11/25/07 — 'The List' based on prayer

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'The List' based on prayer

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 25, 2007 2:01 AM

Filmmaker Gary Wheeler is banking on one element to be successful in the movie business -- truth.

Movies have to be believable, he says, and even more so in the Christian genre, where sincerity comes under greater scrutiny.

"Some people are so scared to mention the name of Jesus or make a Christian movie because they've been done so poorly in the past," he said.

"(But) audiences are just hungry for faith. So if you have a character who's praying for somebody else, that actor has to be good and what they're saying has to be good."

That requires "actors acting truthfully," Wheeler said.

The latest project for his five-year-old film company, Level Path, based in Boone, is "The List" based on a book by Charlotte attorney Robert Whitlow. Wheeler served as director, writer and producer.

The movie stars such well-known actors as Malcolm McDowell, Will Patton and Pat Hingle, as well as Chuck Carrington, who played Petty Officer Tiner on TVs "JAG" for seven years, and Hilarie Burton, currently appearing on "One Tree Hill."

The story of a rising attorney Renny Jacobson (Carrington), he learns at the outset that his father's will bequeathed him a percentage of a mysterious Covenant List of South Carolina. He soon discovers that "The List" consists of descendants of 10 men who, shortly after the Civil War ended, pooled their wealth and divided it between foreign banks. The accounts are now worth millions, and the heirs, including Jacobson and Jo Johnston (Burton) are meeting for induction into the group.

Secrets begin to surface about the group as well as the descendants. A supernatural feel pervades much of the film.

But the underlying message of the book, as well as the movie, can be condensed into one phrase, Wheeler tells audiences -- "the prevailing power of prayer."

That theme was prominent both onscreen and throughout the production.

"We very much had someone on set praying all day, every day, because it's a movie about the power of prayer," he said. "We had to live it out."

Even though the movie was a "quick shoot," Wheeler said -- filming 25 days in Wilmington, two days in Charleston, S.C. -- there were numerous examples of God's working behind the scenes.

"My favorite story," he says, "happened the last two days of shooting, when we shot in Charleston. The local location person was concerned because we were shooting on The Battery Sunday morning. It was supposed to be raining and it would be packed with people.

"We got there Sunday morning, it was perfectly sunny, perfectly clear. As soon as we yelled 'Cut!' and we moved off The Battery, all these cars came."

Likewise, the acquisition of each actor bore a unique story.

"It's a great cast. Everybody was meticulously picked," he said. "We didn't look at any role as being a throw-out role."

He expected a nationwide search for the lead, but wound up meeting Carrington by chance at a Starbucks in Wilmington.

"I was sitting there talking to my script consultant. We were talking about Renny and this guy comes in with his family," he recalls. The associate suggested "that would be the kind of guy" they sought.

A short while later, Carrington approached Wheeler and asked, "What's my part?"

When asked about any previous acting experience, he told them about his seven years on JAG.

"He was in Wilmington for a week -- his family owns a vacation home there -- he auditioned and that was it," Wheeler said.

The role of the movie's villain also came at the last minute. For the purposely un-Hollywood movie-maker with limited funding, securing one of his choices proved challenging.

Tossing around such names as Robert Duvall, most of those on his "top five list" were either unavailable or priced out of range.

With only two weeks before shooting began, a supporting cast member offhandedly commented that an old golfing buddy might be available for the part. It turned out to be McDowell, another of Wheeler's top five choices.

Taking "a leap of faith" and agreeing to the actor's going rate, days before shooting began, an investor put in more money, Wheeler said, "and it was to the penny what we had agreed to pay Malcolm McDowell."

Despite the movie's lustrous quality, don't look for a nationwide release, considered a steep price for a smaller film company. More and more, Wheeler said, movies are being distributed on a "limited platform" and only playing to 40 or 50 markets.

It has already opened to audiences in Chapel Hill, South Carolina and Georgia.

Goldsboro will be one of the first 20 cities to screen the film, which opens Friday at Premiere Theatres. The local premiere was chosen because Wheeler's wife, the former Jodie Sutton, his partner in the production company, is from Goldsboro. Father-in-law Allen Sutton of Goldsboro, former personnel director at Wayne Memorial Hospital, also has a small role in an opening scene.

How long "The List" plays locally will be decided by the number of tickets the weekend produces.

"What happens in a city is determined by weekend attendance," he said. "If you do well, they keep you for a second weekend, and a third. When we opened in Charlotte, we had 10 weekends, which was extraordinary."

It's great that the local theater is making this movie available to the public, Wheeler said, and may prove advantageous for similar productions in the future.

"If people come and see it, they'll get a lot more movies that are independent, that are Christian," he said.

His next film, "The Sacrifice," also based on a book by Whitlow, is expected to begin filming in 2008, for release the following year.

As to whether all his projects will have spiritual undertones, Wheeler is philosophical.

"There are Christian filmmakers, people who make Christian movies, and that's great," he said. "Then there are people who are filmmakers who just happen to be Christian. That's what I want to be.

"Filmmaking is my passion, but my Christianity permeates my heart. ... At the end of my life, I don't want God to say, 'Why'd you do that movie?' I want Him to be happy and pleased with the things I worked on."