by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
Ken Wales, the producer of “Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce,” spoke recently with The Dove Foundation. He was pleased by the audience’s response at an early screening of the film in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We continue to get raves,” he said. “We showed it in Chicago and I just came back from Nashville. We had two screenings there and another one in Atlanta, and at each one the people were stunned. They see something that is so solid and historical and yet has the faith centerpiece. They’re amazed it could all come together.”
Mr. Wales produced the 1994 TV series “Christy” as well as “Door to Door” and “The Prodigal.” He was an Associate Producer of the early 1980’s TV series “Cagney and Lacey.” His credits include 1981’s “East of Eden,” and 1978’s “Revenge of the Pink Panther.” He was an Associate Producer on 1967’s “Gunn,” and acted in that project in addition to acting in other shows and films, including an appearance on the 1950’s TV series “Hazel.”
Mr. Wales, the co-author of a book titled “The Amazing Grace of Freedom”, is an affable man, personable, and sincere about his work. This intelligent man’s dedication to the “Amazing Grace” film became evident in our interview with him.
We asked him about a few of his favorite scenes from the film. “I think that a key scene is the one where Albert Finney is playing John Newton. It’s toward the end of his life, he’s blind now, he’s in kind of a monk’s sackcloth and he’s kind of cleaning up in the church. Wilberforce is there to greet his mentor and spend some time with him. He puts his arm around Newton and Newton says, ‘Wilber, there are two things in my life. I am a great sinner and Jesus Christ is a great savior.’ That is the centerpiece of the film and to have that in a feature film is just magnificent. You almost want to release that and let there be two hours of film around it!”
“Another one of my favorite scenes is when Wilberforce is in the backyard, on the lawn of his country home, and he has an exchange with his butler, portrayed by Jeremy Swift. He calls him back and he says, ‘I’ve been acting rather strange, haven’t I?’ And the butler says, ‘I didn’t really notice, Sir.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s God.’ ‘It’s God?’ He says, ‘Yes. I think through all this, God found me. It’s a bit inconvenient!’ And everybody gets a good chuckle out of that. We know when God enters our lives things happen and it’s really inconvenient.”
We mentioned that the pivotal role of Wilberforce is handled well by actor Ioan Gruffudd (first name pronounced Yo-an). “He kind of owns Wilberforce,” Ken responded. “He kind of takes him and runs with him.”
Ken was pleased with the acting in the film, particularly with Albert Finney as John Newton. “I think he’ll be a candidate for best supporting actor next year when the film is considered because he’s kind of at the twilight or end of his acting career. He’s not doing that much anymore so to honor him as an Academy Award nominee for his part in ‘Amazing Grace’ in the category of the best supporting actor I think is a very strong possibility.”
Dove commented to Ken that we believe for a period piece the movie moves along at a good pace. “Part of that is the way we did it by not telling it just in a linear fashion, from the cradle to the grave. When you do that you kind of plod along and you get some slow places and exciting places and it’s kind of hard to get up steam again. Michael Apted (the director) and Steven Knight, our fine writer, kind of juxtaposed some time. It does maybe get a tiny bit confusing but if you just don’t worry about that and add it all up—they’re all instances that happened at some point in his life. It all works and sometimes we use some logos on it like, ‘Two Years Earlier’, ‘A few years later’, something like that, just to indicate where we were in the story. That makes it more interesting because you can pull out important scenes to punctuate where you are at that time in the story.
We asked Ken if there were challenges in getting the film made. He chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, seven years—you bet! First of all, we started out interested in working on John Newton, but Phil Anchutz said, ‘Ken, you know William Wilberforce is my personal hero and I admire so much what he did. Is there a way you can kind of combine it?’ And I said, ‘They both need separate stories—you won’t have enough time—you need to tell them both. Newton did mentor Wilberforce so we have that scene going through it,’ and I said, ‘Let’s try and do that in the Wilberforce story, and then hopefully we’ll go back and do the Newton story which is really major-mega historical!’”
Ken chuckled when he mentioned his dilemma in using a title for a movie based on John Newton’s life. “What do you call it? They’ve used my title! The Newton project was going to be called ‘Amazing Grace.’ I suppose you could call it, ‘More Amazing Grace’ or ‘Amazing Amazing Grace!’”
Ken said the song is used twice in the movie. “Wilberforce sings it when he’s really trying to make a point of ridding the ridicule at the gaming club. He stands on the table and sings it which is really a pronouncement of his faith. Secondly, it’s sung by the congregation at his wedding to Barbara. We have it there and then the bagpipers at the end put kind of a good cap on it.”
Ken commented regarding the theme of the film, the treatment of the slaves and the eventual freeing of them. He said the film deals with the hardship of the slaves in a way that “is more implicit than explicit. I think the point still gets across.”
The scene he refers to takes place when some local people see a slave ship and are astounded by the stench. The slaves had been chained and they vomited and emptied themselves on the ship. The blood of beaten slaves had spilled onto the ship’s deck. “It was terrible,” said Ken. Ken said this project evolved over a period of seven years and 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce’s triumph in Parliament, and ‘we didn’t want to miss that date.”
The film opens February 23, 2007, in the United States. It will open in the United Kingdom on March 23 in England, which is almost the exact date of the signing of the bill which freed the slaves 200 years ago. Ken also believes the February date in the U.S. will fit in well for Black History Month. He said he realizes people will learn more about this historical event if they revisit the film by seeing it two or three times and he hopes there will be repeat viewers.
In conclusion, Ken said the most rewarding aspect for him as producer was “looking at what was on screen, realizing the process and the history you’ve gone through. It’s a miracle that any film ever gets made! It’s a huge process.” In other words, it’s pretty “amazing.”