by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
To hear Rick Eldridge speak about the way things gelled in making “The Ultimate Gift,” a family film starring James Garner, Brian Dennehy, Drew Fuller, Ali Hillis and Abigail Breslin, one realizes that he feels the stars all aligned as the funding was raised very quickly. On top of that, Abigail Breslin had just finished making “Little Miss Sunshine,” a film in which she would be nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. She plays an important role in “The Ultimate Gift.”
The movie is based on Jim Stovall’s novel of the same name. Eldridge said the producers and writers decided to change the novel around a bit, to concentrate more on the grandson Jason, played by Drew Fuller.
“There was a guy in our church who was mentoring my teenage son,” said Eldridge. “He gave the book to him one afternoon and told him it was interesting reading. Between a trip from the east coast to the west coast, I read the book and I had one of my (film) development guys with me. It was really interesting because the book was very much an outline for a screenplay. I kept poking him saying, ‘Listen to this,’ and I would read him a paragraph. By the time we got to Los Angeles I said that we should check on the rights to it. My development guy did and we were able to find Jim Stovall.”
“He had optioned the rights a couple of different times to another studio, and had maintained script control. He had never been able to sign off the script. They had always brought in people who did not represent the full value of the book. So he took the rights back and kind of gave up. That was about the time that we called. Rather than taking the studio route and saying, ‘Here’s your check, we’ll call you when we’re done,’ we said, ‘Why don’t you become a story editor along with our scriptwriters, and let’s make sure the concepts of the book represent the film.’”
“Now of course if you read the book and see the movie there’s a lot of stuff in the book that’s not in the movie just as there are a lot of things in the movie that aren’t in the book. That happens with pretty much every book made into a movie we see. But we were very true to the story that Jim was so passionate about.”
“A book is very episodic,” he continued. “Chapter by chapter you’re dealing with a specific gift. We had to turn that into a dramatic film which was anything but episodic. The book was really told from Hamilton’s point of view. Hamilton is the best friend of Red Stevens. They’re both guys toward the end of their life. It was very much a narrative of Hamilton’s point of view about his best friend Red Stevens. It was very much about the struggle Red had with a dysfunctional family. “
“We felt the story needed to be told almost in reverse. The one redeeming value Red had was his twenty-four-year-old grandson, who was kind of a playboy kid, spoiled from the riches. We felt it was best to tell the story from Jason’s point of view. First of all, it’s going to reach a younger audience; it expands the breadth of the audience. We know there are four million people who have read the book that are going to come anyway. I think that was the biggest flip in the story.”
There were some challenges in getting the film made, but this is where the “blessings” entered which Eldridge referred to in our interview with him. “Well, being an independent filmmaker, we didn’t have a big studio check to work with. That’s always your first challenge. But everything fell into play. We had a financial group which came on board early on. We were told this story needs to be told, and you’ve got your money. That’s about as simple as it gets. I’ve talked to filmmakers all along and I’ve done it myself—where you beat the doors down to try to get the funding. It can take years to get it done. This was a blessing to have this group come on board.”
For people who are unaware about the evolving nature of films, it took about two years in pre-production with the last twelve months going heavily toward planning the shoot, and the actual filming to get the movie made took thirty eight days. Post-production including editing took another six months.
Although Eldridge said he wouldn’t necessarily call this film a “Christian” film, “there are certainly Christian elements in it.” For Eldridge, his favorite scenes involve the mother (Ali Hillis) supporting her gravely ill daughter, played by Abigail Breslin. The mother is financially strapped but a loving mother. In one touching scene, the young girl is in church and looking at a statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched. The young man Jason (Drew Fuller) speaks to her and says that, although he doesn’t know much about God or religion, he believes those arms are for her.
Eldridge spoke of Abigail Breslin and her talent. “We would like to say we were really smart when we hired her to do the project but we were really lucky. We had no idea of what ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ would do. She had just come off that movie and she was amazing to work with. And her mom was on the set with her the entire time. She was wonderful and Abigail never missed a line. She was “on” the entire time. She’s pretty amazing.”
When we asked him about the rest of the cast, he replied, “Everything about this film was pretty special. We were blessed with an amazing cast. Debbie Holloway, our casting director, just worked miracles to get these people. We did not have the kind of money that could buy an A-list cast, and we could have spent our entire budget on one actor. They came on board because they believed in the story. They believed in what we were trying to do.”
He was obviously pleased that they landed the high-quality type of actors in James Garner, Brian Dennehy and Lee Meriwether. “We paid them well,” said Eldrige, “but nowhere near what we would have if we were a big studio. The uniqueness of this film is that we have a young cast like Ali Hillis, Drew Fuller and Abigail Breslin. And then you skip a generation—you have a third generation, and you have James Garner, Brian Dennehy and Lee Meriwether and Bill Cobbs. It was pretty special.”
The film recently won a Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival. Eldridge said this wasn’t a film they showcased very much and when they did at the Heartland Film Festival, it obviously was a good end result for them. According to Eldridge the film matched the mission of the Heartland Film Festival, in that the movie is considered to be inspiring, displaying courage, and it challenges the audience. He said he believes studios are realizing that audiences respond well to these types of family and inspirational films. “We have to be respectable and make a movie that is worthy of the market,” he said.
“The Ultimate Gift” opens domestically March 9, and future projects for Eldridge include “The Perfect Game, “Running the Sahara,” and “Dog Days of Summer.”
He hopes “Dog Days of Summer” will be released in 2007. “Running the Sahara” just finished shooting in Africa which has Matt Damon narrating. It chronicles three world-class runners who ran across the Sahara. He said the film will hopefully be used to bring in charitable donations for fresh water in Africa. He hopes too it will raise an awareness of the need for fresh water in that location of the globe and it will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival the last part of 2007. “The Perfect Game” began shooting in Monterey, Mexico. It’s about the first International team to play baseball in the United States.
Eldridge obviously has a busy schedule, and he is glad to pause and to reflect on the “blessings” which accompanied the shooting of the film “The Ultimate Gift.”