Teaching with Film: An Interview with Micheal Flaherty

July 22–26, 2013   |   Vol. 116, Programs 41–45

The Chronicles of Narnia, Amazing Grace, and Charlotte’s Web have captivated movie goers across the country. This week on Home School Heartbeat, Micheal Flaherty, the creator of these films and co-founder of Walden Media, explains how film can help make kids excited about learning!

“Too often when kids graduate from high school or college, they think that that time of exploration is over . . . I think that if they stay involved in reading stories and also stay involved in reading the Word, they’ll know the elements that make a great story, and they’ll be well on their way.”—Micheal Flaherty

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How can you help your child become more excited about history and great literature? This week on Home School Heartbeat , Micheal Flaherty , the co-founder of Walden Media, explains to host Mike Farris how films can educate, entertain, and spread truth .

Mike Farris: Our guest today is Micheal Flaherty. He’s the co-founder of Walden Media, and the creator of such popular films as The Chronicles of Narnia , Amazing Grace , and Charlotte’s Web , all of which I love. Micheal, welcome to the program.

Micheal Flaherty: Thanks for having me on, Michael.

Mike Farris: Can you tell us about how Walden Media began?

Micheal Flaherty: Sure thing. I was looking for something to do that would get kids excited about literature and history. I was volunteering teaching in the inner city at the time, and kids loved the movie Titanic and it turned them on to try to discover a bunch of other things, so the idea that I came up with my roommate from college and my brother Chip was that if we could make films based on great moments in history, great people in history, and great literature, it would inspire kids to get more excited about learning.

Mike: What was the first project you began to work on?

Micheal: Our first project was the movie Holes , and we got some letters from a teacher in Pennsylvania saying, “I think you guys should make a film out of this book.” We didn’t pay any attention, and the next week the teacher was teaching a class in persuasive writing, so she clearly did a good job because the kids in those essays really persuaded us to go and do it.

Mike Farris: That’s great. It’s really interesting that your first project was a kid-driven, teacher-driven project. That’s wonderful. I’m so glad you were able to step out in faith and get the company started. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Micheal, the company you helped found nearly 14 years ago in your apartment has now produced over 30 feature films. How do you decide which stories are worthy of being told on the big screen?

Micheal Flaherty: Well, the teachers and librarians and pastors, they’ve been our perfect North Star, and so Holes, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, a lot of these come from teachers, and a lot of them actually came from my wife’s fourth-grade reading list; she used to be a teacher in St. Peters, and so often, so many of those came from there. The films that we’ve had that haven’t done well—they’re usually the ones where we all sit down and get so seduced by our own counsel and really think we know what we’re doing. We’ve always, of course, corrected and realized we do our best when we’re talking to parents and teachers and librarians, pastors, people that know kids best.

Mike Farris: Micheal, it’s interesting. I started Patrick Henry College in essentially the same fashion: I was just listening to parents and students talk about their needs. And if you listen to people and really take in what they have to say, and then try to meet the needs that they express, really can have success in coming to meet people’s needs and I think God blesses that kind of an approach to business. So, I’m really glad that you’ve made these movies; I especially love Amazing Grace . Thanks so much. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Micheal, you’ve been involved in education for some time, and Walden Media makes a point of creating curricula to go with your films. Why did you and your wife choose to homeschool your own three children?

Micheal Flaherty: There are a number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons was, we had the opportunity to. We do a lot of travel for my job, and I love to take my wife and my kids along, and it just gives us the opportunity to be able to spend a lot more time with them, and also choose what we want them to read and where we want them focused.

Mike Farris: Do you think you’re going to encourage any of your kids to go into filmmaking?

Micheal Flaherty: I’d love them to go into storytelling. My oldest son Christian is a fantastic artist, and he draws all kinds of things, and my other two daughters are great actresses as well. So I think it would be fantastic if they did something in that storytelling world.

Mike Farris: Well, Micheal, I know that you’ve inspired a whole lot of homeschool kids around the country. When I speak at homeschool graduations, a significant portion, maybe 20% on average, want to go into some aspect of storytelling, filmmaking probably being the most popular of that approach to storytelling. And so people want to do what you’re doing and they see the value in storytelling, so I want to encourage you to keep doing it. And after 30 years of homeschooling my own kids, I know the challenges of teaching your own. I also know the rewards and I’m glad to share those with you. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Micheal, what would you say to a high school student who dreams of writing the next Oscar-winning screenplay or producing the next Golden Globe-winning film?

Micheal Flaherty: Well, I’ve actually met a lot of these folks, so I’ve been in this position and you know, I tell them two things. First, I remind them of, St. Paul’s great advice, you know. Be anxious about nothing and pray about everything, because it’s very stressful setting off into any career and filmmaking is no different. And the second thing is to keep reading. Too often when kids graduate from high school or college, they think that that time of exploration is over, and they get into this whole idea of, you know, basically that they just want to learn a trade and their reading stops. And I think that if they stay involved in reading stories and also stay involved in reading the Word, they’ll know the elements that make a great story, and they’ll be well on their way.

Mike Farris: Micheal, I think that that’s wonderful advice. I met a screenwriter in Hollywood, who’s a Christian, about a decade ago and was talking to her about what kind of an educational program we could pursue at Patrick Henry to impact the culture in the area of film and storytelling. And she said the most important thing was to have something to say. The technical craft of making the movie is not as important as having a life story; having a message, having the ability to know good literature from bad literature, and so, you know, we’ve really at Patrick Henry tried to focus on giving some depth to that life message. And I hope that we’re going to see some really great kids do some great things in the years ahead. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Micheal, you often work with actors, producers, and a crew who may not share your faith, but you still have the skill set to create a wonderful film. How has this challenged you?

Micheal Flaherty: I think it’s a challenge that believers face when you work with folks that aren’t believers. They want to see what makes us tick, and we say that we had this transformational experience with Jesus Christ, but sometimes those people can behave a lot better than us. So, for me, it’s just constantly reminding myself of that great John Newton line, you know, “I’m a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” And so for me, I think those are the two things to keep reminding people of, is so often they think that we’re just there to judge and try to convert them, and I think the key is that fifth gospel in terms of trying to live like Christ and get people interested. You know, and I continue to fall short, but I think that, in owning that, it creates a witnessing opportunity to let people know that Christ doesn’t demand perfection from us, and that’s the whole reason why He went to the cross and He also went to the cross to the people that I’m talking to. And so for me, just owning that imperfection has, hopefully, made a difference.

Mike Farris: I think the most impressive thing for most people is not seeing a person make a mistake, but how you respond to the mistake. And that’s the big thing of all: if we own, as you say, own up to our responsibilities, I think the true witnessing power of that is more than you can ever imagine, so thank you for what you’re doing, thank you for being transparent. I’m Mike Farris.

Micheal Flaherty

Micheal Flaherty is the president and co-founder of Walden Media. Walden’s mission is to rekindle curiosity and recapture imagination through the development and production of family films and literature. Walden has financed and produced a number of films, such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. Through its publishing division, Walden has also co-published a number of award-winning books, including Mike Lupica’s Comeback Kids series and the New York Times bestseller and Newbery honor winner Savvy by first-time author Ingrid Law.

As part of its mission, Walden creates innovative educational programs, lesson plans and events. Several hundred thousand students have participated in these events, including an international effort to read Charlotte’s Web aloud and to collect toys for Toys for Tots, both of which resulted in the breaking of world records. Walden has also hosted an interactive writing workshop with Louis Sachar and a national robotics competition with James Cameron.

Flaherty is also on the board of Rachel’s Challenge, a program created in memory of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine shootings. He is also on the National Advisory Board for The Salvation Army.

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

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