Talking with Micheal Flaherty, President of Walden Media: Part 1

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Micheal Flaherty is the president of Walden Media, a company he co-founded with his former college roommate, Cary Granat, to produce films, books, and interactive programs that tie directly into school curricula. Acclaimed for such films as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; Charlotte's Web; and Bridge to Terabithia, Walden Media aims to recapture imagination, rekindle curiosity, and demonstrate the rewards of learning. Producing both original works and adaptations of acclaimed children's literature, Walden Media projects are enhanced by comprehensive outreach and supplemental programs for teachers, librarians, and parents. Upcoming releases include The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008).

As company president, Flaherty guides Walden's vision across all business units.

Flaherty lives in Lexington, Massachusetts with his wife Kelly, his son Christian, his daughters Eileen and Reagan, and his dog Jumbo.

>> Read Part 2 of our interview with Micheal Flaherty

Walden Media marketed the Narnia movies to churches. What were the specific ethical guidelines in line when you did that?

We always go after the core audience. With Narnia, there are several core audiences: the Sci-Fi audience, the fantasy audience, the literary audience. But there is also the faith audience. We thought we should make people aware that this film based on this great book is coming out. We were very careful. Even though our expertise is in educational curriculum, it's not in developing faith curriculum. We decided faith leaders, pastors, and parents, if they wanted to teach the faith aspect, could create their own materials. We let church people know the film was coming out. We made clips available. Beyond that, in terms of how to use that or teach, we let people come up with their own ideas.

Walden Media, though, does seem to be merging education and entertainment. How do you keep balance in your movies where on the one hand you avoid mere eye candy, but on the other hand you avoid creating moralist propaganda?

The latter part is what we guard against the most. The key is to be as faithful as possible to the story, that's our North Star. Sadly, I do think there is this artificial distinction drawn between education and entertainment. I think of some of the best media out there, Les Miserables. I've seen it 11 times. Then I went on to read the book. I read more about Hugo and more about the French Revolution. Something that initially was pure entertainment for me sparked a surge for learning in me that no textbook or class in school could have ever done. So, for us, if we can tell terrific stories that bring up terrific scenes and also introduce us to terrific people and terrific events in history, then the educational stuff is inherent.

So you're assuming really good art inspires people to take action and become creative themselves?

For my birthday, my wife got me Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son. She also bought me Henri Nouwen's book that he wrote on the Prodigal Son, which is about his reflection of spending several hours of looking at the painting when he was visiting in Russia. I've never really been captured by art, but it's unbelievable what that painting has sparked in me. It's sort of the tale of the Prodigal Sons, plural. For the first time I really understood that, I looked at the painting, and I could physically see unconditional love. I could somehow understand love, and also understand brokenness in a new way. I've heard so many sermons on that parable; I've read that parable so many times in the last 30 years. But it's unbelievable what this one painting and Nouwen's reflections on it have done for me. I can't think of holier work than planting and nourishing life-long learning in children and adults and getting them to ask the big questions.

How do you teach children to ask the big questions?

I think by getting them to fall in love with the stories and not be scared of failure. It's terrifying for me to see now what's happened to kids, particularly from kindergarten to third grade, where pretty rigorous instructions on mathematics and all kinds of things are largely supplanting fantasy play and storytelling. These kids are under such tremendous pressure at such young ages! We have a great person here who runs our educational development, Randy Testa; he's been a teacher forever. He was Robert Coles teaching assistant for a long time at Harvard. Robert Coles' wrote all the great books about the spiritual life for children.

How do you deal with it, though, when people are skeptical about your vision and message?

By being a constant presence and recognizing that winning trust in the educational community is going to take several decades. When we first went out there with Holes, we would go to conferences and the teachers were rolling their eyes, and they said, "Here we go again, another media company coming in to parachute in and help us market their movies. They'll make their money and then leave." Then they saw us the next year with Winn Dixie and the next year with Narnia, then the next year with Charlotte's Web. We're slowly winning their trust. It's going to be a lifelong mission for us.

Can you give any news about when Screwtape or Dawn Treader will come out?

The first time I spoke with you, I had just received the first draft of Dawn Treader. Literally as we were speaking it was there on my desk. I hadn’t even opened it up yet. I couldn’t wait to read it, though, because Eustace is one of my favorite characters.

Dawn Treader is moving very well. Michael Apted, who directed Amazing Grace, is directing it. He also directed Coal Miner’s Daughter and a bunch of others. He’s a great director. He’s the president of the Directors Guild.

Screwtape on the other hand is just a really tricky adaptation.

I think a big part of being faithful to that work is keeping it dark in a way that's probably going to bother some people. I don't know how that works with movie profitability, but Screwtape always takes the approach of the demons. They have to be the heroes—even if they're tragic heroes—for it to be faithful to what Lewis did.

We're trying to find that balance between the comedy and the stakes. We’re working hard on the script. One of the questions we're asking is how do you show the real transformation that happens inside a person.

Screwtape keeps encouraging the patient to go through the motions in his daily life and work.

You just nailed the entire paradox of this project. The book is so clever, because Screwtape is saying things like, "Have them write the check out to Unicef." Just have him writing, saying, "Oh boy, this is going to hurt." It goes back to that great Corinthians passage, you can do all of these things, but if you do them without love, it's worthless. We're trying to figure out how to illustrate that. What I love about Screwtape, what I love about the Gospel is all this external behavioral stuff that too often people confuse as central to our faith, is just an element of it. What really matters is the outpouring of love and the reflection of love.

It strikes me how much "God is love," and when we love what we're doing and when we get other people to love it, there's truth in it. I'm excited to see what comes out of it.

I wish I had said that. That's very well said.

>> Read Part 2 of our interview with Micheal Flaherty