Interview: Walden Media President Michael Flaherty on Narnia 4 Film

Through Walden Media, a children's production company, co-founder and president Michael Flaherty has already brought three stories from the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series to life on the big screen.

With the latest movie installment, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," slated to be released on DVD this April, Walden Media is now looking ahead at the next Narnia movie, which will likely be "The Magician's Nephew."

The Christian Post recently sat down with Flaherty at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, Tenn., to speak to him about the Narnia 4 movie, lessons he learned from the dismal performance of "Prince Caspian," challenges for family movies in the marketplace, and his view on homosexuality.

Below is the transcript of the interview.

CP: "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" recently received an award from Movieguide Awards so congratulations.

Flaherty: Thank you.

CP: What is your reaction to that?

Flaherty: We are happy. That one (Dawn Treader) was a slow burn. It took a while for it to catch on. It did much better overseas for us but it finally ended up in a good place. We are starting to talk to Fox and talk to the C.S. Lewis estate now about "The Magician's Nephew" being our next film.

CP: Okay, so there is some talk?

Flaherty: Yes.

CP: I read online that there was some talk about "The Silver Chair" being the next Narnia film but it's going to be "The Magician's Nephew?"

Flaherty: Right. We're looking at "The Magician's Nephew" now and I think everyone has their own favorite, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" being mine. But after that, I love "The Magician's Nephew" because it's a great origins story. You get to learn so much about where the wardrobe came from, where the lamppost came from, where Narnia came from and hopefully we'll get everything together and make that our next one.

CP: What's the timeline?

Flaherty: Well, we're talking to the estate and to Fox and if those three parties, if we can all agree to move forward, then what we would do is find someone to write the script. So, it could still be a couple of years.

CP: I wanted to ask about the report released at the Moveguide Awards. The report to the entertainment industry from Movieguide that found movies with strong biblical values and morality outperformed movies portraying atheist messages, $78 million to $6.6 million. Same with movies advocating a Christian worldview performed 10 times better than movies advocating a miscellaneous morality.

If this is the case, why aren't we seeing more of these types of movies?

Flaherty: I think we are seeing a lot more of them. It's amazing. It might not always be a John 3:16 card in the middle of the film, the ideas of sacrifice and a lot of the themes that are so important to believers are starting to weave their way into films. They've always been there.

I think you see fewer rated-R movies now. At the same time, there are rated-R movies that can be redemptive and can have a strong redemptive Christian worldview as well. I think sometimes we get fooled by the ratings.

I think it's very encouraging. Also, if you look at a lot of books that kids are reading too, those have a strong sense of hope in the unseen. There is a very strong sense that it's not all about them and that their life has a purpose and that there are a lot more things than meets the eye.

CP: Going back to the topic of Narnia, I'm sure you are already familiar with some of these numbers but obviously "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" did super well and "Prince Caspian" underperformed according to many reports. Some people talked about the timing of the release, others on the script.

What was your analysis of this and in what ways was the approach to "Voyage of Dawn Treader" different?

Flaherty: It's amazing because the first thing is that we should only really see this at Christmas time because there's something about Narnia that makes people think about Christmas and snow. Thus, the shameless scene where we have Lucy read a spell and it snowed in the magician's house.

The other lesson is that these books have been out now for over half a century and it gives us a really interesting idea of which stories are really loved. People who love Narnia love all seven stories -I'm one of those kinds of people. But what's interesting is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe over this period of time sold twice as many books as Prince Caspian and it did twice as much box office. Prince Caspian sold a third of the books as Dawn Treader and did a third of the box office. So while it's not always correlative of books to film, so far with these first three films, it has been. It directly mimics what people's interest has been in the books.

That's another reason beyond the fact that we all think it's a more interesting story and lends itself to a better film.

Going back to The Magician's Nephew, that one is right behind The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in terms of books sold. That one is a very popular story.

CP: For "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," I've read that Walden was trying to tap back into the faith market by giving pastors screenings and doing things that may or may not have been neglected but were not allocated for in "Caspian."

What were some of those things employed by Walden and did they work? Can we expect to see the same approach in "The Magician's Nephew?"

Flaherty: No, it definitely worked and we definitely neglected them.

In terms of "Prince Caspian" and its message for believers, it's a lot more intricate. We are talking about things like waiting on God's timing and sort of deeper theological principles.

I mean "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is so easy because it's the gospel story: an innocent person gives up his life for a sinner and death gets reversed and everyone gets new life.

With "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," it's also easier to understand than "Prince Caspian." We have the story of Eustace rebirth and we also have the story of Reepicheep having a God-shaped hole in his heart that C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. So there was more reason to go back to the church with that.

With "Magician's Nephew," that is a story about creation.

I think one of the problems is that when we see a random superhero movie come up and someone will have a Bible study guide. I've even seen one for the Terminator. The balance we try to strike is we don't try to market everything to the church because it becomes the boy who cried wolf. We did a movie that was a lot of fun a year ago with Fox that was called "The Tooth Fairy." We didn't have "The Tooth Fairy" Bible study guides and everything else just because pastors are busy and they have a lot more work to do. Especially if you look at the Christmas season, it's the busiest, with Christmas and Easter being the busiest on the calendar. So we are trying to go the church only when we think we have something that will really be useful. We had trouble figuring out what that fit would have been with "Prince Caspian."

CP: How is working with Fox different than working with Disney?

Flaherty: They're both great partners. The folks at Disney who we've worked with are all gone now, Vick Cook, Marc Sharratt, Oren Aviv. They were the best in the business. Warren Eve is now at Fox, which is great, heading up their marketing.

We've worked with Fox on a lot of things. The first one we ever collaborated on was "Because of Winn-Dixie," which to this day remains one of my sentimental favorites. So it's been a great partnership.

CP: When "Voyage of Dawn Treader" came out, Liam Neeson, the voice of Aslan, made this controversial statement: "Aslan symbolizes a Christ-like figure but he also symbolizes for me Muhammad, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries."

What was your reaction to that?

Flaherty: My immediate reaction to that was: "there goes the lazy Sunday I thought I was going to have." I woke up in the morning and read it and thought, "Oh here we go."

I thought that was unfortunate. I mean, who knows where an actor goes to get their inspiration. Wherever Liam goes to do it, more power to him, because I think he is the best voice of Aslan out there. That's what we look for with our actors. We look for people who will really understand the character and understand the story.

CP: Did you feel the message contradicted the portrayal of Aslan as the Christ-like figure?

Flaherty: No, we really do take attitude out there that these movies are out there to inspire discussion and start discussion, not to suppress it. The way I look at it is: This is great. It's another opportunity to talk about C.S. Lewis, to talk about what he meant when he did these books, and to talk about C.S. Lewis' own faith journey. That's the way I always look at these things. It certainly made for an interesting week before the movie's release.

 CP: More recently, there was another incident. Perry Moore, the executive producer of Narnia, died in his apartment, reportedly from a drug overdose and was found by his partner.

When I read about Walden, it specializes in family entertainment. I understand Moore was a Christian who spoke about his faith but he was also openly gay.

My question is that a lot of Christians, especially evangelical Christians, believe that homosexuality goes against scripture. What would you say to people who think these kinds of situations cast doubt on the values of movies by Walden Media that a key person was reported to overdose and was also gay?

Flaherty: My biggest thing there is it was a heartbreaker. Here is a 39-year-old kid. I knew him since the day he got hired. He loved these stories. One of the first things Perry ever showed me was a book report he did as a kid on "The Bridge to Tarebithia." So he loved stories. He loved God and he loved his family. Those were the things that I remembered about him. The other stuff isn't important to me. He was there to do a job and he did a good job.

I was there at his funeral the other week and it was a tough thing. It was heartbreaking to see little Georgie [Henley], the girl who Perry believed in and the girl who Perry said, "That's the girl who should play Lucy." It was such a great decision. And to see Georgie there so much older and broken in tears. This person who had such an impact and an influence on him. It was so depressing.

The one thing that gave me courage and gave me hope was that I love the response from so many folks in the Christian community, one of love and one of prayer. Rather than wondering about how he spent his time, it was great to see so many people pray for him and so many people hoping that…You know, we're all broken and we all have our issues but the idea that Perry could finally go home. Just like the Prodigal Son, the father took his garments and ran over and just wrapping him up and saying, "Oh my gosh, welcome home. I'm so happy that you're home." That was the image I had in my mind. I hope that for all the great work that he did and the love he had for his family and God that he got to hear those words, "Well done, good and faithful servant," and that he's at peace right now.

CP: For Walden Media, as a company, do people need to be Christian or abide to a moral/faith standard to be hired?

Flaherty: Nope. They just have to believe in our mission, which is to find stories that can rekindle curiosity and recapture imagination. That is the one allegiance that we ask everybody to have. The great thing that it draws people from all different walks of life. I think that's what you want when you are making stories. It takes a lot of useful irritants to make a pearl. You can't have everybody coming from the same point of view so that's what makes things so much stronger. So that's the only thing that we require from folks.

CP: I read that you are a Catholic?

Flaherty: I'm actually evangelical. They assume that from the name.

CP: I wanted to clarify that because I read that in a couple of places.

Were you here for today's main session?  

Flaherty: No.

CP: Well, Voddie Baucham spoke about homosexuality and explained the reason why people get uncomfortable when people bring up the subject is that there is a propaganda campaign to condition people. That's why a lot of broadcasters apologize before they talk about homosexuality. He also urged Christian broadcasters to speak out against that.

I wanted to ask what is your position on homosexuality?  

Flaherty: I just don't care. I love every one of God's sons and every one of God's daughters. I have a very special place in my heart for the challenges that gay and lesbian kids are going through. Their lives are absolute torture. I think the ways in high school. The way I'd love to respond to that is with love and let God and the Holy Spirit take care of the rest of that.

There is a great book out there called Love Is an Orientation. Have you read that book?

CP: No, I haven't but I've heard of it.  

Flaherty: That's a really great book. I've started to become friends with that author. You know, it's a total and complete non-issue for me. Probably the person who has had the most powerful impact on my walk is Henri Nouwen, who is gay. Henri Nouwen, who has a lot of impact on a lot of Christians, has written some fantastic books out there.

I'm blessed that I've learned a lot about Jesus from our gay brothers and sisters.

CP: A lot of people know that you're the president of Walden Media but they may not know about your background in education. Are you still involved in any programs in education?  

Flaherty: Absolutely. Right now, we are sort of preoccupied. We homeschool our three kids. A lot goes into that right now. We have a really small school.

For me, I'm more interested in education as an issue of social justice and civil rights. It's probably one of the biggest scandals we have in this country is that the education you get is mostly based on your income level. That's one of the things that I would really love to see leveled and equalized. That's why we co-produced the documentary, "Waiting for Superman," which raised a lot of those issues. It's something that we continue to be heavily invested in. Personally, my time teaching now only goes to my three kids. What we're trying to do now is use the film and use the books to draw more attention to education as a civil rights issue.

CP: You're going to be teaching tonight at the NRB Super Session. What are you going to be teaching and what can we expect from that?  

Flaherty: I think we're going to be mostly talking about Lewis and his outlook and his journey. The other thing that I would love to talk a lot about is paradox, about you never know how God is going to use us. "Amazing Grace" is one of my favorite movies and I love the fact that God used this slave trader, guilty of crimes against humanity, to become a leader in the Christian church.

We're working on another film about a conscientious objector, someone who would never carry a gun, and God used him and turned him into a war hero. That's one of the things what I want to talk about.

It goes back to one of the questions you asked earlier that as believers, I think we don't embrace paradox and contradiction anymore.

CP: What is the biggest challenge that you see for family entertainment movies in the marketplace or in culture?  

Flaherty: Just advertising and marketing is the biggest challenge because the cost of making films has come down, we have a great crop of filmmakers out there who can make these movies, there is a number of great stories to be told, but the cost to advertise these and give it a real chance in the marketplace without a great studio partner makes it really difficult.

I think that's the next great thing people need to figure out is: how do you promote and advertise a film for a fraction of the cost of what Hollywood is doing now.

CP: What is next big thing for Walden Media?  

Flaherty: The big focus right now is on our books. We are also working on a film we are working on now called "Mavericks" with Gerard Butler. That is sort of in your neck of the woods – about this surfer, Jay Moriarty, who didn't have a dad, and the role of this mentor who led him to surf this great wave maverick. That's the next movie. We're going to go into production and there are several others that we are starting to look at.

CP: When can we expect to see that in theaters?  

 Flaherty: Probably in year or so.

CP: Okay great.

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