Behind the Scenes with Producer Ken Wales
By Hannah Goodwyn
- Behind every great movie is a group of dedicated professionals who pour their time and talents into telling a story on screen that will entertain millions. One of these gifted pros is Ken Wales, producer of Amazing Grace.
His journey with this newest project about the life of William Wilberforce started seven years ago. At first, Wales wanted to focus the story on John Newton, a preacher who repented of the sins he committed during the 20 years he served as a British slave ship captain.
Newton’s own life could carry a film well. But during talks with Walden Media, Wales was introduced to Wilberforce’s magnificent role in abolishment of the slave trade in the British Empire.
Although Newton’s name is more familiar, specifically for writing the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” Wales came to realize that Wilberforce’s contribution in helping to end the slave trade had even more international impact.
As producer, Wales helped to pull all the pieces together and act as a “shepherd” guiding the production of the film from the first drafts of the script to its debut on theater screens around the world.
Finding the Director and Writer
“Director Michael Apted wanted to do this behind-the-scenes political thriller about how in the world does one person accomplishes so much,” Wales says.
This moving story of how one man inspired a nation and revolutionized policy needed the voice of an exceptional scriptwriter. Hence, the production team naturally went with Steven Knight, a political writer to finish the shooting script.
“And I wanted to be sure we had why he did it,” Wales says. “Not only the mechanics of it, but what was behind his will. And for him, for Wilberforce, very much he felt he was serving God.”
It was important to the reality of Wilberforce’s faith and Wales’ desire to be true to history that God’s role in this story not be neglected.
“Wilberforce said we have to do something about the things that are evil,” Wales explained. “And he pointed out the slave trade as his first target. His second great ambition or mission was to have a reform of manners, morals, decency, and a return to civility.”
He spent his life fighting to make this world a better place for all mankind by changing the hearts of his fellow Members of Parliament, his country, and reversing policies that allowed the slave trade to continue throughout the British Empire.
Hiring the Cast
“I prayed that God would give us a sense of the casting,” Wales says. “And the casting director Nina Gold was superb.”
Once Gold was set as the casting director for Amazing Grace, she pulled together a list of possible actors to fill the roles needed to tell Wilberforce’s story. Finding someone to play the political activist with comparable fervor and passion was a great task. But when the top picks were discussed the decision was unanimous. They chose Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced “Yo-an Griff-ith”).
“Ioan also liked the part of William Pitt and was considered for that,” Wales says. “But when we saw what he could do, we went right for that direction. He was our prime choice right from the beginning.”
This new release also features brilliant performances from Michael Gambon (The Good Shepherd), Ciaran Hinds (The Nativity Story), Rufus Sewell (Tristan + Isolde), Romola Garai (Vanity Fair), and Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich, Big Fish).
It was “all the usual suspects” for the supporting roles. Wales especially wanted British actors, most of whom have had experience in filming period pieces. He says, “Give it to all the guys from over there, cause they’re good!” The nature of this story and Wales's admiration of the English system of theater training pointed him to hiring actors from overseas. “It’s better than anybody,” Wales says. So, it just made perfect sense to stay with the greats who could portray this extraordinary, true story.
Authenticity always is a main concern for Wales when he produces a film. From the script to the scenery, Wales, along with a talented crew, worked on setting the scene so perfectly that audiences were lost in the movie so much that they felt a part of the story as it unfolds.
English stately houses in Hampton Court and the village of Oxford were the backdrop for many of the scenes in Amazing Grace. The parliament hall was even reconstructed inside a century’s old church based on the drawings of an artist who was there as Wilberforce continually made his case before the policymakers.
“You know you were in the House of Commons; you could feel you were there,” Wales says. “And of course that didn’t exist. We had to build that.”
With all the decisions that have to be made on whom to hire, where to film, how to spend the budget and coordinating everyone’s hectic schedules, it’s a wonder any movie is ever brought to the big screen at all.
“It’s a miracle a film ever gets made,” Wales says.
Another marvel is the excellence in which Amazing Grace was created despite the backing of a blockbuster budget. Many are surprised to learn that not only was this film done under the normal 100 million mark, but it even went under its estimated budget estimate.
“We had a 30 million dollar budget,” Wales says. “We came in a million under budget at 29 and shot in 50 days.”
The meticulous planning that went into this movie wasn’t done just to entertain the masses and bring in the box office dollars though.
“The high lofty purpose would be that lives would be changed,” Wales says, “and the continuation of concern for slavery because there’s more slaves today than there were then. But on an immediate level, just the kindness to each other. That’s something we can do.”
Before and After Amazing Grace
As long as Wales can remember he’s loved filmmaking. It all started one year when he was an extra in Rebel Without a Cause. The film crew and actors transfigured his school to a movie set. James Dean even used Wales’s locker in the flick. His dreams for the future were concrete after that. He would devote his life to movies.
Growing up in Southern California, Wales's dream was made possible through the generosity of one of the biggest names in the make-believe industry. For an entire week, he met, worked, and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with Walt Disney. At the end of the 5 days, Disney showed his confidence in Wales’s potential as a filmmaker by pulling out his personal checkbook and giving him enough money to cover five years of cinema school at USC.
After film school, Wales took an assistant director position with famed director Blake Edwards (The Great Race, The Pink Panther Series). His most recent hit was his television series, Christy, which has acquired fans on a worldwide level. Amazing Grace, his latest film, isn’t his last. Wales plans to soon produce the sequel to Chariots of Fire, about Eric Little’s journey in China, and a movie based on C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
No matter what film he’s working on, Wales desires to tell stories that have “the potential to inspire, transform, or redeem the lives of the audience,” according to his book, The Amazing Grace of Freedom.
To all moviegoers out there, Wales says, “My prayer is that you will internalize the life of William Wilberforce and make a difference in your world, whoever and wherever you are.”
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