Producer Micheal Flaherty has always had a keen interest in values-based films. Since he co-founded Walden Media from his apartment in 1999, the studio has produced films such as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Flaherty's most recent production, "The Giver," based on the novel by Lois Lowry, opened Aug. 15.
Walden Media chooses to produce films that are “entertaining but also demonstrate the rewards of knowledge and virtue,” Flaherty told the Deseret News in 2011.
The Deseret News caught up with Flaherty at a recent conference in California to discuss the making of "The Giver" and the impact he hopes the film will have.
Deseret News: Why does the world need to see “The Giver”?
Micheal Flaherty: They’ve been reading it for almost a quarter of a century, so it has been around for a while and people have been playing it in their heads for a long time. I think there is a lot of curiosity. I also think a lot of times when you get out of films, there is nothing to talk about. This is one of the few where it is very provocative.
DN: The film takes an approach that has to do with agency, making choices and dealing with the consequences, and Hollywood doesn’t always like to get involved in that. What got you involved?
Flaherty: Like all of our favorite films — “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Charlotte’s Web” — people of faith right away are going to see all kinds of amazing things, but other folks are going to be equally captured by it.
This one wasn’t easy to get made. It got made because we are blessed to have a visionary investor, Philip Anschutz. It required somebody to step up and say, “I’ll do this.” On the other coast, we had another person who doesn’t make decisions by committee, Harvey Weinstein, who said, “My daughter read this book and I want to make this movie.” It is the fact of Phil’s leadership, optioning the book 14 years ago and sticking with it for over a decade, and Harvey stepping up and saying, “I know what it takes to make this film.”
DN: "The Giver" is also a reflection of your approach to the industry and a story that families can not only go see but also then talk about on the drive home.
Flaherty: In Hollywood, I think a lot of people impute this Pollyannaish aura to the American family. They don’t realize that in most families we want to hold on to our kids’ innocence as long as possible — we want to prolong their childhood — but at the same time, we know that we can’t protect them from the big bad world of ideas. Part of the fun of being a parent is having those conversations come up and getting an idea of how your kid ticks, the way God made them, and helping lead them through those conversations.
DN: From your perspective, why doesn’t Hollywood get that?
Flaherty: I think it is because everybody is so busy. When you look at how successful certain films are, you think it is such common sense: “Why don’t we make more movies like this?” But I think people are constantly going. In “The Screwtape Letters,” Wormwood’s instruction is “Always keep them distracted.” If there is a tidal wave, have them reaching for the fire hose. I think people are so busy and they don’t take time to really sit down and listen. I would not have known about “The Giver” if we weren’t constantly talking to teachers and librarians. That is how I found out about the book.
DN: You have a history in education, and there is a pattern in your films of entertaining and secretly educating at the same time. How have you pulled that off?
Flaherty: You never want it to be like medicine, right? Going back to the Greeks, the process of learning should be highly enjoyable. We are trying to bring that idea back. The motive of a lot of our films is kids discovering literature and the world of ideas. That is the central premise of “The Giver.” This one is definitely my favorite that we’ve done.
DN: What do you want my 14-year-old son to take from the movie?
Flaherty: Be brave. We are a different kind of family film company because we never shy away from the provocative questions. C.S. Lewis had this great letter where a mom had written to him and said, “My son is 10 years old. Should he read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’?” Lewis sent a great response and said, “Listen, if you want to help your son avoid crippling nightmares that will wreck his day, by all means avoid this book. But if you think you can protect him from a world that has produced the atom bomb and you don’t want him to read the book and know there are bad people in the world, then you are making his future darker and not brighter. What you want stories to do is help them know there are brave knights and heroic courage, and that good people always realize the tough choice and the right choice are usually the same choice.”
DN: Are you a brave knight in this business?
Flaherty: It is all because of the vision of our chairman. Phil had this vision a while back. It is a heat-seeking industry, so everyone is always playing follow the leader, and he has stayed constant. He has said, "Let’s keep talking to people who actually go to movies. Let’s talk to pastors and parents and teachers and librarians, and let’s make films out of those and stay the course." In that way, I think I have the easiest job in Hollywood. My job is just to listen and then fight to see those movies get made.
DN: Do you see more of these good stories coming to movie houses?
Flaherty: Absolutely. I think there are so many great films, whole libraries available for kids to watch. What is really going to be interesting is to see what is going to happen to these two- to five-minutes clips. Because I know with my kids, the majority of their viewing is short-form video right now.
DN: What are the things a school district can do that will make the most difference with a student?
Flaherty: The one thing that trumps all is hope — telling kids that they were wonderfully made and that God created them for a purpose and they can transcend whatever things are holding them back. If we can’t give that to every single child, I don’t think much else is possible. They can succeed academically, but it gets to the point where you are only creating clever devils if these kids are just supposed to be calculators that shoot facts back at you. If we can go back to looking at it like we are the architects of souls and go back to giving kids hope — the teachers are very nervous because everyone has to pass the test. Everyone has to pass the test, and no one is asking the clever question the kids are: "For what purpose?"
DN: What’s your favorite movie?
Flaherty: There are two. “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which was my parents’ favorite, and the other one, which was one of the first movies to get banned in theaters, was “The Warriors.” It came out, and the story in the press was that it was igniting gang violence. I watched it with my parents, and it was “The Odyssey” retold in a modern-day setting. It was because of that movie I read “The Odyssey” and started to get interested and started realizing there are different ways to light that spark, and it can be in a pretty unconventional way.
DN: “The Giver” is personal with you. You seem completely invested.
Flaherty: I love the question it asks, which is, “What if every material need could be met? What if there was no poverty, hunger, you always had a job, but you had to give up your free will? Would you do that?” I think that is such an essential question.
DN: You have some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in this film.
Flaherty: It’s great. You know what’s awesome? We are always looking for unifying themes and stories for the left and for the right, the sacred and the secular, and this is it. Lois did such a great job writing the book and making sure there is not a single false note in there. Neither side can claim it as their own. The right can’t, the left can’t. It is in there for 20 years in schools, and hopefully with this film we can get kids back to asking the big questions.
Micheal Flaherty is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. This interview has been edited for clarity, grammar and length.