by Peter because it’s the one that really shows Peter with all of his failures. That’s why I think Peter was letting it all be known saying, I looked at Jesus and I said, I’ll never betray you, I’ll never let you down. And he said, you’ll do it before the rooster crows. And that sort of thing inspires me and comforts me.
SMITH: Randall Wallace, I know filmmaking and writing are not all you do. You also have an intimate relationship with music as well. Music plays a big role in your movies. But I was surprised to discover that you actually wrote some of those songs. I’m thinking of Mansions of the Lord, for example, for When We Were Soldiers.
WALLACE: It’s great to get to talk about that today, since this is the anniversary of my father’s passing. My father died on 9/11, and about two weeks later we were finishing up the end of We Were Soldiers and my editor, William Hoy, said, “You know, we need a requiem hymn here.” And we did a little quick research and found that the Army doesn’t have a requiem hymn. The Navy does. Eternal Father Strong to Save that dates back to the British Navy, but the Army has no hymn used at funerals. So I said, well, let’s write one. And my composer, Nick Glennie Smith, a great friend, had a melody he’d been using through most of the movie and we adapted that and got into a kind Amazing Grace type simple melody. And I took a legal pad and in about five minutes wrote three verses and they didn’t really change through the rest of the process. We went to Abbey Road Studios and recorded the orchestral track.
And then we went to West Point and the West Point Glee Club sang it. It brings tears to my eyes every time I ever hear it. And it’s been used at all sorts of funerals and ceremonies in the military.
SMITH: Well, including the Reagan funeral. Do I have that right?
WALLACE: That was the one that was the biggest surprise to me and in some ways the most moving because I didn’t see it coming. We’d gotten an inquiry if they could be allowed to use it. Of course, I was tremendously honored, but I had no idea how they planned to use it. And I was at Willow Creek Church in Chicago on the day of the Reagan funeral and I scrambled around to find a television and I watched them carry Ronald Reagan’s body out of the National Cathedral as they were singing Mansions of the Lord. And it was a profound thing for me.
MUSIC: The Mansions of the Lord
SMITH: Randall Wallace, in both Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, you worked with Mel Gibson. And Mel Gibson has had some sort of famous meltdowns lately, I guess you could say. Without betraying any trust—and you talk about Mel Gibson in your book, sort of a seminal moment in the book where you’d given up, sort of turned as the writer turned the screenplay over to the director and it was like giving your baby away in some ways. And you described that very movingly. And a beautiful exchange that Mel Gibson had that basically said, I’m gonna look after your—you can trust me. I understand what you’ve invested here and I’m going to honor that investment that you’ve made in the screenplay. It led me to believe in reading that that y’all had some sort of a relationship. Do you still stay in touch with him?
WALLACE: Yes. I love Mel as does everyone who really knows him and I pray for him. Whenever he’s in one of those places where we’re he’s getting all the attention for all the wrong reasons, I pray for him. I send my support to him. And, you know, he was wonderful to me in the making of Braveheart. I learned a great deal about him. We’ve worked together beautifully in the past and I hope to do to work together again. One of the things he told me was that writers write, actors act, and directors direct from their essence as human beings. And that’s one of the reasons that I’ve thought in Living the Braveheart Life, the greatest thing we can look at is how we change what’s in us, how we change who we are, or what it is that changes who we are. And that changes everything about what we do. That instead of thinking, if I do these things, that then I’ll become a different person. Well, we have to become the different person first.
SMITH: Is he doing alright?
WALLACE: He’s currently working on a film in Australia that I worked on the script for. And I haven’t seen him in a long time, but everywhere I go and every Christian I talk to says, how’s Mel? I’m praying for him.
SMITH: I want to shift gears a little bit on you, Randall Wallace, and talk about the filmmaking process, just sort of the craft of filmmaking. And this may be a convoluted way to ask it, but on a scale of one to 10, I want to ask where you are, who you are, who Randall Wallace is as a filmmaker. One is Terrence Malick style filmmaking. No scripts, lots of improvisations, lots of uncertainty and drama on the set. A million feet of film. And we’ll tell the story in the editing room. The other side might be Clint Eastwood. Tight script, tons of pre-production, one or two takes, not a lot of drama on the set, a really tight, sharp, well-paced film. Where are you on that scale?
WALLACE Well, if, if Terrence Malick is the one and Clint is a 10, I’d say I started out about a nine and I’m trying to be an 11. I believe in the Clint Eastwood style of filmmaking and having a really tight script. But also keeping the process alive that people can surprise you with wonderful moments. Like in Heaven is For Real, we had a child who was at the center of the story and Greg Kinnear and Kelly Riley, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church. They all surrounded him with this great crucible of professionalism. But in the end he was unpredictable and magical and we understood that you have to be alive for the moment. So it’s like I was saying about faith and holding on, a big part of faith is flexibility, being able to hold on to your vision, but be flexible about how you get there.
SMITH: Speaking of kids, for actors at least, you don’t want to work with kids. You don’t want to work with animals, right? They’ll always upstage you or just be trouble. The other thing that I would think maybe as a filmmaker that you would have trouble working with is like helicopters and explosives and stuff that’s really expensive and really dangerous if not handled properly. You know, as a filmmaker, what sort of additional gear do you have to have, you know, to shift up into to be able to operate at that level?
WALLACE: You have to have vision. You have to be convinced that you recognize what the moments are that are magical. Some people call them movie moments. When we’re going into a situation with helicopters, explosions, bayonets—those are dangerous. And I tell everyone I can do take two, but I can’t give you back your arm or your neck if you break those things while we’re doing this. I want no one hurt. So we have an extremely professional crew. We’re very careful, but you have to be relentless about saying, “This is what we need. We don’t need this other stuff.” To me, when a director shoots tons of film, the director doesn’t know what they’re looking for. And I don’t like that.
SMITH: In preparation for this interview, Randy, I looked at We Were Soldiers again, which was not a burden. It was a pleasure. I’ve seen that movie probably 10 or 12 times already, but I used meeting you as an excuse to look at it again. It was a pleasurable experience. Well, one of the things I did notice though in that movie, you know, a lot of careful filmmaking and there were a few moments that were pretty, I guess you could say, cinema verite moments where the blood would spatter on the lens, for example. That happened two or three times. And I’m wondering, was that planned or did that happen any decided to leave it in because it captured one of those movie moments?
WALLACE: It happened and we decided to leave it in. But it happened because we arranged it so that it might happen. We weren’t sure, you know. Splatters, none of that was computer graphics. I don’t like a computer graphics. I think those are to enhance moments. But when I’m watching something that I know is basically a cartoon, it just doesn’t have the real power that the other things have.
SMITH: I happened to watch another movie that was, it’s not a final cut yet. And it was a movie that had a lot of big crowd scenes and there were green screens all over the stadium and they filled in with, you know, they were going to do that in post-production. But I know there was a scene in We Were Soldiers that was very compelling to me. It was kind of a stadium scene. It was—and the families were there, but not many people in the stands. And you could have probably filled those stands up with extras or CGI. And yet you chose not to. And the fact that those stands were really empty as these men were about to march off potentially to their deaths was a very powerful moment.
WALLACE: Yes. And that was one of those experiences that said—we had originally planned to have more extras. And on the day we didn’t have many. And it occurred to me that this is as it should be. That these people are giving their lives, they’re prepared to die. Their families know that. And yet the world is not paying attention. There’s no fanfare for them. It was a ceremony for themselves and when their leader General or, then, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore said, “I will be the first on the field and the last one off and I’ll leave no one behind.” It was profoundly moving from me. And even more moving that he said it just to them, the chosen family.
SMITH: Well, and it also made so much more powerful that not quite final scene where Sam Elliot comes up to him and says all troopers living and dead are off the field. And Mel Gibson says to “Well done Sergeant Major,” and then lifts his foot off the ground onto the runner of the helicopter.
CLIP: Look around you. In the seventh cavalry, we’ve got a captain from the Ukraine, another from Puerto Rico. We’ve got Japanese, Chinese, blacks, Hispanics, Cherokee Indians. Jews and gentiles. All Americans. Here in the States, some men in this unit may experience discrimination because of race or creed. But for you and me now, all that is gone. We’re moving into the valley of the shadow of death. Where you will watch the back of the man next to you as he will watch yours. And you won’t care what color he is or by what name he calls God. They say we’re leaving home. We’re going to what home was always supposed to be. So, let us understand the situation. We’re going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this, I swear before you and before Almighty God, that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field. And I’ll be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me, God.”
WALLACE: Yes, that was the sort of cornerstone of the story for me that he had made that promise that encapsulated this whole character. And I think that’s what we look for in stories. That’s one reason why in Living the Braveheart Life I tell stories rather than philosophy. I think that’s why Jesus told stories rather than try to argue about the meaning of philosophical terms. Who is my neighbor? Well, here’s a story. Or to say consider the lilies of the field. There are ways in which we can all understand and the spirit that’s in us, they love, that we feel is greater than any kind of legalistic interpretation that says, okay, now I have a rule book for how I’m supposed to behave. I mean, certainly our faith has rules in it, but the greatest rule is love God and love thy neighbor. And if we do those things, then we know what all the other procedures are supposed to be.
SMITH: How do you want to be remembered?
WALLACE: There’s a way in which I don’t want to be remembered. When I’m making a movie, I think if anybody is watching this scene and they’re saying to themselves, wow, that was beautifully written, or wow, that was brilliantly directed, I have failed. I want them to be listening to the story, experiencing the story, and feeling those things that I felt standing next to my mother and father and sister and singing hymns at the top of my lungs. I want them to feel that because that’s who I really am. If they feel that, then I am remembered
SMITH: Randall Wallace, the idea of Christians in Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of sense to many Christians in sort of the fly-over country of America. They want to blow up Hollywood. You know, just get rid of it, maybe. Or take over Hollywood. The idea of a redemptive engagement with Hollywood seems to be not very much a part of their thinking. Is it consciously, intentionally part of your thinking? In other words, when you’re doing what you’re doing, are you thinking about just making a movie and telling a good story? Are you consciously thinking about being a change agent or redemptive force in Hollywood?
WALLACE: I have never felt uncomfortable with being in Hollywood. I’ve always been excited about it. I meet intensely creative people here. I certainly meet opposition. And I am known to say habitually it doesn’t bother me that I’m the only one in the room that believes this. It doesn’t bother me at all to be the only one who’s right. So, I do have that part of my personality. I also think like C.S. Lewis did. Wherever we are in the world, we are in occupied territory. So, whether it’s Hollywood or anywhere else, we of the faith are always going to feel a bit like we are knights in a hostile land. And maybe that’s as it should be. But I also always tell myself something that a Rabbi once said, “If you don’t see God in other people, they’re never going gonna see God in you.” And like my father taught me, he would always find something in someone to like and even to love. I need to be able to see in other people somebody that God loves and then I can love, too. And that’s the only way that I’m going to have any message or be open to any message they have for me.