Talking with Micheal Flaherty, President of Walden Media: Part 2

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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, Massachussetts with his wife Kelly, his son Christian, his daughters Eileen and Reagan, and his dog Jumbo.

>> Read Part 1 of our interview with Micheal Flaherty

How did your vision of "recapturing imagination and rekindling curiosity" at Walden Media come about?

When we first started the company, my business partner's oldest daughter and my brother, Chip's, oldest daughter were asking all the great questions—everything from the physical things to how far is the sun from the earth, how many planets are there, to more interesting questions about love and about the meaning of life. I remember us listening to them and my business partner Kerry saying, "It's kind of sad, but there seems to be some calendar moment when your children stop asking you the big questions and lose their curiosity about everything. Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to create media that kept kids asking the big questions, while it kept them excited and interested?" That was the origin moment for the idea of the company. We named it Walden, because Thoreau was a great independent thinker. He was always asking questions.

We did something interesting at our church this past summer. After the service, we could stick around and ask questions. It’s always interesting to me to see people that have been going to church for so long always coming back to some of the more basic questions about prayer, unanswered prayer, the problem of pain, suffering, justice. It’s interesting to me to see that people are still asking the big questions, you know, after a lifetime of studying these things.

I have a lot of interest in fantasy, which is one of the things you guys do very well. What's your reaction to some Christians who argue that fantasy leads to interest in the occult or that fantasy is just escapism and nothing more than that?

I always want to be careful about that, but I do know that J. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis both addressed it head on. Lewis, in particular, in his letters to children did such a great job addressing this and addressing the importance of how fantasy doesn't detract from reality, but it actually makes us more aware of it.

Do you think there is such a thing as a dangerous story or a story that we shouldn't tell or that we shouldn't learn?

I was brought up to never say never. It's different for me, because growing up in my house stories were so central, whether it was comic books or literature. Every story that we read and every movie that we saw, we saw in the context of family, so we had plenty of people to talk about that with.

My son recently saw Flushed Away, with his grandparents. He talks about it constantly, but he won't watch it with me, because something in the movie scared him. Sometimes he'll ask me, "Do you remember this part in Flushed Away?" Then, I'll remind him again that I haven't seen the movie. What you experienced growing up reminds me that I need to experience as many of these stories with my kids as possible.

It would really give you a common language. Shared stories give plenty of things to reference. It makes it a lot easier to reference the Gospel, because kids start to understand it. One way to answer questions is by referencing stories and referencing the people in the stories.

In Philippians, Paul says to focus on whatever is true, noble . . . What do you do when you have a story that has moments of ugliness and things that aren't noble? How do you make decisions about that?

Paul didn't shy away from the fact that the human heart is capable of every darkness. To appreciate Paul, and to appreciate the wisdom in that saying, is to appreciate where he had been in his life. Paul would not be as interesting and compelling a character if we didn't understand what got him to that point of wisdom. I think that in order to understand the true and the noble, you have to have glimpses of their counterparts. I think that it's critical for all of us to recognize that nothing is beyond reconciliation and nothing is beyond redemption. So, even if we've gone to those dark places, or those places that are less than noble, or less than praiseworthy, we have that ability to be the creation. I think that's one of the problems, so many people feel that's beyond them. When you talk about things like praiseworthy and noble and good, what about the people who feel like they can't reclaim that or recapture that, because they've experienced so much that's counter to that and so much that's opposite that? I think people need to know that the praiseworthy, the good, and the noble are always within our reach, regardless of where we've been.

What's the relationship between maintaining the purity of that messageso to speakand the financing of that project?

The intersection of art and commerce is always a tricky one, and nobody has the formula. In music and in theater and in film, the most profitable stories tend to have these great themes of brokenness, redemption, and reconciliation, but also be stories that the whole family can enjoy. So we're already hedging our bet. Just in terms of the mission statement, we are appealing to the broadest possible audience.

In states like Texas, teachers are now required to teach media literacy. So from a sales standpoint you have not only the entire family, but also teachers as potential clients.

Teachers are the toughest accountability group on the planet. You have to defend every choice that you make, and you know we've gotten to understand the difference between faithful and literal. As hard as you try to be a hundred percent true to the text, film is a different form of media. There are choices that you need to make in adapting a book to the film, but teachers have been very helpful explaining "here are the critical characters, themes, and plot points that you can't miss, the non-negotiables." That's always been a basic help for us as we're developing these projects.

I like that phrase, "the difference between faithful and literal."

We have to go back to that after every single film. People wonder why this certain aspect of the book wasn't in there, or why we added a different element to the film.

Why do you think people feel so strongly about these stories?

I think that they can remember, not just the story, but the time and the place where they read that story. It's as close as a family member in terms of the memories that it conjures up.

So if you mess up the story, you're messing up . . .?

You're messing with a part of their personality, because stories really do form us and shape us. I think people are properly protective of them.

>> Read Part 1 of our interview with Micheal Flaherty