Screenwriter reflects on his Braveheart life
Q&A | Randall Wallace on faith, family, and living with courage through life-changing moments
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 10/13/15, 11:52 am
It’s a long way from Lizard Lick, Tenn., to Hollywood, but that’s precisely the journey Randall Wallace has taken. Wallace was nominated for an Academy 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. He’s also directed the box-office hits Secretariat, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Heaven is for Real. Wallace has a new book out called Living the Braveheart Life: Finding the Courage to Follow Your Heart. I met with him in a restaurant near his home in Malibu, Calif.
In your new book, you talk about “Braveheart moments.” Can you describe what those are, and talk about some of your personal Braveheart moments? Our Braveheart moments [are] 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 I 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 and 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. I 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. If I can, I want to be worshiping you, not some false idol of fame or money or Hollywood success.” 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.
That moment during the Writers Guild of America strike was the moment when you resolved to write Braveheart. You write about it in your book. Would you read that passage? “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.”
Your father also had a moment like that, where he was crushed, brought down. What was that experience like for you as an 11-year-old boy? Describe what happened to your dad and what happened after that. 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 cost. Higher education was not a choice he had in his life. He went on to become an extremely successful salesman. He rose up in a company and 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.
None of us could understand it because my father was the most courageous. He was fearless, I thought. He was charismatic. He would walk in a room, and the whole room would light up. He loved everyone he met. I wondered, “How is this happening? What is happening?” it was so disturbing to all of us. My mother, my father, my sister, and I all depended on my father’s confidence. … When he lost his job, his confidence shattered, and he had to rebuild his faith in God and in himself. 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.”
Your dad got to see some of your success. Do you think he was proud of you? I think my father was the proudest of me of anyone ever. 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. My father being a country boy, whenever he felt 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. He was deeply proud. 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 in writing and directing and making movies, how I could make it work.”
Music plays a big role in your movies. I was surprised to discover that you actually wrote some of those songs. I’m thinking of “Mansions of the Lord,” for example, in We Were Soldiers. My father died on 9/11, and about two weeks later, we were finishing up the end of We Were Soldiers. My editor, William Hoy, said, “You know, we need a requiem hymn here.” 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.
I said, “Well, let’s write one.” 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 of “Amazing Grace”-type simple melody. I took a legal pad and, in about 5 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. It’s been used at all sorts of funerals and ceremonies in the military.
Including President Ronald Reagan’s funeral. 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, and, of course, I was tremendously honored. But I had no idea how they planned to use it. I was at Willow Creek Church in Chicago on the day of the Reagan funeral, and I scrambled around to find a television. I watched them carry Ronald Reagan’s body out of the National Cathedral as they were singing “Mansions of the Lord.” It was a profound thing for me.
When you’re doing what you’re doing, are you thinking about just making a movie and telling a good story, or are you consciously thinking about being a change agent or redemptive force in Hollywood? I have never felt uncomfortable with being in Hollywood. I have 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.” 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. Whether it’s Hollywood or it’s 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.
I also always tell myself something that a rabbi once said, “If you don’t see God in other people, they’re never going to see God in you.” Like my father taught me when 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 that I can love, too. That’s the only way that I’m going to have any message or be open to any message they have for me.
How do you want to be remembered? 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 the 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.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Randall Wallace on Listening In.