The two film schools that Lance Williams chose to attend represent backgrounds as divergent as the two leading characters in the movie he just produced. Charly, which was adapted from a popular Mormon novel, tells the story of a straight-laced, young man in Utah who falls in love with a free-spirited non-Mormon girl from New York City. Lance graduated from BYU in 1984 with a degree in motion picture and television production and an emphasis in acting and is currently attending the UCLA producing program.
Currently playing in Utah and other Western states and debuting at number 47 in the nation, Charly is another success for the "Christian New Wave" of films like A Walk to Remember, The Other Side of Heaven, and God's Army. It is also another credit to add to Lance's growing CV which includes three other feature films that he produced, a television series that aired for four seasons, and several commercials.
Lance brought the film together with the help of several other BYU alumni: The director was Adam Thomas Anderegg, a graduate of BYU's film program who worked as an editor on Touched By An Angel for several seasons. The DP was Bengt Josson, a graduate of BYU and AFI, who shot Adam's student short film The Touch while at BYU. The screenplay was written by Janine Gilbert, a graduate of the BYU English Dept. who currently teaches at BYU Idaho. The co-producer was Micah Merrill, who also graduated from BYU and had formed a production company in Utah called Kaleidoscope Pictures with Adam. Both principal actors in the film, Jeremy Elliott and Randy King, are also graduates of BYU.
Campus Beat interviewed Lance about the production of Charly and his film school journey from the City of Saints to the City of Angels.
CB: Was there any culture shock going from BYU to UCLA?
Lance: Yeah, at BYU. I grew up in California. Attending UCLA is more the norm for me. The culture isn't controlled and there is much more diversity and tolerance. UCLA is all about the free flow of ideas and knowledge. Sometimes it's a little raw, but it is the reality of the industry and this culture.
CB: How do the two schools compare?
Lance: Very similar in a lot of ways, worlds apart in others. When I was at BYU, it was ranked number five in the nation for film schools. BYU had recruited Tad Danielewski who set up his Professional Film and Television workshops there. Danielewski was my generation's acting guru and ranked among the world's greats. We all knew of him and his workshops in New York at ABC and in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, but I never dreamed I could ever study under him. BYU had wonderful facilities including their own motion picture studio complete with a back lot. What we didn't have was access to the working industry and the people who make it all happen. Even though a tremendous amount of work is done in Utah, it isn't the center of the motion picture universe. Still, it was a great place to cut my teeth.
CB: Why did you decide to attend UCLA?
Lance: In my opinion, UCLA has one of the most viable and relevant producers programs in the world. They understand that producing is a very different and specific aspect of the motion picture business. They have created a hands-on curriculum that addresses those needs including bringing in major players in the business who are leaders in their respective fields to teach and counsel with the students.
CB: Was Charly a school project?
Lance: No. I began Charly before being accepted to UCLA. But it made my educational experience so much more meaningful for me because I had an immediate application for the knowledge I was obtaining. Without exception, aspects of everything I've learned are in Charly. From negotiating contracts to marketing the film, I have drawn from the rich knowledge pools that have been my classes at UCLA.
CB: Why did you decide to produce Charly?
Lance: My creative partner, Tip Boxell and I went to see what all the noise was about when God's Army came out. We had wanted to make LDS films since we graduated from BYU and even began the process when we purchased the rights to the famous musical "Promised Valley." After we developed it into a script and novel, we discovered that the market wasn't ready for a movie with a distinctly Mormon theme so we shelved the project. That was 1990. When God's Army came out nearly ten years later, a lot had changed. We were amazed at the response. That film "hit," demonstrating that an LDS film could be successful.
CB: How did you get the rights to Jack Weyland's novel?
Lance: I remembered the excitement and buzz created by the release of the novel Charly in 1980 while I was at BYU. All the girls were reading and talking about it. All the guys were too, but they wouldn't admit it. I was one of those guys and upon finishing the book; I thought it would make a good film. Flash forward twenty years. It seemed like a perfect fit so we called Jack and asked him if he would option the rights to us. He said he had already optioned the rights to a small production company in Utah called Kaleidoscope Pictures. Tip and I did a little research and found out Kaleidoscope consisted of two young filmmakers, Adam Anderegg and Micah Merrill. We set up a meeting with them, discussed the project and ultimately decided to do a joint venture with them. Their company provided the rights, which included a very well developed screenplay and my company, Focused Light Films, provided the funding. Adam directed the piece. Micah, Tip and I produced.
CB: What is your take on this renaissance of Christian-based films?
Lance: The interesting thing is, it really isn't a renaissance because these films have always been around. It's just that now, people are beginning to embrace them more and I'm all for it. When I go to a movie, I want to be entertained, but I also want to be moved. I want to feel something and come away from that experience with more than ringing in my ears. Films like Charly and A Walk to Remember touch very universal chords in the human instrument. The Christian or "spiritual" aspects of these types of movies also resonate with a broad audience who embrace religion as part of their existence. We are pleased to be associated with these types of films although it may be interesting to note that Charly was never intended to be a "religious" film. It is in the classic tradition of a romantic comedy with a dramatic twist. Its story structure just happens to incorporate a religious element that helps drive the plot.
CB: Are you surprised at its success?
Lance: We are always surprised when a film is successful because you just never know what is going to play and what isn't. Hollywood is riddled with the bones of "sure-bets" that died painful deaths at the box office. Many a career has been made on a little "sleeper" film that nobody wanted to make. Look at the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We are thrilled at how well the film has been received by everyone.
CB: How did you cast the role of Charly?
Lance: We decided early on that we would not use "name" actors because of the audience's association with the novel. So many people have wthe book and already had a picture of what Charly looked like based on the cover, we didn't want to muddy those waters further by casting a high profile actor. Shawn Engemann, Larry King's wife, was the cover model. We offered her the part of Charly's mother, but she was booked. We were fortunate to find Heather Beers for the lead role right at the beginning.
CB: Where, when, and how was the shoot?
Lance: Most of the film was shot in Utah and most of that in Salt Lake City. We also shot in Manhattan and in Los Angeles as well. Principal photography ran 23 days. We added another six days to that with a second unit shoot. We were in the middle of principal photography when 9-11 happened. It nearly shut us down from the shear magnitude of the disaster. Like everyone else, we didn't know how to feel, what to think, or what we should do. All key elements for artists in a highly creative endeavor. All of a sudden, our little movie didn't seem the least bit important or relevant considering what had just happened. I remembered how during the depression, people would escape their painful day-to-day existence by going to the movies. We held a company meeting and I suggested that perhaps now, more than ever, it was important for us to go on especially given the nature of our film. We all gathered around and our lead, Heather Beers, said a prayer for the people involved in the disaster and for us. It gave our little movie relevance again and we carried on.
CB: How was the film financed?
Lance: Basically, the film was financed through a consortium of limited partners. I teamed up with Herbert Christensen who is a successful businessman from California. Herb had some experience with making films and signed on as the Executive Producer. Together, we put together individuals who believed in filmmaking in general, in the project specifically, and in me overall. We created a very attractive investment package for multiple films built around Charly and successfully funded the film using private money.
CB: Who is the distributor?
Lance: Excel Entertainment is a distribution company based in Utah. It was founded by Jeff Simpson, formally with the Walt Disney Company. Excel distributes both films and music. They have provided a viable alternative to the distribution companies on the East or West Coast.
CB: Any advice for other students taking on the job of producing a feature film for the first time?
Lance: If it is your first time producing a feature film, my advice would be to surround yourself with people who have done it before and can guide you. There is a bit of a jump from the theoretical knowledge that comes from the classroom and the practical application to a "real-world" project unless you're coming out of a school like UCLA. In that case, your reality check is more like a speed bump.
Released today on video:
GRADE: C --
Jack Weyland's slight 1980 novel, sort of the Mormon "Love Story," translates to film with all of the schmaltz and cliches intact: Stiff guy (played too stiffly by Jeremy Elliott) meets vivacious gal (charming Heather Beers), they argue, they connect, they discuss the Book of Mormon (OK, so that wasn't in the Ali MacGraw version), they marry, and . . . well, you know the rest. So syrupy the disc may stick to the DVD player, "Charly" does have one major blessing: Beers, in the title role, gives a lively and poignant performance. DVD extras include deleted scenes, and commentaries by the actors and by director Adam Thomas Anderegg.
** [2 out of 4 stars]
The role of [Sam] calls for a straight-laced, ultra-proper type, but [Jeremy Elliott]'s Sam is such a lifeless bore, it's tough to believe that [Charly], a free-wheeling non-Mormon in her 20s, played by sparkplug newcomer Heather Beers, would fall in love and change her faith for such a stiff.
Despite Elliott, "Charly," which tells the story of how Sam and Charly's love...
If religious films aren't your bailiwick, stay away. Otherwise, this could be a passable date film.
Within the first couple minutes of Charly, one of the main characters undergoes a profound personality change. The movie first shows Sam Roberts (Jeremy Elliott, The Singles Ward, Brigham City) playing basketball with his father. He looks like an ordinary, normal person, disturbed by the fact that his dad is setting him up with his boss' daughter. Then, at the airport, he meets Charly (Heather Beers, an almost Amanda Peet clone), and he has somehow turned into an uptight nerd. He dresses stuffily, coddles his PDA, and borders on being a geek. What happened? The movie never explains. Charly, based on the novel by Jack Weyland, is short on plot, so it tries to cram two stories into one. Both are formulaic of romances. The first is how two complete opposites who really hate each other will slowly fall in love. The second...well, let's just say that little pain may be a little more than what it seems.
The other difference is that Charly is the latest Mormon movie. This means that everything is more wholesome than it would be in a secular movie. Like most other Mormon movies, there is an amateurish sense about the whole thing, but director Adam Thomas Anderegg (The Touch) and adapter Janine Whetten-Gilbert are earnest enough (kind of like they are in their own little world) that Charly isn't as bad as it could be. The fact that one character is Mormon is the only original thing going on in the film. Charly is everything Sam is not. She is free-spirited, spontaneous, fun, and most of all, alive. His demeanor instantly turns him off, but for some reason, she finds his steadfastness refreshing. The two begin spending time together, and inexplicably begin dating. Charly eventually decides to convert to Sam's religion, and the relationship moves on from there.
So although Charly is now going to church, she still apparently meets no other men. Surely there are available men who are just as devout as Sam if not more personable. And Charly's parents lives in Utah but seem to be bewildered about the entire Mormon religion. The portrayal of Sam is not much better. He lives in his own little world, where he doesn't seem to acknowledge the fact that all people are not necessarily like him. When Charly's past comes back to haunt her, Sam freaks out in a predictable and dull manner. The Charly character does gain some depth as she tones down and explores other facets of life, but the Sam character remains as flat as when the film introduces him. The religious overtones don't come on too strong until the latter half of the movie, but it's actually a distraction because of how dull Charly gets.
Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
In light of the recent release of Jack Weyland's Charly on video and DVD, I have a couple of confessions to make. First off, I have never read the book. I might be in the minority there among Latter-day Saints of my generation, because according to an estimate published before the film came out, over 250,000 copies of the book had sold since it was first published in 1980. In fact, Charly (the book) was the God's Army of LDS fiction, the first to demonstrate there was a viable market for novels by Mormons about Mormons. It's not that I was completely adverse to reading it. I just never got around to it.
Part of it had to do with the fact that during the 80's there was also a lot of interest in LDS music - there was even an AM radio station that played LDS music all the time - but the production values on about half of the songs that were circulating around at the time were not up to professional quality and probably would not have even gotten played once if they didn't have the "LDS music" label and the ready-made audience of members of the church who were starving for music that they could trust. What did that have to do with the most popular LDS book this side of the scriptures? Well, as a teenager, although I loved to read, I just figured that the situation was similar for LDS novels. I read a few of them, and found a couple of them to be quite good, but I assumed that the percentages among LDS novels were about the same as I was hearing in the music and didn't pay much attention to most of them. Charly got ignored along with the rest.
My second confession gets to more to the point. Charly (the film) made me laugh and cry. You might wonder why that's such a big confession. It wouldn't be, except that from reading the reviews of many of the critics who wrote about it when it first came out, including a couple of local writers who went out of their way to criticize the film even though they aren't usually film critics, it would appear that for a person, especially a film critic, to let this film get to him would be a grave sin. Writer after writer has coupled Charly with The Singles Ward as examples of what is wrong with the latest wave of LDS-themed theatrical-release films. I disagree.
For those of you, who - like me - have not read the novel and - unlike me - have not yet taken the time to see the film, Charly is the story of Sam Roberts, an intense young man from Salt Lake City whose world is turned upside down when he meets Charlene "Charly" Riley, an artist from New York City who is visiting her parents and grandmother in Salt Lake. Charly likes driving fast and having fun. Sam likes fishing and keeps his life stored in his palm pilot. Sam is LDS and takes his religion very seriously. Charly doesn't seem to take anything seriously. So, of course, they're certain to fall in love. More than a love story though, this is a story about the impact two people have on each other. Each is a catalyst for major changes in the way the other looks at life.
In making Charly, director Adam Thomas Anderegg and producers Lance Williams, Micah Merrill and Tip Boxell did a lot of things right. The first and most obvious thing they got right was the casting of Heather Beers in the title role. Beers is a natural as Charly. She seems so comfortable in the role, you are just certain that Jack Weyland had her in mind the whole time when he was writing the novel over 20 years ago. Jeremy Elliott - one of my personal favorite LDS actors who has also had lead roles in Out of Step and Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd - also brings a strong performance, and probably would have gotten more critical acclaim if Beers weren't so good.
The film has a professional look and feel to it as well, belying its limited budget. Great care is taken to details. The film is beautifully shot and framed, and the script is well conceived. In fact, screenwriter Janine Whetten Gilbert won an AML Award for Screenplay Adaptation for her script. I understand that she did make a number of changes to the story - including the adding of a new character, Charly's grandmother - which have become some of the film's strongest points. (For those purists who absolutely hate it when a film adaptation changes a story they've known and loved as a novel first, it should be noted that Weyland was consulted throughout the filmmaking process and gave his seal of approval to these changes.)
Aaron Merrill has also done a nice job with the film's music. Gratefully, money was put aside for the film to have a fully orchestral score - something that is sadly missing from many films with similar budgets. Merrill recorded much of the music with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra - the same orchestra that recorded the soundtrack for The Other Side of Heaven - and the results were worth traveling halfway around the world to get. There are also a number of well-done pop-style songs as well.
Of course, the film also has weaknesses. I understand that most of these are actually problems left over from the source material itself, although there are occasional problems that can be attributed to the challenges of a small budget. While Jackie Winterrose-Fullerup is fun to watch as Charly's grandmother, Diana Dunkley is wonderful as Sam's mother and Adam Johnson portrays a surprisingly likeable version of Charly's old (pre-baptism) boyfriend, some of the other small roles, particularly those of Charly's parents, come off as stiff and stereotypical, especially when contrasted with Beers' comfortable screen presence. Part of this is because there is nothing in the script to make them more than stereotypical. Charly's father simply seems to hate any boy who dates his daughter, and her mother seems to just fall in line, also hating Sam for apparently no reason at all. After listening to the commentary, it appears that at least part of this stiffness was done on purpose in an attempt to contrast Charly's parents with Sam's more down-to-earth parents, but I think this was an unfortunate choice, because while the contrast is certainly evident, Charly's parents come across as unreal cardboard characters, and I think a more natural contrast would have been more effective.
Still, that doesn't explain the strong negative reaction from several vocal critics of the film. In the end, I think their reactions come down to the basic sentiments of the film. This is not an action movie. It's not a comedy. It's not really even a drama. It's kind of a romantic comedy, but at the same time, it's different in a lot of ways. It's not a movie that makes you stop and think. It's a movie that makes you stop and feel. Some people don't like that. Some people do. It's unfortunate that there has been such a strong negative reaction to the film in some quarters. It might lead some to do as I did with the book and assume that, in some way, this film is amateur, that the only reason it was ever made was because of its "LDS" label without ever seeing it. This is not an amateur film. Sure, it has weaknesses. Its budget is not at the level of a Hollywood studio release or even The Other Side of Heaven. But it is still, on the whole, a well-done film. At the least, it's worth a couple of hours of your time to form your own opinion.
Probably the greatest endorsement the film can receive came from Jack Weyland himself, when he reportedly indicated that he thought the movie was better than the book. That would be a rarity indeed, which leaves me wondering if I ought to go read the book after all. I think I'll chance it.
The DVD comes with an impressive set of special features - probably the best special features of any LDS-themed film DVD release to date - including two commentary tracks with comments from a number of cast and crew members. Even Aaron Merrill, the composer, gets involved, which is a rarity for any DVD. Other features include "The Making of Charly" documentary, deleted scenes, trailers, and excerpts from the music soundtrack.
* 1/2 [1.5 stars out of 4]
The best kept secret of modern American movies is Mormon cinema. In the last few years, Mormon films have begun squeezing into multiplexes for blink-and-you-miss-'em runs backed by grass-roots promotion and direct-marketed preaching to the converted. It would be a mistake to lump all Mormon movie product into the same bargain bin, though limited production value can result in a pervading flatness. To qualify as Mormon cinema, seemingly, also means masking a recruitment film in a genre cloak. Brigham City, for example, adopted the conventions of a serial-killer thriller. Jack Weyland's Charly at long last gives the 1980 Latter Day Saints paperback romance weepie its big-screen due.
Charly tells the love story of strait-laced Mormon Sam Roberts (Jeremy Elliott) and New York intellectual Charly Riley (Heather Beers). Charly is a Free Spirit who teaches Sam to laugh. Sam is a Spiritual Man who teaches Charly to believe (as he does, in the "happily ever after" of faith). Charly's past--with the pesky ex who won't go away--drives a not-so-suspenseful wedge between the lovers. But the film's advertising tagline--"Real love stories have no ending"--suggests the real concern: the bittersweet fate of their all-too-mortal love (at the word-of-mouth screening I attended, official Charly tissues were dispensed).
Charly clearly has its heart in the right place as wholesome family entertainment with a positive, spiritual message. If you go to movies for wholesome, this is it. Occasionally, a nifty idea breaks through, like a faux checkout-lane fight perpetrated by the lovers. But you must expect barefaced symbolism--like the water of new life and the eternal cycle of a ferris wheel--and character development which is needlessly undernourished in certain key respects (Charly's quick conversion and her parents' awestruck alarm at the idea of churchgoing come to mind). The actors work hard--sometimes too hard--to carry the day, but you may end up amusing yourself instead by deciding whom each leading player resembles (I say a young Gary Cole and Lauren Holly). Without such distractions, the predictability of Charly begins to feel as eternal as that ferris wheel.
...The irony is that Dutcher started the LDS movie genre, but others are capitalizing on it. Consider the movies that have been released since "God's Army" -- "Singles Ward," "Other Side of Heaven," "Out of Step," "Charley," "R.M." Three more are on the way.
"It's fun," Dutcher says. "I went to an LDS bookstore recently and the video section looks a lot better than it did a few years ago. There weren't just kids movies. There was some personal satisfaction in that."