LOS ANGELES (BP)–Most moviegoers would struggle to connect Southern Baptist church life with a major theatrical release. But in the case of Randall Wallace, the time he spent in SBC churches in his youth is directly related to his current success.
“I grew up a Southern Baptist and in tent revivals,” said Wallace, director of the film “Secretariat,” which opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 8. “I was in church a lot of hours a week. I once calculated there were many weeks I was in church 20 hours a week.”
A native of Jackson, Tenn., Wallace started attending church services, Sunday School, Training Union and Wednesday night prayer meetings at Cherokee Baptist Church in Memphis. He also attended Pine Grove Baptist Church near Lexington, Tenn., a church founded in his grandmother’s farmhouse.
After his family moved to Virginia, Wallace was baptized at Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
“I’m not sorry a bit I’ve got that background,” said Wallace, screenwriter for 1995’s Academy Award-winning “Braveheart.” “I think that was a wonderful background and I don’t think I would be me without it.”
From Wallace’s standpoint, faith also plays a crucial role in his new film, the story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Three horses claimed the crown during the 1970s, but Secretariat was the first in 25 years. Affirmed was the last to capture the title in 1978.
In addition to chronicling Secretariat’s ascendency, the movie tells the story of the obstacles facing his owner, Penny Chenery, who took over her ailing father’s Meadow Stables in Virginia.
“I think the most important element of the movie is a celebration of love and faith,” said Wallace, who majored in religion in college and attended seminary at Duke University.
“My strategy as a director and a writer, or storyteller, is to celebrate the best. I want to see and celebrate the victory in the human spirit when we believe in something greater than ourselves, and we believe there are possibilities that even we cannot imagine. That’s what makes Secretariat special.”
While the film delves into Chenery’s challenges after she entered a male-dominated sport, Wallace sees parallels in his own life.
After leaving school, he moved to Nashville in an attempt to become a songwriter and performer. When that didn’t pan out, he moved to Los Angeles in 1980. There he continued songwriting and also became a novelist, with one of his books making The New York Times bestseller list.
Still, 15 years would pass before his first screenplay became an Academy Award winner. Wallace admits to fighting many doubts during that time.
“The struggle for me in those days was [asking], ‘Is this desire of mine to write when no one else is encouraging me to do this — is this selfishness on my part?'” Wallace recalled. “One thing I was thinking was, ‘Am I wasting my efforts or am I actually answering God’s call?’
“I love the internal questions of the woman who owned Secretariat,” Wallace added. “I could relate to her desire to go into business and to run the business she had inherited from her father and to do that in her own way.”
That desire partially took her away from her family, which Wallace said was similar to his desire to write music. After Nashville, his next career move took him away from familiar surroundings geographically and from extended family.
“I had to come to California where I didn’t know anyone,” Wallace said, adding that when he arrived in Los Angeles he had no ambition to be in the movie business.
After his music career still didn’t take off, he met some actors who complained about the quality of scripts. After examining some screenplays, Wallace decided he liked this form of storytelling because it felt natural to him.
His success with Braveheart paved the way for his directing debut in 1998 with “The Man in the Iron Mask.” A year later, Wallace founded Wheelhouse Entertainment, a company aimed at creating entertainment based on values of love, honor, courage and compassion.
Wheelhouse has produced several movies, books — including The New York Times bestseller “Pearl Harbor” — and music CDs, and will soon release its first video game.
Ironically, the PG-rated Secretariat is the first movie Wallace has made that he feels comfortable recommending for the whole family. His last film, “We Were Soldiers,” dramatized the U.S. Army’s first major battle in the Vietnam War. It was rated R, partially for its graphic war violence.
Wallace said he didn’t want to lie about the horrors of war, but now he is pleased that grandparents and grandchildren can enjoy Secretariat together.
“A man who is in the Army can see this sitting next to a Sunday School teacher and both of them would love the movie with equal passion,” Wallace said. “There aren’t many movies out there that every member of the family can enjoy. There are movies that the whole family could see together, but they would not all love fervently.”
And to think a few Southern Baptist churches played a part.
Ken Walker is a writer in Huntington, W.Va.