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Ken Wales on Amazing Grace

Written by John Seel

During his 15 year association with director Blake Edwards, Ken Wales produced many films including The Tamarind Seed and Wild Rovers and associate/line-produced numerous films including Darling Lilistarring Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson; The Great Race, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and The Party, and Revenge of the Pink Panther, both starring Peter Sellers. In TV, Wales co-produced the Emmy and Golden Globe winner, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, associate-produced the first season of Cagney and Lacy, and was executive producer on Christy. Ken is a producer in the upcoming feature, Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the great Christian reformer that changed the world—directed by Michael Apted and starring Ioan Gruffudd and Albert Finney. John Seel caught up with Ken in St. Louis, where he was giving a speech promoting Amazing Grace.


What was the genesis of the film Amazing Grace?

The genesis of Amazing Grace happened when Phil Anschutz[1] invited me to the Peninsula Hotel for an early morning breakfast. A mutual business friend had told Phil that we needed to meet because I had film ideas that might fit with the vision of his new film company. I remember getting there about 6:30 a.m. and sitting down and Phil arrived in his jogging suit as he had already been out running for an hour and a half.


As we began he said, “I really enjoyed Christy. Tell me what films you want to do.” I mentioned several, including the rest of the story of Eric Little[2]. But I said that the one that is really close to my heart is the story of John Newton. As the author of the most popular song in the world, it has particular potential. Phil said, “John Newton. Have you ever heard of William Wilberforce?” I knew a little about him, particularly how his life intersected with Newton. He said, “That is very much a story I want to tell.” I responded that if you want to do both those stories you should do the Newton story first, as he was 34 years older than Wilberforce. Phil said, “Ken, you didn’t hear me. I want to do Wilberforce.” And I then said. “Oh, yes!” We both laughed. He added, “I really govern my life and try to govern my business practices after Wilberforce.” What we’ve done in Amazing Grace is bring them together in one film, having Newton serve as the spiritual mentor and catalyst to the younger Wilberforce.


I knew that this was really an English story. So we tried to find a good English writer. I first called Colin Welland, who won an Academy Award as the writer of Chariot’s of Fire in 1981, I got him on the phone and he said, “Ken, good to talk with you. Ah yes. William Wilberforce, the great Christian reformer who changed the world.” I knew then that Colin would have a part in it. He wrote the first draft, but the studio thought it needed a bit more edginess so we got a few more writers to work on the script, but none of the early drafts seemed to work.


At this point the clock was ticking, because we really wanted to release the film during the bicentennial of the British abolition of slavery in 2007. Time was getting dangerously short. I suggested that we get a director so that we could get a director’s input to the script early in the process.


A year before, I had called Michael Apted to see if he might be available. He was tied up with Rome and some other film projects. He was interested, but he said that he had other commitments that he couldn’t get out of. As we were getting down to this deadline, I really prayed about how we could move the film forward and it seemed that I should go back and visit with one of the early director prospects I had talked with a year before. When I called Michael, the film he was doing had just fallen through and he was available. He said he was interested if he could use Steven Knight, a writer he had worked with on one of his earlier films. Knight is a political writer and wanted to tell the story as a political thriller, which was just what the script needed.


Why do Christian parents and students need to know about William Wilberforce?

William Wilberforce is truly a reformer who changed the world. We need to know about these world-changing events, especially when they happen for the good. We are not talking about Hitler here, but about somebody who did something for others based on his deep Christian convictions.


He became a Christian through his friendship with his old teacher Isaac Milner who he invited to go with him on holiday to the Continent. Returning to England for an important vote in Parliament, Wilberforce’s carriage crashed on a Swiss mountainside. He was knocked unconscious and the carriage teetered on the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. Milner was thrown from the carriage. When Wilberforce came to, he felt the carriage move and looked out the window to see Milner with his shoulder under the carriage lifting with superhuman strength to put it back on the road. From that time forward, he felt that his life had been spared by God for a very important purpose. Others helped him see that he could serve God in public life, that he could bring his Christian principles to bear in his political career.


What was the greatest challenge you faced in making Amazing Grace?

The greatest challenge was in writing the script, to find the formula that really made the story compelling. It needed to be more than a biography or a documentary. Linear stories are often boring. We decided to use dramatic flashbacks, while building the story to its conclusion. It was also important to show more than how he got the bill passed, but why he did it, his underlying Christian convictions.


How is this movie also the beginning of a potential movement?

Wilberforce was a man of those times. In his example, he needs to become a man for our times. His second great object was the reformation of manners, morals, and civility. Wow, do we need this today. Few realize that there is more human trafficking today than when Wilberforce lived. We’re in some deep water here. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to take a man of those times, a respected person, a hero, and reclaim his vision for our times two hundred years later. He’s become my hero. He was also Abraham Lincoln’s hero.


Tell me about your new book, Amazing Grace of Freedom.

It has been a delight to develop a companion book to the film, written with Ted Beahr, Chairman of The Christian Film & Television Commission and my wife, Susan, who is a fiction writer. Susan has a knack of reaching into history and breathing real life into the characters. So this book, Amazing Grace of Freedom, tells the individual stories of the characters we show in the film. There are essays about Wilberforce as well as the other characters in the film, and an essay about how we made the film. There are wonderful pictures included in the book taken during the filming.