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Reel Carolina Magazine

On the Set of Wesley
An Interview with Director John Jackman

by Hilary Russo

Reprinted from the August 2007 Edition of Reel Carolina Magazine

I spent my Fourth of July a little differently than many this year While most people were staking their claim on a spot to observe the best fireworks shows in town or spending their days grilling with family and friends, I found myself taking a step back in time. Way back in time ... to the 18th century.

The phone call from Foundery Pictures producers came just a few days prior. I was cast as Native American and Georgia businesswoman, Mary Musgrove, in the independent feature film Wesley. The film follows the life of historical figure, John Wesley. Mary Musgrove was as instrumental in the life of John Wesley, as Sacagawea was to Lewis and Clark. I was elated to take on this role and remember after auditioning for director John Jackman many months earlier, that it was truly the only role I wanted to play.

After shooting, I found myself very inquisitive as to why Mr. Jackman chose this story. Do many people know about John Wesley'? Do they have a desire to know? What is it that gave Jackman the passion to pursue this project? I had a chance to interview the film's director and get answers to some of those questions and more.

 

HR: HOW DID THE CONCEPT OF SHOOTING A FILM ABOUT THE LIFE OF JOHN WESLEY COME INTO PLAY?

JJ: The founder of the Christian History Institute, Ken Curtis, asked me to take a look at the project about five years ago. I initially said no, but he called me every two months and bugged me until I took a serious look at it. Once I started seeing the story on the big screen, it got under my skin and I couldn't get away from it.

HR: WHEN/HOW DID FOUNDERY PICTURES BEGIN? IS THIS THE COMPANY'S FIRST PROJECT AND CAN WE EXPECT MORE?

JJ: Foundery Pictures was organized specifically to produce the Wesley film, but yes, I think it's safe to say that there's more down the pike.

HR: WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THIS PROJECT?

JJ: We hope to tell a story that touches many lives. The story is one of personal spiritual transformation, and I think we've told it in a way that will resonate with many people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

HR: YOU MENTION THAT WESLEY'S LIFE READS LIKE A "HOLLYWOOD SCREENPLAY". WHY IS THAT?

JJ: I've done a number of shows about religious leaders of history, and frankly most of them make pretty boring movies. But this is one of the few stories that already has all the elements Hollywood likes to put into movies -- it's got a star-crossed love affair, a storm at sea, mob violence, and an uplifting ending. What more do you want in a movie? Except this is the true story, not a made-up screenplay.

On the set of "WESLEY" -- at Musgroves Trading Post

From left to right: On the set of WESLEY with Roger Willie (Cusseta),
Hilary Russo (Mary Musgrove), Burgess Jenkins (John Wesley), Erik
Nelson (Delamotte) and director John Jackman.

HR: YOU ARE ALSO AN ORDAINED MINISTER IN THE MORAVIAN CHURCH. DID THIS PLAY A PART IN YOUR DECISION TO TELL WESLEY'S STORY? IF SO, WHY?

JJ: I've pursued dual careers -- pastor and filmmaker -- all my adult life. But the two are tied together. In both roles, I tell stories of faith and hope, stories that bring people together. And there is a Moravian connection to Wesley, it was his encounter with Moravian missionaries that led to his personal transformation.

HR: THERE WAS A FILM DONE ABOUT JOHN WESLEY YEARS AGO IN 1954. KNOWING THIS, WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THE FILM?

JJ: The old film is really an historic relic. It was done on a tiny budget as an educational film and really doesn't tell the story to a modern audience at all.

HR: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO SHOOT IN NORTH CAROLINA?

JJ: I live here! But of course that's not the only factor -- a major deciding factor was the budget. Shooting in England immediately quadrupled the budget without improving the movie at all, simply because of the exchange rate and union rules there. Through careful scouting and a lot of local help, we were able to find locations to stand in for authentic 18th century locations in England and in early Georgia. We couldn't have done this movie without the fantastic locations we have here in North Carolina.

HR: DID YOU PRIMARILY USE CAST AND CREW FROM NORTH CAROLINA? IF SO, WHY?

JJ: Most of our cast and crew were from North Carolina. We had actors from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania and several folks came from LA. But there's plenty of amazing local talent here, there's no reason to go far to find superb actors and crew.

HR: YOU REALLY MADE AN EFFORT TO GET THE WORD OUT ABOUT THIS PROJECT PRIOR TO CASTING BY SHOOTING A "PREVIEW TRAILER" EARLIER THIS YEAR. HOW DID THIS HELP FOUNDERY PICTURES?

JJ: It stirred interest among churches and let folks see a little "sample.'"

HR: DID YOU HAVE ACTORS IN MIND FOR CERTAIN ROLES FROM THE START?

JJ: We did, but in casting we left the process wide open to find the best actor for each role. Catrine McGregor, our casting director, did a fantastic job. I think by the end of the process I saw nearly 350 actors to fill out our cast of 70. We were blessed to have Burgess Jenkins (Remember the Titans, The Reaping) agree to play the role of Wesley; and Keith Harris (Big Fish, Junebug, Chicks101) as Charles Wesley and Carrie Anne Hunt as Sophy Hopkey, the girl in Georgia that John Wesley falls in love with. The three of them really created some electricity on the screen!

HR: YOU WERE ABLE TO BRING ONE OF AMERICA'S FAVORITE MOMS ABOARD (JUNE LOCKHART ) TO PLAY THE ROLE OF JOHN WESLEY'S MOTHER, SUZANNAH. HOW DID THAT UNION COME ABOUT AND WHEN SHE AGREED, TELL US YOUR REACTION.

JJ: Well, for that role we wanted one of the great moms -- and it's a pretty short list! Catrine McGregor has worked with June on some other films, and put us in touch -- and June was very interested in the script and the part. She was a blast to work with, a real trouper.

HR: IN ADDITION TO SOME VERY TALENTED ACTORS, YOU HAVE A CORE GROUP ON YOUR PRODUCTION TEAM. HOW HAS THE EXPERIENCE BEEN WORKING WITH THEM? ANYONE IN PARTICULAR?

JJ: I've worked with Arledge Armenaki on projects before, and knew that he would bring the quality look that we wanted for this project. We wanted the film to look like a Caravaggio painting, to look very naturalistic and classical in lighting and composition. Arledge did a fantastic job for us, I think "Wesley" is some of the best work he's ever done. Most of the rest of the team, who did a fantastic job, were new folks for me to work with. We were blessed indeed to have award-winning screenwriter Carolyn Haywood (Red Dirt Girls, Morning Star and Moon) do the final rewrite of the script for us, she did a wonderful job.

HR: FOUNDERY PICTURES HAD A UNIQUE APPROACH OF GIVING PEOPLE THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE A PART OF THE PROCESS. MOSTLY ONLINE VIA YOUR WEBSITE. DID YOU FIND THIS HELPFUL IN THE LONGRUN?

JJ: We had a huge number of volunteers and extras sign up through the website, which was tremendously helpful. And of course we undertook a fairly large internship agreement with Western Carolina University, we had twelve student interns from their film program who contributed immensely to the project.

HR: YOU HAVE QUITE A RESUME OF EXPERIENCE AS AN AWARD WINNING DIRECTOR, PRODUCER AND WRITER WHO HAS WORKED WITH NUMEROUS TELEVISION NETWORKS. DID YOU STILL FIND WESLEY TO BE A CHALLENGE?

JJ: It was the biggest and most complex project I've ever done -- yes, it was a challenge! Most of my projects in the past have been documentaries or shorter form dramas. So for my first feature I decided to do a period costume drama that involved a huge cast, a storm at sea, animals, and children. I'm not sure I could have done much more wrong than to add in some elephants and shoot in Zanzibar.

HR: I HAD A CHANCE TO WORK WITH YOU ON THE SET ONE DAY AND HAD A GREAT EXPERIENCE PLAYING THE ROLE OF "MARY MUSGROVE". IN MY OPINION, YOU HAD A GREAT CREW OF PEOPLE HELPING ON THIS PROJECT. HAVE YOU WORKED WITH ANY OF THEM IN THE PAST? DID YOU HAVE SOME PEOPLE IN MIND THAT YOU HAD TO HAVE ON THIS PROJECT?

JJ: Yes we had a great crew -- mostly new folks for me. The only "must have" at the start was the Director of Photography Arledge Armenaki. The rest of the crew was assembled through networking and recommendations.

HR: WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE OR HEAR MORE ABOUT WESLEY?

JJ: We're hoping for theatrical release in the spring of 2008.

Hillary Russo

HR: WHAT'S NEXT FOR FOUNDERY PICTURES AND JOHN JACKMAN?

JJ: I never met a producer and director that didn't have several more projects in the pipeline -- and that's true here as well. We have two smaller projects in development, and a major one in the works -- all three of which tell different stories of spiritual transformation. One is the story of an 18th century slave ship captain who became a leading opponent of slavery; the other two are untold stories of Native Americans.

Actress and writer Hilary Russo is a regular contributor to Reel Carolina Magazine.