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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The Ultimate Life mini-review: I checked. Gratitude is not among the top trending topics on Google today. No surprise there. The undervalued value of gratitude certainly just doesn’t much attention these days. That’s why I’m grateful when a movie like The Ultimate Life comes along. Hitting theaters this Friday (9/6), the movie is sort of an odd duck given that it’s both a prequel and a sequel to the surprisingly-successful 2006 film The Ultimate Gift written by Cheryl McKay from the Jim Stovall novel. The original movie featured James Garner as billionaire “Red” Stevens who, in death, attempts to pass along to his grandson Jason the values he failed to express in life.

The sequel picks up some years later as Jason (Logan Bartholomew), beset by scheming family members, is feeling the pressure of running his grandfather’s foundation even as the love of his life Alexia (Ali Hillis) announces that she’s leaving his side and heading to Haiti on an extended mission trip. With his life crumbling around him Jason is presented with his grandfather’s journal. It’s then the sequel becomes a prequel and my head explodes. Okay, my head doesn’t actually explode but we do flash back to Red’s early years. We watch as he struggles through the depths of the Great Depression to amass billions. It’s a sweeping epic story, reminiscent of those grand miniseries the TV networks used to present during sweeps months. That was, of course, before the concept of “event programming” morphed into a two-hour episode of The Bachelor.

Director Michael Landon, Jr. draws strong subtle performances from his cast, particularly by Drew Waters (as Red in his heyday) and Peter Fonda (as his early mentor) strike and the overall production values are first rate. But, most of all, the script by Brian Bird and Lisa G. Shillingburg (based on a story concept by McKay) tells a believable and captivating story of how we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Red learned his lessons the hard way but he did learn them and his lessons shine a light for his grandson to follow. In the end, the ultimate lesson that Jason learns is to be grateful for the gifts he has been given — and to use those gifts to help others.  The Ultimate Gift is highly recommended.

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Making the “Ultimate” sequel/prequel. Before I actually saw the film, I had the opportunity to speak with Rick Eldridge who produced the movie through Reelworks Studios, the North Carolina-based production facility he co-owns with his business partner Chris Cates.

JWK: Was it always the plan to create a sequel for The Ultimate Gift?

RICK ELDRIDGE: It was something we had always hoped for.  The Ultimate Gift has reached millions of people all over the world — literally in 70 countries around the world. I get letters from people like (the) high school economics teacher that gave his class the book and then showed the movie and had them do a research project on it and pick a gift and do an essay on it. I get letters from people (as far off as) Australia that this movie has affected their lives in one way or another. Boy, after hearing all of that I just couldn’t do anything but do a new one.

This particular story is of The Ultimate Gift deals with The 12 Gifts — which are really values and virtues of life. And then, further in The Ultimate Life, we’re dealing with gratitude — being thankful for things that we have and that God has given us. And then, more than that, there’s the quote “Some things are worth more than money” which is on a lot of our promotional materials. It really means (that) the things that matter most in terms of who we are and what we are, those things don’t, at the end of the day, tend to be the things that we accumulate or the things we build around us — but are those closest to us and our relationship with God. These are the things that are much, much deeper and stronger (and) that matter most.  It’s great to continue that message and do that through The Ultimate Life.

JWK: The film is directed by Michael Landon, Jr. who I interviewed when he was promoting The Confession which he did for The Hallmark Channel. What was he like to work with him?

RE: Michael was great. I’ve known Michael for a while. We did a couple of movies together for Hallmark over the years. We did The Confession and then The Shunning before that. I got to know Michael and he really (embraced) the story. It’s really good to have him a part of it. He brought a lot of heart to it.

JWK: He seems to have inherited his father’s gift for the heartfelt story.

RE: Yes, absolutely.

JWK: Tell me about your company. How long has Reelworks Studios been operating and what’s your goal with the company?

RE: Reelworks has been, in one iteration or another, a finishing/post-production house for about 15 years. We moved into our current location — and kinda rebranded as Reelworks Studios — about five years ago. We have sound stages, productions facilities, finishing facilities and really kind of cater toward any third party production that’s coming through our community. We do a lot of TV series for national networks. I have a partner that manages the studio and I really want to spend the majority of my time creating projects that have an inspirational faith-driven message that reaches the general marketplace but, at the same time, can really be a…thought-provoking story.

JWK: Is it hard to find material that appeals to people of faith and the general audience?  Or is the so-called niche actually pretty mainstream — whether Hollywood realizes it or not?

RE: It’s really tough to balance it, quite honestly. The thing that I have to tell people all the time is, you know, I’m a Christian therefore I am a Christian filmmaker. But I don’t really want to tell people I make Christian films. I make films, hopefully, for the (whole) world…When Jesus taught parables — and he told stories through parables — they were, basically, everyday stories that people could identify with. I try to do the same thing. Jesus didn’t necessarily tell “Christian” parables. He told stories people could identify with. I think the fact that we’ve been able to play in public high schools and many other places like that around the country with The Ultimate Gift — and I think we will, as well, with The Ultimate Life — (shows) we’re really able to teach kind of beyond the borders of the church.

But (at the same time) I’m so thankful that the church has undergirded support and has really gotten behind our movies and continues to do so with this one. I think it’s a concerted effort. My ultimate objective would be for somebody bring somebody with them to The Ultimate Life that maybe they couldn’t bring to church because they wouldn’t be as comfortable there. Through the course of a movie theater, and maybe some coffee after, they can get into conversations about things that do really matter.

JWK: You’ve drawn some big names into the casts of the two films. James Garner was in the first one and, through a brief flashback, is in the new one — which also has Peter Fonda.

RE: We have a great cast…Bill Cobbs and Lee Meriwether have both been around the business forever. Bill just did Oz: The Great and Powerful. Lee Meriwether was Catwoman quite a few years ago and…of course, they were both in the original (Ultimate Gift). We have most of the original cast back. Ali Hillis…and several others. She played the love interest to our main character Jason (played in the sequel by Logan Bartholomew). We introduced a couple of young characters because we have some elements that go back to the forties, through the device of a journal, to tell the early story of Red Stevens. Jason’s grandfather Red Stevens writes in a journal (about his younger years). So, we have two new actors Abigail Mavity and Austen James (as the teenage Red) that are just incredibly talented. They light up the screen (with) a lot of energy. You’re gonna see a lot of them in the future. They did a phenomenal job. Peter Fonda was great. We just loved having him. He plays the part of a rancher and a mentor to young Red Stevens.

JWK: It’s a nice balance between younger actors and Hollywood veterans.

RE: You know, it is. We loved that. I think there was a nice dynamic on set. It was actually kind of fun to watch Peter Fonda kinda go in a backroom and sit with Austen James who is, you know, 20 years old and just talk about his craft  — about what he does and how he does what he does. A lot of neat mentoring happened through that and camaraderie and relationships…We had some veterans like David Mann from Meet the Browns and some of the Tyler Perry movies…We had Drew Waters who was in several features and also was the coach from the Friday Night Lights TV series. So, really a very, very great cast top work with. They really grasped the story and worked very well together.

JWK: Do you find that the actors appreciate the opportunity to do an essentially kindhearted film like this — as opposed to all the edgier material that’s out there.

RE: I absolutely do — and they certainly said that. I know Peter Fonda came in and he had read the whole script — not just his lines. He knew it and he felt so good about being a part of a story like that. He said that several times over the course of (shooting the film). James Garner was in the original movie and he was so excited that we were gonna continue his legacy through The Ultimate Life.  What a great story for him (in what might be) his last movie to be able to share. It’s been great to see that the people really embraced the story and wanted to do something that really can make a difference.

JWK: Is James Garner retiring?

RE: When he finished our movie, he came and put his arm around me. He was kind of joking because he’s just like that but he put his arm around me and says “Rick, this will probably be my last movie — unless they to Grumpy Old Men 3 because I won’t have to act. He was just a gracious man who we were so honored to be able to work with.

JWK: I notice in your list of projects, Gigi: The Animated Series. Is that based on the Sheila Walsh books?

RE: It is. We partnered for Gigi with Thomas Nelson to create the series. Sheila brought the story to Thomas Nelson. (They) called us and we’ve released a lot of those products together. I diversify a lot of the things that we do. We do kids programming like Hermie and Friends, Gigi and On the Farm is another series I did, as well as our normal features and those kinds of things that are more live action — but a pretty wide variety of product. I love that. I have six children so the animation has always been fun.

JWK: I guess having kids of your own motivates you to work on projects that say positive things to them. It’s a way of passing your values down to them.

RE: You know, it is that and it’s been neat to see my kids grow and be able to become a little more involved in our business — rather than just watching what I do. They’re my deepest critics and all the way from a Hermie or Gigi to The Ultimate Gift , they’ve been really great sounding boards. I think they do have a real sense of story and a sense of (this business) is all about.

JWK: How can people see your animated shows like Hermie and Gigi?

RE: You can pick them up at any of the Christian book stores or any of the places where you find those things. Hermie, especially, has been playing on…TBN and INSP and a couple of other networks as well. They’ve done that over the last several years.

JWK: Do you have any desire to get into prime-time television?

RE: I’m open to anything. I just want to tell stories that can make a difference…Of course, at Reelworks Studios we do a lot of prime-time TV. It’s more for third-party people. They come in an work at our studio. It’s not what we necessarily produce but I’d love to do that…I’ve done some of that in my past.  Certainly any medium of production and (any means of) reaching an audience with stories is open.

JWK: Where do you see Reelworks Studios being in five or ten years?

RE: Well, I hope we can continue to grow with the support base of working with third-party product. We’ve done about a half-dozen Hallmark movies over the past year. There’s a TV series that we do for Showtime and the other things that we work on but I think my personal goal is to do two to three significant projects each year — like The Ultimate Life — that we can feed into the marketplace that can really maintain the messaging.

JWK: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

RE: I always hear from Christians especially and church people (who say) “Why don’t we have more movies like The Ultimate Gift or The Ultimate Life or Courageous or whatever it happens to be. I tell them…”You know what? Hollywood is a business and they make product that people buy and you have a vote. If you support these kinds of films, support the filmmakers that do positive messaging stories, stories that can make a difference. (Then) they’ll make more of them, they’ll support more of them, they’ll distribute more of them and they’ll get behind what we do because they want to sell product. That’s the bottom line and we have a vote and you (cast your vote by) showing up September 6th and being a part of the opening weekend of The Ultimate Life.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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