How I Broke In: Randall Wallace
Today we have the great pleasure of talking with Randall Wallace, a man who needs no introduction (but we’re going to anyway, because it’s our job). Randall is a director, producer, screenwriter, songwriter and novelist. His films include (but are not limited to) Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Man in the Iron Mask, Secretariat and Heaven is for Real. His hymn Mansions of the Lord was played as the processional at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan and he has just released his newest book, Living the Braveheart Life.
We do have one twist to this article. Due to a pre-existing relationship we have with Randall, Dustin decided to jump in on the interview. So, you will see some comments attributed to him beyond our normal heading of FD (which is Dave). So this isn’t so much a traditional question and answer so much as it is a conversation.
FD: First off, we would like to congratulate you as this is the 20th anniversary of Braveheart. It’s pretty common for any writer to think that their project is going to be big when they’re writing it, but, in all honesty, did you know Braveheart was going to end up making this kind of impact when you were writing it?
RW: I had no idea and I wasn’t writing it with that ambition. In fact, my Braveheart Moment was the opposite. I was facing a situation that seemed to be saying I had one last chance to write something before I had to go do something else. [That thing I wrote] turned out to be where my career started and not ended. I got down on my knees and prayed that if I was going to go down that I would down with my flag flying, not trying to chase what I thought Hollywood wanted to buy. I would write the kind of story that gave me goosebumps. The kind of story that mirrored the type of battles I felt I was fighting in my own life. The story of Braveheart was really a metaphor for what I was doing but I wasn’t trying to write it with the idea that it was going to be the kind of success that it became. Or that 20 years later people would be talking about it and people around the world would be saying it was their favorite movie. I had no idea it was going to do that. Not an inkling.
FD: I think I can recite every line as it goes on while I watch the movie. It’s a skill my wife is not a fan of.
RW: (Laughs) Well, you’re a good man with great taste. The story, I think, is that Braveheart doesn’t put anything into anyone. It shines a light on what is already inside us. All the longings of a life that is based on courage and love. Again, that’s what it was for me. It was me telling the story that I needed to hear myself. That to me is what a part of Living the Braveheart Life is. To be a father, to be a husband, to be a leader of any kind is really choosing the stories that you tell. The story — and the modern words for it is “the narrative” — what’s the story you’re telling people. What do you represent as a leader? The big question is not what you’re going to do, but who you’re going to be.
FD: This is another big Braveheart day for you. Your book, Living the Braveheart Life released today. I can see a lot of personal introspection in the book. Is this something that you had been thinking about for a while?
RW: The 20th anniversary of Braveheart coming up (Paramount has actually just released the HD version on iTunes) certainly caused me to reflect on the idea of why this story that was so personal to me has been so personal to other people. That was big for me. Also the passing of my father on 9/11 and the passing of my mother right before I started filming Heaven is for Real. My mother passed about two months before we started shooting. Both of those things were significant for me in reflecting where this story came from and who the people in life are for me that inspire faith and courage. I think courage is another word for faith.
FD: On that note, love, honor and courage are classic themes in the stories that you tell. Among them, I feel that courage is the most misunderstood as it does not always have to do with battle. Living the Braveheart Life talks a lot about just being yourself and having the courage to live the life that you want to live.
RW: Yes. As I’ve talked about with you guys before, people ask me why I make war stories. I don’t. I make love stories. What do you love that you are willing to put your life on the line for? I feel you’re not really alive until you’ve found that. The cornerstone of Braveheart is that every man dies but not every man truly lives. How can we really live? I don’t think we’re really living if we lie about, if we become unfaithful to, the things we believe the most and want the most. I hasten to add that it’s not about our personal dogma. The way we assemble what we would call our beliefs before we know in our core to be a moment that we must respond to in one way or another. That’s what I call Braveheart Moments.
Dustin: You talk a lot about writing from the heart and I think that’s a really important part of writing. When we get on a tangent, it always comes back to what’s the over-arching feeling for the piece and that will always lead you straight back to what you’re supposed to be doing.
RW: Yeah. You know, one of the most telling moments for me, in terms of how I describe where Braveheart came from and how it came about, was when I was doing jury duty. I was in that whole torture chamber where you all sit around waiting to be called. I was sitting there for hours and a young man walked past me and he gave me a curious look. He was a really good looking young guy and I thought he might be an actor I had auditioned at one time or another. He turned around and came back to me and said, “You’re Randall Wallace, aren’t you?” I said yeah and he said, “I’m a writer and you changed my life.” I said, “Wow. How, and I hope for the better.” He said, “I was at AFI and they told us constantly to look at the marketplace. The shape of the marketplace. Respond to the marketplace. I had worked for a long time. Months and months, maybe years, and gotten nowhere. Then I heard you say to write what thrills you. What speaks to you and your heart. I started to do that and my career just took off.” That was what it had been for me. My life changed when I decided I was going to always focus on what moved me. Certainly we need to have a dialogue with the outer world where we need to make sure what they’re hearing us say is what we think we are saying. Every writer has to consider that. But we have to have something of what we believe we’re saying. And we need to be doing that rather than trying to say what we think the other person wants to hear. That has never been a roadmap to any place but Hell.
FD: I highlighted it last night, and I may get the exact quote wrong because I’m not a good enough Kindle user to know how to go back and look at my highlights, but it was about how art is a reflection of current times and it changes over generations. The point that art is a reflection of truth.
RW: Well, the way you just put it sounds a load smarter than I am, so maybe you ought to take credit for that quote. I would certainly take credit for that quote. (Laughs)
FD: Go ahead and use it. You can get it out to more people than I can.
RW: I think that’s the battle that we fight. When I talk about being a father, being a sage, being a warrior; all of those elements that I think are aspects of trying to live a Braveheart Life involve trying to learn and trying to teach. When the boy William Wallace is staring at the secret funeral of his father, he understands that one of the great mysteries of manhood is that we have to fight. Battles are a part of it, but we have to fight. So he reaches for the sword and his Uncle Argyle lets him hold it for just a moment and says, “First learn to use this” and taps him in the forehead, “and then I’ll teach you to use this” and he lifts the sword. I think those are aspects of what we have to do to live the life that isn’t based on always finding a good feeling all the time. You step into the battlefield. You put your effort forward. This is true for all artists, especially writers, that there are times where you feel bad. Don’t judge by “do I feel good at this moment.” You walk out onto the battlefield. You’re scared. You’re getting rejected. One of the things I told myself when I started my career was that two things would not hold me back. One was lack of effort and the other was fear of failure. I can’t control whether I have enough talent at a given moment or enough resources at a given moment. I can choose that I will keep trying and I will not be afraid to have people turn me down. It hurts every time it happens but the Braveheart Life is not one seeking to avoid pain. It’s sometimes seeking it out. Where’s the spot that’s going to be the hardest to go? The hill that’s going to be the hardest to take? The love that’s going to be the hardest to win? That’s the one that I want to keep looking for and that’s what I wanted the book to encourage people to do.
FD: Another theme in the book that personally touched me, especially after having lost my father and also it being the theme of our short film, is the relationship between father and son doesn’t just stop with me, but it’s also now my turn to teach my daughters. That parenting is a cyclical chain in that you’re always preparing for the next generation.
RW: Exactly right. In your father’s teaching of you, he continues to be a father in the way you make choices in how to be a father yourself. You will find, as I found recently, when you’re out looking at the stars and you’re pondering or praying how to be a better father, it occurs to you that your own father stood out under those stars that same way and said the same prayers about you. That is a continuum that we find in Braveheart the story as well as in this book is that as a warrior, we are all connected to other warriors. We understand and appreciate them. Being a father connects us to all other fathers.
FD: When you talk about “What’s your braveheart moment,” I know exactly what mine was. Some people would say it was the death of my father, but that’s not exactly true. It’s the first day I went back to work after his death. I realized that no matter how good I was at my job, and I was very high ranking, I was just a cog in the government machine. I could get up and go to work for the next 20 years, but when I finally leave, someone will just take my office and my place and I would be forgotten. That wasn’t the life I wanted and that’s the point I decided to leave and forge this path as a writer. I don’t regret it for a moment.
RW: Right! You know, one of the things that we’re doing for the book is inviting people to take a selfie video of their Braveheart moment. We’ve already started to get a really eclectic collection of people who are posting those. I’ve done it. Some other writer friends are doing it. I hope that people that will share those because I think that when we know what our Braveheart moment is, we begin to realize it more and more. Just like a general who has an instinct for the battlefield. Who is able to look at it and say, “Right there. That is where this battle is going to be won or lost. That’s where I’m going to put my resources.” That’s part of being a sage.
FD: Another part of the book that I really related to was talking about how as a child, you might not always understand why a parent is doing what they do for you, and sometimes it seems harsh, but as an adult you come to understand. My father was a bit of the opposite of yours in that he never wanted my brothers and me to follow him into the family business. I didn’t understand that when I was younger, but after he died and I saw all the pressure his family put him under over the business, I really appreciated how he pushed us away.
RW: I think that that dynamic, what your father was going through … First of all, being a man requires you to “man up” and not let your family do without. But, that dynamic of what your father was working through what the dreams of his children might be and how we might approach them and how we, as sons or daughters, are working through what they wanted for us and what their hopes and fears were. All of that is part of the journey. None of that is something to be defeated or to banish. It’s something to embrace and face and keep working through for the revelations that it will give us. I think that’s braveheart living too.
Dustin: I think that takes us to the other part of that moment. That moment when your children do give you that redemptive moment. You touched on that really well in Heaven is for Real. There’s that “Watch my child teach me” moment. I think it’s a really important part of being an adult to realize when those lessons are coming back to you.
RW: Right. Absolutely.
FD: You’ve talked before about how you feel like Braveheart was the author of you as much as you were the author of it.
RW: The spirit of the story was the author of me. What I mean by that is Braveheart didn’t grow out of a calculated plan to try and devise what would appeal to people. It was the polar opposite of sitting down and thinking about how to write a story that will appeal to the primal instincts of every man and will satisfy women who want a real man in their lives, so I’ll just hit all of those touchstones. That wasn’t it. I got to a place in my life where the spirt of a brave heart came into me to say that no matter what happens to you, that’s not what’s important here. Even if you lose your life in your pursuit, you’re still going to be victorious because you’re fighting for what real life is. Of course, it worked out that way. I can lose that spirit, or I can deny it. I can turn away from it in any moment in any day. Having done it once doesn’t mean you do it again. You see stories of people who love Braveheart so much and they want to copy it. But it’s not something that can be copied. It’s not superficial elements. You’ve got to embrace the kind of transformation of yourself to write a story.
One of the things that Mel said to me when we were casting was, “Writers write, directors direct, and actors act from their essence as human beings. This story is you. It’s big-hearted and it’s bold.” Every one of us has to try and find that place in themselves.
FD: You were nominated for an Academy Award® for Braveheart. Let us live vicariously through you. What it was like to get that phone call saying you had been nominated?
RW: Not the joyous moment that you would think. I actually recognized the danger in it and the further I got into the process, the worse it became and the more conflicted I became. Of course you are honored and flattered to have the approval of your peers; actually my true peers in that I won the WGA Best Screenplay award that year. That was a tremendous honor and I appreciated it but I also understood the danger. The danger that the vote of anyone, be it the Academy, the Guild … anyone, was not what graded my paper. That was not the score I was after. When I got down on my knees to pray to let me write what I truly believe, it was not to worship the idol of fame or money or approval of critics or anyone else. There’s no greater example of worshipping the golden idol than the Academy Awards. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have given one back, but the notion that we begin to feel that that somehow glorifies, or sanctifies, or validates the journey is the opposite of what I think. William Wallace did not ask himself, “Will people love me if I am executed here?” Jesus didn’t say, “I know that my followers will all abandon me and I will be ridiculed and tortured and spat upon. Therefore I will not be who I truly am.” That’s the point. Be who you truly are. No matter what the consequences are.
FD: I remember I received the advice early on that there are many different reasons people become writers. Some do it for money. Some do it to tell stories. Some want to win golden statues. If those statues are the reason you get into it, you’re really going to set yourself up to not see the victories you have because those statues are so few and far between.
Dustin: My Dad used to tell me to not worry about the highs or lows, worry about the middle ground. Don’t let the good days be your driving force and don’t let the bad days drag you down.
RW: That’s right and I love that saying. I also love the one that an old minister told me once, “We have our good days and we have our bad days, but we seldom know at the time which is which.” That’s the thing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being competitive. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money. With wanting to have a profile as an artist because it helps us to get our work seen. I don’t see anything bad about that, but I think it can destroy your soul if you are wanting the approval of others. If you are letting that other person judge your value as a human being. That’s not what a Braveheart Life is.
FD: In terms of one other phone call that I want to live vicariously through you, not many people know that you wrote the song Mansions of the Lord. It was written for We Were Soldiers but it was also used as the processional at President Reagan’s funeral. Did that come about quickly? Was it something you were aware of? That had to be quite an honor.
RW: That was out of the blue and there were two big dramatic moments involved. The first was when we got an email saying that Nancy Reagan would like us to give permission for Mansions of the Lord to be used at President Reagan’s funeral. I was silenced by that request. It was so amazing. The other was when I was on a speaking tour for another book. I was in Chicago when President Reagan’s funeral was being held and I found a TV set to turn it on. You have to remember that my father had just passed away and I wrote Mansions of the Lord, those lyrics, about 10 days after my father died. So Nick, my composer, and I put that together and we recorded it and it meant so much to me. But, again, it was something I thought purely came from my heart and from Nick’s. To see it used in that service and to hear so many funerals have been held in Iraq and Afghanistan and hear that hymn has been sung, is profoundly moving to me. It was a sacred moment.
Dustin: I read an interview with Rosanne Cash. She said that songs are completely in the ether. Depending on who you are, your makeup, the contours of your mind, you catch the ones meant for you. That always really resonated with me. You caught a good one, Randy.
RW: Maybe that’s what we should say to fellow writers when they write a story, “Good catch.”
FD: Speaking of good catches, from Braveheart you moved on to Man in the Iron Mask. For that film you took on the role of screenwriter, producer and first-time director. To add to that, it was a period piece shooting in Europe with a cast that can only be considered some of the titans of acting. Was there ever a point in production where you stopped and wondered to yourself whether you had bitten off more than you could chew?
RW: Certainly there are times when you are in the battlefield and the bullets are flying all around. As Joe Galloway said in We Were Soldiers, if you turn your nose a half an inch you feel like it’s going to get shot off. Sometimes the bullets were fast and thick but I always knew that every director, even the greatest, had a first time under fire. That reassured me. The only failure was if I stopped moving forward. If I stopped believing in the vision that I had to make it. Frank Mancuso, who was the head of the studio making that film was wonderfully supportive to me. He told me not to go home without making the movie I had gone there to make. So, I had tremendous support in that Rebecca Pollock was my studio executive and her father, Sydney, had been a great inspiration to me. I had great tools to deal with those challenges.
FD: To add to all of that, Leonardo DiCaprio was at the height of his post Titanic stardom. Did you have to post extra security to keep teenage girls off the set?
RW: Oh man, it was amazing. Leo was like 22 years old and these women were all over him. They would find out where he lived and a big crowd would gather out under his balcony. But, I don’t think he was tortured by it. (Laughs) It was a great experience. I really enjoyed working him. After having done Braveheart and wondering what could ever follow that up, Man in the Iron Mask was an excellent follow up. Again, being my first movie, I had a lot to learn and I got a chance to learn it there.
FD: We’ve heard of writing scripts on spec, but you actually went to Army Ranger School on spec as a way to try and get the ball rolling on We Were Soldiers. Was there ever a point at the school where you thought, “This better work”?
RW: The Rangers have a saying, or a word, they use: “hooah.” It can mean, in context, “Let’s go.” They would just say “hooah.” They could be given an order and they would say, “Hooah, Sir.” I even heard them say a prayer and say, “In Jesus’ name we pray, hooah.” I was hanging off a strand of rope on a mountain called Mount Yonah at Ranger School. It was a 2,000 foot drop below me, my boots were full of blood because I hadn’t been to basic training or any of that to acclimate to the boots. I had a bruise I had gotten from my knee to my hip on the obstacle course and I couldn’t quite get a breath of air because I had torn a rib doing something I couldn’t even recall and I looked down at that 2,000 foot drop and thought, “Hooah thought this shit was a good idea?”
But again, that idea that lack of effort will not hold me back and rejection will not frighten me. I think that the Rangers appreciated that I was there, that I had said, “Okay, guys, kick my butt because I’m here and you can better me and you can break me because I’m committed to you.” That went a long way with them and it went a long way with me. I think, in our own ways, our lives are centered around us trying to win our self-respect. But it’s not something that we’re given. You don’t give a kid a trophy when he hasn’t put forth any effort and tell him he’s a champion anyway. You might tell him that, but the child knows he hasn’t won the trophy. I think the biggest battles are the ones we fight inside ourselves. We have to know whether it’s a victory or not.
FD: I saw that you have another project coming up that focuses on military working dogs. In this case the dogs that work with the SEALS.
RW: Yeah, I have that coming up. Working with Scott Eastwood on it and I’m really excited about it.
FD: You do know that your buddies from Ranger School who went on to the 75th Regiment aren’t going to be too happy with you for making Navy SEALS look good.
RW: (Laughs) Well, they’ll say those types of things but the truth is that SEALS go to Ranger School too and they all know they’re in it together.
We would like to thank Randall for his time and very introspective answers and advice for writers. You can learn more about Living the Braveheart Life here: http://livingthebraveheartlife.com/
Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet
Who better to write a column about breaking in than two screenwriters trying to break in? Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet are friends who have somehow managed to survive being writing partners. They are winners of the Randall Wallace Round of the Industry Insider Contest and placed in the Top 10 of the 2014 Final Draft Big Break Contest in the horror genre. Their short film, Happy Birthday, Dad, is currently playing on the festival circuit. For more information on the film, you can visit its website at www.hbdfilm.com. Their hope is to someday be able to turn this column over a new writer who can interview them about how they broke in.